DATE October 1, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Mariane Pearl on the details of her husband, Danny
Pearl's, capture and death and her new book
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is journalist Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl, who was
kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic extremists in Pakistan last year. Daniel
Pearl was the South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. When
Mariane last saw him, he was on his way to a meeting with the radical Islamic
cleric Sheik Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani in hopes of investigating his connection
to Richard Reid, the alleged shoe bombers. In July of 2002 a special
anti-terrorism court in Pakistan found Ahmed Omar Sheikh and three accomplices
guilty of the kidnapping and murder. Omar Sheikh, who organized the
kidnapping, was sentenced to death; the other three, to life imprisonment.
They are appealing.
Mariane Pearl was six months pregnant when her husband was killed. She was
in Pakistan reporting for French public television and radio. The Pearls
often traveled together on assignment. She's written a new book about the
life and death of her husband called "A Mighty Heart."
Before we talk about your husband and your book, I just want to ask you for
your reaction to some conclusions in a new book about your husband by the
French writer Bernard-Henri Levy. He says that your husband was killed
because he was on the verge of exposing connections between al-Qaeda and the
Pakistani government. And he also said that your husband was on the verge of
exposing connections between Islamic extremists and nuclear weapons. He said
that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are in the hands of Islamic extremists, and
your husband was on the verge of discovering more information about that.
Does this sound true to you?
Mrs. MARIANE PEARL (Author, "A Mighty Heart"): This does sound true to a
certain extent; that is to say that two months after the World Trade Center
attacks, all the main journalists were investigating on the links between
Pakistan intelligence agencies, the current elements or ex-, you know,
members, agents, and the al-Qaeda network and particularly concerning weapons
of mass destruction. And Pakistan has a nuclear weapon. Were they
facilitating it to al-Qaeda? That was the question Danny was investigating,
absolutely. To, you know, assert that Danny was on the verge of finding the
actual relationship and the name, it is possible. I don't think that he was
the only one. I mean, you know, it's a complex story, but in the end, like,
after two months of reporting, things do come together. And Danny was very
good at putting things together and, you know, reaching, you know, some
conclusion, I mean, even if they were trying to hide.
So Bernard Levy's guess remains a guess because we don't have, you know,
facts. It's not for sure. But I also think that, you know, obviously, that's
what the people were doing in Pakistan. That's why the main newspapers sent
journalists in Pakistan at that time. That was the question for the world, of
GROSS: Levy also says that your husband's killer was a member of the ISI, the
Pakistani intelligence service, and that the Pakistani government may be
sheltering more men who were involved in his murder. Any reaction to that?
Mrs. PEARL: I'm trying to remain very close to truth and objectivity and not
speculate so much. We don't know to this day exactly who were the three
people who came the last day at the compound where Danny was held and killed
him. So they likely could be members of the ISI, probably more supported by
various other members of the ISI, I would say. That's something we haven't
GROSS: But it's something you think might be true?
Mrs. PEARL: It's something that might be true. It might be that maybe
members of the ex-ISI, as I call them, which is the people who have just been
dismissed by President Musharraf, who at the time, again, had been banning
jihadi movements. That these people had links with the ex-ISI, there is no
doubt about that; that they had been protected, the same way Omar Sheikh, who
was the mastermind kidnapper, you know, had links with the ISI.
GROSS: Do you think your husband was killed just to, like, set an example to
other journalists, or do you think he was killed because he was on the verge
of revealing major information?
Mrs. PEARL: I do not know that answer, Terry. I don't know yet. It might be
possible that he was killed just because he was Jewish or just because they
wanted to scare other journalists and keep them away from Pakistan because
there was something to hide. It's possible they wanted to kill him because he
was American only.
GROSS: To your knowledge, what was your husband investigating when he met
with Omar Saeed Sheikh?
Mrs. PEARL: Do you mean at the time did I know what he was doing or now?
GROSS: Well, what did you know then, and what do you know now?
Mrs. PEARL: Well, I knew what he was doing. Again, you know, everybody was
trying to find out how much Pakistan had helped the 9/11 hijackers in their
plot to destroy the towers. So there was this story that had come up in The
Boston Globe that I had read at the time saying, `Oh, maybe the spiritual
leader of Omar Saeed Sheikh is in Pakistan; he's in Karachi, and he is still
in his madrassas giving classes to this young man, potential terrorist.' So I
know that. I knew that we were trying to find the links, and we've been
trying to find electronic links also, tracing e-mails.
