Wajeh Abuzarefah is a Palestinian journalist who has worked in Gaza for over 20 years. Currently working for NBC News, Abuzarefah has reported for various international news organizations and served as chief editor for the Shaab news website. An expert in his field, Abuzarefah has consulted as a political analyst for several Arab news groups and trained non-governmental organizations working in Gaza. Abuzarefah lectures at multiple universities in Gaza on polling and campaign management. The Gate’s Dylan Wells sat down with Abuzarefah during his fellowship at the Institute of Politics to discuss life in Gaza, his journalism experience, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Gate: You have been shot and arrested while reporting. What is it like to be a journalist in Gaza?
Wajeh Abuzarefah: It’s so difficult to be a journalist in Gaza. It’s too dangerous to be a journalist in Gaza. To be a journalist, you are facing everybody there. For me, I’ve been a journalist for almost thirty years. I’ve been a journalist under the Israeli occupation, and then during the first intifada, when the Palestinian authority gained power after the second intifada, and when Hamas took over Gaza, so in all those periods I’ve faced everything, everybody there. During the Israeli occupation, I was arrested five times. Three times it was administrative, meaning no reason, no court, no nothing. They took me from my house and held me in a prison with no questions. The first time it was six months, and then nine months, and the third time for one year. Then, they arrested me twice to question me, once for eighteen days, and once for forty-five days. Most of the questions were about my work as a journalist, because while working as a journalist, you’re interviewing people in the clashes, so of course we were meeting with wanted people from the different factions and activist movements there. This is not legal, but what will the journalist do if he cannot do that?
In 1993 there were clashes in my town, while I was a cameraman filming for TF1, French TV. There was an Israeli soldier, and he shot a Palestinian child throwing stones. So I took my camera, and I tried to capture his face to understand why he was doing that . . . He was far away from us. Because he was a sniper, he saw me [through the lens of] his weapon. Maybe he understood that I was trying to focus on him, so he shot me and hit me in my leg. The bullet exploded, so the parts of the bullet are still in my leg now. Twice I have been shot at by Israelis. As journalists, we were in the middle between demonstrators and the Israeli army—they were throwing stones, and they were shooting, and we were caught in the middle. Under the Palestinian National Authority, of course, there were the same problems because we were covering the things that they didn’t want us to cover. So all the time they were asking us to come to the police offices, the military offices, and they were asking us, “Why are you doing this story? Why did you say this word? Why are you doing this kind of work?” We had to stay there the entire day, sometimes two days. And we were not arrested, because they cannot say they arrested a journalist, so they just made us wait by saying that an officer was coming. Maybe the most difficult period was during Hamas. With Hamas, it is difficult to be in Gaza when you are not one of them. If you are not one of them, and you are a journalist, it is a big problem for them. They tried to stop our work many times. They tried to prevent us from opening our offices for a long time. They stopped me from traveling for years. All the time, I felt like a target because I was a journalist working with an American agency. But you know, there are other kinds of dangers. For example, ISIS. ISIS has started to grow in Gaza. So there are a lot of scary issues there and a lot of fear, but this is part of our job.
Gate: What motivates you to keep reporting and producing stories in the face of all this danger?
Abuzarefah: It is dangerous, but it’s part of our role. The journalists have two choices: to face those dangers and continue work, or to stop working as a journalist. For me, journalism is not just a job. Journalism is a part of my life—it is my life, my career. I believe in it. I believe that change comes from here. There’s no choice, I’m supposed to complete this work. I need to do it, not only because it is a job, but also because it is my target for change.
Gate: From your perspective, what is life like for people currently living in Gaza and the West Bank?
Abuzarefah: It’s a prison in Gaza. It’s not even a big prison, it’s a small prison. Gaza is 350 square kilometers. More than 20 percent of it is in the border area, and nobody can go to it. This area is blockaded by the Israelis and the Egyptians, so no one can leave and no one can get in. There are closures all the time around Gaza. There are two million Palestinians within Gaza. The Israelis allow food into Gaza and some medicine and clothes, but no building or infrastructure materials, or anything needed by factories or farmers. The people are just waiting because they have nothing to do. It’s difficult for them to make any moves against Hamas either, because Hamas is a militant group. They are strong, and they are killing the people who try to demonstrate against them. Just last week, my daughter and her colleagues from the university were arrested for partaking in a demonstration, asking for a negotiation between Hamas and Fatah. They tried to arrest her, and they sent forces to my house. They’ve arrested her twice before because she is a youth activist.
