Tragedy in conflict: Consequences of war for journalists in Gaza

Amidst adversity, journalists such as Dahdouh and Hasanat emerge as beacons of perseverance and commitment to reporting truth in Gaza.

Published : Nov 29, 2023 18:32 IST - 7 MINS READ

Palestinians mourn local journalists Hassouna Sleem and Sary Mansour, who were killed in an Israeli strike on a house, at a hospital in the central Gaza Strip on November 19, 2023.

Palestinians mourn local journalists Hassouna Sleem and Sary Mansour, who were killed in an Israeli strike on a house, at a hospital in the central Gaza Strip on November 19, 2023. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

On a peaceful morning on 7 October, the Israeli settlement of Nahal Oz near the border with the Gaza Strip was rocked by violence that claimed the lives of journalist Yaniv Zohar and his family.

Zohar, a former Associated Press reporter and journalist for the Israeli newspaper Al Youm, had been covering major events in the region, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit by Palestinian militants in 2006.

The deaths of journalists were not limited to Israel. Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip brought unprecedented havoc on journalists. According to reports, at least 56 journalists have died since the beginning of the conflict, including 49 Palestinians, four Israelis, and three Lebanese in the 49 days of the conflict.

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A particularly painful loss for the journalism community was Belal Jadallah, the esteemed founder of the Gaza Press House and mentor to many aspiring reporters in Gaza. His death on 19 November highlighted the dangerous conditions for media professionals in the war-torn region.

Israeli shelling killed him in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City as he was on his way south. He worked closely with many, if not most, of the local journalists in Gaza and helped dozens of budding reporters launch their careers through his mentoring programmes.

Day in the life of a journalist in Gaza

During the 49-day bombardment of Gaza, it was difficult to reach journalists in the besieged territory. At times it was frustrating that they did not respond to calls.

A day after the temporary ceasefire agreed upon between Israel and Hamas came into force, Safaa Al-Hasanat, a freelance journalist, and member of the Gender Committee of the Journalists’ Syndicate, narrated her harrowing daily experiences, of combining professional commitment with finding a shelter, saving her life, and getting food for her family.

Her daily ordeal shows why journalists were not responding to calls to please outsiders with sound bites or quotes.

Amid the relentless bombardment, Hasanat, who had recently become a widow, described the day Israeli planes distributed leaflets urging her to flee the north. With four children and few belongings, she sought refuge in the South, a land of strangers. The hospitality of a friend was their salvation, if only temporarily. The spectre of danger followed close behind: the neighbour’s house was destroyed, leading to another desperate search for safety.

Hasanat’s story continued with the destruction of a second shelter, where her children were injured by falling debris. They wandered the streets in search of shelter until they found a room in the Sutan neighbourhood, where three families had already found refuge.

After finding the shelter, the search for bread was a dangerous endeavour and even life-threatening. Hasanat remembers queuing in the shadow of the bombs to feed her children—even if it was just a piece of stale bread revitalised by the heat.

Palestinians mourn local journalists Hassouna Sleem and Sary Mansour, who were killed in an Israeli strike in the central Gaza Strip.

Palestinians mourn local journalists Hassouna Sleem and Sary Mansour, who were killed in an Israeli strike in the central Gaza Strip. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

“Early in the morning at 6 am local time, you had to go in search of a loaf of bread. You had to join a long queue at the bakery and there was a risk of being bombed. You did not know whether you would return to your children with a loaf of bread or whether you would return to them dead. That’s what happened to many who could not return home alive,” she said.

Each day began before sunrise with a race to get a loaf of bread, a few gallons of water, and fuel for the primitive stove. As there was no gas or fuel, wood or charcoal had to be burnt—a dangerous necessity, especially for Hasanat, who had been advised to avoid smoke after an eye operation.

The trauma of loss weighed heavily on her children, who were afraid of becoming orphans. Each departure for necessities was a poignant farewell, fraught with the possibility that it could be their last. In this relentless cycle of survival, Hasanat was under pressure from her professional obligations to write reports and feature stories—a testament to the resilience and commitment of those who report on life against all odds.

Journalists such as Wael Dahdouh of Al-Jazeera Arabic returned to reporting as an unprecedented testament to resilience after suffering immense personal losses from the airstrikes.

Dahdouh lost his wife, a son, a daughter, and a grandson in an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza. Another son, Yehia, was seriously wounded.

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But the death of his relatives was a tragic and personal story, with him at the centre of it. Videos showed Dahdouh entering the Al-Aqsa hospital in Gaza and seeing the body of his dead son. “They are taking revenge on us through our children,” he sobbed.

Deadly for journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has stated that this period has been the deadliest for journalists since 1992, with the conflict in Gaza being particularly devastating compared to other war zones such as Ukraine and Syria. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, widely recognised as an extremely dangerous conflict for the news media, resulting in the deaths of 15 journalists. Israel’s Gaza war has surpassed the 30 journalists killed at the height of the Syrian civil war, previously considered the deadliest war zone for journalists in recent times.

Sherif Mansour, the coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Committee, explained that the rising number of media casualties, combined with the successive disruption of the internet and telephone networks and the tightening of censorship, is effectively forcing Gaza into an information blackout.

“Reporting on the conflict has become so much more dangerous because the risk has increased exponentially for local Palestinian journalists who are on the front lines and have no safe haven and no way out,” he said.

“We have said that we have achieved a news blackout, especially after the army targeted communications facilities. We also have the problems of censorship, attacks, and arrests in the West Bank,” he added.

Earlier, the Israeli media lobby HonestReporting had reported that some international media outlets were aware of the Hamas attack on 7 October, citing the publication of images by local journalists showing the group storming Israeli territory.

HonestReporting later retracted the allegations, but not before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement calling journalists who had photographed the Hamas attack “crimes against humanity”. Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet, said they should be treated as terrorists and hunted down.

A few days after the report, the home of Yasser Qudih, a freelance photographer who had provided Reuters with pictures of the Hamas attack, was hit by four rockets. Qudih survived the impact, but eight members of his family were killed. It is unclear whether Israel ordered the strike.

Mansour described HonestReporting’s claim as a “smear campaign” that puts the lives of Palestinian journalists at risk. He said the Gaza Strip is a small area 20 miles long and six miles wide, so it is not that difficult for any journalist to know about Israeli or Hamas operations.

“There are so many opportunities for journalists to be on the scene—you don’t need insider knowledge to open the window, look up at the sky, and see where the operation is taking place,” he said.

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Despite the danger and the Israeli “censorship regime”, Palestinian journalists and media professionals continue to fulfil their duties, often at great personal risk. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate has recognised the serious impact of the ongoing violence on its members and stressed the need for international awareness-raising and protection measures for journalists in conflict zones.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) defended the attacks, stating that they targeted all Hamas military activities throughout the Gaza Strip and had moved their military operations close to journalists and civilians. The IDF also pointed out that their high-intensity attacks on Hamas targets could cause damage to surrounding buildings and that Hamas rockets could also misfire and kill people in the Gaza Strip.

“Under these circumstances, we cannot guarantee the safety of your employees and urge you to take all necessary measures for their safety,” reads a letter from the IDF to international news organisations that had sought to ensure the safety of their journalists working in the Gaza Strip.

Iftikhar Gilani is an Indian journalist based in Ankara.

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