Israeli News Broadcasters Don't Cry

Shlomi Eldar reflects on the live television report that profoundly changed the way he sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

As a commentator, you’re considered an odd bird.

Let’s say that for a time I was a person whom people liked not liking. It’s very easy to be a well-liked commentator: you simply tell the public what it wants to hear. But I always chose to tell the truth. And regrettably, I was never wrong. Both in Operation Cast Lead [the 2008-09 campaign in Gaza] and [last November’s follow-up] Operation Pillar of Defense, people were furious at me. People cursed me, sent messages, found me on Facebook and called me a Hamas man. But I saw where it was all going, and said so.

Not as a provocation.

No. I just say what I think. I read the situation, I don’t go by gut feelings or political beliefs. I thought it was wrong to assassinate Ahmed Jabari [the head of Hamas’ military wing]. Not because he didn’t deserve to die. He deserved to die. But the method of eliminating some top person and thinking someone better will replace him is wrong. All you do is heighten the problem. A top figure in the defense establishment told me, “Israel built up Hamas, not by its deeds but by its failures.”

Because we are always putting out fires.

All the decisions of the political leadership are made ad hoc, and aimed at putting out fires.

Let’s talk a little about the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense.

Before you arrived, I sat here with a think team from the Command and Staff College [of the Israel Defense Forces]. They wanted to hear my take on the subject, and I gave them a precise account of what I think is going on in Hamas now.

What did you tell them?

That I think Hamas is planning to take control of the West Bank. A month ago I would have said there was no chance of that, that Hamas has no interest in the West Bank. But something is changing. I don’t know exactly what, but I feel it on the ground.

What are you picking up?

To begin with, Hamas allowed Fatah to hold a huge demonstration [in the Gaza Strip]. A demonstration of support for Fatah would supposedly embarrass Hamas – because Fatah wants to prove that it is still alive and kicking in Gaza. You ask yourself what’s behind this.

Why did they let them do that? Obviously, something is happening. I like doing one plus one, and the answer I get is that if [Hamas political leader] Khaled Meshal came to Gaza a month ago, and said very different things from what he said in the past, he is priming himself to be the next Palestinian president.

What did he say?

Just a year ago, he said Hamas was abandoning the armed struggle and would henceforth advocate popular demonstrations. Now suddenly he comes and says “Not one inch! We want Jerusalem, we will not recognize Israel.” That’s a 180-degree shift. And you realize that he is saying this in the wake of Pillar of Defense. That Hamas understands they need to have elections.

To consolidate in the West Bank, and maybe even seize control of it.

Exactly. In order to become an important and influential force in the West Bank, they need elections. And to hold elections, Palestinian reconciliation is essential. They have already marked the targets and assigned the jobs. Meshal will compete for a position he didn’t dare even dream of two months ago: Palestinian president. If Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t snap out of it fast and realize that he is being maneuvered, he will find himself outside the political game. The whole of Fatah will find itself outside.

As of now, Israeli journalists are not going into Gaza.

They are not going in, and will not be going in. A week ago I asked Mahmoud al-Zahar [a senior Hamas figure] what he thought about my coming to Gaza. He said no, because the situation did not allow it. I know what that means. I was in Gaza a week before Operation Pillar of Defense, and they asked me to leave. Someone was planning to kidnap me.

What do you think of the Israeli media’s coverage of the Palestinians?

We are not doing anything right. It’s no wonder that during military operations everyone mobilizes to serve the IDF Spokesman’s Unit.

You’re referring to Roni Daniel, Channel 2’s military commentator.

I don’t want to say anything bad about Roni Daniel, heaven forbid. The problem is that the Israeli media speak in one voice. We look at the other side and see people without faces. It is part of the dehumanization [process] we are undergoing. You know, the GOC Central Command recently initiated a very courageous move. On the [Muslim] Feast of the Sacrifice holiday, he allowed 200,000 Palestinians to enter Israel. Why? Because he understood something important: that the demonization process is working overtime and that it’s important for Palestinians to see Israel at eye-level, as the saying goes. The project was kept secret; no one knew about it. I was off that day. In the evening I went to a restaurant on the Tel Aviv beach and suddenly I see the boardwalk packed with Palestinians. Think about it 10 years earlier there was the terrorist attack at the Dolphinarium [which is also on the boardwalk]. And now Palestinians are having barbecues there. I assume it’s impossible to check 200,000 people thoroughly. It was a bold decision, made by someone who understood that if Israelis don’t see Palestinians and Palestinians don’t see Israelis, nothing will move.