Gate: What are your thoughts on the portrayal of Gaza and Palestine in American media?
Abuzarefah: There are no Palestinian stories in the American media. They cover the news if there is war or something big happens, but this is not the real story, the people’s story. They are talking about Gaza attacking Israel. But there are two sides. It is difficult, I don’t know how it could be fixed because for a long time, America has shown its support to Israel. America helps Israel, so it wants to show Israel as a target and Gaza as a terrorist. Nobody talks about how even Hamas is not just fighting Israel—they are fighting with Palestinians, too. In the last war, 2,500 Palestinians were killed and 83 percent of them were civilians. Fifty thousand houses were destroyed that belonged to civilians, not to Hamas. In the American media, they just say that Israel is defending itself. It is not the real story, but I don’t know how it could be changed. The American people don’t know a lot about us. They don’t know the Palestinian story.
Gate: What are some things you wish you could share with the American people—things about Palestine that you wish people knew?
Abuzarefah: I want the American people to know that the people in Palestine are just like people here in America. They have their own education, culture, and lives. They want to live peacefully. They want to be an independent state, to put an end to the occupation, and to start their own lives with no attacks and no wars. They want to feel safe and to be part of the international community. They want to help humans everywhere. And they are looking for a chance, a chance to be independent and a part of the world. They are not part of the decisions which the government has made. Even here in America, the American people are not part of the decision to kill people outside of America . . . we are the same. To put an end to the occupation, it is the responsibility of the United States because it is a superpower in the world. America should stop supporting the Israeli killing of Palestinians. I’m asking the people, and especially the students here, to start reading about Palestine. Make connections through the Internet with colleagues in Palestine. They are not terrorists, they are students, the same as you. Use Google, Facebook, Twitter. You will find thousands of Palestinian students who want to talk. They speak English, so they know a lot about the American vision and American culture, and they want to be part of this life. Make the decision to contact the Palestinians.
Gate: Many of the current presidential candidates have offered their perspectives on the relationship between Palestine and Israel. What are your thoughts on the 2016 presidential race, as it relates to United States foreign affairs involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Abuzarefah: This is a crazy campaign for both parties. In the Democratic party, we as Palestinians and Arabs tried Hillary Clinton for a long time. She was the First Lady and then the Secretary of State, so we know her. We know how she deals with issues in the Middle East. We don’t think that change will happen in the Middle East with Hillary Clinton. We know that for Sanders, it will be difficult for him to be the nominee or the president, actually. On the other side, looking to the candidates there—Trump, for example. He has the same Israeli ideas about building walls, transferring refugees, making an America with no refugees, no Africans, no Latin Americans, so it’s the same ideas as Israel. He’s scary, for Americans and for everybody! The others aren’t better than him, even Cruz. I think we have no hope that the next president will change anything. We trusted before when we believed Obama would make a change, but he didn’t change anything. I think under the next president it will be more difficult than before, maybe back to like it was in the Bush days. It will be difficult, even for Americans.
Gate: What do you think it will take for there to be some type of peace between Israel and Palestine?
Abuzarefah: I think the key is in Washington, because the support of the Israelis and the money that Israel takes from the United States. All of the support—all of the defending of Israel in the Security Council, in the international communities and organizations—makes them safe. They have nothing to change. Why change your policy when you are not paying the price for it? They will not put the end to the occupation if it does not cost them. America will continue supporting [Israel], and now there is a negotiation between Netanyahu and Obama about the next ten years of help. Israel used to take $3 billion a year, and now they want $5 billion. The White House said they’d give 3.7 billion, and Israel refused. Israel owns the United States when they negotiate with the White House like this. If you think they own America and they are part of America, then why do they want to take this money by force from the United States? When any problem happens, like with the Iran nuclear agreement, Netanyahu came to Congress and gave a speech as if it were his homeland. The White House didn’t want him to come. This kind of relationship between Israel and America will affect Israel because it will sharpen the divide between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and the conflict will continue. This will affect America because everyone will look to them as a supporter of the occupation of Palestine.
Dylan Wells is a third-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at ABC News' Washington, D.C. bureau as a Political Unit Fellow. Previously, she interned twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. On campus, Dylan serves on the boards of TEDxUChicago and Chicago Strategies. Last year she served as The Gate's Elections Editor, and was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.