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Joshua Hammer: Weighed Down by a Good Meal

October 13, 2011

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The author reflects on an innocent comment he’d made years earlier about a meal—a compliment that would brand him in some people’s eyes as a dangerous, pro-Palestinian stooge.

By **Joshua Hammer**

Jerusalem575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Max Grishchenko.

I stood in the corridor of a ramshackle building called Beit Agron in central Jerusalem, the headquarters for foreign journalists and military and government spokesmen, shaking with rage and humiliation. Seconds earlier, I’d been called a liar and then physically ejected from the office of the Israeli government press director. Now, as I took a deep breath and headed down the stairs, I thought back to the incident that had led to this point—an innocent comment I’d made two years earlier about a meal, a compliment that would brand me in some people’s eyes as a pro-Palestinian stooge—and wondered if that remark would ever stop haunting me.

It was May 29, 2001, when the phone rang over breakfast at my home in Jerusalem. My interpreter, Ali, was on the line, breathless with excitement, informing me that my weeks-long attempt to meet the leadership of the Popular Resistance Committee, a coalition of armed factions in Gaza, had come through. “You need to drive down immediately,” he said. Newsweek photographer Gary Knight and I drove to the Erez Crossing, the checkpoint dividing Israel from the Gaza Strip, where we passed through a long corridor leading into Palestinian territory and caught a taxi to Gaza City. There we picked up Ali and sped along the coast, past fortified Israeli settlements and Israeli troops peering out through bulletproof slots in cylindrical guard towers, to a scruffy tea shop in the hardscrabble town of Rafah, on the border with Egypt, where we were supposed to meet our contact. He turned out to be an elderly man in shabby clothing and rubber sandals, who led us on foot through sand-filled alleys to a concrete-block house where five armed men in black ski masks were waiting for us.

The men searched us, then led us into a small and airless room. Our host, the commander of a cadre of Palestinian fighters who called themselves the Fatah Hawks, wore a black-and-white-checkered kaffiyeh wrapped tightly around his face, so that only his eyes were visible. Perched on a wooden chair and flanked by two bodyguards, he proceeded to deliver a monologue for half an hour about the armed resistance. For the most part, this consisted of boasts about the number of Israeli settlers and soldiers his men had shot and scathing criticism of the U.S. and British governments—“Bush and Blair”—for their support of Israel. The speech, delivered in Arabic in a low monotone, soon became repetitive; so when the commander, who went by the ubiquitous Middle Eastern nom de guerre Abu Mohammed, suggested a break for lunch, Knight and I could barely conceal our relief.

[We] reclined on our pillows, bellies bloated, awash in good feeling, marveling that in the middle of a war zone, the Fatah Hawks had played the role of hosts with such panache.

As if on cue, the door swung open, and two of Abu Mohammed’s underlings—muscular men with black ski masks pulled over their faces and AK-47s slung over their shoulders—entered the room. They carried trays of hot and cold meze, an assortment of small dishes of traditional Arabic cuisine. The masked men set the trays on a low wooden table and beckoned Knight, me, and Ali to sit on pillows on the floor. “Please,” urged our host, his voice muffled by the checkered cloth in front of his face. “Begin.”

And we did. It was one of the most sumptuous spreads that I’d ever been offered during the six months I’d spent as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, shuttling between Gaza and the West Bank amid the intensifying violence of the al-Aqsa Intifada: bowls of hummus gleaming with pools of olive oil and dollops of chickpeas artfully arranged on top. Baba ghanoush, a stew of eggplant and tomatoes spiced with garlic. A pot of dark, fermented fava beans, known as ful, that singed my tongue as I sampled it with a spoon. Fresh tomato and cucumber salad speckled with pine nuts; skewered chunks of chicken; succulent lamb kebabs; and piles of hot flat breads, straight out of the oven, charcoal-black and crisp in places, doughy and chewy in others. The gunmen-turned-waiters hovered around us solicitously, like some parody of the staff at the Four Seasons, wielding liter bottles of Coke, Sprite, and Fanta and refilling our glasses at every opportunity. Abu Mohammed joined us, tucking the lower part of his kaffiyeh underneath his chin so that his mouth would be freed up for eating. Knight and I dived into the spread ravenously. Then, when nothing remained but a few half-eaten pitas scattered among the empty plates, a large rectangle of baklava—gooey, oozing nuts and honey—made its appearance, served with glasses of tea and cups of Arabic coffee. When it was over, Knight and I reclined on our pillows, bellies bloated, awash in good feeling, marveling that in the middle of a war zone, the Fatah Hawks had played the role of hosts with such panache.