How did your perception change over time? For you, the Palestinians are not faceless. How did you change?

Basically, the change in my perception of them started when I entered Gaza and met human beings. You know, a few years ago I watched old reports of mine from the Channel 1 [state television] archive and I was simply ashamed.

Why? Because you felt that today you could not endorse that viewpoint?

Yes, I took a patronizing posture. The first times I entered Gaza was in a Border Police jeep, during a curfew.

A portrait of the occupier.

Yes. I arrived in a jeep and I filmed the sign “Welcome to Gaza” and filmed them looking out of windows. But when I started to get to know them, I began to see them as human beings. One of the events that influenced me most in my life was a report I did for Channel 1 about the children of the intifada. For the first time we saw children who were killed by IDF gunfire. We hadn’t known anything about that. That gave me an additional angle of vision you could call it humane namely, that there are human beings behind the masks they wore.

Does the occupation corrupt?

The occupation corrupts, yes.

I cannot forget your conversation with Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gaza physician who lost three of his daughters and spoke to you live on television moments after his house was bombed during Operation Cast Lead. Tell me what you felt during that conversation.

I was thinking what the editor of the newscast would do about the fact that I had pressed the speaker and stopped a newscast, showing a lack of broadcast discipline. I only calmed down after he told me to hold the phone closer to the microphone. And then I fought with myself, because I knew I must not cry, that it would be wrong if I cried and choked up.

Why?

Because that would show that everything people say about you is true.

And why is that bad?

The truth is that it’s not bad. But that’s what I thought at that moment, that one has to be strong. Afterward I went to the hospital at Tel Hashomer and saw him there, with his pajamas soaked in blood and crying horribly. I didn’t say anything. What could I say “It will be all right”? “It will pass”? I just sat next to him without a word. The next day, when I came again, he was washed and shaved, and he was already thinking differently. All he wanted was to prove his innocence, to prove that no shells were fired from his house, that he was falsely accused. His reaction frightened me. It seemed inhumane. His wife had died a few months earlier, three of his daughters were killed the day before, and he is not showing signs of mourning. How can that be? I was shaken by his behavior and kept my distance from him.

And that was the end of your relationship with him?

Hardly. The day after Operation Cast Lead ended, I saw that Channel 1 had reported that “the piece of shrapnel that struck the family of the doctor from Gaza was from Hamas.” I called Abuelaish at the hospital and told him. He said his daughter was being operated on again the next day to remove the shrapnel and he intended to save it, as proof. I told him, “Don’t give it to anyone; I will come tomorrow.” I got to the hospital the next day and spoke to Prof. [Rafi] Valdan. He told Abuelaish, “I will not give the shrapnel to anyone. I will enter the operating room, take it and put it in the safe. I promise not to give it to anyone, but I have to report to the chief medical officer [of the IDF].” And so it was. He informed the army that he did not intend to give them the shrapnel, and a few days later army personnel came to the hospital and asked Abuelaish to pardon them. They admitted they had been wrong. This was after they tried to say that he had [combat] materials and weapons in his house and posted factually incorrect photos on Facebook. That would not have happened if they’d known he had the shrapnel.

Did you ever speak to him about his behavior in the hospital?

Long afterward I met him at a screening of my film in Canada. [The documentary film, “Precious Life,” is about a Palestinian baby from Gaza who suffers from a rare disease]. He told me something for the first time. He said, “I heard the screams, I heard the shell. I ran upstairs, opened what was left of the door, saw the body parts of my daughters and saw Mohammed, my son, who said, ‘Daddy, Mayar, Bessan and Aya went up to mother, to heaven.’ I looked at Mohammed and decided that I had to live for the sake of the living, not for the sake of the dead.” And then he started to cry. It was only then that I grasped that he is cut from a different cloth. That he decided not to immerse himself in mourning, in order to safeguard his children who remained alive. I understood him. I understood who he is.

