Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Army of journalists build on Gaza border

Most reporters have been prevented from entering Gaza

After 12 days of shelling, at least 700 Palestinians have died in the Gaza strip. Israel has suffered its own casualties, but the numbers barely make double figures. Seven Israeli soldiers have been killed and three civilians have died at the hands of Hamas.

There are diplomatic efforts to end the violence but with both Hamas and the Israeli Defence Force blaming each other for the renewed conflict it will be difficult to pull the two sides apart. Last night the United Nations gathered to discuss the deteriorating situation in the region and call for a ceasefire such that humanitarian aid could flow. Israel agreed to a three hour cessation of hostilities and some aid has made its way into Gaza city. However several convoys came perilously close to being hit by Israeli shells as they travelled along a road towards the city just prior to the ceasefire coming into effect [BBC / Sky News_ / CNN / al-Jazeera].

Missiles have also landed close to journalists attempting to cover the story. Yesterday a Sky News crew were just metres away from where a Hamas rocket landed. Most media organisations have only been able to report on the border between Israel and Gaza as Israel have prevented journalists entering the Palestinian territory. A growing army of journalists and television crews have gathered in a small spot allocated by the Israeli military. As such there are few pictures coming from Gaza itself. Iran’s Press TV and al-Jazeera both have crews in the city and the Ramattan News Agency has been providing an almost constant video feed overlooking the city which Western media has occasionally dipped into. Israeli military and Hamas have also made pictures available to the media but the view they represent is far from impartial.

Impartiality is not the only victim of the conflict. Several journalists and cameramen have reportedly been injured in the ongoing violence. According to Ramattan News Agency one cameraman had died and at least three others had sustained injuries during the bombardment. Basel Faraj a cameraman working for the Algerian TV died in an Egyptian hospital after being transferred from Gaza to Egypt last week. He had been injured on the 27th of December. Three other journalists were also injured at the same location that day. They were named as Mohammad At-tannani, a cameraman, Mohammad Madhi, a camera assistant, and Khaled Abu Shammalah, another cameraman who works for the Moroccan TV. The news agency said that several Palestinian journalists were also injured over the last two weeks, one of which was a Ramattan News Agency camera assistant Ihab Al shawwa.

On the other side of the border some journalists were also experiencing various problems. While some where becoming frustrated at trying to report from the border and being constantly moved around by the Israeli military, others were being arrested and detained. Reporters sans frontières has said that two journalists have been taken into detention by Israeli police. According to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, soldiers arrested Khodr Shahine, a correspondent of the Iranian TV station Al-Alam, and his assistant, Mohammed Sarhan. Both were arrested on Tuesday in Jerusalem where they are residents. They were taken to Petah Tiqva, near Tel Aviv, for interrogation and were brought before a military judge who ordered them held for another six days. According to RSF their lawyer was not able to visit them. The arrest of Shahine has only been reported by Press TV thus far. The Israeli army accused Shahine, named by Press TV as Khezir Shahin, of breaking a martial order about limited media coverage regarding the beginning of the Israel Ground Operation in Gaza.

But it is the civilian casualties that has been the focus of most western news organisations. Of the 700 Palestinians killed thus far, a third are said to be children. Three schools have been targeted in the last 24 hours, but Israel has dismissed allegations they deliberately targeted civilians saying they had information that Hamas were using the schools as bases. But John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for the UN Refugee and Works Agency, has denied any military activity at the UN run school which was struck on Tuesday leaving at least 40 dead and over 100 injured [BBC].

The targeting of the schools and the killing of so many civilians has prompted accusations that Israel has broken the rules of war. In particular some have said the 4th Geneva convention has been ignored. There have even been claims that the IDF have used weapons containing depleted uranium. The reports came from the Iranian news channel Press TV which said that fragments of the radioactive metal had been found in some of the victims treated at Gaza’s hospitals.

Speaking on al-Jazeera, Clare Short, Labour MP for Birmingham, dismissed Israeli suggestions that civilians should flee from Gaza and accused Israel of ignoring international law and of engaging in war crimes.

