#AskNewser: U.S. Foreign Correspondents Describe What It’s Like Covering Israel-Hamas War

By A.J. Katz 

The fighting in Israel continues, four days after Hamas militants breached the Israeli border from Gaza in what was a surprise, horrific attack on the people of Israel.

On Tuesday, Israel Army Radio stated that the death toll in Israel from the Hamas attacks has bypassed 1,200. Thousands more are injured.

Videos show the destruction on the ground, including an attack Saturday on an all-night music festival where officials say they found 260 people dead, the majority of whom were in their 20’s.


Other footage shows Israeli citizens taken hostage by the militant group, and men, women, children and the elderly alike are all being brutally murdered.

As a response to the heinous attacks, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been pounding Gaza Strip with airstrikes after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally declared war on Hamas Sunday.

The IDF has been hitting hundreds of targets in Gaza and reducing neighborhoods basically to rubble. Israel Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said he has “released all restraints” on the troops in their fight against Hamas.

At least 1,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, and thousands more are injured. Additionally, medical care has been complicated by Israel totally cutting power to Gaza.

To make matters even worse (if that’s possible), at least 14 American citizens have been killed in the Hamas attacks, per a Tuesday statement from President Biden, and more are missing. U.S. is reportedly now sending weapons to Israel.

We caught up with foreign correspondents (and an anchor) from a variety of U.S. TV news outlets who are covering this tragic, quickly-evolving story from the ground: Fox News foreign correspondent Trey Yingst (shown top right), CNN International diplomatic editor Nic Robertson, CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell, ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman, NewsNation correspondent Robert Sherman, and Scripps News international correspondent Jason Bellini.

Below, their stories.

TVNewser: How are you and your team doing, and what you are you seeing on the ground today?

Yingst: The days have been very long, challenging, and intense. One of the first things I saw was an Israeli soldier die in front of me at an evacuation point near the border. We watched as bodies were stacked into a pickup truck after being pulled from the Sderot police station. These scenes are horrific and show the reality of war. There is constant rocket fire from Gaza and bodies are still strewn on the side of road in some areas.

Robertson: The team’s doing well, everyone is working well together. The hours are long – the first night I think we had maybe three hours sleep, I think we had maybe five last night, I’m not sure how many we’re going to get tonight. They are long, hard days. There’s nowhere to find food or water in the area around Gaza. You just try and get a good breakfast and then we try and find some food later in the afternoon before it gets dark. So it’s physically tough, and then of course the things that we’re seeing and reporting on are also tough.

The situation changes in seconds – suddenly, you’re caught in rocket strikes and you’re dodging for cover, trying to go for the shelter, there’s Iron Dome missiles intercepting overhead. And then you find yourself, as we did today, in a very tragic environment which is really emotionally charged and difficult to cover, where you see bodies at the side of the road, you see cars that are shot up – where people, innocent civilians, were brutally murdered – and you see the conditions that they were brutally murdered in, and you have a strong sense of that moment when they were killed. And that’s powerful. And all of this adds up. But you stay focused on the job and the work, which is to inform the audience with the best perspective and the best understanding possible.

O’Donnell: We are holding up okay – nothing compared to what the people here are going through. But honestly, today was very tough. We are just learning about the scale of the atrocities at the kibbutzim across Southern Israel. Our CBS News’ Holly Williams is reporting that children were brutally executed at the kibbutz Kfar Aza. This violence is unimaginable. It is brutal.  I just finished interviewing a 13-year-old and her mother who survived that massacre. They were holed up for 16 hours in a safe room waiting for the IDF. They say it is a miracle they are still alive as so many of their friends and neighbors are dead. Ilanit Swissa told us the Jewish people came to Israel to escape the Holocaust and now a Holocaust has come to them.

Longman: The team is doing okay. These are very long days. We generally get up at 7 o’clock and we don’t get to bed until 2 a.m., and it’s a lot of sort of … your brain is working all the time. You’re thinking all the time, but you’re also feeling all the time because you’re coming across so much sadness. So it’s so much information to process – the human stories, the sadness, but also the politics. There’s a lot to digest, and then there’s a lot to work out how to best communicate and I think that’s what makes it tiring.

