The interview with Yahya Sinwar, Hamas chief in Gaza, which was conducted by Italian journalist Francesca Borri and published in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth,” set off a major internet storm in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian diaspora. What? Sinwar spoke knowingly to an Israeli newspaper? It wasn’t the content that caused the uproar (“A new war is not in anyone’s interest, certainly not our interest”) – only the host.
Sinwar’s bureau hastened to publish a clarification: The request was for an interview with an Italian newspaper and a British newspaper; the Western media department in the Hamas movement ascertained that the journalist was neither Jewish nor Israeli, and that she has never worked with the Israeli press. There was no face-to-face interview with the above-mentioned journalist, but rather a written response to her questions. The journalist met with Sinwar only for the purpose of a joint photo.
Borri, 38, is a freelance journalist who began writing only about six years ago, mainly from Syria. “I think that Sinwar agreed to let me interview him because he knew that I’m a war correspondent and that I would understand when he told me that he isn’t interested in another war,” she told me over the phone from Italy on Friday.
Her articles have been published in many languages – including in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth. In June, Borri visited Gaza and published an article that was “tough on Hamas,” as she put it. She was haunted by the sight of little children begging, and in her opinion the Islamic resistance movement is also responsible for the terrible deterioration in the Strip. That article was also translated and published in Yedioth.
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And then Borri received a text message from one of Sinwar’s advisers, she told me. Why are you so hard on the Palestinians, he complained. They exchanged several text messages, until she asked if she could interview Sinwar. In late August she came to the Gaza Strip again, to interview him.
I asked her whether Hamas really didn’t know that the article would be published in Yedioth. “As a freelancer, transparency is important to me,” she said. “It was clear to everyone that the interview would be translated into other languages, including Hebrew. Everyone in Sinwar’s bureau knew that my articles have been published in Yedioth Ahronoth.”
What caused the outrage was that the wording of the article seemed to indicate that Borri was sent by the Israeli newspaper, and that that’s how the situation was presented to Sinwar. Here is the wording of her first question: “This is the first time ever that you’re agreeing to speak to the Western media – and to an Israeli newspaper yet.” According to Borri, the words “and to an Israeli newspaper yet” didn’t appear in her original question to Sinwar.
On the other hand, she confirmed that Sinwar’s final remark in the article, “and they translate you regularly into Hebrew too,” really was said. “Sinwar spoke to me, and through me to the world. I had the impression that he’s interested in talking through me to the Israelis too,” she said.
And was the interview really conducted face-to-face and during joint trips with Sinwar and his aides over the course of five days, or in writing, as Hamas claimed. Borri explains: “I never record. I feel that people’s answers change when they see a recording device.” She didn’t travel with him in his car, but she says she did join a convoy of cars with Sinwar through the Strip, yet preferred not to say where.
On Thursday, in other words before the publication of the full article in Yedioth on Friday, the Al Jazeera website in Arabic already published the text of the written questions and answers that were exchanged, according to Hamas, between Sinwar’s bureau and Borri. A comparison of the written version with the article in Yedioth reveals great similarity between the two texts, with a few differences – mainly a change in the order of the questions and their answers, sentences, declarations and facts that were deleted from the Hebrew version, and a few sentences that were added to it.
The questions and answers in the Arabic version flow, and there is a connection between the replies and the following questions; in other words, a conversation is taking place. According to Al Jazeera, the written questions and replies were exchanged several times between the parties. There is even mention of how during the interview, Sinwar pointed to one of his advisers and said that his son was killed by Israeli fire.
Borri confirmed in a conversation with me that she combined the replies received in writing, over a period of time, with answers she received orally. Due to the great similarity between the two versions, my impression is that many replies were sent to her in writing. A Gaza resident told me that he was convinced that most of the answers were given in writing because of “the polished wording, the level-headed replies and the rational explanations.”
He believes that an entire team thought things through and wrote the answers, not Sinwar alone. He also said that the message in the interview is addressed to the Palestinians in Gaza “who are sick and tired of Hamas rule,” no less than to readers in the West, whom Borri enables to see a senior Hamas official as a leader who cares about his people, rather than as a caricature of a bloodthirsty fanatic.
And I was left longing for the period when senior Hamas officials gave interviews to the Israeli press and to a Jewish Israeli like me – including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Ismail Haniyeh and many others. And I was left with the following conclusion: When Israel doesn’t allow Israeli journalists to enter Gaza, it makes life easy for Hamas.