I did not know so much about Gilani, who is the person that was allegedly the
spiritual leader of Omar Sheikh. I did not know that he had so much record in
America, like his organization was on the terrorist list of the FBI for a long
time and then was removed just because there was no activity recorded. So I
didn't know exactly the nature of Gilani, but I did know the nature of Richard
Reid, like the rest of the world. And I had like a remote idea of--I mean, I
knew Danny was going to go in a madrassas, which was fine. Like, we had gone
to those madrassas a number of time. It's what you do when you report in
Karachi or in Pakistan. I mean, you get close to these people; otherwise you
can't do your work. So I wasn't that particularly worried.
Usually I would accompany him on those kind of travels, but that day I, first
of all, had an interview myself. I was doing, as I said before to you, that I
was doing a documentary for French radio at the time, so I was recording an
interview. And the second thing, we had been in the region for three months,
and it had been very, very intense three months, of course, after the World
Trade Center attacks. And I was really tired of hearing the same jihadi
speeches again, so I decided not to go with him. But I was not particularly
alarmed that day.
GROSS: You knew one of the things that your husband was investigating was the
possibility of a link between Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and the radical
Muslim cleric Sheik Mubarik Ali Gilani, who was in Karachi.
Mrs. PEARL: Right.
GROSS: So you knew that he was investigating that. Were there other things
that you thought he was investigating as well or that, in retrospect, you know
now that he was investigating?
Mrs. PEARL: Yes, there was a number of things. But, first, I mean, the
question that he was trying to answer was that: Was Gilani more than just a
spiritual leader? Because Richard Reid had missed the plane that he was
supposed to take in Paris that he wanted to blow, and he had sent an e-mail in
Karachi--that's just been established, that the e-mail had been sent in
Karachi--and the answer had been provided from Karachi saying, `Just take the
next plane and blow it up,' right? So there was something very newsy there
what was happening.
Now in the meantime, of course, Danny was working on different stories. One
of them, of course, was following up on what is the situation with the nuclear
weapon program and any relationship with al-Qaeda. That was, like, an ongoing
story because no one had really proved anything, and that was, of course, the
main topic for the rest of the world, right? But that's what he was doing all
the time. So mainly those two axis: the nuclear weapons program and the
links between Pakistan and al-Qaeda.
GROSS: Before your husband decided to actually take the risk and meet with a
disciple of Sheik Gilani, he asked people for advice. And the advice he
basically got was, `It's OK as long as you meet him in a public place.'
Mrs. PEARL: Right.
GROSS: Was your husband confident that if he met Gilani in a public place
that he'd be safe, and was he confident that their meeting would really be in
a public place?
Mrs. PEARL: Danny was absolutely confident that meeting with someone who
could be dangerous in a public place was a safe way to go because that's what
we do all the time. That's the only way you can actually approach those
people. And because you had to ask those questions to three different people,
I am sure that he remained confident that the meeting would happen in that
restaurant where they had their appointment.
GROSS: And do you know if they actually first met in a public place and then
he got abducted or how the kidnapping actually happened?
Mrs. PEARL: As far as we know, yes, they did meet at that place, but I do not
know how the kidnapping actually happened. I don't know if anybody pulled a
gun or just pushed him in a car or just convinced him that he was just going a
few meters away and to get in the car. I don't know yet that answer.
GROSS: Now you write in your book that you and your husband used to signal
each other when you were alone, that you'd like to report together and you
usually accompanied each other, but when you couldn't you'd signal each other
so that, you know, you'd be able to relate to the other that, you know, you
were safe or that he were safe.
Mrs. PEARL: Right.
GROSS: When did you realize, after not hearing from your husband, that
chances were he wasn't safe?
Mrs. PEARL: Very quickly because there was something of a sensation that I
had that make me feel uncomfortable, so I started calling him. We would
usually call each other every 90 minutes; that was the standard time. But I
started calling him before, like I just wanted some kind of reassurance.
