How the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affected journalists

Last summer's Gaza war pushed reporters to their mental and physical limits

Turning point Tyler Hicks’ powerful photo, taken on the beach in front of his hotel, caused an ‘instant collapse of the Israeli narrative.’ (Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)

Tyler Hicks, a photojournalist for The New York Times, was sitting in his hotel room in Gaza last summer when he heard an explosion. He looked out the window and saw the boys. He grabbed his helmet, flak jacket, and cameras, and ran toward the beach. Not knowing whether the Israeli gunner would strike again, he strode onto the sand and captured the scene: four young boys, cousins, had been killed by Israeli shelling. Other journalists followed, along with a large group of neighbors rushing to aid the boys.

“There are certain photos that in my opinion are worth taking extra risk for,” Hicks said, referring to his image of a man carrying one of the dead boys, while another lay twisted in the sand. “That scene was different for me; I knew that it would be different for the viewer of that photograph.” It was a rare moment, even for Hicks, a journalist who has spent much of his professional life photographing war. He was an eyewitness to the killing of four children.

To readers and viewers outside the country, the most recent war in Gaza might have appeared to be just another round of the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting. But the violence on the ground was anything but typical. Israel’s offensive in Gaza last summer was longer and deadlier than any previous single operation. Two thousand one hundred and thirty-one Palestinians died during the 50-day Israeli offensive, according to the United Nations. Seventy-one Israelis died. Operation Cast Lead, in the winter of 2008-09, which until this year had been the deadliest single Israeli operation in Gaza, lasted only 21 days. Israel’s ground forces encountered a more serious armed resistance this time, resulting in a higher Israeli death toll.

Reporters described a physical exhaustion combined with the emotional drain that comes with daily exposure to horror and the feeling of never being able to find respite.

It also was an atypical experience for the journalists who covered it. In 2008-09, Israel’s military barred international journalists from entering the Strip throughout the offensive, in spite of a high court order to open the border to journalists. (In 2012, the international media rushed to Gaza to cover yet another Israeli incursion, Operation Pillar of Defense, but the assault ended after eight days with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.)

In 2014, Israel again allowed journalists to enter Gaza. It was the first time in years that the full slate of international press covered a sustained Israeli military offensive in Gaza. Seasoned reporters who have covered war and civil strife across the Middle East were pushed to extremes of experience. Death—both the threat of it and the reality—was much more pervasive and intimate. Of the Palestinians killed in Gaza, 1,396 were civilians, including 222 women and 418 children. Hospitals, schools, and whole neighborhoods were damaged or destroyed by Israeli shelling. Ayman Mohyeldin, now a foreign correspondent for NBC News, covered both last summer’s war and the 2008-09 conflict. “I’m not a military expert, but this war felt a lot more ferocious, much more fierce in terms of the shelling,” he said. “That’s what I felt in terms of the frequency of attacks, the scale of the killing.”

The Israeli military, through its PR apparatus and its control over Gaza’s border crossing, has enormous power to shape outside perceptions of what takes place inside Gaza. For two decades after Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in 1967, Palestinians could mostly travel without restriction throughout Israel and the occupied territories. In the 1990s, Israel imposed a policy of isolation on Gaza. The closures began with the revocation of Palestinians’ general exit permit during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Then came an elaborate system of permits and ID cards. In 2007, the isolation became what is now known as a blockade, a total sealing off that has devastated Gaza’s economy.

Until 2007, Israeli journalists, like their international colleagues, were allowed to enter and exit Gaza whenever they wanted. After the Israeli military banned Israeli citizens from entering Gaza, reporting on the Strip was limited to Palestinian journalists and international correspondents who were based primarily in Jerusalem. Few foreign reporters live in Gaza. The kidnapping there of BBC reporter Alan Johnston by Palestinian militants in 2007 (he was eventually released) underscored the risks.

On the morning of December 27, 2008, when Israeli airstrikes hit 100 targets in a matter of minutes, there were only two international journalists for English-language broadcasters in the Gaza Strip: Mohyeldin, and Sherine Tadros, both of whom worked for Al Jazeera English. Throughout the three-week war, the Israeli military continued to bar the international media. Egypt also enforced a ban through its sole border crossing with Gaza.

By contrast, according to Israel’s Government Press Office, 705 foreign journalists from at least 42 countries were dispatched to Israel during last summer’s war. It is unclear how many of them went to Gaza. The presence of so many journalists meant that the images and stories that emerged from the fighting this time were not only more extensive, but less abstract. In 2008-09, the wires circulated photos of civilian victims without names. “You had Reuters and Associated Press showing pictures of dead children but you didn’t know anything about these children,” says Tadros.

The watershed in international coverage of the conflict came on July 16, when Hicks and a number of other journalists, both Palestinian and foreign, witnessed the killing of the four boys. His photo captured the anguish of Gaza. It also illustrated how small Gaza is—the size of Washington, DC—and how the violence and its aftermath were constant and very personal for the journalists covering the fighting.

