On February 14 in the Gaza Strip, Hamas arrested Paul Martin, a British documentary filmmaker, on suspicions that Martin had “committed offenses against Palestinian law… that harms the security of the country.” Martin was about to testify on behalf of a Palestinian militant who had been accused of collaborating with Israel.
Martin’s arrest and continued detention has raised new concerns about the safety and freedom of foreign journalists working in Gaza. In recent years, these journalists have contended with unusual pressures, including meddling from Hamas security forces, Israeli prohibitions on their entry into Gaza and the danger of getting caught in the crossfire between opposing sides.
Hamas generally does not aggressively interfere with the press—a policy that some analysts see as an effort to improve its reputation in the West. After Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, it helped secure the release of Alan Johnson, a British journalist kidnapped and held for 114 days by a militant group called the Army of Islam.
“[Hamas] has never done anything to me directly,” said Erin Cunningham, who has reported from Gaza for multiple American publications. “If I’m out with my camera, they want to know who I am, where I’m from, why I’m shooting, but normally it works out….[By arresting Paul Martin], I think Hamas has crossed a line that presents a danger for the journalists working here.”
Some journalists report that Hamas operatives have followed and intimidated them, out of alleged security concerns. Egypt-based reporter Jon Jensen said in a video he produced for Daily News Egypt that he initially enjoyed great freedom of movement in Gaza on a recent visit. However, after his colleague took an innocuous photograph outside a destroyed Hamas prison, they were trailed by Hamas officials and denied access to smuggling tunnels that journalists are typically allowed to visit.
“All because of one poorly framed, out-of-focus picture,” Jensen commented in the video.
In the past, other factors have made reporting from Gaza a challenging assignment. After the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began to disintegrate on November 5, 2008, Israel tightened restrictions on journalists’ entry into Gaza. When the bombing campaign against Hamas militants commenced on December 27, Israel completely blocked journalists’ access to Gaza.
“It was so pathetic,” Catrin Ormestad, a Swedish reporter, recalled. “Lots of reporters were standing on the hill [in Sderot] looking there while the Israelis were bombing. It was very frustrating not to have access. On the other hand, it was dangerous to be there.”
The Foreign Press Association of Israel said in a statement at the time that Israel’s prohibitions “put the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs.” Israeli government officials responded that journalists were affected by a broader security decision to close the border and that Gaza was being covered sufficiently by reporters who were already there.
The twenty-two-day war, which ultimately claimed the lives of an estimated 1,400 Gazans and thirteen Israelis, was covered from within Gaza mainly by Palestinian journalists and Western reporters who arrived before Israel blocked their entry. Cunningham was among the few who gained entry to Gaza on January 15, 2009, when Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing to journalists. This was three days before the end of the war.
“There was nowhere that was safe [from Israeli bombs],” she said. “It didn’t matter where we went. We finally went to the hospital at Khan Younis, and, on the last day of the war, they bombed literally right outside of the hospital compound.”
After the ceasefire was declared, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Foreign Press Association’s demands, and journalists were once again allowed into Gaza. More than a year later, many journalists say that they feel surprisingly safe in Gaza. When Ormestad visited Gaza last month, few security forces were out in the streets and she noticed “a sense of calm, of quiet.”
Journalists from major news organizations can now travel freely between Gaza and Israel with identification cards issued by Israel’s Government Press Office. The application process for these cards can take up to three months. Without these press cards, entry is difficult; tourists and casual visitors are not allowed into Gaza from the Israeli or the Egyptian sides.
Unaffiliated journalists have been creative in their efforts to enter Gaza. Some have tried their luck entering as volunteers of humanitarian organizations. More daring freelancers have attempted negotiating a special entry permission at the Rafah crossing, or paid smugglers to take them into Gaza through illegal tunnels.