Something in me was uncomfortable. So very quickly I started calling, and the
phone was off. I don't know if it was off or if it was out of range, but this
voice kept coming back and Danny would not answer. So very quickly about--his
meeting was, I think, at 7, and at 8:00 I started calling actually.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Mariane Pearl. She's written a memoir about
her husband, the late journalist Daniel Pearl, called "A Mighty Heart." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Mariane Pearl, the
journalist who is now the widow of Daniel Pearl, the reporter from The Wall
Street Journal, who was killed by Islamic radicals in Pakistan.
Now some people say, `Well, you know, Daniel Pearl took a risk that he
probably shouldn't have taken in meeting with this man. And, you know, if he
were more experienced or if he would have thought more about it, he wouldn't
have taken that kind of risk.' And you say in your book that he always played
it really safe. And he refused to be a war correspondent. He didn't want to
be in a war zone. When The Wall Street Journal, his newspaper, wanted to send
him from Islamabad into Afghanistan after September 11th, he refused to go.
And he even wrote a memo to The Wall Street Journal outlining several of the
reasons why he didn't want to go. What were some of the reasons why he
thought that--I mean, he was basically accusing the paper of not looking out
enough for the safety of its reporters in war zones.
Mrs. PEARL: Yes. Terry, let me first tell you that if Danny had just made a
mistake, I would admit it. You know, I would be honest enough to admit that
that day he just got carried away because it's just a human thing to do. But
it's not true. Danny was a really, you know, safety conscious person,
definitely more than I am. Everybody does that kind of thing when they work
as foreign correspondents. You just report; that's what you do. Otherwise
you can't work, or you just stay in a hotel room and then you pretend you
report. So there was no options there.
As far as The Wall Street Journal is concerned, Danny--to just, you know, let
you know that I'm not inventing that, he wrote the safety memo because,
contrary to what people say, he was an experienced journalist, and he had
covered dangerous zones. And after one of them in Kosovo, he had written a
safety memo to The Wall Street Journal saying, `Yes, you send us there, but
you don't even remember that you're sending us to a war,' because that was his
own experience. He had been in Kosovo, and when he talked to his boss back in
New York, the person said, `Oh, I forgot where you are,' right? So then he
was really angry at that. And he wrote a memo that was for his safety but for
all foreign correspondents' safety. And it as a very detailed memo saying,
`We need that to be out of danger.'
GROSS: Now one of the things he said on that memo was, `Several times I've
told my editor or the news assistant that I'll be checking in daily and they
should call if they don't hear from me. But when I went a few days without
checking in, I never got a call.'
Mrs. PEARL: Right. That's one of the examples. He was asking for check-ins,
he was asking for equipment, he was asking for cash, just elements that
would--and safety training and even, you know, talking about kidnapping
situation. So he's asking more training because he's saying, basically, that
The Wall Street Journal, in a way, positions itself as not newsy but a
newspaper that's not like a--How do you say?--it's like a newspaper, but it's
like more economic, and he doesn't go to war, he doesn't go on the front line.
And he was, you know, obviously wrong. We were in the front line, and we were
mandated here, so he was obviously wrong.
GROSS: When your husband was missing and you knew he was in serious trouble,
you wanted to convince his kidnappers to release him. You were about six
months pregnant at the time. The journalists of the world were trying to
interview you. What were some of the things you thought about in deciding
what your public role should be and how you should publicly present yourself,
you know, in a way that could possibly help save your husband?
Mrs. PEARL: Right. The only thought I had in my head when we decided that I
should try to make a public appearance on television was, `Maybe Danny's
watching me,' which means the way I wanted to present myself is communicate
with him and say, `I'm here.' Like, `I'm strong.' Like, `I'm with you. We
are together.' And I just, like, wanted to convey that message to him, that I
was not destroyed or anything like that; that the baby was fine. So that was
my main concern and my only concern, really. I also thought, `If he's
watching me, then his captors also are watching me. To these people, also, I
am going to tell them, "If you think you've taken everything away from me,
it's wrong. You know, you're not achieving your aim,"' which, you know--they
were trying to terrify you. So I was not terrified. I was just like, you
know, trying to have a language of commonsense. And I thought, based on my
experience of talking with these people, that was the best thing to do as
opposed to, you know, be crying on TV.
GROSS: Did you think that it would be possible to get sympathy from the
terrorists because you and your husband were expecting a baby?
