Remembering the ‘father figure’ of journalism in Gaza

January 17, 2024
Bilal Jadallah speaks at a Press House event in August 2018. (Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

On the afternoon of October 7, Bilal Jadallah stood inside the offices of Press House, the media center he had founded in the Gaza Strip, as journalists came to pick up free flak jackets and helmets.

Earlier that day, Hamas militants had stormed into southern Israel in a surprise attack, brutally killing hundreds of civilians. The Israeli government was promising swift and decisive retribution.

For many years, Jadallah, who was forty-five years old, had been the face of independent journalism in Gaza. For local reporters, the whitewashed two-story structure that served as the Press House offices, situated on Al Shuhadaa Street in the center of Gaza City, was a kind of sanctuary, especially in times of war. It had reliable electricity and internet and, somehow, always seemed to be insulated from the conflict raging outside. 

It was also the first stop for many foreign reporters visiting the Strip—a place they could use as a base of operations, where they might hire a local fixer or translator. A steady stream of Western diplomats came too.

“Bilal’s thinking was to bring together all journalists, regardless of their politics or their ideology,” said Seba Jaafarawi, a journalist and social media activist from Gaza who met Jadallah when she was just starting her career.

As the Israeli bombardment began, journalists huddled around tables and plastic lawn chairs in the building’s leafy courtyard, their laptops and cameras and flak jackets covering every available surface of its conference rooms. The familiar sense of safety pervaded.

But on October 9, two days into the conflict, an air strike hit the Palestine Telecommunications Company building nearby. Shrapnel damaged the Press House offices. Jadallah closed the offices, for the first time, and told everyone to leave. He dispatched his wife and four children to the south, where he thought they’d be safer.

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Jadallah stayed in Gaza City, to help distribute aid to displaced families. Reporters were being killed at a heartbreaking rate—nearly thirty by the end of October. On the streets outside, a somber ritual took shape, as journalists carried the bodies of their colleagues in funeral processions, while dressed in protective gear emblazoned with the Press House logo.

Then, on November 6, an air strike killed one of Press House’s employees, its fundraising adviser, Muhammad Al Jaja, along with his wife and two daughters. A week later, another strike killed Ahmed Fatima, a cameraman for the Egyptian network Al Qahera News TV, who also worked at Press House, as he covered the Israeli military push to take Al Shifa Hospital.

According to a friend, Jadallah called Fatima’s widow and offered to help the family with their finances. But it was becoming clear that he could not remain in the area much longer. 

A week later, Jadallah phoned his own family to say that he was leaving to join them in the south. He got into a car with his brother-in-law, and began driving down Salah Al Deen Street, the main north-south highway in the Strip. Before they could make it out of the city center, an Israeli tank shell hit the car, killing Jadallah. 

“We cannot believe that he is gone,” Jaafarawi said.

Jadallah founded Press House in 2013 out of a desire to create a home for truly independent journalism in Gaza. 

In the years after the Arab Spring, Hamas, which has ruled the Strip since 2006, cracked down on signs of discontent. Life became especially difficult for civil society groups and journalists. Political tensions between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian party that controls the West Bank, made things worse, as reporters were viewed through their perceived allegiance to one faction or the other. For a journalist with the wrong kind of association, it was hard to obtain media credentials or even to cover a press conference. Jadallah wanted to break through that impasse.

He came from a family steeped in journalism—several relatives currently work at Reuters, and his brother Ali Jadallah is a prominent photographer for Anadolu Agency—and he studied it in school. But he wanted to do more than just become another reporter. Despite the dangers of working as a journalist in Gaza, there has always been tremendous interest in the trade. Universities in the Strip steadily churn out new journalism graduates every year. Finding steady work has proved much harder. 

Jadallah believed that with an independent space to train and foster journalists, he could build up a proper, professional media landscape in Gaza. Eventually, he told a local television channel in 2014, these journalists would help improve Palestinian society overall. “We hope for Press House to be a forum for all media figures, opinion makers, and writers, so that they are all in one place, listening to each other and exchanging ideas,” he said. “There will be no politics in this—Press House is open for all.”

Soon, Press House was buzzing with activity. It hosted journalists and diplomats from near and far. It held a regular series of training courses, funded by European governments, that were open to all, including those without any background in media. In 2014, Jadallah helped launch an in-house news agency, Sawa, which offered an accessible way for those just starting out in journalism to get hands-on experience.

