INTERVIEW: The heartbreak of being a Palestinian and a Journalist

Fatemah Farag , Saturday 11 Nov 2023

Shuruq Al-Assad, Palestinian Journalists Syndicate spokesperson and council member and Monte Carlo correspondent speaks about life and journalism under Israeli occupation.

Shuruq Al-Assad
File Photo: Shuruq Al-Assad during a TV entry. Snapshot from Youtube

 

Fatemah Farag interviewed Al-Assad for Ahram Online.

We switch on our screens to see each other. She is pale; hair in a dishevelled halo of distress. “Sorry – I am just so stressed,” she begins. Guilt rips through me as I sit in my office – so close to where all the killing is happening and yet so removed. She tells me of the loss. The line cracks with static and pain.  

It seems Shuruq and I are often commiserating over loss. The last time we spoke was when she was burying her friend and colleague Shirien Abu Akleh, a journalist who was killed by the Israeli military while doing her job a little over a year ago.

The killing of Shirien is a crime that has been verified by the international community and for which no one has been held accountable in Israel. Shuruq is desperate to get aid into Gaza to help journalists.

 “We need basic food supplies, some basic sanitary supplies. For them; for their families. Women journalists are separating their kids in an attempt not to lose them all. They need a place of refuge. We don’t know how many will make it till tomorrow but we need to support them as best we can now.”

The issue is not just a humanitarian one. The journalists on the ground in Gaza have been the world’s source of information. And in spite of the carpet bombing, the communication black out, and the personal losses and inhumane living conditions, they continue to try and do their job and report on what is unfolding as a deliberate annihilation of their – our – people.

Ahram Online: What has the last month brought you in terms of personal loss?

Al-Assad: I personally lost 45 family members – most of them women and children. Some were bombed in their homes and some while in their cars trying to go from the north to the south. The last 22 family members that died could not be reached by the ambulances trying to get to them as Israel bombs everything on the road near the sea, including ambulances. For days, information trickled in: we found this body under the rubble and now that one.

We have all lost a lot. It is even hard to count them all due to lack of internet connection and electricity, and because unfortunately and sadly there are still thousands under the ruins. Rescuers are working with their bare hands and very primitive tools, and it is very hard to help people when there is no fuel or basic supplies.

AO: And the losses of Palestinian journalists?

A: We have lost 48 of our colleagues to date. All of them are journalists but ten of them were working in offices, including editors and sound technicians. Three of them were women journalists; two of them were killed with their children. More than 45 journalists have been injured. Tens of our colleagues have lost their families to Israeli bombs, and there are those who have lost their homes either totally or partially. Sixty media organization offices have been bombed by Israeli planes. All targeted in our opinion. This includes AFP, Reuters, some Arab satellite channels, and local outlets.

Almost all of our colleagues – we have 1200 Palestinian journalists inside Gaza – are deployed because of the bombs to alternative places. Some are working in hospitals, some in UNRWA schools, some had to leave to the South, which is also dangerous as it is also being bombed by Israel.

Journalists working from places such as Khan Younis, Deir El Balah, and Rafah have to cope with lack of electricity, water, food, or internet connection. And when they can get a connection it is very poor. We have two journalists missing and we tried to get information on them via the Red Cross, but Israel refuses to respond. Yeah. Those are the casualties.

The losses of my colleagues are heart breaking because they were doing their job and for that they have lost lives, loved ones, and homes. To see them mourn their families, their children, wives, mothers, and neighbors is terrible. Almost ten journalists are killed every week now. This is intense.

AO: People say the West Bank is fine – the problem is Hamas in Gaza. As a citizen of the West Bank what is the reality of life under occupation?

A: The West Bank is not better even though the dramatic and critical situation is now inside Gaza. As journalists, we are not seeing this for the first time. [Israeli violence] did not start on 7 October 2023. Palestinian journalists have been targeted by Israel for decades. From 2000 to 7 October 2023, we have lost 55 Palestinian journalists. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS) has registered 80 attacks against journalists in the West Bank by either the Israeli army or armed settlers. And now there are more calls to give settlers more arms to attack Palestinians, including journalists.

