'Times' Journalist Ethan Bronner On Gaza Conflict Ethan Bronner is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. He joins Fresh Air host Terry Gross to discuss recent developments in Gaza.
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'Times' Journalist Ethan Bronner On Gaza Conflict

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'Times' Journalist Ethan Bronner On Gaza Conflict

'Times' Journalist Ethan Bronner On Gaza Conflict

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Ethan Bronner is the Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times. He tried to get into Gaza during Israel's three-week assault, but Israel barred foreign journalists from entering the territory until the war ended.

When Israel was ready to declare a cease-fire, the army began taking small groups of journalists into Gaza for briefings with commanders in the field. That's how Bronner got into Gaza. He's been filing from there since January 16th.

The following day, Israel declared a cease-fire, and then began allowing foreign journalists to enter and leave. Bronner went into a studio in Gaza City early this morning to record our interview and describe what he's found in Gaza and how he's trying to investigate claims made by each side.

Ethan Bronner, welcome to Fresh Air. You've been writing that most of Gaza remains largely intact, but the areas that were under attack have had extensive damage. Tell us a little bit about the areas that you've toured in the few days that you've been in Gaza and what the greatest damage you've seen is.

Mr. ETHAN BRONNER (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, New York Times): Sure. I've been here about 10 days now, and the worst hit areas are in the periphery of the Gaza Strip - so that in the places where the Israeli military entered for the ground war, and that came in the northwest corner, a section generally known as Beit Lahia.

And then in the sort of middle of the Gaza Strip, in the eastern part of it, south of Gaza City, known as Juhra al-Dig(ph) - and then there are sort of the peripheral neighborhoods of Gaza City where the military got to before they called it off, and those are known as Zeytun and Tuffa.

Now, within Gaza City, there were selective bombings from the air, and those were all of the sort of - many of the government buildings and the security services headquarters of Hamas and the police stations and so on. But - so in Gaza City, you kind of, everything looks fine and then suddenly you'll come to an enormous rubble in the middle of something, and that was the central jail or that was the parliament.

But if you go northwest of Gaza City toward the Israel border where they came in, to this Beit Lahia area, al-Atrata is a village next to Beit Lahia, you really do see extensive damage. I would say out of 200 homes, you know, 80 of them will be quite badly hit, 50 of them gone.

You'll see factories and schools and mosques really very badly hit, and roads completely chewed up from where tanks were.

GROSS: Israelis were making the argument that there were so many civilians casualties because Hamas uses civilians as shields and intentionally sets up headquarters near schools. The leaders of Hamas, you know, live amongst civilians so that there's no way of attacking their headquarters or attacking them without some collateral damage. From what you've been seeing, how would you evaluate the Israeli claims about that?

Mr. BRONNER: You know, it's a very important question, and I have been working on it. And I don't really have an answer for you at the moment. That is to say, I have been going over the places that have been badly hit and trying to understand the nature of the battle - where people were, when they left, who was where. And I'm pretty thick in the fog of war still, I have to tell you.

There's no question that the most heavily populated areas of say Gaza City where there are a lot of Hamas fighters, Hamas headquarters, those areas were not the most heavily hit. Zeytun was, there was the well-known story about the Samouni clan. Twenty-eight members of them were killed when Israeli soldiers took over buildings among their clan, where they lived. And then there was some inexplicable bombing of a house where they had been gathered.

But, you know, in Beit Lahia and in Juhra al-Dig and so on, it's very difficult for me to assess what happened. The local people tell a very different story from what the Israelis tell. Each tell it with great sincerity, and I'm in the process of trying to, sort of, nail it down. And I don't really know if I'm going to succeed.

But, you know, as a general matter, we know that a militia like Hamas is essentially a popular milita, that it's among the people. The question of whether it intentionally placed its fighters among civilians in order to increase the death of civilians so that the world would be more outraged at Israel, which is Israel's assertion, I honestly don't know the answer to it. I can't say it's not true, but I can't say that I have seen evidence of it.

GROSS: So, how are you trying to evaluate where the truth lies?

Mr. BRONNER: Well, I'm pushing Israel as hard as I can to give me all the data and information that they're willing to give me on these places. For example, do they have radar readings? Do they have videotapes? Do they have anything that they can show me that's verifiable that came from these houses, the houses in which the people say, my God, I have no idea why they blew up my house, I'm a simple farmer or I'm a farmer? And we've always kept Hamas fighters away from our fields and from our houses, and Israel is just out to punish us all. This is a completely illogical operation. That's what I'm facing, that extraordinary disconnect.

