A lone figure stands in a field of gray rubble among crumbling buildings, against a blue sky with white clouds.

Witnessing Genocide

The work of journalists in Gaza bridges a conception of secular truth-telling with religious witnessing.

By Alireza Doostdar|January 11, 2024

Wael Dahdouh stood on a rooftop in Gaza, facing the camera. Behind him, black smoke billowed in a thick column from a distant bomb site, stretching out horizontally and blending with dust and smoke from other explosions. He was wearing his familiar uniform, a blue helmet and vest marked “Press” in all-caps, blue against large white rectangles. His voice rose above the ambient sounds of artillery fire, ambulance sirens, and the buzzing of drones. “As you can see,” he said, his voice a calm contrast to the panoply of death beyond, “the battlefield and the trenches are still burning, with raids and artillery shelling. I saw it as my duty, despite the pain and the bleeding wound, to return quickly and meet you through the camera’s lens.”

This was on October 26. Dahdouh is one of Gaza’s best-known reporters and has served as Al Jazeera Arabic’s local bureau chief for two decades. The “bleeding wound” of which he spoke was the death, a day earlier, of his wife Amna, their fifteen-year-old son Mahmoud, seven-year-old daughter Sham, and one-and-a-half-year-old grandson Adam. The family had sought shelter in a house in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in central Gaza, a zone Israel had declared safe for Palestinian refugees it had displaced from the north, but then bombed anyway. Dahdouh mourned their deaths that evening and returned to work the next day.

Less than two months later, on December 15, Dahdouh was covering the aftermath of an Israeli attack on a school in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza, when another Israeli missile injured him with shrapnel wounds to his hand and stomach. His colleague Samer Abu Daqqa, a cameraman, slowly bled to death over five hours because Israel refused to allow aid to reach him, even firing on an ambulance that attempted rescue. Then on January 7, Israel targeted a vehicle carrying Dahdouh’s eldest son Hamza, an Al Jazeera reporter with a million-strong following on Instagram. Hamza was en route to an assignment in another Israeli-declared “safe zone” near Rafah with several other journalist colleagues. He died alongside freelance journalist Mustafa Thuraya.

Since October 7, Israel has turned Palestine into a graveyard for journalists—a horror that, as if this were thinkable, pales in magnitude to the much larger massacre of children (over a hundred per day). Depending on who is keeping count, between 72 and 109 Palestinian journalists have been killed over three months—about one journalist per day—with even the lower end of the statistic topping journalist deaths in any other conflict in history, including World War II and the Vietnam War. To offer a sense of comparative scale, the entire region known as the Gaza Strip is about the size of Detroit, its population smaller than Chicago, and its journalists number only about a thousand.

And yet as the cloud of death hangs over their heads, journalists in Gaza keep doing their work. Responding to an outpouring of grief and support from viewers around the world, Dahdouh mourned his son’s death and once again pledged that he would continue: 
"He was my breath and my soul. His loss came after I lost my wife and Hamza’s siblings Mahmoud and Sham, and [my grandson] Adam, and my relatives, and my colleague, Samer. But, this cost, and this pain will not stop us from continuing on this path... As long as we are alive and able to fulfill this obligation, we will do it without hesitation, for ours is a humanistic, noble, and sacred message, grounded in international law and humanity. Also, because those who have been martyred and had their blood spilled, beginning with Hamza and his mother and siblings, made the ultimate sacrifice so that I can continue." 

I am not writing this to offer yet another account of unjust civilian killings in Palestine or the unfathomable scale and cruelty of the devastation Israel has visited on Palestinian life (there is ample information available to anyone who cares to look—including, most recently, South Africa’s meticulously-documented genocide case brought to the International Court of Justice). Instead, I want to reflect on Dahdouh and his colleagues’ commitment to their self-declared “sacred” obligation to meet their audience through “the camera’s lens” day after day, even on pain of death. This commitment, I want to suggest, bridges a conception of secular truth-telling with religious witnessing, and it does so in a way that casts the Islamic concept of martyrdom in new light.

In Arabic, shahāda means witnessing, with its senses ranging from “declaring something one knows to be true,” “giving an eye-witness account,” and “offering testimony” (as in a court) to “dying for God.” The latter meaning of the term is often translated to English as “martyrdom,” and indeed shahīd (pl. shuhadā) can mean both “martyr” and “witness” (in all the senses familiar to us in English). The Iranian revolutionary sociologist Ali Shariati long ago argued that shahāda/martyrdom is not about choosing death but rather “bearing witness.” (Though Shariati did not acknowledge it, the meaning and etymology of martyr, in fact, has a striking parallel to shahīd). For Shariati, every death on the path of God was an act of witnessing with one’s life, whereby one declares one’s commitment to the truth before God and human history. Shariati thought it paramount to include humanity as the audience for a martyr’s act of witness (along with God), because he believed that the martyr’s truth was a message meant to be communicated to others so that they could in turn receive and act upon it. The martyr/witness offers testimony with her or his life not only for the sake of salvation, but also to enable others to receive the truth, and, in turn, bear witness.

At first glance, the journalists in Gaza are bearing witness in a straightforward secular sense, and this is how they typically describe their mission themselves. These journalists provide, with the help of their cameras and microphones, eyewitness testimony for a global audience about the reality of Palestinian life and death in a time of catastrophic devastation. Much of what the outside world sees in Gaza depends on these journalists and their recording devices. Non-Palestinian reporters are practically non-existent in Gaza, except the few journalists whom the Israeli army embeds with its forces and whose reportage it vets and controls. This is because Israel either blocks other journalists from entering the territory, or it refuses to guarantee that it will not fire missiles at them.

Within this lethal media ecology, Palestinian journalists are the only people equipped to offer the prized and sought-after facts of professional media reporting, what their camera lenses and microphones can capture, record, and transmit to international media organizations. There is mounting evidence that the reason more Palestinian journalists have died in the past three months than in any other conflict in history is that Israel is deliberately killing them (of course, the deliberate targeting of Palestinian journalists precedes October 7 and is not limited to Gaza, as the recent Israeli assassination of the veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh made clear). Their power to act as secular witnesses is precisely what puts them in Israeli crosshairs. When Dahdouh says that he will continue to report for as long as he lives, it is this form of witnessing he insists upon. Even when he describes his mission as “sacred” (muqaddas), he is doing little more than valorizing the journalist’s professional commitment to truthful reporting.

But there is another sense to Dahdouh and his colleagues’ witnessing that brings their acts more squarely into religious territory. For decades, Palestinian journalists have documented Israeli atrocities and the oppression of Palestinians with the hope that this documentation can help advance their cause for liberation. But despite the massive accumulation of documentation, not to mention report after report issued by the Untied Nations and respected international human rights organizations, the condition of Palestinian life—in the West Bank as well as Gaza—is more grim than ever. Even as Palestinians in Gaza face a genocide, their land rendered unlivable, their whole way of life obliterated, more states have dedicated resources to combatting Yemeni militants interrupting shipping to Israel than have applied political or economic pressure on Israel to stop its slaughter.

It is difficult to square this hopeless situation with the radical hope required to continue the deadly work of journalism in an unfolding genocide. There is an excess, a surplus, in the hopefulness and urgency of Dahdouh and his colleagues’ daily reporting that cannot be explained through our ordinary secular sensibilities. The only way to account for this surplus, I think, is through faith: the journalists’ conviction that even if their witnessing does not stop the war, even if it does not end the genocide, even if it does not liberate Palestine, it is worth doing—on pain of death—as an act of shahāda, truthful witnessing before God and humanity.

That so many have already lost their lives doing so only seals their reputations as shuhadā, men and women who bartered their lives for a chance to offer truthful testimony.

Featured image: Damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal area in Gaza City on October 9, 2023, via Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages. Used with the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Light skinned man with short dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses, wearing long-sleeved blue sweater and pink dress shirt, bookshelf in background

Alireza Doostdar

Alireza Doostdar is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His first book, The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny (Princeton, 2018) was awarded the Albert Hourani Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association and the Vincent Sutlive Book Prize from the Anthropology Department at William & Mary. His next book, also under contract with Princeton, is titled Facing Satan: The Iranian Revolution and Its Demons.