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Israel-Hamas war: Our first mission as journalists is to tell the full story, denied access to Gaza we cannot do that

Before you read this, can I ask you to do it with as open a mind as possible? What follows is neither partisan, one-sided or compromising.

But it is intended to prompt some really tough questions. Why, after nearly five months into the war in Gaza, is there still no access to foreign journalists?

Like every foreign correspondent I know, I believe there is no substitute to having journalist boots on the ground and seeing it for yourself. That is how I have reported all my life from age 18 and that isn't changing now.

It is also the only absolute way of finding out most accurately what is the truth. And in a world of misinformation, disinformation, false and malicious use of images and 'alternative truths', it is the most effective way of nailing a lie.

But being "on the ground" has simply not been possible in reporting the war inside Gaza. It is access which has been resolutely denied us since the 7 October Hamas attacks inside Israel.

Read more: Sky News and other news organisations call for access to Gaza

The only journalists able to operate inside Gaza are those who were already inside the Strip at the time. And those journalists, like everyone else in Gaza, are trapped. They cannot get out. The very few who have, are only out because of medical emergencies, or because the media organisations they work for have worked relentlessly to get them on evacuation lists. They are very few.

In every conflict I have covered throughout my career it has been necessary - actually imperative - to rotate fresh reporting teams into the story.

In the conflicts I have covered in recent years - ranging from Mosul to Raqqa, Ukraine and Afghanistan, Sky News and colleagues from newsrooms across the world have often deployed multiple teams at a time. And those teams are continually rotated to allow for recharging, recovering and allowing fresh eyes and minds on events which are physically and mentally exhausting and debilitating.

The brave and diligent journalists who have been reporting on the ground in Gaza have done so without respite for nearly 150 days. International media teams have been asking constantly for the authorities of Israel and Egypt to provide us with access, but we have been blocked.

We have met officials in person, raised the issue continually in news conferences and sent countless letters of request. And every other government with influence is failing to use its international pressure to change this reality.

Embedding offers only limited insight

Access has been excessively limited. There have been a few selected journalists who have been invited to briefly 'embed' with the Israeli military (IDF) for rare, short, escorted tours inside Gaza. They have given us a glimpse of what's happening, but very much just a glimpse.

I have never been a fan of embeds with any army. I have gone into hostile environments with many military from a range of countries worldwide including UK and US and found they can provide a good indication of how the war is going; how effective or ineffective it is; how morale is amongst the soldiers and what progress the military is making on the ground. But by the very obvious nature of embedding with any army, it offers only limited insight.

There are restrictions embedding with any army. The embedded journalist must abide by certain rules set by the host military designed not to compromise their security. The host clearly chooses the route, area to head to, how long you are in situ and basically what the journalist gets access to and who they talk to or if they can talk to anyone at all.

The IDF, for instance, has not allowed any of the journalists they've escorted into Gaza to talk to any of the Palestinians inside. This clearly has monumental limitations. We should all question why this is still happening nearly five months on into the most intense bombardment seen in decades, and how that affects understanding of what is going on inside.

Record number of journalists killed in Gaza

All media organisations - and therefore you, as the reader or viewer of what we are all showing and reporting from inside Gaza - are completely reliant on the Palestinian journalists inside Gaza. Without them, as long-time, seasoned foreign correspondent Kathy Gannon of Associated Press put it: "We would be completely blind."

Since the 7 October attacks, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there have been record high numbers of journalists who have been killed in Gaza. It says three out of four journalists killed globally in 2023 were killed during the Israel-Hamas war between 7 October and 31 December.

Take this in: Last year, more journalists (say CPJ) were killed in the first three months of the Israel-Gaza war than have ever been killed in a single country over an entire year.

News cameraman killed in Gaza missile strike

Although it's difficult to get absolutely accurate statistics because of lack of access to Gaza, there are believed to be around 90 journalists killed in Gaza. Many believe the number dead is much higher.

That's roughly more than 20 journalists killed every month since 7 October. Twenty. Killed. Every. Month. Or one every other day. Can you take that in? Because I am finding that hard to. There are also the injured, those with life-changing injuries, serious mental health problems and those who've lost their homes and families too, on top of those deaths.

The figures are contested by the Israeli government and its supporters who claim alternatively that the Palestinian journalists inside are coerced by Hamas so are not independent; that they are not journalists at all but Hamas fighters with media vests on and they are not 'real' journalists and therefore incapable of being unbiased.

The suggestion seems to be that therefore any alleged targeted killings of journalists by the Israeli military is acceptable. And any 'accidental' killing is because they're in a hectic war zone whilst ignoring the fact they can't escape anyway.

