Israel’s War on Journalists

By casting reporters as Hamas accomplices, Israel seeks to discredit critical coverage—and to justify unprecedented violence against Palestinian journalists.

Jonathan Shamir
November 15, 2023

Palestinians carry the bodies of Mohammed Sobh and Said al-Taweel, who were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on October 10th.

Fatima Shbair / AP

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On October 10th, Palestinian journalists Muhammad Sobh and Hisham al-Nawajah arrived in a western neighborhood of Gaza City, where they had learned Israel was planning to bomb a high-rise building. They took cover a “sufficient distance away” and “took all necessary precautions,” Saleh al-Nazli, editor-in-chief of the reporters’ news agency, told The Washington Post. But the building from which Sobh and al-Nawajah sought to safely cover the attack was targeted, killing both of them as well as fellow journalist Said al-Taweel.

Sobh, al-Nawajah, and al-Taweel are only three of the 37 Palestinian journalists who have been killed in Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza since October 7th—some while on duty, others in their homes. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the figure represents more media casualties in a single month than in any comparable period of conflict since 1992. This unprecedented attack on journalists has drawn international attention, with over 1,300 journalists (including the author) signing an open letter condemning Israel’s killings of journalists, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) charging Israel with war crimes in a petition to the International Criminal Court (ICC). “The scale, seriousness, and recurring nature of international crimes targeting journalists, particularly in Gaza, calls for a priority investigation by the ICC prosecutor,” Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary-general, said about the petition.

Before October 7th, Israeli forces had killed 20 media professionals since 2001; according to a May 2023 report by the CPJ, no one has ever been held accountable for these killings. In the aftermath of such attacks, Israel’s typical response has been to say that it does not deliberately target journalists. However, in recent weeks Israeli leaders and media outlets have attempted to associate Palestinian reporters with Hamas in order to justify violence against them. On November 2nd, The Jerusalem Post said that independent journalists in Gaza “effectively act as the mouthpiece for the terrorist organization.” And on November 8th, Israel’s official X account parroted a claim, first put forth without basis by the pro-Israel media monitoring group HonestReporting, that “AP, CNN, NY Times and Reuters had journalists embedded with Hamas terrorists” while they were carrying out the October 7th massacre. The post, which has since been deleted, included an image of journalists photographing Hamas militants as they transported a kidnapped woman on a motorbike. “Did these ‘journalists’ know about the impending Hamas attack and fail to warn relevant parties?” a later post asked.

The AP, CNN, Reuters, and The New York Times forcefully denied the allegation, but it was nevertheless immediately picked up by Israeli media outlets and adopted as a talking point by Israeli politicians, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office calling the journalists in question “accomplices in crimes against humanity” and opposition leader Yair Lapid asking international media outlets if they were going to fire the journalists. Other top-ranking politicians went further, with war cabinet member Benny Gantz and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir both calling the reporters “terrorists.” Such a designation appears likely to be a matter of life and death, as Danny Danon, a lawmaker from the ruling Likud party, made clear when he tweeted that Israel would “eliminate all participants of the October 7 massacre. The ‘photojournalists’ who took part in recording the [Hamas] assault will be added to that list.”

Hassan Eslaiah, a freelance Palestinian photojournalist for AP and CNN who is one of the main targets of the Israeli incitement campaign, told Jewish Currents that far from knowing of the attack ahead of time, he was woken up by rocket fire on October 7th and only arrived at the border fence “an hour or two” after the attack began. (Jewish Currents independently verified that the first Telegram image of Eslaiah at the scene was from 8:29 am local time, around two hours after the attack began.) Eslaiah also rejected the charge that he was affiliated with Hamas, which Israel’s X account has circulated based on a photo of Eslaiah with Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. “I have no organizational or military affiliation with Hamas or any other faction,” Eslaiah said. “The photo from 2018 that has circulated of me with Yahya Sinwar was due to my work as a Palestinian journalist with access to leaders of various factions. I only published it to prove the authenticity of my journalistic reports on what was going on within Hamas.” Yet another charge against Eslaiah is that he drove to the scene with a Hamas militant, but according to Oren Persico, a journalist at the independent Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye, this cannot be taken as evidence for complicity. “Israeli journalists go with Israeli military units all the time and document what they do,” Persico said, noting that in the current moment “there is a blindness to the similarities in this embedding method,” with the main focus being to portray “Palestinian journalists in the Gaza Strip [as] not journalists, but terrorists.” (Eslaiah told Jewish Currents that despite CNN and AP publicly denying the allegations made by HonestReporting, the outlets have nevertheless cut ties with him without providing any explanation.)

