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COLUMN ONE

Reports From a Tightrope

Palestinian journalist working for Israeli TV may have the toughest job in news media as his allegiance is questioned by both sides.

November 14, 2002|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

Taxi drivers on the border smile broadly when they see him; as he moves about, it's handshakes all around, whether he's dealing with Israeli soldiers at one side of the Erez checkpoint into Gaza or Palestinian police at the other end of the barbed-wire, sandbagged crossing. With people like this, Shafhe is the consummate schmoozer, and he clearly enjoys the limelight.

And it takes courage to do a report -- in Hebrew -- in downtown Gaza City or in the seething Jabaliya refugee camp. Unlike some reporters, he shuns the protection -- or control -- of police and other authorities. Sometimes, though, he removes from his microphone the Channel Two logo, especially while covering the funerals of young Gazan men.

*

Abed Katib, a 30-year-old news photographer based in Gaza who worked with Shafhe during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early '90s, was asked about his old friend's appeal.

"The Palestinians like him because he's a Palestinian," he said.

Then why do Israelis like him? "Because he's Israeli."

It is not unusual to see Shafhe with a cellular phone to each ear, barking orders in Hebrew into one, in Arabic into the other.

He lives in Rahat, a town of 40,000 Israeli Arabs in the Negev desert just north of Beersheba. Its low-slung buildings are sprinkled between two dry riverbeds, with the minarets of five mosques reaching into a sky so bright it seems whitewashed. Rahat is home to the Bedouin Heritage Museum.

His father and his grandfather were farmers from a village destroyed by Israel near what is now the Israeli city of Petah Tikva, almost 60 miles to the north. Much of the family scattered after 1948, some landing in Jordan or in West Bank refugee camps. Shafhe's parents settled in Rahat, where the family owned land. He was born two years before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East War.

Today, his brother lives next door, his parents down the street. Shafhe lives with his wife Suad, also 37, and their four daughters and two sons, ages 7 to 17. They built their comfortable, two-story home 10 years ago on a plot with olive and pomegranate trees. An arbor laden with overripe grapes shades the side porch against a backdrop of bleating sheep.

"As an Arab, in Israel, there are a lot of jobs you just can't get," he said. "I hope, after the conflict is resolved, my kids will have a future where I can say to my sons that they have opportunities equal to Jewish kids. We deserve that."

Suad, who covers her hair in traditional style, hails from the West Bank city of Nablus. Because of restrictions imposed by the Israeli army, she has not seen her parents or siblings for more than a year.

Her more immediate concern is her husband's safety. Every day when he sets out on the 20-minute drive to Gaza, her chest tightens. She frequently begs him to find another line of work.

"I'm surprised when he comes back," she said.

There were a few times he almost didn't. Early in the 25-month-old conflict, the Israeli army arrested him every time he attempted to leave the Gaza Strip. Demonstrations and gun battles were raging almost daily. With Israeli citizenship, Shafhe was not supposed to go to Gaza.

More recently, he knew he was in trouble with the Palestinian Authority after he obtained, from a masked, secret source, a tape of the execution of an accused collaborator. Palestinian officials did not want to show the world an example of such brutal, summary justice. Its appearance on Israeli TV, and then on networks everywhere, infuriated the Palestinian Authority and, reportedly, Yasser Arafat himself.

Shafhe had a scoop, and death threats. He was warned to stay out of Gaza, and he did. For a week.

"I'm used to being in a place where death, blood and killing is something normal," he said. "I know my family is suffering. But it's my job. I like it. I need it."

*

The late-morning sun had already turned the Erez crossing into a furnace. Shafhe talked his way past the Israeli soldiers who declared the Gaza checkpoint a "closed military zone," which means journalists may not enter.

Once beyond the first barrier, he obliged the next set of guards with the required paperwork. Among journalists, Israelis, even the Arab ones, have to sign a waiver when they go into the Gaza Strip, absolving Israel of any responsibility for their safety.

That done, he strode across the gray-tarmac no man's land to the Palestinian checkpoint at the other end, again breezing through and hooking up with his waiting camera crew. The day's story would be the expulsion from the West Bank of two siblings of a man Israel had declared a terrorist.

With dozens of other journalists, Shafhe spent the next several hours awaiting the arrival of the expelled pair, Kifah Ajouri and his sister Intisar.

They never appeared. Israeli authorities sent a decoy vehicle to the Erez Crossing and used a military convoy to slip the two into Gazan territory by another route.

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