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Who will shine a light on the atrocities in Gaza if all the journalists are wiped out?

Israel’s onslaught against Gaza is a Russian doll of horror, with many atrocities tucked within. Described by the United Nations as a “graveyard for thousands of children”, where more than half of northern Gaza’s buildings are destroyed or damaged and 70% of a traumatised population have lost access to clean water, Gaza is not wanting for horror – but is desperately lacking the essentials of life.

The mass slaughter of journalists is one of those horrors. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), this is the deadliest conflict for media workers they have ever recorded. A total of at least 57 – comprising 50 Palestinian and seven foreign journalists – have suffered violent deaths; another 100 have been injured, all in just seven weeks. To put those numbers in perspective, according to the International Federation of Journalists, a total of 68 media workers were killed on a global scale in the whole of 2022.

Where, it must be asked, is the journalistic solidarity? When Israel banned foreign reporters from entering Gaza, it was left to Palestinian journalists to risk their lives to bear witness to the world. Without them, no media organisation would have the material to accurately report this catastrophe. As Reporters Without Borders put it, Israel is “close to imposing an all-out media blackout in Gaza”. Palestinian truth-tellers are all that stood in the way, and one by one, their voices have been snuffed out. Where are the fiery letters condemning this unprecedented massacre within a massacre?

At the beginning of this month, Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli civilians and soldiers alike to “remember what Amalek has done to you”, recalling a passage in the Bible where God orders the Israelites to avenge an attack by the Amalekites by putting “to death men and women, children and infants”. Israeli missiles have repeatedly put this commandment into practice. Mohamed Mouin Ayyash was a journalist and freelance photographer: he perished six days ago on 23 November, along with 20 members of his family, when an Israeli airstrike demolished his home.

A Gaza City mural of the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead in May 2022 during an Israeli raid in Jenin, in the West Bank.
A Gaza City mural of the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead in May 2022 during an Israeli raid in Jenin, in the West Bank. Photograph: Adel Hana/AP

The same fate befell Alaa Taher Al-Hassanat, another journalist killed alongside her family, a week ago, and Mohamed Abu Hassira, a news agency reporter, killed along with 42 family members three weeks ago. When Wael Al-Dahdouh – the Gaza bureau chief of Al Jazeera – lost his wife, children and grandchild in an Israeli airstrike after they had obeyed orders to flee the north, he returned to work the next day.

It is easy to simply conclude that this hideous level of attrition is simply indicative of a uniquely murderous military onslaught. Indeed, more than 100 UN aid workers have died in the conflict, itself the highest toll in a single conflict in the UN’s history; and credible estimates suggest more than 20,000 Gazans are dead or presumed so while buried under rubble. With Israel claiming it has only killed between 1,000 and 2,000 Hamas fighters, the indiscriminate nature of its offensive cannot be credibly disputed.

But consider how – even before the current carnage – Israeli military fire had killed 20 journalists in nearly 22 years, with perpetrators never charged or held responsible. The most famous example is Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera, shot in the head by Israeli forces who initially denied responsibility, unsurprising given their long-established pattern of deceit. A subsequent investigation by Forensic Architecture and Al-Haq found her killing was deliberate.

Related: Israel-Hamas war is deadliest conflict on record for reporters, says watchdog

Also consider how, a month ago, Israel’s authorities told media organisations that it could not guarantee the safety of their journalists. Consider how 50 media offices have been completely or partially destroyed. Consider, too, how Israel’s authorities falsely claimed freelance journalists working for the New York Times and Reuters had prior knowledge of the Hamas attacks. The pro-Israel NGO that made the allegations withdrew them, but not before Israel’s communications minister put a target on their back by describing them as “terrorists disguised as journalists”, who should suffer the appropriate consequences.

With so much blood spilled, it may seem difficult to prove that journalists are being directly targeted. But when a reporter and cameraman were killed last week in less chaotic conditions in Lebanon, Reporters Without Borders concluded that they were “explicitly targeted” by Israeli strikes. No wonder many journalists’ advocacy groups believe it to be true. In condemning the “most shocking and awful slaughter of journalists” that he was aware of, the International Federation of Journalists’ Tim Dawson expressed his “real fear that there is a deliberate attempt to try and keep the world’s eyes off Gaza”. The president of the CPJ, Jodie Ginsberg, has also declared herself “deeply concerned” at claims journalists are being deliberately targeted.

And it is hardly conspiratorial thinking to suggest that Israel would benefit from silencing journalists in Gaza. The US media outlet Politico reports that the Biden administration fears an “unintended consequence” of the present pause is that journalists would gain “broader access to Gaza and the opportunity to further illuminate the devastation there and turn public opinion on Israel”. Such thinking is inevitably shared among Israel’s rulers. They depend, after all, on western arms, aid and diplomatic support. If European and American public opinion turn against them, all that will be jeopardised. Close Gaza’s eyes and ears, and the atrocities committed by Israel’s armed force will remain in the shadows. Without a camera crew on the ground, for instance, Sky News could never have reported this weekend on Israeli snipers firing on an unarmed crowd.

So, again, where is the mass journalistic solidarity? While international journalists’ advocacy groups have commendably spoken out, they lack visibility in the mainstream arena. Where are the fiery newspaper editorials condemning this particular atrocity, the TV bulletins bringing it to attention, the prominent journalists calling out for solidarity and protection? The reporters and photojournalists of Gaza are the bravest of all, and a death sentence hangs over many of them: if the truce collapses, more journalistic careers will be violently terminated. Western politicians and numerous media outlets have already sent the world a clear message, that the value of Palestinian life is near meaningless. That applies, too, to the slain journalists of Gaza, who shone their light on horrors that would otherwise remain in darkness, even as they were extinguished, one by one.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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