Palestinian journalist Majdoleen Hassouna is no stranger to Israeli security forces.
Two years ago, Israeli authorities imposed a travel ban on her in an attempt to restrict her work and movement. Last month, after winning the Reporters Without Border (RSF) Press Freedom Prize, Israel once again refused to let her leave the occupied West Bank to collect her award.
The Israeli decision was condemned by RSF and other rights groups for violating the journalist’s freedom of movement. The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor and RSF have launched a joint media campaign demanding that Israel end its restrictions on Palestinian journalists, including the arbitrary bans on travelling.
Hassouna is not the only Palestinian journalist to encounter Israel’s punitive actions against press freedoms, and most certainly will not be the last. Palestinian journalists, like everyone else in the occupied territories, have been progressively subjected to tighter and more arbitrary Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement.
Modern restrictions on movement began with the 1967 occupation and became particularly visible during the First Intifada in 1987. After the Intifada, Israeli authorities abolished the 1972 military order known as “general exit permit,” ending what was then an informal open-border policy between Israel and the occupied territories. Under new policies, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza wanting to enter Israel required a permit from Israeli authorities.
Movement restrictions were tightened further during the 2000 Second Intifada. Since then, more than 100 other types of permits covering almost every aspect of Palestinian life have been introduced.
For journalists, especially in the past decade, this effectively means that travel permits take months, if not years, to be issued, if at all granted by the Israeli authorities. Those in the field have become the target of arrest and harassment, and sometimes physical injury. Others, like Hassouna, have been banned from travelling.
The Euro-Med Monitor reported that during 2021, dozens of Palestinian journalists became the target of Israel’s travel bans. In certain cases, some of those who were allowed to travel were banned from returning. Others were blackmailed: work with us, or be denied re-entry to the territories.
In a disturbingly ironic reality, the journalists banned from travel are perhaps the fortunate ones. Between 2000 and 2020, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate reported, 46 Palestinian journalists were killed by the Israeli occupation forces. Other figures by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), report that 18 Palestinian journalists lost their lives between 1992 and 2021.
In comparison to other conflict zones, the numbers seem relatively low. In Syria, for instance, 139 journalists have been killed since 2011. Most of them were victims of crossfire, collateral damage, or - to a lesser extent - sectarian/factional murder, largely owing to the high level of chaos and intersectionality in the conflict.
The boundaries in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, are well defined, and that makes the possibility of crossfire casualties amongst journalists - much less the margin of error - fairly low. This puts the Israeli state in the crosshairs for purposefully targeting Palestinian journalists, and raises questions about the motives.
Palestinian journalism is generally partisan. Its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian situation is filtered through the Palestinian experience: as a collective defined by the twofold effect of dispossession and military occupation. This is the Palestinian objective reality and, as such, is reflected in most Palestinian journalistic work.
As such, Israel seems to view and deal with Palestinian journalism as on par with political activism. That is to say, Palestinian dissidence and journalism serve a similar purpose: to expose negative information about Israel and lay bare the human rights violations in the territories. Journalists and activists, therefore, merit similar methods of suppression.
In the fulfilment of Israel’s concept of comprehensive occupation, since 2015 the Israeli crackdown has been effectively extended into the digital sphere. For rights groups, this amounted to “digital apartheid,” one inseparable from the broader system of oppression in the physical world.
Israel’s digital crackdown entails, among other things, censoring Palestinian content online, whether produced by professional or civilian journalists, or average citizens who disapprove of and expose Israel’s policies.
Certain legislations and military orders are weaponised under the security pretext of “incitement of violence” to “legalise” the crackdown on online content creators who point out the occupation’s infringements or call for its end. Hundreds of Palestinians, journalists included, have been arrested or summoned to court as a result.
This extensive crackdown has been accompanied by requests to social media companies to censor Palestinian content on their platforms. According to Adalah, the Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, censorship is conducted “voluntarily” by Israel’s cyber units and without any legal procedures. This is especially concerning because, as non-state actors, social media companies are not bound by legal requirements to uphold and protect human rights.
Suppressing negative information about the Israeli occupation is further reinforced by the so-called self-censorship, or voluntary silence, in Israeli media.
Although portrayed as a shining example of free and pluralistic press in a region dominated by undemocratic regimes, Israeli media has been known to withhold, conceal or selectively report information when it comes to national security concerns, especially at times of high tension, such as the Gaza wars.
Journalists must also submit articles or books on subjects related to national security or the country’s foreign relations to the IDF “Military Censor” for review before publishing. The practice, which has origins in laws from the British Mandate era, now includes social media posts as well.
The given motives for this are to maintain a unified internal front, preserve collective morale, protect the soldiers on the battlefield, and preserve the relationship with the sources of information - mostly the ministry of defence.
But between those who defend the practice as necessary for national security and those who see it as a violation of the freedom of expression, one fact stands: self-censorship renders Israeli media outlets accomplices in cloaking human rights violations in the Palestinian territories.
In many cases, instances of injuring or killings of Palestinian journalists by the Israeli occupation forces are reported in a blurred, generic sense as to obfuscate the true perpetrator. Other times, Palestinian journalists are depicted as caught in the crossfire. When that is not feasible, the incident is blamed entirely on the Palestinians, in a classic Israeli trope of blaming the victim.
Threats and physical attacks by Jewish extremists and the wider settler movement against Israeli reporters who challenge the mainstream paradigm only contribute to substantiating self-censorship and muting the Palestinian story.
As a whole, Israel’s suppression of Palestinian journalists is not a unique case in the history of colonialism. In fact, it’s a typical example of colonial duality, much like the British and the French in the first half of the last century. Both empires were vibrant democracies at home yet applied undemocratic, often draconian measures against their colonised subjects to bend them to their will and to block the flow of negative information.
But Israel - as a displacive settler-colonial project - aims well beyond merely suppressing negative information. A critical goal is to also silence Palestinian representation, and therefore existence.
For Majdoleen Hassouna, to receive the RSF Press Freedom Prize is not only to recognise the journalist’s contributions, but also to actualise the Palestinian story. From an Israeli perspective, this runs counter to the Zionist reality which was almost exclusively built upon the demographic, ideational, and political liquidation of the Palestinian people.
This is why, for many journalists in the occupied territories, it’s not merely a battle for freedom of expression or movement, but also a battle for representation.
Being forced into such a dual role, as has Hassouna, often comes at a heavy price.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.