Behind the Scenes

My First Flak Jacket… and Other Stories from Israel

by Ken Kobré

The first morning I walked into the AP office in Jerusalem, to photograph “Deadline Every Second”, a documentary about the photography at the Associated Press,  the staff outfitted me with a steel helmet, a portable telephone, a bullet-proof flak-jacket weighing 16 pounds, and sent me off to document Pulitzer prize-winning AP photographer Oded Balilty covering the “Day of Rage.”

I later found out that protective gear comes in two sizes — “heavy” for war wear and “light” for clash wear.  Unfortunately, AP was out of the “light” at the moment.

The uprising, which was called by Hamas organization, involved “riots” or “clashes,” depending on your politics, between young, rock-throwing, tire-burning  Palestinians and Israeli police shooting tear gas, stun guns and rubber bullets.  The police also used dogs to chase down rioters. The one place you don’t want get caught is between the two groups. Especially when police unleashed the dogs who go after the protesters. The dogs, however, cannot distinguish protesters from journalists. The clashes alternated between the masked teenagers, using an overturned garbage container for protection, advancing on the police by thowing stones or using sling-shots to launch stones, and the police repulsing the youth with canisters of tear gas and loud stun guns.

The sound of the stun guns made me think I was in the middle of a war. To add to the over-all auditory illusion, the Palestinian youth were firing a series of firecrackers. As soon as the tear gas went off, all the kids ran up the hill with me huffing and puffing behind. AP was fresh out of extra gas masks for visiting photojournalists the day I arrived, so I was left to cough, cry, run away from the cloud of gas. Wearing his gas mask, Balility stayed in the thick of the action when the tear gas exploded, as I made a hasty retreat up the hill and shot the action with a long lens.

Two photojournalists were injured during the day at the clash I covered by Israeli police bullets and tear gas canisters. The Reuters bureau photographer wound up with shrapnel in his leg and the AFP (Agency France Press) photographer was shot in the wrist with a rubber bullet. I did not get hit with anything more than tear gas.

The next day I interviewed, in a West Bank hospital, an AP photographer who had been hit by a tear gas canister during the previous day’s clashes in the area.

The day after that, after following AP photographer Tara Todras-Whitehill to cover Friday prayers at an outdoor Moslem service, I drove with her to a West Bank border crossing to photograph more clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers. This time the clashes took place inside the streets of a small town on the border. The sounds of the bullets, tear gas canisters and stun guns reverberating off the building walls gave me the impression that I was witnessing World War III even though one side of the conflict only had sling-shots and stones. The clash ended when the Israeli army drove a truck down the middle of the street and fired a multi-canister tear gas gun mounted on top of the vehicle. The effect was like the end of a July 4th fireworks display.

I was back in the West Bank on my 64th) birthday, this time photographing Tara covering funerals of four Palestinian boys killed in clashes with Israeli police and soldiers. Palestinian funerals are not orderly, stately, well-orchestrated affairs with everyone quietly filing by the casket. During these Moslem funerals, the bodies, with the boys’ faces showing, were carried through the streets of the village with all the local men and boys pushing and shoving to get a last look. The bodies were then taken to their respective houses where the women waited to have a last moment with their sons before they were buried. The AP photographer was waiting inside to capture the mothers wailing as they mourned their sons.

As the body was carried outside and down the street, in the crush of people I could see the AP photographer but could not get close to her on the first set of funerals. By the second set of funerals, I learned to slip along the edge of the crowd for a closer angle. Still, I found it remarkable how well the AP staffer could always be in the right place at the right time regardless of the size of the all-male crowd. Even at the graveside, Tara managed to wiggle into the best position to cover the burial.

The next day the AP had a tip that a group of right wing members of the Knesset (parliament) would try and enter the Mosque in the Old City. I followed Bernat Armangue from AP. The pseudo-event turned out to be an old-fashioned press conference with the politicians speaking in front of fully clad Israeli police with the Wailing Wall in the background.

After the press conference, Tara arrived to cover a woman’s group praying at the Western Wall for a captured Israeli soldier held by Hamas in Gaza. I could not go into the woman’s section in front of the wall but had to stand on a plastic chair located on the men’s side and photograph over the separation screen along with all the other photographers. Betsy (my wife) used the Kodak Zi8 and was able to get video inside the woman’s prayer area.