That evening I saw him sitting in the synagogue where the film was being shown and talking with members of the Jewish community about the importance of peace. The man who lost everything is persuading them that it’s necessary to talk about peace. It was off-the-wall.

An amazing person.

Yes. It took me many years to understand him; I even apologized to him afterward. You know, it took me two or three weeks to realize that people who saw that broadcast cried not because of the conversation, but because they saw my face.

But you didn’t cry.

No, but they saw I was fighting it.

I meant later, in retrospect.

No, I didn’t cry later, either.

How can that be? Just from talking about it with you, I feel a lump in my throat.

I don’t know why I didn’t cry. I even cry at the movies. You know, I was with the coproducers of my film, Ehud Bleiberg and Yoav Ze’evi, during the screening at a festival in Colorado. The part about the firing of rockets on Sderot came on. We’re sitting in the mountains of Colorado, paradise on earth, and I start to cry. I look to my right and see Ehud wipe away a tear, and I look to my left and see Yoav wiping away a tear, too. And it was at this trivial moment – not at the place where everyone cries when they see the film. I asked them, “Why did we cry?” And Ehud replied, “We cried at our situation.”

I can understand that.

We cried at our situation, and I think we need to cry about our future, too.

Let’s talk about our future. The picture you’re painting is that Hamas rules in Gaza and is the consensus or the mainstream, and the extremists are trying to undermine Hamas in the same way as Hamas undermined Fatah 25 years ago.

That’s correct, and that situation still exists. That’s why I think Israel scored a big achievement in Operation Pillar of Defense.

Namely?

Until now, Hamas was always dragged after the events. When Islamic Jihad fired rockets, Hamas was forced to respond, because it was being held up to ridicule. People told Hamas, “You came to power and forsook the holy war.” In the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas could say to the Palestinian public: “We threatened the Israeli public, we drove them into shelters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we came out victorious and we don’t need a certificate of validation from anyone.” That means that tomorrow, if some young warrior from Islamic Jihad fires a rocket, they can arrest him.

How so?

Because they’ve already proved themselves. They showed what they are capable of. So now they can maintain quiet and stick to their desire not to escalate.

How ironic: By upgrading their status, they can now enforce a more moderate line in Gaza.

Yes, but it could still all turn around. If there is another terrorist attack and we do not restrain ourselves and take down someone from the Resistance Committees, and they start shooting in retaliation, the whole story starts over only this time it will be a lot more complicated and complex. Hamas is intoxicated with victory now. I spoke to Zahar and many others. They are really convinced they won. The next confrontation will force Israel to decide whether we are letting them drag us into one more round, or really want to topple the Hamas government. But a decision has to be made. After all, last time they knew we were postponing the decision. Avigdor Lieberman said so explicitly in an interview to Channel 10. He said we did not intend to topple the Hamas government.

A brilliant strategist.

That interview was a serious mistake. A country can say it can no longer tolerate rockets or pay the price of peace. But why say so on television? I know the Palestinians. It took them exactly 10 minutes to figure out that Israel had no serious intentions in that round. They understood that all they had to do was hang in there.

Still, how can they possibly perceive it as a victory?

People from the army asked me how I understand it after all, we dropped tons of explosives on them. We caused huge destruction. But that’s not what influences them. They don’t want to prove they can bring down the Israeli army. As they see it, they did something no one ever did before them. They posed a threat to Israel and created a deterrent balance. They won. It’s not a military victory. They won because they were not toppled.

So we defeat them militarily but lose in psychological warfare.

Just so. It’s because they understand us a lot better than we understand them. We think with Western logic: I threaten them, I will enter Gaza, they’d better watch out. That doesn’t work. Ibrahim Makadmeh, who was the strategist of Hamas [and assassinated by Israel in 2003], wrote back in 1994 that Hamas cannot topple the Palestinian Authority. What Hamas can do is stagger the Israelis with suicide attacks, so the Israelis will hit back at Arafat, weaken him and destroy his security units, and then it will seize power.

Which is what happened.

Yes.

Are we one step behind all the time?

We react.

