Israel Accuses Freelance Photographers of Advance Knowledge of Oct. 7 Attack

The Israeli government on Thursday accused freelance photographers for several major news organizations, including The New York Times, of being “accomplices” in the killing and abductions of Israeli soldiers and civilians by Hamas fighters — an allegation The Times vigorously denied about its freelancer.

The government seized on a report by a pro-Israel media watchdog group, Honest Reporting, which has long accused The Times and other news organizations of anti-Israel bias in their coverage of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

“These journalists were accomplices in crimes against humanity,” the public diplomacy department of the prime minister’s office said in a tersely worded statement. “Their actions were contrary to professional ethics.”

In its report, the watchdog group questioned why six Gaza-based photographers, all of whom were working for The Associated Press and Reuters, were early to document the incursion by Hamas into Israel on Oct. 7. The journalists photographed an Israeli tank that had been destroyed at the border of the Gaza Strip, soon after the militants broke through a fence and swarmed into Israeli territory.

It said one of the photographers, Hassan Eslaiah, took pictures of a house burning in Kibbutz Kfar Azza, a target of the deadly attack by militants, while two others documented Hamas fighters transporting kidnapped Israelis back to Gaza. These harrowing images were all published by The Associated Press, as was a Reuters photo of a mob carrying the body of an Israeli soldier.

While a fourth A.P. photographer named in the report, Yousef Masoud, has worked as a freelancer for The Times since shortly after the war began, he was not on assignment for the paper on the morning of Oct. 7, according to a statement issued by The Times. The Times rejected suggestions that it had advance warning of the attacks or had accompanied Hamas terrorists, calling the claims “untrue and outrageous.” It also said there was “no evidence for Honest Reporting’s insinuations” about Mr. Masoud.

“It is reckless to make those allegations, putting our journalists on the ground in Israel and Gaza at risk,” the statement said. “The Times has extensively covered the Oct. 7 attacks and the war with fairness, impartiality, and an abiding understanding of the complexities of the conflict.”

The Times said it had reviewed Mr. Masoud’s work for The Associated Press on Oct. 7 and determined that “he was doing what photojournalists always do during major news events, documenting the tragedy as it unfolded.”

In its review of Mr. Masoud’s work, editors at The Times determined that the first photo he transmitted to the A.P. — of the destroyed Israeli tank — was taken more than 90 minutes after the attack began, according to an editor at The Times who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal matter. Mr. Masoud told his editors, this person said, that he was woken at home in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, by the sound of rocket fire, shortly after 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.

Mr. Masoud said he later made his way to the border, where he saw the fence had been breached and that an Israeli tank had been destroyed. He told Times editors, the person said, that he did not linger in Israel and did not photograph abductees or acts of brutality by Hamas fighters.

The furor over the Gaza photographers is part of a broader information war that has raged alongside the actual war. Claims and counterclaims, often based on doctored images or disinformation, pop up daily on social media sites, with a goal of tilting the public narrative in one direction or the other.

A claim by Hamas last month that an Israeli military strike hit the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, killing 500 people, was reported by The Times, BBC, CNN, and other news organizations. Israeli and American intelligence agencies later contended that the explosion had been caused by a wayward Palestinian rocket.

An added challenge for Western news organizations in covering the war is that their staff correspondents and photographers have very limited access to Gaza. Israel has prevented journalists from entering the territory except when accompanied by its military, and Egypt has also blocked access. Hamas, which controls Gaza, places sweeping restrictions on what reporters can cover. As a result, most outlets rely on local reporters and photographers who live in the enclave.

Honest Reporting said it stood by its reporting. “If The New York Times can defend the right of photojournalists to document the atrocities of Oct. 7,” it said in a statement, “as a media watchdog, we have a responsibility to question the role played by the photographers that day.”

The Associated Press said it, too, had no advance knowledge of the attack. But it said in a statement that it was no longer working with Mr. Eslaiah, who filed the earliest and most extensive photos of the attack.

There were other red flags about Mr. Eslaiah. He posed for a picture being kissed by Yahya Sinwar, a Hamas leader who masterminded the attack. Amit Segal, an Israeli journalist, posted video on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he claimed showed Mr. Eslaiah riding in Israel on a motorcycle while carrying a hand grenade.

Mr. Eslaiah confirmed in an interview that he had been given a ride back to Gaza from Israel but said he was not the person carrying the grenade. He said he had no advance knowledge of the attack and had no links to Hamas, despite the photo with Mr. Sinwar. “I am very worried and scared,” he said.

Mr. Eslaiah suggested there was a double standard, noting that Israeli journalists had accompanied the Israel Defense Forces into Gaza to cover their ground operation. “Why are we not allowed, and they are allowed?” he said.

In a statement, CNN, which has also employed Mr. Eslaiah, said, “While we have not at this time found reason to doubt the journalistic accuracy of the work he has done for us, we have decided to suspend all ties with him.”

Similarly, Reuters said it “categorically denies that it had prior knowledge of the attack or that we embedded journalists with Hamas on Oct. 7.”

The news agency said that it acquired the photos from two Gaza-based photographers, with whom it did not have a prior relationship, and that they had been taken “two hours after Hamas fired rockets over southern Israel and more than 45 minutes after Israel said gunmen had crossed the border.”

It is not the first time that Honest Reporting has raised questions about a freelance employee of The Times from Gaza. Soliman Hijjy, a freelance filmmaker who recently contributed a video report on the bombing of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, came under criticism for a post on Facebook in 2012 in which he shared a meme that appeared to praise Adolf Hitler.

The Times declined to discuss his case, citing several issues, including safety concerns. In a statement to Honest Reporting last month, the paper said that in 2022 it had discussed this and other “problematic” social media posts with Mr. Hijjy, and that he had pledged to adhere to the paper’s standards. The Times said he had done so, delivering “important and impartial work at great personal risk in Gaza during this conflict.”

Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting from Cairo.