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Q and A: Paul McGeough

The veteran Middle East reporter shares insights about covering conflict in Gaza
February 11, 2009

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.

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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.

And now you have Hamas. Hamas came into being and thrived because there was no breakthrough. There was nothing in the land-for-peace basis—a foundation of the Oslo process—there was nothing in that for the Palestinians. They were negotiating on the basis of land for peace when their land was being consumed by Israeli settlements. So now Hamas is there, and if you take Hamas out of the equation, God knows what you get in its place.

KB: Is is accurate to say that Fatah wants Hamas dismantled as a part of this current conflict?

PM: That Fatah wants to have Hamas taken out? Absolutely. I think if you look at the history of the last twenty years of Palestinian affairs, Fatah is the faction that consumed itself. It thrived on corruption. It represented so much of what is bad about the exercise of power in Arab societies. It wasn’t democratic; it was bullying. It was venal. And Palestinians—who, you would have to say, are one of most democratically inclined Arab societies in the region—could see that. They could see that you didn’t get a job unless your family was Fatah. You didn’t get the house. You didn’t get the car. You didn’t get your snout in the trough unless you were Fatah.

It was so corrupt that Hamas was able to run on the ticket of anti-corruption, working amongst the grassroots of Palestinian society, delivering at a grassroots level, and earning political credibility not just in terms of handing stuff out, but also in terms of being disciplined, being controlled, being articulate, and standing up, and being seen to stand up for Palestinians when nobody else would.

KB: How should we reconcile Hamas as a force for change with the organization’s history of violence.

PM: Let’s not be churlish about this, call it terrorism. Rather than describe Hamas as a terrorist group, I would say they’re a group that uses terror as a weapon and I think there’s a significant difference there. You’ll find a lot of Israeli commentators, amongst others, can understand and make in their writing. There is a difference there.

But the Palestinian attitude to terror as a weapon is dictated by their sense of the ability to achieve a settlement. If they think there’s a chance that there can be a negotiated settlement, as they did in the aftermath of the Oslo accords in the mid-1990s, their view of violence falls. But it’s when they see their land being taken, when they see their water resources being consumed, when they see Gaza being converted into a prison, they believe in violence. It’s a part of the world where all sides are very familiar with the notion of revenge and vengeance.

One of the kernel issues in the Gaza crisis at the moment is the fact that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal, is a prisoner of Hamas in Gaza. Palestinians laugh when they read or hear that Israel is going to war for one man when there are 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. They understand they’re at war. Now how that plays out after this latest round in Gaza, we have yet to see, in terms of public and Palestinian opinion and attitudes to Hamas. They’re going to make a call on whether Hamas overplayed its hand. They’re going to make calls about the standing of Hamas vis-a-vis the standing of Hezbollah after the war in Lebanon in 2006. And that will feed into the political mix of the region.

KB: How should journalists balance these two aspects of the organization to help readers understand?

PM: It’s very difficult, in the helter-skelter, daily evolution of a story like this, to pull in all the relevant bits. And it’s very hard to pull them in particularly, as I said, when the parameters of the narrative are being constructed by the key players, be it the Palestinian leadership, be it the Israeli leadership, be it the regional heavyweights like Egypt, or be it Washington for that matter.

So what you have to be able to do is take the eyes of the big-picture story and be able to infer it, use them as counterpoints in writing. If you tell a foreign readership that this poor soldier is being held in Gaza and he’s been held for years, isn’t this shocking? It is shocking. But is it more or less shocking than the plight or circumstances of the 11,000 Palestinians who are being held in Israeli prisons?

KB: So, how should they describe those individuals? Are they civilian members of Hamas or militants?

PM: Half the elected Hamas government is in prison. So there are Hamas prisoners, there are Hamas sympathizers, there are Hamas militants. You name it, there is every range of them. They’re not all entirely Hamas, but there is a good number of Hamas representatives of the other Palestinian factions and also of Fatah. But every time Israel feels that it needs to make a gesture to the Fatah leadership, what they do is they release a handful of Fatah prisoners—never Hamas prisoners.

