GAZA CITY—For Mohammed Alaloul and Mustafa Hassona, it had already been three long days covering potential war crimes when the two Gazan journalists fell victim to one themselves.
On Thursday, the journalists from Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency were wading through the rubble of a decimated Northern Gaza neighborhood when an Israeli airstrike exploded nearby.
They rushed to the scene to document any civilian casualties, only to conclude it was still too dangerous as the sound of Israeli missiles pierced the drone of jets overhead.
“We are used to the sound of a rocket falling, but where is it falling? You never know,” Hassona told The Daily Beast.
At the urging of emergency workers, Alaloul, Hassona, and their driver Mahmoud Alkhodary fled the scene, racing away in a car clearly marked “TV.”
Then the Israeli missile hit.
“Suddenly everything was white,” said Hassona, describing the moment of impact when their press vehicle was bombed by the Israeli military. “Then the car filled with smoke. For moments, the world was black. I couldn’t see anything but smoke. I could only hear my friend [Alaloul] in the backseat screaming ‘I’m injured, I’m injured!’”
“We’d been speeding because it’s a dangerous place, and we were scared. So the car was still moving,” Hassona recalled. “Once it stopped, everyone opened their doors to run out. Then I heard Mohammed screaming ‘Help me!’ I looked behind and see him on the ground next to the car… blood coming out of his mouth… so I knew it was a serious injury.”
The Israeli airstrike on the Anadolu Agency team was just one in a series of press freedom violations by Israeli forces in recent weeks. On Saturday, Israeli airstrikes leveled a 12-story tower that housed international media, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.
Combined, the attacks on media operations underscore the extent to which Israeli forces are deliberately targeting journalists on the ground, human rights activists say.
“We are witnessing a rapid escalation of press freedom violations over the past week,” Ignacio Miguel Delgado, the Middle East and North Africa representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Daily Beast. “Israeli security forces have dispersed protests in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and at the Temple Mount complex violently and Palestinian and international journalists covering them have been on the receiving end of that violence. This fits what we have been documenting over the past years.”
In Jerusalem, Israeli security forces injured at least 8 journalists covering demonstrations on May 7 and 10, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. By Wednesday night, Israeli airstrikes on two tower blocks inside the Gaza Strip had razed 21 media outlets, according to Reporters Without Borders.
CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said in a statement that the Saturday bombing of a building “long known” by Israel to house international media outlets “raises the specter that the Israel Defense Forces is deliberately targeting media facilities in order to disrupt coverage of the human suffering in Gaza.” He demanded an explanation from the Israeli government and said “journalists have an obligation and duty to cover unfolding events in Gaza, and it would be illegal for the IDF to use military means to prevent journalists from doing their work.”
Across Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Israeli forces and right-wing Israeli mobs have been responsible for all cases documented with international press freedom organizations in recent weeks. While the victims include international and Israeli press, the vast majority of violations have been against Palestinian reporters.
“Palestinian journalists, who were already struggling to work in the conditions imposed by the Israeli authorities, are once again on the front line when tension erupts,” said Reporters Without Borders in a Thursday statement. “[They]... should on no account be treated as if they were parties to the conflict.”
Violence against civilians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories has been escalating for weeks, culminating with the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza this week. So far, nine Israelis have been killed by rockets fired by Gazan militants. In Gaza, the death toll from Israeli airstrikes reached 145 by Saturday night, 64 of whom were women and children.
Inside Gaza, Palestinian journalists race to cover the destruction, while Israel continues to ban any foreign press access into Gaza from Israel.
On Tuesday, the Israeli Government Press Office said there would be “no passage for journalists through Erez Crossing until further notice” as Israel commenced its airstrikes in Gaza.
Erez Crossing is the only entrypoint for journalists into the Gaza Strip from Israel. Israel’s indefinite suspension of press access through Erez prevents international news agencies’ access to a major military operation in Gaza for the first time since the 2008-2009 war.
“With any story like this, the more cameras, the more people on the ground documenting, the better,” Amnesty International’s Sherine Tadros told The Daily Beast. “You can’t really cover all the airstrikes without a certain number of people on the ground, and the fact that Israel is limiting that number undermines the international community’s understanding of what’s happening on the ground.”
Tadros was one of only two international journalists reporting inside the Gaza Strip during the 2008-2009 war for Al Jazeera with Ayman Mohyeldin (now MSNBC news anchor). Their unique access and powerful coverage was later turned into a documentary “The War Around Us”.
The difference between covering that war and the 2014 war was “night and day,” said Tadros, referring to the press restrictions.
“In 2008, Ayman and I were alone in reporting to an international audience and relied upon heavily by international human rights investigators. In 2014, every major international network was inside Gaza with their biggest anchors broadcasting 24/7 images of airstrikes and the civilian toll every day. The rhetoric and narrative around the conflict changed as a result of journalists getting that first-hand experience on the ground.
“Fast forward to 2021, the Israeli government may, in its calculation, have decided it’s better to get a little bit of heat [for suspending press access] than deal with the world seeing the facts of the reality on the ground.”
The ban on Erez crossing for international press, coupled with attacks on media buildings, means local Gazan journalists are “left alone, risking their lives to cover the ongoing airstrikes and military operations,” CPJ’s Ignacio Miguel Delgado told The Daily Beast.
Inside Gaza on Thursday, emergency workers rushed Alaloul and Mustafa’s team to a nearby hospital. Mustafa, who has been injured three other times in the course of his award-winning, 14 year career, suffered minor injuries but was held overnight for supervision. Alaloul’s condition was critical, and he has since undergone two surgeries.
“Seeing your friend in front of you, possibly about to lose his life…There’s nothing like this feeling,” Mustafa told The Daily Beast. “It’s very painful seeing someone you cannot help, and no matter how much you try to describe it or explain it to people, you can never do it justice.”
Mustafa has covered all the major wars in Gaza (2008-2009, 2012, 2014) as well as the popular uprisings of 2018 in which two Gazan journalists were killed, including his close friend, the renowned Gazan journalist Yaser Murtaja. As a Gazan civilian, his home and place of work have been damaged by Israeli airstrikes, including the bombing of a building housing Anadolu Agency in 2019.
“Israel is ferocious in war, Israel attacks civilians in the most powerful and violent ways, and honestly, everyone knows that Israel doesn’t care about international laws or courts or [the] international community. Israel does whatever they want. No one can stop them,” Hassona told The Daily Beast. “And on journalists, what happened to me before was also a crime. I’ve been injured four times... Not once was Israel held accountable for attacking journalists. I believe what we need is international protection.”
Currently all images and reporting coming out of Gaza is coming from Gaza journalists. Journalists have described working grueling days and countless sleepless nights.
“We aren’t just doing a job; it’s a duty. There’s a big difference. Journalism is more of a duty, and you have to cover everything,” Hassona told The Daily Beast. “You’re like the ambulance and civil defense. The ambulance’s role is to save the injured and your duty is to show people the injured. We show the truth.”
By Saturday, Alaloul had returned home. He can’t feel his legs and faces months of recovery. Hassona was back out reporting from Gaza.