Let’s talk about how the media covers Gaza

A Palestinian man plays with a child during sunset in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (Mohammed Abed - AFP)

Mohammed al-Kurd

The Nation  /  December 29, 2021

A conversation with Gaza-based journalist Maram Humaid about the media’s love of misery, disdain for nuance, and distrust of local sources.

This has been quite a year for Palestine. What started as one neighborhood’s rallying cry against dispossession translated into a unity uprising that situated the Palestinian cause at the center of the international news cycle. For a brief yet unprecedented moment, decades-old Palestinian analysis about Israeli settler-colonialism triggered worldwide epiphanies and gave language to the usual out-of-context photographs of weeping Palestinian mothers and razed buildings. Journalists challenged sanitized state language and called ethnic cleansing by its name. Newspapers ran articles about Israeli war crimes inside the besieged Gaza Strip and plastered photos of murdered Palestinian children on their front pages. TV channels showed the Israeli military dropping bombs that reduced residential and media towers to rubble. Social media networks exploded with images of Palestinians—dead and alive—pulled from under the wreck. And, to a certain degree, Palestinian voices steered the global conversation.

But once the bombing appeared to pause, camera crews gathered their equipment and moved on to a different story. They stopped reporting. Colonial violence, however, has not stopped, nor has the resistance to it. This is true throughout Palestine, but particularly in Gaza, where Palestinians stoically build back their lives after yet another Israeli bombardment campaign and yet another year of the blockade—in place since 2007 and enforced by both Israeli and Egyptian regimes.

Our eyes, it seems, turn to the besieged Gaza Strip only in times of incursions and assaults. Our reports focus on exceptional grief. Only extraordinary death makes headlines. There is, of course, a lot in Gaza that warrants such media coverage: Between 2009 and 2021, the Israeli military launched three full-scale assaults on the Strip; years of bombings, siege, and political exclusion have created a “humanitarian” and environmental crisis, in which everything from food, medicine, water, and even electricity is scarce; and just two weeks ago, the Israeli regime finished building a billion-dollar cage around the Strip, confining 2 million Palestinians behind a dystopian nightmare of sensory-activated and remote-controlled weaponry.

And yet, inside this open-air prison, life has many more dimensions than mainstream journalism reveals. Young people gather in Internet cafes and pursue remote careers. Some people plan their weddings, and others battle a suffocating bureaucracy to study abroad. Fishermen return to a sea fraught with risk from the Israeli navy and farmers to their greenhouses, planting strawberries and tomatoes. Local reporters, photojournalists, artists, and writers manage to resist being flattened by reductionism. Literary initiatives like We Are Not Numbers, a community of “word artists” telling the “human stories behind the numbers and statistics,” and Gaza Poets Society, a spoken-word collective, show a nuanced and unnervingly beautiful side of Gaza that has long been obscured. Even so, their stories too often remain inside the Strip—obscure even to other Palestinians.

If we measure only by distance, my home in Jerusalem is an hour away from Gaza. But because of the blockade, Gaza appears as though on a faraway planet, foreign even to neighboring Palestinians. The deliberate and systemic isolation of the Strip has translated into a cyclically vapid understanding of its reality, particularly in the media industry.

To better understand the situation, I spoke to Al-Jazeera journalist Maram Humaid who recently returned to her home in Gaza after finishing a Master’s in Journalism at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar. She has covered various stories in the Strip, from the effects of Covid-19 on Gaza to the psychological price of repeated wars to the Israeli crackdown on Palestinian fishermen, Hamas’ suppression of opposition, and the first national amputee soccer team hoping to compete in the Olympics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

—Mohammed al-Kurd

 Mohammed al-Kurd: Media representation of Gaza has reduced it to a framework of death, ignoring the daily life and practices of the Palestinians living there. If you had the freedom to escape the news cycle, to write about whatever you want, how would you write about Gaza?

