In April 2002, the late founding editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, Hosny Guindy, agreed to a request I made as regional reporter to travel to Ramallah, Palestine to cover intensive Israeli raids against Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank. This was following a series of suicide bomb attacks in Israeli cities. With the late right-wing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in office at the time, he had also decided to besiege the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat in his office, preventing him from travelling to Lebanon to attend an Arab summit.
Arafat spoke to Arab leaders via satellite, and the entire scene was awkward as reporters stood in front of a huge TV screen in his headquarters, known in Arabic as Al-Muqata, to follow the speech. In that summit, Arab leaders adopted a Saudi plan that stipulated, for the first time, that Arab countries were ready to normalise ties with Israel in return for handing Palestinians occupied territories including East Jerusalem, to build their own state. The formula was “land for peace.” In 2022, several Arab governments are normalising relations with Israel to unprecedented levels in return for nothing, and the formula became “peace for peace,” as Israel has always insisted.
One day before I was supposed to leave Ramallah back to Egypt, a Palestinian blew himself up at an Israeli hotel, killing 22 people. It only took a few hours for Israeli jet fighters, tanks and helicopters to invade and occupy Ramallah, where I was staying at a hotel on the outskirts of that beautiful, small city.
I had covered wars before, in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Ramallah was very different. In those wars, I would perhaps see a cruise missile heading towards an unknown destination. Later, as reporters, we would find out that a ministry, an arms depot or even a refugee camp where civilians were hiding was hit. We would later go there to cover the destruction, but death was never close to me personally.
From my hotel window in Ramallah, I would slowly and very carefully move the curtain to see what was going on outside. There were Israeli snipers in the streets shooting everywhere. Until that time, I had never used the cliché “raining bullets”. But it was raining bullets. Then, I would see a huge tank, climbing over cars parked on the sides of the street. The tank would go back and forth on each car several times until it levelled it to the ground. Why are they destroying cars this way? The Israeli soldiers were shooting at water pipes, traffic lights, street lights, billboards and shutters of shops in deserted streets.
Later, an Israeli officer came into the hotel where I was staying with nearly two dozen reporters from all over the world, but mostly from the US and Europe. He handed over a note by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank announcing that a 24-hour curfew would be imposed on Ramallah, going into effect immediately. He added that this was our last chance to leave, or we would be locked into the hotel like all Ramallah residents – including Arafat, of course.
Most reporters left the hotel, but a few decided to stay. As night was approaching, we saw the hotel’s main door open and a few people come in. It was AlJazeera Arabic’s television crew led by my late friend and colleague, the martyred Shireen Abu Akleh. Since it was first launched in 1996, AlJazeera was extremely popular in Arab countries as it broke the taboo on many topics that state-owned televisions had never dared discuss. However, another reason for its skyrocketing popularity was its coverage of Palestine, especially during the second Al-Aqsa intifada in 2000 after Sharon raided Al-Aqsa Mosque, protected by Israeli army soldiers.
Since 1997, when Abu Akleh first joined AlJazeera, she became synonymous with Palestine. For me, she was the sound of Palestine, bravely reporting stories and providing pictures which not just Arabs but the entire world had never seen before. Considering that part of any war is who controls the narrative and the image, European and American viewers took for granted Israel’s claim on how it was a “democratic oasis” surrounded by barbaric Arabs who wanted to terminate its existence.
Yet, because of Abu Akleh’s reporting and her risking her life daily, pictures spread all over the world of Israeli soldiers breaking the bones of Palestinian children, humiliating them at check points, daily incidents of arbitrary killings by occupation troops, destruction of their homes, as well as close coverage of wars against Gaza in which thousands of tonnes of bombs were dropped on innocent civilians.
I was very happy to see Abu Akleh in person for the first time. I went to greet her with a big smile, saying that, like most Egyptians, I appreciated and loved her work, and the information she provided. After one or two days, I finally had the courage to tell Shireen what I truly felt every time I saw her on TV. Reporters evaluating each other’s work is not a friendly topic of conversation.
However, I told her, “Shireen, I love your reporting, but why do you have to look so sad every time you appear on television to do your closing comment [stand-upper] in a report, or in a live interview?” The reason I asked was that, after seeing her for a couple of days, I was surprised to find out that she had a beautiful smile and a great sense of humour.
“How can you want me to smile, Khaled?” she replied. “I report nothing out of here except death and destruction every day.” There was nothing I could say. Two weeks after arriving in Ramallah, I had seen nothing but dead bodies and torn-down buildings.
My beard grew longer than ever after I stopped shaving for two weeks, and I looked horrible with little sleep for days as the Israeli shelling had been going on day and night. However, Shireen came to me asking for an interview for a report on our conditions as reporters under siege. “You look like a prisoner with this beard. And sure you will give me a good interview?”