Israel has a long history of military attacks on civilians in the name of its national security, claiming the right to defend itself using disproportionate and deadly force. But Israel’s wholesale destruction of press buildings in Gaza is something unprecedented, a brazen attack on press freedom itself.
On May 15, Israel bombed and destroyed at least four buildings in Gaza housing the offices of 18 international and local media outlets including the Associated Press (AP) and Al Jazeera.
Twelve AP staffers and freelancers were in their top-floor office when the Israeli military telephoned a warning, giving occupants of the building one hour to evacuate. Three missiles then decimated the building.
AP called the strike “shocking and horrifying.” Miraculously, no one was killed. But AP and the other media bureaus housed in the building lost most of their equipment and computers and the roof top from which they had for more than a decade been able to observe, film, and report on events in Gaza.
This was only one of Israel’s airstrikes targeting the press during May, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):
- On May 11, Israeli warplanes bombed and destroyed the Al-Jawhara building, which housed the offices of at least nine media outlets.
- On May 12, Israeli warplanes bombed and destroyed the Al-Shorouk building, which housed the offices of at least five media outlets.
- On May 17, Israeli warplanes bombed and damaged the building housing the office of the Nawa Online Women Media Network news website.
- On May 19, an Israeli airstrike targeted and killed Palestinian journalist Yousef Abu Hussein in his home. The week before, an Israeli strike killed journalist Reema Saad along with her 4-year-old son. Saad was also four months pregnant.
Eleven days of conflict in May left at least 255 people dead—mostly Palestinians. Although Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease fire on May 21, on June 16, three days into Israel’s new government, hostilities flared up again as Israel responded with deadly military airstrikes to incendiary balloons launched by Hamas.
Press-freedom groups have condemned Israel’s largescale attack on the press. They accused the military of attempting to censor the media’s coverage of Israel’s relentless offensive against Hamas militants.
Press-freedom groups accused the military of attempting to censor the media’s coverage of Israel’s relentless offensive.
Israel, attempting to justify its actions, claimed that the building that housed AP also housed Hamas military intelligence.
AP rejected that claim. AP’s President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement that AP “had no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building,” and that AP “would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.”
On June 10, CPJ wrote directly to Israel demanding an “immediate explanation” and “credible evidence.” As of the time this article went to press, CPJ’s website had not published any answer.
On June 30, Inside Arabia sent a request by email to Israel’s consulate in Washington and the Israeli Ministry of Defense to “provide any evidence Israel has to date” of Hamas’ use of “buildings housing the offices of at least 18 media outlets, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.”
In response, the North American media desk spokesman merely provided a link to a statement posted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on June 8, 2021. The statement addressed only one of the buildings bombed during May and asserted, based on “IDF assessments,” that Hamas was using it for intelligence and electronic warfare operations. It did not provide any evidence, but said the strike was designed to “collapse the building” in order to destroy Hamas’ “special equipment.”
Israel has long restricted journalists in their coverage of the occupied territories, controlling entrance and exit and press permits. For nearly a week in May, Israel froze media access to Gaza, according to members of the press who applied, limiting it to only those who were already on the ground.
With its unprecedented destruction of the press offices, equipment, and rooftop access to cover events, Israel has impacted the ability of major press agencies and journalists to do their work, impeding their ability to tell the facts about Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian territories and the ongoing disproportionate violence against the civilian population.
Commentators have observed that Israel’s escalating military attacks on the press unveil its utter disregard of press freedom.
Commentators have observed that Israel’s escalating military attacks on the press unveil in no uncertain terms its utter disregard of press freedom.
More importantly, however, they highlight a larger problem: How can the US deal with authoritarian regimes in countries that are strong allies of the US, and benefit greatly from US financial, military, and intelligence assistance, but disregard fundamental American values such as press freedom and freedom of expression?
Notwithstanding President Biden’s rhetoric about America being back, his administration appears incapable or unwilling to confront the US’ closest allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The closest it’s gotten so far seems to be “subtle confrontation.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki wrote on Twitter on May 15, “We have communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”
That oblique communication seems to have had as much impact as did President Biden’s and Secretary Blinken’s admonishments earlier this year of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia continues to torture and execute people, including those who committed alleged “crimes” when they were children, despite royal declarations that it has discontinued the practice.
A “subtle” confrontation policy for the Middle East is not new. It failed during the Kennedy administration’s years, and it is equally ineffective now in dealing with increasingly authoritarian regimes. Actual recalibration of these relationships, not just rhetoric, is necessary.
In a podcast type conversation about Saudi-slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi curated by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) with investigative reporter Michael Isikoff on June 29, DAWN’s Advocacy Director Raed Jarrar highlighted the fact that countries like Saudi Arabia are committing crimes funded by US tax dollars.
This concern applies equally to Israel’s commission of war crimes, such as killing journalists and locking up children in military detention, with impunity.
Isikoff, an investigative reporter who uncovered new evidence on Khashoggi’s murder and whose podcast “Conspiracyland” has been running a series about Khashoggi, said in response, “the impunity factor has been escalated to the max,” thus effectively greenlighting abuses.
By spending billions of dollars in arms sales and military aid every year with no accountability, the US is “investing in regimes that create terrorists.”
Yasser Shalaby, an Egyptian-American doctor and activist, warned during the same discussion that by spending billions of dollars in arms sales and military aid every year with no accountability, the US is “investing in regimes that create terrorists.” Why? Because “there is no justice in these countries. There are no legal systems people can rely on,” he said.
Yet, the US has failed to impose consequences for such human rights abuses, especially during the Trump administration that had a very close relationship with the Israeli government and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince. Recall that Trump famously referred to Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as “my favorite dictator.”
As Khashoggi wrote in 2016 two years before his assassination by the Saudi regime, “Democracy remains the most effective way to tackle terror, stop bloodshed and political violence in Arab countries.” This tenet also applies to Israel, the only self-professed democracy in the region.
Whether allies or foes, countries must not be permitted to continue to thumb their noses at US core values such as free speech, freedom of the press, and respect for human rights. There must be real action and real consequences.