Wael al-Dahdouh, the al-Jazeera bureau chief in Gaza, has become the symbol of the suffering of Palestinian journalists. Footage of him continuing to work after an Israeli airstrike killed his wife, two of his children and a grandson gained global attention in October. His suffering was compounded this month when his son, Hamza, also a journalist, was killed in a targeted drone attack. This week 53-year-old Wael left Gaza for treatment on an injury sustained during a strike last month that left an al-Jazeera cameraman dead.
Youmna el-Sayed, the al-Jazeera English correspondent in Gaza, was very close to both Wael and his son Hamza. Speaking from Cairo, where she and her family were evacuated this month, she told Index: “I consider Wael as an older brother while Hamza is, or was, younger than me. He was a very nice and kind person. He was loved by everyone. If you go to the Gaza Strip and speak about Hamza, no one will tell you anything bad about him… And Hamza was always there. With us at all times. I saw him every day.”
The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has produced documentation to show that Hamza al-Dahdouh took money from the terrorist group Islamic Jihad and that his colleague, Mustafa Thuraya, also killed in the airstrike, was a member of Hamas’s Gaza City Brigade.
El-Sayed said she did not accept the IDF’s version of events: “Israel has made so many claims before but has produced no strong and solid proof or evidence other than just claims that it has given out to the public.”
She said she didn’t know Thuraya but could vouch for Hamza. “I know him very well. I was at his wedding last winter so I know the whole family very well. I know who Hamza is, and I know he’s not associated with any of the Palestinian factions or fighters. Hamza was a journalist.”
As for Wael al-Dahdouh himself, el-Sayed said the veteran correspondent was driven by his faith to continue reporting despite his personal grief. “Despite the killing of his family, he went back on air to pursue his message because, for him, it’s a duty. He’s not just doing it because he’s al-Jazeera correspondent. He’s doing it because it has so many other meanings deeper than that. He tells me this is a duty I will be asked upon from God before anyone else.”
El-Sayed said she spoke to al-Dahdouh after the death of his son: “I gave him my condolences. And I know Wael is a very strong person. But that day, he cried when he spoke to me, and I was already crying. I told him, ‘I don’t even know what to tell you. Hamza wasn’t just your son. He was my brother’. He told me, ‘Hamza loved you very much, you know. He always spoke about you even after you evacuated’. That really pricked my heart because Hamza was like a younger brother to me. We always joked and we always spoke together and we discussed everything that was going on.”
Since the war began more than 83 journalists have been killed, the majority killed in Gaza, according to the CPJ. Of these, 76 are Palestinian, four Israeli, and three Lebanese. The CPJ have called it the deadliest conflict for journalists on record. The IDF insists that it is targeting terrorists and that many of those victims identified as journalists are in fact militant fighters. But Youmna el-Sayed does not believe this. “Many of the journalists in the Gaza Strip were targeted in their homes. Hamza was targeted along with Mustafa in their car directly — after three months of this war. How can people associated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad… be left freely to move around and work as journalists in every targeted area for over three months?”
With experienced journalists such as Youmna el-Sayed and Wael al-Dahdauh forced to leave Gaza, it is difficult to imagine how the world will ever find out what is really happening on the ground.
“I’m a mother with four children. I’m married. Like any other war, of course, any escalation that breaks out in the Gaza Strip, it’s our first mission to cover what’s happening,” said el-Sayed. But this war was different. “Everything was happening so quickly. The war wasn’t just in limited areas or on a certain sector or against a certain group. Our families, like any other person in the Gaza Strip, were in constant danger all the time. It was the constant worry about my family and my kids and are they safe or not. It’s very challenging. It was a struggle I had never lived before.”
As a reporter in Gaza, el-Sayed had to negotiate not just the Israeli bombardment but working in territory ruled by Hamas. “If you have watched my reporting, I will tell you that every single thing that happens in the Gaza Strip from Hamas I report it as neural, as I had seen it. I tried to be as objective as I can because it’s a moral duty.”
She added: “My first reporting on 7 October was about the barrages of rockets that were fired from the Gaza Strip and from different areas and the unprecedented attack that we have witnessed from Gaza and from the Palestinian fighting groups in the Gaza Strip against the Israeli towns. So, I’m not going to shut my eyes about what is happening in the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian fighters or Palestinian factions simply because I’m a Palestinian journalist reporting from Gaza. Then I’m not a journalist.”
At the same time, she said the actions of Hamas should not prevent her from reporting what the Israeli army is doing in Gaza. “I’m not supposed to be only reporting what is happening from or within Gaza, from Hamas against Israel, and totally turning a blind eye towards what’s happening in the Gaza Strip from the Israeli army. That’s not being impartial. That’s just giving one side of the story against the other.”
El-Sayed finally decided to make the difficult decision to leave Gaza because she no longer felt her family was safe. She had already been displaced five times before she finally evacuated to Egypt. “But I’m only here with my body,” she said. “My heart and my mind are totally in the Gaza Strip. I’m just in front of the news every single hour. I’m always looking at my phone, checking the news websites on a minute-by-minute basis to see what is happening there. And at the same time, I’m very much heartbroken and worried about the people, my friends that are there, my colleagues, everyone that I have left there. But at the end, I had to choose between being a journalist and continuing to pursue my job and being a mother with four children, who I need to look out for their lives. And this is the only reason why I had to leave.”