Reporting from a conflict Zone: James Rodgers on Gaza

In a tutorial room at City University London, James Rodgers, war reporter turned lecturer, is recounting a story about the rising price of donkeys. “Money was tight and petrol was expensive; they were able to go over rough ground when roads were closed because of the security situation.”

He’s reflecting on the effects of the Israel-Palestine conflict on daily life in Gaza. In a country under occupation, it’s difficult to cover stories without relating them to the struggle. “I don’t think you could ever entirely get away from it,” he explains.

Politics doesn’t just lurk around conversations within the community. At 45km by 10km, with limited freedom to leave and return, and a population exceeding 1.5 million the physical realities of the Strip are at times overwhelming.

“When I was there I often used to wonder what it would be like if one of the borders wasn’t the sea because there at least you could get some sort of open perspective and you could breathe a bit,” says Rodgers. “A lot of people go to the beach, as you would if you were hemmed in by fences on three sides, and then you’ve got the sea on the fourth. It’s quite comforting in a way.”

James Rodgers was the BBC’s correspondent based in Gaza from 2002 to 2004. Having previously reported from Georgia and Chechnya, he says that he had “always had a desire” to go to Gaza.

At the time that he arrived, Palestine was half-way through the second intifada. Poor living conditions, destruction of property, expansion of settlements and the resentment of living with Israeli controls and guarded highways were enough to spark the Palestinian uprising. In response, Israel squeezed the border controls to the Gaza Strip tightly and the two sides rarely had contact with each other.

But Gaza wasn’t always so closed and the two regions weren’t always so cut off from each other. James recalls a conversation with a café owner in the Old City of Jerusalem during the ceasefire of summer 2003. He was in his late 40s or 50s, old enough to remember a time when the two sides used to do business on a “day to day basis”. Now, the man explained to him, the generation born in the first intifada are growing up in the second intifada and there’s no kind of personal contact at all.

Understandably, this extreme division leaves each side with little or no understanding of whom the other is. A Palestinian once told him when he finally did cross the border, “Do you know what, James? The soldiers are the same age as me.”

It is by bridging this gap, or being able to offer a perspective from both sides that a journalist can play a crucial role. Being in Gaza on Friday morning, hearing the call to prayer and then travelling the same day to West Jerusalem and hearing the horn mark the start of the Sabbath gives a reporter a “rare and unique perspective”; and is a journey that very few people were in a position to take.

This perception is not just beneficial for either side, or an audience back home, but to policy makers who may not have travelled there before, yet make significant decisions regarding the region. “I know Tony Blair has been to Gaza, I’m almost sure George W. Bush never has, President Obama hasn’t been. The policy makers don’t have that experience.”

Yet they are still key players in how events unfold. Whilst many leaders in the West supported Israel’s “right to defend itself” in Operation Pillar of Cloud, they strongly opposed a ground incursion, which is perhaps why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed down in the end.

In fact, the day we meet is the day after the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Al-Jabari in his car by the Israeli army towards the beginning of the eight-day war. “It was my impression that the Israelis have very good intelligence in Gaza,” says Rodgers.

Sipping his coffee, he explains that in the 24 or 48 hours after he interviewed Hamas leaders he was concerned about being suspected of passing intelligence to Israel about their position. “But I was certainly never approached to impart such information, nor would I have done so had I been asked to,” he tells me.

Some stories were just too risky to cover, he explains, such as house demolitions in Rafah at night. “Sadly my opinion was confirmed in the worst possible way when James Miller was killed filming just that story in Spring 2003.” James Miller was an award-winning cameraman and producer who was shot by an Israeli soldier whilst filming a documentary in Gaza.

With incidents such as these and broken peace agreements, which are formed, broken and mended again, it must have been hard to spend two years there. “For me it became to be almost that there was an idea underpinning the whole conflict, it struck me increasingly that the land and faith… it wasn’t just land as an economic entity, it was land almost as a spiritual concept which is your duty to have and to hold… obviously that applied to both sides… I think if this conflict could be solved by just throwing money at it that would have happened a long time ago, but it isn’t that simple.”

It must also be difficult listening to emotionally charged stories on a daily basis. James points out that as a foreigner he was always allowed to leave and so never fully understood, although his time there was emotionally draining: “You know that for the people giving the interview things aren’t necessarily going to change,” he admits.

He describes watching children looking into shop windows who couldn’t afford even the cheapest toys because there was no money around. “The frustration of tiny but perfectly legitimate human desires was just as telling as the extreme violence in some ways.”

I wonder how easy it is, as a journalist on the ground, to tell the story from everybody’s point of view. “There’s nobody who’s covered conflict who will say ‘I was able to give a complete picture’… what reporters on the ground are in a very strong position to do is to confirm or deny those conflicting accounts that you get when one side is saying ‘this happened’, the other is saying ‘no quite the opposite happened’.”

In times of war, critics often accuse journalists of failing to provide context, something coverage of the Middle East has long been considered to be lacking. On the other side of the debate there is little time for each report and certainly not enough to start at the nineteenth century in every instance.

“I don’t think that there’s anybody who would say the reporting of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is perfect. It can’t possibly be… if you start from the beginning you will alienate the people who do have a degree of knowledge. And if you begin with a great deal of presumed knowledge then you’ve lost the people who need more.” Either way, journalists themselves do not lack knowledge of the history of the region; explaining the significance of the Balfour Declaration is an interview question at the BBC for the post in Gaza.

Sadly, these stories of war often fall on deaf ears to an audience back in Britain and across the world. When conflicts rage for years, there is a tendency for them not to be reported as much. Take, for example, the Iraq war, which barely ever makes the headlines any more.

“Unfortunately there’s a perception amongst audiences in the West that with the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Iraq and other places there isn’t actually that much we can do about it and I know as much about it as I want to know. And if I think about it, it quite upsets me.”

So can journalism ever change anything? “It’s my personal judgement that there needs to be a pre-existing political will… that just needs a push.” Later, reflecting on the journalists who reported on the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s, whose reporting ensured there was a war crimes tribunal, he adds, “Maybe the effects of good reporting are delayed, but it doesn’t mean to say they’re never going to happen.”

On Thursday 29 November James Rodgers will be part of a panel of experts discussing what challenges political and technological changes have brought to conflict reporting. At the event he will also be launching his recently published book, ‘Reporting Conflict’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor