In Gaza, ‘Survival is the only objective’

Born in Gaza,  Jamileh Tawfiq studied English and French literature at Al-Azhar University and is one of the many brave Palestinian journalists on the ground documenting and capturing the horrors of Israel’s bombardment since Hamas’s 7 October attack.

Over 14,800 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since then. It has also been the deadliest conflict on record for journalist deaths – at least 57 media workers have been confirmed dead.

How would you describe life before this latest Israeli onslaught?

Nobody brought up in Gaza has ever experienced a normal life.

Even before 7 October, all I’ve known is a life under siege trapped like a prisoner with no end in sight. Though personally, even after 26 years of seeing and living through every Israeli offensive on Gaza, this time was much more punishing. Everything about it was different.

So many families now say they have forgotten how their lives once looked and cannot envisage a future without misery and torment.

There’s a ‘temporary pause’ as we speak: can you describe what you’re seeing on the ground in Gaza?

For many of us it’s just a pause from death to prepare to face death again. And that’s it.

We’ve had more than a month of being relentlessly bombed and displaced so at least [during the temporary ceasefire] we were able to visit loved ones again and cherish the rare moments of happiness before the despair returns. I was very emotional after seeing my sister for the first time in more than 50 days.

But all around Gaza, all that is visible is sheer devastation. The look on people’s faces is heartbreaking: everyone is like a zombie. There’s a sense of pain, loss and trauma that has gripped the entire population.

Survival is the only objective now and that itself is hopeless because central supplies and necessities are scarce. There are tents everywhere that have become makeshift homes. During these grim winter temperatures, I can assure you nobody will be coping. Marketplaces are either destroyed or empty so there’s no option of even finding clothes or blankets to adequately prepare for these conditions.

Amid all the horror we have seen a high number of journalists in Gaza wiped out by Israeli forces. Why do you think this is?

Because there is no such thing as a Palestinian journalist. Just a Palestinian. And in the eyes of the Israeli military, we all have targets on our backs. Press vests, helmets, cameras and other features that make it easy to identify who is a journalist are redundant.

Israeli forces want to create fear by showing us that nobody is exempt from being killed. Our lives are so meaningless that they take them just to send a message. We’ve lived it and witnessed it for long enough to know none of this is accidental. They want to kill us or break us. Whether a baby, a child, an older person, a mother or medical member of staff. It doesn’t matter, and we’ve seen this cruelness throughout.

Looking for some context?

The July-August 2023 edition of New Internationalist ‘Palestine: From occupation to uprising’ is available to buy from the Ethical Shop.

Me and my colleagues know that the Israeli military’s intent when they specifically assassinate journalists is to make us abandon our duty of showing the world their horrors. But they never will succeed with that.

Targeting journalists is unfortunately not a new practise for Israel, and we saw that with the tragic murder of Shireen Abu Akleh in May 2022. As a journalist, describe how it felt to document Israel’s crimes even before 7 October?

Firstly, we need to keep Shireen Abu Akleh’s legacy alive. The way her life was taken and the lack of accountability must not be forgotten. And honestly, losing her was like losing a family member.

As a journalist, there is a huge responsibility and pressure in that position and she carried it so effortlessly. Because to be a journalist in the face of Israel’s atrocities is so mentally and physically taxing.

I’ve been operating on the ground and doing a lot of work for Al-Jazeera English lately, and some of the things I’ve witnessed will haunt me forever.

As journalists, we know how important it is to stand strong and be resilient in front of the camera because countless people are relying on those key details and messages. But there have been several times where I am on air and speaking to the camera but inside, I’m breaking apart a million times over.

The worst thing is that just as you’re reporting on civilians being killed, it could be another journalist doing the same for your death at any point.

What did you make of the rest of the media industry and the international coverage of Gaza?

We have unfortunately been around for long enough to know how Gaza, and Palestine more widely, is framed by most of the media.

Perhaps this time there were some different patterns due to the importance of social media. While there was a partial picture that sections of the Western media showed, there was also the fuller picture available on social media that was amplified.

Suddenly nuggets of information that were previously suppressed were accessible to the outside world. So, not only did it force the bigger broadcasters to take notice and recognize certain facts must be reported on diligently, but it may also compel people to question their own prior conclusions too.

It’s only a small shift but after years of misinformation and having so much of our experiences suppressed, of course it’s a welcome sign.

What were some of the personal challenges that came with being up close in Gaza this time?

When I’m reporting or taking photographs and I’m seeing my communities destroyed, dead bodies piled up and distraught family members everywhere, it’s so heartbreaking because there are so many simultaneous emotions. Nothing can prepare you for being frequently exposed to such destruction.

During one of the telecommunication blackouts, I was reporting live at Al-Shifa Hospital as it was being bombed. But I’d also heard there were explosions close to my neighbourhood and I couldn’t reach any of my family members. I was doing my best to keep myself together and remain professional while reporting on the massacre at Al-Shifa, knowing there may well be a massacre in my own home.

How important is journalism and the highlighting of daily Israeli oppression in the wider struggle for Palestinian freedom?

We know by now nobody will give Palestinians a fair hearing. That’s why many journalists in Gaza stumble upon journalism out of the necessity of giving a voice to our people and telling their story. But everybody has a role to play, and ours is to make sure the world never stops seeing or hearing the truth.

Every photo, or article or report is one step taken in the path to liberation.