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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November, 2003, 14:36 GMT
Arafat: You quizzed Jeremy Bowen
Jeremy Bowen
Jeremy Bowen has reported from the Middle East for many years
Jeremy Bowen took your questions in a live, interactive discussion straight after the Correspondent: Arafat Investigated programme.

Lyse Doucet:
Hello and welcome to Correspondent Interactive, a live discussion following Jeremy Bowen's programme - Arafat Investigated. It's just finished on BBC Two. I'm Lyse Doucet. Jeremy is with me here in the studio to answer your questions about the programme, about Yasser Arafat himself and about Jeremy's own experiences reporting in the Middle East.

Thank you to all of you for taking part. We've had hundreds of questions from many of you already, keep them coming. We'll do our best to answer as many of them as possible. But you can continue to e-mail us, text us or send us messages via digital satellite, the details are here now on the screen.

Jeremy Bowen, welcome to this interactive discussion.

Jeremy Bowen:
Nice to be here with you, Lyse.

Lyse Doucet:
And congratulations on your programme. Now not surprisingly a lot of people have e-mailed and sent us messages about really one of the central points in your film, this apparent contradiction between what Yasser Arafat does and what he says. There was a sequence in the film where you had Yasser Arafat praising Dalal al Mughrabi as the road to freedom and yet this Palestinian woman was, according to the film, in 1978 responsible for one of the worst terrorist incidents in Israeli history, killing nearly 40 people and injuring many others. Well, Ruth Green, Neil Solden, among many others, have asked you: Arafat is publicly praising the terrorists, how can he be a man of peace and still do that?

Jeremy Bowen:
Well, lots of Israelis say that and of course the Israeli Government has concluded that Arafat has been a terrorist his entire life and he is not a man of peace. In the Oslo process the feeling was that the man had changed. Now, I don't know whether he has changed fully or not but I think that the point made in the film by Eyad Sarraj, the Palestinian we talked to in that, is important in so far as what he said was that these people are seen by Palestinians as heroes of their would-be independence movement, and it's important for them to be mentioned and it fulfils their ritualistic sloganising function. Let's not forget that before Israeli independence Messrs Shamir and Begin were regarded by the British as terrorists. They went on - in the case of Begin - to win the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Lyse Doucet:
Well, again Daniel Sudarsky mentions a specific point. He wants to know: Is it true that Arafat released the militants from Palestinian jails shortly after the start of this current Intifada? How, he asks, was that justified?

Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah, he did let people out of jail. We went to - it didn't actually get into the film - but we spoke to one of the commanders at the main prison - the commander at the main prison in Gaza and he said yes they did let them out. Their justification for it was that the Israelis could bomb the prison and kill them, so they thought they'd let them out. He also said they kept a close eye on them. I think as well, at the time, there was a feeling of this is a national emergency, some of those people are in prison because we've been more or less told to lock them up, so let's let them go. The Israelis are killing our people so it's time for all people to rally round on the Palestinian side. I think that was the prevailing attitude at the time.

Lyse Doucet:
And you mentioned in your first answer about how Eyad Sarraj, the Palestinian commentator, mentioned a distinction between how Arafat uses rhetoric and it may not necessarily translate into actions. Tamar, who lives in Tel Aviv, wants to ask you specifically about that and she writes: By drawing a distinction in your film between rhetoric and inciting people to carry out terrorist attacks, aren't you just supplying Yasser Arafat with an excuse?

Jeremy Bowen:
No, I'm not interested in excuses, I'm interested in trying to understand. After a suicide bomb in Israel - this is a much more minor thing and we're talking about individuals rather than the leader of a people - but after a suicide bomb in Israel there are almost always crowds of people chanting "Death to Arabs". Now, I don't think they necessarily want to kill all Arabs but what they're trying to say is this is a horrendous thing that's happened to us. Equally the way that rhetoric, I think, works in the Arab world is that there are things that people say publicly and there are things that people say privately as well. There are certain things you can talk about, certain things you can't talk about. Ways in which you publicly express certain thoughts, like your adherence to Palestinian nationalism, and ways you might talk about it privately. I'm not interested in giving Mr Arafat or Mr Sharon excuses for what they do. I'm interested in trying, as a journalist, to get to the bottom of why they do it.

