In April 2002, the late founding editor of Al-Ahram Weekly, Hosny Guindy, accepted a request I had made as a regional journalist to travel to Ramallah, Palestine, to cover the intensive Israeli raids against Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank. This followed a series of suicide bombings in Israeli cities. With the late right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in office at the time, he had also decided to besiege late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in his office, preventing him from traveling to Lebanon to attend an Arab summit.
Arafat spoke to Arab leaders via satellite, and the whole scene was awkward as reporters stood in front of a huge television screen at his headquarters, known in Arabic as Al-Muqata, to follow the speech. At the summit, Arab leaders adopted a Saudi plan which stipulated, for the first time, that Arab countries were ready to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for handing over occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, to Palestinians. to build their own state. The phrase was “land for peace”. In 2022, several Arab governments are normalizing their relations with Israel to unprecedented levels in exchange for nothing, and the formula has become “peace for peace”, as Israel has always insisted.
A day before I was supposed to leave Ramallah to return to Egypt, a Palestinian blew himself up in an Israeli hotel, killing 22 people. It took only a few hours for Israeli jet fighters, tanks and helicopters to invade and occupy Ramallah, where I was staying in a hotel on the outskirts of this beautiful little city.
I had covered wars before, in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Ramallah was very different. In these wars, I might see a cruise missile heading for an unknown destination. Later, as reporters, we learned that a ministry, an arms depot or even a refugee camp where civilians were hiding had been hit. We were going there later to cover the destruction, but death was never close to me personally.
From the window of my hotel in Ramallah, I slowly and very carefully moved the curtain to see what was happening outside. There were Israeli snipers in the streets shooting everywhere. Until then, I had never used the cliche “it’s raining bullets”. But it was raining bullets. Then I saw a huge tank climbing over cars parked on the sides of the street. The tank went back and forth over each car several times until it was leveled on the ground. Why do they destroy cars this way? Israeli soldiers fired at water pipes, traffic lights, streetlights, billboards and store shutters in deserted streets.
Later, an Israeli officer entered the hotel where I was staying with almost two dozen journalists from all over the world, but mainly from the United States and Europe. He delivered a memo from the Israeli military commander in the West Bank announcing that a 24-hour curfew would be imposed in Ramallah, effective immediately. He added that this was our last chance to leave, otherwise we would be locked up in a hotel like everyone else in Ramallah – including Arafat, of course.
Most journalists left the hotel, but a few decided to stay. As night approached, we saw the hotel’s main door open and a few people enter. It was the Al Jazeera Arabic TV crew led by my late friend and colleague, the martyr Shireen Abu Akleh. Since its launch in 1996, AlJazeera was extremely popular in Arab countries because it broke the taboo on many subjects that public television had never dared to tackle. However, another reason for his growing popularity was his coverage of Palestine, especially during the second Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 after Sharon attacked the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was protected by Israeli army soldiers.
Since 1997, when Abu Akleh first joined Al Jazeera, it has become synonymous with Palestine. To me, she was the sound of Palestine, bravely telling stories and providing images that not only Arabs but the whole world had never seen before. Considering that part of any war is who controls the narrative and the image, European and American viewers took for granted Israel’s claim that it was a “democratic oasis” surrounded by barbaric Arabs who wanted to put an end to its existence.
Yet, because of Abu Akleh’s reporting and the fact that she risks her life on a daily basis, images have spread around the world showing Israeli soldiers breaking the bones of Palestinian children, humiliating them at checkpoints, daily incidents of arbitrary killings by occupation troops, the destruction of their homes, as well as close coverage of the wars on Gaza in which thousands of tons of bombs were dropped on innocent civilians.
I was very happy to see Abu Akleh in person for the first time. I went to greet her with a big smile saying that like most Egyptians I appreciated and loved her work and the information she provided. After a day or two, I finally worked up the courage to tell Shireen how I really felt every time I saw her on TV. Journalists who evaluate the work of others are not a friendly topic of conversation.
However, I said to him, “Shireen, I love your reporting, but why do you have to look so sad every time you appear on TV to make your closing comment? [stand-upper] in a report or in a live interview? The reason I asked was that after seeing her for a few days, I was surprised to find she had a beautiful smile and a great sense of humor.
“How do you expect me to smile, Khaled?” she replied. “I bring nothing from here except death and destruction every day.” There was nothing I could say. Two weeks after my arrival in Ramallah, I had seen only corpses and demolished buildings.
My beard grew longer than ever after I stopped shaving for two weeks, and I looked horrible with little sleep for days as Israeli shelling lasted day and night. However, Shireen came to ask me for an interview for a story about our conditions as beleaguered reporters. “You look like a prisoner with that beard. And sure you’ll give me a good interview? »
Ten days later, a US envoy was due to travel to Ramallah in a failed attempt to ease the siege of Arafat’s office, the Muqata. Clearly for public relations purposes, the Israeli occupation army sent us another note saying that the curfew would be lifted for four hours during the visit of the American envoy so that people could buy first-rate products necessities and provisions.
Instead of buying food and a razor to shave, I was dragged through the arm into Ramallah hospital by Abu Akleh, who provided me with a bulletproof vest and helmet as we drove through an armored vehicle with the word Press written all over it in big letters. Abu Akleh knew it was better for a journalist to stay alive if only to continue reporting; she wouldn’t take unnecessary risks.
At the Ramallah hospital, I suddenly found myself in a horror movie. We went to the morgue and found it was flooded with corpses. Each drawer contained two corpses instead of one. Bodies were lying on the floor because all the drawers were filled with corpses. I saw corpses full of blood and gunshot wounds.
Hospital officials told us they planned to bring in a bulldozer, dig a big hole in the parking lot, and temporarily bury the dead. According to Islamic tradition, people who die as martyrs (in this case killed by Israeli troops) should not be wrapped in white coffins. Instead, they should be buried in the clothes they were wearing at the time of death. I gave up my job as a journalist and worked as a guard. We had to run between the morgue and the parking lot carrying the dead to bury them before the end of the curfew.
I looked at Abu Akleh. She wasn’t crying, and neither was I. But now I understood much better why she never smiled on screen, even if she tried: only death and destruction.
As an Egyptian who supports the rights of the Palestinian people, I felt I had to do anything to help them during this difficult time. I decided to donate blood to the wounded. I asked Shireen for help. She took me to the doctors and they started inserting needles into my arm. The blood came out very slowly and it took a long time to fill a small plastic bag. Abu Akleh laughed and told me jokingly, “It’s all your fault, Khaled. You don’t eat well and insist on having full [Egyptian fava beans] for breakfast every day. We both laughed, jumped into the armored vehicle and headed back to the hotel.
I later met Abu Akleh several times, especially after I too joined Al Jazeera in 2006 as a New York correspondent. I met her in Washington, New York and Doha. Every time we met, we joked and laughed as we remembered the stories from Ramallah. So Abu Akleh said to me, “Is it okay like that?” Do you like my smiling face, or should I give the usual sad face? ”
No, my dear Shireen, I wanted to see you smile and laugh forever, and I never imagined that one day your serious work under the occupation would end with a bullet in the head. Although I am sure that Abu Akleh would have wanted to stay alive to continue reporting on the suffering of his people, his brutal assassination by the Israeli occupation troops will keep him and the cause of the Palestinian people alive forever. .
*A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.