She’s a correspondent in Palestine. ‘Their goal is to keep us out of the picture’

One hundred and three Palestinian journalists have been killed in Gaza: Israel is far from being a paradise for critical voices, as shown by the country’s recent downgrading in Reporters without Borders’ press freedom ranking. As for the dominant rhetoric in the European media, it often excludes the Palestinians from the field of politics. How to write about Palestine when you live in Jerusalem? Observations by a French reporter after five years on the site.

29 November 2023. An Israeli soldier takes aim behind a wall as journalists cover their patrol in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.
Zain Jaafar/AFP

For over seven months now, journalists reporting the news from Gaza have been unable to enter the strip. The Israeli government won’t let foreign media into the Palestinian enclave which the UN still regards as occupied by Israel, even after the unilateral withdrawal decided in 2005 by the then Premier, Ariel Sharon.

Anyone who has ever been to Gaza has no doubts about the reality of that occupation. You didn’t see Israeli soldiers or colonists at every corner, but Israel controlled the sky. The buzzing of their drones could be heard overhead without a let-up, even spookier by night when they flew low. The Gaza fishermen who ventured outside the perimeter authorised by the army – and which was constantly changing – were shot at by the Israeli coast guard. And farmers were likely to stop a bullet if they got too close to the fence separating Gaza from Israeli territory. Since 9 October, Israel has isolated the enclave from the rest of the world, allowing only a tiny percentage of the humanitarian aid to enter, not nearly enough.

At Erez crossing: a minute, humiliating body search

Before October 2023, journalists were mong the few people allowed to visit Gaza, under blockade since 2007. Not without difficulty, you had to get an Israeli press card, issued by the government press office, which often called in reporters whose work it did not appreciate for a ‘discussion’ before renewing the coveted card. You also had to get a permit from Hamas.

A story I did too close to the fence separating Gaza from Israel without having asked permission beforehand got me a couple of invitations for coffee in the Gaza Ministry of Internal Affairs. In the Palestinian enclave, we had to always be accompanied by a ‘fixer’, a Gaza journalist who got us into places and let us use his address book..

Going to Gaza was expensive. We would generally spend several days there, for a series of stories. The Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza was only open on weekdays, until 3 PM, and was closed on Jewish holidays. When we journalists came back, we were subjected to a minute and often humiliating body searches: from behind the windows of their high-perched offices, Israeli soldiers gave us orders by intercom. Down below, the checkpoint workers were all Arabs.

The Palestinians were even more ill-treated. Many were ill, since that was one of the rare reasons for obtaining an exit permit via Erez. Thus I once saw with my own eyes an old woman in a wheelchair obliged to pass through a turn style standing up, supported by two checkpoint employees. After passing the checkpoint, our belongings were returned to us in a jumble. Some found broken equipment, others had had cosmetics stolen.

A disembodied coverage

This is not the first time Israel has bombed Gaza behind closed doors. Since my arrival in Jerusalem in 2018, whenever a military operation lasted more than a few hours, Erez was shut down. But the present shutdown is unprecedented. Seven months. My last visit to Gaza was in June 2023. For once I had a little time. I was doing a story on cultural cooperation and contrary to my previous visits in May 2021 and August 2022, the strip was relatively calm. New restaurants and cafés had opened on the coast road. At the Deira Hotel, male and female students were celebrating their master’s degree overlooking the sea, laughing and dancing to the latest Egyptian hits. In the morning, the lifeguards’ whistles could be heard on the beaches. They sent bunches of little boys in shorts and t-shirts to ride the modest Mediterranean surf. The sea had been clean for a year now, thanks to work on the infrastructure, financed by international donors. My memories offer a stark contrast with the images coming out of Gaza today. Henceforth alone on the ground, Palestinian journalists are doing a yeoman’s job of recording events as minutely as possible in horrendous conditions, sometimes paying with their lives for this essential work.