React and don’t initiate, get dragged along instead of leading.

The situation today is extremely complicated. Hamas is strong. And what message is Israel sending them? That we understand only force. I wrote that we will never have a better partner [for peace talks] than Abu Mazen. Not that it’s possible to make an agreement only with Abu Mazen. We will not repeat the mistake we made in Oslo, when we reached an agreement only with the PLO, which led to a total collapse. But when Abu Mazen went to the United Nations, we should have given him our blessing. Why? When there are no negotiations, you don’t have to give anything. There can be an observer and the father of observers, and I don’t have to give a thing. But that is something no one thought of doing.

What actually happened in Operation Pillar of Defense?

The operation was a mistake from the word go. The Resistance Committees fired a missile at an Israeli jeep in order to drag Hamas in. Israel immediately fired back and hit two children. Hamas put out the first communiqué: If civilians are attacked, we will hit back at civilians. What does that actually mean? You have to read between the lines. They are really saying, “Don’t drag us in. Don’t attack civilians, because we are already the object of ridicule.”

So it was actually more an admission of weakness, and Israel took it as a provocation.

Indeed, all the sites wrote: “Hamas is threatening us.” But Hamas was not threatening. Hamas was saying, “I am in a mess as it is, people are saying I am not protecting the citizens, and I can’t stop Islamic Jihad or the Resistance Committees.” So they started firing, because they had no choice, but they fired into open areas. Then Israel decided to strike at a Hamas position, and that was all it took. Hamas fired back and assumed responsibility. It’s wrong to think that if I hit them they will be afraid. It’s just the opposite.

If you could draw one sweeping conclusion from this period of covering Israel’s behavior toward Hamas, what would it be?

That the political decision makers never acted strategically, and that their tactics all along were both mistaken and bad.

What, in your estimation, will happen in Gaza in terms of the next Israeli government?

I will surprise you by saying that Netanyahu behaved very responsibly toward Gaza throughout his term of office. In Operation Cast Lead, Olmert wanted to restore to himself the lost honor of the Second Lebanon War. He went on the rampage in Gaza. After Operation Cast Lead, when I was making my film, I came into possession of shocking material. The kind of material that sends you to a psychologist. I have never shown it. Children who were shot. Piles of bodies of civilians. In contrast, in Operation Pillar of Defense hardly any ambulances arrived at hospitals. People were killed, but there is absolutely no comparison.

What will happen now? Does this problem have a solution?

No. It will always need to be based on a balance of terror. The question is what kind of balance of terror. My impression, after the events of the past two or three years, is that when you strike a deal with Hamas, they uphold it, as long as you yourself do not violate it. Fatah could not be trusted. They were a corrupt group, which is also why they lost. One of my big professional mistakes came in a book I wrote in which I forecast the rise of Hamas, but did not touch on the most fundamental issue.

Which was?

The corruption in Fatah. Every corrupt Fatah man who arrived from Tunisia immediately equipped himself with a villa and a Mercedes, and I didn’t realize that the Mercedes would have a direct effect on me. I thought it was an internal matter, the Palestinians’ problem. It took me a long time to grasp that Hamas was not elected because of ideology. The vote was more against Fatah than for Hamas because of the corruption.

So what then?

There is a middle road. You can’t enter into half a [peace] process, and I think Netanyahu understands that. I think it is possible to reach understandings with Hamas, though less so now than before Operation Pillar of Defense.

Is it true to say “there is no partner”?

I revealed a few years ago that Meshal wanted to talk to Olmert and sent him messages via [Shin Bet chief Yuval] Diskin. Olmert not only refused, he failed to inform the top ranks of the defense establishment and led the country into an operation in Gaza. So maybe Meshal was a partner, but today I’m not sure he is. Can I make a comprehensive peace with him today, with the condition of Palestinian society? The answer is no.

So it’s a lost cause. There is no solution.

You are right: there is no solution. There is no solution because, even if there were Palestinian unity, Israeli society today is not ready to pay the price of peace. We are incapable of evacuating even one settler outpost, so how will we be capable of doing more?

Did the process you underwent, from being someone who photographed the “Welcome to Gaza” sign to being a friend, almost a member of the family there, make you despair or give you hope?