It was then that Abu Mohammed motioned for Ali to leave the room with him. Two minutes later, the interpreter slipped back inside. He looked stricken.

“Guys,” he said. “There is a problem.”

“What kind of problem?” I asked.

“It seems,” he said, “that we have been kidnapped.”

At the time of our abduction, the al-Aqsa Intifada was nine months old, and it was gaining force and fury across the occupied territories. Following the right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, on September 29, 2000, angry Palestinians— already frustrated by the breakdown of the Camp David peace talks—had gathered at Israeli checkpoints, hurling stones and firebombs at soldiers. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered a swift and lethal response, and during the first two weeks of the uprising dozens of Palestinians, many of them teenagers, were killed by rubber bullets and live ammunition. Soon the armed wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, muscled aside the stone throwers, firing on Israeli bases and ambushing settlers as they drove down bypass roads in the occupied territories. In late 2000 militants from the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, freed by Arafat from Palestinian Authority jails, regrouped and launched the first of what would become a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel. Sharon and his Likud Party were swept into power in February 2001 by an Israeli electorate disillusioned with Barak and attracted by Sharon’s promise of a hard line against the uprising.

Nowhere did the violence seem more relentless, the confrontation more intractable than in Gaza, a sliver of overcrowded territory along the Mediterranean Sea, where roughly 1.2 million Palestinians shared the turf with 5,000 Israeli settlers. These Jews, who insisted that Gaza was their biblical inheritance, lived locked down inside fortress-like communities such as Kfar Darom and Gush Katif, protected by barbed wire fences and cordons of Israeli soldiers. To drive them out, the Popular Resistance Committee had embraced the tactics employed by Hizbullah guerrillas during the eighteen-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon: suicide bombings, roadside booby traps, ambushes, and mortar attacks. For the settlers, traveling beyond the perimeter of their compounds meant moving in armored convoys across miles of hostile territory, much as nineteenth-century wagon trains traversed the American frontier. The sandy wasteland was filled with buried roadside bombs; Palestinian snipers laid ambushes from half-finished buildings that offered a perfect vantage point over the highway. “The fighters aren’t as sophisticated as Hizbullah, but they’re getting better,” Lieutenant Leor Bar-On, a Gaza-based Israeli soldier, told me during my reporting from the strip in May. “It’s no longer a popular uprising. It’s becoming a full-scale guerrilla war.” Fueling the conflict was a constant flow of weapons passed to the militants through dozens of tunnels burrowed beneath the Egyptian border into Rafah, a highly effective smuggling operation dominated by a single Palestinian family.

In the polarized atmosphere of the al-Aqsa Intifada, meanwhile, the role of journalists covering the conflict had become excruciatingly difficult. More than any other place on earth, perhaps, reporters here were working in a fish bowl. The influential pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, as well as the Israeli right wing, parsed every word we wrote for traces of pro-Palestinian bias. They would fire letters to our editors and send volleys of e-mails if anything was perceived to have violated their notions of objectivity. When I wrote an article about Palestinians who lived in fear of being stoned by Israeli settlers on the road leading to their West Bank village, I received a torrent of correspondence accusing me of ignoring the sniper attacks on Israeli settlers by the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. (The accusation wasn’t true; I’d addressed it in several previous articles.) The Palestinians, too, were highly sensitive to reporting that seemed to tilt too much in favor of Israel. But they lacked the sophistication, and the smoothly oiled media machine, to maintain the pressure that their Israeli counterparts were capable of. In our case, they opted for a cruder approach to make their point.

Now we sat on a couch in the airless room where we’d just eaten lunch, jolted by volleys of automatic weapons fire from just outside the window. Israeli bulldozers were knocking down houses along the border strip with Egypt, clearing an open field of fire, and the militants were shooting back. “Don’t worry,” Abu Mohammed said, in a feeble attempt at reassurance, “it’s three or four houses away.” The militants had confiscated our cell phones, and we were cut off from the outside world. Abu Mohammed handed Ali a typed press release in Arabic, apparently prepared by our abductors well ahead of time, that explained that we were being detained to protest U.S. and British government support for Israel. “We’re going to be held until six o’clock,” Ali said. “It’s just a symbolic kidnapping.” Assuaged by this promise, we sat quietly, dozing off in the hot afternoon, awakening occasionally to face the surreal sight of our armed guards staring at us through their black ski masks and kaffiyehs. But as the hours wore on we grew more nervous— especially after we learned that the terms had changed. Now, the commander told Ali, we would be held until “the Western media took notice.” What if nobody paid attention? we wondered. What if they put on a kidnapping and nobody heard?