There is a part of me that cannot conceive of the extent of that devastation. Physical distance makes certain realities intangible. This is their goal: keeping us out of the picture. We are meant not to empathise, not to experience in our flesh the horror of the Israeli massacres in Gaza. In spite of all our efforts, our reports are disembodied. There are events we do not see. For months, we have been bombarded with terrible tales and we just don’t have time to check and document everything. Sometimes the news is authenticated later on when the media machinery has moved on to something else. At other times it is simply not possible in a few minutes, over the phone to deal with certain subjects. What parent is going to tell a woman they don’t know at the other end of the line how they feel after burying their child’s mutilated body. Last month, a Gazin friend who had left the strip told me: ‘What I see in the media doesn’t reflect the tenth of what we have gone through.’

Israel’s bombs are off-screen

This distance creates an imbalance. After 7 October, special correspondents from all over the world rushed to Israel to cover the crimes committed by Hamas and other Palestinian fighters in the kibbutzim. They spent long hours interviewing the survivors, photographing the sites, collecting memories. In Tel Aviv they did live broadcasts non-stop while Palestinian rockets whizzed overhead. Israel’s bombs, even when they annihilate a whole family in just a few seconds, remain mostly off-screen for lack of foreign correspondents on the spot. The smoke and noise of the detonations, the fear that reigns everywhere in the Gaza Strip are far from monopolising Western screens.

But in the Arab world, they certainly are! For these images exist: our Palestinian colleagues are doing an extraordinary job. And many of those images are simply atrocious. They provide much material for our articles. Those journalists are our eyes and ears on the ground, they are the only witnesses to the ongoing massacre. They are immensely brave and should be called upon more often by Western media. Some of these try to discredit their efforts, on the pretext that they are Gazins. They should be vigorously denounced.

Because Palestinians document their own history with greatest precision. Yet all too often this is made public only when others, non-Palestinians, take it up and analyse it. Thus, the accounts of the Nakba (the catastrophe), the forced exodus of 900,000 Palestinians in 1948, only came to light in the eighties with the work, in particular, of the “new Israeli historians’ who, unearthed Israeli and British archives documenting that period. For many years the Palestinians themselves had already collected refugees’ accounts, but without attracting the same attention.

A predigested analysis

Similarly, to find out what is going on in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories, Western media rely heavily on Israeli sources, whether military, political or media based. In Israel, the printed press is relatively free though quite biased, except for a few titles, especially the daily paper, Haaretz. Israeli newspapers are easily accessible, they are partially translated into English. There is no equivalent on the Palestinian side. In English, the Qatari channel Al Jazeera is the most complete. Today, its Gaza coverage is unique, with reporters almost everywhere and a large variety of sources. It is not a local channel but was created to give the Palestinian question place of pride in its reporting. However, its presence in Israel is being challenged: on last April 1st, the Israeli parliament passed a law enabling authorities to ban the broadcasting in Israel of foreign media liable to undermine national security, and the Israeli government has done just that to Al Jazeera. The other media are in Arabic, like Arab 48, on-line journal of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, one of the rare media providing factual coverage of Israeli and Palestinian current events.

It is relatively simple to get information on the Israeli side: the phone numbers of government officials and spokespersons are available on a dedicated website. The government press office posts excerpts from speeches by political leaders and arranges thematic tours of Israel and the colonies. Other bodies offer field trips for foreign journalists and video conferences in English with scholars, academics, or retired army officers.

In the event of a media emergency, when an article needs to be delivered in two hours it is very practical to be provided with a ‘predigested’ analysis. When I first arrived in this country, one of the e-mails I received came from an organisation called Israel Project which no longer exists today. This lobby put journalists in touch will all kinds of political experts and authorities. Israel Project held parties with ‘whisky and sufganiyots’ (a pastry eaten at Hanuka time, the Jewish winter holiday), as well as tours of the country. At one time, these were taken by helicopter to ‘understand Israeli geography’, though the country is much smaller than France.