MARAM HUMAID: In my experience, I don’t think editors and newsrooms are attracted to success stories from Gaza or stories about people’s everyday struggles. They’re attracted to the bombardments and the wars: “Ten people were killed. Let’s go cover that.” They’re not interested in covering a story about a girl starting her own brand or the beauty industry here or the deterioration of mental health or young people pursuing remote work in programming and technology.

I don’t think editors have a deep understanding of the situation. I feel that Palestinian journalists’ absence from global newsrooms has contributed to this. There’s a particular narrative about us, read and reproduced by Western journalists, which shapes analysis around Gaza. You have platforms like the BBC that are absent from reporting on Gaza for long stretches of time, and when they finally decide to interview me, they ignore the siege, the massive problems, and they ask about “Why does Hamas prohibit women from smoking hookah?” They don’t ask about people’s struggles, the poverty, the daily crushing of dreams that people in Gaza live through, the suffering at the border. They don’t care about the beauty either. We’ve lived through 15 years of death, and they only focus on Hamas, as if there’s nothing and no one in Gaza besides Hamas. We have to resolve this through initiating a system that ensures diverse stories from Gaza are on the agendas of news editors.

There is a trust crisis—a general distrust of Gazans. International media doesn’t trust local sources, organizations, and ministries. Not even local journalists. They’d rather send a clueless blond journalist, and you end up just being their “fixer.” They call us fixers, but we’re local journalists in the end. Let’s call things by their name. We give them the data, translate for them, and connect them with local sources. You end up explaining to them basic things like the difference between the PLO and the PA.

MK: What are some internal challenges facing the journalism industry in Gaza and Palestine in general?

MH: I could argue that potentially three out of every five young Gazans could be journalists, photographers, or producers, but the siege has created a situation that de-developed Palestinian curricula and English fluency. Young journalists and spokespeople don’t have the tools to address and write for global foreign media—[and when you do] you do tasks assigned to you by an editor who lacks insight and nuance. Our media machine is dilapidated. If you look at Israeli media, you see a giant and tireless machine. They don’t just report the news—they analyze, do features, and constantly interpret the political situation.

MK: You’re saying we’re stuck in a cycle of merely reporting the things that happen to us, while Israeli media has the space to frame the narrative. Why do such differences exist?

MH: Because our efforts are individual. The Palestinian Authority has not invested much in a solid and accurate Palestinian narrative, training young diplomats, or creating foreign media units. There aren’t collective or institutional measures that elevate journalists. We’re living through a weak political moment. Of course, we’re occupied at the end of the day. The essential goal of the blockade, the natural consequences of its systematic policies, is that you regress intellectually and economically. You become too consumed with trying to put food on the table for your family. When you couple political corruption with a state of siege, you create regression.

MK: As Palestinian journalists, field workers, activists, we are the raw materials from which international organizations extract their conclusions—though they don’t give us the authority to cultivate our own framework. Our perspectives are thought to be illegitimate, too biased.

MH: I remember I worked with an American journalist on May 14, 2018, one of the deadliest days of the Great March of Return. Sixty Palestinians were killed, almost 3,000 were injured, thousands with gunfire, and approximately 100 people had their limbs amputated. For 18 days, we went from hospital to hospital, from Rafah to Jabaliah. We saw dozens of maimed children and young men. There was a 16-year-old boy who was shot with a butterfly bullet—those bullets that shatter your bones. He cried and begged the doctors not to amputate his leg. The journalist called me every single day asking me to check whether his limb was amputated, whether she could record the amputation surgery. She wanted a scoop, a photo from the operation room.

There was a 9-month-old girl who suffocated and died due to tear gas. The American journalist would speak to one of her colleagues and say, “This story isn’t logical…there are Israeli sources that deny this.” She was constantly debating and doubting eyewitnesses. They doubt what they see with their own eyes because they’re loyal to their preconceived framing and narratives. There’s an emphasis on neutrality, but to be neutral does not mean you skip over people’s pain.

MK: You covered the Great March of Return and, recently, the national soccer team of amputees, many of whom were maimed by Israeli forces during those protests. What does the spectrum of resistance in Gaza look like?