According to CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator Sherif Mansour, Israel’s ongoing incitement against Palestinian reporters follows an established pattern under which the country first targets journalists, then attempts “to evade responsibility” for its actions by alleging that those attacked belonged to Hamas. This was the case in 2018, when, according to the later findings of a United Nations commission, an Israeli sniper “intentionally” shot dead Palestinian journalists Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein during the Great March of Return, a largely nonviolent series of weekly demonstrations on the border fence demanding the Palestinian right to return to their ancestral lands. Shortly after the killings of Murtaja and Abu Hussein, then-Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman alleged that Murtaja was “a member of Hamas’s military wing,” a claim that was repeated by Netanyahu’s spokespeople. But Murtaja had just been strictly vetted by the United States in order to receive a media grant, and no Hamas links were found in the process. Israeli officials have not provided any evidence to the contrary in the years since Murtaja’s death. According to Mansour, the case revealed a broader Israeli strategy of “pushing false narratives, smear campaigns, and disinformation to justify its repeated attacks on journalists.”

Even before October 7th, reporting from Gaza faced exceptional challenges, with only a handful of international media outlets maintaining a bureau in the Gaza Strip. Now, with Israel preventing foreign journalists from entering the besieged enclave and warning that it will not guarantee the safety of journalists, most news outlets are wholly dependent on Palestinian reporters in the Strip. “They are our eyes and ears. Without them, we are left vulnerable to disinformation that is only designed to fuel the conflict,” Mansour explained. But it is precisely this reporting Israel has been hampering, deliberately targeting dozens of media offices in airstrikes. With killings of Palestinian journalists documented from the north to the south of the Strip, “there is nowhere they can do their job safely,” Mansour said. “And now irresponsible disinformation puts these journalists in extra imminent danger,” he said.

In addition to acting as justification for violence against journalists, Persico said Israel’s recent campaign is also part of its efforts to suppress unfavorable news coverage. In the past month, the Israeli government has arrested 13 Palestinian journalists in the West Bank. Within Israel, a far-right mob converged on the home of Israeli journalist Israel Frey after he held a vigil for both Israeli and Palestinian victims of violence, pushing Frey and his family into hiding. And on October 20th, the Israeli government approved emergency regulations that ban the broadcast of foreign media channels which “threaten national security.” (Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi originally singled out Al Jazeera as a target for the law, describing the channel as “helping terror organizations with their propaganda,” but the government has so far only banned the Iran-aligned channel Al-Mayadeen.)

According to Persico, these moves seek to keep the Israeli public in the dark about Israel’s actions in Gaza. “The mainstream Israeli media doesn’t want [the public] to know how many civilians are dying . . . Images of the Palestinian dead or wounded are considered Hamas propaganda,” Persico told Jewish Currents. The Israeli government has taken every opportunity to discredit outside sources providing information on these questions, with officials accusing the BBC of spreading a “modern blood libel” after the outlet blamed Israel for bombing Al-Ahli hospital, and army spokespeople calling into question international outlets’ reliance on the Gazan Health Ministry’s death tolls, even though they have historically proven to be accurate. The recent incitement against reporters has fed these efforts. A day after the HonestReporting allegations came out, prominent Israeli journalist Amit Segal tweeted about Eslaiah: “He and his ilk are the people who are fact-checking the death tolls and the imaginary Israeli bombing of hospitals?” As a result of these broad attempts to target and discredit Palestinian journalists in Gaza, Persico said, “the Israeli public is in a bubble. It doesn’t understand why the world is angry, and there’s an ever-widening gap between the Israeli public and the international community.”

Jonathan Shamir is a Jewish Currents fellow and the former deputy editor of Haaretz.