UNRWA's media role during the Israeli offensive on Gaza

In the absence of foreign reporters, it was left to local journalists and human rights workers to communicate the tragedies of their own people to the outside world. MENASSAT's Ola Madhoun met with Abu Hasna, who risked his life to report on the 23-day offensive.
adnan abou hasna
Adnan Abu Hasna with Karen Abu Zaid, UNRWA Commissioner-General.

GAZA CITY, January 23, 2008 (MENASSAT) — Despite his dual role as a media adviser and spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and local Palestinian journalist in Gaza, or perhaps because of these facts, Adnan Abu Hasna can count seven near death experiences in Gaza while running between media offices doing interviews and providing information to news agencies about what was happening in the Strip during the recent Gaza war.
The few UNRWA media spokespersons based in either Gaza or Jerusalem played a major role in 23-day war that ended with two separate unilateral ceasefires by Israel and Hamas.

From a media perspective, Abu Hasna became one of the emerging personalities of the Gaza war. He was able to describe to the outside world, in English, Arabic and Hebrew, what was happening on the ground to the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in a war zone for three weeks.

"We started work every morning at 6 a.m., getting calls from mainly Israeli and satellite radio and TV channels, until the early dawn without any rest. Sometimes I gave more than 100 interviews in a day to different radio stations, TV channels, newspapers and magazines," Abu Hasna told MENASSAT.

Life in the Gaza Strip over the years has hardened Abu Hasna, who has seen his fair share of death and destruction. But Operation Cast Lead took him to his emotional edge. The suffering, he said, was unprecedented.

And yet, his professional duties as a reporter and a spokesperson always took precedent. "I stuck to a media line that was solely humanitarian, representing UNRWA's and the UN's point of view," he said.

But his biggest motivation was how the war affected him and the people around him personally. The more severe the Israeli attacks became, the more he wanted to report.

"The situation was very dangerous and death surrounded us on all sides. Moving around was inviting death, but I preferred to do my job. Still, i counted seven occasions when the Israeli army targeted buildings and vehicles that were right next to me."

Abu Hasna also spoke about the situation of UNRWA's Commissioner-General, Karen Abu Zaid, who was hardly able to leave her office during the fighting. She stayed at UNRWA headquarters, northeast of Gaza City, for 13 straight days with some local and foreign employees, Abu Hasna said. 

When the UN becomes a target

Many people in Gaza said that the fear of being targeted became more real after Israel bombed UN buildings, including UN-run schools that were being used as shelters, and several warehouses storing aid supplies.

At one point, Abu Dhabi satellite channel was forced to cut an interview with Abu Hasna short due to a loud explosion that shook the UNRWA offices.

"On my way back home after the interview, it was 11:30pm and I was alone. I felt the airplanes above me. Although I was driving a car with the UN flag and UN signs all over it, I felt for a second that death was coming to me. I stopped the car for a moment. Suddenly, an explosion occurred 200 meters away from me, and I was forced to change my course and head back to the UNRWA offices to sleep there."

But the most difficult moment he faced during the war was the Israeli bombing of the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza.

"I was in my office when the food aid hangars burned down due to their bombing. I realized then that no-one is safe in Gaza, not even inside the UNRWA headquarters itself!"

Through the streets and alleys

Abu Hasna has been working with UNRWA since 1999 and has previously worked as an editor in chief of several publications.

The father of four said he saw his wife and kids only three times during the offensive. "My youngest son asked me to carry on with my mission, while the eldest was begging me to be careful," he said.

Six of his sons' friends were killed during the Israeli offensive.
The head of the Arabic section of Israeli Channel 2 TV, Suleiman al-Shafii, described Abu Hasna's work as "providing a balance" for the Israeli media, "pointing out everything that is true and accurate."

"Amid the bombing and the fear of moving around Gaza, he was the only one capable of moving in the streets, and of communicating. He moved from one place to another, from one channel to another," Al-Shafii said.

The Channel 2 reporter said he didn't count on anyone other than Abu Hasna to present a clear picture about everything taking place in Gaza—from the destruction to the killings, to the lack of food and medicines in Gaza's hospitals and clinics.

"Because of the lack of communication some journalists were unavailable while others were afraid of going into the streets. But Abu Hasna was available at all hours in the day or night. In addition to representing the UN, he works as a journalist and knows every street and alley in Gaza."

Reported dead in Israel

According to Al-Shafii, Abu Hasna's work had a major influence on Israeli society.

The UN official's knowledge of Hebrew and his frequent appearances on TV programs like The Journal, the most popular evening news program on Israeli television, helped contribute to portraying a more realistic picture of the suffering in Gaza, Al-Shafii said.

But Abu Hasna also accumulated his fair share of critics in Israel during the war. He recalled an experience during an appearance at an Arab television station together with the spokesman of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

"I was shocked to hear the Israeli official blatantly accuse me of providing false information about the size of the destruction and human suffering in Gaza. I told him the numbers UNRWA was using were very accurate, and we never gave statements unless our statistics were verified by several sources."

"But the biggest surprise came the next day when an Israeli reporter called me to make sure I was still alive, after the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth published news of my death during the military actions in Gaza."

Suleiman Al-Shafii said he actually read the news and was shocked, so he called Abu Hasna immediately.

"You came back from the dead?" he asked Abu Hasna.