Illegitimate Journalism in Gaza

To the general indifference of the western media, the Israeli military has recently killed several Palestinian journalists, dismissing them as “illegitimate journalists.” A French correspondent in Gaza, dismissed by some as “illegitimate” herself, meditates on life and death in the urban misery of Gaza.

The ceasefire has been in effect for three days. The last journalists left this morning. I have the entire hotel to myself, and the place feels a bit sinister. Gaza resumes its daily life away from the news spotlight and all eyes turn elsewhere. The feeling of being “cut off from the rest of world” is suddenly acute.

I find myself alone on my bed, looking at Twitter and Facebook, where messages of encouragement and insult are raining down. I hear the sea. The crash of the waves is very loud this morning. It is cold so I stay under my blanket. The window in my room was shattered during the bombardments of the hotel’s street last Tuesday. They covered it with a sheet of plastic but it is not very effective against the cold.

Online, there are all sorts of critics. Some point out my “lack of fairness:” yesterday morning I posted a picture of an empty little chair inside a classroom. Others even accuse me of being a “spokesperson for Hamas.” This should make me laugh, but I am exhausted and I can’t find the humor in their remarks.

I have been here for a week and I simply dream of taking a fresh water shower. But this is Gaza, and on this side of town the tap water is salty. Isn’t that cool? Electricity is available only sporadically.

Today, I take a walk downtown, where life is resuming. Regularly I run into fields of ruins. Craters are sometimes so deep that you can’t see the building that once stood there. The common point between Gaza and India is the number of crippled people who beg on the streets. While I withdraw money from the bank, I see an old man sitting on the ground, both legs amputated. According to what he garbles, he was wounded by an Israeli bombardment long ago. There are many like him on the streets. You can see the ravages of the Israeli attacks everywhere: on the walls, on the bodies, and in the minds and hearts of the people.

I drink a coffee with a young rapper, Antara, whose contact I got when I was in Beirut. He tells me how it feels to be unable to move around freely in your city and how that feeling can drive you crazy: “When you head north, you can only drive for about 20 minutes; 30 minutes towards the south and you can do around 15 minutes to the east, if you’re lucky enough to get caught in traffic jams.” The road trip that is meant to clear your mind is nonexistent in Gaza.

Antara has travelled a bit to Europe where he performed in concerts. But he is not interested in doing that anymore. With his music, he wants to address the Arab world. “They are the ones who should be in the frontline supporting us.”

Why would he want to stay here? Along with other musicians, Antara is part of a category of Gazans who could easily obtain an immigration visa. But just like a young woman, Rana (an Internet activist that I met an hour before), Antara and many others say the same: “My place is here with my people. It is my duty to help with the struggle of my people.” I am struck dumb by these people; nowhere else have I seen so much courage. The old, the young, the women, the men, the children-everybody is courageous.

A cab driver takes me to Rana’s place. The driver asks why I am sticking around. He says he is from Bethlehem, in the West Bank, where his family is still living. He has not seen his parents, his brothers, his wife and their three children since 2002. “Except twice, at the Erez passage, where the soldiers gave us only one hour.”

Rana’s writings on Internet make her seem older than she is in reality. The person who opens the door is 21, and looks like a 15-year-old teenybopper. She’s wearing a hooded sweater, has a doll face, and she can’t weigh more than 40 kilos. She has dark circles under her eyes.

Her father is here too. He is a surgeon at the Shifa hospital. I ask him about the 11 year-old boy, Mohamed, whom I photographed few days earlier in the intensive care unit. He had a nasty head injury, as did both his cousins. I will never forget those three little people in comas, lying in beds next to each other. The doctor says that nobody can predict for now if they will ever wake up, or in what condition.

Eventually, I ended up going to the hospital later in the day and I am told that two of the victims, Fouad and his sister, were transferred to Egypt. Their conditions proved to be too severe to remain hospitalized in Gaza. Mohamed regained consciousness.

Neither Rana, nor Antara, are practicing believers. Neither of them was particularly fond of Hamas and Antara was even arrested several times because of songs he composed criticizing Hamas. Now, after this war, they have only one word about Hamas: respect. They believe that nobody ever defended them as well as the Hamas government did and their support for the resistance is unconditional.

Rana takes me on a tour of her room, where everything is hot pink. She immediately states that she hates the decor, “I am not a little girl anymore.” She most certainly is not. In Gaza, kids laugh the same way kids do all over the world, but, then suddenly an expression of gravity will cross their eyes, crushing your heart.

I look through the pictures I took this week and I find one of the flyers that the Israeli planes were dumping on the northern part of Gaza two days before the cease-fire. There is a sketch with arrows summoning the population of the north to flee towards Gaza’s downtown, “for their own security.”

Thousands of people left their homes in just few minutes without being able to take anything with them. Most of them are refugees in the UNRWA schools. I still remember the total chaos I found when I went to visit one those schools: 2,000 people packed into classrooms in groups of 60. The number of children was spectacular.

A third of the population is under 18 years old in Gaza. In one of the classrooms, a 3 or 4 year-old girl jumped into my arms and squeezed me so hard I almost lost my balance. She repeated over and over in my ear in Arabic: “take me with you.” Her mother literally had to snatch her back. All these people took refuge in a downtown that was then heavily bombarded, throughout the night, more violently than ever.

The day after, on a street corner, I ran into what remained of the car of two Palestinian journalists who worked for Al Aqsa TV. Three journalists have been targeted in two different raids. Hussam Mohammad Salama, 30, and Mahmud Ali al-Kumi, 29, were cameramen; they were heading to the Gaza hospital where they planned to film the arrival of victims from an Israeli bombardment. Was that their crime? Mohammad Musa Abu Eisha, 24, was targeted and killed an hour later.

They certainly did not suffer at all. I look at the picture of the burned out carcass of the Jeep and recall the Israeli army’s explanations: “They were not legitimate journalists.” Nobody reacts to this? Yes, these two young men were working for a television station whose politics are close to Hamas. But if the world was shocked by the murder of the Lebanese Samir Kassir who was also a journalist crusader, why don’t we hear the same reactions of outrage about what happened here? What is the red line? What will be next? Will reporting and going public cause my death, just because I have the misfortune of not pleasing the State of Israel?

Most of the foreign television stations that were present during this conflict needed to hire local workers. The production companies in Gaza have Palestinian teams and I can vouch for their professionalism during the darkest hours of the conflict.

It should be true that the producers, journalists converted into fixers, cameramen, sound engineers, and editors deserve the same respect as Western journalists. They work in Gaza because that’s where they live, whether they like it or not. The dead they film are their dead. What reasons exist to deny them the right to exercise their profession?

My work has not pleased everyone. My detractors demand that I give “true information” on Gaza. But what does that mean, “true information?” I haven’t lied, I have invented nothing. If a simple description of life in Gaza is so devastating for Israel, what am I supposed to do? Shall I change the reality to make them happy, and give a part of the Western world what they want to hear? Saying that living conditions in Gaza are unbearable and inhumane is not uttering a judgment, neither is it taking a position, it is a mere observation.

Reporting on Gaza means you must fight to be able to do your job. Any piece of information that comes out of Gaza is immediately questioned, because it is coming from Gaza and because Gaza is a disgrace on humanity. Those who are responsible for this situation are powerful, and truth made public is an embarrassment for them. Western governments invoke human rights only when it is in their interests to do so.

I prefer honesty, humane and unmasked, to a supposed objectivity that is sanitized and hypocritical. I am paid to be your eyes and ears where you can’t be. Is it my fault if the reality that I describe goes against some political agendas?

I was brought up in a society where freedom of the press is sacred and I did not choose to be a journalist in order to surrender in the face of intimidation, whatever it may be. If to be a “legitimate journalist” you must falsify reality, then I will proudly start a career as a “illegitimate journalist.” I will not shut up.

Caroline Bourgeret