How is this Gaza war different from all the others? Former New York Times correspondent to Gaza, Taghreed El-Khodary, speaks about her time covering the siege of the Strip, and why the international media is slowly coming around to the Palestinian story.
By Moriel Rothman-Zecher
“I don’t mind being interviewed. Let’s plan the timing,” wrote Taghreed El-Khodary, formerly the Gaza correspondent for the New York Times and currently an editor at fanack.com, ’’I just need to make sure my sister and her family managed to escape their building in Rimal area in Gaza City.”
I had reached out to Taghreed via email, hoping to get her perspective not only on the current horrifying attack on the Gaza Strip, but her thoughts on how today’s situation compared to the 2008-2009 Israeli assault. The media outlets I had been following (Hebrew, Arabic and English alike) were drawing comparisons only in terms of data: how many had been killed now versus in Cast Lead, the number of injured, how many homes destroyed. I was hoping Taghreed could offer me a broader context than that which I was reading.
The first thing I asked Taghreed when she signed onto Skype from a café in Amsterdam, where she has lived since resigning her post at the New York Times in Gaza in 2009, was how her sister was doing.
You know, it’s so hard to talk about, to tell you the truth, because I am far away. I was Skyping with them until yesterday, but now, because of the Internet – because Israel bombed the electricity – it will be hard for many people to charge their computers or phones. Today is the first day that my Facebook has not been filled with prayers and calls for help from Gaza: people can’t use their computers anymore. I fear that it will be hard to access people now, including my family. I am shocked. Yesterday, my sister and her entire family, including her parents-in-law, who suffer from cancer, moved to my mother’s place. Why did my sister move? Because they sent twelve bombs at her house! My sister and her family live in their own house, they don’t have any strangers in their building. Why did they bomb their house? They have nothing to do with politics. They own an ice cream factory. And all of a sudden, Israeli planes bombed their house. The bombs hit many parts of their building and they all ran and hid in a huge ice-cream refrigerator located in the ground floor, from midnight until 8 a.m. ‘We were all afraid and thirsty,’ my 12-year-old nephew Riyad Abu Alouf told me. ‘I counted 12 bombs.’
Israel is bombing randomly. I have other friends whose houses were also bombed: one is an analyst, another works in an NGO, and I learned that a very popular football coach was killed when Israel bombed his house. His wife and children survived. These people have nothing to do with politics. It’s reaching my friends, my family, my neighbors.
What is different between what is happening now and what happened in Operation Cast Lead?
I covered the first war on Gaza in 2008-2009 [as the New York Times correspondent]. I lived that fear. It was so scary, and so long, and so many civilians were killed, many families, many children. This time, Israel has new tactics. They cannot see the Hamas fighters much of the time, so what they are doing is killing the families of the fighters. Of course, Israel had killed families along with Hamas leaders before, but now they are simply targeting the families of the fighters directly.
[Another] difference is, in 2008, there was almost no international media. This time, almost all the international media is there – Europeans, Americans, everyone. This time, the images are reaching the world. I think it was very strong for someone like Jon Snow from Channel 4 to go to Gaza, and to explain what he sees, from his own perspective, not as an Israeli or a Palestinian, but as an outsider. I witnessed so much in 2008, but when I tried to tell what I saw, I was immediately attacked by some members of the American Jewish community as being a “Hamas spokesperson.” I felt alone in 2008, accompanied only by Al Jazeera International, and of course other Palestinians covering for the wires. But this time, I think European media and some American media, reporters like Ayman [Mohyeldin of NBC], really get it, and are communicating what they see back to their publics. And there is also social media. Social media has pushed American mainstream media to cover more elements of Gaza and has pushed them to show more images of killed civilians and damage. Social media has also been important to those of us outside Gaza. I haven’t lost touch because of Facebook, you hear first-person accounts, read feelings, all of this is coming through social media.
What other changes have you seen in Gaza over your years as a reporter there?
I was a freelancer in Gaza during Oslo [peace process signed in 1993], and I reported for the New York Times during the Second Intifada [between 2000-2004], during Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip [in 2005], and the  elections, which Hamas won, and then after the world refused to recognize the Hamas government, I covered the civil war between Hamas and Fatah. And the siege , and then the war in 2008. And I can say that the situation has consistently deteriorated, starting from Oslo, as if Oslo was a curse. It led to nothing except checkpoints, expanded settlements. And the situation we have now, with the siege.
I think the fact that Israel was not severely questioned by the international community after killing so many civilians in 2008-2009 – and I still cannot forget the smell of death all around me – Israel can think that they are above international law, that everything is justified.
Ending the siege is not a “Hamas demand.” It is the people’s demand. Gaza is still under occupation—it is an open jail. Israel always says, “We withdrew, we gave them land to control…” I am always shocked when I hear this line repeated by someone on CNN. The borders are completely controlled by Israel, the sea is completely controlled by Israel. The airspace is completely controlled by Israel. The crossings are completely controlled by Israel, aside from one crossing, controlled by Egypt—and this is now closed as well.
My father had cancer. Because he knew people, he managed to go to Israel to get treatment, but most others cannot. When he died two months ago while getting his cancer treatment in Israel, only my mother was allowed by Israel to join him. None of his daughters or brothers were permitted to join him. Imagine dying far away from your loved ones…the occupation is cruel.
What is happening in Gaza and throughout the occupied territories is not primarily a humanitarian issue, although there are devastating humanitarian side effects: It is a political issue. Focusing only on the humanitarian issues is a pretext not to have to come up with a long-term political solution.
We hung up our Skype call, and I closed my computer, thinking about Taghreed’s parting words. She was right. Though she lauded the efforts of the international media in making sure that, finally, images from Gaza reach the world, there has been a serious failure on the part of the international media and international community in framing Gaza primarily as a humanitarian crisis.
Addressing the broader context of occupation and siege is critical to ending violence and achieving a future of freedom and human security for both Palestinians and Israelis.