Three Men, A Tent and Some Shrubs: The Backstory of Our Hamas Report

Three Men, A Tent and Some Shrubs: The Backstory of Our Hamas Report

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NDTV 's Sreenivasan Jain Reports on How Hamas Assembles and Fires Rockets

Gaza:  It's always hard to write a back story when the story itself is being transformed or distorted by the twin forces of internet virality and the Israel-Palestinian spin machine. But anyway, here goes. (NDTV Exclusive: How Hamas Assembles and Fires Rockets)

Incidentally, given that this was essentially an eyewitness account taped on video, there isn't some big reveal lurking around the corner. I do hope it will provide a little more detail and address some of the questions raised about how we came to film a Hamas rocket team assembling a rocket and firing it deep from within a civilian neighbourhood in Gaza, just minutes before the start of the ceasefire that is now in effect.

As the video explains, we woke up on the penultimate day of our Gaza trip around 6 am, and there it was, exactly as you see it on tape: an incongruous blue tent on a tiny, vacant, overgrown patch of land behind a low, abandoned building.

There is an important detail about that spot which I mention in our video report which may not have fully registered - this was the exact location from where a rocket was fired five days prior. It happened around midnight, so it was impossible to film. Panic ensued. The Israel Defence Force (IDF) sent a warning to two hotels across the road to evacuate; within minutes they were empty. Those in our building slept in a safe room on the ground floor. And so that spot was seared in our memory.

So when we saw the tent on the same location with two men (later three) moving in and out, working on something inside which they seemed to be burying into the ground, it wasn't hard to conclude what this was. When they started running wires out of the tent, the final steps before covering the earth with a spade, moving some shrubbery on top and then slinking away, it was even clearer.  

We had all of it on tape, but wrestled with the dilemma of what to do with it. Two considerations weighed on our mind. One, the fear which hobbles the reporting such material: fear of reprisals from Hamas against us and those who worked with us, fear of inviting an Israeli response on the spot (these have been known to miss). Two, we needed to be 100 % sure that this was a rocket launch site. So we did nothing, setting off on our assignment for the day, mulling over the material in our possession.

The next morning was meant to be our last in Gaza, and the day when a 72-hour ceasefire was meant to bring some relief to the area. As we woke early to pack - stealing tense glances at the 'rocket' patch - the final step was enacted. With minutes left for the ceasefire to kick in, flurries of Hamas rockets were fired. At about 7:52 am, this patch of earth was activated; the rockets took off with a bang and a plume of smoke. We managed to catch it on video just seconds after. By then the men who assembled it had long gone.

We knew then we had to air the story. For us to have filmed how a rocket was assembled next to us, on a site used twice to launch a rocket, endangering the lives of all those around us on two occasions -to not have reported it would have been simply wrong. But we did take precautions - we aired the report a good five hours after the rocket was launched, well into the ceasefire. By then it was clear that Israel was not responding, at least for the period of the ceasefire. (Incidentally, given Israel's extensive surveillance of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip it hardly seems they would need the media to point out to them where rockets are fired from.)

There was the question of  possible reprisal by Hamas; to this one, there are no easy answers other than to ask: how long do we self-censor because of the fear of personal safety in return for not telling a story that exposes how those launching rockets are putting so many more lives at risk, while the rocket-makers themselves are at a safe distance?  More so when we have rare, first hand proof of how it works?  

We have been asked how we can be sure that those who fired the rocket were members of Hamas. With groups like Hamas, absolute certainty is always hard to establish. The rocket we witnessed was not a one -off, launched by one of the splinter groups of the resistance. It was launched in a flurry of outbound missiles in the final moments before the ceasefire came into effect, suggesting the handiwork of the biggest, most-organized and well-stocked group on the Gaza Strip- Hamas. Also the fact that this was the second time a rocket was launched from the same spot a week prior suggests  this is not the work of one of the factions/ freelancers  but a more entrenched group.

That's really all there is to it. Or not. Fairly soon after it aired, it was distressing to find that the  story had become Israel's 'I told you so' moment, an independent endorsement proof.   In their eyes, that the media has finally acknowledged Hamas's dubious military tactics (the video was shared on the Israel Defence Force's social media platforms; it was also featured as  a brief clip at a Netanyahu press conference).  In turn this provoked sharp reactions from (some of) those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, who accused us of 'betrayal'. Just four  days back, they praised us for our report from Rafah in south Gaza where the hunt for a so-called missing Israeli soldier had unleashed carnage. (The IDF did not re-tweet or 'like' that report)

I can't imagine anything more disingenuous in both these positions. For starters, our report in no way absolves the IDF from taking responsibility for the appalling toll its offensive has taken on civilian lives. If anything, it only makes it all the more incumbent for the Israeli Army to evolve a response that minimizes the damage to civilian lives and property. So far, none is visible. As we and other media have reported from Gaza Strip areas like Rafah, Khuzaa, Shejaiya and Beit Hanoun, entire neighborhoods have been laid to waste, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians, many of them children  in order to hunt down a tunnel, or knock out a rocket launch pad. (Also Read: NDTV's Hamas Exclusive Is An International Headline)

Equally, if we have reported that the other side - Hamas - is also posing a risk to Gaza civilians, surely those who are concerned about the Palestinian cause should direct their ire at that group, and not at us? Our report in no way implies proportionality. The death toll - close to 1800 Palestinians killed to about 60 Israelis - hardly needs restating. We know that compared to Israel's firepower, Hamas's rockets are a minor threat. Of the almost 3,600 fired so far, only 10% have posed a serious risk to Israel's cities and have been taken down by its Iron Dome response system. The rocket we saw, in all probability, must have been the one of the 1000s that landed in open areas. But by firing these rockets from civilian areas, they threaten the people of Gaza more than anyone else: that was the simple point of this report.   

Instead a series of arguments have been thrown at us, for instance, the 'we have no choice' argument, suggesting that Israeli encroachment has deprived Gaza of open spaces from which Hamas can launch attacks.  This is factually dubious - one only has to drive down the Salahudin Road from Gaza City in the north to Khan Younis in the south to see that the Gaza strip is not, as is commonly believed a continuous urban agglomeration. 'We have no choice' is also intellectually questionable - it is the same argument that Israel advances to defend its atrocious record of collateral killings.

The bottom line is that news decisions in the heat of a war zone are taken not through the prism of pursuing X or Y agenda, but are often driven by the chaotic, unpredictable flow of news events. We spent our first five days in the Gaza Strip rushing to capture the devastation inflicted by Israeli shells hitting UN schools and dense, residential neighborhoods. On the last day, we happened to see a blue tent pop up and three men quietly at work. (NDTV's Hamas Exclusive: Two Sides to A 'Dirty' War )

There is one final risk associated with stories like this -- and one that often keeps journalists awake at night -- is that our report could end up serving the goals of propagandists. To let this fear cripple our work would amount to erasing the difference between journalism and propaganda.

We chose to not let that happen. We did not turn our sight away from a rocket launch site, just as we did not flinch while filming the dead piled up in Rafah's morgues.   

Story First Published: August 07, 2014 10:58 IST

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