On July 12, 35-year-old Palestinian freelance photographer Imad Abu Zahra died in a hospital a day after he was wounded by machine-gun fire in the West Bank town of Jenin. Abu Zahra and another Palestinian photographer were taking shots of an Israeli armored personnel carrier that had crashed into an electricity pole on Faisal Street, when a nearby Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tank gunner opened fire. A high-caliber round struck him in the thigh, causing severe blood loss that eventually killed him.
Abu Zahra was the third journalist and second photographer killed covering the Palestinian Intifada, which began in September 2000. Dozens more have been wounded by live gunfire and rubber bullets or bullied by hostile troops and gunmen while working the frontlines of an increasingly volatile conflict.
“Just about everyone now has an armored car and wears a bulletproof vest,” said one veteran U.S. newspaper reporter, who covered the first Intifada and asked that his name not be used. “In my opinion, if you’re not in an armored car you shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
For those reporting it from the ground in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the current Intifada is a different and more perilous conflict than its namesake predecessor (1987-1993). Both Israelis and Palestinians are armed, and the violence has moved away from localized protests to a low-intensity conflict replete with gunfire exchanges, bombings and large-scale military operations. The situation, where the rules of engagement can change daily, poses increasing risks for those seeking proximity to the action—cameramen, camera crews, photographers and stringers in particular.
“You can take all kinds of precautions, but if you roam even a little bit you can get in all kinds of trouble here,” said another Jerusalem-based journalist working with a Western news agency, speaking about the West Bank. “Palestinians can fire on your armored car or you can get hit by [Israeli] tank fire. We’ve experienced many types of cases.”
Journalists Under Fire
While both sides have harassed, restricted and endangered journalists during the past 22 months, the greatest risk to those in the field has come from IDF gunfire. Photographers, cameramen and camera crews have most frequently been in the line of fire. Between September 2000 and June 2001, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented 14 cases in which journalists were wounded by live rounds or rubber-coated steel bullets fired by Israeli troops (in two other cases, the source of the fire was unclear, though suspected to be from Israeli troops). Eleven of those 14 incidents involved photo-journalists injured covering the initial explosion of protests that took place during the first two months of the conflict. The actual number of journalist casualties during that time frame appeared to be far greater; the Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters Sans Frontières reported more than 40 such cases during roughly the same time.
While crossfire accounts for some of those casualties, circumstantial evidence suggests that in some cases Israeli forces may have deliberately targeted journalists or at least acted recklessly. Sometimes, journalists were shot in the legs, head, or even hands as they held cameras. In one case, a bullet hit a journalist’s camera lens. In many cases, reporters hit by gunfire were far removed from clashes and easily recognizable as journalists because of their conspicuous camera equipment or flak jackets marked “Press.” The IDF and government officials vehemently deny any suggestion that their troops have intentionally fired at journalists.
Injuries to journalists during this Intifada have tended to correspond with the intensity of conflict on the ground. Prior to March 2002, the greatest concentration of shootings, for example, took place in the initial months when protests were many and press interest was high. By late March 2002, when Israel launched its large-scale military operation in the West Bank in response to a string of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, an increasing number of journalists in the field faced an even more chaotic and unpredictable work environment. Journalists were increasingly working amidst the conflict and not only photojournalists were at risk.
Journalists and ‘Closed Military Areas’
During the initial days of Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF declared nearly all of the West Bank’s main cities “closed military areas” and therefore off limits to the press. Journalists who attempted to cover the story did so with great difficulty and were at risk of getting caught in the crossfire.
“I got into Ramallah,” said The Toronto Star’s Sandro Contenta, a Jerusalem-based correspondent for the last three-and-a-half years. “The question is, how do you do your job in a place that’s a closed military area, particularly when there’s shooting going on? Not all of us had armored cars. I didn’t. So we made convoys of cars. We were flashing our lights and honking our horns. It was very dangerous. At times you had to negotiate yourself through tanks.”
Some, like France 2’s veteran correspondent Charles Enderlin, maintain that barring the press access further jeopardizes the safety of reporters, forcing them to take more dangerous, alternate routes across orchards or dirt paths. “It is endangering lives of journalists,” he said. “Colleagues are trying to get into places by foot. They go in without armored cars, flak jackets, and escorts.”
An already tense situation was exacerbated by the IDF, which adopted a hard line against journalists attempting to defy the “closed military zones.” Throughout the six-week incursion, CPJ documented numerous instances in which troops fired on or in the direction of journalists clearly marked as press. Others were detained, threatened, or had their press credentials and film confiscated. In a case that drew widespread international media coverage, IDF troops hurled stun grenades and fired rubber bullets at reporters and camera crews waiting outside the besieged Ramallah compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Journalists said they had never witnessed such harsh treatment from the IDF, which many attributed to a growing hostility against the press that stemmed from a perception that Israel was getting unfair treatment in the media.
