War Paparazzi: Israel's War Against Hamas and Still Photographers
February 2009

by Jim Hollander

As Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip ended, Barack Obama was taking the oath of office and became the 44th president of the United States. The last Israeli tank rolled across one of the gates from the Gaza Strip back into Israel, but no one knew when or where. That was a moment no media captured because the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) did not want the media to see the event, or anything else in the three-week conflict.

© Jim Hollander/EPA
Military policeman intervenes and stops press photographers from taking pictures of a group of Israeli infantry soldiers boarding a bus after coming out from the fight in the Gaza Strip on Jan. 18, 2009.
The thousands of stills coming from Gaza certainly told that side of the story, and some tales there are. On this side, however, even an image of that tank crossing back or of a few tired, sweaty soldiers humping knapsacks back for a much-needed rest would be too much of a cliché. Maybe the IDF thought it would look too staged? Maybe they just couldn't organize, calling the "wires" to be at a certain gate at a certain time [currently the wire services consist of Reuters, AP, AFP, EPA, and Getty]. Or, maybe no one in the IDF or the IDF Spokesman's Office (responsible for the press covering most things military) even gave it a moment's thought. Media coverage didn't even cross their minds. I think it is the latter.

During the entire war the IDF did not organize even one event for still photographers and, in fact, threw up every obstacle, including metal-spiked roadblocks and well-armed military police to keep the still photographers (and all press) far away from its soldiers going off to fight a war. No, that's not entirely true. Just the other day, while spending several hours trying to get the army's permission to photograph the "closed military area" official order (you see, it's "classified" so no one is allowed to actually see and view it for long) a Colonel Irit in the IDF Spokesman Unit proudly told me the army had organized a press tour of reserve soldiers in a training exercise before they went into Gaza to fight. A training class in the middle of the real war was what the IDF thought would be of interest instead of something actually happening on the border with Gaza.

© Jim Hollander/EPA
Three local Israelis watch a bomb exploding over Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip.
The war began with Israel's version of "shock and awe": round-the-clock missile and bombing strikes on selective targets. Video footage supplied to prove how accurate each strike is on its target. TV loved it. I don't think the public or the press corps was ready for a full-scale war, but the IDF certainly was. They were prepared down to the media coverage, or rather the total lack of coverage.

We, and when I say "we" I mean the "wire service" and agency still photographers, were shut out from the first day. The IDF imposed what they call a "closed military area" order. This is an official paper signed by the pertinent commanders deeming a certain area off-limits to the press. This time it had a map attached. The map, of course, was "classified" so the police showed it to us quickly, but we were not allowed to study it and certainly not able to photograph it, as we had done during the two 'Intifadas,' or Palestinian uprisings, when areas were closed by the army due to ongoing operations and danger.

I photographed the map today but only after spending three hours on the phone and it took an army Major from the Spokesman's Office to sort out the permission to photograph the map without showing its details.

© Jim Hollander/EPA
An Israeli military policeman shows the "Closed Military Order" map at his roadblock, complete with spikes, outside Kibbutz Ni Am, across the street from Sderot, on Jan. 19, 2009.
What this "closed military area" did, in effect, was to transfer the genuinely caring still photographers' work into a pack of rabid photo-hounds out to score its next meal. We split up, filled up our 4x4s, and scoured the territory looking for "action." Of course there were only a few areas where anything was happening so we'd bump into each other, form groups of off-road vehicles and pick a new section of the "area" to search. The Land Cruisers and Pajeros became progressively dirtier and more lived-in, especially on wet days when the cars were encrusted in mud, and easier targets for the military police to spot.

Getty was enterprising, I thought, and after a week rented a white pickup to blend in more with the local farm vehicles and avoid capture.

The closed military order made a huge track of land adjacent on two sides of the entire Gaza Strip a "no go" area for all journalists. No newsgathering of any sort would be tolerated within this area – about the size of a small state. The problem was, if a photographer did not enter the area, there would be no photos of the Israeli army. The only place the army was, though, was inside the closed military area, and it was illegal to go there and the army did not want to take you in. My daily calls to the IDF for about 10 days running asking politely if there was any work we photographers could do that day were met with pregnant pauses and irritating silence.

Major Avital Liebovich, the IDF Spokesperson, told me the closure idea – both its recommendation and implementation – sprang solely from the army, and mainly from how they saw the media working during the 2006 war in Lebanon. The IDF saw television going live with information on troop strengths with exact locations of troops and went ballistic. They were determined not to let this happen during this war so imposed the all-encompassing closure. It was well planned, and the Major stressed several times it was only done to protect solders' lives.