Lyse Doucet:
But it underlines just how complicated the situation is and how difficult it is to try to be even-handed in your reporting. Many, many people wanted to ask you this question: Just how do you manage to have a balanced approach to the issue?

Jeremy Bowen:
Well, because first of all your credibility as a reporter is paramount, so I want to be balanced because I feel that my credibility is on the line if I'm not balanced. Actually it's not that difficult to be balanced, I think, you've just got to talk to both sides. It's mind-blowing how few people in the Middle East, particularly in the Arab-Israeli conflict, talk to the other side. It's always struck me having lived there - and you've lived there yourself and you know - that there's just a colossal lack of empathy from one side to the other, even though they grow up in some cases hundreds of yards apart, yet the lack of understanding sometimes is quite enormous.

Lyse Doucet:
And it's interesting in your film how that lack of understanding came up when you discussed the whole issue of the leadership of Yasser Arafat and the different perceptions. Let's turn to that now. Mohammad, who's a Palestinian living in London, says: Yasser Arafat is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, doesn't that count for anything? He is the elected leader of the Palestinians, he is - and he accentuates - their choice of leader. And that same question was raised by Annie Gardner, who says: I often hear people saying that Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, an often used phrase, but haven't the Palestinians elected their leader, and how comparable is the Palestinian authority to, say, the parliament here in Britain?

Jeremy Bowen:
Well, first of all, the question of the legitimacy of Arafat's position. That was a point the British Government made at the time that Bush decided to isolate Arafat, they said, well, actually there was an election and Arafat won it and there was an opponent and it was a fair election according to the European Union monitors, who looked at it. That was in 1996. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Arafat had a chance in the 1990s, in the Oslo period, to build democratic institutions and that was a chance that he didn't take. But he is, for better or for worse, the elected leader of the Palestinians, there's no doubt about that.

Lyse Doucet:
And Annie's question - can we look at those elections and the Palestinian Authority in the same way, for example, we look at the British parliament?

Jeremy Bowen:
No, they were a one-off set of elections, for various reasons, at the moment the Palestinians say the main reason is that the Israelis are occupying the West Bank and making life impossible for Palestinians in Gaza as well, elections are impossible, more elections would be impossible. And they don't have a fully developed political or democratic system. What they had in 1996, at the time of the elections, was certain building blocks - a parliament, judiciary, things like that, police force - which the plan was, the idea was, would then be built up - those institutions would be built up which would be building blocks of a new Palestinian state - that was the plan. I think one of Arafat's great failures in the '90s was the way that he didn't allow those institutions to be built up by the people within them, who actually wanted to do that kind of work.

Lyse Doucet:
So election's one source of legitimacy, Zoheir Abo brings up another one, he says that: Arafat is an important symbol of Palestinian unity and, he believes, the key to preventing conflict among the Palestinians. Is that view recognised by Palestinians, Israelis and Americans and, if so, why do they continue to demand regime change?

Jeremy Bowen:
Well, it's clear, as Ali Jarbawi, one of our interviewees there, a leading Palestinian political scientist, said. Arafat is Palestine walking around on legs, that's how he's seen by - actually not just by Palestinians but by people around the world and also by people in Israel, though maybe not those in the government. Mr Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has a long history with Yasser Arafat, going back to the 1960s. He's tried to get rid of him as Palestinian leader on numerous occasions. I think at the moment that history is playing an important part in the shaping of Israeli policy. One conclusion that I drew from the time that we spent there and the many people we spoke to was that the Israelis, in trying to isolate Yasser Arafat, are trying to create the world that they'd like to have, rather than looking at the world as it really is. If they want to deal with the Palestinians through a political process - and it's not clear that they do, because Mr Sharon clearly believes in a military solution - then that process will only take place with Yasser Arafat's consent. He may not turn up to the negotiations, it may be the current Prime Minister, Abu Ala, but he won't be there unless Yasser Arafat wants him to be there.

