At first glance, a rare interview with Hamas leader Yehiya Sinwar set to be published Friday on the front page of an Israeli daily newspaper looks like a bold attempt by Gaza’s militant Islamist rulers to reach out for peace, or at least calm ongoing tensions with Israel.
A small excerpt from the interview published Thursday on the news website of the popular Yediot Avhronot appears to ask Sinwar why he decided to give an interview to an Israeli newspaper, to which he answers: “Because now I see a true opportunity for change.”
He also says, “A new war is in no one’s interest, certainly not our interest,” and “I don’t want any more wars.”
But within hours of the excerpt appearing online, Sinwar’s office released a statement saying the journalist, Francesca Borri, had interviewed him under false pretenses. It insisted the Hamas leader would never knowingly agree to be interviewed by an Israeli media outlet.
Borri, a freelance journalist from Italy, told The Washington Post that she was completely transparent in all her dealings with Hamas and that it was well-known that her work has previously appeared in Israeli publications. She worked on the story for more than a month, she said, including a face-to-face meeting and follow-up emails.
Sinwar’s statement came as he faced a backlash in Gaza for defying Hamas restrictions on speaking to Israeli publications. In 2012, the group prohibited all work with the Israeli media, deciding it would no longer deal with requests from Israeli journalists or media outlets.
Israel also has a ban on Israeli journalists entering the Gaza Strip, though it cannot stop them from trying to seek comments from Hamas officials by other means.
On Facebook, one Gaza resident furiously dismissed the interview, writing that what is more interesting was that a person who criticized others for speaking to the Israeli media, then went out and gave an interview himself.
“The decision of Hamas is clear and has been repeatedly emphasized in terms of not dealing with the Israeli media,” said the statement from Sinwar’s office. “The journalist applied for an interview with the leader of Hamas in Gaza on the basis of an official request for two newspapers (Italian and British).”
It further said that the Western media department had investigated Borri’s background to determine that she was “not Jewish or Israeli, and that she had no previous work published in the Israeli press.”
“The journalist violated the ethics and professional standards and lied about the publication of the interview,” said the statement. It also said they would seek legal action, though it was unclear what, if any, action could be taken.
Sinwar, who took over as leader of Hamas in 2017, spent 22 years in an Israeli jail convicted in 1989 of abducting and killing two Israeli soldiers. He was released seven years ago as part of a prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Both Israel and the United States consider him and the group he leads, terrorists.
Borri, who has interviewed numerous Islamist militants for a wide range of international publications, said she expected such a reaction.
“But I think the interview is very strong and it changes the image of Hamas in the world and in Israel,” she said. “I am a freelancer and they knew my story would be published in La Republica and other places. They also know that my stories are often translated for other publications around the world. My stories have appeared in 24 languages, including in Hebrew.”
Borri said she believed that was exactly why Sinwar agreed to the interview with her in the first place.
“Palestinians know my work is translated into Hebrew and they know that through me they can reach Israel. I am totally transparent,” said Borri, who has posted on her own social media accounts about writing for Yedioth Ahronoth. “The idea of the Hamas leader appearing on the front page of Israel’s main daily newspaper is something positive for Hamas and we all know it.”
There have been attempts in recent months, including by neighboring Egypt, to mediate a long-term cease-fire arrangement between Hamas and Israel. Officials on both sides, however, have indicated that progress is stuck on the finer points of a prisoner exchange.
In the interview, Sinwar states he will do all he can to release every single Palestinian prisoner being held by Israel. These are terms Israel is unlikely to agree to. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to hold onto the bodies of two Israeli soldiers from the 2014 Gaza war and two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed.
As the hopes of a long-term agreement appear to be fading, tensions between the two sides continue to flare with Hamas urging more Gazans to show up at the weekly protests along the border fence with Israel. While the protests are often used to express frustration at the ever-deteriorating humanitarian crisis for the 2 million residents of the coastal enclave, they are often lethal, with Israeli army snipers killing nearly 200 Palestinians, according to the latest figures from Gaza’s health ministry.
Nine people, including three teenagers, were shot dead at the border fence just in the past week.
Israel has said its actions vis-a-vis the Gaza protests are justified and that it is seeking only to defend Israeli civilians living in the Gaza periphery from violent mobs.
In anticipation of further violence this coming weekend, the Israeli army announced on Thursday that it was deploying wide-scale reinforcements to the border area, part of “the continuation of a determined policy to thwart terror activity and prevent infiltrations into Israel from the Gaza Strip.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Ruth Eglash, Hazem Balousha