“It’s clear that the army was, to put it mildly, gratuitously shooting at journalists during the March/April invasion,” said the Star’s Contenta. “There is no doubt in my mind. Most journalists were clearly identified as press. I think the IDF has a lot to answer for and why they didn’t give clear instructions to soldiers not to shoot at journalists.”
In at least one case in mid-March, Palestinian gunmen fired on an Associated Press armored car in Ramallah. And in three others incidents during Operation Defensive Shield in which journalists were hurt by bullets, the source of gunfire was unclear. However, in two of them the journalists believed Israeli forces fired since they took place in areas under the army’s control.
One of the most troubling incidents occurred on April 1, when NBC News correspondent Dana Lewis and his two-person camera crew came under IDF fire in Ramallah at dusk while driving in an armored car that was clearly identified as a press vehicle. After an initial burst of gunfire hit the car, a lone IDF soldier opened fire with a second burst from a range of about 50 to 100 feet. The journalists then stopped the car, turned on an interior light to make themselves visible, and placed their hands on the windshield. After 15 to 20 seconds, the soldier fired a third burst, hitting the windshield. The NBC crew escaped by driving away in reverse.
For many correspondents, Operation Defensive Shield demonstrated the extent to which field reporting had changed since September 2000, when the main challenge was often navigating army checkpoints, negotiating with soldiers for passage, and avoiding fire-fights. “Here, the risks in the beginning were getting hit by a stray bullet at a demonstration. The other was being mistaken as a Jew and shot by [Palestinian] gunmen,” noted Tim Palmer, a Jerusalem correspondent for Australia’s ABC News television. “This year that changed.”
Risks Photojournalists and Others Take
The IDF’s behavior during Operation Defensive Shield aside, some journalists acknowledge that it is often their own actions that determine the level of risk they face. In a news story the magnitude of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, competition often pushes reporters to their limits and can sometimes lead to dangerous situations.
“The people at most risk are the still photographers,” says Palmer. “They’re under pressure to operate at risk for their livelihood, more so than others who don’t have to take risks. They carry what can be mistaken for a small arm and are under pressure to get the best shot.”
Neil MacDonald, the Jerusalem-based Middle East correspondent for Canada’s CBC-TV, is critical of many journalists who he says unnecessarily put themselves in danger. “Here you can assert a lot of control over your environment,” he said, while expressing his shock at a recent incident where he saw a Belgian photographer saunter down a street amid a firefight wearing only a white T-shirt and no flak jacket. “There are some people who exert idiotic control. I’ve seen all types of situations. Some of it’s idiocy, panic or bravado. Some is sheer stupidity.”
Several Western print correspondents privately confess that they would not have taken the risk that Italian freelance photographer Raffaele Ciriello did when he was tragically killed by Israeli tank fire in Ramallah in March. Ciriello, on assignment for the daily Corriere della Sera, had stepped from a building off an alleyway into the street to film an Israeli tank that had entered the street about 150 to 200 yards away when he was hit by several rounds from the tank’s gunner. There was at least one Palestinian gunman in his vicinity at the time of the shooting, and Ciriello and a colleague had been trailing several gunmen before the shooting.
“That same day I had debated for a whole day about whether to move from one building to the next in Ramallah,” one print reporter recalled of the tenuous situation on the ground in the city that day.
While acknowledging cases of journalists fired upon by IDF and the other inherent dangers of the conflict, some journalists try to put shooting incidents in perspective. “Neither side here shoots at journalists with reckless abandon,” said a news agency journalist. “Neither side is recklessly barbarian in this regard. I’m sure Yugoslavia and Afghanistan were more dangerous.” In those places you had people “actually seeking to kill you. Life there had become cheap,” he remarked.
Still, journalists take no comfort when they come under fire, especially when they take precautions. “If I get closer to a firefight, then I know I’m putting my life in danger,” said Sandro Contenta, speaking of cases in which the army opened fire at journalists. “I don’t expect anything from the IDF, but don’t shoot at me.” For some it is a command-and-control issue with the army failing to rein in such behavior of troops.
For Imad Abu Zahra, he was in a risky situation, but his colleagues say there was no excuse for anyone to open fire on him. Abu Zahra’s colleague Said Dahleh said that at the time of the incident both journalists were alone in the street, which had emptied shortly after the tanks entered the area. Both men were holding cameras, and Dahleh wore a flak jacket clearly marked “Press.”
An army spokesperson said that soldiers opened fire after a mob attacked the armored personnel carrier (APC) with Molotov cocktails and rocks, and people in the crowd fired on the tanks. Jenin residents said that people attacked the tanks only after the two journalists were shot and that they pelted the tanks only with pieces of fruit and not with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Photos of the stranded APC taken by Dahleh before the shooting show no signs of clashes or hostile actions near the APC.
Joel Campagna is program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists.