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Helmets. Flak jackets. Press identification.
Those are some of the tools that journalists covering the Israel-Hamas war are using to shield themselves from the unforgiving dangers of an active battlefield. But the gear only goes so far.
Inside the Gaza Strip, a narrow sliver of the world that even in ordinary times poses logistical challenges for journalists, security conditions have quickly deteriorated. Israel is carrying out a sustained campaign of retaliatory airstrikes with the aim of decimating Hamas, and the terror group continues to launch a barrage of attacks on the Jewish state. In the days ahead, the situation is only slated to get worse, with Israel amassing troops near the border, signaling a possible ground incursion.
Chronicling it all from ground zero are the few journalists located inside Gaza, providing the world with a critical first-hand account of the deteriorating humanitarian reality. Only a handful of news organizations have personnel deployed to the sealed off Palestinian territory, given the perilous conditions that define the roughly 150 square miles of narrow land. And for them, the risk is at all-time highs. Already, at least seven journalists have been killed since the onset of the war.
The French international wire service, Agence France-Presse, is one of the few news organizations to operate a full-fledged bureau inside Gaza. And the reporting it has been pushing out in recent days has been invaluable, providing the world a real-time window into the small plot of land some 2 million Palestinians call home.
The AFP’s camera, perched high above the skyline and offering one of the only live feeds inside the war-torn strip that is continuously providing real-time images of Gaza City, has been broadcasting stunning video of the Israeli airstrikes that have been shown across US news channels, including CNN.
In an interview on Wednesday, Jo Biddle, the AFP’s editor-in-chief of the Middle East and North Africa region, said getting such images out to the world is not without great risk.
“This morning, when we had the camera live, there was an airstrike right opposite of the camera. We could see it. It was right next to the camera,” Biddle said, adding that the outlet’s camera is located on the terrace of its bureau. “And some windows shattered in our office. So the situation is pretty scary.”
Biddle described the challenges her staff of nine Palestinian journalists inside Gaza are facing. The territory’s sole power station went offline Wednesday after running out of fuel, forcing the bureau to operate on its own generator. Biddle estimated that they have about ten days worth of fuel to keep the lights on. After that, the agency will need to find an alternative solution for electricity. Meanwhile, food and water are in short supply in Gaza, but the bureau has stockpiled supplies for the time being. Communication lines can be “quite difficult” though. And, most importantly, safety is paramount while reporting from an area now defined by bombings and gunfire.
“The difficulty, of course, for our reporters and correspondents on the ground is how to work safely in those conditions,” Biddle said. “How do they get the images to show the world what is happening? How do they all then manage their own stress, their own families? They all have families … there is nowhere to hide. There is nowhere to go. So it’s continued stress for our reporters on the ground. They’re worried about their families. They’re not getting any sleep either, which adds to the emotional stress and fatigue and exhaustion.”
Biddle said that the AFP has informed the Israeli military of the specific coordinates of the Gaza bureau so commanders can be certain it is “not a target.” But there are no guarantees in war. And in 2021, in an incident seared into the memories of journalists working in the region, Israel carried out an airstrike on the building housing the Associated Press’s Gaza bureau.
Given the tremendous uncertainties, Biddle said the AFP is working on devising a backup plan, should things “go south in our office.”
“We are trying to work for a plan if the building does come under intense bombardment,” Biddle said. “We are getting a room in a hotel somewhere — it’s unusual for them to bomb this deep. So we have tried to book a hotel room where we can put people and some of the families.”
All the while, AFP reporters are venturing out into the field to do their job: report the news. Every time a journalist exits the bureau, Biddle said, they’re “given orders to look after themselves and not put themselves in danger.” But gathering reporting and capturing images of the airstrikes requires journalists to go toward much of the danger.
“They want to get as close to the action as they can get,” Biddle acknowledged, adding that the AFP lets them “rely on their local knowledge” to navigate the hazardous cityscape.
In the days ahead, the tasks these journalists perform will certainly become more dangerous, but also increasingly vital. The Israeli military is not expected to allow reporters to embed with its units. With most of the news media currently based in Israel, these Gaza-based journalists will instead be the eyes and ears of the world for Israel’s anticipated push into Gaza.
Despite the danger, the AFP’s journalists recognize the gravity of the moment and the significance of their jobs. Biddle said that the AFP has tried to put together an emergency plan to evacuate its journalists and their families if necessary. But, she said, her journalists have indicated they want to stay.
“They are very invested in showing what is going on,” she said. “They are very invested in this.”