Shooting the messenger

A man with an eyepatch speaks into a microphone while a soldier gesticulates behind him

Demonstrators against Israeli settlements have donned eye patches in solidarity with Moath Amarneh. 

Mosab Shawer APA images

Moath Amarneh lost his eye to a 0.22 caliber Ruger rifle bullet.

Colloquially, the bullet is known as the “two-two.” It is a sniper bullet whose use by the Israeli military to control and suppress Palestinian crowds has been increasing for years.

The particular bullet that took Amerneh’s vision was fired at some point on 15 November. According to his own testimony, the bullet hit a nearby object, exploded, and fragments flew into his left eye.

His injury sparked a solidarity campaign involving thousands of media professionals and supporters, hoping to raise awareness of the very real and present dangers that beset Palestinian journalists.

Dozens of journalists have been injured and two have been killed covering demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza since last year.

Amarneh, a 31-year-old photojournalist from the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, had also been working when he was injured. He was covering confrontations between Palestinians and the Israel Border Police during a protest against an expansion of an Israeli settlement in the village of Surif in the Hebron district of the occupied West Bank.

He was wearing a blue flak jacket with the word “Press” emblazoned across it. He wore a helmet, too.

The clothes were supposed to protect him by identifying him as a journalist and therefore non-combatant. Journalists are considered civilians, and as such are protected persons under international law.

The deliberate targeting of a journalist is a war crime.

Amarneh’s injuries caused thousands of journalists and supporters to post photographs of themselves with their eye covered.

Palestinian journalists from the West Bank have covered their left eye during television interviews and school students in the West Bank and Gaza have photographed themselves with one of their eyes concealed, all in support of Amarneh.

“Journalists are being targeted”

But this was not just about one individual. The campaign was about the dangers posed to Palestinian journalists working in the field.

Amarneh’s shooting is not an unusual occurrence and Palestinian journalists have tried their best to ram this message home since his injury.

Journalists have held demonstrations in several cities across the West Bank and Gaza this month, wearing their press vests and symbolic eye patches.

Near the Israeli military checkpoint at Bethlehem’s northern edge, Israeli soldiers dispersed a protest of hundreds of Palestinian journalists with tear gas and stun grenades. At least three people were arrested.

In a statement provided to Israeli media, the Israeli forces denied targeting journalists.

At the time of the incident, the military said, officers were “facing dozens of demonstrators – some of them with their faces covered who were throwing stones at them and burning tires,” and the police “used means for dispersing demonstrations in accordance with regulations and the necessary approvals.”

But rights groups have long questioned the use of live fire to disperse crowds, especially small crowds like the one in Beit Surik.

And Israeli forces commonly target Palestinian journalists.

Hind Khoudary, a Gaza-based freelance journalist, has been covering the Great March of Return demonstrations in the Gaza Strip since they began in March 2018. The protests are being held to demand the right of Palestinian refugees to be allowed return to homes from which they were uprooted in 1947 and 1948.

“Every Friday, at least one of my colleagues is injured – whether it is from shrapnel, live ammunition, or rubber bullets,” Khourdary, 24,said.

“They [Israeli forces] are always targeting us. Israel doesn’t care if you’re a Palestinian journalist, paramedic, citizen or a protester. If you’re Palestinian, you will be targeted,” Khoudary said.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli sniper fire since the protests began. Nearly 29,000 people have been injured – including 7,000 by live ammunition.

The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms documented 107 violations of media freedoms in the West Bank and Gaza during October alone.

The majority were violations by the Palestinian Authority, which has been blocking what it deems as hostile news sites. Facebook also ranked high by censoring Palestinian websites and accounts.

But the only physical assaults on journalists came from Israeli forces.

No mistakes

According to Omar Nazzal from the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS), Israel has been guilty of 600 violations – from assault and detention to damage to equipment – against Palestinian journalists since the start of 2019. Sixty of those violations resulted in injuries.

Amarneh is the second Palestinian journalist this year to lose the use of an eye from Israeli gunfire, according to the organization Reporters Without Borders. The first was Al-Aqsa TV’s Sami Misran who was injured in July while filming a demonstration near a refugee camp in Gaza.

“These things aren’t just mistakes,” Nazzal told The Electronic Intifada. “They wanted to hurt him [Amarneh]. It’s a clear message to journalists: we will be in danger if we continue to cover what’s happening on the ground.”

A man with cameras around his neck is being accosted by five uniformed soldiers.

Covering demonstrations in occupied Palestinian territory has always been a dangerous affair. In this March 2019 photo from near Nablus, Israeli soldiers confront a photographer.  

