Reporters who covered “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza dismiss Israeli accusations of giving Hamas an easy ride.
On Wednesday night Benjamin Netanyahu briefed the foreign press, summing up four weeks of warfare in Gaza. "Now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidation," he said," I expect we will see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets. I think it's very important for the truth to come out."
The prime minister's voice betrayed no rancor but his words masked a deep frustration in his office over what one adviser called "a conspiracy of silence" by the foreign correspondents reporting from Gaza for the past month. "They have remained silent over how no one digs too deep into the Hamas side or into how they use civilians as human shields," the adviser said. "That's how they get an opportunity to cover Gaza, and it creates an imbalanced picture, which is bad for Israel. We should be trying to expose that."
Netanyahu's expectations have yet to be fulfilled. Of the 710 foreign journalists who crossed into Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, only a handful have claimed they were intimidated by Hamas or produced hitherto unpublished footage of rockets being fired from civilian areas, such as the pictures filmed by Indian channel NDTV, which were shown at the Netanyahu briefing. Maybe such footage will still emerge — all the foreign correspondents interviewed for this piece insisted that it doesn't exist, and not because they wouldn't have liked to obtain such pictures.
"It's a phony controversy," said one reporter who spent three weeks in Gaza and, like most who were interviewed, asked to remain anonymous. "This is a post-facto attempt to claim the media's biased and Netanyahu [is] therefore infallibly right.”
But how could Hamas and other Palestinian organizations launch 2,657 rockets and mortar shells from Gaza, Israeli officials ask, and only NDTV reporter Sreenivasan Jain captured a launcher on film? Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor says he can't believe "how veteran war photographers couldn't capture even one launch team, a single Hamas fighter on a barricade, the kind of exclusive photo they routinely risk their neck for."
"What nonsense," says one senior correspondent based in Israel. "The fact that NDTV succeeded proves nothing; it was an almost unbelievable opportunity. There are places which are just too dangerous and a photographer has to first protect himself."
"I didn't see a rocket at point of launch," says one European photographer who left Gaza a few days ago, "but I did see a lot in the air, and those pictures were published. If I had a chance I would have photographed launchers, but they were well hidden. Israel, with all its sensors and drones, didn't find them all."
"You couldn't tell exactly where a rocket was being launched from," says an American reporter. "Often they were hundreds of yards away, although you could hear the launch and see the contrails. We didn't hesitate to mention the general area in our reports, but that didn't necessarily add much."
"There are always some gung-ho photojournalists who would go to any front line, no matter how dangerous," says Anne Barnard, the New York Times Beirut bureau chief, who spent two weeks reporting from Gaza. "But that requires essentially an informal embed with the militants, to even be able to locate them without getting caught in crossfire on the way. Our team in Gaza noted frequently in stories that Hamas operates in urban areas and from farm fields. We mentioned witnessing specific rocket launches in numerous stories, witnessing the rocket going up from some distance away, that is. But in two weeks I never saw a rocket crew; for obvious reasons, to avoid getting a hit by Israeli strikes, they try not to be seen."
Missing in Action
The elusive rocket launchers are only one detail in the Israeli criticism. Where were the Hamas attackers throughout the operation? Why are pictures of uniformed and armed fighters totally absent from the coverage?
"I described the few Hamas fighters I saw in my pieces," says one veteran war reporter, "but there were so few of them. It reminded me a lot of Lebanon in 2006, where you didn't really see Hezbollah fighters even right at the border. Except for one chance encounter with a mortar team who looked embarrassed to be spotted. It was the same in Iraq, too, in the 2003 insurgency. Most of the time the fighters were invisible and dangerous."
Reporter after reporter returning from Gaza has spoken of how, with the notable exception of spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas fighters melted away during the warfare, even abandoning their regular checkpoint at the entrance to the Strip from Erez, so no one was checking the journalists' passports.
"Members of the political wing could only very occasionally be found or talked to," says Barnard. "This was frustrating because, of course, there are many questions they should be asked, not just to respond to Israeli allegations but to evaluate their performance on their own terms and those of Palestinians in Gaza: Are their strategy and tactics effective? Do they believe they have popular support for their conduct of the conflict and the decisions they made? How do they respond to people who complain that they went into hiding and left ordinary people who had no choice about the fact that their neighbor was in Hamas to be targets?"
The New York Times came in for specific criticism from pro-Israel advocates who focused on the seeming failure of its star photographer, Tyler Hicks, to capture any militants in his camera lens.
"Tyler saw some guys come out of a hole in the side of a building in Shujaiyeh during the brief cease-fire on July 20," recalls Barnard. "They were without guns but making gestures to say no photos. I put that in the story. Tyler also took pictures of at least one Hamas member being buried, but again funerals were harder to access than usual because they were held quickly and without much fanfare and [with] few mourners because of the danger. You could understand why they stayed out of sight: Israel appeared to be defining Hamas targets very broadly, to include any member of the Hamas administered police, government, etc. They may have felt that they would be targets, and so would the reporters they were talking to. We certainly were concerned about that ourselves."
"There's been a lot of talk about Hamas preventing us from seeing them," says another correspondent with extensive experience in covering Middle East wars. "But the fact is that the areas they were fighting in were just too dangerous. If I had tried to report from Shujaiyeh during the fighting, I would probably have got killed. Hamas isn't a regular army: When they leave the fighting areas, they don't wear uniforms or carry guns."
