Ramattan’s war: The world’s eyes into Gaza

If there is controversy about who won the recent war in Gaza, there is no question that Ramattan News Agency of Gaza City won the war to broadcast it.

It was Ramattan’s images that beamed Israel’s 22-day “Operation Cast Lead” into millions of households across the globe, capturing the indelible visual moments of the war: the aftermath of Israeli shells that hit a UN school compound killing 46 refugees; the streams of incendiary white phosphorus raining down upon civilian neighborhoods; the family members who desperately dug out the corpses of their relatives beneath the layers of collapsed homes. Ramattan’s images were broadcast uncensored around the clock and only stopped on the few occasions the staff had to evacuate the studios fearing the 11-story building was about to be bombed.

Recently in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, journalist Gideon Levy described the effect these images had:

“The whole world saw the images. They shocked every human being who saw them, even if they left most Israelis cold. The conclusion is that Israel is a violent and dangerous country, devoid of all restraints and blatantly ignoring the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, while not giving a hoot about international law. The investigations are on their way.”

Ramattan’s feeds were broadcast on hundreds of satellite stations around the world, including CNN, NBC, CBS, and FOX in the United States, and the BBC, TV2 Denmark, NOS Netherlands, Quatro Spain, Rai Uno Italy, ITN UK and TFI France in Europe.

Its cornering of the image market however came about by sheer default. Israel prevented international journalists access to Gaza during the war, and made it near impossible to get in for months before. Many international news agencies that did have film crews in Gaza also refrained from dispatching them because they considered the situation too dangerous.

Azzeh Kafarneh has barely slept in the past month. As the Managing Director of the Gaza-based Ramattan News Agency, she led a staff of 120 technicians, camerapersons, producers, translators and editors to overcome enormous challenges, the least of which were the tests of their professional skills.

Speaking several days into the ceasefire by telephone, Kafarneh described the ordeal, bluntly stating “I say it in all simplicity: everyone who came out alive from Gaza, came out by chance, a miracle, an act of fate or God, whatever you want to call it.”

Her account of the war is a testament to what it was like to live beneath Israeli shells while at the same time feeling saddled with the burden of knowing that it was her studio’s images that were crucial for building international pressure to stop the Israeli campaign.

“Ramattan’s experience in this war should have been recorded,” Kafarneh noted. “It was not a ‘professional experience,’ or an ‘institutional experience.’ It was much more. We felt that if our pictures didn’t get out there, then we all were going to be destroyed. We felt it was our weapon.”

Kafarneh added “Everyone understood that in a moment, your child, your house, your life, all could be gone so fast. We filmed the people forced to leave their houses with only the clothes on their backs and returned to not find a house. Their whole history was destroyed. Their pictures, their lives, disappeared.

“The sense of insecurity was everywhere. I once told a crew to go film at al-Shifa hospital in central Gaza, but they didn’t want to because they were scared that something was going to happen there. I told them, if you are scared to film at a hospital, where is it safe? Give me a place that’s safe and I’ll send you to go film there. But that’s exactly it. There wasn’t anywhere safe. On top of that, you have to consider that it is you who is deciding whether to send someone out, and they could get hit. How are you going to feel as a manager?”

Much of Ramattan’s staff slept in the studios on thin mattresses in shifts. But no one could really ever sleep. The shelling was too incessant.

For food the staff expended hundreds of one-kilo flour packets that were sent out to local women to knead into dough. It was then brought back to the studio for baking in an electrical oven, because Ramattan was one of the few places in Gaza with electricity thanks to its diesel-powered generator. Gaza’s electricity is notoriously inconsistent due to the strict Israeli closure policies that have prevented cooking gas, diesel fuel, food, concrete and medicine entering the strip for months.

Other problems related to the Israeli closure impeded their work once the war began. Ramattan had broadcast equipment waiting for two months at the Israeli crossing at Erez, and the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Movement restrictions meant that footage shot in the south of the Strip could not be broadcast from the Gaza studios in the north, because Israeli tanks had cut off the main road.