Jaafarawi was a fresh university graduate when she first arrived at Press House, in 2013. She went on to work for four years as an editor for Sawa. “It was like my second home,” she said. “I started as a volunteer there but ended up working for pay, and got the opportunity to be successful.”

She also introduced Jadallah to Ahmed Fatima, the cameraman killed in November, who was drawn to the atmosphere at Press House. “He was making tea and coffee, and cleaning, greeting people in Bilal’s office,” Jaafarawi recalled. Being around journalists made Fatima decide to take up the profession himself. “After that Ahmed took free journalism courses in Press House, and he became a real journalist.” 

In the conservative Gaza Strip, where it wasn’t common for men and women to work in the same establishments, Jadallah played matchmaker, too: when Fatima caught the eye of another journalist at Press House, Jadallah helped introduce them. The pair eventually got married, one of several unions between journalists that Jadallah fostered.  

“Ahmed is just one of hundreds of youngsters that Bilal helped,” Jaafarawi said. “He was giving space to anyone…he was saying if you want internet, if you want space to work, come to Press House, it’s free and it’s open to you, regardless of your position. Instead of just focusing on the big journalists, Bilal was focusing on new journalists, on freelancers, on university graduates.”

“There was really nothing else like it in Gaza,” said Abeer Ayyoub, a Gaza-born journalist who now writes for the Wall Street Journal. After graduating from a local university, Ayyoub looked to Jadallah for guidance and networking. Jadallah helped local journalists access diplomats to ask questions, and in time became a conduit for international journalists looking for fixers. “We would go and talk to Bilal, ask him [his] advice; he would make some calls to officials to get us some permits to go and film,” Ayyoub said. 

The Egyptian American journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous met Jadallah in 2014, when Kouddous went to Gaza to cover the war there. Crossing into Gaza through Erez, Kouddous had to get clearance not only from Israeli authorities, but also from Palestinian authorities in Gaza. Jadallah met him on the Palestinian side of the crossing, took him to Press House, and set him to work with a local journalist. 

“The center itself was just this…energetic place of activity, and Bilal was just incredibly helpful,” Kouddous said. “He struck me as this father figure to so many of them, who would ask him for advice, or if a foreign correspondent had asked to follow up on a story and they couldn’t, they didn’t know how to do it, they would go to him, and he would recommend who to talk to.”

At least seventy-six journalists have been killed in Gaza as of publication, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, one of several groups attempting to tally the deaths. The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate puts the number at more than one hundred twelve—around 10 percent of the working media professionals in the Strip, according to Shuruq As‘ad, a West Bank–based journalist and spokesperson for the Syndicate.

Journalistic infrastructure is also being destroyed. All twenty-six radio stations in Gaza have been knocked off the air, and at least sixty-six media offices—including those used by Agence France-Presse and Reuters—have been left unusable by Israeli attacks, according to As‘ad. Journalists whose own homes have been hit have been forced not only to look for food and shelter for themselves, but also to scavenge for electricity to charge phones and cameras and internet access to file reports—services they previously might have found at Press House. 

“They are even now very afraid to go to any family’s home or friend’s home, because they don’t want to be a reason for shelling anybody,” As‘ad said. “They feel that Israel is targeting them, and they don’t really understand what their category [as civilians or combatants in the war] is anymore.”

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told CJR in a statement that Israel “has never, and will never, deliberately target journalists.” But in late October, the IDF also told Reuters and AFP that it could not guarantee the safety of their journalists in Gaza during the war.

A few months before his death, Jadallah did some work on this very issue. He played an instrumental role in a report, released last May by the Committee to Protect Journalists, on Israel’s role in the deaths of journalists in Gaza and the Palestinian territories. The report documented the killings of twenty journalists over twenty-two years, including thirteen in the Strip, and concluded that no Israeli had been held accountable for any of them.

Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, said that while there’s no evidence that Jadallah was specifically targeted, the circumstances of his death  merit further inquiry. “We have seen credible culpability on the IDF’s part, and that’s why we called for an independent and international investigation into the case,” Mansour said.

But either way, the journalism community in Gaza will have to carry on without him. “He was unique when it came to serving journalists,” Jaafarawi said. “His dream was to open Press House, and he opened it. His dream was to make it successful for all journalists, and it was.”

Umar Farooq is a journalist who has worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, Al Jazeera English, and the Los Angeles Times, reporting from the Middle East and South and Central Asia.