Chronicling Palestinian deaths while an uncaring world looks on

Before 7 October, the international community had embraced the marginalisation of the Palestinian question as orchestrated by Israel. Editors were far more interested in the huge protests that rocked the country since the beginning of 2023. Few media spoke of the ferocious repression by the Israeli army in the West Bank, following a series of attacks in Israel during the spring of 2022 and the emergence of pockets of resistance in different cities like Nablus or Jenin In June 203, I spent several weeks covering the murder of a two-and-a-half-year old boy, Mohamed Tamimi, by an Israeli sniper in front of his house in Nabi Saleh, at the centre of the West Bank. A young Palestinian, Omar Jabara, had also been shot to death in the chest by an Israeli policeman, trying to defend his village, Turmus Ayya, near Ramallah, against a particularly violent colonists’ attack. My job consisted of chronicling Palestinian deaths for an indifferent world out there. Altogether, the number of people killed was at a level unheard of for many years. Yet daily, some slipped under the radars and the mass effect was lost.

Though probably one of the most scrutinised, the media narrative about Palestine is shaped by clichés which obscure the reality on the ground. After only a few weeks in Jerusalem and having read a few books, it became obvious that to describe the situation as a ‘conflict between two parties’ was totally useless. This is a colonial situation, with a colonising state and a colonised people, deprived of their right to self-determination. So, what is the meaning of the concept of ‘coexistence’ within a single Israeli society, when both Israeli and international NGOs attest to the existence of an apartheid situation?

These last weeks, the narrative around Gaza has tended to crystallise around the humanitarian question. It is NGO workers that are asked to confront Army spokespersons on TV talk shows rather than leaving this task to the Palestinians themselves. Because they are abstractions, depoliticised. To record their voices, bring them back to centre stage and give them importance is to be tarred with the brush of militancy. A way of discrediting the work we do, described as inevitably biased and in violation of ‘journalistic objectivity’.

Working under outside pressure

When you are on the spot, certain distortions become obvious. Thus, for decades now, in the dominant media rhetoric, Palestinians ‘die’ or ‘perish’, when Israelis are ‘killed’. In 2021, when crowds of young men took to the streets, sometimes violently, to assert their Palestinian identity, they were described everywhere as ‘Israeli Arabs’. Whereas they saw themselves as ‘Palestinian citizens of Israel’. And it was as such that I described them in my articles because that designation was an identitarian demand – that of being Palestinians. This was perceived by Israel as a threat and touched off an avalanche of indignant reactions against me personally, including a series of tweets from an official representative of the Israeli authorities. Yet what else are those 20% of the Israeli population if not the descendents of the Palestinians who remained on their land at the time of the Nakba and were consequently granted Israeli citizenship?

In at a tower block in south Jerusalem; an army of government press office workers sift carefully through the material produced by the international media on Israel, in the original language. Then one of their representatives shows up to complain about the use of this or that term, to denounce a ‘lack of journalistic ethics’ or to question the veracity of a piece of information, sometimes via X (ex-Twitter) sometimes straight to our superiors by e-mail, without always citing the author of the incriminated piece. In 2010 the Israeli ambassadress in France wrote to the head of France television demanding the cancellation of a story by Envoyé spécial dealing with the thousands of wounded demonstrators by the wall separating Israel and the Gaza Strip during the ‘great return march’. The public TV channel refused to give in.

There are also websites which carry out this surveillance, posting articles critical of stories or analyses. In the United States, the most powerful of these is Canary Mission or Camera. In France, on a much more modest scale, the website InfoEquitable run by France Télévision journalist Clément Weill-Raynal, unpacks the content of French-language media. These pressures are not without consequence. Some media give in, make changes, or will simply avoid the subject next time. Sometimes too, an unconscious form of self-censorship will make itself felt.

These pressures have reached humanitarian organisations and academic milieux. Often enough, under an article on Gaza, posted on the Internet, someone will write: What about the hostages?’ An insistence on symmetry, as if the sufferings of the Palestinians must always be placed alongside those of the Israelis. And that question echoes another, put to me by many Israelis over the past five years: ‘Why don’t you write about the genocide of the Uyghurs or the Sudanese?’As if the crimes perpetrated elsewhere cleared the criminals of those they commit here. ‘I chose to work out of Jerusalem, it’s from here that I write’, was my answer.