Lyse Doucet:
Well, you mentioned this long history between Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. Many people asked about this - Nu'man El-Bakri who lives in Exeter, Moshe Franco who lives here in London says: It seems to me that both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat should stand down, could this ever happen?

Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah, it could happen. Ariel Sharon might lose the next election, he also faces potentially - he's facing an embarrassing police investigation into allegations of corruption. Yasser Arafat, well, there are all kinds of threats to him at the moment - some from the Israelis, some from the fact that he's rather old and rather ill at times. Personally my feeling is I would be amazed if a political process leading towards peace were to be resurrected and to continue while those two men are on the top of their two countries. I think there's no question that their history at the moment plays a major part in their decision making.

Lyse Doucet:
Well, you've answered many of the questions that people have been sending to us and in fact, as we're speaking, we've just received a message from Alain who lives in Lebanon: For the past three years Arafat and all of the Palestinian spokesmen said that no money was being given to the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which you now have proven wrong in your piece. How is it that these spokespeople are still trusted and interviewed by Western journalists when they have proved time and time again to have no qualms about lying?

Jeremy Bowen:
Well, I suppose you could say that about spokespeople of all kinds of regimes and democracies around the world. Often journalists interview those people because they have to try and get a voice, as we call it, from one particular side and they might be the only people available. I think that everybody watching the TV, reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, looking at computers online, who hears an official statement from an official spokesman should take it with an enormous pinch of salt.

Lyse Doucet:
So you go everywhere with a great deal of scepticism?

Jeremy Bowen:
And a lot of salt.

Lyse Doucet:
Jeremy, let's look now at really what is the backdrop to the film, it's this peace process, or lack of a peace process. Many people wanted to ask you about this. And let me start with a question from Shadi Fadda from Beirut who says: Isn't it the case that sadly but honestly the suicide bombings have brought the Palestinian cause to the table? And of course Eyad Sarraj mentioned in your documentary that Yasser Arafat uses violence as a tactic, so is the tactic working?

Jeremy Bowen:
I don't think the tactic of suicide bombing is working. Maybe some of the other tactics might be working, in terms of making the life of soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories uncomfortable or even by ending their lives at times. That might, from the Palestinian perspective, be working. But as from any Palestinian perspective I don't see that suicide bombs are an effective tactic because they've caused massive international repugnance, they are seen by people around the world as a different kind of attack, on civilians mainly, within the 1948 borders of Israel. I think that they are - one of our interviewees, the head of the Al-Aqsa brigades in Jenin refugee camp, Zakaria Zubaidi, he says himself they don't bring any political benefit to the Palestinians, but what they do is satisfy a desire for revenge. One highly educated and Westernised Palestinian said to me in Jerusalem: "Suicide bombs are the nuclear weapon of the poor." And I think we're seeing that actually around the world in different places and around the Middle East.

Lyse Doucet:
Let's look at this peace process then. Jay Barr says: Is it true that according to this peace road map - this internationally sponsored road map - the Palestinian authority must dismantle all "terrorist organisations" before the Israelis are obliged to stop building new settlements. What organisations are classed as terrorists and why haven't the Israelis stopped building new settlements?

Jeremy Bowen:
Well, the way that the road map is meant to work, my understanding of it is that there are different stages within the road map and within each stage both sides are meant to do things at the same time. So it's not a question of saying, "well, you do it, then we'll do it". We say, "no, I can't do it because you haven't done it." Actually they're meant to do it at the same time. And what the Palestinians are meant to do is to stop the attacks on Israelis, stop the Islamist groups especially, who've been responsible for a lot of the suicide bombings. It's interesting that since May, when the Abu Mazen government came in, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades haven't carried out any suicide attacks, to my knowledge anyway. They've continued attacking soldiers and settlers but they haven't done the suicide bombings that they did before that. Having said that, my personal view of the road map is that it's a non-starter and has been from the beginning.