Earlier that day, Mohyeldin had been kicking around a soccer ball with a group of children that included the four cousins. In his reporting, he made sure their names were known: Ahed Atef Bakr, 10, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, 10, Mohamed Ramez Bakr, 11, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, 9.

Hicks’ photo appeared on A1 of the next day’s Times. It was uncommon for the paper to run an image of dead bodies—especially children—on the front page. It underscored the rising civilian toll of Israel’s assault. “It was almost an instant collapse of the Israeli narrative after that [photo],” says Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist based in Tel Aviv and the editor of +972, an online magazine. There was an imbalance in the images emerging from Gaza and those from Israel. While many photos surfaced of Israelis fleeing Palestinian rockets, “There were no videos of people holding dead kids, searching for families in destroyed homes,” he says. “They simply didn’t exist.”

“Each time that I go there [Gaza] it’s harder to digest,” Hicks says. “This most recent conflict in particular, I really started to feel more disgusted by the number of children killed. I went to so many funerals for young kids and babies.”

Those intimate encounters with death, with grieving families, are what proved to be the hardest part of covering Gaza this time around. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, of Democracy Now, recalled seeing two dead children, a girl and a boy, lying on a metal table in the morgue in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital. The girl was badly burned, missing part of her head, the boy was missing an arm. The children’s relatives were crowded around, arguing about what the boy’s name was. “They said, ‘Is this Hamada, or is this Khalil?’—they couldn’t tell,” says Abdel Kouddous.

“Moments like that are when you feel helpless as a reporter,” he says.

During the 50 days of the war, Gaza was also one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a journalist. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, seven journalists and media workers were killed while working. On July 9, a driver for the Gaza-based Media 24 press agency was killed when his parked car, which was marked “TV” on the hood, was hit by an Israeli airstrike. On August 13, AP video journalist Simone Camilli and freelance translator Ali Abu Afash were killed when an abandoned Israeli missile exploded. Of the journalists and media employees killed, Camilli was the only foreign national. The other six were Palestinians.

In Gaza, again because of the cramped nature of the battlefield, the question of personal safety took on different dimensions. In most other conflicts, journalists can calibrate, to some extent, the level of risk they assume. Often they can choose when to venture to the front lines. But satellite images published by the UN showed damaged and destroyed buildings throughout the Strip. Several journalists I spoke to said that even though they clustered in specific known hotels at night and traveled in cars marked “TV” and “Press” by day, their safety was by no means guaranteed. “In Gaza there is no front line,” says Abdel Kouddous. “Gaza is the front line.”

Of course, exposure to trauma is part of the war correspondent’s job. And the journalists who went to Gaza this year were not novices. Yet even seasoned correspondents found that they reached their limits. In 2009, Tadros and Mohyeldin refused an offer to evacuate, knowing that no one could take their place. In 2014, with the war grinding on far longer, foreign journalists rotated in and out. Several reporters described a physical exhaustion combined with the emotional drain that comes with daily exposure to horror and the feeling of never being quite able to find respite from the violence. “Gaza took a toll on reporters like no other situation I’ve seen,” said Danny Gold, a journalist for Vice News who covered the conflict.

As they worked under actual fire in Gaza, journalists also came under rhetorical attack from conservatives and pro-Israel activists who accused them of submitting to pressure from Hamas to not show images of Palestinian fighters, or report on allegations of the use of human shields. In August, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that once the world’s press left Gaza, “I expect we will see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The prime minister’s prediction failed to come true, and journalists who reported in Gaza dismissed the allegations of pressure from Hamas as baseless. The central controversy was whether they had failed to aggressively cover the armed factions in Gaza. And indeed, but for one video produced by an Indian television crew, few news reports featured images of Palestinian militants in action.

Reporters and photojournalists interviewed for this story all had the same explanation for the dearth of images of armed men: Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters were inaccessible. Many were in hiding. Those engaged in combat were not readily available for interviews. “We want to report this stuff,” says Vice’s Danny Gold. “Were we threatened? Were we warned? No. But we weren’t able to get access, either.”

Instead of reporting on Hamas’ authoritarianism, journalists in Gaza focused on the more immediate news: the military campaign unfolding around them. Allowing foreign journalists into Gaza during the offensive was, in a sense, a miscalculation on the part of Israel. “Israelis thought that it would be much easier to vilify Hamas or to demonstrate its cruelty by letting people in,” says Noam Sheizaf.

For Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros, covering Gaza in 2014 meant returning to a place they know intimately, and seeing it even more thoroughly devastated than the last time they were there. “The infrastructure of the place had already been subjected to wars in 2008 and 2012,” says Mohyeldin. “And when I say infrastructure I don’t mean just the physical infrastructure, I mean the psychological capability of people to withstand this. There are now kids eight years old, nine years old, who have lived through three wars.”

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Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo This story was published in the November/December 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Under the gun."