Mrs. PEARL: I did not think I could expect sympathy from the terrorists. The
only thing I could hope was that they were publicity hungry and they wanted,
you know, a lot of attention, and then they will release Danny because that
was their plan in the first place. That's the only thing I could hope for.
The people who have, you know, destroyed 3,000 lives in the World Trade Center
of people who have done nothing to them and they were completely innocent
would not release Danny because I was pregnant. I knew that since day one.
GROSS: You got a serious of four photographs of your husband before he was
executed. Would you just describe those photos?
Mrs. PEARL: When we received those photos, we were all waiting for signs. We
had been without any kind of message for three days. I was surrounded by
people that helped me read those photos. The first one was Danny with a gun
pointed on his head, and he had his head down. It's a very strange picture
because you can see he's smiling, which is, of course, a message, the same
message that I would have had on television, right, by being strong. The
second photo is him with shackles on his hands, but he's also doing the
finger. You know, giving the finger, you say, I think?--you know....
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Mrs. PEARL: ...on two of those pictures. So in all of them he managed to
communicate his state of mind and his strength and everything, his love and
his defiance. So it was at the same time, of course, scary to see him with a
gun pointing at his head, but at the same time it was very comforting because
I knew he was exactly in the same state of mind that I was.
GROSS: His execution was videotaped, and at the end he's on tape saying, `My
father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.' Do you think he was told
to say that?
Mrs. PEARL: I think he might have been told to say that, to say that he was
Jewish. But what he wasn't told, because that would have been impossible, was
that his grandfather had a street named after him in a little village in
Israel. And so that's information that only his family could know, only I
could know. And that's his way of saying, `I am proud of who I am, and that's
how I'm going to die.'
GROSS: Do you think a lot about the attitude with which he faced death, and
when you think about his attitude, do you find that comforting or upsetting?
Mrs. PEARL: Oh, his attitude is, I mean, so comforting. It may be not the
right word, but I constantly come back to that moment when faced with--I mean,
he couldn't avoid his death. There was nothing he could do. But faced by
people who want to kill him for who he was, he decided to be proud of who he
was. That strength and that courage he had is something I always come back to
in mind to go on with my life or to do what I have to do. And, you know, when
I'm too sad, I just always come back to that moment and gather strength from
GROSS: Mariane Pearl has written a memoir about her late husband called "A
Mighty Heart." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more with journalist Mariane Pearl, widow of journalist
Daniel Pearl. Also, we talk with Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief Joshua
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Mariane
Pearl. She's written a memoir about her late husband, Daniel Pearl, called "A
Mighty Heart." He was The Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief and
was investigating connections to al-Qaeda in Pakistan. On the way to a
planned meeting with a radical Islamic cleric, he was kidnapped and later
beheaded by Islamic extremists. When we left off, we were talking about the
videotape the extremists made of Pearl's execution.
How did you find out that he was executed.
Mrs. PEARL: I found out because the video was out. For two weeks, we didn't
know what had happened, and then suddenly, the video was out, was released by
the people who had edited it. So, you know, the FBI had a call and received
the video and all the investigative team went to Randall Bennett's house with
one of their investigators and watched the video and now identified it. So
then they came back to the house and they told me.
GROSS: That video ended up on the Internet. At least one news organization
played part of it. You were very upset that it was being circulated. You've
never seen it yourself.
Mrs. PEARL: No, I haven't seen it. No.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about your reaction to the circulation of
Mrs. PEARL: The reason why they killed Danny the way they killed him,
beheaded him and taped his murder, the sole purpose was to show that video and
terrify people. So it was a strategy. Of course, you know, they send us
these tapes, to news organizations and put it on the Internet because that was
the point. That was their goal. Now it was up to the news organization to
decide what to do with these images.
The fact that they had just had one news organization, which is CBS, decided
to broadcast it was very sad, not so much because, you know, I mean, because
it's vulgar, more because that's exactly what the terrorists wanted them to
do. And the fact that they didn't understand that for a country that had just
been hit by terrorism so hard, that made me angry, very angry.
GROSS: What about the vulgar aspects of it? What about the aspect that there
are people in the country who saw your husband being beheaded on video?