Our journalist colleagues in Gaza who we've been talking to on a daily basis and on whose work everyone is relying, need to be - and SHOULD be - protected in times of war.

They are incredibly brave and suffering monumental stress while doing their jobs in extremely dangerous circumstances, all while trying to protect their families, find food, water and somewhere to sleep or shelter. Their deaths and injuries should be an uncontroversial matter of great concern.

'Our trip provided a window into the war zone, but only a small one'

ALL journalists need to be allowed in. All governments should be pressurising Israel and Egypt to make this happen. Our colleagues inside should not be carrying the burden of covering this war on their own.

Clarissa Ward, CNN's chief correspondent, is the only journalist who was not residing in Gaza or embedded with the IDF to be allowed into the strip (last year). She went in with a UAE medical team going to a field hospital run by the UAE authorities. She was allowed to stay only two hours, was not allowed out of the vehicle she travelled in until she reached the field hospital; was able to only visit that field hospital not beyond - and her trip could not go ahead without the express permission of Israel.

No journalist since has managed to get this required permission. "Our trip provided a window into the war zone, but only a small one," said Ward.

She wrote very eloquently in the Washington Post recently of arriving in Israel within hours of the 7 October attack and covering the aftermath of the atrocities committed that day and went on: "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 modern warfare."

Like many others, my crew and I have spent the bulk of the past nearly five months busting a gut to get into Gaza. Whilst other colleagues from Sky News were reporting on the ground in Israel, we set about trying to get access to Gaza.

The most obvious first point is through the Egyptian border at Rafah. But even getting to the Rafah border crossing is monumentally hard - and impossible without permission from the Egyptian authorities.

Read more: The Rafah border crossing point that is so crucial in the conflict

Crossing the heavily militarised and fortified Suez Canal to get into the Sinai is impossible as a foreign journalist without express permission and papers from the Egyptian Government Media Office. There are multiple armed checkpoints on the route in the Sinai and although we managed to get to the Rafah Crossing a number of times on various escorted trips, we were told very strictly on each occasion that crossing the border was out of the question and our safety could not be guaranteed.

At the end of last year, a group of media organisations including Sky News appealed to Israel and Egypt for access whilst also saying we take responsibility for our own safety. It led nowhere and altered access to Gaza not one jot.

Last month (January) the Foreign Press Association attempted to persuade the Israeli High Court to rule that journalists should be allowed in but it was refused for "security concerns", the primary one cited being that foreign journalists on the ground could compromise the safety of Israeli soldiers.

When I reached out to the IDF Media desk, they explained: "The IDF is currently conducting a war against the terror organisation Hamas. To allow journalists to report safely, the IDF accompanies them when in the battlefield."

It's hard to decipher truth from fiction or malicious falsehood

War is nasty, violent and deadly. Those without journalists' eyes on them run all sorts of additional risks and allegations.

In this highly connected internet world, it's hard for everyone to decipher truth from fiction or malicious falsehood. And it is all too easy to trash respected reporters and media organisations especially without their own correspondents on the ground. We need foreign journalists to be allowed into Gaza to back up, help and support our brave Palestinian colleagues. And we need those inside already, to be better protected.

As the BBC's Middle East editor and veteran of many wars, Jeremy Bowen, said from Jerusalem: "I'd rather be reporting from Gaza."

There's no foreign correspondent worth their salt who doesn't want that access - to evaluate the situation first-hand. Why aren't we getting it?

Bowen said on the BBC's From Our Own correspondent recently that he'd had access shortly after 7 October via the Israeli army to many of the worst-hit Israeli border communities after the Hamas attacks whilst volunteer paramedics were still retrieving the bodies of Israelis killed by Hamas.

"The army took us in because they wanted us to see what Hamas had done," Bowen said. "I can only surmise that Israel is not allowing reporters to work freely inside Gaza, because their soldiers are doing things they do not want us to see." He is not alone in surmising that.

Bowen went on: "Reports from foreign journalists might back up Israel's assertion that, to use a common phrase in Israel, 'they are the most moral army in the world', OR foreign journalists might uncover evidence that backs up those allegations of war crimes as well as the even more serious one of genocide - till we get in, we'll never know."

Safety is taken very seriously by all media organisations but not more seriously than those journalists who choose to report from the ground of some of the most hostile environments in the world.

We know the dangers and we also know the importance of being able to report on the full story. There are urgent efforts being undertaken now to secure a long-lasting ceasefire and release of all the hostages still held captive in Gaza.

History has shown, the effective curtailing of media coverage for whatever reasons, results only in confusion and doubts - a breeding ground for conspiracists and non-understanding which can only make peace more elusive.

Our first mission as journalists is to tell the full story. Foreign journalists are not able to in Gaza right now.