There was a period when I had hope.

And it ended?

Today I have no hope. That is the general feeling of the whole Israeli public, both on the right and the left.

You are in a state of despair.

Yes. Something bad is happening here: politically, in policy and especially in the realm of social welfare. Israeli society is turning into a dangerous place. Things are not going to be good.

It’s as though we spent a lot of time in a café, and now the check is about to arrive.

We are still in the café. And we lost. Israeli society does not want to wake up and know. On the first day of the Second Lebanon War, I took my camera and wandered among the soldiers. When I got home that night I told my wife, “We lost the war.” She was shocked and asked, “Why are you saying such a thing?” I replied, “Because the soldiers were pulled from their offices and businesses and are sitting there, looking at pictures of their children in their phones. Hezbollah was militant and fired with motivation, but all we wanted was to get it over with and go back home.” We can only imagine the spirit of the Six-Day War, the spirit of mission and mobilization.

I think that is what’s working for Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi-National Union, in the election campaign. He’s doing well because he purports to embody that spirit.

Yes, that’s where it can be found, among the settlers and the “hilltop youth.” It speaks to them. That’s why we are being dragged in their wake.

I saw a clip on YouTube of a children’s program from Hamas TV. The children of the shahid [martyr] Reem Riyashi, 5-year-old children. They were shown a video clip of their mother as she prepared for the suicide bombing attack, putting on the explosive belt. A song was playing in the background: “Mom, you chose to embrace the explosive belt and not me.”

Hamas TV is inflammatory.

It was appalling on so many levels.

I am also constantly shocked by that. But try for a minute to see it from their point of view, the feeling of people in Gaza, under siege and occupation, whose relatives and friends were killed.

I can understand that the motivation. What’s harder to understand is how deep the seed was planted, and when. I understood that there is no chance.

Right. I will tell you what “no chance” means. A few days after the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, I gave a talk at a Herzliya high school. The children, who said they came from good homes, told me we have to kill all the Arabs, including the Israeli Arabs, because where do they get off thinking they will get control of the country. Their ideal is to go into the army and kill as many Arabs as possible. That’s one side of the picture, Israeli youth, the new generation, living in an atmosphere of demonizing the Palestinians which is something the Israeli media are responsible for in no small measure. The other side of the picture is the young generation in Gaza, a child of five or nine. Let’s say he is not wounded, but a four-ton bomb landed next to his house. Do you know that in Operation Pillar of Defense, not one pane of glass remained intact in the whole of Gaza? It’s a tactic of creating sonic booms to frighten people without hurting them. A child who has a bomb like that land next to him can’t hear anything for the next three days. What does he think about the Jews afterward? And where will we end up, if this is how Jewish youngsters think about Arabs?

Nowhere good.

We are on a nothing-to-lose track. Which is why I say there is no future. When I told the high school class that we have to look at them as human beings, one boy jumped up and said, “Who do you vote for? You’re extreme left, no?” I replied, “It would surprise you to know who I vote for.” But that’s not the point. The point is that we in Israel have reached a situation in which if someone says we have to talk peace, he’s considered extreme left.

You are very reserved.

I maintain reserve all the time.

As a defense mechanism?

Yes.

What does it defend you against?

I safeguard myself, and I need to safeguard myself against a host of things. I will tell you something I have never told anyone, and I hope I will not regret telling you. During Operation Cast Lead I came into possession of material about very grim events relating to the idea that Israel was deliberately “going crazy.” Testimonies, images and much more. So many people were killed there. I took it all and put it in an envelope. I told Reudar Benziman, who was CEO of Channel 10 News at the time, what I had. He told me, “Work on it.” I told him I couldn’t. Because that’s the truth I couldn’t. If I had verified what I heard, I would not be able to live with it. I couldn’t have evoked the “rotten apples” metaphor. I still have the material in a closed room. I didn’t give it to anyone. When there was talk about a commission of inquiry, I said I would be ready to give them the material let them check it out, not me. I’m not touching it. I’m not capable. I can’t. I, too, understand my limits.

Shlomi Eldar.Credit: Gali Eytan
Shlomi Eldar.Credit: Gali Eytan

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