© Jim Hollander/EPA
"Wire service" photographers on a natural lookout over the Gaza Strip with their longest lenses watch the war in the distance, which was complete with bombs and Palestinian houses blowing up. Shortly after this photo was taken, the photographers left because a military jeep was making its way towards them to eject the group for being in an officially "closed military area."
What happened, in effect, was the army imposed rules that made us play a tiring, frustrating, unnecessary and sometimes dangerous game of cat and mouse. The local shooters are skilled, experienced and concerned photojournalists, quick on their toes, and looking for images that will tell the personal story of the soldiers. Not only what they are doing but how they are feeling. We have covered many army incursions into the Gaza Strip, all in the same area, mostly with the army's knowledge and blessings. This time they shut us out. The locals, knowing their way around, being Israelis and knowing the army well, said OK, we'll have to do what we have to do to get images.

The army turned the still photogs into War Paparazzi and at times it was not pretty. The first order of business was to find the way into the "closed area" before the army and police set up their cruisers, flashing lights and spikes. That part was easy; get up earlier than they did. We'd arrive at 5:30–5:45 a.m., when it was still dark, and the road was not blocked. Therefore, to us, it was open. Makes sense, except day after day, getting up at 4 a.m. is exhausting. It's an hour's drive for me from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip border, but only a few minutes for those wire shooters staying right on the border in a Kibbutz next to Sderot.

We then would hide our vehicles in ravines, behind water pumps or trees to avoid being spotted by the roaming military officers, as we waited for a little daylight and searched the countryside looking for soldiers or equipment doing anything. We snuck up and hid behind eucalyptus trees, trying to get a shot of 155mm Howitzers firing, as one might chase down and wait for an actress to leave the hotel and wander down to the beach in her bikini with a new boyfriend in tow. Just the sight of a tank kicking up dust kilometers away put us into "chase mode" and made us believe the next great frame lay just over the next field of wheat. There were high-speed chases to get away from police cars in hot pursuit – all over muddy country field roads. One photographer told me his car hit speeds up to 140 kilometers [90 miles] per hour!

One day I entered the area along the Mediterranean Sea beach trying to follow the story of the IDF entering the Jabalya area of Gaza. I figured the troops would enter near a place called Zikim, where I know there is a large military base. It's not exactly a state secret, and I had easily photographed soldiers crossing into Gaza from a gate there in years past, so I knew the area. I was driving over sand dunes by moonlight and happened to stop near an Israeli guard tower. I was with two colleagues and we left the car to get our bearings a bit, realizing it could be a very dangerous situation if there were any "terrorists" on foot right at the border where we were, when a loudspeaker cracks loudly giving the warning "the photographers are in a closed military area, and must leave immediately, or we will take action!" in a very stern voice. We all dropped to the sand at the first sound, and then retraced our tracks through dunes to find a different, less threatening location. It was still dark but we managed to come across a group of eight tanks returning to Israel which we photographed by hiding behind a cement blast wall until the lead jeep had passed.

There were warnings, long detentions, arrests, and many escorted trips out of the area with a stern warning by army officers not to be caught again in the "area." A Reuters photographer was detained for four hours, brought to the police station and issued a restraining order for two weeks to keep out of the area. He was back working a day later.

© Jim Hollander/EPA
Two photographers staked out in some high grass try to shoot bombing strikes in Gaza.
There was no other way to 'snap' pictures of the army, and snaps they were. We did our best, and some very strong images came out from this side of the conflict, but I think all the photographers involved would agree that they are snaps, stolen moments. There was hardly a day or moment when one could work and make photographs of the soldiers' lives and experiences. We could not explore the pathos of the soldiers – their exhaustion, fear, anxiety or even the camaraderie of fighting. The army wanted none of that shown due to their overriding fear of showing some small element of importance to the enemy.

The same Major Avital told me she thought the closure order was "very effective," but her major concern was obviously television coverage, and she did not seem too knowledgeable of what still photographs were being published, even in the local press. What the IDF failed to realize is that still photographers don't need to reveal which gate the troops are at or the numbers of the troops. We are more interested in seeing four soldiers loaded with gear walking at dawn past a fence post with a look in their eyes as they march off to war than in seeing a sweeping panorama and counting all the soldiers and tanks. The enemy will see those troops quickly enough, I commented to the Major.

Experienced still photographers certainly know how to play by, and respect, the rules a military force lays down, and Israel even has a Military Censor whose job it is to make sure we don't reveal state secrets, troops strengths, or new weapons systems. In this war the IDF should have let the Censor's Office do their job and the photographers do there job, recording the war so there will be a record of it. As it turned out it was 23 days of misgivings and mistrust as we were not allowed to get even close to a soldier to see how this war was waged.

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© Jim Hollander

Jim Hollander began as a photojournalist in the mid-'70s in Spain. He joined UPI and moved to Brussels and from there he moved to Tel Aviv for UPI after covering the first Lebanon War in 1982. He joined Reuters as their Chief Photographer, Israel and Palestinian Territories, in 1985 and then joined EPA when it was created in 2003 in a similar Chief Photographer's position – called Regional Photo Manager, Israel and Palestinian Authority – until the present.

Hollander has covered all of Israel's conflicts and politics since early 1983, as well as others in the region and Africa. He has exhibited his work widely and won numerous awards, most recently an honorable mention from Editor & Publisher for a story on Sderot, Israel, under rocket attacks in 2008.

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