Mrs. PEARL: You know, people are--there was, like, you know, a dark side or
an animal side in human beings that are attracted to, you know, those kind of
images. It's, like, lower instincts--Right?--basic instincts. You can appeal
to that because that, you know, generates interest, generates money, generates
viewing and ratings. It's a responsibility to broadcast those images, you
know? And the only reason that I found on the Internet because there were
people chatting about it: Should they do it? Should they not do it? The
only reason for it was freedom of expression. It's completely wrong. That's
not a freedom of expression. That's pure, you know, animal instinct, you
know, the same way there are videos about people being murdered--I mean, all
kinds of other murders or rapes or that kind of--that's how low it is.
There's nothing there. There's nothing there in terms of--you know, the
reason that it was explained to me was that it was newsworthy, and it wasn't
newsworthy, you know? It was no news. Like, we knew what had happened to
Danny. You know, it was just voyeurism. I don't know the word in English.
It's, you know, when you want to...
Mrs. PEARL: Voyeurism, exactly.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mariane Pearl and she's just
written a new book about the kidnapping and murder of her husband, the
journalist, Daniel Pearl.
How has the kidnapping and murder of your husband affected your willingness to
travel or the kind of journalism that you practice?
Mrs. PEARL: Oh, it made me more determined to do what we did together. One
of my challenges--you know, for me to survive was that I listed all the goals
that their terrorists had, you know. I did the opposite of CBS and I decided
to deny them all those goals. So one of those goals was to instill fear in
me, of traveling of others, of, you know, making me lose my confidence, and I
fought very hard so that, you know, they wouldn't achieve that goal. So I'm
still very much interested by, you know, the human race and our world. And
Danny taught me so much about, you know, good journalism and objectivity and
truth. I will definitely go on.
GROSS: How old is your son now?
Mrs. PEARL: He's 16 months. He walks.
Mrs. PEARL: He talks.
GROSS: Good. Well, you know, in a few years, you'll have to kind of figure
out how much to tell him and how much to protect him from. Have you started
to figure out already what the right equation is of what to reveal and what to
keep from him for a while?
Mrs. PEARL: I haven't really figured out how I'm going to deal with this
issue. It's something, of course, obviously, that keeps me very, you know,
worried and, you know, thinking also. I figured that the best thing I could
do is, in the meantime before the time comes to sit down with him and tell him
that his father was murdered, first of all, write this book for him so that he
can know the truth. If everything that I've written, I make it true in my
daily life, then Adam will be all right. I mean, it's going to be, of course,
difficult, like, he's going to have to bear his burden and I'm bearing mine,
but we'll be together and hopefully what he'll retain mostly in his heart will
be to be the kind of man his father would be proud of.
GROSS: Are you living in France or the United States now?
Mrs. PEARL: In New York City, yeah, in the Village.
GROSS: How do you like it there?
Mrs. PEARL: I like it. Now, you know, I just came here to write this book.
It's, obviously, a very difficult year for me, very lonely and cold and, you
know, a difficult year. So New York was a good shelter for me because it's
such a mix of everything. So I could, like, lose myself a little bit in New
York City, but it was difficult, obviously. Now it's better now. I have
friends. You know, I've created a little environment. So it's getting better
GROSS: Mariane Pearl, I really want to thank you for talking with us.
Mrs. PEARL: Thank you.
GROSS: Mariane Pearl's book about her late husband Daniel Pearl is called "A
Coming up, Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief Joshua Hammer. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Joshua Hammer of Newsweek discusses his book, "A
Season in Bethlehem"
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Joshua Hammer has been Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief since the
fall of 2000. He's written a new book called "A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy
War in a Sacred Place." It's about Israel's invasion of the West Bank town of
Bethlehem in April 2002. Bethlehem is the city in which it is believed Jesus
was born. The final chapter is about the siege of the Church of the Nativity
when Palestinian gunmen forced their way into the church, beginning a 39-day
standoff with the Israeli troops that surrounded the church. Hammer was in a
nearby hotel at the beginning of the siege. After it ended, he pieced
together what happened by profiling several of the people who were there
including a Palestinian militant, an Israeli soldier, the governor of
Bethlehem and a priest. I asked Hammer why the Palestinian gunmen took over
the Church of the Nativity.
