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GAZA CITY - What has been a horror for the people of Gaza has been a professional boon for Ramattan, a news agency based in Gaza City that has become the ears and eyes for Israel's television channels as well as for networks around the world.
Founded in 1998 by Qassem el-Kafarna, a well-known Palestinian journalist, Ramattan's logo has become a familiar sight to viewers of Channels 1, 2 and 10, as it appears nightly in the corner of almost all the footage coming out of Gaza.
The Ramattan television feed is also being seen beneath the imprimaturs of CNN, NBC, CBS, FOX in the US, and the BBC, TV2 Denmark, NOS Netherlands, Quatro Spain, Uno Italy, ITN UK and TFI France in Europe.
Although 120 men and women are normally on duty at Ramattan, warrelated necessities have reduced it to 60 by day and 30 at night. But while war rages outside, inside the agency the taskat-hand is great, the atmosphere frenetic. Anything resembling normal sleep has been replaced by grabbing catnaps anywhere and anytime possible. Food, too, is catch-as-catch-can. It's all become part and parcel of being the eyes and ears of the world: witnessing the most watched news story of the day unfold live - panorama or stand-up - just outside the door.
Ramattan News Agency, with branches in the West Bank, Cairo, Beirut, Sudan and Kuwait, employs 300, most of whom are media specialists. Its personnel typically work side-by-side with international media. But with Gaza closed to all but humanitarian aid, reporters normally assigned to cover events there continue to be prevented by Israel and Egypt from entering, despite law suits brought by Israel's Foreign Press Association, so the only coverage available to the world is from Gaza-based agencies.
AP Bureau Chief Steven Gutkin, the current FPA chairman, explained to The Media Line that "normally, we have journalists in Gaza, but one would send in reinforcements; and all sorts of organizations don't have the representation in Gaza. This seriously inhibits the freeflow of information."
Yet, facilitated by Ramattan, aroundthe-clock coverage that includes live television pictures from the front continues to air without interruption to TV viewers worldwide.
To meet the additional demands of the emergency situation, and because Gazans are unable to move about freely while the fighting rages, the majority of the men and women working in the Ramattan building have moved in for the duration, living under what appear to be "siege" conditions. But unlike what fellow Gazans are experiencing in nearby buildings, the siege for those in Ramattan's headquarters is one of massive workload.
Nasez Alwahedi, who works in the booking department, has not gone home in five days. "It's dangerous to leave," he says. "No place is safe in Gaza." For others it's been 10 days or more. When asked if Hamas had a problem with Ramattan servicing Israel, one employee, speaking anonymously, said, "We're a private company trying to provide news from Gaza. We don't have a problem with Israelis. We're trying to convince them that we are the victims."
The Israelis, for their part, avoid using Ramattan for the sensitive issues such as images of civilians who were killed in the fighting.
Channel 1 News Director Uri Levy told The Media Line his station takes the wide shots and panoramas from Ramattan, sidestepping some material that are issues for the Israeli media but not to their colleagues elsewhere. "Apache!... Missile!... Over there!!!" In another setting, cries like these trigger a reflexive mad dash to safety. But at Ramattan, cameramen automatically take off in the direction of the sighting or blast. Once a location is identified, calls are placed to colleagues as near to the site as possible in order to ascertain whether there have been any casualties or injuries. If so, how many? How serious? Medical authorities in Gaza often receive first word of casualties from Ramattan.
Ramattan sits atop the battleground, bustling as a news service and thriving financially. While Ramattan is not the only news service operating, it is certainly the most frequently seen.
There in the Gaza City studio, as many as 13 news outlets are simultaneously fed visuals of reporters doing stand-ups in any of Ramattan's 16 broadcast points - from the street to the broadcast suite to the roof. Others can take a fixed uplink of the Gazan landscape, replete with shooting flames and billowing smoke rising above the horizon.
It is not without an element of danger that Ramattan serves Gaza and the West Bank. One reporter told The Media Line that both Fatah and Hamas have at times accused the news service of being a "traitor to the Palestinian people."
When the warfare between the two factions broke out, Ramattan angered both by refusing to cover the street fighting or the news conferences each side called to press their case with the community-at-large.
When asked about its independence, one Ramattan reporter boasted that the proof lies in the fact that "it was under attack by the Palestinian Preventive Security Services [Fatah-affiliated] in Ramallah and Gaza, and attacked by Hamas during the Fatah-Hamas war of 2007. And since [then], Hamas has cut all ties to the agency."