What is it like being a journalist in Israel?

August 8, 2017

Al Jazeera speaks with journalists about their experiences reporting in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

This week, Israel announced a plan to ban the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, shut down its offices and revoke the press credentials of its Arabic and English journalists working in Jerusalem, claiming the network was “inciting” violence. 

The move has spurred criticism and condemnation from rights groups and press freedom advocates, who have called the plan an attack on free speech and expression. 

“Al Jazeera denounces this decision made by a state that claims to be ‘the only democratic state in the Middle East’,” the network responded in a statement, adding that Israel’s justification for the move was “odd and biased”.

Al Jazeera spoke with foreign, Israeli and Palestinian journalists about their experiences reporting in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. 

Derk Walters, Dutch journalist 

I was stationed in Israel and Palestine starting from September 2014 as a full-time correspondent. 

In the first year, I never experienced any trouble with the authorities; I was doing my job like in any other regular democracy, I would say. But after the first year, when I wanted to renew my press card, I started experiencing problems.

There was an article in which I wrote about Hebron. In the article, I just wrote about the situation in Hebron, about the 600 Jewish settlers in the centre of a Palestinian city – basically everything going on there. But then at the Government Press Office, they said that my article was anti-Semitic, and for that reason they said they didn’t want to give me the press card initially. 

So of course, I didn’t agree with them. I went to the Dutch embassy and the ambassador spoke to the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs. They agreed to give me a press card, but from then on, they were keeping an eye out on everything that I wrote, and they were assisted by a couple of Dutch people to read everything that I wrote – to be translated and sent back to the Israeli authorities within half a day. 

They would then summon me over anything that I wrote. For example, I wrote analytically about the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement; they said to me that this means that you are a BDS supporter. They were just trying to frame me in a certain way, so they kept harassing me over the content of my work. 

When I had to renew my press card again at the end of 2016, they came up with a new trick, and then they said, “Unfortunately, your newspaper is not a newspaper any more, according to our regulations.”

I said, “What do you mean? It has credentials from before the Six-Day War, from before the occupation, so what do you mean not a newspaper?” They said, “Our regulations revealed that your editor-in-chief is also on the board of the newspaper, which means that there is a conflict of interest, so we cannot be sure that the way you write about Israel is not influenced by the business interests of your editor-in-chief.”

They revoked my press card and gave me two months to figure my situation out. Eventually, I moved back to Holland.

As far as I know, I’m on sort of a blacklist. It felt very uncomfortable being watched in different kinds of ways – certainly uncomfortable when fellow countrymen from Holland are translating everything you do for the Israeli authorities to enable them to harass me. 

But what made me feel especially uncomfortable was when I wasn’t really sure if I could stay in the country for another month, or another three months, or another half a year. 

They were always giving a lot of stress to their version of the story, which is something that every government will try to do to a certain extent. They wanted to frame me as a certain anti-Israeli journalist, but I was just doing my job – you cannot go to Israel as a correspondent and not write about the occupation. 

Whenever the word “anti-Semitism” is being used against you – that’s a very nasty, mean thing to hear. It’s something Israel and its supporters do quite often. 

Oren Ziv, Israeli journalist

While covering protests, clashes and other events in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there have not been many times in which the Israeli police or army were present and they did not limit the right for free media coverage.

Not in every single event are journalists beaten or detained, but our rights are violated on a regular basis.

It can be “small” things that most of us get so used to, we don’t bother to complain about them – such as throwing stun grenades and tear gas directly at a group of photographers, limiting access to different areas, or pushing us violently to force us to leave.

This is why many times we go around in groups, to protect each other, and to document the attacks against us. In the recent events around al-Aqsa, when Palestinians were protesting against new security measures, the police behaviour reached a new low.

There was more than the usual harassment. Journalists, even ones holding the Israeli government press cards, were not allowed into Jerusalem’s Old City, while tourists and Israelis were allowed to go in freely.

Many times, we feel it’s better to be a passerby with a cellphone than a journalist. We don’t expect to have more rights than anyone else, but we to expect to have the possibility to work and move freely.