Mr. JOSHUA HAMMER ("A Season in Bethlehem"): Palestinian gunmen moved into
the church because they believed, quite rightly, that it would offer them
protection. I think they were totally stunned by the size and force of the
Israeli invasion of Bethlehem. And they knew through experience, through
history that the Church of the Nativity has been there through the centuries
as a place of refuge most recently in the 1967 War. Palestinians took refuge
there during the Jordanian and Israeli bombings that went on there.
So it was always there. It was always in the back of their minds, and when
the Israeli tanks and troops advanced down towards, basically chased, the
militants through the old streets of the Old City down to Manger Square in
front of the Church of the Nativity it was on everybody's mind, `Go to the
church.' They shot the locks off the Franciscan Monastery, poured into the
church, 200, 250 of them went in there, and then waited to see how the
Israelis would respond.
GROSS: Is there a point of view that you were exposed to from the people who
were at the Church of the Nativity during the siege that seemed
incomprehensible to you before that you feel you understand better now as a
result of this reporting?
Mr. HAMMER: Well, I think that I, in the course of reporting this book, and
in the course of being a reporter in the Middle East went through the kind of
experience Father Parthenios, the Green Orthodox priest in my book underwent.
He was a person who viewed these Palestinian militants from a distance, was
suspicious of them, didn't really know what they really represented, tended to
lump them all together, was frightened of them. In the course of being
trapped with them over 39 days, he began to sympathize with their plight and
their political views.
Now I am not saying that I particularly admired any of these people, but I
went through a similar experience, as far as Father Parthenios, in getting to
know these people as human beings and not just as these sort of cardboard,
homicidal killer-terrorist figures that are so easily caricatured especially
by the Israeli government.
GROSS: What are some of the qualities that Father Parthenios or you found in
the militant gunmen who took over the church that seemed more sympathetic?
Mr. HAMMER: One of the things that struck me about so many of these people
was how jail had transformed them. Jail was a crucible that shaped their
personalities. Now I'm not talking about the second Intifadah. I'm talking
about jail in the 1980s. Many of them, as kids, were throwing stones in the
streets of Bethlehem during that first Intifadah in the 1980s, were arrested
at the age of 14, 15, 16, thrown into Israeli prisoners, often tortured,
certainly beaten and harshly interrogated and made to languish in Israeli
jails for years. You could draw a three-year or a four-year prison for
throwing a rock back in those days. What struck me most is how important that
experience was in shaping the mentality, in shaping the animosity, in shaping
the militancy that drives so many of these young, 10, 12, 14 years later.
GROSS: One of the people you profiled was one of the militants behind the
siege and that was Ibrahim Abayat, a Fatah guerrilla leader. Tell us
something about him and his reasons for being part of that siege.
Mr. HAMMER: Well, Abayat and his whole extended family--the Abayats are a
fascinating group in Bethlehem. They come out of a nomadic background from
the Judaism wilderness near the Dead Sea. They are traditionally the car
thieves, arms dealers, all-around tough guys of Bethlehem. They basically
formed the bedrock of the armed groups in Bethlehem when the Intifadah began.
He was a very interesting character because he was notorious well before the
Intifadah began. He carried out the first so-called honor killing in the
region in a generation. He and his first cousin found out that their first
cousin, a woman, had been allegedly carrying out an extramarital affair,
kidnapped both her and her alleged lover and executed them both. There was a
big celebrated trial. He was found guilty. His clansmen went on a rampage
through the streets of Bethlehem, burning houses, burning cars, and a guy, a
very much whose life was very much embedded in these Muslim Bedouin traditions
that came out in this violent way. So by the time the Intifadah began, he was
well-known as a notorious character in the city, and he lived up to that
GROSS: How did he behave inside during the siege?
Mr. HAMMER: Ibrahim Abayat was a hot-tempered, unpredictable, dangerous
character. Inside, he was jumpy. He contemplated a bloody breakout, just
storming out through the Door of Humility and most likely being killed. He
intimidated people, anybody who was thinking about trying to leave. He would
call a collaborator, threaten them explicitly with death. And he was one of
the figures who kept people in line basically. He was the leader of the
leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
GROSS: You describe him toward the end of the siege and you write, `Plagued
by migraines, hungry and weak, gone was the confidence of the gunmen who had
once strutted around Bethlehem, who had vowed to go out either a winner or a
martyr. Now he was feebly pleading for exile.' How was he changed, do you
think, during the course of that long siege and how did it affect his--go
Mr. HAMMER: Well, I think like many--I won't say all--but many of these
militants--with 20/20 hindsight, one sees that so much of what they did was
posturing, that essentially they were cowards. Ibrahim Abayat took the easy
way out essentially. He surrendered. At the end, he realized he was up
against a very powerful force, that his options were accept exile or die, and
he meekly accepted exile. So he was a very changed, humbled figure by the end
GROSS: What is his reputation now among other militants?