None of this impresses the Foreign Ministry's Palmor. "The fact remains [that] we didn't see anywhere pictures of fighters carrying weapons or launching rockets. There were humanitarian cease-fires when they were free to walk around without being attacked. Why didn't they try to photo them then? I don't think anyone was in Hamas's pay. That's why the question mark is so large. We know Hamas were trying very hard to hide, not just for their security but for propaganda purposes. We have heard of reporters who said they weren't allowed near fighters and were threatened. But this is the A-Team of the war-reporting profession. How did Hamas succeed so completely?"
This is perhaps the biggest bone of contention that Israeli spokesmen have with the foreign media corps: Why won't they acknowledge they were being pressured and monitored by Hamas? All but a few journalists deny there was any such pressure.
"I wasn't intimidated at any point," says one seasoned war reporter. "I didn't feel Hamas were a threat to my welfare any more than Israeli bombings. I'm aware some people had problems, but nothing beyond what you would expect covering a conflict. Hamas's levels of intimidation weren't any worse than what you occasionally experience at the hands of the IDF, which didn't allow access to fighting for most of the conflict either. As a rule no armed forces permit you to broadcast militarily sensitive information."
If anything, most reporters are complaining that Hamas seemed to make little effort to engage with the media. "How could there be Hamas censorship if there was no Hamas to be seen?" says one exasperated reporter.
"The American military, and many others including Israel, imposes limits on embedded reporters under which you cannot reveal troop movements, weapons locations and other info that could compromise 'operational security,'" says another experienced correspondent. "There was no such official restriction from Hamas because there was no embed and almost no contact. Hamas did not complain about anything to anyone on our team."
In a few cases, journalists who tweeted on their personal Twitter accounts about seeing rockets launched from specific areas deleted the tweets after other Twitter users complained. Most of these complaints seem to have come, though, from local residents who were worried that they would lead to Israeli strikes. "I heard that Hamas officials made inquiries about a reporter who tweeted about rocket launches," says one journalist, "but it seemed they were asking to see if she was really a reporter and not a spy."
In another case, a number of reporters have said off the record that Hamas officials summoned one photographer and warned him that they would confiscate his camera if he didn't delete a certain picture. There are also reports of fighters brandishing rifles to prevent photographers from taking their picture, but all the reporters insist these were isolated cases.
"Look, no one is claiming for one moment that Hamas is an enlightened organization that believes in freedom of the press," says one reporter who has been visiting Gaza for years. "I don't think I have to mention that fact in every report I make. But at least over the last month, they were simply too busy fighting to bother themselves very much with the media."
Government officials are convinced that the great majority of foreign journalists are simply too embarrassed to admit that they worked under Hamas monitoring. "It's clear that they were being intimidated and had to face abnormal pressure," says one spokesman. "We know of specific cases in which they were harassed and menaced."
"I can't really judge them," says another senior press official. "It is extremely difficult with Hamas in your hotel lobby and in the corridor."
"Israel wants reporters to write about the conflict as it conceived it, as a security problem framed by the IDF," says one reporter with 30 years experience in hot spots worldwide. "Most journalists chose to report it from the point of view of [the] humanitarian impact of conflict, which is what war reporters actually usually do. They're not writing like defense correspondents. I personally chose not to speak to Hamas mouthpieces because I hold Hamas propaganda in as much contempt as that of Netanyahu."
"In all conflicts, reporters are loath to 'serve' either side by revealing information that could lead to a specific strike in real time," says the New York Times's Barnard. "Even information that could be seen as having led to a specific strike.
“First of all, that could endanger all reporters by making them be seen as spies. But beyond that, we are observers, not participants. We don't want to be the reason that, say, a bomb was dropped. What if it killed a bystander? So let's say I had seen a rocket launch from a specific building in Gaza, which I did not, I would not have reported it in real time, by my own choice. For one thing I wouldn't want the return strike to come while I was standing there. That said, I also assume the Israeli military has better ways than reporters' tweets to know where rockets are launched from. But I would, and did, report launches that we saw, in stories a few hours later."
"Much of the criticism from the government, and groups monitoring the [coverage,] is from people who don't understand the real role of the media. They just want to see which side 'wins' in each report," says a another journalist in Gaza. "Our job isn't to give out points, and this isn't a game. The great majority of our readers simply rely on us to explain what is happening here."
But Israeli spokesmen find it hard to accept such a view of the reporters' role in Gaza. "Their entire objective seems to be to supply pictures of dead babies and blood," says one. "Not context." Another spokesman echoes him, saying that "when it gets down to pictures of dead children, then Israel can't win because we don't have any. That's the fact of life."
Many reporters, especially those belonging to large news organizations that had reporters and teams on both sides of the conflict, dispute these claims.
"There's an asymmetry here, not just in the warfare but also in the coverage," says one bureau chief. "You can't cover an organized army and a guerrilla group in the same way, and it's pointless to try. You have to find the correct proportions in each report and news package, and I believe we did a good job of that."
Not all the Israeli officials share the criticism. Nitzan Chen, director-general of the Government Press Office, says that "you can't judge the correspondents without having been in their place. At the end of the day they also have families and want to get home in one piece. Their job isn't to do [PR] for Israel; they don't work for us. All in all, I think the coverage was relatively balanced."
On the other side are some correspondents who accept at least a bit of the Israeli criticism.
"Looking back, I should have at least tried to report a bit more about the Hamas fighters and still plan to," says one reporter still in Gaza.
"There was just so much work around the civilian casualties and the destruction that it swamped us. Going to home after destroyed home, where multiple family members were killed, was just too shocking, even for those who had covered Syria. The civilian angle took up nearly all the attention, but the Hamas angle should have got more coverage, especially the fact [that] they were fighting with so much greater tenacity and discipline than in 2009 and, to judge by the Israeli strikes, had hidden weapons in private homes and mosques. That should have been covered better, but there was just so much death all around."