Ayman Nobani APA images

Last year, Yaser Murtaja and Ahmad Abu Hussein, both of whom were dressed in clothes marking them out as journalists, were killed by Israeli snipers while covering the Great March of Return protests in Gaza.

Sabrina Bennoui, a representative of Reporters Without Borders said the organization has submitted the cases of Murtaja and Abu Hussein to the International Criminal Court.

Reporters Without Borders has asked that their killings be investigated as war crimes, as they were both “clearly identifiable as journalists,” Bennoui said.

In some cases, “[Palestinian] journalists are clearly being targeted for their work,” Bennoui added.

“Any Palestinian who chooses this field has to realize that it’s going to be dangerous,” said Issam Rimawe, a journalist based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “This job is a risk that could change your whole life in seconds.”

Israeli forces have injured Rimawe numerous times – mostly with rubber bullets – as he covered protests across the West Bank. He told The Electronic Intifada that he has witnessed local journalists being shot at before Israeli forces aim their weapons at the actual protesters.

“They attack us before they attack the protesters because they don’t want us to show the reality of what is happening here. They only want the Israeli side told,” he said.

According to Bennoui, the “two-two” bullets used by Israeli forces as a crowd control weapon have caused scores of injuries in the West Bank. The bullet is still a live round, but it causes less damage than regular bullets.

However, the “two-two” bullet can be lethal.

“It clearly results in serious injuries and exposes journalists to unacceptable risks,” she said.

Injury or arrest

In the Gaza Strip, journalists – like all Palestinians in the besieged territory – face great difficulty accessing medical treatment after being injured. Sometimes the treatment is only available inside Israel or abroad.

In December last year, Gaza-based photographer Atia Darwish, 31, was struck in the face under his left eye with an Israeli-fired tear gas projectile while covering the Great March of Return.

After a series of surgeries, he received a medical referral from the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry to access specialist care in Jerusalem. But when the date of his appointment came, he said, his permit application to Israeli authorities was still under review and he was prevented from leaving Gaza.

At the time, doctors in Gaza had told him he needed either a bone graft or an artificial implant – neither of which are available in Gaza. He then tried to exit Gaza via the Egypt-controlled Rafah crossing to access treatment in Egypt. But the crossing was closed on the day of his travel, he said.

He finally received treatment in Egypt earlier this year. However, Darwish told The Electronic Intifada that he received only a filler injection that could correct the aesthetic shape of the face.

He says he still needs additional restorative treatment for his injury, which has caused him vision and hearing loss.

“But I can’t afford the treatment and even if I could it’s not available in the countries around Palestine,” he said. “It’s a year later and I’m still suffering.”

“My work has been greatly affected by the injury,” Darwish added. “I have vision problems and I get tired so quickly. It’s hard for me to work for more than two hours.”

Nazzal says that the journalists’ syndicate has documented 18 journalists imprisoned by Israel, five of whom are administrative detainees.

“Some of these cases are journalists who expressed or published their opinions on Facebook or the internet,” he said.

“My passion”

Administrative detention allows authorities to withhold evidence – even from a detainee’s lawyer.

“The problem is that no one is allowed to access the confidential files [of the detainees],” Bennoui noted. “So the journalists know that their detention is linked to their work but they have no right to know what they are actually being accused of.”

Nazzal himself spent ten months in administrative detention in 2016.

Palestinian journalists are often arrested based on charges of “incitement,” Bennoui said. “They use this charge to easily imprison journalists. Not only this, but in order to close Palestinian news outlets.”

On 20 November, Israeli forces raided and shut the PA-funded Palestine TV, along with several other Palestinian organizations, in Jerusalem – just days after the anchors appeared on air with eye patches to show support for Amarneh. Israel has ordered the TV station to close for six months.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, said at the time that Palestine TV has produced anti-Israel content, presenting Israel as “responsible for war crimes and ethnic cleansing.”

Despite these risks, Palestinian journalists continue with their work.

Tareq Amarneh, 31, has been by his cousin Moath Amarneh’s bedside since he was injured. Just released from his hospital room, Moath has plans to eventually get back out into the field, Tareq said.

“It’s going to be a hard life for him and it will take time to adjust to this new reality,” Tareq, who runs an electronics store, said. “But he has the intention to keep doing his job and he doesn’t want to leave his work as a journalist.”

Hind Khoudary, meanwhile, says what keeps her going is the simple fact that journalism is her passion.

“My friends and family are always worried about me,” she said. “But my passion is to raise the voice of the voiceless. I want to show the world the truth about Israel’s violations.”

Jaclynn Ashly is a journalist based in the West Bank.