Knight and I tried to evaluate the situation calmly. True, Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut, had been held for years by Hizbullah guerrillas, chained to radiators in a succession of tiny cells in the Lebanese capital’s southern suburbs. But Gaza was smaller and still vastly more orderly than anarchic 1980s Lebanon, and the chances of our rotting here for the long term seemed highly unlikely. For that matter, Palestinian militants hadn’t demonstrated a grudge toward Western journalists and indeed, usually seemed to cultivate us; they saved their antipathy for the Israelis. The Palestinian intifada would take a more virulent turn in the months ahead, with horrific suicide bombings in Israeli nightclubs and cafés and on buses (suicide attacks would escalate dramatically, from six in 2000 to eighty-four in 2001), and occasional threats against foreign journalists; in 2007 BBC correspondent Alan Johnson would be grabbed in Gaza by a militant group calling itself the Army of Islam, held for 114 days, and repeatedly threatened with execution. But this was all in the future. On top of everything else, that excellent meal seemed somehow reassuring. Would anyone who harbored evil intentions toward us have bothered to serve us such a spread? The gunmen were young, impetuous, immature, perhaps, but surely they didn’t intend to harm us.

That assessment turned out to be correct. After three hours of isolation and mounting boredom, we were permitted to make cell phone calls to our head offices. I reached the editor-in-chief of Newsweek, Rick Smith, at eight o’clock in the morning New York time, and explained what was happening. One hour later, CNN broadcast the news of our kidnapping. Grinning behind his kaffiyeh, Abu Mohammed handed us our cell phones back and profusely apologized “for the inconvenience.” The gunmen shook our hands. Abu Mohammed sent us on our way with an invitation to return the next day, “and we will serve you an even better lunch.”

A taxi took us to the seaside apartment of Mohammed Dahlan, Palestinian Authority’s chief of preventative security in Gaza. Amid probing questions from the chain-smoking Dahlan, we dined on more meze and kebabs for two hours with what seemed like the entire upper echelon of the Palestinian Authority. No serious invitation in the Middle East, it seemed, could take place without piles of food and drink; it was a cultural code, a deep-seated sense of obligation, felt as intensely by the men who had kidnapped us as by the men who were now determined to hunt them down. According to Dahlan and his PA colleagues, the “Fatah Hawks” weren’t members of Yasser Arafat’s political organization at all, but rather “rogue elements” and “unruly youths” who needed to be punished. From the sharp tone of Dahlan’s questions and the murmured asides to his generals and police commanders, I got the sense that there would be no second helping of chicken kebabs and flat breads with the Fatah Hawks. Our former captors, I presumed, were toast.

That night, on the drive back to Jerusalem, I gave a phone interview to a colleague at Newsweek in New York. Asked how we’d been treated during our four hours in detention, I told him that I’d only fleetingly felt in danger, and mentioned the feast that Knight and I had been served. Hours later, a short article appeared on the Newsweek Web site: “Hammer says he never feared his captors would hurt him or Knight. ‘They never threatened us or pointed their guns at us,’ Hammer says. ‘They actually fed us one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Gaza.’ ”

The divide had grown wider and the conflict uglier, and journalists, like relief workers and other noncombatants, had become fair game.

I couldn’t have imagined at the time that a single off-the-cuff comment about food, made partly in jest, would shadow me for the rest of my Middle Eastern tour. Yet within days the taunts, criticism, and, yes, outrage came pouring in. In the immediate aftermath, Israeli journalists phoned me simply to verify that I’d been quoted accurately. That should have been my tip-off. Soon, interviews conducted with Israeli politicians and military officers were invariably prefaced with, “Are you the guy who said his kidnappers fed him a good lunch?” Bestowing on me one of its Dishonest Reporting Awards for 2001, the pro-Israeli “media watchdog” site www.honestreporting.com declared, “One would expect a kidnap victim to be traumatized and angry. But Hammer had only compliments for his Palestinian captors, as described in Newsweek.” A media critic named Samuel Bahn cited my comment as evidence of how Western journalists bent over backward to stay on good terms with the militants. “Journalists filing reports perceived to be harmful to the Palestinian cause, will not be likely permitted to reenter and could encounter a problem while in the territories,” the blogger declared. “ [After] Newsweek’s Israel Bureau Chief Joshua Hammer was kidnapped… rather than criticize his kidnappers, Hammer had [nothing but] positive words for them.” The Jerusalem Post made reference to the kidnapping in a discussion of an article I wrote in April 2002 about a teenage female suicide bomber and her teenage female victim. Despite my obvious pro-Palestinian sympathies as evidenced by the kidnapping experience, the writer declared, the piece about the bomber had shown surprising balance.

