Two weeks under fire in Gaza
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
Voices get loud and excited over the radio Reuters news crews use in Gaza to call in the latest information. Some people complain there are no “Western reporters” inside. But we all work for Reuters, a global agency that sets the international standard.
After two full weeks of bombardment we are all worried about our families but we work and work the story. We hope it will stop.
“They bombed a car in Beit Lahiyah,” says one colleague working in northern Gaza.
“Three dead arrived in Shifa hospital,” says another in Gaza’s largest hospital.
“Several people were injured when Israeli planes bombed the tunnels,” said a third from southern Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt.
I field these calls in our office where we have put duct tape crosses on every window to limit flying glass if a strike is too close. Still, the largest window in the hall was blown out.
We have a fixed camera on our high-rise building but our cameramen are being cautious not to point their cameras from the windows, in case they are mistaken for weapons. (Such mistakes were given as the reasons why a US tank blasted our Baghdad bureau in 2003, killing and wounding colleagues, and was also the reason given for an Israeli tank killing our colleague here in Gaza, Fadel Shana, nine months ago.)
The camera can show the blue Mediterranean sea a few blocks to the west, or point the other way to where Israeli ground forces are closing in, perhaps little more than a kilometre away. At night it used to show bright lights and traffic.
Now it is empty streets and a few cold electric lights. Nothing much moves after dark these days. And we choose, for safety reasons, not to stay in the bureau overnight. We look after our families and keep in touch with contacts and colleagues by phone, ready to head out and film if necessary.
We all get to the office around 9 a.m – typically about 10 of us, with another dozen colleagues working in other parts of the Gaza Strip. The strikes have usually been going on for a few hours by then. We call that information in to our bureau in Jerusalem where colleagues have been updating our main report around the clock. The updates go on all day long.
I often have no time to write up stories myself. It all moves so fast. I use two land phones, an Israeli mobile phone, and a Palestinian mobile phone that is intermittent.
Inside Gaza, we use text messages to communicate. We have to monitor local television and radio stations because they are often first with developments that we race to check. Those checks are essential, of course. The mixture of confusion and deliberate propaganda that accompanies any war, means that our standards of cross-checking everything and ensuring readers understand the sources of information need to be rigorous.
Every day is a new life written for me and for my family and also for the Reuters team in Gaza. Shelling and air strikes have hardly spared any place in the whole Gaza Strip. The heart of the city of Gaza has been hit several times.
Some areas seem to have been hit simply because a Hamas policeman walked nearby, or some militants were detected at a street corner by the Israeli forces. The high-explosive attack that follows can be devastating, taking out not only targeted people but a house or some passers-by.
The movement of our crews is restricted to hospitals and major strikes at places that are important, or where we think there may have been a high death toll. It is simply too dangerous to do otherwise. We cannot be with Hamas leaders or accompany the fighters to film them since that would be too great a risk.
“Please take care. Do not enter a place right after it is bombed. Wait a bit, it may be hit again.” This is a warning I issue to our crews 30 times a day.
We urge our cameramen and photographers to avoid main roads outside the city, and to look carefully where they drive.
“Try not to pass by a police station even it was already bombed. Do not go by a money exchange shop, or a house of a Hamas leader. Do not pass by a place the Israel army has threatened to bomb. Avoid passing close to a mosque.”
This is also my daily advice to myself — a list I repeat mentally as I drive back and forth.
Inside the office we have breakfast together, lunch too sometimes, and we send meals to people on outside missions. At one stage we did not see our outside crews for almost five days. When they returned to the office there was a big welcome scene. We hugged one another and thanked God we were safe, that all of us were safe.
Four journalists have been killed since the offensive began. One worked for Algerian and Moroccan television, another two for local Gaza broadcasters. The fourth was the special presidential cameraman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
When the main security complex was hit, 200 metres from our office, a piece of shrapnel penetrated the wall of our TV production room and made a hole. Part of the ceiling broke but everybody was safe. Many times we have ducked under the tables when huge blasts from air strikes shook the office. We also hear the whistle of outgoing Gaza rockets fired at Israel from inside the city.
Our families are our main concern.
I live in the south west side of Gaza City, not far from the sea, and the sounds of explosions in the district in the street have never ceased for 14 days of war. We’ve had almost no electricity for 10 days. For safety, my wife, daughter and son squeeze all day into our little hallway, listening to the news on a transistor radio. When one goes to the toilet, they all go together. One goes into the bathroom, the rest wait just outside.
For 14 days we have been sleeping in the same room, which we thought was away from the street and would be safe. But the whole building shook with every explosion and my wife had to leave our bed and hug the kids, sleeping on mattresses. My kids cover their ears a lot of the time when explosions start. My daily lectures about safety — that we are far from what is happening — seem pretty useless.
On Thursday the children realised I was just trying to make things easier. An Israeli missile hit a house across the street where we lived and killed a journalist, his wife and his mother-in-law. I was still working and my wife called to tell me and I could hear the children crying in the background. I had to check a colour story bylined in my name by Reuters in Jerusalem. The colleagues there told me to go home and to be with my family, which must be the top priority before anything else.
We have to leave the office before it is too late at night because the streets are empty and scary. Restaurants are closed and bakeries crowded by people in the daytime. One baker helped out with a special delivery, grateful for the work of journalists.
Our Reuters colleagues in Jerusalem are far away but they have some visual contact via our live television monitor, so they can see the smoke, dust and flames caused by Israeli bombing in Gaza. They can get some of the atmosphere. We also have many colleagues on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, just a few kilometres from our office here, watching and filming the bombs landing around us and the rockets being fired at Israel.
It is hard to get accurate statistics from independent parties on how many fighters have died. Hamas spokesmen do not answer that question. Our cameramen rarely cover funerals of gunmen of Hamas, it is too dangerous. The Israeli army says it has killed “hundreds” of fighters. From the tolls we are compiling from the hospitals, hundreds of civilians have also died.
On Friday Jan 9, an air strike hit a TV production and transmission facility about 100 metres from our office. At least one person was hurt and there was considerable damage. It was used by several Arab TV stations and Iran’s Press TV. The Israeli army said the building was not a target but may have sustained “collateral damage” – and they assured us they have the coordinates of the Reuters bureau and that we are not a target. It is worrying nonetheless.
We pray this will stop soon.