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The dream of a Palestinian narrative

Palestinian journalists have taken centre stage in Gaza

Middle EastMedia War ZonesHuman Rights

Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza. Photo from Instagram.

One of the great scholars of the 20th century, Edward Said, wrote that Palestinians have been denied permission to narrate their own history. He argued that Israeli propaganda had a life of its own, especially in America, and that Western coverage of the war in Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza ultimately reflected Israel’s perspective and interest. The brutality endured by the Palestinians—their existence and historical displacement—therefore stood little chance of being globally understood. “Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain and circulate them,” Said wrote in 1984.

As Israel continues to deliberately bomb civilian targets in Gaza, Said’s assertions are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. In fact, Israel seems more determined than ever to prevent Palestinians from narrating their story. Israel has killed an estimated 110 Palestinian journalists since October 7 in a campaign that has no parallel in the history of modern warfare. Gaza is now the deadliest place in the world for reporters. The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate contends that among Palestinian journalists killed over the last 15 weeks, 96 were deliberately and specifically targeted by surgical Israeli strikes against them, at home or in the line of duty. The families of Palestinian journalists have also been targeted in Israel’s war against civilians. In October, Israel killed four members of the family of Al Jazeera’s bureau chief Wael al Dahdouh. Dahdouh’s wife, his 15-year-old son, his seven-year-old daughter and his grandson died in an Israeli strike on a refugee camp where they were seeking shelter after their home was bombed. In early January, an Israeli airstrike killed Dahdouh’s eldest son, 27-year-old Hamza, who was also a journalist, while he was travelling in a vehicle in Khan Younis with colleagues. Journalist Mustafa Thuraya, working for Agence France-Presse was also killed during that attack, while a third reporter, Hazem Rajab, was seriously injured. Dahdouh himself was wounded by an Israeli drone strike in December that killed his colleague Samir Abudaqa, an Al Jazeera cameraman, in southern Gaza. Despite the loss of his family members and colleagues, Dahdouh continued to chronicle the destruction of Gaza and in so doing gave new meaning to acting with grace under fire. His courage has informed the world and has given Palestinians hope. Many of the videos he and another Al Jazeera colleague, Hamdan Dahdouh, have posted on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok have gone viral; the videos are a combination of reportage, personal diary and footage of Palestinians in tremendous agony.

Other journalists such as Motaz Azaiza post in English, as well as Arabic. Azaiza, a 24-year-old photojournalist whose urgent, graphic depictions of the carnage have raised the bar for on-the-ground war reportage, has 18.3 million followers on Instagram. Last week he walked along a major thoroughfare lamenting how it was impossible for viewers to fully see the massive scale of destruction in Gaza because Israeli has killed all the journalists who had access to drones:

As you can see behind… it’s all about destruction. I don’t know how long it will take, maybe years, to repair this. When the war ends. I don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s enough. It’s been 102 days. We can’t take anymore. People are so exhausted, so tired, suffering a lot. Journalists are so tired. Everyone is scared. Everyone is worried about their lives, their families’ lives. We’ve lost our homes, our friends, our families, our work, our future, even the past.

In an emotional message to his followers this week, Azaiza took off his press jacket and said he had to leave Gaza for now but hoped to return as soon as possible. He and Dahdouh are now in Qatar.

Azaiza and Dahdouh are among many journalists in Gaza who have been hailed as heroic storytellers. What is remarkable is their raw, unfiltered lens, free of Western bias and Israeli propaganda. Collectively, their work amounts to a kind of cinema verité that has allowed Palestinians to share their narrative, at least for this chapter of their history. Their journalism is not only enlightening but crucial for anyone trying to understand the cataclysm of violence. Israel has prevented foreign correspondents from accessing Gaza unless they are embedded with Israeli troops. Egypt, presumably under pressure from Israel, has prevented journalists from entering Gaza at the Rafah border crossing, which it controls. Reporters Without Borders revealed that a number of Cairo-based journalists have been told to request Israel’s agreement if they wanted to enter Gaza via the Rafah border crossing. Those journalists who did seek Israel’s permission were refused.

Though they face the spectre of death every day, Palestinian journalists have therefore become indispensable chroniclers of history. One would hope then that Western media bias in favour of Israel would begin to crack. So far that has not been the case: the coverage of Israel’s war against Gaza by the New York Times and the Washington Post has shown a consistent bias against Palestinians. Not surprisingly, these newspapers disproportionately emphasize Israeli deaths and used emotive language to describe the suffering of Israelis compared to Palestinians. In Canada, mainstream coverage of the conflict is similarly skewed. Journalists working for Bell Media—the conglomerate that runs CTV, CP24, and BNN Bloomberg—admitted that workplace culture was distorting the truth about Israel’s violence in Gaza. Several journalists spoke of a culture of fear around reporting on Israel, that senior producers and editors disparage Palestinian guests, and refuse to invite Palestinians on if they’ve been too critical of Israel in the past.

Israel’s active role in shaping international media coverage explains this bias, at least in part. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) actually dictate subjects that are off-limits for news organizations to cover, and censor articles it deems unfit or unsafe to print. When I was reporting from Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, foreign correspondents from all the major news organizations were expected to attend background briefings by the IDF not just once, but several times a week. We were not allowed to cite information from these briefings or directly quote military sources. These briefings were seen as providing journalists with Israel’s perspective on the conflict and constituted a form of hasbara, or communication strategy. In reality, these sessions were rife with propaganda that helped sanitize and spin the coverage of Israel’s conduct during the war. Coupled with the media’s policy of maintaining privileged relations with Israeli authorities, the briefings had an insidious effect. Most international journalists covering the conflict at the time were based in Israel and relied on Palestinian correspondents or stringers to provide updates on the violence in the West Bank and Gaza. On any given day, if stringers in Gaza informed their Western colleagues in Jerusalem that IDF forces had shot Palestinian teenagers in the head and chest for throwing stones, the story that was published or aired often became passive and anonymous: Palestinian youths throwing stones were shot dead at a military checkpoint. Rarely would the victims be named or given a human face. The soldiers who shot these children were not identified either, and no responsibility was taken.

For legitimate reasons, the mainstream media today is struggling to maintain an audience and set political agendas as it did in the past. Young people no longer read establishment newspapers or watch CNN or CBC in the evenings. They now rely on social media for their news; they are interested in watching Palestinians document their lives.

Israel’s widespread destruction of universities, schools, libraries, and archives appear to be aimed at erasing Palestinian voices and history. Now more than ever, the world is relying on Palestinian journalists to establish a record of what is happening to their people.

Judi Rever is a journalist from Montréal and is the author of In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.


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