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The Dangers and Difficulties of Reporting from Gaza: Two Journalists Recount Their Experiences

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We speak with two journalists who have covered Gaza extensively about the dangers and difficulties of reporting from the Occupied Territories: Mohammed Omer, an award-winning Palestinian journalist who was interrogated and beaten by armed Israeli security guards on his way back home to Gaza after receiving the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in London in July of 2008, and Ayman Mohyeldin, the Gaza correspondent for Al Jazeera English, who was one of the only international journalists reporting from inside Gaza during the twenty-two-day Israeli assault last year. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show with a discussion of the dangers and difficulties of being a journalist in the occupied Gaza Strip. It’s where 1.4 million Palestinians live under the almost daily threat of Israeli attacks, while surviving a strict blockade imposed for the last four years. Nearly all exports and imports are banned, all entry points are closed, and only a tightly limited supply of food and medical aid is allowed in.

This week, Israeli authorities allowed in the first shipment of clothes and shoes since 2007, but Palestinian businessmen say most of the goods have been ruined and are unusable after remaining in storage for three years.

Meanwhile, even as Palestinians continue to seek accountability for the devastation and deaths caused by Israel’s twenty-two-day assault on Gaza in the winter of 2009, Israeli air raids over the Gaza Strip also continue into the present. Air strikes this past weekend wounded three Palestinian children and destroyed a dairy factory.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two journalists who have covered Gaza extensively. Mohammed Omer is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. On his way back home to Gaza after receiving the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in London in July of 2008, Omer was interrogated and beaten by armed Israeli security guards. He’s been living in the Netherlands ever since, receiving medical treatment. Omer is now on a US speaking tour; he’s joining us from Houston, Texas. And joining us here in New York is the Gaza correspondent for Al Jazeera English, Ayman Mohyeldin. He is one of the only international journalists reporting from inside Gaza during Operation Cast Lead last year.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mohammed Omer, let’s go first to you in Houston. And I’m glad you were able to get into this country. I know you had trouble at the beginning. But describe what happened to you after receiving this prestigious award, the Martha Gellhorn Prize.

MOHAMMED OMER: Well, it was upon my return from London, where I received the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize, where I have been taken by the Israeli security personnel and forced to take off clothes under gunpoint. Those who attacked me, they were basically looking for the money that I won from the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize, and they wanted to humiliate me by asking me different types of questions.

And before that, I was literally beaten on my chest and neck and ribs, and I was also attacked inside a closed room, where one of the officials, who is called Avi, a man, a tall man who is bald, and he’s trying to grab me from the bones, taking the bones and using his nail fingers beneath under my eyes, trying to pinch, and kicking me in different places in my body. This is because I failed to present the money that I won from the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize. That was on the 26th of June, 2008.

After several hours of attack and kicking and beating, I fainted. And after that, I was taken into Jericho Hospital. And from there, I went to the Gaza Strip. It took nearly three months to get me out of the Gaza Strip for medical treatment in the Netherlands.

AMY GOODMAN: And you remain there today. You have —-

MOHAMMED OMER: Well, I’m still -—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

MOHAMMED OMER: I’m still attending medical treatment in the Netherlands. I have been living in the last few months with all the speculations from three different hospitals in the Netherlands that I might end up removing some ribs. I’m glad that I don’t have to do that. But still, I have damage that is caused underneath the ribs. The report that I can share with you right now from the Dutch doctors in the Netherlands, who told me that this is a sophisticated case of torture, where those who inflicted the torture on me managed to cause as minimum visible signs of torture and maximum internal damage that may last for the rest of my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, among many other photographs that you have taken, you have some very graphic — and I warn the viewers who are watching this now — pictures of Rachel Corrie that we haven’t seen before, the young American woman from Olympia, Washington, who was killed March 16, 2003, when she was run over by an Israeli military bulldozer in the Gaza Strip. You were there that day?

MOHAMMED OMER: I was there. I remember that day quite well. When I called the different news agencies, and I’m giving the news, American citizen Rachel Corrie is killed, in fact it took me nine hours to ten hours to convince the news agencies that American citizen is killed. One of them I remember quite well, in Ramallah, who said to me, “Come on, it can’t be that Israel is that dumb to attack American citizen. This is impossible.” I went to take photos, and I was very close to the situations where she was killed, and immediately I was inside the Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital, where her body was immediately transferred.