Lyse Doucet:
You focused on the road blocks, in fact you yourself confronted the road blocks, or at least some of them, during the filming of the documentary. Mohammad Tibi wants to know: Given the conditions many Palestinians endure, like these road blocks, the restrictions of settlement, do you believe there's any hope for peace?

Jeremy Bowen:
I don't believe - well to start with, yeah, the road blocks and the way that life is for Palestinians in the West Bank and also in Gaza is - I think by any standards they have terrible lives. Israel has inflicted colossal collective punishments on the Palestinian people, I mean, that's absolutely clear. They believe there's a good reason for doing that - to deter them from supporting terrorists. I don't believe this conflict is irredeemable. I think that there is a chance for peace, I think it might take a new generation, another set of leaders. But I think fundamentally what they need to do is to unravel the consequences of the 1967 war. The battlefield they're fighting over at the moment was created by that six-day war in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza and the Golan Heights in Sinai, which they gave back as part of the peace deal with Egypt. I think a deal based on land for peace, on separating the two countries, is the kind of thing that is the only credible solution. The Geneva Initiatives, which are going to become Accords fairly soon - I think this coming week - where a group of Palestinians, a group of Israelis came together and have made an unofficial treaty, that it could be a template for the future, is a promising way ahead. It's been directed by the Israeli Government and many Palestinians will be very reluctant and will reject something which, as the Geneva Accords do, gives up the right of return of Palestinian refugees from 1948 into what's now Israel proper.

Lyse Doucet:
Well, Marce Eisenbruk actually wants to ask you a question about negotiations and asks: If Israel started to negotiate with Yasser Arafat, would Ariel Sharon be seen as giving in to terrorism? Is it a similar situation to that faced by the British Government and the IRA or is it different?

Jeremy Bowen:
Well, don't forget that the British Government has had all kinds of contacts with the Irish Republicans and had all kinds of secret contacts at a time when they said we won't negotiate under fire, just as the Israelis have now said we won't negotiate under fire. Maybe there are secret contacts going on at the moment, I don't know. When the Oslo Agreements first came out in 1994, it came as a huge shock to even the Palestinian negotiating team who'd been dealing with a more public kind of diplomacy at the time. So possibly there's something secret going on. I tend to doubt it, given the way the two sides are now like that.

Lyse Doucet:
Well, Marce Eisenbruk who gave us the question has been listening to this discussion and wants to ask you specifically about this connection to Northern Ireland. He says: Protestants here fly the Israeli flag, Catholics the Palestinian flag - that's in Northern Ireland - do you believe a comparison can be drawn between Northern Ireland and the Middle East? You know both of those conflicts.

Jeremy Bowen:
It's a massive minefield to start drawing comparisons between conflicts, particularly ones which are as controversial as the ones in the Middle East and the ones in Northern Ireland. I think the thing to do is look at the peace-making side of it. One thing that the British Government has had to do is to release prisoners, has had to talk to the people who it regarded as terrorists for many years. If you look around the world in the whole history of the negotiations of decolonisation, very often people who've been condemned as terrorists, not least the leaders of - some of the leaders of the more extreme groups in pre-state Israel - later go on to be accepted. That seems to be the way that these political processes work.

Lyse Doucet:
Because of all the walls and fences and barriers coming down in Northern Ireland - I know you didn't deal with the wall, the fence, the barrier that's going up between Israel and the West Bank - but Ahmed Hamaida wants to ask you, he says: Well, to me the wall-fence being built by the Israelis is reminiscent of apartheid. What are the arguments for or against this wall, why is it being built and what impact is it having?

