February 19, 2008

Israeli-Arab Journalist Discusses Middle East

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A prominent Israeli-Arab journalist, Khaled Abu Toameh, spoke to students last night about his 37 years of experience covering the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Toameh currently writes for the Jerusalem Post and is a syndicated columnist in newspapers throughout the world.
Much of Toameh’s career was spent as a “fixer” for the international media where he acted as a translator and driver for other foreign correspondents. “You can’t just wake up one morning and drive in to any Palestinian village or refugee camp and say, ‘Good morning, I want to speak to Hamas,’” said Toameh.[img_assist|nid=27963|title=Conflicted reporting|desc=Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian/Israeli-Arab journalist and documentarian, speaks at Kaufmann Auditorium yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
For the past 15 years, he has been one of the only Arab journalists writing in a Hebrew paper in Hebrew about what is happening in the Palestinian areas. “What I’ve been doing is factual reporting from Ramallah and Gaza on what is happening in these areas,” Toameh said.
Although he started his career working for the official Palestinian Liberation Organization paper in Ramallah, he told the audience, “As a journalist I have no problem working for any media outlet that provides me with a free platform.”
Toameh spent time explaining that many of his colleagues have questioned him about being an Arab working for a Jewish newspaper in Jerusalem: “They ask me — when did you become a Zionist Arab and when did you become pro-Israel?”
“I find it ironic,” said Toameh “that as an Arab and Muslim I have to work for a Jewish paper to be published freely.”
Toameh expressed his disappointment many times over the lack of freedom in the Palestinian territories and the Arab world for journalists. He was especially critical of Yassar Arafat’s rule and the PLO.
“We didn’t have free media when I was working [in the territories for the PLO] in the ’70s and ’80s … and we still don’t have a free media in the Palestinian areas, and I find it sad … because there was high hope among Palestinians living there when the peace process started that Yassar Arafat would establish democracy. What happened after Arafat came was a total disappointment for many people.”
Because of Toameh’s experience as a journalist, he has engaged many of the politicians, including Yassar Arafat, in the region. His criticism of Arafat’s leadership was especially strong.
“Please show me one housing project or one school or one university or even one hospital built by Yassar Arafat with the [$6.5 billion dollars] given to him. Where did the money go? I don’t have an answer … but I do know Arafat’s wife was getting $100,000 a month to support her shopping in Paris.”
He also spoke about the culture among journalists covering the region for major news organizations and their complicity in failing to report on everything that they knew was happening in the Palestinian areas.
After the Oslo Peace Accords were signed, Toameh said, “[The reporters told me], ‘We must give Arafat a change.’ I said our job is just to report on what’s happening.”
Toameh also spoke about the current conflict with Hamas in power in the Gaza Strip and the remnants of the PLO in power in the West Bank. He described the situation as very dangerous.
“In the end the Palestinians got two states … an Islamic republic in Gaza and a semi-PLO regime in the west Bank,” he said.
The Israelis and the Americans do not “have a reliable partner to talk to,” he added.
Toameh’s comments about America’s involvement in the region were critical as well, especially regarding the American and Israeli support for what he views as a very corrupt government in the West Bank.
“The Palestinians lost credibility [with the PLO] and now the Palestinians are wondering, ‘What mandate does Abbas have to negotiate on our behalf?’ Let’s say tomorrow Omert and Abbas sign a historic peace deal … where is Abbas going to implement the agreement? He has no control over Ramallah where he lives and works.”
Brian Druyan ’10, one of the organizers of the visit, asked Toameh whether he thought Israel’s actions in the West Bank have created a situation where the Palestinian government under Abbas cannot reform itself.
“There is no link between what Israel does and the reforms in the Palestinian areas,” said Toameh. “How does [a checkpoint] prevent Abbas from reforming for example the education system, or investing money for the welfare of [his] own people. Why do we blame the Jews for the misery of our people?”
When asked about current U.S. involvement in the region, and whether U.S. support for Abbas was the proper policy, he responded, “I really don’t understand what’s going on over here in the U.S. Sometimes I get a feeling that [decision makers] live in their own world.”
Toameh was particularly emphatic in describing how support for Abbas simply helps the image of Hamas.
“The only way to undermine Hamas is not by giving the PLO guns and money it is by offering the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas,” he said.
Anthony Gomez ’08, who took Arabic classes last summer in Egypt, said, “I really enjoyed [Toameh] being able to look outside of what Israel has done but also what mistakes the Palestinian Authority has committed to further deepen the problems that they are in right now.”
Toameh also spoke about what it is like being an Arab-Israeli, a minority that currently comprises more than 20 percent of the Israeli population.
“I am really worried about the future because I am convinced that if Israel continues with its current policy toward Israeli-Arabs the third uprising will be on the streets of Israeli cities,” he said.
Tomaeh was clear in explaining that “Israel is not an apartheid state — but Israel is doing injustice to its Arab minority when it comes to allocating funds.”
“I understand that many Israeli Jews no longer see the difference between me and Hamas. I understand the fears, but sometimes they are a bit exaggerated. A citizen should be tested according to his loyalty to the state, not his religion.”
The speech was sponsored by Hasbara Fellowships, Near Eastern Studies Department, Cornell Hillel, Cornell International Affairs Review, CIPAC and the JSU.