Friday’s attempt by several dozen Palestinians to attack this Times of Israel correspondent and his cameraman colleague while we were covering a Nakba Day demonstration next to Beitunia, west of Ramallah, didn’t particularly surprise me. Neither does it surprise my Israeli colleagues. For quite some time, those of us Israeli journalists reporting on the Palestinian scene have been finding it increasingly difficult to be “there” in the heart of the action in the West Bank, in the Palestinian cities. We’ve been threatened increasingly frequently, told to get out, to go away.
What is different, over the past few months, is that our relationship with Palestinian journalists has changed, cracked. My mentor Danny Rubinstein once said that, during the 100 years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, two sectors maintained their deep cooperation: the criminals and the journalists. And he was right. But the situation has changed of late.
Partly this stems from an initiative of a group of Palestinian journalists, with political pretensions, to “punish” their Israeli colleagues for the fact that they are denied access to Israel. And it should be stressed, the ban on some of the Palestinian reporters from entering Israel is a phenomenon to be condemned and halted. Nonetheless, the means employed by these young Palestinian journalists to protest this ban — by trying to bar Israeli reporters from Palestinians areas — helps no one.
Keeping Israeli journalists from the West Bank’s Area A — fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority — will not lead to the lifting of the ban on Palestinian journalists from Israel, unfortunately.
What these young Palestinian journalists may not recognize is that for the authorities, the entry of Israeli journalists to PA areas is a headache they’d like to be rid of. More than this, the effort to kick Israeli journalists out of PA areas has created a violent, incendiary atmosphere against us. Almost all of my Israeli colleagues have felt, on their flesh, unpleasant incidents, to put it mildly, of late. Myself included.
But on Friday, a certain red line was crossed. On Friday, the threats and the hostile atmosphere escalated into real violence and, in my case, to an attempt to lynch me.
So what exactly happened there? Very unfortunately, the incident began at the initiative of people who identified as Palestinian journalists. Two of them — one named Ahmed Ziada, who agreed to be named; and the second, a young woman who I suspect is not a journalist at all — approached my cameraman colleague, Daniel Book. (Looking at the footage later, I saw what seemed to be the same young woman, her face masked, carrying a Palestinian flag.) When Daniel acknowledged that he was an Israeli cameraman, the young woman and another man — who I believe is a European, not a Palestinian — ordered him to get out of the area, and moved him to the outskirts of the demonstration.
I went over to Ahmed Ziada, who pushed me forcefully away, and told me to get out. I then turned to the young woman and the second man, and asked them to leave Daniel alone and talk to me if they had a problem. (Daniel does not speak Arabic.)
From there, things got rapidly worse. I explained to the two that, on the basis of understandings recently reached by journalists from both sides, there was no reason why we Israelis should not be covering the event. They argued with me, and told me to get lost.
In retrospect, it may have been foolish of me to argue at all, and I should have taken Daniel and simply left. Evidently I made a mistake; I refused to leave.
The young woman, while making threatening gestures, told me that she was going to call somebody, and she made a phone call. Whoever she was speaking to apparently told her that there was nothing wrong with our being there.
But as she completed the call and explained to her friend that “it’s ok,” I found myself surrounded within seconds by dozens of young people, masked and not masked, waving their fists and calling still more people over.
I was extremely worried about Daniel. I couldn’t see him, and I was surrounded by the mob and the two older Palestinians
From nowhere, two older Palestinian men arrived, and demanded that the young crowd that had been trying to hurt me, let me go. The crowd was pulling me one way; the two older Palestinians, the other.
There were some shouts for violence and then fists were raised. One young Palestinian brandished his fist in front of my face, and I shouted at him not to even think about it. The atmosphere was one of near-lynch, and the two older Palestinians continued to shout out in all directions that I be left alone. “He’s with us,” they shouted.
I was extremely worried about Daniel. I couldn’t see him, and I was surrounded by the mob and the two older Palestinians. Some people were screaming out to hurt me; others were saying that I should be left alone.
I remember lots of faces of people I believe were foreign correspondents — watching and staring and doing nothing.
And then someone attacked me from behind, kicking me. Two others joined in, beating me on my back and leg. That’s all. They didn’t hit me in the face, and I wasn’t hurt in any other way.
The feeling of sheer impotence was dreadful. I knew I was at the mercy of the two older Palestinians. I didn’t know who they were or where they had come from. And it wasn’t clear to me how they then convinced the mob — almost by force — to let me get into my car with them. I still didn’t know what had become of Daniel.
A few seconds later, though, I spotted him, and he got into the car. Then the young Palestinians began hitting the vehicle. By then, I had started the engine and we were driving away, accompanied by my two life-savers.
As we drove, I learned that they were members of the PA security forces, from the General Intelligence apparatus. When we reached their headquarters, the area commander and his men tried to calm us down. They gave us lots of coffee, tea, sweets and cigarettes, as they sought to ease the tension.
Yes, I felt that my life was in danger
An hour later, I was back on the Israeli side of the crossing point.
In the hours since then, I have been asked whether I was in danger. Let me put it this way: Had it not been for the two Palestinian security personnel, the incident would have ended more seriously. Far more seriously. The PA intelligence people share this assessment, and I know that the IDF has come to the same conclusion.
Yes, I felt that my life was in danger. Yes, I felt absolutely helpless during those seconds when, from nowhere, a mob descended upon me, bent on doing me harm. That’s a feeling that leaves me particularly angry.
For almost 14 years, I have been reporting Middle East affairs, and mainly the Palestinian arena. I’ve covered funerals, demonstrations, the lot. I’ve met with dozens of armed, wanted men. I’ve been at mass gatherings in Gaza, where tens of thousands of Hamas supporters, hundreds of them brandishing weapons, called out, “Death to Israel.” And yet, an incident like Friday’s had never happened to me.
Another question I’ve been asked in the last few hours is whether I’ll go back to the Palestinian areas to cover events. The answer is a definitive yes. I know this may not be the obvious answer. But my conviction has not wavered that my job, my journalistic mission, must continue, in order to inform the Israeli and international public about Palestinian reality. That includes the bad — including the Palestinian youths and “journalists” who tried to do me harm — and the good, of which there is plenty, including those two men who saved my life and those youngsters who called out not to harm me.
That’s my obligation, and that of my colleagues. If we don’t do it, Israel’s capacity to ignore what goes on in the territories will only deepen, until there is violence of a whole different order.