Jeremy Bowen:
The Israeli argument for what they call a security fence, it's a fence in some places, other places it's a great - it looks like a modern version of the Berlin Wall - it's 20 feet of concrete, watchtowers with bullet proof glass. It's a very formidable obstacle, no question about it, in those places where it looks like that. The Israelis call it a security fence or security wall to try to stop suicide bombers getting into Israel and killing Jews. Palestinians regard it as another way of grabbing land fundamentally. And they cite as their reason for that the fact that the route the wall takes, it doesn't go down the so-called green line, the pre-'67 boundary between Israel and the West Bank. What it actually does is it goes quite deep into the West Bank and encloses a fair amount of Palestinians.

Lyse Doucet:
To make it more difficult then to resolve the conflict?

Jeremy Bowen:
I think it makes it much, much more difficult. I think what people need to understand about the conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis - some simple things which make things much more understandable - I think it's about land fundamentally. There's one lot of land, two peoples want the land. They can either fight about it or they can learn to share the land, they can split the land between them, in a fair way between two states. That's one thing they need to understand. The other thing, which I mentioned already, is that 1967 is crucial, unravelling the consequences of '67, which essentially made Israel into an occupier and made the Palestinians into people who are using armed resistance to fight that occupation, and that's a view held in many places around the world, not I hasten to add by the Israeli Government. But anything that deepens those consequences, makes them more complex. I think it's going to put peace further away, not closer.

Lyse Doucet:
Isn't it perhaps that international mediation, third parties, can help them get to peace? Greg Leathers says: For many people America is not regarded as an impartial intermediary. Why isn't the United Nations handling the peace negotiations?

Jeremy Bowen:
If what you need in an intermediary is for someone to be completely even-handed, then no, clearly America is not impartial in this. America has strong links with Israel, there are strong electoral reasons for American leaders to support Israel, even if they didn't want to. I think George Bush, as a evangelical Christian anyway, like many evangelical Christians in America - and this is the bedrock of their support in the States, I think - is viscerally anyway in favour of Israel. But I think the argument that has to be directed to the Americans is that it's in their interests to cultivate both sides, to try to get some peace and stability in a region where they now, of course, are active players, with troops on the ground who are being killed every day. What was the other question?

Lyse Doucet:
About the UN. Greg Leathers wanted to know about the UN - but it was a question specifically asked by Balwinder Singh here in London who asked: Could a resolution be passed at the UN setting a schedule towards full independence, combined with a programme of weapons disarmament? Again, would both sides accept the UN to play a larger role?

Jeremy Bowen:
No, they wouldn't. I think the Palestinians would accept the UN on all levels. The Israelis wouldn't because they and the Americans also don't trust the UN. The General Assembly of the UN famously in the '70s passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. And many Israelis feel that it's gone from bad to worse ever since then. They don't trust the United Nations to act in their interests. The Palestinians like using the United Nations because they're viewed there as a state in waiting, as a member in waiting, by many of the countries, by a big majority of the countries. So they like the UN for that reason but the Israelis absolutely don't trust them.

Lyse Doucet:
What other countries - Gavin Steele who lives in Liverpool wanted to say: Well, there seems to be no real international political support for bringing peace to the Middle East. What is the rest of the world - including Britain - doing, for example?

Jeremy Bowen:
I think there's evidence to say that the reason that the road map was even unveiled by George Bush - because, if you remember, it had been worked out but hadn't been published - that was one of the quid pro quos that Blair seems to have extracted from Bush for his support during the recent war in Iraq. It's such a difficult situation, you know, that I think a lot of countries would rather not get involved. Initially before the attacks of 9/11, Bush's idea was not to get involved in the Middle East. It was more or less to let them stew in their own juices, make sure that Israel was kept strong, give them a fair degree of latitude - they'd probably take that anyway - but back quite a few of the things that they were doing, though not all. 9/11 has changed a great deal about his perception of the Middle East conflict. No, I think many people in other countries regard the Middle East as a bed of snakes which they'd rather not lie in.

