How to cover disengagement?

Israel is not giving foreign journalists free access to the Gaza Strip, or even the settlements, during the disengagement. (Jafer Ishtayeh)


The letter one reporter in Israel wishes he could send news editors who ask him to cover the disengagement:

Dear Editor,

Many thanks for your email asking me to cover the Gaza disengagement for your publication. I was surprised to hear that you needed someone “already on the ground in Israel”, as you put it, and will not be among the publications sending a correspondent to cover the disengagement from Gaza. I know that some 3,000 foreign journalists are expected to descend on Israel in the coming days.

I will, however, have to decline your offer. The reason is partly practical. Israel is not giving foreign journalists free access to the Gaza Strip, or even the settlements, during the disengagement. Apparently, the only way to “witness” the disengagement will be by applying to the Israeli press office for a place on a number of army coaches transporting reporters to individual settlements. I am opposed in principle to the idea of being shepherded around by the army while covering this event. How is this not just another form of “embedding”?

But in any case I am told seats on the coaches will be extremely limited, maybe only a few dozen, and are bound to be snapped up by the media big-hitters. Independent journalists like myself, particularly ones who have not curried favour with the Israeli authorities in the past, are almost certain to be left out of the running. I suspect, however, that a “pool reporter” more favoured by Israel will be sure to find a seat and doubtless will be offering copy to those media not represented by their own correspondent.

I had wondered about trying to evade these reporting restrictions by sneaking into a settlement and living among the settlers in the run-up to the disengagement – if I can get past the army, who are sealing off Gaza for the duration. Apparently, however, accommodation would be a major problem. The settlers are charging news organisations hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per day to rent a room inside their communities and I cannot afford such sums. Unless your publication is prepared to foot the bill for almost unlimited expenses during my stay in Gaza, I think this will prove an insurmountable obstacle.

Also, I have to admit qualms about paying large sums of money to the settlers to cover the disengagement. Not only are the settlers living on land stolen from their Palestinian neighbours, but many of them have been profiting from this theft for decades, growing commercial crops for European markets in their heavily state-subsidised greenhouses and using up the Strip’s limited water supply. Paying last-minute rent to them seems little more than daylight robbery. Is it hyperbole to call this cheque-book journalism?

As well as these concerns, I also find myself uncomfortable with the nature of the brief you suggest. In your words, you want my reports variously to focus on the human side of the settlers, to describe the traumatic confrontation of settler and soldier – or “Jew fighting Jew” as you put it – and to help the reader “understand the settlers’ great sense of loss in being expelled from their homes”.

However hard I try, I cannot see this as quite the catastrophe you do. There is no religious or historic significance to Gaza for the Jewish people. Instead, the settlers were moved there as part of a state-organised settlement drive which they and their leaders knew was illegal under international law. Did their homes and greenhouses not displace many of the one million-plus Palestinians of Gaza, a substantial number already refugees from Israeli military aggression in the wars of 1948 and 1967? And, as well as taking 40 per cent of the land in Gaza, did these few thousand settlers not also take most of the Palestinians’ water?

Let’s not forget that Israel has been talking about land-for-peace deals for decades. What land could the Gaza settlers possibly have imagined was being talked about if not theirs? During the Oslo process, Israel also spoke of the painful concessions that would have to be made in a final-status agreement. Where could such concessions have begun but in Gaza? So the settlers always knew this day was coming.

In the meantime, the settlers have done very well out of their years in Gaza. They have benefited from extremely cheap land and homes, state subsidies for their extensive agricultural businesses, cheap and bountiful water, and virtual slave labour from Palestinians and foreign workers in their greenhouses. From the state they have enjoyed decades of tax credits, reduced mortgages, and educational privileges for their children. And now when they are being moved back into Israel, they are once again getting all these benefits and more, including substantial financial compensation and nice new homes close by in the Negev. I fail to see what their great loss is.

Suggesting I examine the nature of the settlers’ trauma sounds no more reasonable than an editor asking me 15 year ago to write about the “suffering” of white South Africans as they faced the imminent demise of apartheid. “Write about all those desperate South Africans who will have to dig so much deeper to pay for their swimming pools to be cleaned. Find us a white middle manager who is dreading the day he might have to take orders from a black boss. And what about the drop in real estate values when the first black family moves next door? Tell us about these white families’ distress.”

There are lots of other stories I think might be worth covering, where Israel would find it harder to sanitise my reporting. I could visit the new luxury settlement some of the Gaza families are being moved to, which is concreting over one of the last nature reserves in the Negev. I could look at how Israel is hoping to use the $2bn aid it is expecting to receive from America as “compensation” for the disengagement to confiscate yet more land from Arab citizens in Israel’s Arab heartlands of the Galilee and Negev so that Gaza’s extremist, armed settlers can be relocated there. And of course I could look at the relentless land confiscation, house destruction and wall-building going on well away from Gaza in the West Bank and Jerusalem, unnoticed as those thousands of journalists are distracted by the “trauma” of disengagement.

I hope that it doesn’t sound like after four years of reporting from Israel and Palestine I have become jaded. A senior colleague once told me that most major news organisations refuse to have a correspondent in place for more than two years because he is likely to “go native”. As I write this, I am aware that is exactly how I sound. Maybe you would be better asking one of those 3,000 journalist-visitors to explain to your readers about Jewish suffering and the disengagement.

Best wishes,

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook reports from Israel. He is a contributor to two forthcoming books, The Other Side of Israel (published by Doubleday, September 6) and Catastrophe Remembered (published by Zed Books, October 7). His website can be found at www.jkcook.net.

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