Thursday, I was wandering around the Ultra-Orthodox section of the city and I came upon a $3 million food giveaway to poor Jews before Passover. A sea of black hats hauling away bags of potatoes and eggs… a scene I had never even imagined. Most of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews do not work. Instead they live on a modest government pension all their lives that allows them to study and pray all day. These Ultra-Orthodox pay no taxes, don’t serve in the army and in fact don’t believe the State of Israel should exist. They burn the Israeli flag on Israel’s Independence Day.

Friday I recorded Tara again as she covered a group of liberal Israelis protesting a housing project in East Jerusalem. The protesters and police were eye to eye at one point as the group walked through the disputed neighborhood, but no violence or arrests took place.

Saturday Betsy and I were in the old city shooting still images for ourselves.  We heard drums beating and cymbals clinging and started to follow the sounds… Then one of the seven different Christian groups that claims rights to the Holy Sepulcher Church came down the alley in the Old City, and we followed them. All the groups (Coptic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, etc.) held services at the same time, including prayers and song. There was lots of pushing and shoving as the worshipers were herded into various nooks and crannies of the church, but the scene offered the chance for great pictures.

Palm Sunday…. I started the day photographing with Oded Balilty, the same AP photographer I met during the clashes the first day, as he covered the Ultra Orthodox Jews cleaning utensils before Passover. An older woman saw me take pictures of Oded and thought that I had photographed her. She grabbed my monopod and would not let go, yelling something at me in Hebrew, which of course I did not understand. Finally, after much explaining and cajoling by Oded, the woman stormed off. That was when Oded told me the story of an Ultra-Orthodox Jew grabbing his camera and throwing it to the ground breaking it into pieces.

In Israel I faced rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, police attack dogs and angry Ultra Orthodox Jews but the truly scariest part of the venture was the ride on back of the AP motor scooter with Oded driving. Not only did I survive his daring-do in Israeli traffic but I have video to prove it.

I followed Oded on Palm Sunday, the Christian observation of Jesus’ triumphal entrance to Jerusalem, as the photographer covered the procession of devotees from the Mount of Olives to the Old City. We walked up and down the Mt. of Olives three times before he got the images he was looking for. The sun was shining full blast. I was exhausted and started to pray seriously to any god that would listen that we would not have to walk up the hill one more time.

We capped the day off by photographing more than 1000 Ultra-Orthodox Jews gathering water to make Matzo before Passover. Standing on a hillside between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the men wore all black, from their rounded felt hats to their look-a-like shoes. Their sons wore yarmulkes and side curls. The sun was setting. The scene looked like a Dutch master painting except the ceremony took place on the side of a highway with cars whizzing by and a loud speaker blaring.

On Good Friday, I stuck like glue to Tara. She first covered a group of Jewish women called  “Women of the Wall.”  They want to pray like the men, in front of the Western Wall (wailing wall), but are not allowed to wear the religious shawl and prayer paraphernalia. But their real sin, according to the Israeli Supreme Rabbinical Court, is saying the prayers out loud. Last time they gathered to pray in front of the wall, the Orthodox men — on the other side of a low screen separating male from female — threw chairs at the women. This time, the women prayed aloud without dodging any flying plastic chairs from the other side.

From squabbling Jews to squabbling Christians, the day progressed. Tara was assigned by AP to cover the arrival of processions coming to pray at the Holy Sepulcher church. The Greek Orthodox claim one station of the cross, the Armenians, the Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic another, and the Roman Catholics have their own territory inside the church. The Ethiopian Christians are left to hold their ceremony on the roof of the structure where some also live so they can protect their piece of the church. The key to the doors of the Holy Sepulcher is in the hands of a neutral party — an Arab family that was assigned generations ago to lock and unlock the doors so there would be peace among the competing Christians.

