A ball of fire erupts from a building housing various international media, including The Associated Press, after an Israeli airstrike on Saturday, May 15, 2021 in Gaza City.   The attack came roughly an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building, which also housed Al-Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted.
A ball of fire erupts from a building housing various international media, including The Associated Press, after an Israeli airstrike on Saturday, May 15, 2021 in Gaza City. The building also housed Al-Jazeera and a number of prominent offices and apartments Image Credit: AP

No props needed. The setting is perfect, as is, for Dante’s Inferno. And that is what the war in Gaza, now in its second week, has become, with little infernos here and little infernos there, all across the length and breadth of this little 140-square- mile tormented strip of land by the Mediterranean Sea, as its little people, their choked psyche gasping for breath, seek haven and find none.

I interject myself into my column this week to tell you that fearfully awry images evoked by two of these little infernos have preyed on me.

The one took place on Saturday morning — as I sat, God forgive me, in my comfortable, assuredly safe home here in Washington — when an Israeli air strike caused the collapse of three buildings on a main street in Gaza City, resulting in the death of 42 Gazans, including 10 children.

Rich fragments of lost Eden

By an ironic coincidence, Saturday was May 15, Nakbah Day, the day that Palestinians commemorate every year to mark the catastrophe that had befallen them on May 15, 1948, when their ancestral homeland was dismembered — a catastrophe almost Homeric in scale that saw diaspora Palestinians wandering the earth, much in the manner of those lost souls that populate the Odyssey, in search of a sheltering refuge, all the while carrying on their backs, like heavy cargo, shattered yet rich fragments of their lost Eden.

The other little inferno had played out earlier, when another air strike destroyed a high-rise building downtown that had for the previous 15 years served as a media hub in Gaza, one that housed not only the offices of the US-based Associated Press (AP), which employed a dozen or so reporters, freelancers and stringers, but several other news outlets as well, including the pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera and the Gaza Center for Media Freedom, which trained local journalists and monitored press freedom in the Strip.

And that is the one little inferno I find myself compelled to address in this column today. Why compelled? I’ll tell you. The retrenchment of our “right to know”, a right that enables us to comprehend and master the workings of our destiny, is a form of carnage that inflicts irreparable damage on our minds. I can deal with that, but I cannot deal with that other kind of carnage — harrowing, unspeakable carnage that is beyond all rational understanding — on this page today.

Disturbing development

The air strike was beyond redemption. The president and chief executive of AP, Gary Pruit, immediately called it “an incredibly disturbing development” that “shocked and horrified” him, adding that “the world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today”.

The following day, in a telephone interview on CNN, Pruit was asked if there was any truth to the suspicion that the building was deliberately targeted by Israel in order to make it difficult for journalists to report on the degree and kind of violence inflicted on the Strip. He responded, as a true journalist would have, “We are AP, we don’t speculate”.

The prestigious Washington-based National Press Club, however, was more vocal in making known its conviction. In a statement, it claimed that the attack “followed bombings by Israeli warplanes of other buildings housing more than a dozen media outlets on May 12 and 13 ... This trend prompts the question whether Israeli forces are attacking these facilities to impair independent and accurate coverage of the conflict”.

To impair independent and accurate coverage of a news story represents no less than a deadly challenge to the very values, not to mention the major building block of the journalistic enterprise.

We have the right, I say, to know. Journalists, tasked with writing “the first draft of history”, often risk their own lives in order that we, ordinary folks, are able to exercise that right.

Consider how they often take those lives into their own hands when they report from a war zone or when they go to places, say, where coronavirus is spreading, as they have readily done over the last year, in order to document and report, despite the attendant risks of contracting the disease,

Destroy a news outlet and you disrupt the ability of journalists to report the news — and report it “without fear or favour”, about what is happening all around us in this global village we all, all together, inhabit today.

And that translates, at best, into an encroachment on our sacrosanct right to know and, at worst, it translates into an intolerable debasement of the civilised norms of that village.

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