Israel continues to target those who bear witness to its occupation of Palestine
More than 17,000 people have been killed in Israel’s relentless attacks on Gaza. The dead include babies, children, teenagers, women, the elderly and the disabled. Apparently, it’s okay to kill Palestinians because, as the Israeli defence minister put it, they are ‘human animals.’ The US and the Western powers also seem to think it’s okay to kill all these people and destroy their homes and drive them out of their lands because to do otherwise might be considered anti-Semitic.
How did the so called ‘civilised world’ fall into this abyss of cruelty and lawlessness where there is no regard for international law, the Geneva Convention or the rules of conflict? We now have a situation where most of us cannot be anything more than spectators to this horrific show of war and genocide which we watch on our screens. We reel at the horrific images and the news of families being decimated, hospitals bombed and homes razed to the ground. But soon we might not even have these images or these reports. Because among those whom Israel targets are journalists – the professionals who report on the conflict, who bear witness to the war.
Journalists are the people who provide testimony, who report from the war zone, who try to assess the on-the-ground situation, find information and give first-hand accounts. They are the chroniclers of the conflict, the witnesses to war. They seek out facts, they report on the human cost. They try to expose injustice and untruth – so obviously they are an irritant to tyrants and to those who are cruel, unjust and untruthful.
Israel has long considered journalists to be an annoyance and a hindrance. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists estimates that at least 61 journalists have been killed in the Israeli attacks which began after October 7. The CPJ investigates all reports of journalists and media workers killed, injured, or missing in the war. It says that this has led to the “deadliest month for journalists since the CPJ began gathering data in 1992.”
Many of these casualties were obviously identifiable as press-– they wore clearly marked press vests and helmets, but even before this most recent bombing, Israel has long targeted journalists and others who have exposed its excesses. The shooting of Al Jazeera’s correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in 2022 was one example, the shooting of the photographer Tom Hurndall in 2004 was another. While Hurndall may not have been a member of the international press corps, he was indeed reporting, bearing witness and recording images of the occupation and he was shot in the head by a sniper amidst firing by Israeli forces. Abu Akleh was also shot by a sniper in the midst of firing by the Israelis.
The year after Abu Akleh’s death the Committee for the Protection of Journalists pointed out that there was a “deadly pattern” in the way Israel had killed so many journalists after 2001 with no accountability. In April 2022, the International Federation of Journalists filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Israeli forces of a systematic targeting of journalists.
There is a history. In a piece published in The Washington Post in 2021, David Ottaway wrote that “Israel’s attempts to silence journalists are not new. My colleagues and I faced IDF threats in 1982.” He points out that when, in May 2021, Israeli forces destroyed a 12-storey Gaza building that housed the offices of Al Jazeera, AP and various freelancers, it was part of a policy Israel had been following for decades.
Ottaway recalled that in 1982 when Israel had “invaded Lebanon up to the outskirts of Beirut” and had launched a campaign to target sites where PLO leaders might be found, the then Israeli defence minister, Ariel Sharon, had decided that something needed to be done about the bad press Israel’s operations were getting; “he didn’t like the Western media coverage his invasion was getting and wanted to close down what had become the main media centre inside the Commodore Hotel.” Ottaway recalled that it was from the media centre telex machine in the Hotel that scores of reporters would send out their dispatches.
Israel tried to get the hotel vacated; warned that it was a legitimate target and advised the journalists to evacuate – with the IDF at one point giving journalists a deadline to clear out of there. Journalists associated with the US and international outlets fought back: “the IDF campaign touched off a countercampaign by correspondents there from The Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and the three main American television networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. We all alerted our home offices to the IDF threat to bomb the Commodore, and our home offices in turn alerted the White House to the danger we faced.”
The threat was averted apparently under direct orders from the White House, “exactly what transpired between Reagan and his aides and the Israeli government we never learned. But the IDF threat to bomb the Commodore abruptly ceased, and the hotel remained untouched until the end of the Israeli siege of Beirut.” But by 2021 Israel faced no issues or restraint when it destroyed the Gaza Strip high rise housing the offices of Al Jazeera and AP. It did so with impunity and its usual “this was a site where terrorists were present” pretext. The high-rise housed residential apartments but nobody – media or other– was given any sort of warning.
Fast forward two years later to 2023 and now Israel is bombing any and everybody in Gaza. Today’s White House seems to be a cheerleader for Israel’s destruction of Gaza, joining in the chorus which paints all in Gaza as “terrorists,” and staying silent even as medical professionals, aid workers and journalist are killed. Journalist associations have spoken out but media outlets have mostly failed to support their staff and seem intimidated by the possibility of being accused of ‘anti-Semitism.’
The targeting of journalists by the IDF is not random – it is systematic. I remember attending a safety in war zones and hostile environment training refresher course for BBC journalists in 2016 in which one of the participants was the courageous and highly professional foreign correspondent, Fergal Keene. Keene has covered conflicts all over the world and his coverage of the Sabra-Shatila massacre in 1982 had exposed Sharon and Israel’s complete disregard for human rights and international law. Most of these safety training courses hire military or security personnel to act in various scenarios (ambush, bombing, kidnap), in this particular course IDF linked soldiers had been hired to enact the scenarios. They recognised Keene and he found some of their comments and behaviour extremely threatening. (It was done insidiously so an official complaint to the BBC actually reached no conclusion.)
The message though was clear: such journalists are regarded Israel’s enemies. Now it seems that instead of intimidation or threat, Israel can simply murder journalists with impunity. Media organisations need to speak out now, countries need to protest. Israel is killing witnesses and destroying testimony. The role of reporters and photographers in war zones needs to be lauded, their safety protected. We owe them all a debt of gratitude: as Suzanne Moore wrote in the Guardian, “we should remember the debt we owe to those who have experienced dreadful things on our behalf”.
We need to protect the witnesses.