Mr. HAMMER: You know, it's hard to say because the militant groups of
Bethlehem have pretty much been decimated. I think he's forgotten and I
visited him in Spain several months after the siege was over and he was
dispatched to exile and it killed him, I think. It just crushed him
psychologically to know that he was quickly being forgotten.
GROSS: One of the people who you write about during the siege is one of your
neighbors who is an Israeli, who is actually born in Southern California and
immigrated to Jerusalem in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War. He was a reservist
who was called to active duty during the siege, 15 young soldiers under his
command. What were some of his concerns during the siege of Bethlehem?
Mr. HAMMER: I think first and foremost, it was his concern for the life of
the young men under his command. He was a 32-year-old reservist, so he was
concerned going in in the course of those long hours before the battle
actually began rumbling in his armored personnel carrier into Bethlehem in the
darkness, that these militants were going to put up a real fight and there
would likely be some death among the young men that he was leading into
battle, that he would possibly be killed himself.
He was very, very conflicted about the whole thing. As I write in the book,
he was the son of one of the leaders of the peace now movement, had grown up
in this very, very left-wing home. Now he was riding in an armored personnel
carrier leading men into battle against these Palestinian whom he had always
sympathized with. So he was a very conflicted person.
GROSS: And did he stay conflicted after the siege was over?
Mr. HAMMER: Well, Mike Aviad went through the conversion process that so
many Israelis had gone through over the last couple of years which is
definitely drifted more and more towards the right, didn't vote for Ariel
Sharon in 2001, the first election, but really viewed Intifadah as a terrorist
and was fully supportive of Ariel Sharon's decision to invade the West Bank in
a massive way. By the end of the siege, I think he came out of it feeling, `I
don't know if this is going to achieve anything ultimately. I'm not sure.
We're not going to stamp out this rebellion, we're not going to stamp out this
uprising, but we have to do something.'
GROSS: Your new book is about the siege of the Church of the Nativity in
Bethlehem and about the Israeli incursion into Bethlehem. What are some of
the different lessons that you think Israelis, particularly like Israelis in
the government and the Cabinet, took away from that incursion into Bethlehem?
I imagine different people have taken different messages.
Mr. HAMMER: Well, I would say that it breaks down into two camps, and the
two camps are still warring today. One camp would say that the Bethlehem
operation exemplified how you can, in fact, subdue terror with military force
and military force alone since the invasion of Bethlehem. The amount of
violence that's been coming out of that particular area, in fact, the entire
West Bank has dropped dramatically. There's no question that there have been
many fewer suicide bombings, many few sniper attacks, attacks on soldiers.
The violence has dropped dramatically in that year and a half.
On the other hand, there would be others who took away from the invasion of
Bethlehem and the invasion of the West Bank the very opposite lesson as we saw
only a couple of weeks ago. In this heavily locked down West Bank where it's
very difficult to move from town to town, even outside your own village, Hamas
was able to get two suicide bombers across the Green Line dividing Israel from
the West Bank, blow themselves up in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in a cafe
three blocks from my house and caused 15, 16 deaths. So they would say,
`Look, you've entered the West Bank. You've locked it down. You're creating
all of this additional misery and hatred and they're still getting through.'
So these two sides are still arguing and there isn't a resolution.
GROSS: It was the hope of some people within the Bush administration that
war in Iraq would lead to peace in the Middle East, you know, through a
revival of the `road map' to peace. The road map is now off the table. Right
now how does it look like the war in Iraq has affected the possibility of a
Middle East peace?