What was striking on that day, the children of Gaza, who took the streets and who covered Rachel Corrie with the American flag in Gaza, took the streets calling for the world to investigate and to bring the war criminals into court, because Rachel Corrie was a friend of the Gaza children who took the streets and called immediately on an investigation and to bring the criminals who killed Rachel Corrie into court.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Ayman Mohyeldin, you are a journalist in Gaza, but not a Palestinian. Could you talk about the difficulties of being able to get out to the rest of the world the news from Gaza?

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Absolutely. You know, as Mohammed said and as you mentioned, to get into Gaza there’s only really two ways: through Egypt or through Israel. Egypt has an unofficially closed border. It does not allow journalists to travel from Egypt into Gaza. And so, anyone, journalists, who wants to enter is subject to the approval of the Israeli military.

That process is a complicated one. It includes background checks, security clearances, and then ultimately being issued a press card. You do also have to sign censorship agreements with the Israeli government. And then, once you do that, you’re issued a press card, which allows you to enter into the Gaza Strip. That’s just to get into Gaza.

But when you’re in Gaza, you are really suffering and dealing with all the problems that ordinary people are logistically. You have a hard time getting your hands on fuel to power your equipment. At the same time, electricity cuts are rampant, so it makes it very difficult to work and operate there on a systematic basis. And then, of course, there is the threat of daily Israeli air strikes and potential incursions that, you know, endanger everyone’s lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera had an enormous responsibility during the Israeli assault on Gaza. You were the only international news agency within Gaza. The Israeli military did not allow in international journalists.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: It is, absolutely. In this particular case, since the launch of Al Jazeera International, we have been committed to covering the story of Gaza and the people there under siege. We think it’s the important, if not one of the most important, stories in the region and in the world and has greater implications on the region. So they’ve decided to keep a permanent presence there with a full-time correspondent. So I was there prior to that. I’ve been the only foreign correspondent based in Gaza since May of 2008. So, well before the war began, I was there.

On December 27th, when Israel launched the military campaign, all of the foreign media, Western media, decided then to come into Gaza. Obviously, the Israeli military did not let them in, because it was an ongoing war. So it’s easy for us to sit and blame Israel for not letting in, but there’s also a great deal of blame that falls on Western journalists, who had neglected the Gaza story, neglected the Gaza siege story, until it suddenly became an enriching picture-wise and a lead story around the world.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And do the Hamas authorities in Gaza put any restrictions on your coverage?

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: In my personal experience, I have not had anyone from Hamas telling me I cannot run a story, I should not run a story. There’s no doubt that there have been difficulties for perhaps Arab journalists. Their audience is more of an Arab audience, and there has been pressure put on them, and human rights organizations have documented cases. In my personal experience, I have not experienced it, but there has been growing criticism that Hamas has used that tactic to curb a freedom of expression among journalists inside the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, as we wrap up — we’re going to play part two online and continue this conversation after the show — but your final thoughts, as you enter the United States for the first time in the last few years since you were beaten?

MOHAMMED OMER: Well, this is my third speaking tour to the United States. I’m going to be, in a few hours, flying to New Mexico, where I will give lectures. Being a journalist in the Gaza Strip is a quite difficult and different experience for a journalist who is Palestinian. It took me six months to renew a Palestinian passport. This is a Palestinian passport where it took me six months to renew it. When I went to the government in Gaza, Hamas government, and I asked them, “I want to renew the passport,” well, they were telling me that they don’t have ink for passports in the Gaza Strip. And, of course, they don’t have papers in some other periods. I talked to the Ramallah government, and it was very difficult. As it seems, there is a difficulty, no doubt, for Palestinian journalists covering the situations from the Gaza Strip to talk about all these difficulties and to cover the difficult things. It’s very complicated that every side is trying to get you into their sides, and that makes it quite difficult. But I never had any difficulties with the Hamas government.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we’ll continue online at democracynow.org. Mohammed Omer and Ayman Mohyeldin, thank you very much for being with us.

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