By the time Tara and I arrived at the church, the key-keeper had done his work, and, to the frustration of the AP photographer, the portals were locked. As soon as the doors opened again to let one group of worshipers out, Tara slid past the Israeli police who were in charge of crowd control. She managed to wiggle her way into the church, like a fish swimming up stream, before being stopped–unlike myself, who was grabbed and restrained by the local authorities. Two hours later, I got into the church and found Tara waiting to hop a locked gate that stood between her and a balcony that would overlook the front doors and provide a perfect view of the soon-to-arrive procession. The only trouble was that the balcony was guarded by a group of Greek Orthodox priests. At a moment when the priests were engaged in prayer, Tara climbed the fence and I followed awkwardly behind. At this point in my life I never expected to be on a balcony, above the door, hiding in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (in any church, for that matter). After another nervous hour, the cross-bearing worshipers arrived. Hundreds of them, no, thousands of them poured through the doors and pushed into the church.

After making her overhead pictures, Tara ventured into the masses and found a good spot to shoot standing on the base of one of the Church’s columns. For some reason, an Israeli policeman decided that she should come down from her perch. When Tara pointed out that she was not interfering with anything, two well-built policemen roughly grabbed her, dragged her down to the floor and forcibly removed her from the church. No sooner had she stepped outside than she turned around, melded into the crowd ever so briefly, and walked right back in again.

And that was that, for a few days, at least.

At the very last minute, and I mean last, the Israeli GPO (Government Press Office), with a lot of persuasion from Steven Gutkin, head of the AP bureau, granted me a pass to enter Gaza and interview the AP Palestinian photographers who work there.

Once over the border and in Gaza city, I met Kahlil Hamra. He recently won the the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club of America. He showed me his remarkable pictures from the 22-day conflict with Israel in late 2008, early 2009. His intimate photographs of war victims crying from pain and his pictures of white phosphor bombs dropped by the Israeli army where shocking. In my mind I had trouble contrasting those images with his peaceful shoot that afternoon on the Gaza beach. Khalil was looking for features. Even when there was no news in Gaza, a rare occurrence, Khalil Hamra was able to take wonderful pictures of “daily life” showing silhouetted kids hitting a volleyball, practicing gymnastics or riding horseback against a hazy setting sun.

The next day I again looked at the crushingly sad pictures of the recent war taken by Hatem Moussa, another AP veteran Palestinian photographer. His assignment that day was to photograph the first showy, expensive wedding to take place in Gaza since the end of the war with Israel. The wedding included forty horses and a horse-drawn carriage for the bride and groom. Besides being stepped on by one horse and kicked by another, I was able to document the nosiest celebration I have ever witnessed. For the first three hours, the all-male celebrators yelled, danced and incessantly beat on drums as the forty horses and carriage paraded up and down the streets of Gaza.

You might remember a film with Hugh Grant called Four Weddings and a Funeral. I can now say that I have documented four funerals and a wedding.

At the beginning of my last day in Gaza I was not sure how events would turn out. The day involved photographing inside one of the more than 1000 tunnels that run under the Gaza-Egypt border that allow the Palestinians to circumvent the Israeli blockade. My subject was AP photographer Adel Hana, head of the Gaza office.

In the morning, before we left for the tunnels in the southern tip of Gaza, I got a call from Betsy, who was still in Jerusalem, telling me about a tunnel in Gaza that had collapsed the previous week burying two workers alive. I also had read that Israel recently bombed the tunnels as retribution for a Hamas /Jihad rocket attack that had killed a farmer on Israeli land.

The entrance to the tunnel was located under a large, partially shredded plastic tent, 350 meters from the Egyptian border. The tent and tunnel were certainly no secret to anyone on either side of the border. Adel and I went down a very steep, crudely made ladder to find a tunnel dug through the sand without any internal support on the top or sides. When you brushed your head on the tunnel ceiling bits of it fell into your hair. The tunnel was not tall enough for anyone the size of Adel or myself. The tunnel was lit with bare fluorescent bulbs (the curly kind) so Adel was able to shoot pictures and I could document his work. I was greatly relieved when he finished and climbed again up the rickety ladder to the surface. A sand storm had blown in during the time while we were in the tunnels and had turned everything in the landscape the gray-white color of cement. Once back in the car and on the way to Gaza city and then the Israeli border, I breathed a sigh of relief. The tunnel had not collapsed and Israel had not dropped a bomb. I was dead tired but still alive.

With my colleague John Hewitt, the documentary’s editor, I am starting  the process of combing through the 23 hours of new video footage to add to a documentary that is already 70 minutes long. At least I came to the “Holy Land” — hopefully the right place for a miracle to find a way to meld all this material into the final 60-minute documentary, “Deadline Every Second.”