Sherman: We’re doing ok. It was very difficult to get into Israel as most every flight ended up getting cancelled. Additionally, we witnessed a desperate attempt by hundreds of Israelis at the Istanbul airport to find their way aboard one of the very few flights heading to their home country. A lot of tears and panic was witnessed there. Then, to set foot on Israeli soil and immediately walk into a highly tense environment where the ante seems to get raised every few hours has made it impossible to get our bearings. But those are small problems compared to what the everyday people here are experiencing.

Bellini: I’ve been to Tel Aviv many times, and this is the first time I have seen people running off the beach because air raid sirens were sounding, and then windows rattling in the hotel from the boom of Israeli air defense apparently intercepting a rocket. The fate of the hostages held by Hamas is on everyone’s minds and hearts and anyone we talk to it is of foremost concern.

How is covering the atrocities in Israel different from other major news stories you’ve covered from the ground? And you’ve seen a lot.

Yingst: Since joining Fox, I’ve interviewed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as officials from Hamas in Gaza City. I’ve also embedded with the Israeli military and the al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas. 2014 was the first war between Israel and Gaza that I covered. During the war, I was the youngest journalist to enter the Gaza Strip at 20 years old. Having an extensive network of sources in Israel and Gaza has allowed me to bring fresh information to our viewers in real time. These are sources I’ve developed for many years. Gaza is impossible to reach right now. On the Israeli side, the military has allowed us access to areas right along the Gaza border where the bodies of dead militants still lay.

Fox has the largest team of any American network based in Israel year-round, so we are uniquely suited for an assignment like this.

Robertson: One thing we saw today just hammered home in a visceral way that punched through the senses and the emotions of what had happened. There was a concrete rocket shelter we saw that people had been hiding in when they had been trying to escape the Hamas militants who were coming at them with guns. They had raced into this concrete rocket shelter and Hamas had followed them in. And you can smell the stench of blood, you can see the blood on the walls and ceiling, the bullet holes in the concrete on the wall – it’s clear from the bullet casings on the ground that Hamas just went in there with their AK47s blazing and brutally and willfully and in an ugly, mean, nasty way murdered these people in cold blood. Defenseless young people who had been at a music festival.

That’s different. That’s not in your everyday experience. And the smell was really awful, and that stays with you too.

Longman: The atrocities here are different. I think this is probably the worst story I’ve ever covered in my life, and I’ve covered a lot – I’ve covered all kinds of terrorist attacks, I’ve covered natural disasters, I’ve covered a lot of sadness, I’ve covered wars. This is sad because there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way out. There doesn’t feel like there’s’ any light at the end of the tunnel. It feels like we’re descending into a tunnel from which there is no light. It feels like we’ve witnessed a horrific terror attack, and it feels like the response may result in yet more death on a scale that we haven’t seen before. And so it’s incredibly.. it feels incredibly different.

Sherman: I’ve never had an assignment where the story really hits so close to home for seemingly everyone in an entire country. I have yet to meet an Israeli who did not have a family member, friend, or friend of a friend who was a victim. Every citizen in this country of nearly 10 million is no more than 1-2 degrees of separation from someone who lost their lives or was severely injured that day. Everyone’s lives have been turned upside down here as a result.

Bellini: For those of us who have spent the last 19 months covering the war in Ukraine there are unsettling echoes of the atrocities witnessed in cities such as Bucha.

Can you share a specific rescue effort or story that you didn’t have the opportunity to mention on-air or deserves more attention?

Robertson: It’s not a rescue effort per se, but I was speaking with a doctor who was one of the first to go in and triage the victims of the music festival. What he told me of his efforts – and what his deputy told me – and we didn’t have time to go into this much on air, but quite literally the doctor was the one who was saying who needed what kind of medical attention – whether someone could be bandaged up there, or whether they needed to be moves elsewhere, that sort of thing. There are so many personal stories out there of bravery. As the doctor was saying, they were driving into an unknown situation – they were medics in ambulances that don’t have any armor on them. They’re vulnerable and they were putting themselves in harm’s way.

How has social media influenced how you report on this story? There’s undoubtedly a lot of misinformation out there.