Lyse Doucet:
Well, you were in the Middle East, you were living there just after the Oslo Peace Accords were signed, where there was some optimism among some Israelis and Palestinians that this could actually work. Going back now, Jeremy, I mean, how did it feel to be there?

Jeremy Bowen:
Well, I've been going back regularly because I've been researching a book about 1967, which has just been published, and also the BBC has sent me back a fair a bit since I left and finished my assignment there in 2000, so I've seen this whole thing develop. Israel looks the same, it seems the same. Of course there's this thing, though, which people have in their stomachs and their brains - which is: when I walk down the street in Jerusalem, is a bomb going to blow up?

Lyse Doucet:
You felt that yourself as well?

Jeremy Bowen:
Oh sure, you walk in central Jerusalem - it's not a bustling place, especially not long after a bomb. There is that fear. You think: what about that bus that I'm stuck next to in the traffic jam, is it going to blow up? And also people that are involved with the armed forces - which of course is most families in Israel - they have men who have to go into the army more often than they did. But what has really changed - particularly since the reoccupation of the West Bank in April of last year - is just the Israeli presence in the West Bank, the way you get into towns and whole roads have just been dug up. In the film there was a scene where I opened the steel gate that the Israelis have put into the one road that they allow people, like us, to get into Hebron. Now, you used to be able to drive into Hebron on any number of different roads and some were quite big. Those have just been bulldozed, you just can't physically get over them. One of these places - Kalkilya - is surrounded either by the wall or by barbed wire, there's one narrow entrance into it. This is a town of 40,000 people and it's now a great big prison. There's no question about that. And the physical scars of the Intifada show so strongly in the West Bank and also in Gaza because of the massive amount of damage that's been done.

Lyse Doucet:
So you saw this deepening occupation, the phrase you used in your film, and also increasing radicalisation and hardening of views in Palestinian society. WP has just sent us a message from Tunbridge Wells saying: How do you think history will record the Intifada - terrorism or resistance?

Jeremy Bowen:
I think like many independence movements they've used terrorism, the same way that the Israeli independence movement used terrorism. Independence movements often use terrorism, there's no doubt about that. I think, though, that I don't see this one ending soon.

Lyse Doucet:
Well, Jane wants to know, she sent us a message saying: Do you worry for yourself now that you have exposed Yasser Arafat for what he is? And also another Jane in London has said: If Arafat loyalists can threaten people like the ex-prime minister Abu Mazen with violence, do you as a reporter feel threatened if you step out of line and how threatened do you feel, by Israel as well?

Jeremy Bowen:
The threat to reporters from the Israelis is more being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting shot by an Israeli soldier, which has happened to quite a few reporters and camera crews. I don't feel any threat as a reporter because of what I report. I really don't think that's the case. But the problem with the last three years of violence is that attitudes have hardened on both sides. Violence is so much a part of daily life that life has been cheapened by both sides, there's no doubt about that. And I think that that's very dangerous. Palestinian society is getting quite brutal, brutal in the way that power is wielded, more brutal than it was, I'd say, but also brutal in the way that people accept violence in their daily lives and accept the use of violence. In 1996, when we were both in Jerusalem for the BBC, there was a major bombing campaign by Islamist groups that in about three weeks killed around 60 Israelis. Now, after a lot of pressure - from President Clinton especially - Yasser Arafat and Jibril Rajoub, who was in the film, cracked down on this. Seventy five per cent or so of Palestinians supported it, now around 75% of Palestinians support suicide bombings.

Lyse Doucet:
A reminder that what hadn't been possible in the past might be possible again. Jeremy, thank you so much for taking part in the interactive discussion. And thank you to all of you who've sent us your messages. I'm sorry if we haven't been able to answer everyone's question tonight.



SEE ALSO:
Arafat Investigated
30 Oct 03  |  Correspondent
Arafat: Obstacle or the key to peace?
06 Nov 03  |  Correspondent
Fatah denies militant 'funding'
08 Nov 03  |  Middle East
Have your say
06 Nov 03  |  Correspondent


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