A picture taken from a position in southern Israel along the border with the Gaza Strip shows an Israeli tank rolling along the fence as damaged buildings are see in the Gaza strip amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. Image Credit: AFP

“The important thing is not to stop questioning”, wrote Albert Einstein, a man who probably asked more seminal questions than any other in the last century. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing”.

Well, of late, curiosity has gotten the better of those among us, whose business is to ask questions, as to why Israel has prevented foreign journalists from entering Gaza to cover the war there (save for those working for organisations allowed to embed with the Israeli Army under certain rules, including prior review of anything they publish) and targeted with “extreme prejudice” those others, local Palestinian journalists on the ground already resident in and filing from Gaza.

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According to a report issued on Sunday by the Committee to Protect Journalists, so far, in less than four months of conflict, 76 Palestinian journalists have been killed — along with 16 injured and 3 left missing — which is more reporters than those killed in the two-decade-long Vietnam War (63) or the seven-year-long Second World War (67).

All of us are in agreement surely that the role journalists play in a war zone is indispensable. By gathering and disseminating information about what’s going on in the front lines of a war zone, journalists carry out a crucial mission of public interest, verifying facts, interviewing people, investing war crimes — often at risk to their own lives in order to bring to the world’s attention the realities unfolding on the ground. They are, as we say, writing the first draft of history and doing so “without fear or favour”.

Read more by Prof Fawaz Turki

History of warfare

Almost always these folks, bless their hearts, tend to not only be intimately acquainted with the culture of the country they’re reporting on but also to have a perceptive understanding of the historical and political context of the conflict itself. Without their contribution, no clear, factual and independent picture of the goings-on in that war zone becomes available to us in real time. Indispensable they are indeed.

Clarissa Ward, CNN’s Chief International Correspondent had something to say about that in an opinion piece in the Washington Post last week in which she explained how within 24 hours of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, she, along with other journalists, was able to travel to Israel, take stock of the attack’s aftermath and paint a picture of it in the news reports she filed from there.

“We must now be able to report on the horrific death and destruction being meted out in Gaza in the same way — on the ground, independently — amid one of the most intense bombardments in the history of warfare”, she wrote. 

And yet, international journalists have been barred from entering Gaza ... This month, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition from the Foreign Press Association for access to Gaza because of ‘security concerns’. [And] Israeli officials have cited these concerns again and again to block foreign media from crossing the border into the territory, insisting that no one can go in without Israel’s permission”.

Horrors of war

Then Ms Ward referred to Marie Colvin, whom we all in the journalistic community remember as the renowned correspondent who was killed in 2012 while filing from Homs — at the time a war zone in Syria — and who spoke thus of the role war correspondents play, “Our mission is to report those horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice”.

Ms Ward concluded her piece with a salient observation of her own. “Journalists”, she wrote, “must be able to exercise our duty to bear witness, no matter how difficult or dangerous that might be”.

The right of journalists to freely cover conflict, and in particular to do so without fear of being targeted for retribution, is enshrined in international law, specifically International Humanitarian Law. The Geneva Conventions of 1949, for example, intended to set rules to protect civilians, also contains an additional protocol which specifies that journalists who are engaged in professional missions in areas of armed struggle are considered civilians and thus are similarly protected.

In 1996, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted a resolution whose 12 principles set out to provide an inclusive definition of the term “journalist” by stressing that it covers “all those engaged in the collection, processing and dissemination of news and information”, including their support staff, such as camera crews, drivers, interpreters and the like.

These are folks that international law tells you to let be and to refrain from harming.

Even the UN Security Council chose to put in its two cents worth on the issue when in 2006 and again in 2015 adopted resolutions that called for an end to attacks on journalists in conflict zones, urging states to “comply with relevant obligations under international law and to prosecute states responsible for serious violations.

In Gaza, the reality on the ground tells a drastically different tale.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile