MEET “ALAA,” A JOURNALIST who has covered events in Israel/Palestine for Mondoweiss. Alaa is of Palestinian descent, but she herself is an American citizen and, as she puts it, doesn’t “look Arab.” This gives her a particular perspective on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian journalists.
Alaa agreed to answer my questions about her experiences reporting in Israel/Palestine but requested that we not use her real name.
This could put me in a very difficult situation as far as visas go. I am here precariously, and anyone working in the country answering questions along these lines risks being kicked out for good. One entire side of my family lives in the West Bank so risking my access to the country by using my real name with this interview is more than I am willing to do.
While other stories in our series “They Fear The Truth: We Report It” have described direct violence against journalists, Alaa provided more information about Israel’s efforts to control reporting using legal requirements, surveillance, censorship and restricted access.
Every example of clampdown on journalists is further evidence that the work Mondoweiss presents daily, from hundreds of brave reporters and photographers, makes a real difference. As a reader-supported nonprofit, we are able to pay Alaa and other dedicated, talented reporters only because of contributions from people like you. Please donate to Mondoweiss today to invest in our work informing the world of events in Palestine.
Mondoweiss: What challenges have you faced as a foreign-based reporter in entering or residing in the Palestinian territories?
Alaa: Israel’s approval of visas for those working in the West Bank is complicated and inconsistent. Every time I leave the country I fear that I will not be allowed back in, even if I have a visa that has a long expiry date.
Once I flew in with nine months left on my work visa, and at the airport my work visa was canceled and I was given a three-month tourist visa. Other times the work visa has been honored. I never know if my visa will be revoked, making me scared to leave the country. I am also held for hours and questioned every time I enter or leave.
Mondoweiss: Can you describe legal controls the government exerts on your reporting once you’re in Israel/Palestine?
Alaa: Israel requires journalists to register and obtain a Government Press Office (GPO) card. I have not been able to obtain a GPO card, so I am unable to report within Israel. This limits my work, of course, since so many stories have elements on both sides of the Green Line.
On the other hand, journalists who have a GPO card have to comply with Israeli government gag orders, and sometimes they have to submit their work for review and/or censorship before publishing. That’s written explicitly in the GPO requirements, and is true even if you report for the New York Times or other mainstream outlets.
Mondoweiss: So the lack of a GPO prevents you from reporting within Israel. Do you have greater journalistic freedom when you’re in the West Bank?
Alaa: Officially, a GPO card is not required in the West Bank. Many times, though, while covering stories in the West Bank, I’ve been denied access or detained by Israeli soldiers demanding I show a GPO card.
In one case when I pointed out the law doesn’t require a press card in the West Bank, the soldier holding me said this was a closed military zone and so it was now required. I asked when it had been declared a closed military zone and he said he had declared it himself right now as he was speaking to me. He then threatened to check all the other journalists’ credentials and make anyone without a GPO card leave.
I knew the others did not have GPO cards—most were Palestinian citizens and at much greater risk than I. So I kept silent, and he released me on condition that I leave the area. Not only was I prevented from covering the news, but everyone present saw that an ordinary soldier took upon himself the authority of “declaring a closed zone”—and was ready to impose collective punishment to quash any challenge. Talk about a chilling effect on the press!
This kind of incident leads to effective self-censorship. Even if you are working in the West Bank, Israel still has to approve your visa, so journalists are careful not to write something—for publication or even on social media—that could get them kicked out of the country and/or banned for five or ten years. We censor ourselves even in phone conversations. The paranoia is palpable because of Israel’s reputation as an all-knowing, all-seeing, security power.
Mondoweiss: What other experiences have you had where Israel’s forces prevented you from practicing your profession as journalist?
Alaa: Israel often closes down villages, and journalists are not allowed to go through these blockades. On occasion, my driver and translator have sneaked me in illegally. As Palestinian citizens, they are taking a much greater risk than I am. I respect immensely their choice as it reflects their dedication to the journalistic mission of informing the world.
