Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning Arab-Israeli journalist and correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, delivered a presentation last night to a crowd of a little less than 50 students in Lerner Cinema. On a lecture tour sponsored by Hasbara Fellowships, Abu Toameh had also recently spoken at other colleges in the northeast including UPenn, Harvard, and Brown. Here, he was sponsored by LionPac, the Pro-Israel Progressives, and the Republicans.
Playfully identifying himself as an Israeli-Arab-Muslim-Palestinian living in Jerusalem, Abu Toameh described his long career as a journalist, which interestingly began at a newspaper sponsored by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). During his studies at Hebrew University, he decided to leave the PLO-sponsored papers and become a “real journalist” by joining the international and Israeli media. His feelings on the issue were quite clear, as he spent the first half of his presentation sharply criticizing the restrictions on media in the Palestinian Authority, citing both the direct lack of free press as well as poor security for journalists. Stating that foreign journalists face no restrictions while working inside Israel, he celebrated his freedom at the Jerusalem Post to write, he said, whatever he wants.
During the second half of his presentation, Abu Toameh gave a basic account of political developments in Palestine, familiar to those who keep up with Israeli-Palestinian current events. For those who don’t: Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, the largest political party in the PLO, failed to satisfy popular demands for political transparency, accountability, and liberalization. Arafat’s successor Mahmoud ‘Abbas did not deliver on similar promises. Frustrated Palestinians subsequently elected Hamas, which capitalized on popular unrest by running under the banner “Change and Reform.” Fatah continually challenged Hamas’ parliamentary victory in 2006 until the parties’ unity government failed and the two factions fell into civil war; during the power struggle, Hamas overturned Fatah forces in Gaza in the summer of 2007 and seized control.
Abu Toameh was highly critical of the United States and international community’s support of Fatah, condemning the party as corrupt while also arguing that this alliance would drive more Palestinians into the open arms of Hamas. Characterizing Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s perception of the conflict as one between “good guys and bad guys,” Abu Toameh asserted that it was simply a fight between “bad guys and bad guys,” fighting not over freedom and good governance but rather money and power, and his disdain for Fatah was clear and apparent.
In light of his biting criticism of Palestinian politicians and his strong support for Israeli foreign policy, perhaps the most interesting element of Abu Toameh’s presentation was his prescription for dealing with Hamas and his penchant for realpolitik. Ruling out the possibility of a re-occupation of Gaza citing his perception of its failure over the past 40 years, he criticized the Israeli government’s refusal to recognize Hamas as a legitimate political organization with the power to negotiate. “Why does Israel need Hamas’ recognition? …I’d say, ‘Ok, Hamas. To hell with you. But if you want some sort of security agreement or a ceasefire, I’m prepared to do it.’” Finally, during the Q&A, one audience member softballed him a question along the lines of “As a journalist, do you run into politically-charged language?” Abu Toameh stumbled with the question, apparently as entrapped by the same tendencies that the audience member had possibly hoped the speaker would deconstruct. At another time he noted, “But I don’t understand why in the United States a suicide bomber who blows himself up in downtown Baghdad is called an insurgent or militant. I don’t understand these terms. A terrorist is a terrorist; a soldier is a soldier. It is very easy.”
Often, I felt that the criticisms Abu Toameh faced as a Palestinian journalist working for an Israeli media outlet too heavily informed his understanding of the larger Arab world. For example, he passionately stated that Israeli reporters critical of the state are celebrated while their Arab counterparts are labeled traitors for questioning their own governments. On our way out, I asked Abu Toameh about his thoughts on Al-Jazeera, the widely popular Arabic news station based in Qatar known for its criticism not only of American foreign policy but also of the authoritarian regimes in the region. He replied that he was concerned about the station’s growing popularity because, according to him, it pushes an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. I would reply something like this: I acknowledge that Al-Jazeera, like any other news station, presents very biased information; however, when even Al-Qaeda sympathizers have denounced the station for portraying Osama Bin Laden in a poor light, it was careless of Abu Toameh to simply toss Al-Jazeera on the amorphous pile of all that is “Islamic fundamentalist” and to disregard the station’s mild pan-Arabist nostalgia.
– Josh Mathew