How three Israeli journalists brought Arafat into Israeli homes

Fifty years after the founding of the PLO, journalist Anat Saragusti talks about the first interview Yasser Arafat gave to an Israeli media outlet, looking for the real story in Beirut under siege, and the importance of pushing the limits of society’s comfort zone.

By Anat Saragusti

This story can go in a number of directions. It can be a story about war, or about different world views, it can be a political story or a societal one, and it is of course, first and foremost a journalistic story. For me, it’s all of those things together.

It was the beginning of July 1982, just about a month after the start of the first Lebanon War. The IDF was deep inside Lebanon and the capital, Beirut, was divided and controlled in a number of slices. The IDF controlled the eastern part. It was mostly on the hills where the Chouf Mountains descend toward the seafront, and on the hilltops stood green residential neighborhoods and luxurious villas. The western part of the city, which was its commercial and noisy side, was under the mixed control of the Lebanese army, the Phalangists, Syrian forces and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PLO had turned Beirut into its political home after its activists and leaders were deported from Jordan during Black September in 1970.

The IDF’s invasion of Lebanon allowed Israelis to experience, directly (for all of its conscripts) or indirectly, through the media, the Lebanese experience.

The IDF invasion of Lebanon was also the army’s first direct and violent confrontation with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, one that wasn’t a secret operation in enemy territory executed by well-trained special forces that carried a mysterious aura of heroism. It was a publicized mission, carried out in the light of day. Absurdly, the war bestowed international and political legitimacy upon the PLO, and upgraded its its status as a terror organization to something near that of a state. And that is because the war, which Israel later called the First Lebanon War, wasn’t really waged against the State of Lebanon, but rather against the PLO.

In the month before the start of the war (June 1982), the Israeli public had been flooded with dozens of articles that described the friendly and supportive reception that IDF soldiers received when they crossed the border into Lebanon. Because journalists were able to reach Beirut itself, they enthusiastically sent home articles about the good life in the Lebanese capital: stylish nightclubs, excellent restaurants and sparkling yacht clubs. It lined up quite nicely with Beirut’s nickname, “Paris of the Middle East.”

As the human interest articles about the good life in Beirut increased, so did the blackening of the PLO’s name, and particularly that of Yasser Arafat. It happened before the invasion and the trend only became stronger as the IDF moved further north. The PLO chairman was given a series of nicknames like, “the man with hair on his face,” “the two-legged beast,” and others. Most of them were signed by copywriter Menachem Begin. Arafat was the devil incarnate. He was the biggest enemy. That which overshadows all other evil in the world. The descriptions allowed Israelis to differentiate between the good guys — Israel and the Christian Phalangists, our allies — and the bad guys, first and foremost, the PLO and Yasser Arafat.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat being interviewed by Uri Avnery in west Beirut. (Photo by Anat Saragusti, courtesy of Uri Avnery)
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat being interviewed by Uri Avnery in Beirut. (Photo by Anat Saragusti, courtesy of Uri Avnery)

There was a small but very influential news weekly called “Ha’olam Ha’zeh” (“This World”) in those days. The publisher and editor-in-chief, Uri Avnery, was known as a skilled and sharp journalist but also for his political side — the head of a political party and a former member of Knesset.  Avnery had a clear political doctrine when it came to the Palestinians, and by July of 1982 his secret meetings with PLO figures in Europe had already become known. Over and over again, he called on the State of Israel to recognize the PLO.

At the time I was a young photographer who had just started her journalistic career. In addition to its political ideology, Ha’Olam Ha’zeh was also an education in journalism. Its set of journalistic values, which had been passed down through generations of journalists, were reflected in the newspaper’s logo, which included the famous slogan, “without fear or favor.” Its guiding principles were, among others, field reporting (not armchair reporting), to always look in the darkest places and not just where it is already illuminated, not to take anything for granted, to always cast doubt on what you are told, find out what interests are at stake and to independently verify everything. Don’t just go with junkets of journalists, but find the story itself in every situation.

There were three of us from Ha’Olam Ha’zeh who arrived in Beirut as the war progressed: Uri Avnery; Sarit Yishai, a senior reporter at the newspaper; and yours truly, behind the camera. We drove from Tel Aviv in Avnery’s car through the Rosh Hanikra crossing, along the Mediterranean coast and straight to Beirut. We set ourselves up in the only hotel in the east of the city, where all of the journalists were — the Hotel Alexandre. We ate at a fancy French restaurant, went to a posh yacht club, were invited to a social event at a wealthy Christian family’s home, drank top-shelf alcohol and ate the best sea food and Lebanese cuisine. We visited the ancient city of of Byblos, just north of Beirut.

In the evening, when we returned to the hotel,  we sat together with the other journalists — Israelis and foreigners — on the roof drinking beer. From there we could see and hear the artillery the IDF was using to pound west Beirut, in the areas where the Palestinian refugee camps were located, as well as the PLO headquarters. We saw the darkness forced upon the west side of the city by the Israeli army, the flares and the Israeli Air Force planes. We knew there were water shortages as a result of the siege. In the day we saw residents of the city stuck in long traffic jams in order to pass through military checkpoints on their way to work in west Beirut.

These were the images that made me think the story was also there, in the western part of the city — that a description of the night clubs or the yacht clubs were only part of the story. The Israeli readers needed the full picture, and a large part of that story was in the west. That’s where Palestinians lived in croweded refugee camps partially controlled by the PLO and Arafat. Over there, things looked much different from the yacht clubs.