GROSS: Human rights groups are calling for an investigation into possible war crimes that were committed by Israel in Gaza, including the alleged use of white phosphorus, which is a weapon that's outlawed by an international convention, outlawed against - using against civilians. I'm wondering if you've seen any evidence of war crimes?

Mr. BRONNER: Well, we can start with white phosphorus. It's again, you know, very - it's preliminary, and I mean, you know, as hard as it is for me, it's as hard for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. They may come in with a clearer belief than I have. I mean, I'm an agnostic by nature, and that's how I do my work.

I did interview a woman in a hospital and wrote a story about it back a week ago who lost her husband and four of her children to a shell that the doctor believes was white phosphorus, and that human rights groups suspect was white phosphorus.

The Israelis have said that they did not drop a white phosphorus shell on her house. They can't really understand why she's saying this, but the doctor described the burn as - this is the head of the burn unit at the Shifa Hospital - he had never seen any kind of burn like this. Phosphorus burns in kind of counterintuitive ways, but if you put water on it, it actually increases the burning, and it burns in a deeper and wider way than normal burns.

And so, they are quite convinced that there was phosphorus. The Israelis broadly say that, first of all, they say they're investigating their own use of phosphorus, and it's possible that there was a misuse of it in a couple of occasions there, but their basic argument is we had used some, but in the outer-lying areas, open areas, fields and things, and that doesn't contravene any kind of international law.

There are some other instances where human rights groups are following up so-called white flag incidents. That is to say people who held high white sheets or flags as they walked away and then were allegedly shot by Israeli troops or tanks. You know, you can imagine how difficult it is to verify and feel confident one way or the other that one of these things is real.

I would say that, without offering any judgement about war crimes because I'm not an expert on it and it's a fairly loaded term, that Israel did come in in a fairly heavy handed fashion into this war and did seek to send a fairly aggressive message in Gaza and in fact, beyond Gaza, to say we will not be trifled with. Rockets cannot come our way, and we're going to just sit back.

So, it's not inconceivable that things got a little out of hand in different places, but again, it's just a feeling, and it really requires investigation.

GROSS: Can you evaluate how the war has affected the Hamas leadership, both in terms of how many people are still alive, ow much power they still have, and how much support they have among the Gazans? I wonder if you're getting a reading about whether Hamas is emerging from this stronger in the eyes of the people of Gaza or weaker?

Mr. BRONNER: Yeah, this is a great question, Terry. And of course it's one that preoccupies all of us here because it was the - partly the point of this exercise was to try to weaken Hamas and to sort of get the people to reject Hamas.

So, the argument that Israel set forward - a little obliquely, but not entirely so, was that Hamas is a peoples militia, it feels its link to the people very strongly. If we make the people recognize that their policies have brought them such disaster, then they feel the need to separate from Hamas.

It's very difficult to assess whether there's any, any success to that mission at the moment. It feels, in repeated conversations over 10 days, and in talking to my colleagues and other people, very few people are sort of saying, oh, you know, speaking along the script that Israel would hope for.

It's more common that people would say this was a war not against Hamas, but against Gaza, against Palestinians, and therefore, the rage is essentially directed to Israel and a little directly at the United States, which is, you know a provider of support and of arms to Israel. So, there's the question of its popularity is - it doesn't feel particularly that its popularity has been affected.

In a certain way, there's a certain - people like the idea that they have been so-called resisters of Israeli occupation. They are compared with the Fatah leadership of Yasser Arafat before, considered much less corrupt, much more linked to the people and relatively admired as pure-hearted folk - believe it or not.

In terms of its leadership, you know only a couple of key people were killed. They all went underground. In terms of the military(ph), the same. Israel says it killed about 500 Hamas militants. I think in that number they're including 200 police cadets that were killed early on. Whether those are really militants is another debatable question, and broadly, it seems that they killed mostly secondary and tertiary fighters rather than the real elite core that runs the organization.

GROSS: My guest is Ethan Bronner, the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. He's joining us from Gaza. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Ethan Bronner. He's the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, and he's speaking to us from a studio in Gaza City.

