A Palestinian journalist’s life and work shed light on the violence in Israel’s “dual” society
Mohammed Omer, The Nation, July 31, 2008
I am a Palestinian journalist from Gaza. At the age of 17, I armed myself with a camera and a pen, committed to report accurately on events in Gaza. I have filed reports as Israeli fighter jets bombed Gaza City. I have interviewed mothers as they watched their children die in hospitals unequipped to serve them because of Israel’s embargo. I have been recognized for my reporting, even in the United States and United Kingdom, where I have won two international awards. I have also been beaten and tortured by Israeli soldiers.
This summer, at age 24, I was honored to learn that I had become the youngest journalist to receive the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, named for the famed American war reporter and awarded to journalists who counter propaganda with the truth. Although Israel has sealed Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians in what many now call the world’s largest open-air prison, Dutch MP Hans Van Baalen lobbied the Israeli government to let me leave Gaza to receive my award in person. Upon my return from London, I was surrounded by Israeli security officers. I was stripped naked at gunpoint, interrogated, kicked and beaten for more than four hours. At one point I fainted and then awakened to fingernails gouging at the flesh beneath my eyes. An officer crushed my neck beneath his boot and pressed my chest into the floor. Others took turns kicking and pinching me, laughing all the while. They dragged me by my feet, sweeping my head through my own vomit. I lost consciousness. I was told later that they transferred me to a hospital only when they thought I might die.
Today, I have difficulty breathing. I have abrasions and scratches on my chest and neck. My hands don’t function well; typing is difficult. My doctor informed me that due to nerve damage from one kick, I may be unable to father children and will need to have an operation.
Israeli attacks on journalists are not new; nor are they rare. In April, Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana was killed by fire from an Israeli tank. He was in a car, clearly marked as press. According to Amnesty International, “Fadel Shana appears to have been killed deliberately although he was a civilian taking no part in attacks on Israel’s forces.”
Reporters Without Borders has condemned the Israeli military’s widespread “abusive behavior” of Palestinian journalists. And the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that journalists covering Israeli military actions in the West Bank and Gaza “contend with perennial abuses at the hands of Israeli forces.” In 2007 alone, Israeli soldiers shot photographers from Agence France-Presse, Al-Ayyam newspaper and Al-Aqsa TV. The television cameraman, Imad Ghanem, fell to the ground when wounded. Israeli forces then shot him twice more in the legs. Both of his legs have been amputated.
Could it be that despite their tanks, fighter planes and nuclear arsenal, Israel is threatened by our cameras and computers, which give the world access to images and information about their military occupation of Palestinians? Indeed, this month a Palestinian girl filmed an Israeli soldier shooting a blindfolded Palestinian at point blank range with a rubber bullet. The video aired widely, on CNN, NBC News and the BBC, among other media outlets.
Although Palestinians face this violence daily, the images and our stories rarely travel beyond our borders. Israel seems intent on hiding its oppression of Palestinians under its rule–including its dual system of laws, one giving civil, political and social rights to Israelis, and the other denying those rights to Palestinians living under occupation. This system allows Jewish settlers in the West Bank to enjoy freedom of movement and access to healthcare and education, while Palestinian children in Gaza die of curable illnesses because hospitals have run out of medicine.
Martha Gellhorn brought to light atrocities committed in World War II and in the Vietnam War. In her tradition, I remain committed to accurate reporting from Gaza today. For this I may suffer lifelong consequences. But I hold on to the hope that Americans–as well as journalists worldwide–will impress upon Israel the need to respect the rights of reporters. Freedom of speech and a free press are hallmarks of any democracy. I am proud to call myself a Palestinian and a journalist. The might of the Israeli military will not silence my pen or darken my camera lens.
Mohammed Omer is an award-winning photographer and journalist based in Rafah Refugee Camp in the southern Gaza Strip.