I pressed Avnery to organize a trip for us to the west through his connections in the PLO. He made a call to someone who made a call and we were told to arrive the following morning at the Palestinian checkpoint in west Beirut. The decision was not an easy one. We knew that this was a journey beyond enemy lines that carried significant personal risk. We didn’t really know who was waiting for us on the other side, but we had little time for indecision. Our journalistic impulses and curiosity overcame all other considerations. For Sarit, who was already the mother of a young girl, the decision was more complex. In the end, both of us joined.

IDF flares illuminate the sky over west Beirut, 1982 (Photo by Anat Saragusti)
IDF flares illuminate the sky over west Beirut, 1982 (Photo by Anat Saragusti)

We left the hotel in east Beirut in a taxi heading toward the western part of the city. Although we kept a low profile, we brought along a German television crew to document our trip and serve as witnesses.

The traffic jams in both parts of the city during the early hours of the morning were unbearable. The meeting time was moved and we decided to ditch the car and walk the rest of the way to the Palestinian checkpoint. We passed four other checkpoints on the way, manned by the IDF, the Lebanese Army, the Syrian Army and the Phalangists.

When we arrived at the Palestinian checkpoint, nearly paralysed by tension and anxiety, a man whom Avnery knew immediately brought us across and led us to an armored vehicle. We were taken to the home of Imad Shakur, a former Israeli from Sakhnin, who joined the PLO after the Six Day War.

A short time after we entered his home, another door opened and there stood Yasser Arafat. “The man with hair on his face,” “the two-legged beast” turned out to be physically small in stature, slightly undersized, with a small black and grey beard, dressed in a military style uniform and wearing a cap on his head. He hugged us as if we were his long lost children.

This was Arafat’s first meeting with Israelis and the first interview he ever gave to an Israeli media outlet. He was aware of the historical moment, and of the fact that this meeting would make waves across the globe, thus serving his political agenda. He was under a heavy siege, in a war with a strong, skilled and well-equipped army. Therefore, it was important for him to speak directly to Israelis, through Israeli journalists.

Because of the way he was negatively perceived in Israel, it was important for Arafat to present himself as a moderate, peace-seeking person, and especially as someone whose organization was striving for an agreement between the two sides. He spoke of the need to end the occupation, for mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO (as the sole representative of the Palestinian people), and for the establishment of a Palestinian state. It must be noted that these things were said in the wake of the 1970s, during which the PLO acquired its international reputation as a terrorist organization that specialized in hijacking planes and carrying out violent operations in Israeli territory, killing innocent civilians.

As journalists, it was important for us to report both his story and personal accomplishments. However, one cannot forget the fact that Avnery was a political person, and therefore the meeting with Arafat had a dimension of a meeting between two politicians. Much as Arafat wanted to reap the benefits from his first interview with Israeli journalists, Avnery, too, had a political agenda. As for me, I mostly focused on documenting the meeting. I photographed endlessly. I remember feeling a sense of professional commitment – that if I didn’t photograph, there would be no proof of the interview. Sarit, for her part, offered up journalistic questions.

I remember the shock I felt when Arafat came into the room. I was surprised by his height and weight, and finally understood why he was called “the man with hair on his face.” Arafat was anything but photogenic. His beard, a mix of grey and black hair, didn’t help. The hug he gave us was strange, and was not necessarily pleasant; it is rare that a journalist hugs the person he/she interviews. It is a gesture of a politician who wants to break down barriers or create a sense of inauthentic closeness.

After the interview, the PLO spokesperson lead us on a tour of west Beirut, and we even met with Aharon Ahiaz, an Israeli pilot who was being held in captivity by the PLO (Ahiaz was released when the organization was exiled from Beirut in September 1982; he died of cancer years later).

The meeting with Ahiaz was exciting. It was evident that he was held in good conditions. He was in a decent mood. His guards allowed us to interview him, photograph him and bring a letter to his family in Israel. There was something surreal and charged in the way we sat, four Israelis— three journalists and Ahiaz— speaking Hebrew in a room in besieged Beirut. The fact that the three of us left, leaving Ahiaz behind in captivity, captured the absurdity of the entire situation. We took his letter, a recording of our interview, and of course the photos. All of them were given to his family immediately upon our return to Israel.

Ahiaz was interviewed again only once upon his return from captivity and said he was treated fairly and with respect. Eventually, he became good friends with the brother of one of his former guards, a resident of Sakhnin, who also died of cancer.

* * *

The meeting in besieged Beirut was seared in the Israeli consciousness. Politicians from the Right demanded we be interrogated and prosecuted. Indeed, the police investigated each of us, to no avail. We published everything we knew in the newspaper. Most of the journalists understood the significance of our achievement, and in the wake of the interview, a public debate arose about whether Israeli journalists ought to interview the man with whom the country was at war. For me, then and now, the answer is “yes.” After all, American journalists interviewed Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Iranian leaders.

It is of paramount importance, especially for journalists, to provide quotes, present authentic voices from the field and try to tell the entire story, even from its less pleasant angles. And of course, to take advantage of such meetings to ask the tough questions.

Politicians, of course, have other plans. In a desperate attempts to fight these kinds of situations, Israel responded to the publication of the interview with a new law that forbade meeting with members of the PLO. From then until the signing of the Oslo Accords, the meetings themselves, rather than their contents, became the center of political discussion. Dozens of Israelis openly broken that law. As for myself, as a journalist and photographer, I covered many meetings between Israelis and members of the PLO that took place in Europe in the 1980s, until the law was rescinded on the eve of the signing of the Oslo accords.

Anat Saragusti is a journalist, and a former photographer and reporter for ‘Ha’olam Ha’ze’. Read this article in Hebrew on Local Call.

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