You wrote in a recent article that the Israeli idea of what it tried to do in Gaza is summed up in a Hebrew phrase that translates roughly to - the boss has lost it, a mad man can't be controlled. In other words, if you attack us we're going to throw everything at you. We're going to go crazy. We're going to be disproportionate, intentionally so. Is that your impression of what the Israeli tactic was?

Mr. BRONNER: It is very much my impression. Yes, it's very much my impression that the Israelis - the way they experienced this back and forth with Hamas over recent years was that they had been taking it and taking it and taking it and warning and warning - this is the Israeli perception.

And when it came time to send a message, it sent it in a clearly quote, unquote, "disproportionate way." Disproportion I don't mean in an international legal sense, I just mean in the sense that don't fool with us because we will really make it unpleasant for you. And that was unquestionably the tactic, unquestionably.

GROSS: Now, that was the same tactic, I think it's fair to say, in the war in Lebanon against Hizbullah. And I'm wondering if you have any sense of what each side took away from that war as the lesson learned - what Israel applied from that war and what Hamas felt it learned from that war.

Mr. BRONNER: I think that, you know, it's all very complicated because in Israel's case, it was an unhappy war and for a range of reasons. Israel had been essentially involved in a kind of counter-terror policing action in its military for the previous 10 or 15 years, had not really planned and trained for war. So, the soldiers went into Lebanon without proper working guns, equipment, water, food, that kind of thing. And a lot of the complaints after the war and during the war had to do with the ill-prepared Israel Defense Forces.

So, and then the other thing that happened in that war was that at the very beginning of it, Prime Minister Olmert announced that Israel was going to wipe out Hezbollah's capacity to send rockets within days, it was going to be a walkover. The great Israeli military machine was about to kick into action, and that, of course, didn't happen. And they had to send in ground troops, and they lost a bunch of guys. And it was a very unhappy time.

So what Israel drew from it, many people in the world drew from it watching it rather the way they watched this war - was, my goodness, why is Israel being so punishing and doing so much damage in civilian areas. But in Israel the lesson was - that was drawn was, we were not sufficiently full-court press, about this. We didn't coordinate properly. We didn't carry out the military campaign that we had tried to, and we won't let that happen again.

I'm not sure what Hamas saw of it, but I would certainly - broadly Hamas understood that Hezbollah came out ahead because it withstood Israel's onslaught. And suddenly its credibility in the Arab world and in the Muslim world and the anti-Israel world grew hugely, so that Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah became an international hero for many.

And I think that Hamas understood that it could do the same, and now it's proclaiming exactly that - that it has withstood this, that it had helped resist in the most noble and historic fashion, and the mighty Israeli machine has failed to do anything against them except for blow up some buildings.

GROSS: I have to say we're hearing sirens and a lot of traffic noise in the background coming from the area in the studio that you're in. So, it sounds like there's a lot of traffic on the streets.

Mr. BRONNER: Yes, there is. Gaza City is very much back to - I don't want to say back to normal, but it is certainly functioning as a city that - the way it had before the war, in some ways because Israel is now permitting two to three to four times more stuff in than it was during the - certainly during the weeks of the war and in the weeks preceding the war.

There is increased activity. There's more gasoline available for cars, more fuel for electricity, and so you don't particularly feel that your - when you drive down the main road of Gaza City, that you've just walked out after a war.

GROSS: Just explain a little bit of the background of this war to us. Israel says that it attacked Gaza because of Hamas missiles being fired into Israel. Hamas says it was firing the missiles to protest Israel's closing off of the borders of Gaza and not allowing food or medicine in. Would you elaborate on what the causes of the Hamas missiles and the Israel closing of the borders and this war were?

Mr. BRONNER: After Israel withdrew all of its settlers and soldiers in 2005 from Gaza, rockets still flew in. They had been flying in before, but they began to increase. After 2006 when Hamas won legislative elections, a majority, and then in 2007, when there was a fight between it and Fatah and it threw out the Palestinian authority out of Gaza in June of 2007 and it ruled alone in Gaza, then the rockets were flying more and more and more.

Israel and Hamas reached, through Egypt, a sort of calm or a truce, a cease-fire beginning in June of '08 - that was supposed to last six months. The rockets never fully stopped, they went down from about 300 to 30 a month or 20 a month depending on the month. But in exchange, Israel was supposed to open the commercial crossings into Gaza to the level that had been before Hamas took over.