The West Bank is surrounded by more than 330 military check points. This means that each city has three or more military check points in addition to the wall besides Israeli settlements. These check points have been totally closed since 7 October. It was always hard to move but now it is additionally so. Israel also used cement blocks to close in several villages and refugee camps.

Our cities, towns, and villages have always suffered disconnection under occupation. We can spend hours in a check point to get to someplace which is just a few minutes away. Israeli checkpoints have always been dangerous because they insult us, make us get out of cars, sometimes ruin equipment. The Israelis have arrested over 22 of our colleagues over the past years. And in each case they give no reasons for the arrests.

Journalists languish in administrative detention with no explanation or hope for release in sight. When we are covering events in the West Bank, we [journalists] tend to move in groups with our safety gear, our helmets, our TV stickers, and yet we are targeted with tear gas, rubber bullets and sometimes live bullets. We can’t enter Gaza even though we have the right to. We even fail to reach many places in the West Bank. Some of our offices have been invaded by soldiers. Most of our journalists can’t enter Jerusalem for work. There is no protection for any of us. We have also documented over 1000 incidents of cybercrimes against journalists in which accounts and websites were shut down.

Therefore, the issue is not Hamas. The issue is the occupation and Palestinians are under occupation in both the West Bank and Gaza. This is a brutal occupation where every detail of our lives is in the hands of Israel. For us, what is happening in Gaza is genocide and we expect the same in the West Bank. I was in Nablus trying to get to Jenin, which was being bombed by Israeli planes, and Israeli settlers were giving out papers to Palestinians threatening them with the use of force if they do not leave voluntarily. This is a very clear message to us.

AO: How would you describe being a journalist in a country under Israeli occupation?

A: To be a journalist under occupation means you are a target. It means you are not protected. We function under military law without any support, without any safety. No place is safe. Most of the journalists arrested by Israel are imprisoned only because they told the stories of this life.
Every minute I face the threat of losing my life, my loved ones, my home. I fight for my family to stay safe in Jerusalem or Ramallah and not to be deported. I fight for them to get medical care. You can be insulted at any time; a soldier can enter your office at any time. Your family will not be safe. We are working in a very dangerous environment where the only law is the law of occupation.

AO: As you follow Western media coverage of Gaza – how much of your reality is actually coming through the coverage?

A: Following the Western media in the first week made me very angry. They were taking the whole story – including all of the lies – from Israel. Some have backtracked and apologized. But for us the syndicate and for me as a journalist this is not acceptable. They should be held responsible because words are like bullets. There is such a thing as incitement. And they participated [in the violence] and are partners in the killing [of Palestinians].

Stories inside Gaza go un-reported. Over 4000 children killed – in terms of US population numbers that is 500,000 children. Some just weeks old. Recently some Western media have been reaching out. But I think the gesture falls below the mark considering all of the loss.

Western media does not seem to address Palestinians as human being. It is as if – for the most part – they see them all as militants or killers. This is very sad because I believe every human life is precious and should have the same right to live freely and safely, and everyone has the right to tell his or her story. Conflicts in other parts of the world have been covered very differently by western media. I did not see this [coverage/response] in Ukraine and so many other places.

AO: You work with international media development organizations – do you think the response so far has been adequate?

A: I do not think the response is as good as it should be. Lately we have started to see some outreach but even then, organizations seem afraid of even words. Some have even gone as far as to say: “you are terrorists” and this is very strange and unacceptable to me. And the same applies even to those who work with children, with journalists, and with women. I do not know why these organizations are still here if they don’t want to help people in this difficult situation. How can anyone give training on safety, for example, and when their participants are bombed they are afraid to even issue a press release or ask them if they need food or water, not to say exert pressure to change the situation in Gaza.

How can I believe them any more when they talk about freedom of speech, about diversity and inclusion or accepting the other and on justice and safety issues? This is really heartbreaking for me and genuinely shocking.

No one has the right to tell me – to teach me – as a human being under brutal occupation how to arrive at justice or how to help women or journalists. The [development community] should address the core issue: that this is occupation and everyone should be working to end it. Then perhaps we won’t need to spend so much on training and consultancy. What we need now is for the massacres to stop and the occupation to end.

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