KB: My sense has been that everyone who is identified as a member of Hamas is automatically categorized as a member of the militant arm of the organization, as opposed to people who might be part of the public service branch.

PM: That’s very true. In the writing of the narrative, the objective of the spin on all sides is to cast the other side in simple, bad terms. Make it all black, make it all white, try to airbrush out the gray. Now there’s a lot of gray that has to be dealt with and has to be considered.

Look at some of the names of the people who before and after the recent Gaza crisis have said that Hamas has to be allowed a seat at the table, Hamas had to be brought into the negotiating process. You’re talking about people like Efraim Halevy, former head of Mossad. Not a fly-by-night or a shallow man. He makes a very clear and careful distinction between Hamas as national patriots, as opposed to an Al Qaeda-type terrorist group. People like Tony Blair this week, people like Colin Powell before this whole crisis, people like Prince prince Turki Al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence, who is not a lightweight in the region.

These are people, and I’m giving you names from all sides there, who have weight and reputation and savvy in their sense of what’s happening on the ground or what needs to happen. But one of the things that has happened in the Middle East for the last sixty years is that people have been talking about what has to happen, and nobody has ever made it happen.

KB: What is the conversation like in Australia?

PM: It varies. There is a range of opinion and levels of sympathy for Hamas or for Israel. There’s an attempt to tell both sides of the story. I’ve had the luxury of writing a book and immersing myself in the twenty years of Hamas’s existence. So for me, I’ve been able to come to it with this broad sense of the history as opposed to the daily cut and thrust. And reporters and commentators, a lot of them writing about it these days get locked into that bigger narrative that is being crafted around them and, in quite in a deliberate way, for them.

KB: Talk about what it’s like to report in Gaza. What are the challenges for a reporter working there?

PM: I work with an interpreter, as do most of my colleagues. Gaza is, as a journalist, a rare place. Just because, because it’s so small, it’s very difficult for you not to find the people you want. It’s an easy patch to work for the journalists. People can’t leave. If you go to their office or you go to their home, chances are you’re going to find them. Because they’re all locked in, they’re happy to talk at length about their circumstances and the circumstances of the Palestinian people and what it means. There’s an incredible resilience of the people, and you would have to say that’s one of the traits of the Palestinian people that we have seen over and over. I mean, look at what they have been through in sixty years and they’re still refusing to fall over.

There’s a quote in the book from Yasser Arafat before he died, a hundred years after the Balfour conference. It was a few weeks before he died, Arafat told a reporter, “One-hundred-seven years after the founding of the global Zionist movement at the Balfour conference, Israel has failed to wipe us out. We are here, in Palestine, facing them.” And then he added, and this is the line that would have had great resonance in the U.S., he said, “We are not red Indians.” And that’s what you see in Gaza, you see it in the daily lives, the daily existence of the people. They are still there, despite decades of privation. And they’re not going anywhere. Someday, they’re going to have to be reckoned with. That’s what their history says. One of the lines that many Israeli commentators use is that Israel is still fighting the seventh day of the Six-Day War, with good reason.

KB: I wanted to talk a little bit about the challenge journalists face when reporting on conditions in international affairs that are outside the definitions that are set forward by the governments where their newspapers are located. For example, the American government labels Hamas as a terrorist organization. Do you think it’s a challenge for journalists to throw off those labels that governments put on things and re-examine them, or do you think that it’s something they can’t overcome?

PM: Oh, they can, and they have to. Most journalists would tell you that it’s one of their objectives on a daily basis, to attempt to explain the story behind, the story that illuminates the policy position by various governments. Recently it has been very hard in some ways to do that, because you couldn’t get into Gaza. There was a deliberate decision to prevent the media from going into Gaza during the war. Reporters always need to be looking at the labels that politicians and policymakers use, and to be assessing them to see whether they are the only labels. Invariably, you hear of Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, the Fatah leader, being described as a moderate. But he is a moderate in terms of what? He is a moderate in terms of the militants in Hamas, but in the eyes of the Palestinian people?

