The Perils of Reporting from Gaza

Gaza journalists hopeful that press freedoms will persist

On February 14 in the Gaza Strip, Hamas arrested Paul Martin, a British documentary filmmaker, on suspicions that Martin had “committed offenses against Palestinian law… that harms the security of the country.” Martin was about to testify on behalf of a Palestinian militant who had been accused of collaborating with Israel.

Martin’s arrest and continued detention has raised new concerns about the safety and freedom of foreign journalists working in Gaza. In recent years, these journalists have contended with unusual pressures, including meddling from Hamas security forces, Israeli prohibitions on their entry into Gaza and the danger of getting caught in the crossfire between opposing sides.

Hamas generally does not aggressively interfere with the press—a policy that some analysts see as an effort to improve its reputation in the West. After Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, it helped secure the release of Alan Johnson, a British journalist kidnapped and held for 114 days by a militant group called the Army of Islam.

“[Hamas] has never done anything to me directly,” said Erin Cunningham, who has reported from Gaza for multiple American publications. “If I’m out with my camera, they want to know who I am, where I’m from, why I’m shooting, but normally it works out….[By arresting Paul Martin], I think Hamas has crossed a line that presents a danger for the journalists working here.”

Some journalists report that Hamas operatives have followed and intimidated them, out of alleged security concerns. Egypt-based reporter Jon Jensen said in a video he produced for Daily News Egypt that he initially enjoyed great freedom of movement in Gaza on a recent visit. However, after his colleague took an innocuous photograph outside a destroyed Hamas prison, they were trailed by Hamas officials and denied access to smuggling tunnels that journalists are typically allowed to visit.

“All because of one poorly framed, out-of-focus picture,” Jensen commented in the video.

In the past, other factors have made reporting from Gaza a challenging assignment. After the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began to disintegrate on November 5, 2008, Israel tightened restrictions on journalists’ entry into Gaza. When the bombing campaign against Hamas militants commenced on December 27, Israel completely blocked journalists’ access to Gaza.

“It was so pathetic,” Catrin Ormestad, a Swedish reporter, recalled. “Lots of reporters were standing on the hill [in Sderot] looking there while the Israelis were bombing. It was very frustrating not to have access. On the other hand, it was dangerous to be there.”

The Foreign Press Association of Israel said in a statement at the time that Israel’s prohibitions “put the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs.” Israeli government officials responded that journalists were affected by a broader security decision to close the border and that Gaza was being covered sufficiently by reporters who were already there.

The twenty-two-day war, which ultimately claimed the lives of an estimated 1,400 Gazans and thirteen Israelis, was covered from within Gaza mainly by Palestinian journalists and Western reporters who arrived before Israel blocked their entry. Cunningham was among the few who gained entry to Gaza on January 15, 2009, when Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing to journalists. This was three days before the end of the war.

“There was nowhere that was safe [from Israeli bombs],” she said. “It didn’t matter where we went. We finally went to the hospital at Khan Younis, and, on the last day of the war, they bombed literally right outside of the hospital compound.”

After the ceasefire was declared, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Foreign Press Association’s demands, and journalists were once again allowed into Gaza. More than a year later, many journalists say that they feel surprisingly safe in Gaza. When Ormestad visited Gaza last month, few security forces were out in the streets and she noticed “a sense of calm, of quiet.”

Journalists from major news organizations can now travel freely between Gaza and Israel with identification cards issued by Israel’s Government Press Office. The application process for these cards can take up to three months. Without these press cards, entry is difficult; tourists and casual visitors are not allowed into Gaza from the Israeli or the Egyptian sides.

Unaffiliated journalists have been creative in their efforts to enter Gaza. Some have tried their luck entering as volunteers of humanitarian organizations. More daring freelancers have attempted negotiating a special entry permission at the Rafah crossing, or paid smugglers to take them into Gaza through illegal tunnels.

For journalists with Israeli citizenship, however, reporting from Gaza is near impossible. Since the end of 2006, when rampant street fighting broke out between rival Hamas and Fatah factions, Israeli military authorities have banned Israeli journalists from entering the Gaza Strip out of fears for their safety. Swedish journalist Ormestad said that she felt the most unsafe in Gaza during the ensuing winter of 2007, but that the Hamas takeover in June of 2007 “put an end to the anarchy.”

Ha’aretz columnist Amira Hass, an Israeli, lived in Gaza in the mid-1990s and authored Drinking the Sea at Gaza. In November of 2008, Hass traveled to Gaza by boat with a protest group, intending to stay for three months. Hamas placed a twenty-four-hour “escort” on her and expelled her from Gaza after three weeks. When Hass reentered Israel through the Erez checkpoint, she was detained and questioned by Israeli authorities for entering Gaza without a permit from the military commander.

In 2009, shortly after the Gaza war, Hass entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing. She says that she stayed “without disturbance” for five months. Upon her return to Israel, Hass was again detained and questioned by the Israeli authorities. Hass said she was verbally told that, on top of entering Gaza without the military commander’s permit, she had illegally stayed in an enemy state.

Conny Mus, Chairman of the Israeli Foreign Press Association, has pushed for the Israeli government to allow Israeli journalists to report from Gaza.

“Our policy is that every bona fide journalist, whatever nationality he has, should be able to go into Gaza and do his job,” he said. “So far, we didn’t get any positive reaction from the Israeli authorities on this.”

Mus remains concerned about the well-being of Paul Martin, the British journalist arrested by Hamas. While Hamas originally said they would detain Martin for fifteen days, they announced this week that they will hold him for an additional fifteen days. Mus asked Hamas to make clear what law Martin violated or to let him go immediately.

“The only thing that Hamas has told us is that they have an indication that he was spying for Israel….The expectation from Hamas is that sometime next week he will be deported from Gaza and not allowed to come back to Gaza….[My position is that] I think we should wait until we can be able to talk to Paul Martin.”

Meanwhile, other journalists in Gaza continue navigating their delicate relationships with opposing authorities, and hope that Paul Martin’s detention does not signal a new Hamas policy towards the press.

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Ashley Bates is a freelance journalist based in Israel and the West Bank. She has reported for Ha'aretz and multiple American publications.