But most politicians have aired a far more moderate voice in the wake of all the killing. George Bush has blamed Hamas for the current crisis, but while the British have also criticised Hamas, they have called on both sides to stop the violence. David Miliband, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, who was attending a meeting at the UN last night said today, “Frankly the situation in Gaza is a crisis” and called for both sides to get around the negotiating table. But with Hamas not recognised by the United States and not being represented at the United Nations it was up to others to mediate a peace deal. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has helped draft a possible deal with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And last night there were attempts at the UN to broker a resolution for peace. But both Hamas and Israel are unlikely to accept the current proposals. In fact the issue became even more complex as al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri entered the frame calling Mubarak and US president elect Barack Obama traitors to Islam [ABC]. There is little affiliation in Gaza to al Qaeda, but the perceived injustice and disproportionate violence inflicted upon the Palestinians has become an issue which is beginning to group Islamic extremists together. Demonstrations have been seen across the world especially in Arab countries and the same rhetoric can be heard and seen. Shouts of “death to America” and even criticisms of their own Arab leaders are becoming louder and there are fears the anger may spawn terror attacks across the West. Even Britain‘s MI5 Director General Jonathan Evans has warned that the situation in the Middle East will do little to stamp out the terror threat saying “Gaza provides ideological ammunition” to terrorists. The threat may be even more deadly if Hamas obtain rockets with an even greater range than they currently possess.

This week The Times reported that Israel’s secretive nuclear facility at Dimona could be at risk if Hamas obtained long range missiles. Until recently, Hamas only possessed Qassam rockets with a range of around 10 km. But Hamas have now equipped themselves with Grad or Katusha rockets with a range of up to 40 km. Israeli towns such as Ashdod, Beer-Sheva and Yavneh that were once out of reach are now under continued attack. While Dimona remains well out of reach of such rockets if launched from Gaza, some parts of the West Bank are only 38 km from where it‘s believed Israel keeps its nuclear arsenal. Of course, the West Bank remains outside Hamas’s control, but there is the fear that even if Fatah does not ally itself with Hamas, the militants in Gaza may soon have Fajr-3 missiles in their arsenal increasing their strike range to 45 km. Not quite the 80 km needed to hit the Dimona reactor, but many Israelis believe it is only a matter of time before Hamas become equipped with something more deadly. “Maybe Hamas will get a big present from Iran or Hezbollah, a few good long-range missiles and they’ll use it,” says Limor Brina, 40, an Israeli who is in constant fear of rockets landing on her town. It is this fear that fuels the war against what many see as a terrorist organisation that wants to see Israel destroyed.

Hamas claim they are merely defending themselves from Israeli aggression and punishment. They say that Israel had not honoured the ceasefire agreement and blocked aid and supplies flowing into Gaza. Israel has said the blockades were put in place to stop the flow of weapons. But the blockade along with attacks on militants in Gaza throughout November strained tensions eventually leading Hamas to announce it would not renew the ceasefire which had been in place since July [BBC]. Although Hamas have claimed Israel began attacks on its militants, the BBC reported on the 30th October that a little known group calling itself Hezbollah Palestine had fired a rocket into Israel effectively ending the four month truce. The tit for tat that continued finally led to the full scale assault which began after Christmas.

Robert Fisk who was one of several guests speaking on the BBC World Service on Wednesday says that journalists should be able to report from inside Gaza freely. Questioning the reasons why Israel is preventing journalists from entering Gaza, the veteran Middle East correspondent who writes for the Independent asks what Israel is trying to hide. He points out in today’s paper that the war will do nothing to quell the increasing hatred of the West [Independent].

It is this hatred that is part of the reason why many Western media organisations do not have a permanent office in Gaza. The BBC pulled out of the region after one of their own correspondents, Alan Johnston, was kidnapped in 2007. Although it was Hamas who helped secure his safe release, the incident scared away most news organisations and effectively denied Gazans a voice when it mattered most. The story is now starting to drift away from the top headlines on some news bulletins. Sky News was tonight leading with a story about Britain’s cricket captain quitting the team. Europe is now more concerned over domestic issues such as the increasingly cold weather and concern over its gas supply after pipelines were shut off between the Ukraine and the rest of Europe this week [BBC]. Even those news stations which led with the story, most devoted only a few minutes of airtime compared to the saturation coverage of a few days ago. After all, a correspondent standing in a field imparting second hand reports does not make for good television.

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