In this sense, it is not a choice of a specific police officer, but a clear policy. The Jerusalem police chief, Yoram Halevi, said last week during a news conference that he believes it’s OK that they prevent the press from moving freely, as the media provokes the events.

This is the same tone we hear from Israeli right-wing politicians, who blame and incite against the media, NGOs and left-wing groups. They prefer to blame the ones who expose the situation, rather than dealing with the fact that they have no answers to give to their public.

In the current situation, only solidarity from fellow journalists – locally and from around the world, both from alternative and mainstream media – can pass a clear message to the Israeli government.

Faiz Abu Rmeleh, Palestinian journalist 

I have been a photographer for seven years. I am from the Old City of Jerusalem, where I live. On July 25, I was covering the events at Bab al-Asbat in the Old City, at 10pm.

The Israeli forces attacked the protesters and the worshippers. I moved from there to cover the second sit-in demonstration. While I was standing there with all the other journalists in one corner, filming the Israeli forces attacking the sit-in demonstration with sound bombs, Palestinians were throwing rocks.

While we were doing our work, an Israeli soldier, the head of the border police unit that was present, was injured in his hand. So they went hysterical in the way they were dealing with people. They came to us [journalists] from behind; they began beating us with their rifles, and they were pushing us in a very violent way, telling us to leave.

I refused and told them, “You can’t deal with us in this way. We are journalists doing our jobs.” They attacked me and took me by the neck and started beating me. They handcuffed me and put in the military Jeep.

They took me to a detention centre and started asking me discriminatory questions such as “What is your religion?” They took my ID. There were personal questions, which I refused to answer. They started threatening me and telling me that if you refuse to answer our questions, we will beat you in the face. They started telling me that I was a transexual because I have long hair. It was horrible.They accused me of hindering the work of the police and beating a soldier, which I rejected. I told them I had videos to prove that this didn’t happen.

I got out on the condition that I was banned from the Old City for 15 days. I proceeded to get an Israeli lawyer who managed to eliminate all the conditions they placed on me.

In general, as a photojournalist, I see that in any place around the world that bans filming, or refuses to allow the emergence of a narrative different from the system’s, there is a serious problem with the system.

This increases my will to be present in these areas to expose the reality. If they were doing things in a legal way, they wouldn’t have a problem with people filming.

EB, French journalist

I faced many issues with the Israeli authorities working as a freelance photojournalist.

It was very difficult to obtain a press card. Several media outlets I was collaborating with are not recognised by the government press office, even though they meet the standards required by the GPO.

In January 2014, I was blacklisted by the Israeli military while I was covering the Ein Hijleh tent-village launched by Palestinian activists to protest against land confiscation in Area C [of the West Bank]. As I was accessing the site with three other journalists, we were stopped at a flying checkpoint and asked for our ID documents by Israeli soldiers. We showed our passports and press cards, and we were released without any comment from the soldiers after our passports were scanned.

However, following this incident, I was questioned by Israeli security each time I crossed borders, and they hinted that I was more of an activist than a photojournalist.

In January 2015, I was almost deported from Ben Gurion airport, but I managed to negotiate a two-week visa. It took more than six months, and I had to hire a lawyer to be granted a work visa as a photojournalist, granted on August 27. After the GPO approved my long-term press card application and provided me with the letter of intention for a B1 visa, I still had to write a letter to the ministry of interior to justify why I covered the Ein Hijleh campaign. I was told that my situation was now sorted out and that everything should be fine.

Nevertheless, I was still questioned every single time I crossed borders, and I was told once by an officer of the ministry of interior at Ben Gurion airport that I still could be deported even though I had a work visa, due to a military order that gave me a five-year ban, starting from January 2014. 

This means that the ministry of interior did not take into consideration the letter of my lawyer, and they have not removed the ban as they said they would do. I left the country in November 2016, and I am not sure if I will be able to enter again. I will most probably have to hire a lawyer.

I was prevented on several occasions from accessing sites, by both Israeli police and army, although I had a press card. I was also subjected to violence by the Israeli military while covering events, and I have witnessed Israeli soldiers targeting journalists directly during protests and clashes. Many of my friends were severely injured or had their equipment broken.