Israel on Thursday demanded that international media outlets explain the circumstances under which photographers in their pay were present at the scene of the surprise October 7 assault by the Hamas terror group on southern Israel, and warned they could be held complicit in the crimes.
The move came after the pro-Israel watchdog group Honest Reporting published a report Wednesday showing that photographers used by The Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, and CNN provided images taken as the attack was ongoing from the border area and including from inside Israel — intimating they may have had advance knowledge of the assault.
The report also raised questions about the relationship between some of the photographers and the Hamas terror group that rules Gaza.
AP, Reuters and The New York Times all denied having any prior knowledge of the attack and reiterated that their role is to cover breaking news events. AP and CNN said Thursday that they would no longer work with Hassan Eslaiah, one of the photographers named.
The National Information System, a department of the Prime Minister’s Office, said in a statement Thursday that it “takes very seriously the phenomenon of journalists working with international media joining [with attackers] to cover the brutal massacres by Hamas terrorists on Saturday 10/7/2023 in the communities surrounding Gaza.”
It said the Government Press Office “issued an urgent letter to the heads of the media systems where these photographers are employed, and asked for clarification on the matter.”
Still, without receiving answers, it concluded that: “These media people are complicit in crimes against humanity.”
“This is a violation of the rules of professional ethics,” the statement said. “The National Information System demands that immediate action be taken.”
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi also sent a letter to The New York Times asserting that photographers and others at the paper had prior knowledge of the attack and urging the paper to investigate.
“I write to you with deep concern regarding recent reports about your employees’ alleged involvement in the tragic events in southern Israel,” Karhi wrote. “It has come to our attention that certain individuals within your organization, including photographers and others, had prior knowledge of these horrific actions and may have maintained a troubling connection with the perpetrators.”
“I urgently request a thorough investigation into this matter,” Karhi wrote. “The gravity of the situation demands a swift and thorough response.”
The New York Times rejected the accusations, saying regarding photographer Yousef Masoud that “There is no evidence for Honest Reporting’s insinuations.”
The Times said the accusation that anyone at the newspaper had advance knowledge of the attacks or accompanied Hamas was “untrue and outrageous.”
While noting Masoud was not working for the paper on the day of the attack itself, the paper added: “Our review of his work shows that he was doing what photojournalists always do during major news events, documenting the tragedy as it unfolded.”
It added that freelance photojournalists’ jobs “often require them to rush into danger to provide first-hand witness accounts and to document important news.”
Minister Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet set up to oversee the conflict, said in a post to his X (formerly Twitter) feed: “Journalists found to have known about the massacre – and still chose to stand as idle bystanders while children were slaughtered – are no different than terrorists and should be treated as such.”
On October 7, Hamas led over 3,000 terrorists who burst through the Gaza Strip border and rampaged murderously through southern Israel. The gunmen overran communities, slaughtering some 1,400 people, the vast majority of them civilians in their homes or at a massive outdoor music festival. At least 240 people were taken hostage and dragged into Gaza. Hundreds of cases of brutality and abuse were recorded.
Many of the attackers recorded their acts on body cameras or other video equipment and the images were published by Hamas.
The onslaught, which began at around 6:30 a.m., came under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israel. It was reportedly planned under great secrecy with only senior Hamas commanders being aware of the full scale and scope of the attack before it went ahead.
In its report, Honest Reporting asked: “Is it conceivable to assume that ‘journalists’ just happened to appear early in the morning at the border without prior coordination with the terrorists? Or were they part of the plan?”
“Some of [the Hamas terrorists’] atrocities were captured by Gaza-based photojournalists working for The Associated Press and Reuters news agencies whose early morning presence at the breached border raises serious ethical questions,” it wrote.
The website listed four photojournalists whose names appear in Associated Press pictures from the Israel-Gaza border area on the day of the attack: Hassan Eslaiah, Yousef Masoud, Ali Mahmud, and Hatem Ali.
Eslaiah, it said, crossed the border into Israel and took pictures of a burning IDF tank. He also photographed attackers entering Kibbutz Kfar Aza, where dozens of civilians were massacred. The report said that in now-removed tweets posted to his X feed, Eslaiah was seen in front of the tank but not wearing a press vest that would identify him as a member of the media.
A photo has also emerged online of Eslaiah being kissed by Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar. Eslaiah posted the photo on January 9, 2020.
And here is footage of Eslaiah after he crossed into Israel and took photos of a burning Israeli tank. He then captured infiltrators entering Kibbutz Kfar Azza.
Note that he is not identifiable as a member of the press. But AP & CNN deemed it acceptable to use his services. pic.twitter.com/fA0VI2df2i
— HonestReporting (@HonestReporting) November 8, 2023
Honest Reporting said Masoud also took pictures of a destroyed tank.
Mahmud and Ali both took pictures of people being abducted from Israel into Gaza, the report said.
The names of several of the photographers have since been removed from images of the attacks in the AP database, the watchdog said. (At time of writing, Eslaiah’s credit had been removed in AP’s database from the photo at the top of this article and from other photographs he took on October 7.)
Reuters published images from two photographers, Mohammed Fayq Abu Mostafa and Yasser Qudih. Both men apparently crossed into Israel from Gaza to photograph a burning tank, according to the report.
“Even if they didn’t know the exact details of what was going to happen, once it unfolded did they not realize they were breaching a border? And if so, did they notify the news agencies? Some sort of communication was undoubtedly necessary — before, after or during the attack — in order to get the photos published,” the watchdog asked.
“Either way, when international news agencies decide to pay for material that has been captured under such problematic circumstances, their standards may be questioned and their audience deserves to know about it. And if their people on the ground actively or passively collaborated with Hamas to get the shots, they should be called out to redefine the border between journalism and barbarism.”
Israel’s Channel 12 stated on Thursday, without attribution, that these photographers “were not there at 6:30 in the morning” when the border fence was breached in multiple locations, “and apparently not in the first wave after the breach.”
The arguments are over “the second wave and a little after that, at around 8 in the morning,” the TV report said.
In a response to the Ynet outlet, CNN said it has stopped working with Eslaiah.
“We are aware of the article and photo concerning Hassan Eslaiah, a freelance photojournalist who has worked with a number of international and Israeli outlets. While we have not at this time found reason to doubt the journalistic accuracy of the work he has done for us, we have decided to suspend all ties with him,” CNN said.
The Associated Press said in a statement that it “had no knowledge of the Oct. 7 attacks before they happened. The role of the AP is to gather information on breaking news events around the world, wherever they happen, even when those events are horrific and cause mass casualties.”
“AP uses images taken by freelancers around the world, including in Gaza,” it said.
The Reuters news agency also denied having any prior knowledge of the assault.