But Israel kept saying, well, you keep violating the cease-fire by these rockets, and you're rearming as we know you are because we can see it with our satellites, and you are not supposed to do that. And you keep shooting stuff outside the border, so we're not going to increase the commercial crossings. We'll do it a little bit.

And so, in those months, that's what happened. Each side viewed the other as the violator. And then in December, it fell apart entirely. And then a huge number of rockets increased, and Israel felt that this plan that it had in its pocket for a year or two about doing something severe, it was time to act, and that's what it did.

GROSS: You know, you were talking about how Israel is intentionally using what will be seen as disproportionate force to send a very strong message. Do you think that that's in part because Israel is, in a way, facing a new kind of threat? It's not conventional armies from Egypt or Syria. It's not 1967. They're facing, you know, rockets from Hezbollah a while ago or now Hamas. It's harder for a conventional army to deal with the kind of tactics that Hamas and Hezbollah use.

Mr. BRONNER: It's absolutely true. And so, the feeling is in Israel - there are several components of that, but what you say is absolutely true. But in addition, there's the idea that Iran is behind Hezbollah and Hamas, and that a message needs to be sent to Iran and to other would-be enemies and enemies of Israel.

But you're right that when trying to fight a non-state actor, it becomes very complicated. It's not a real army you're up against. And these rockets, smuggled under Sinai into Gaza, you know, they're longer and longer, and they're more and more and there's this fear that all of Israel, between Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the South, could come under rocket attack. Now, the rockets don't always land on anybody, but of course, it's a form of terror for the people who live there. So, there's no question of feeling that a huge and severe message needed to be sent.

GROSS: So this war has had a lot of popular support in Israel?

Mr. BRONNER: Enormously popular support in Israel. I think that the polls, now we're talking about Israeli Jews - Israeli-Arabs didn't feel this way - but the 85 percent of the country that's Jewish has been more than 90 percent throughout the war in favor of this.

There a lot of reasons for that. You know, broadly I think the people did want to - they do share that fear that the neighborhood doesn't see Israeli deterrence the way they would like it to. There's a broad feeling that Hamas in its charter which speaks in very - in deeply and viciously anti-Semitic terms, is not an organization that one can easily accommodate and come to terms with. And that Iran behind it that Israel needs to send a message - this is certainly the view in Israel, that it is not seen as sufficiently strong and deterrence orientated, and it's going to make clear that is. That's absolutely how most Israeli-Jews feel.

GROSS: The press was barred by Israel from going into Gaza during the actual war in Gaza. And the director of the Israeli government press office was quoted as saying, "Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help with that." As a journalist, what was your reaction to that, and to being barred during the war from going into Gaza?

Mr. BRONNER: I was really outraged, and in fact, I was personally quite vocal about it. I spoke to Danny Seaman, the director of the government press office. I personally complained to everybody I could, and I'm a member of the foreign press association in Israel, and we, as an organization, first tried to get the various ministries to help us, and then ultimately, went to the supreme court and asked them to force the government to let us in.

Now, I don't want to get into too much detail, but this ban began before the war. It began about six weeks before the war. We don't really know why. But it's possible that they were already thinking that a war was coming.

In any case, the court, ultimately did say to the government and the army, you actually can't bar journalists from Gaza. You have to let them in. But they came to an arrangement where it would be by pools and small groups because the Israelis would say it's too much, we can't, we don't want to risk our personnel at the border crossings, which are often attacked by Hamas, to let them in. So the courts said, well, let them in when you open it for some other reason, like humanitarian relief or getting people out.

And four times after the war started, a pool of eight of us were set to go in, they opened, and they did not let us in. So I don't think that they, in any way, played fairly. And I also think that they shot themselves in the foot. I don't think one should carry out a war and expect that nobody wants to see how your soldiers are acting, that everyone should take on trust that you're doing it right.

GROSS: You told an incredible story about one of your colleagues, Taghreed El-Khodary, who lives in Gaza and has been reporting from Gaza for the New York Times, and her reports were just essential during the period that Israel was barring reporters from going in. She was already there...


GROSS: So she could report from there. And she witnessed a Hamas gunman shooting an alleged Israeli sympathizer in the head.