Another major fear Ramattan faced was making sure the generator didn’t break down. The technician who serviced it was trapped in his village and couldn’t get out because of the shelling. When he finally did, Kafarneh had him tend to the generator “as though it were a baby, because if it failed, all of our work would be lost.”

Communication between the 45 members of the field crew and the studio was carried out with walkie-talkies that proved helpful in previous Israeli invasions. To call outside the network the staff used mobile phones with Israeli SIM cards which they knew would remain functional. The Palestinian mobile phone network in the occupied territories, Jawwal, collapsed once the bombing began. Ramattan’s Gaza headquarters instructed its Ramallah-based bureau to purchase pre-paid minutes, and read their activation codes over the phone because none were being sold in Gaza.

But the emotional challenges of the work far surpassed the technical. According to Kafarneh, “when you go through something like this, it’s really important that tension and stress not overcome your ranks. The entire staff was concerned with what was happening to their families who were in danger. Imagine what its like to work and all you can think about is the safety of your children, your husband or your elderly parents. I personally was in the office when a piece of shrapnel hit my house where my kids and 30 others were taking refuge. I couldn’t leave the premises because of work, and I couldn’t be with my children who needed me. Everyone in Ramattan was in the same situation.”

The sense of teamwork fostered in the field through previous work helped counter demoralization penetrating staff ranks. “We all had this feeling that what we were doing was helping everybody in Gaza. Staff members supported themselves. When events got to some of them, others would lift them up. We understood that we needed to remain strong.”

As events subsided in a tense ceasefire issued on 18 January, the first thing Ramattan staff wanted to do was sleep. “I would tell my staff, just do it in shifts. After the war we had even more work to do, because we had to get out and film the damage, and talk to the people. The poor guys just wanted to sleep, because they could.”

As she contemplates what she and her staff went through, the first thing Kafarneh acknowledges is her physical state. “Now that the situation has calmed down a bit, I feel my stomach turning. It was only today that I had the chance to think about what all happened.”

Remarkably, the Ramattan staff came out relatively unscathed, at least physically. One member was injured from shrapnel, and seven lost their homes. Almost everybody on the staff knew someone who died or was injured.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights based in Gaza reports that 1,285 Palestinians were killed throughout the war. Of them, 895 were civilians including 280 children and 111 women, and 167 others were civil police officers. 2,400 houses were completely destroyed, as were 28 public civilian facilities, (including ministries, municipalities, governorates, fishing harbors and the Palestinian Legislative Council building), 29 educational institutions, 30 mosques, 10 charitable societies, 60 police stations and 121 industrial and commercial workshops

The staggering figures causes Kafarneh’s tenor to slow and dampen. “I wish the camera could have filmed what was going on inside of us. The camera can only take pictures of what took place on the outside, but what’s happened on the inside is a lot worse.” She added, “No one in Gaza feels safe. I remember saying that when the ceasefire begins, the real war is going to start. Because it remains to be seen what people will want to do, where they will go, and how they will rebuild their schools, their houses, their lives. There are 20,000 families who lost their homes. How is Gaza going to absorb them? Its already the most densely populated places in the world?”

Though the questions Gaza faces are many, Kafarneh believes that Ramattan was able to live up to the vision it set for itself when it was founded in 1998. “We wanted to transfer the image of what was taking place here through Palestinian eyes, because we always felt that the foreign media organizations were not being objective in transmitting what was taking place here. This despite the fact that our entire story had to go out to the world through their hands.

“Gaza is a place which the whole world deals with as though it is second class. Where its people supposedly never measure up to standards of professionalism or even humanity. It’s one of the most densely populated places in the world, as well as the poorest, the most oppressed, and yes, even sometimes the most backwards … But I am very proud of the fact that this organization began here, and that we are able to do the things that we do.”

Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian-American journalist based in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. He is also the co-author of Between the Lines: Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. “War on Terror” with Israeli author Tikva Honig Parnass, published by Haymarket Books, 2007. He can be reached at tawfiq_haddad AT yahoo DOT com.