‘Shut down news’: Palestinian journalists on the front line

Journalist Zeina Halawani leaving the notorious Maskubieh police station in the Russian compound in occupied East Jerusalem (Al-Jazeera)

Al-Jazeera  /  June 2, 2021

Reporters Without Borders says 13 Palestinian journalists are currently being held in Israeli facilities.

Occupied East Jerusalem – More than a dozen Palestinian journalists were recently arrested by Israeli authorities after attempting to report the news under often “extremely stressful and dangerous” conditions.

Two Palestinians – journalist Zeina Halawani and cameraman Wahbe Mikkieh – were released late Monday to house arrest after being detained by Israeli security forces last week in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

They were trying to cover protests over the pending expulsion of Palestinians from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers.

After five days in jail, the judge at Jerusalem’s Central Court released them on bail of 4,000 shekels ($1,230) each and ordered them to be under house arrest for a month, forbidding them from communicating with each other for 15 days.

“The police accused the two of assault, obstructing police work, and of making threats,” their lawyer Jad Qadamani told Al-Jazeera.

However, video footage of the day’s events and their arrest was shown to the judge that contradicted police evidence.

“The police wanted to keep them locked up for further investigation but they lacked sufficient evidence,” said Qadamani.

“However, the file on them has not been closed either, but I believe there is no case for the district attorney to press charges.”

Mikkieh told Al-Jazeera the message the Israeli police was trying to send was meant to frighten journalists.

“The occupation forces claimed that I tried to obstruct the arrest of my colleague Zeina and that I assaulted the occupation army. That did not happen,” said Mikkieh, who was hit on the head with the butt of a gun causing him to bleed, describing the five days in prison as the hardest in his life.

Halawani said she was accused of assault, raising the Palestinian flag, and inciting young men to attack police.

“None of that is true. I have bruises on my body where I was beaten by two policewomen,” she told Al-Jazeera as she described the terrible conditions in prison where she could hear children crying through the night.

Despite their ordeal, both journalists remained defiant with Halawani vowing to continue “publishing the truth and facing the occupation”.

While their experience was traumatic they got out with only minor injuries.

Rajai al-Khatib, a Palestinian journalist who works for Jordanian and Italian TV and has been covering the news in Jerusalem for many years, said he has lost count of the number of times he was attacked by Israeli forces.

“I’ve been injured many times in the past, but over the last month during coverage of the pending expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, and the invasions of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the behaviour and attitude of the Israeli forces has deteriorated,” he said.

“My leg was broken by a rubber bullet near Jerusalem’s Old City several weeks ago and I had to go to hospital.

“On another occasion, my camera was smashed and I was also beaten from behind by Israeli police while in Sheikh Jarrah.

“The police are getting personal and their actions seem like retaliation against journalists for the negative media coverage they are receiving internationally,” Al-Khatib told Al-Jazeera.

‘Extremely stressful’

Many Palestinian journalists, holding various media cards, have been blocked from entering Sheikh Jarrah by Israeli police claiming they require an Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) card, but Al-Khatib said his GPO card failed to protect him.

“Being a journalist here is extremely stressful and also dangerous and my family worry about me constantly.”

Reporters Without Borders reported on May 28 that 13 Palestinian journalists were being held in Israeli “administrative detention”, or detention without trial.

Al-Jazeera’s Alaa al-Rimawi, 43, was arrested by Israeli soldiers in Ramallah in April. He subsequently went on a hunger strike resulting in his administrative detention being shortened from three months to 45 days.

On May 21, an Israeli judge ordered an 11-day extension to the administrative detention of another Palestinian journalist, Al Ghad TV cameraman Hazem Nasser, who was arrested at an Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to the occupied West Bank town of Tulkarem, on his way back from filming a crackdown by Israeli soldiers on Palestinian protesters in Nablus, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported.

Israel ranked 86 out of 180 countries, according to CPJ’s World Press Freedom Index for 2021, which accused the Israeli authorities of “hounding Palestinian reporters”.

“Israeli authorities must cease arresting and attacking journalists, who play a vital role reporting the news and bringing clarity amid chaos,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado.

Palestinian journalists face an uphill battle reporting from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

During the year 2020, the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) monitored and documented 408 violations of the media in the occupied West Bank – including East Jerusalem – and the Gaza Strip.

MADA reported that “215 violations were committed by the Israeli authorities while various Palestinian authorities committed a total of 96 violations in the West Bank and Gaza”.

‘Shut down news coverage’

Dozens of Palestinian activists have also been rounded up by Palestinian intelligence over the last few weeks in the West Bank over their criticism of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

“Several websites regarded by the PA as opposition media have been inaccessible since 2017,” said CPJ.

CPJ’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index ranked the PA at 132 on the world freedom scale.

However, the most egregious violations against the media were committed during Israel’s recent assault on Gaza after rockets were fired from the coastal territory on Israel, which in turn followed violent events in  East Jerusalem.

Palestinian journalist Yousef Abu Hussein in Gaza was killed when his home was bombed by the Israelis.

A separate Israeli air raid also wounded at least two Palestinian journalists working for the Turkish Anadolu news agency.

CPJ said at least 18 local and international media outlets in Gaza City, including Al-Jazeera and The Associated Press, were bombed during Israeli military attacks.

Israeli officials have said the Al Jazeera and AP office building had been infiltrated by Hamas members, but have yet to provide evidence to back the allegation.

“In less than a week, Israel bombed the offices of at least 18 media outlets, and it’s difficult to reach any conclusion other than that the Israeli military wants to shut down news coverage of the suffering in Gaza,” said Delgado.

SOURCE: AL-JAZEERA