The Deadly Challenges of War Coverage in Gaza

On December 12th, the CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward became the first Western reporter to enter Gaza without an I.D.F. escort since the war began. Crammed into the back seat of a car, she and her crew captured images of the bombed-out buildings and streets of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza which shares a border with Egypt. According to one recent U.N. estimate, eighty-five per cent of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents had fled there. Crowds milled outside a bakery, and parents walked hand in hand with their children past mountains of rubble. “The Israeli military says it has hit Gaza with more than twenty-two thousand strikes,” Ward said during the ride. “That by far surpasses anything we’ve seen in modern warfare in terms of intensity and ferocity, and we really, honestly, are just getting a glimpse of it here.”

Since the start of the Israeli invasion, it has been largely Arab media that have provided the world with on-the-ground reporting from Gaza, where the death toll has surpassed an estimated twenty-three thousand in just three months. The coverage is often harrowing and raw. A recent live report from Rafah by the Al Jazeera reporter Hani Mahmoud captured what sounded like the whine of a plane overhead and several missiles hitting a group of buildings, one after the other, sending plumes of dense black smoke into the air. “Oh, my God,” Mahmoud can be heard saying after ducking out of the frame to take cover. “That’s the hospital!” According to a later Al Jazeera report, the strike did not hit the hospital but nearby residential buildings, killing at least ten people.

As of Friday, eighty-two journalists have been killed in Gaza; many others have lost family members. In October, Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, Wael Al-Dahdouh, was informed during an on-air report that members of his family had fallen victim to an air strike; his wife, teen-age son, seven-year-old daughter, and infant grandson were killed. On Sunday, his twenty-seven-year-old son, Hamza, who also worked for Al Jazeera, was killed in a separate Israeli air strike—which Al Jazeera, in a statement, called an “assassination.” (The I.D.F. released its own statement saying that Hamza was a member of a “Gaza-based” terrorist organization and had been operating a drone “posing a threat” to Israeli troops. Al Jazeera disputes that the pair were operating a drone, and the families of the men denied that they were part of any terrorist organization.) In December, Dahdouh himself was injured while on assignment with the Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abu Daqqa, who bled out and died from his wounds following an Israeli air strike. Salman Al Bashir, a journalist for Palestine TV, which is run by the Palestinian Authority, wept during his report on the death of his colleague Mohammed Abu Hatab and eleven of Abu Hatab’s family members in an air strike. “We are victims, live on air,” Bashir said, removing his press helmet and body armor, which he said offered only the illusion of protection.

Many journalists who work inside Gaza for Western outlets have fled the violence. In November, the BBC’s Gaza producer Rushdi Abualouf left with his family, as did CNN’s Gaza producer, Ibrahim Dahman; in December, Dahman learned that nine of his relatives had been killed in an air strike. NPR, ABC, and CBS are among the last U.S. news organizations with producers inside Gaza. “I think that one of the real challenges of this conflict has been it’s been very difficult for those of us on the outside to put together a real sense of what’s going on on the inside,” Ward said. “If we can be there, it makes our jobs more challenging in some ways, but easier in other ways.”

In a war where even the most basic statistics, such as deaths and injuries, are subject to skepticism—Hamas runs the Gaza Health Ministry, which keeps track of such numbers—every report is, ideally, independently substantiated. But communications outages inside Gaza have often hampered these efforts. “We’re constantly working on stories, things that we might hear have happened in Gaza,” Ward said. “We have to try to geolocate it if it’s video that we didn’t actually shoot ourselves or if it’s something we obtained through a second party.” Outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have turned to open-source visual investigations in an effort to independently report on the war, particularly on the I.D.F.’s intensive bombing campaign in heavily populated areas.

Ward, who replaced Christiane Amanpour as CNN’s chief international correspondent in 2018, has been reporting from war zones for more than twenty years. She has lived in the Middle East, Russia, and China, and speaks several languages, including conversational Arabic. In 2012, she sneaked across the Syrian border and spent time with rebels who were fighting against the Assad government. More recently, she reported from Kabul, as the city fell to the Taliban, and from Ukraine, as Russian bombardments devastated the country. Her recent trip into Gaza was not her first time in the territory. In 2006, she visited Beit Hanoun as a freelance reporter, and the car she was in, which was clearly marked as a press vehicle, came under fire from an Israeli tank. “No sooner had we started moving than a shell exploded just five yards away,” she writes in her memoir. The shot was intended as a warning. As the car made a getaway, locals struck it with their shoes, furious that journalists had brought tank fire so close to their homes.

In the early days of the war, Ward was an animating force behind a letter to the Egyptian and Israeli authorities—who control the border crossings into Gaza—asking them to let reporters inside the territory. The letter was circulated and signed by other news organizations, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the L.A. Times, but both Egypt and Israel declined to grant entry to journalists. Then, in mid-November, Ward and her team heard that the Emirati government would be opening a field hospital inside Gaza. She asked whether she could join the medical teams inside for a brief report. The only conditions of their visit, Ward said, were that they not leave their escort and that their time on the ground would be limited.

The easier way for Western journalists to enter Gaza has been with the I.D.F., an arrangement that can undermine a news organization’s claims of objectivity. The I.D.F. requires that outlets like CNN submit their footage, which, a CNN spokesperson noted, the network had been transparent with its audience about. The conditions set forth by the military were “not atypical to this kind of situation with armed forces,” the spokesperson said. In a report that aired on November 13th, during the I.D.F.’s operation at the Al-Shifa hospital complex—where, one doctor said, forty-three I.C.U. patients had died after their oxygen supply ran short—Nic Robertson, a CNN correspondent, went with the I.D.F. to survey the abandoned Al-Rantisi children’s hospital. An Israeli Army spokesman said that Hamas had stored weapons at the hospital—a charge, Robertson noted, that could serve as justification to negate the humanitarian protections that hospitals are afforded during wartime. The spokesman also speculated that Hamas had kept Israeli hostages in the hospital, pointing to a paper on the wall that, he said, was a schedule of guards’ shifts. The claim was later refuted by viewers fluent in Arabic, and CNN removed that portion of the report. The CNN spokesperson said that the report had been edited purely for length.“Zero critical assessment while going on an Israeli military-controlled tour subject to the military censor,” the Palestinian American writer and activist, Yousef Munayyer, tweeted. “This isn’t journalism, it is propaganda in the service of a genocidal war.”

Ward told me that she had never been in direct contact with the I.D.F. about getting into Gaza. When I asked whether she was opposed to entering Gaza with a military escort, she took a long pause before answering. “I personally felt for me it will be difficult to do the type of reporting that I typically do under those circumstances,” Ward said. “The embeds that I have seen with the I.D.F.—it’s very difficult to have conversations with ordinary people.”

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