Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat – My eyes refused to rest throughout that night in the winter of 2000. I kept asking myself, to the sound of inmates snoring, why I had been arrested and jailed in this section of the “al Jawazat” prison, under the authority of the general police in Gaza City alongside well-known drug dealers and thieves.
In the early afternoon, I was taken to the office of the Director of the Criminal Investigation Unit. Amazingly, he asked me about my sources for a new article I’d allegedly written for a certain newspaper. I said I did not know as I only wrote for Asharq al Awsat. The brigadier immediately called another official and reprimanded him for arresting the wrong journalist. I was released after policemen were ordered to detain the offending reporter.
Since joining Asharq al Awsat in 1999, I have suffered repeated intimidation from the Palestinian security agencies. In late 2000, for example, I was summoned to the offices of one of the security bodies to explain my article on the mistreatment of Minister Qaddura Fares by member of the Presidential Guard at the entrance to late President Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. Published in Asharq al Awsat, the article featured an interview with Fares and a discussion on the circumstances surrounding the incident. I was interrogated about my version of events and pressured to force a statement promising to never write about presidential matters again. I refused and was eventually released after a few tense hours.
The above examples and the continued attempts by the Palestinian police to influence
Journalists in the territories under its control have created a need for self-censorship. For their part, measures adopted by the Israeli army make life difficult and work arduous as it becomes fraught with danger.
When the second intifada (popular uprising) started, I was assigned to report on the Israeli aggression in residential areas around the Gaza Strip and the political developments to try to contain the spiraling violence. I was constantly on my guard afraid that one side or the other would target me at any moment.
In 2002, I arranged to interview Dr. Abdel Aziz al Rantissi, the Hamas leader killed in April 2004. Two hours before our meeting, scheduled to take place at the Islamic University, I received a phone call from one al Rantissi’s aides announcing the interview would be moved to the leader’s private home.
I can vividly recall fearing for my own life at the time. After all, the Hamas chief was a candidate for assassination by Israel which had already targeting its adversaries by bombing their homes and shelling their convoys. I dreaded facing a similar fate to that of my friend the journalist Mohammad al Beshawy and his colleague Otham Qatnani, who were killed in an Israeli air strike on the offices of Hamas in the city of Nablus . The men were interviewing Sheikh Jamal Mansour, the leader of the Islamic group for the northern west bank. All three perished in the attack. When I eventually did meet al Rantissi, his calm and confident manner did little to ally my fears.
Throughout the al Aqsa intifada, walking around the streets of Gaza City was very dangerous. I remember leaving the office once, at 4pm, to attend a political rally. A car drove past me and, suddenly, a mortar fell on it from the sky! Running towards the vehicle in flames, I saw a member of Hamas being burnt alive. By coincidence, I was the first journalist on the scene. I would later witness two other assassinations on leaders of the Islamic group.
In addition to the targeted killings, Gaza City suffered from repeated incursions by the Israeli army, usually at night or in the early hours of the morning. Countless sleepless nights were spent reported these incidents and the death and destruction they caused as well as the Palestinian resistance
Most cumbersome, however, were the military checkpoints and the division of the Gaza Strip into three sectors, which Palestinians were forbidden to cross. Living in the central sector, I had to walk 3 km along the sea to reach Gaza City, if the Israeli army decided to shut the main road. Tens of thousands of Palestinians accompanied me on this arduous journey. At times, we would ride on carts pulled by donkeys or mules. Once, my mobile phone fell from my pocket and unto the shore and was about to be swept by the sea. I got off the cart to retrieve it and the driver and his mule continued on their route, oblivious to my plight. In many instances, when the northern sector shut, I would have to spend the night in the office or with friends.
In addition to the interference by Palestinian security bodies and the Israeli occupation, the lack of adequate public service hinders journalistic work. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all was the sudden cut in electricity, up to 15 times in a single day. On many occasions, as I was writing the concluding sentences in a report to send to London by email, the electricity would cut off and my work would be lost. I had to resign myself to re-writing my article from an internet café in another neighborhood of Gaza City where the power was still on. This continuous fear of a power cut prompted my colleagues and I to buy a generator despite the loud noise, which bothered our neighbors. The lack of high-speed internet connections complicates matters even further.
Professionally, the series of trials and tribulations I have endured on a daily basis mean I now write succinctly and try to cover the largest number of events with the least amount of words. One advantage of being a journalist in Gaza is the abundance of material, especially on the daily suffering of a people one belongs to.
In short, journalism in Gaza is impossible for all those who seek work under normal conditions.