MH: The young people I saw at the march broke my heart. I’d ask them why they were participating, and they’d tell me, “Electricity is cut off at home, we have nothing to do. Let me go see, let me throw a couple of stones.” I’d ask if they fear getting shot, and they’d answer, “If my leg is gone, goodbye, if I’m gone, so be it, either way, I’m dead.” Is it difficult to lose a leg? Of course, it is. Is it difficult to be shot? It’s very difficult. But people here have reached a level where nothing matters, especially the generation of the late ’90s and the 2000s. When you drive people to this level of misery, you’ve created all the circumstances that push people to try and resist.

But every method of protest is met with excessive force. We don’t even know rubber bullets here, only live ammunition. So, when the homemade rockets leave Gaza, people cheer because, honestly, when there’s a war, you feel lonely. It is important to clarify that these homemade missiles don’t compare to the Israeli arsenal, which, as we have seen, destroyed entire neighborhoods. Still, people cheer—not out of joy but out of the deep frustration and loneliness they feel amid the absence of any solution. You are alone against the Israeli missiles, against the horrors. You wait for your turn to die. Whether people like the resistance or not, we have a right to resist. We have a right to defend ourselves. We tried peaceful resistance [with the Great March of Return], and you saw the results: hundreds of maimed people and thousands of martyrs. So Israel’s targeting of homes, of whole families, shows it doesn’t need an excuse to kill. The rockets or the entirely peaceful demonstrations—they’re only excuses. Nothing else.

MK: I recently tweeted a picture of Christians celebrating Christmas at the YMCA in Gaza. Many people were shocked Palestinian Christians exist. But not only are there Christians in Gaza but there is socioeconomic diversity, diversity in religious and political affiliation.

 MH: People outside assume that the Gaza Strip is made up of young people walking in the streets without flip-flops, illiterate and poor. The reality is different. Every Thursday, you go to the beach and see a lively city. People smoke hookahs—there are parties—all of this exists in Gaza, and it comes back two months after the war.

Gaza is like any other society anywhere in the world. There are poor people, rich people, the homeless, the educated, and the uneducated. You see all of that in the US too. What makes Gaza unique is that when a bomb comes, it doesn’t discriminate. Bombs target everyone, the rich, the poor, the tradesman, the investor, the businessman. That’s the exception.

MK: You recently interviewed multiple journalists who reflected on the last incursion and said it was “different this time.” But the war on Gaza is reoccurring. So, what made it different?

MH: Because I witnessed [the wars of] 2008, 2012, and 2014, I know what war means. This war was personal. Mohammed, there are streets that I swear I don’t recognize. Towers that I worked in are completely gone, Al-Jawhara tower, Al-Jalaa’ tower, are now memories. They bombed the places in Gaza that are considered safe—not on the border, in the center of the city, some of the most lively areas. I spent my honeymoon in one of those towers. I used to return to that tower to experience a certain feeling. This feeling, Israel killed it. It tries to kill Palestinian memory altogether.

MK: Where are we going? I’m not asking about Gaza’s future but Palestine’s future, because we tend to separate Gaza from Palestine. As a Gazan, where do you see the future of Palestine? Where are we headed? Or, instead, where should we go?

MH: For us, even if the image ahead is blurry, the future is Palestine. The future is return. And the future of Palestine is the end of Israeli occupation. This is what I see coming, despite the difficulty of the situation. On the contrary, it brings us hope. I preferred not to stay in Doha, even though I had the opportunity. I returned to Gaza because Gaza looks like me and it’s more deserving of my efforts.

The future is Palestine because Gaza is a part of Palestine. The most beautiful thing that happened during this past war, and maybe the only beautiful thing, was that Gaza rose up for Jerusalem. The blood, destruction, tears, and pain were incredibly costly. But, still, the best thing that happened, the most beautiful thing that happened, is that Gaza rose up for Jerusalem.

Mohammed al-Kurd is the Palestine correspondent for The Nation; he writes primarily about dispossession in Jerusalem and colonization in Palestine; his debut book is a volume of poetry, Rifqa (Haymarket Books)