“Maybe we have a discussion about who is a journalist,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, in a much-publicised interview with Al Jazeera on Monday during which he was grilled about Israeli attacks on media centres in Gaza City. Even with the hopes for the current ceasefire holding, this is undoubtedly still a discussion that needs to be had, as Israel’s behaviour towards journalists throughout the week-long Gaza crisis has set something of a precedent.
The main target, hit during three out of the five incidents, was the Al Shorouq tower, known locally as “the journalists’ building”, as it housed media outlets including Sky News, Al Arabiya, Al Quds TV and Russia Today. The third attack killed two people, including a local head of a branch of the militant group Al Quds brigades, and wounded eight journalists. Regev dismissed suggestions Israeli forces were targeting journalists, saying:
If you can bring me someone who is a bona fide journalist who was injured, I want to know about it.
At the suggestion that Palestinian journalists were not being given the same level of respect that Regev gives the Israeli media — which he praises for its freedom — the spokesman argued that the media in Gaza is not free, implying it is a legitimate target for Israeli attacks.
The illegitimacy of Palestinian media has been the first line of defence by Israelis justifying four separate attacks on media centre buildings — and one journalist directly — since the beginning of the Gaza crisis. The first attack last Sunday morning used five missiles to target a tower block housing pro-Hamas station Al Aqsa TV as well the offices of independent Palestinian news agency Ma’an, and has previously housed international media such as the BBC. According to Reporters Without Borders, ”around 15 reporters and photographers wearing vests with the words TV Press were on the building’s roof at the time, covering the Israeli air strikes”. In an attack on Tuesday, two journalists from Al Aqsa TV were killed by an Israeli airstrike while driving in a car marked “press”.
Regev told the Al-Jazeera presenter: “unlike the country where you’re broadcasting from, Israel has a free press, the Israeli press is very aggressive and we respect that right.” He later added: “If you think Al Aqsa is free press, like say Tass in the former Soviet Union is a free press [sic], then let’s be serious for a second.”
Regev ignored how Israeli media is, like Al Aqsa, also likely to publish articles in favour of its own government’s policy, particularly in a time of heightened conflict. Witness the infamous Jerusalem Post article published by Gilad Sharon (son of Ariel), entitled “A decisive conclusion is necessary”, which stated: “There is no middle path here — either the Gazans and their infrastructure are made to pay the price, or we reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip.”
Al Aqsa in particular may not be a sterling example of free media, but that an attacking army is allowed to cherry pick sources of “legitimate” media is highly disturbing. It also implies that the IDF are of the belief that for Palestinians, their nationality trumps all, making them supposedly legitimate targets. Regev himself used the word “legitimate” to describe channels such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC in comparison to Al Aqsa, although offices used by Al Jazeera were also damaged during a nearby attack on the Abu Khadra building on Wednesday night, and offices of Agence France-Press (AFP) were targeted on Tuesday evening. Journalists, regardless of whether their outlet is considered “legitimate”, have been treated as collateral damage in this conflict.
Regev also blamed Hamas for “using journalists as human shields” by “placing their communications equipment in buildings that they know that journalists will use”. For their part, Ma’an stated when reporting on this issue that “there is no military infrastructure of any kind inside the building,” referring to the Al Shawa tower, another media base. The IDF have provided no proof of the communications equipment on either building.
Israel made much of its decision to allow international media into Gaza, from keeping the northern Erez checkpoint open to fast-processing of the press cards that allow journalists to cross it. On arrival at Erez, it was mandatory for all journalists to sign a waiver, stating that should they come to any harm, the IDF bears no responsibility.
The Israeli Government Press Office was also quick to condemn rumours of Hamas refusing to allow journalists to leave Gaza, but had fewer qualms about making its own demands that restrict journalists’ movement when inside the Strip. It explicitly warned journalists to stay away from anything or anyone connected to Gaza’s ruling Hamas party — a difficult task in a place as densely-populated as Gaza. In one incident, Nicole Johnston from Al Jazeera’s English service reported receiving a message from the IDF which said:
Don’t take any Hamas or Islamic Jihad leaders in a car with you. We know who we’re looking for. We know their cars.
This implies that journalists were expected to consider contact with any Hamas official as overtly making themselves a target, a tactic designed to dissuade them from conducting interviews or engaging in any activity where the perspective of Hamas might be broadcast.
International media have praised the Israelis for their decision to allow Gaza to remain open, in contrast to Operation Cast Lead in 2009. But there is evidence of sleight-of-hand with journalistic safety, and the so-called “rules of engagement”. Targeting media, or in this case — targeting journalists who either don’t or can’t comply with the IDF’s demands — ignores Protocol 1, Article 79 of the Geneva Convention which states it is a war crime to target the media. This is despite a press release distributed by the Israeli government press office, which stated: “Israel and the IDF are fully committed to international law in general, and to the Laws of Armed Conflict in particular”.
International media have been flooding into Gaza to work alongside Palestinian media. But with such an aggressive targeted air campaign in one of the most densely populated areas on Earth and no “front line” to speak of, the most that both parties were able to do was to speak up in order to hope that Israel would react to international pressure to accept some part of the so-called “rules of engagement” and avoid targeting journalists.
The ceasefire is holding for now, but there are many lessons to be learned from the past week and a half, most of all because the vast majority of people believe that similar attacks on Gaza are likely to happen again. If that is the case, it is not unreasonable to expect that Israel and the IDF will have learnt that the harming of media of any nationality is not just an action which attracts the bad press that they seek to avoid. It is a crime.
Ruth Michaelson is a freelance journalist currently on assignment in Gaza. She tweets at @_Ms_R