Frontline’s excellent documentary about the danger to journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being rebroadcast on PBS on 5 June 2003. Visit the PBS website for further information about the program and the issue, including a Real Audio stream of the documentary available for dial-up or broadband. To find out local times, go here on PBS’s website.
Synopsis of “In the Line of Fire”
The West Bank city of Hebron is a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is home to 150,000 Palestinians and an enclave of some 400 Jewish settlers who are guarded by Israeli soldiers. The tensions between the settlers and the Palestinians make Hebron particularly volatile.
While working as a journalist in Israel, Patricia Naylor, a Canadian TV producer, met a number of Palestinian video cameramen and still photographers who cover the frequent clashes in Hebron. These journalists work for Western media companies. Cameramen Mazen Dana and Nael Shyouki of the British news agency, Reuters, and their colleagues are accustomed to the risks of photographing street protests and riots. But displaying their wounds, they all told Naylor they had become targets of Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets and even live ammunition.
To document the shootings and other hazards they face, the Palestinian cameramen made a pact: whenever one of them was being attacked, the others would film. Mazen Dana and the others showed this private video collection to Naylor. On one tape she sees Israeli settlers in Hebron, some of them children, throwing stones at the cameramen. On another tape, settlers attack and beat unconscious a cameraman for the French news agency, AFP. There is footage of Mazen Dana being shot twice.
“But of all the videotaped shootings,” says Naylor, “the one I found most disturbing was Nael Shyouki’s from [March] 1998 before the current intifada.”
That night Shyouki and his colleagues had just finished covering a march by Jewish settlers who had been forced to return home by Israeli soldiers. The cameramen were standing around, making plans to leave, when soldiers arrived and started shooting at them. Shyouki was hit by rubber bullets. In graphic footage, we see Shyouki lying on the ground, bleeding, as he is shot a second time. Finally, his colleagues drag him to safety and rush him to the hospital.
Three years later, Shyouki took Naylor to the scene, emphasizing that the soldiers who fired were less than 100 feet away. “The moment they took positions they started firing towards us,” recalls Shyouki. “Everybody hid and screamed we are journalists. We spoke in Hebrew, we spoke in English. We shout a lot. I guess this whole mountain heard our voice. Everybody in this area, except these soldiers because they don’t want to hear it. They just kept shooting and shooting and shooting.”
Shyouki says eight journalists were shot that night, including Mazen Dana. They had been hit by rubber bullets, which are used for crowd control. “But these Israeli-made bullets have a steel core,” reports Naylor. “They can be deadly at close range.”
At the time, Israeli journalists joined their Palestinian colleagues to protest the shootings, but no one was ever punished. Naylor showed the footage of Shyouki’s shooting to Danny Seaman, head of the Israeli government press office. Grimacing at the disturbing videotape, Seaman - speaking as an individual - says, “I’m sorry, I wish he didn’t have to go through this.” Seaman tells Naylor that Shyouki may receive the official apology he seeks.
When the Palestinian intifada began, shootings of journalists became more frequent. The French group, Reporters Without Borders, documented 40 shootings in the first few months of the uprising, including the case of Bertrand Agierre, who was shot in the chest while covering a protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The French TV correspondent was saved thanks to his bulletproof vest. The Israelis investigated the shooting but concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. A freelance Israeli photographer, Avichai Nitzan, was shot in the stomach by an Israeli soldier who, he says, confided later that he mistook him for a Palestinian. “I was standing with five or six Palestinian photographers and the soldiers hate Palestinian photographers,” Nitzan tells Naylor. An army report, which Nitzan disputes, says he was reckless. Nitzan is now suing the army in which he once served.
In response to all the shootings, Israeli official Danny Seaman announced at a July 2001 press conference: “Threats, injury or harm to members of the media whether intentional or by error are unacceptable. The state of Israel regrets any injury caused to journalists as a result of actions by our forces or individuals within our forces.”
But since that declaration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated. Palestinian suicide bombers intensified their deadly campaign. The Israeli army invaded most of the West Bank. More than 600 Israelis and more than 1,700 Palestinians have died. And the situation for journalists has deteriorated.
During the heavy fighting in the spring of 2002, Israeli soldiers opened fire on a BBC crew and an NBC crew, including correspondent Dana Lewis. The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York warns of “a growing animosity in Israel toward the media.” At their 20th anniversary ceremony in November 2001, CPJ bestowed a Press Freedom Award upon Palestinian cameraman Mazen Dana, but the award has not made his work any less dangerous.
Returning to Israel last summer, Naylor finds that Dana had almost been killed by a bullet as he photographed Israeli bulldozers demolishing a contested area. Dana’s boss, Tim Heritage, the Reuters bureau chief in Jerusalem, tells Naylor, “We have an incident a week probably where someone gets shot at. We routinely protest, [but] don’t really hear anything back from the army. We demand investigations. Don’t really get much.”
Asked why he thinks journalists are being shot at by Israeli soldiers, Heritage replies, “Because they don’t want us going places, they don’t want us doing things. They don’t like us…I’m not sure it’s deliberate policy or anything…I think it’s just more haphazard and there’s a lack of control…There’s a lack of sense of being punished if you do it. And we regard it at Reuters as a gross violation of media freedoms.”
The Israeli army denied Naylor’s repeated requests for interviews, so she returns to speak with Danny Seaman, the head of the Israeli press office. “After all the violence of the past year, I found his attitude had hardened,” observes Naylor.
“I’m not worried about the press, freedom of the press,” Seaman tells her. “If there are any limitations to it, it’ll be restored. Any freedom can be restored - the lives of Israelis cannot be restored.”
The Israeli government has taken away the press cards that allow Palestinian journalists to move freely. Nael Shyouki is now confined to the city of Bethlehem. He never did get an apology for his 1998 shooting. And Reuters has decided that to safeguard the life of Mazen Dana, their award-winning cameraman, they must take him off the street.
“It has always been hard to report the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hard to tell both sides of the conflict,” Naylor says. “Now it’s going to be harder still. And the toll on journalists has been profound.”
Michael H. Amundson