The Washington Diplomat / February 2009
By Larry Luxner
Unlike most of his 1.5 million compatriots who inhabit the Gaza Strip, Ibrahim Hikmet Barzak is not — and has never been — a refugee. But he’s certainly living like one now.
On Dec. 30, the intrepid Associated Press correspondent narrowly escaped death when Israeli fighter jets, three days into their Gaza air offensive, blasted a nearby Hamas military compound, shattering his apartment building. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) posted a video of the bombing on YouTube.com — a video Barzak has watched over and over.
The 33-year-old journalist has sent his wife and two young children to live at his father-in-law’s house in another part of Gaza. Since then, he’s led a rather lonely existence, working, eating and sleeping in the downtown AP office that’s become his makeshift home — where he relays insights that are all the more crucial given that Israel has barred all international journalists from entering Gaza to report on the offensive that began Dec. 27.
“There is no safe place in Gaza now,” said Barzak, reached by The Washington Diplomat via landline phone at 6:30 p.m. local time on Jan. 12, about a week before a tenuous ceasefire took hold and fighting was suspended.
“Most of the city is in total darkness right now. There’s a blackout because of the lack of electricity,” said Barzak, his voice clearly audible above the distant sound of shooting.
“From time to time, every 15 or 20 minutes, you hear the exchange of gunfire or shelling along the edge of the city.”
As he spoke, IDF tanks were less than a mile from the AP office in downtown Gaza City, just 400 yards west of Palestine Square.
“Only this morning around 7 a.m., an Israeli artillery shell landed a few yards from our office, sending a huge amount of white smoke believed to be phosphoric acid that covered the area,” Barzak told The Diplomat. “We were looking for gas masks because we were unable to breathe normally for almost an hour. It’s more powerful than tear gas. It gives you a strong headache and you feel your limbs and entire body paralyzed.”
Israel’s reported use of white phosphorus shelling has added another layer to the humanitarian criticism, with aid agencies saying the acid causes severe burns, sometimes peeling skin to the bone, as well as serious respiratory problems in anyone exposed to the smoke and chemical particles that indiscriminately rain down from the shells — which is why the incendiary weapons, though legal, are banned in large civilian areas. The Israeli military has declined to comment on specific munitions used during the operation, but said that any weapons it used were in compliance with international law.
Regardless, the threat of death for Barzak was constant. Despite the chaos around him,
Barzak said he was confident Israeli soldiers wouldn’t actually shoot at him because the IDF had been supplied with GPS maps and coordinates of all United Nations facilities and media offices. Yet that’s exactly what happened only a day after our phone interview, when IDF troops fired shots at his office. It was the same day Israel also targeted a U.N. warehouse storing thousands of pounds of food and humanitarian supplies, in response to what Israel claimed was Hamas rocket fire coming from inside that building.
In a moving first-person account broadcast over the AP wire Jan. 9, Barzak described how most of the landmark buildings he’d covered as a reporter — government offices, mosques, even the central jail — have either been obliterated by the bombs or damaged beyond recognition. Only the Catholic Latin Patriarchate School, which he attended as a boy, was undamaged.
“Driving to central Gaza City, I took the road where Gaza’s two main universities are. It was covered with shards of glass, telephone cables, electricity wires and flattened cars. This road was once crowded with students, taxis and street vendors,” Barzak wrote.
“The Mazaj coffee shop on Omar Mukhtar Street, Gaza’s main thoroughfare, was shuttered. It was popular with wealthy university students because it served really good Guatemalan coffee — rumored to have been smuggled in through the same tunnels under the Egyptian border the militants used to bring in weapons. And Al Dera, a beautiful hotel on the Mediterranean, was a place where young men and women flirted, and where families went for dinner on Thursdays. Those days are gone now.”
Barzak said that due to the power outages, 80 percent of Gaza’s mobile telephone network is down. So he depends on land lines and walkie-talkies to communicate with the AP regional office in Jerusalem, which has responsibility for Gaza.
“I’m the only correspondent working for AP in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “Due to the huge amount of information and nonstop events, I don’t have time to write down my stories. So people in Jerusalem write the stories and send them back to me for accuracy. We’re all working as a team to put this story together.”
The journalist said his 17 years of experience covering Gaza taught him long ago to have a Plan B. “So we’ve stored a large amount of fuel in order to keep our office generator going. AP has provided us with all the tools to keep our communications functioning, though we still have a very difficult time transmitting pictures.”
What’s particularly amazing is that — despite the bombs, bullets, power blackouts and chaos — Barzak has managed to keep in touch with family and friends via Facebook. He even continues to join online “fan clubs” in between reading messages of support from friends and admirers throughout the Middle East and around the world.
“The people in our office in Jerusalem are Israelis, and they all send me warm regards,” he said. But the most moving tribute of all comes from Ron Kampeas, Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“Ibrahim is one of the best reporters I know,” said Kampeas, who met Barzak in 1992 when both journalists worked for AP. Barzak was only 16 at the time, and he had inherited the job from his father, Hikmet Barzak, who died after covering Gaza for the AP since the 1950s.
“Ibrahim is an assiduous, just-the-facts reporter,” Kampeas wrote in his blog Jan. 7. “He never raises his voice and always asks the tough questions. He has risked his life more than once for his job, and more than once for pissing off the Palestinian powers that be.... So I bristle — I bristle hard — when some moron who thinks he is making some kind of case for Israel writes about how Palestinian reporters are implacably biased.”
Barzak told The Diplomat that he faces no censorship in his reporting because he’s not in touch with either the IDF or the Hamas leadership. “No one intervenes in our work here in Gaza,” he said. “I’m doing all the coverage I can through my sources on the ground, and also when I go out to collect information. All the Hamas government officials have gone underground, so the only contact we have with them is through emails, SMS or phone calls. We’ve done no direct interviews with them for a couple of weeks now.”
Barzak said the only top Hamas official who’s available to the media and still shows his face in public is Dr. Bassem Naim, the Hamas health minister, who “performs his duties as a civilian” at local hospitals.
“Before the war started, some people criticized Hamas for firing rockets. Now that more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, people have no time to think about criticism. All we are thinking about is our safety,” Barzak said. “No one has voiced anger against Hamas, at least in our interviews and coverage, though people here are getting more angry with Israel and the entire world, which has done nothing to stop this war.”
But the tide will eventually turn in Israel, predicted Barzak, recalling a particularly touching moment a few months ago. While passing through Israel on his way home from an assignment in Jordan, the reporter stopped at a shopping mall in Ashkelon to buy clothes for his children.
“The woman at the cash register told me, ‘We both want to live in peace, and you and I are victims of our leaders from both sides. We also fear that a Qassam will land at any moment on our house,’” she said. “When I left, she wished me a safe trip back to Gaza, and asked me to wish her a safe trip back to her house.”
In the end, it was Barzak’s house that was destroyed.
Even so, he still has hope for the future — though, like food, gasoline, drinking water and everything else in Gaza these days, hope is in short supply too.
“The majority of Palestinians believe in coexistence. But the Israeli policy in the past few years has been to kill hope among those Palestinians,” he said. “If this continues, it’ll only increase the number of extremists. And if Israel thinks they’re working against Hamas, they’re totally mistaken. They’re working against all peace lovers.”
In the end, Barzak told The Diplomat, the moderates are the ones more likely to emigrate from Gaza, leaving only Hamas and more radicalized Palestinians. Asked if he’d rather live somewhere else, Barzak insists he will stay put and rebuild his destroyed house as soon as possible.
“I’ve never thought of leaving Gaza,” he said, “and I will not leave.”