Few stories are as complex and cumbersome as the continuing friction in the Middle East. Modern history mixes with ancient history; boundaries are drawn and redrawn. There is no shortage of opinion or misinformation. Accusations of media bias abound. Yesterday’s elections in Israel promise yet another dose of upheaval in the region, and additional uncertainty for Israel’s neighbors.
For a dose of clarity, CJR spoke with Sydney Morning Herald foreign correspondent Paul McGeough, who has covered the region for twenty years, last reporting from Gaza in early 2007. McGeough is also the author of Kill Khalid, a book about Hamas, Palestine, and Israel, pegged to the story of the Mossad’s attempted assassination of Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in 1997. The book will be published on March 24 by The New Press. McGeough spoke to CJR by phone from his home in Sydney.
Katia Bachko: Tell me about your background in covering the Middle East.
Paul McGeough: I’ve been a chief foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald since the early 1990s. My first assignment as a foreign correspondent was to cover the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. I’ve covered every major crisis since then. I spend about six months a year in the region, and I’ve been on the ground for all key conflicts in the Middle East since then. I was in New York for 9/11 and since then I’ve pursued the broader post-9/11 story in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the broader Middle East generally.
KB: Can you describe the situation on the ground the last time you were in Gaza?
PM: When I was there last, described in the book as the “civil war of mid-2007,” Hamas was in full control of Gaza. Fatah had been routed and was almost underground. You could find people to talk to on behalf of Fatah, but all of their key leadership figures had fled. It was exceptionally grim; Gaza had been under economic siege and physical siege for more than a year at that stage. People were trying to run their cars on cooking oil. Men were desperate for cigarettes. There were medical issues; some people could get out to hospitals to Israel and Egypt for treatment, but a lot of them weren’t allowed to move out of the Strip. One of the chapters in the book talks about how most of the women of Gaza who followed the Arab tradition of hoarding gold from their time had sold all of their gold.
KB: How drastic a change was that from the time before the siege?
PM: Things have been grim in Gaza for some time, but there are always variations on how grim it is. The factories that used to be able to operate by bringing in their raw produce, creating garments and shoes, other products for sale in Israel and elsewhere in the region were shutting down. Eighty-plus percent of them could not function. There was no guarantee of electricity. So it was exceptionally grim in terms of the ability of households to have any sort of cash income to sustain themselves.
KB: Reading about the current conflict in Gaza, it’s been difficult to understand the role of Hamas as an organization. Can you give us some sense of its role in Palestinian society?
PM: A hiatus in a crisis like this tends to get locked into broad scripts written by the various players. Now, if you take a helicopter view of the Middle East crisis, you see Hamas in a different light. People keep repeating that Hamas’s charter is opposed to the existence of Israel. Yes it is, but Hamas has not stood by its charter for the best part of the last ten years. Hamas has recognized the Oslo peace process, which it said it would oppose. It has taken part in democratic elections, which it has won. It has de facto recognized the two-state solution by seeking to be elected as the government of the Palestinian Authority. It has not struck outside historic Palestine; it never has. So to dismiss it as a terrorist group that has to be stamped out misses entirely the point of its position in Palestinian society.
Again, take the helicopter view of what’s happened in the Middle East since 1948, with the setting up of the state of Israel. In 1967, the Israelis could have negotiated with King Hussein of Jordan in the aftermath of the Six-Day War; they chose not to. Because they chose not to, Yasser Arafat and the Fatah movement and the PLO all got a huge head of steam [built] up. And because they weren’t negotiated with in a way that gave Palestinians an identifiable outcome, they fell by the way.