You have to come back to how Palestinians perceive his moderation, and how Palestinians perceive the militancy of Hamas. If you inject some of that into a commentary or an analysis piece, you leave your readers with a different sense. To simply state that somebody is a moderate or somebody is a militant, and expect the reader to use that as the sole description or descriptor of an individual or an organization, doesn’t deliver all that could be delivered. You’re talking about Hamas? Hamas are militants, yes, they are militants who appealed to Palestinians at an election that was supervised by Western observers and deemed to be fair, and Palestinians chose the militants not necessarily because of their militancy, but because of their belief in them on a whole range of issues. And then you have to ask, “if they’re militants, if they are terrorists, how did they get to be allowed to contest an election? Who let them contest an election?” Israelis allowed them to contest the election, Americans allowed them to contest the election, Fatah allowed them to contest the election.

Right up until that first election that Hamas contested in 2006, Hamas had been saying, “We represent about fifty percent of Palestinian public opinion, therefore we should be accorded that level of representation in various Palestinian forums.” And everyone laughed, and said no, that’s not true, that’s not right, and so they allowed them to contest the election. Even though they had refused to renounce violence. There’s not too many militant or nationalist or liberation groups that have been allowed to contest elections without renouncing violence. They were allowed to do so, and they won the election. That has to count for something in your assessment in where Hamas stands in Palestinian affairs, and in the region.

KB: In your reading, have you noticed any mistakes or shortcuts that reporters or publications have taken that you feel are steering the story in a wrong direction?

PM: You see it, and, look, my stance that I try to convey to you is that I don’t see it as a deliberate thing, I see it as one of the pitfalls of the cut and thrust of the daily story. You simply see that things are not being as fully explained as they might be. And some people fall into the black-and-white delineation without trying to grapple with the extensive grey in the whole crisis.

KB: Can you think of a handful of points that you wish were reiterated even in these kinds of from-the-frontlines reports, points that would sort of indicate to readers a greater subtlety in the situation?

PM: Well, the one thing that is not grappled with as often as it should be, and it’s one of the gravest elements of the story from the Palestinian perspective, is the whole Fatah-Hamas conflict. It is reduced simply to moderates versus militants. How it plays out on the ground in the daily lives of Palestinians and what it means is something that needs to be articulated more clearly, much more clearly.

The history is there. The people are there to talk about it, and I’ve got a whole chapter on it. And to go and talk to not just the Palestinians about it but to talk to Palestinians, to talk to the Americans, to talk to the Israelis about what actually happened there, and whether it was a spontaneous conflict on the ground in Gaza, or whether it was something that was driven by Washington, by Israel, [or] by Egypt (who armed and trained the Fatah). The Fatah decided and said, ‘go get them!’ and were shocked to discover that they were defeated in less than a week. That week of violence is an amazing microcosm to sort of look at the Middle East crisis, and where it’s at, and who all the different players are, and what they have been trying to get out of it, and the same for all of their missions and objectives.

KB: My sense is that it’s very hard to write about Hamas and Gaza and not be accused of ignoring Hamas’s history of violence. As a journalist who has worked to expand the public’s understanding of the region, how do you respond to that criticism?

PM: The Middle East crisis is a war, and war is a measure of failure, a point in human relations beyond which both sides have the capacity to do terrible things. That is the context in which, to use a cliché of the region, Hamas has become a fact on the ground—by dint of its own resourcefulness and determination as much as by the actions of others. To examine the movement is not to endorse its aims or tactics. It is a perfectly
reasonable and—I would argue—necessary role for journalists and authors to dig into, to explore and explain the internal terrain of such an organization. To do so certainly does not suggest to me either anti-Semitism or ignoring the role of violence and terror in the Hamas modus operandi.

To my mind, when an organization like this is at the crossroads of a conflict that hadsstraddled generations and drawn in superpowers, it is incumbent on us to attempt to understand exactly how it works and how it is changing or evolving—if in fact it is. In this context, I don’t see anyone in the media failing to observe or to examine the resort to violence by Hamas, either in its history or its present.

For a variety of voices on Gaza, Hamas, and the Middle East, check out Paul McGeough’s recommendations for newspapers, books, and blogs about the region.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.