- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

Tough assignment

Hard-working young freelancer Joshua Mitnick has witnessed more than his share of violence and agony in the three years he has been our principal correspondent for Israel and the Palestinian territories.

During that time, he has visited the scenes of far too many mass killings and talked to the families of the victims, young and old and on both sides of that conflict.

But seldom, he says, has he found it so hard to maintain the emotional detachment that enables a reporter to do his job as while covering the eviction of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

“It was very difficult to watch people being carried out of their homes bawling, to see the soldiers crying as they carried out their duties, to be in a synagogue as young women said last-minute prayers of hope, watching their whole world collapsing on them,” Mr. Mitnick said.

“No matter what your political views about the evacuation, these scenes gnawed at your stomach,” he said. “It has been very hard to remain aloof.”

There have been other factors making this a stressful and difficult story for the reporters, starting with the heat.

“The weather is extremely exhausting,” Mr. Mitnick said. “It is a typical Middle Eastern summer; the sun is very strong; shade is scarce. You definitely have to wear a hat and carry water, or you get dehydrated.

“In addition, the military told all the reporters to leave our cars outside the Gaza Strip, so we have had to walk everywhere,” he said. “The first day I bought a used bicycle, but it got a flat tire after one day, so I haven’t been able to use it.”

Then there is the hostility from some of the settlers.

“I have never been asked so many times, ‘Are you for us or against us,’” Mr. Mitnick said. “I tell them, ‘I am neither for nor against, I am here to tell your story.’ But they just keep asking. A lot of them feel most of the media is against them.”

Ice cream pops

Early in the week, settlers slashed the tires of four British Broadcasting Corp. vehicles and a car belonging to a Jerusalem Post reporter. The BBC cars in particular were easily identified by the large letters “TV” spelled out in tape on the windows.

Not all settlers take that attitude, Mr. Mitnick said.

“Some of them want to talk, want their story told. They feel they are being done a great injustice, and the more the media records that, the more the public will understand it.”

There also have been moments of danger, such as when Mr. Mitnick decided to remain inside the main synagogue in the settlement of Neve Dekalim as soldiers prepared to come in and evict hundreds of holdouts.

“I was a bit worried,” he said. “I debated leaving because I didn’t know how violent it would get. I knew the settler leaders were committed to keeping things under control, but I didn’t know about the kids.

“In the end, the setter leaders and rabbis kept a lid on it. A few young people threw bottles at the soldiers, but the leaders scolded them for it. When the time came I was able to just walk out through a phalanx of soldiers.”

The Israeli soldiers, Mr. Mitnick said, behaved professionally and were respectful toward reporters.

“Many times they have given me water, and once they gave out ice cream pops to reporters and settlers. They also handed out red hats to all the media, so we could be easily identified in a heated situation.”

One of the biggest problems was that, once authorities sealed off Gaza at the end of last week, it was not possible to move from one settlement to another.

Luckily for us, much of the initial action took place in Neve Dekalim, where Mr. Mitnick and seven other journalists had rented a house at exorbitant rates several months ago.

On Friday, emotionally exhausted but with the most dramatic action completed, he headed home to Tel Aviv for a rare weekend with his wife, who is expecting the couple’s first baby next month.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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