Once when I was leaving a closed village, the way we had sneaked in was blocked. After a while we realized the only way out was a dirt path guarded by Israeli military. We stopped the car a couple hundred meters away as the soldiers yelled. They pointed their guns at the car and gestured for us to retreat.
I slowly got out of the car, with my hands in the air. I stood there, screaming “American” and “English” at the top of my lungs. Finally, the soldiers called me over. I pretended I didn’t know I was not allowed in the village. Eventually, they let us go.
Mondoweiss: Have you ever been frightened while doing your job by elements of Israeli society other than the government?
Alaa: Once I was interviewing a Palestinian with my translator in Hebron when a settler walked up with a large dog and an M16 slung on his shoulder. He asked what we were doing, and I said we were about to leave. I could see the person I was interviewing was scared. Settlers are not often held accountable when they commit violence.
The settler walked on to speak to the soldiers up the street at the checkpoint where we needed to exit. Once he had left, the three of us headed to the checkpoint. The soldiers detained my translator and me, took our I.D.s and questioned us for a while. When they let us go, one of the soldiers yelled obscenities at the Hebron resident we had been interviewing.
Another time, I was reporting a story about foreign workers in northern Israel. The conditions were absolutely horrible, the workers lived like animals. During the interview, one of the Israeli farm owners came driving by, and we all ran and hid. Partly, we were frightened that this private citizen—like so many in Israel—might be carrying a machine gun, and might use it. Mostly, though, we were concerned with getting the workers in trouble with their employer.
As it turned out, the owner drove away without seeing us. This is just another example, though, of how the typical concerns of an investigative journalist are magnified by the pervasive violence of Israeli society. It is hard to focus on your reporting when you know the limits of the rule of law when it comes to violence against Palestinians and others considered “less than.”
Mondoweiss: How does your identity as a Palestinian affect your life and work?
Alaa: I have a sort of in-between status. On the one hand, I actually am Palestinian and my name, history and family connections can make me vulnerable. On the other hand, my appearance gives me free passage in many cases—I’m what you might call “white-looking” and when my name isn’t checked I definitely don’t get hassled as much as people who can’t pass as non-Palestinian.
One time I stumbled into an anti-Arab protest in Jerusalem. People were screaming death to Arabs, waving Israeli flags, and holding racist signs. It was bizarre and yes, a bit scary. I pass for non-Arab, but I knew that if for some reason I was identified as an Arab, things could go bad quickly. So that’s a pretty ordinary example of how my identity can put me at risk even when I’m not covering the conflict.
On a more mundane level—but one that affects me every day—I am subject to the same material restrictions as other Palestinians living in the West Bank. For example, we do not have access to cellphone data. This means I can only access the internet through wifi, and that definitely limits my ability to report in a timely manner.
Mondoweiss: Thanks so much for sharing these glimpses of your world. Are there other aspects of your work as a journalist in the West Bank that you would like Mondoweiss readers to understand?
Alaa: I think that when you’re far from Israel/Palestine it can be easy to forget how far the invasion and destruction of basic, fundamental rights has gone. Even while experiencing these constraints on freedom of the press ourselves, those of us here on the ground start to accept as obvious and mundane the challenges we have to face. It often feels like little things, normal and everyday.
But it’s not, and we can’t let ourselves take these restrictions for granted. I am grateful every day that Mondoweiss continues to spread the news about human rights violations in Israel/Palestine.
For me, it’s a privilege to report through Mondoweiss, where I know that thoughtful people see the information I work hard to obtain for them.
I would just like to close by asking readers to continue supporting the essential outlet that Mondoweiss provides for accurate news coverage from territories where the authorities are working very hard to prevent accurate information from getting out. The name you chose for the current campaign rings very true to me. They fear the truth–we report it. I urge those who value the truth to contribute so we can keep defying censorship and awakening the world to injustice.