Mr. HAMMER: Well, look, I never saw the connection and a lot of my
colleagues and a lot of the people I always talk to there always thought that
was specious. What was the link between Iraq and the Palestinians? I mean,
there was a direct link--OK. Saddam was writing out checks, $25,000 here and
there, to the families of suicide bombers. He expressed his support for the
Palestinian cause. I never saw the link. I see the Palestinian-Israeli
dynamic as being unique, as being very independent from what goes on 500 miles
away in Iraq and I don't think and I never did think and I still don't think
that the dynamic of Iraq will in any way affect this sort of cycle of revenge
and retaliation and hatred that continues to defeat any attempts to make a
peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I just don't see the
GROSS: My guest is Joshua Hammer, Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief. His new
book about the Israeli invasion of Bethlehem is called "The Season in
Bethlehem." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joshua Hammer. He reports from
Jerusalem for Newsweek. He has a new book called "A Season in Bethlehem:
Unholy War in a Sacred Place."
Your previous book, "Chosen by God," was a book about your brother who
became a Hassidic Jew and is now living in Israel. Where is he living?
Mr. HAMMER: No, he's actually living in Monsey, New York, about 30 miles
north of New York. It began in Israel, his conversions, so to speak, if you
can refer to a Jew becoming an extremely religious Jew. A conversion took
place in Israel about 22 years ago, but he quickly moved to New York and found
his way into a community north of New York City...
GROSS: The Hassidic community.
Mr. HAMMER: ...that has very close ties to the Hassidic--well, a mixed
community of modern Orthodox, ultra Orthodox and Hassidim.
GROSS: I know he's your brother, but would you consider him an extremist
Mr. HAMMER: Yes, I would consider him an extremist. He wouldn't consider
himself an extremist, but I would think even within the spectrum of ultra
Orthodoxy, he would be at the extreme end of it. For instance, he's one of
those ultra Orthodox Jews who believes that the state of Israel has no right
to exist until a messiah comes which is a fairly fringe position and still
appears to fervently believe that. That's one of the reasons that he's never
gone back to Israel.
GROSS: Do you think that you try to be any more open-minded in your ability to
kind of understand the acts of political or religious extremists because
someone in your family has become so extreme?
Mr. HAMMER: I don't know if I'm more tolerant or accepting of it. I'm more
inclined to understand everything I can about it. I was drawn in my book,
"Chosen by God," to go back to my own family and dig up history and find out
what are the psychological factors that drives somebody to embrace Hassidic
Judaism from a totally secular, almost atheistic background to make that kind
of leap. So in the same way, I suppose I was driven to explore, for instance,
what would make an 18-year-old girl, and somebody, you know, pretty much the
same age as my brother was when he made his conversion to go from being a
promising student in Bethlehem, looking forward to a college career, as my
brother was who was engaged to be married and lived a very traditional life
was swept up in the fervor surrounding her and strapped on a suicide belt and
blew herself up at the age of 18, killed two people in March 2002. Now, of
course, I'm not equating my brother's choice in any way with suicide bombers
in Palestine. I'm just saying these are two manifestations of an extreme
belief and a willingness to surrender completely to that belief sometimes with
violent consequences. So, yeah, it's intriguing to me. I would say perhaps
that my experience with my brother led me inevitably toward this path.
GROSS: Do you think that being Jewish affects your coverage of the Middle
Mr. HAMMER: I hope it doesn't. I think it enrages certain people within the
Israeli government and certain Israelis that I meet who believe that there
should be a natural embrace of Israel and a natural embrace of everything it
does in identification with the state of siege that it finds itself in and
that any defense whatsoever of the Palestinians or any attempt to sort of
explain, humanize these people is somehow defines one as a self-hating Jew and
makes one suspect. I've heard this. I've heard that a lot. Even a couple of
weeks ago or last week when I was on my book tour, a woman got up and called
me traitor, but I try not to let that bother me. I do believe in a state of
Israel, I have a natural sympathy for the state of Israel, but I think there's
a huge difference between having sympathy and firm belief in the state of
Israel and blindly endorsing some of the excesses, some of the policies that I
believe this current Israeli government is pursing in the name of making
peace, in the name of providing security to its people. I don't think it's
working. I think it's often counterproductive. I think it's causing an awful
lot of misery, and I'm aware when I say these things that I'm opening myself
up to intense criticism, but I don't think of myself, I suppose, as a Jew
first. I think of myself as a journalist.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. HAMMER: It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Joshua Hammer is the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek. His new
book is called "A Season in Bethlehem."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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