Even the Princeton Alumni Weekly, my college alumni magazine, referenced the kidnapping in a review of a book I later wrote about the intifada: “Hammer, who rejects charges of bias by some readers, sometimes has been a source of controversy himself. In 2001 a pro-Israel group criticized him for not voicing outrage over his own mini-kidnapping by armed Palestinians in Rafah to protest U.S. and British news coverage. After his release, Hammer said, ’They actually fed us one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Gaza.’ He says he knew he wasn’t in danger.” By this point abductions of Western journalists and others by militants in the Middle East had become a serious, sometimes gruesome business. In 2002 terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda had abducted Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan, and videotaped his decapitation. (The 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would later claim that he personally executed Pearl.) And in chaotic Baghdad, al-Qaeda in Iraq militants had carried out a spate of kidnappings and executions of Western relief workers and contractors, including the Irish-born country director for CARE, Margaret Hassan. Amid the carnage and terror, my lighthearted comment praising militant hospitality seemed, perhaps, off-kilter. But it was made, I reminded myself, in a pre-9/11 world, a more innocent time. The divide had grown wider and the conflict uglier, and journalists, like relief workers and other noncombatants, had become fair game. The lavish meal seemed an expression of civility and hospitality that would be difficult to imagine now.

Then in early 2003, I visited the office of the Israeli media relations director in Jerusalem. A hawk-faced right-winger who routinely denied Palestinian translators accreditation and permission to enter Israel, the media man had taken a dislike to me shortly after my arrival in Jerusalem. The kidnapping and my praise of the militants’ cuisine had intensified his antipathy. I’d gone to see him to follow up on a letter I’d written requesting permission to interview, for the book, an imprisoned suicide-bomb cell commander from the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. I had reason to believe that the media man either had never passed on the letter to the prison authorities, or had recommended that the authorities deny my request. I was pissed off and wanted an explanation.

He sneered at me when I confronted him in his office. “Eaten any good meals in captivity lately?” he taunted.

I told him I’d heard he’d intervened to stop me from interviewing the prisoner. “That’s a lie,” he said.

“I heard it from reliable sources,” I said.

“You want to know something?” he said, coming out from behind his desk and moving toward me. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t let you inside that prison.”

“You heard me. I don’t want to humanize these people. And that’s exactly what you’d do.”

“So you did block my request!”

“And everybody knows you staged your own kidnapping to get yourself some attention.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

And with that, he shoved me out of his office and slammed the door.

It has been nearly seven years now since anyone has confronted me with the incontrovertible proof of my pro-Palestinian bias—the meal comment. The last time was when I participated in a panel discussion at Princeton University during reunions in June 2004. I was there to discuss matters I thought were important—the future of peace in the Middle East, how to prevent yet more generations of Israelis and Palestinians distrusting and even hating each other—but a member of the panel came to the meeting with my lunch on his mind. “If you remember,” he said, after I’d finished a spiel criticizing Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations, which often ended up killing many civilians along with militants, “Tthis is the journalist who praised his captors for the lunch they served him after taking him hostage in Gaza.” My eyes rolled and I tried to answer him with a measured tone and more politeness than I had shown the Israeli press director.

In March 2011 I returned to Israel and the Palestinian territories, visiting the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, historic Hebron, and other notorious clash points. The region was significantly calmer than the roiling mess I’d left behind in 2004, but it didn’t take me very long to see how little, really, had changed. Once again I found myself whipsawed between Arabs and Jews, between settlers and (former) militants, between conflicting historical narratives. And once again I realized that in this charged environment, even the most innocent gestures can bring one grief. Desperate for a bite to eat outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron—a holy site to which Muslims and Jews have shared access—I was faced with a choice: patronize the Jewish pizza shop favored by a settler acquaintance, or the falafel stand run by a friend of my Palestinian guide. I hesitated, I waffled, I looked them both in the eye. In the end, I decided to go hungry.

G

Joshua Hammer, Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief between 2001 and 2004, is now a freelance foreign correspondent based in Berlin. He is the author of three books, including A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy War in a Sacred Place.

Reprinted from Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents, edited by Matt McAllester, published by the University of California Press. © 2011 by Joshua Hammer and the Regents of the University of California.

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