The Trouble With Writing About Gaza

JERUSALEM – Early morning on Monday, March 25, a rocket fired from Gaza destroyed a house, home to a British-Israeli family of seven, in a town north of Tel Aviv.

While the rocket was in flight, most of the town didn’t hear the red alarm and didn’t head for the bomb shelters. But by pure chance the Wolf family did. They survived with barely any injuries, though their dogs were killed in the blast.

The wreckage of the house made it obvious that, under just about any other circumstance, the Wolf family would be dead – and Israel would be in another war with Gaza.

A singular incident, so close to erasing any semblance of quiet in the region. But no one was hurt, so Israel moved back to election coverage after a week of ramping up the tension.

How? And isn’t it crazy that by slim random chance, war was avoided?

I ended up pitching a story to The Jewish Week in the pursuit of these questions. It morphed into a clean analysis piece about the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas, the terror organization that controls the Gaza strip (and is responsible for most rocket fire from there).

Not that that’s bad. But working on the story was unsettling, and leaves me with a lot to reflect on.

I wanted to write an in-depth, New Yorker-y style piece, getting the perspective from a variety of Gazans and Israelis to go play-by-play of the week of March 25. Normally, I actively avoid writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coverage is over-saturated, and I prefer chasing unique or under-covered stories.

Mostly I hate the controversy. Journalism about the conflict seems to breed as much hate and divisiveness, if not more, than the conflict itself. But this situation itched at me, and I wanted answers, so I went for the story.

Talking with Israelis was mostly fine, minus flubbing an interview with a former IDF general. Listening to the audio while transcribing, I realized that I sounded erratic and confused, asking about a war that never happened. Everyone accepted March 25 and had moved on, while I was trying, and failing, to figure out how slim chance had prevailed in keeping the region quiet.

In making personal rules of journalism, maybe I should accept that it’s impossible to write about what never happened. My personal rules about questions, however, don’t play along with that.

Before my story was narrowed down to specifically writing about the Israel-Hamas ceasefire negotiations, I contacted a peace activist I know, who has worked extensively throughout the Palestinian territories and, I hoped, would be able to connect me to a few Palestinians in Gaza to speak with.

They did. And later, they messaged me, concerned that I had asked too many questions about Hamas, and that an internal pro-Israel bias was shaping the story.

It’s a frustration I also felt from the Gazans. The rocket that almost killed a family and started a war came from Gaza, not long after riots against Hamas’ rule in the strip. So it felt appropriate to ask and understand the situation in Gaza.

But the Gazans I talked with are activists, and my asking about Hamas meant, to them, that I didn’t understand that the situation is Israel’s fault. One conversation turned into an interviewee telling me about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, though that’s not what I was writing about. And another, who gave great analysis of the situation, nonetheless painted Israeli soldiers as entirely out for Palestinian blood.

I felt stuck. These people had taken time out of their day to talk with me and answer my questions. And I wanted to be able to contact them for future stories. But in order to do that, I needed to maintain a level of trust with the story I was writing.

Journalism doesn’t mix well with activism. My agenda was to cover an interesting period of time and its ramifications, not blindly repeat with I might be told, either about Palestinians or Israelis. Or about BDS, or any other movement. Or anything in between.

Trying to maintain trust with activists meant writing in a way that softened things they might not like, in case they read my piece and decided I was just another exploitative journalist. I fiddled with quotes and struggled to even write that Hamas was a terrorist organization (they are, I know they are, but this is the price of appeasement).

Thankfully, once the piece became straightforward analysis instead of New Yorker-y, there wasn’t any room to fiddle or soften. But I’m still chewing on the story, and the sense of shame in the hardest part of journalism: getting at the truth, no matter what, and writing it. Without ever being somebody’s mouthpiece.

This isn’t a “just on the left” or “just on the right” problem. Nowadays, almost everyone is an activist with a heavy sense of personal right and wrong, and God forbid a journalist write something they disagree with. Which is why I avoided covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first place: to maintain some general sense of professional objectivity.

And now, who should trust me, or anything I write? What mistakes will I make next? I’m only human. And journalism tends to be a lonely profession. At some point, everybody hates you (especially activists), no matter what you do.

That takes a while to get used to, and I can’t hide from it by avoiding certain subjects forever, or by trying to be extra nice. Which sucks, to be honest. Everybody likes to be liked.

Ben Sales, a long-time reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, once told me to “never carry someone else’s water.” Advice I’ll try to remember more often for sure, regardless of where it might lead me.