GAZA CITY, Gaza – The targeting of local journalists in Gaza has been seen as the Israeli government’s latest attempt at preventing the broadcasting of what many Palestinians consider to be the achievements of their resistance against Israeli aggression.
On Tuesday, Israeli airstrikes killed three Palestinian journalists. Mohammad al-Koumi and Houssam Salam, both cameramen for al-Aqsa television, were hit while traveling in a car clearly marked as belonging to the broadcast media, according to the station. Mohammad Abu Aisha, a journalist with al-Quds Educational Radio, was also killed later that day, when an airstrike hit his car.
The official Israeli response to these killings said initial investigations demonstrated that the three people who were killed were “Hamas operatives”.
The Israeli government sees these two channels as affiliates of Hamas, and therefore considers the journalists who work for them to be legitimate targets for attacks.
Mark Regev, a spokesperson for the Israeli government, told Al Jazeera that “[Israel] does not target journalists. We target Hamas”. He said that Israel targeted sites that were being used by Hamas for communications purposes in “surgical strikes”, that did not kill any journalists.
The Israeli military, meanwhile, says that it has not targeted journalists, but “Hamas operatives” and “command and control” centres. Of an attack on a media building on Tuesday, the military said: “The Hamas terrorists weren’t in the media building to be interviewed. They were there to communicate with field operatives and plan attacks.”
The military also issued a “warning” to reporters in Gaza, telling them that they should avoid any contact with Hamas representatives.
‘The voice of the people’
Mohammad Thouraya, head of the al-Aqsa television channel, disagreed with the Israeli statement, saying “we are not the voice of Hamas. We are the voice of the Palestinian people, the voice of the resistance”.
Despite the threat of being targeted, Thouraya met with Al Jazeera to explain the role al-Aqsa plays in Gaza, and the precautions employees take as a result of Israeli attacks.
“For us, the most important message is the Palestinian cause, and we want everyone to be aware of what is happening to our people,” he said.
“This is not the first time [Israel] has targeted us. They came after us in the 2008 attacks,” he said. As a result, al-Aqsa has learned how to move around to unknown locations and still remain on air.
“Now no-one knows where we are, but we have alternative places,” he said.
“We do not use mobile phones. Rather, we try to communicate face to face,” he said, adding that the channel’s employees tend to move around in small cars, which they switch constantly, and information on movements between them is kept to a minimum.
“However, this does not prevent Israel from targeting us.”
As for his staff, which consists of 290 employees, they are well aware of the role they have taken on by working for such a network, he says.
“Like there are other fighters, we are media fighters,” Thouraya said. “We know we are targeted, but Israel’s propaganda and attacks will not take this away from the message we are trying to put out there. We want to make sure the rest of the world knows what Israel is doing to our people.
“Look, we are part of these people here in Gaza. We are all part of the resistance,” he said.
The channel’s chief added that the attacks specifically targeting them only serve to make them stronger.
“We try to make sure the Palestinian people stay strong, the resistance is strong, and we show them we are winning. We want to make them resilient,” he said.
Shortly after the attacks on the journalists, Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said: “We are alarmed by the mounting toll on journalists in Gaza . . . Israeli airstrikes continue to put journalists in harm’s way.”
“This reflects the risks journalists face while reporting on conflict, especially in such a densely populated area.”
For Thouraya, it is crucial the rest of world sees that, as journalists, they are being targeted.
“The international community defends the right of journalists elsewhere in the world,” he said. “We need the media, and human rights organisations to see what is happening to journalists here under Israel.”
‘My weapon is my pen’
Khader al-Zahhar, 20, a cameraman for al-Quds TV, was taking a nap in the channel’s office on the 11th floor early on Sunday morning when an Israeli missile smashed through the roof and blew his leg off.
Khaled al-Nono, a producer for the same channel, felt the explosion and rushed up several flights of stairs to find his friend and colleague bleeding profusely.
As he arrived, another missile hit the same office, entering through one of the windows. At least six other journalists were also wounded.
“I didn’t stop to think about my own security, my only thought was to help them,” he said, adding that a third rocket followed soon after, as he and others carried the wounded down the flights of stairs. A reported total of six missiles were said to have hit this particular office.
Despite being considered a target for the Israeli military, Nono refuses to quit his job, saying “I am committed to Palestinian cause, to this message, and this is why I am here. I feel through our work in media we can get the message about the cause out to the rest of the world.”
Imad al-Franji, head of al-Quds TV, told Al Jazeera the journalists who work for the network are forced to become war journalists “because of the abnormal situation we face in Gaza”.
Yet unlike other war correspondents, his team of journalists are forced to make their own security arrangements, as they are prevented from bringing in any equipment from outside. “We have to make home-made bullet proof vests, home-made protection for our cars, and ensuring we always have the necessary back up of gasoline to keep running on air,” he said, adding that between 50 employees, there are only two flak jackets available.
“I imagine the facts and pictures we broadcast do not please the Israelis,” he said. “But this is how I fight; my weapon is my pen, my words, and my camera.”
A father of 10, Franji explains that every morning he says goodbye to his children, “as if it is the last time”.
“Our work is transparent, and the message we are carrying makes me come to work,” he said, adding that the media is one of the main drivers behind the Palestinian cause.
“Of course we are afraid, like any other human being, but the most important thing is not to let this fear control you and control your work.”