Yousef Al-Helou is a Palestinian freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, who recently took up a position as a Reuters Journalist Fellow at Oxford University. Yousef runs the Gaza TV News feeds on both Twitter and Facebook and is currently speaking at UK universities.
What are the aims of your speaking tour and what issues do you discuss?
I discuss the right to education and how Palestinian students are struggling to reach their universities abroad, or even in the West Bank. I also talk about the rise of Palestinian citizen journalists and their impact on the public perception of Palestine in the West.
You came to The University of Nottingham as part of this initiative on November 11th. How did you find students’ understanding of the Israel/Gaza debate?
It was good. I have received emails from attendees, thanking me and saying that they had learnt a lot about being a journalist in Gaza.
You encountered problems when attempting to leave Gaza last month to take up a scholarship at Oxford University. How would you describe this experience?
It was a challenge for me to leave Gaza, due to the restrictions that are still in place and being imposed by the Egyptian authorities.
I had to wait for two weeks due to these restrictions. The crossing has recently been closed again and thousands of people are stranded inside Gaza, and even at Cairo airport.
Most of those who arrive at Cairo airport are being kept at a small detention room which is in bad condition, until they are deported directly to Rafah in the morning- that is if the Rafah crossing was opened.
“It’s a bitter feeling to have to beg people to leave your own country”.
Of course, I received a lot of support from local and international friends, who tweeted and shared my posts to show solidarity.
It’s a bitter feeling to have to beg people to leave your own country. I feel like we are in prison – Gaza is known to be the world’s largest open-air prison. This makes me feel like we are being treated as subhuman.
“We cannot travel by sea and have no airport, so the Rafah crossing is the only line through which we can breathe”.
After Morsi’s ousting, security was tightened. The situation is now unbearable, with everything from power cuts to unemployment and poverty. There is a very high level of despair.
We cannot travel by sea and have no airport, so the Rafah crossing is the only line through which we can breathe. People have been begging the Egyptian authorities to stop this humiliation because we share the same language and religion.
Do you know of students who were/are currently in the same situation?
Most of those I knew who were trapped have managed to leave Gaza and reach universities abroad. I was lucky in that I arrived four days before the start of my scholarship.
The Palestinian Embassy in Cairo has announced numerous times that the crossing will be open to allow students to leave.
In recent years, there seems to have been a rise in citizen journalism in the Middle East. Do you view this as a positive step in reporting the unbiased truth to the world and how much of this can be attributed to the increased use of social media?
Yes, of course. This phenomenon is growing day by day thanks to the rise of the Internet, especially social media. Following the outbreak of the revolutions that swept through much of the Arab world, people in Palestine thought the impact of these revolutions would help mobilise people in these countries to focus and show support. But this did not materialise because the citizens of these countries were busy resolving internal affairs and issues.
The reason why we are witnessing a rise in citizen journalism is mostly because young people such as liberals, feminists and those not affiliated to political parties, who speak good English and are educated, have said that we will not allow mainstream media outlets to misrepresent the Palestinian cause.
“Social media activists report on what is happening along the border line”.
Whether it is bias to the Israelis, telling lies, or manipulating the facts, they decided to take action. Most of them do not have certificates or degrees in journalism. Anybody who can use the Internet can post breaking news, links and videos.
I know many local activists who tweet regularly, especially during times of escalation. They rely on using camcorders and videos to document attacks against Palestinians. Social media activists report on what is happening along the border line. They can go to local hospitals, access figures, announce the number of casualties and talk to officials on the ground.
“These citizen journalists say they will be the voice of the voiceless”.
These citizen journalists say they will be the voice of the voiceless, even if it involves being critical of Hamas; an organisation most in Gaza oppose.
One example of fabrication involved showing pictures of a collective wedding party, in which grooms were holding the hands of small girls. The headline implied that Hamas members marry young girls. This was shocking and not accepted, even though Hamas is not liked.
Do you realistically expect a peace deal and/or an end to Israeli occupation in the near future?
No. We are totally convinced that the peace talks are a total fiasco. Twenty years of peace talks have passed, yet we are still under occupation. Israel could end the conflict tomorrow if they wanted to, but they are not interested in peace.
The PLO recognised Israel’s right to exist several years ago, yet Israel refuses to do the same for Palestine. Israel refuses to stop the system of construction and expansion, continues to confiscate Palestinian land, erect roadblocks and imprison or kill Palestinian political activists.
“There are no such things as peace talks”.
Israel is stealing our natural resources whilst continuing its’ ethnic cleansing policy.
There are no such things as peace talks. Israel is using this word as a cover up and the United States is not applying serious pressure on Israel to reach a peaceful settlement.
“We are pessimistic”.
The one-state solution – a secular, democratic state for all its’ citizens, is the only option that would allow the millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their original hometowns and villages. But, Israel says this option will make them into a minority in the future.
We are pessimistic. Do we have to wait for another twenty years?
Do you have any tips for aspiring journalists?
Yes. Those interested in becoming journalists have to seek credibility, objectivity, impartiality and be an independent person. You must not be influenced by the editorial policy of your outlet.
“I have put myself at risk many times as I believe that I have a duty to fulfil”.
You should have courage, particularly if reporting from warzones, as you have to be willing to risk yourself at some point. I have put myself at risk many times as I believe that I have a duty to fulfil.
A journalist has to understand that this job requires courage and sacrifice whilst never being influenced by external pressure or by those who exercise monopoly on the news. You should always report the truth.