Deep source network, experience underpin AP reporting in Gaza

The Associated Press team in Gaza is reporting the news as they live it, working quickly — under extremely difficult conditions — to verify and debunk information for AP’s customers around the world. Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes lauded their efforts in a recent memo to staff:

It was late Sunday afternoon [July 20] and a brief cease-fire had silenced a raging battle in the Gaza neighborhood of Shijaiyah. Dozens of Palestinians were dead, hundreds wounded and thousands fleeing. In a matter of minutes, the battle would resume.

AP Gaza photographer Hatem Moussa, touring the area, caught sight of someone he knew from Gaza’s Civil Defense who was searching for bodies and followed him into a badly damaged building. From under the rubble came the barely audible sound of a family trapped: A woman crying for help alongside her husband, 7-year-old niece and three dead relatives.

“I’m here under the shop,” the woman cried out. “God, please, I can’t breathe.”

Moussa called for AP backup. Visiting photographer Lefteris Pitarakis and video journalist Dalton Bennett were not far away; upon arrival, they first determined whether they might help the family, and then shot pictures and video. It was too dangerous for rescuers to bring in bulldozers. As the AP team rushed out, Moussa spotted a Red Cross team and passed on the exact location. Hours later, rescue workers returned and saved the family. The Civil Defense team made a point of calling AP, inviting the team back to the hospital for a follow-up story.

It was just one of several instances of AP being a step ahead of the competition in the most challenging of environments: war in a small, sealed-off territory where they both live and work. In this setting and under these circumstances, the Gaza staff performed brilliantly, advancing a story of global interest to earn the Beat of the Week award.

For the Gaza staff, this is more than a news story. It’s their life. Covering war is hard enough; worrying if your family will survive the day is simply impossible for most of us to imagine. Consider a few snapshots from recent days:

Moussa was having the pre-dawn Ramadan meal with his wife and four children when the airstrikes began. They fled, fearing death. Driver Said Jalis‘ family, his wife heavily pregnant, took refuge at a U.N. school, sleeping on the floor; his 10th child was born Monday [July 21]. Writer Ibrahim Barzak‘s family moved twice in less than a week before deciding home was safest; he turns the TV off when his children are near and sleeps less than four hours. Fares Elwan, the caretaker, sleeps on a mattress in the office hallway because it’s too dangerous to return to see his 11 children. Majed Hamdan, a photographer, fixer and driver, put his family in the room looking away from a built-up area in Shijaiyah. “If we die, we all die together,” he says.

And yet, routinely, the Gaza staffers put all this aside, mining their excellent network of sources and years of experience. Reporting into the Jerusalem bureau — and working closely with AP staff journalists in Israel who are themselves under siege from Hamas rockets – their professionalism puts AP consistently ahead on one of the world’s most competitive stories.

They know every inch of the strip, and are able to quickly verify or debunk reports. Besides covering and facilitating stories themselves, they’ve created a crucial foundation for the visiting team of Senior Producer Khaled Kazziha, writer Karin Laub, Pitarakis and Bennett.

Just ask Pitarakis, who has covered conflicts across the globe: Working with the experienced Gaza staff, he says, makes all the difference. “Without a doubt, this is the game-changing scenario,” he says. “These guys set up this amazing system. The drivers know everything. The local photographers know everyone. It’s a constant flow of information and I wouldn’t be able to operate without it. These guys tell me: go there, go here.”

This well-honed newsgathering system has been working throughout the conflict. On July 13, APTN producer Najib Abu Jobain put AP ahead with the first images of families fleeing the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, which were coming under heavy attack from Israeli tank fire.

“I got a phone call from my daughter the moment she saw the donkey carts, trucks and cars arriving at the U.N. school (where the displaced where seeking shelter).” AP got the pictures at 2 a.m., about six hours ahead of Reuters.

And the staff has been working this way for years: Back in 2011, it was Barzak who broke the news that Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit had been handed back to Israeli forces.

For valiant and extraordinary efforts that helped make the AP the leading source for news on this crucial story, the Gaza-based staff wins this week’s $500 award.

They are: chief APTN producer Najib Abu Jobain, correspondent Ibrahim Barzak, photographer Adel Hana, cameraman Rashed Rasheed, photographer Hatem Moussa, photographer Khalil Hamra, APTN producer Wafa Shurafa, photographer-fixer Majed Hamdan, cameraman Tamer Ziara, camerman Yacoub Abu Galwa, driver Ismail Shurabasi, driver Said Jalis and caretaker Fares Elwan.