- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003

Being there

There are times when we can sit at our desks in Washington and get a better story about something happening on the other side of the world than if we had been there.

Reporter Sharon Behn, for example, used her government contacts to get more details about the dramatic behind-the-scenes events at last week’s six-way talks with North Korea than were available from any of the pro-forma briefings in Beijing.

But, as a rule, there is no substitute for being on the spot when news is breaking, and any journalist who ever worked as a foreign correspondent has a big spot in his heart for the reporters who rush out to the scene of the latest car bomb or assassination.

One of these is Joshua Mitnick, a Tel Aviv-based free-lance correspondent who has been our eyes and ears on the Middle East confrontation for a little more than a year now.

With the Palestinians’ self-declared cease-fire breaking down, Mr. Mitnick has been busier than usual for the past week and a half, making two trips into the Gaza Strip for stories and one visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The first was to Gaza City after a prominent Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, 53, was killed by an Israeli missile strike on his car.

It took Mr. Mitnick just two hours to learn of the strike, drive to Gaza, clear security checks at the crossing, meet up with a trusted Palestinian “fixer” and continue in a Palestinian taxi to Gaza City.

Even then, there was not much left to see except the angry crowds milling about and a number of children crawling over the wreckage of the car with wrenches, salvaging parts.

“So I went to mourners’ tent, which had already been set up by Hamas,” Mr. Mitnick said, “and there I was able to interview Abdel Aziz Rantisi, another Hamas leader in Gaza whom Israel had tried unsuccessfully to assassinate two months ago.

“I figured they wouldn’t be able to get two guys in the same day so it wasn’t especially dangerous to be standing next to him.”

Moments of anxiety

Despite the mounting violence, Western reporters generally find themselves welcome in Gaza, Mr. Mitnick said.

Anyone with light skin and Western features is assumed to be either a reporter, a diplomat or a relief worker, all of whom are seen to be friendly, or at least nonhostile by the Palestinians.

Beyond that, the extreme hospitality that is part of Middle Eastern culture has survived in Gaza even in the face of violence, poverty and politics. Mr. Mitnick said.

But there are moments of high anxiety, and the funerals of assassinated Hamas leaders bring on some of the worst.

“I was there on the day of one funeral and my fixer told me that if anyone asked, I should tell them I was from Austria,” Mr. Mitnick said.

“You get out of the car and the street is full of people, loudspeakers are booming and you don’t know what they’re saying. It’s an intimidating feeling, so you definitely don’t want to go too far from your fixer.”

Another time, Mr. Mitnick visited Gaza to report on a power struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in which a PA official had been assassinated by Hamas. While interviewing relatives of the assassins in a Hamas-dominated refugee camp, he noticed a number of armed men with hoods guarding the alleyways.

“I don’t think I was in any immediate danger, but the armed guards were some kind of thermometer,” Mr. Mitnick said. “The Palestinian fixer definitely was getting a little fidgety.”

More often, however, the biggest problem is the crowds of curiosity seekers who gather around whenever a reporter tries to talk to a resident in the street.

“That definitely inhibits the interview a lot,” Mr. Mitnick said.

One rule that Mr. Mitnick follows in Gaza and other hot spots is to try “to remain extra careful” in areas being patrolled by Israeli forces “because you don’t know who they are going to think is a threat to them.”

Last week in the Gaza town of Rafah, where Palestinian leaders made a show of trying to close down tunnels used to smuggle arms from Egypt, Mr. Mitnick found himself in the home of a family living smack up against the border facing an Israeli checkpoint.

“The people won’t go into certain rooms because they said the army shoots into the house. There were bullet holes in the wall, which inclined me to believe them,” Mr. Mitnick said.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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