Robertson: We focus on telling the story to our audience professionally as we always have done for television and for radio. We use our decades of experience to try to inform the audience. And we are actually on the ground and actually eyewitnesses to what’s happening, and I think that adds weight and veracity to any reporting. And that’s the reporting that we’re putting onto our social media as well. We are focused on telling the audience what’s happening, and if there is a lot of misreporting out on social media I really hope and believe that people will turn to us because they know we’re professionals. They know that we’re telling the truth. They know if they turn to us that they will get accurate, reliable, well-sourced, verifiable information with useful insights and context.

Longman: Social media is an influence, and it’s something actually that… as a tool for reporting it’s incredibly useful. It was incredibly distressing to witness all those videos of people being abducted and taken into Gaza, and of course the videos now that are emerging of the dead and the killed in the areas closest to Gaza, and then the videos from inside Gaza – the videos of mothers screaming at their children having been killed in airstrikes. But all these videos are necessary in order that we know what’s happening. One way that social media is a bit more complicated is this is a very, very divisive issue, and there’s almost nothing that you can say, nothing that you can report which isn’t controversial in some way. So your relationship with social media changes when you’re in a place like this.

Sherman: Any time I introduce myself as a journalist, Israeli citizens pull out their phones and say “have you watched this video?” or “have you seen this photo?” The first person I met even had a whole folder on his phone filled with gruesome photos of the attack and carnage left behind and insisted I look at every single one. The people here want the raw images to get out and for the filters to be left on the chopping block. Additionally, this is also a highly charged story to cover, and the “fog of war” is very real. Social media makes it difficult to differentiate the truth from the fiction. Added discipline must be exercised.

What is a must-have tool in your on-the-ground reporting kit?

Yingst: Safety is our No. 1 priority, so we have protective gear and the latest information to ensure we can cover every aspect of this story.

Robertson: I have to say it’s a smartphone. I’m reading and responding to these questions on a smartphone, I use one to be able to listen to the control room and the anchor asking me questions, I’m using one to read emails, I’m using one to shoot for social media and to shoot media to be uploaded for our digital platforms. I use it to write my scripts, I can use it to check my hair on the camera before I do a live shot – it’s beyond indispensable.

This is a top line answer of course, but I’ll also add because I know there will be young reporters out there who will want to come out here and cover the situation here: another indispensable part of equipment is a flak jacket and a helmet, because the situation can be dangerous. That’s also extremely necessary.

O’Donnell: Some things don’t change in my 25 years being a reporter. A pen and a pad of paper is the best way to record history. On this trip, I’ve also needed tissues.

Longman: Battery pack to keep my phone going, lots of protein bars.

Sherman: It sounds so obvious, but I’ve never been more thankful for a cell phone in my life. We can research, we can shoot interviews, we can even go live on a cable news network with one if needed. Not to mention, we need to remain in constant communication for security and safety measures. We would not be able to do what we’re doing without one.

Bellini: I color code my cases. The bag coded yellow always on me with essential camera equipment. The green case my personal items. The blue case—all the gear in one case that I can live without and jettison in an emergency or if there’s no room in the car.

How do you plan on continuing to cover the story in the weeks, months and possibly years ahead? 

Robertson: This is a story and a situation that we at CNN have been committed to since the network first started broadcasting. I’ve been coming here for over three decades. I remember being in Gaza when it was still part of Israel, when there wasn’t a border there… And I was there when the border fence first went up and Gaza got separated out, I’ve spoken to Hamas political leaders in the past, I’ve been here when there’s been ground incursions, air strikes. Again and again and again. And this is part of that continuum – however it has had a step-change difference, because so many people have been killed in such a short space of time. Never before in the history of Israel have so many Israeli citizens been killed by Palestinian terrorists in such a short space of time. This is beyond doubt the most terrible moment for this country and we’re absolutely going to continue what we began decades ago, which is following the story here and reporting on it accurately and fairly, in an unbiased way.

Sherman: A big focus for us is telling the stories of the people. Boiling everything down to eyewitness accounts, recounting stories of survival. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of highly skilled journalists, the voices of those impacted the most get drowned out and lost. We are determined not to let that happen.

Bellini: Scripps News has committed to reporting on the ground on the story of the war in Ukraine for over a year and a half. We are anticipating a strong commitment to the story in Israel.