Mr. BRONNER: Uh huh(ph).

GROSS: And the gunman told her, don't tell anybody about this. What did she do?

Mr. BRONNER: So Taghreed is a very special person. And she said to him, there's not a chance that I'm not going to talk about it. And she then, actually, started to gather some data on the alleged collaborators. What had happened, briefly, is that the - since the central jail had been bombed by Israel a day or two before, all - there were a 100 or 150 alleged collaborators who were in the jail for alleged collaboration and a bunch of them were taken to Shifa Hospital.

And she found out that about five or six of them had been killed in this way in the last day or two. And we together, fashioned a story out of this information. To me, I mean, of course, it's a testimony to Taghreed's own courage and reliability.

To me, it also says that the Israeli officials who say you can't function as a journalist in Gaza because Hamas is such a dictatorial regime, they don't know what they're talking about. I mean, you know, Taghreed is not afraid. I, sometimes I ask her, why are you not afraid?

She said, they know that I'm objective. They know that when they were in opposition, when Fatah was abusing them, I wrote about that. And now that they're in power, they know I'll call it straight, and they respect that.

It's a little bit hard to believe, but I witness it week in and week out, so I know that it's basically true. And I also know, that my colleagues and I are not taken aside by Hamas officials and told what to do. Honestly, the idea that this is some totalitarian spot where you can't write honestly is not true.

GROSS: You know, there's a lot of questions about whether Israel could ever negotiate with Hamas because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel. I mean, it's in their founding principles that Israel should be destroyed. Have you met with Hamas leaders, with senior officials, and have you gotten any sense of whether they are people that anyone could negotiate with, and whether you think that it's possible that Hamas would ever change from seeing the destruction of Israel as a goal?

Mr. BRONNER: I have met with many Hamas leaders. I mean, many of the ones I've met with have subsequently been killed. But I've been coming here for many years, so, you know, Hamas does seem to be in some degree of transition. I'm not sure that this war has helped them in that path. But there are absolutely trends within Hamas, and the question is, who really controls Hamas, and I don't know the answer to that.

There are analysts who say that it's the military wing has become more powerful in the last year, and it's really calling the shots, and that the people that I might get to speak to, like Prime Minister Haniya, Foreign Minister Zahar, and so on, that these guys are really less important than the people who run the guys with the guns. And I don't know if that's true.

But in terms of a movement, it is sort of surprising. Hamas is not al-Qaeda. It is not - it is an organization that the spokesman, the officials, are people that you would not find it so difficult to talk to. I have not found it so difficult to talk to them. I can't tell you whether they are going to accept Israel. What they basically say, when you talk to them about this is if we can go back to the '67 borders and we can deal with the question of a right of return and all Palestinians agree, than we won't stand in the way.

Now that's not a very encouraging thing for Israelis because they feel that they'd be giving up a lot to get there, but that is what one hears. And as a broad observation, and I'm not in the policy recommendation business, but as a broad observation, it seems almost impossible to imagine that there could be a Palestinian state that doesn't include Hamas as part of a political structure.

And if that's true, then Israel will not have the security of being a Jewish democratic state, not an occupier, without some relationship with the Hamas movement. How we get from here to there is, of course, what George Mitchell and the administration, I think, are going to be focusing on very heavily in the coming months.

GROSS: As a reporter, you're really among the few people who go back and forth between Israel and Gaza and who observe both cultures and the reactions of people in both cultures. Can you just talk a little bit about what it's like to be living in Israel and then go to Gaza and be among the people in both places and witness their perceptions?

Mr. BRONNER: Yeah, that's true. I live in Israel. I live in Jerusalem, in west Jerusalem, and it'd be fair to say that most people I know in west Jerusalem are not Palestinians, they are Israelis. And they are always sort of vaguely shocked that I go to Gaza. They think it must be a very dangerous place to come to. And they have a not very clear sense of what it's like here.

You know, it's not a bad place. It's a poor place, of course, and it's gotten a lot poorer in the year-and-a-half since the embargo was put into effect. But it's not Somalia. It's not Sudan. It's sort of like Egypt, although in some ways, a more open place, I believe, than Egypt. It's used to people coming and going, and a lot of people in Gaza are really very, very sophisticated. There is a degree of wealth here.

And of course, the other sad thing is that because there's been this complete closure of Palestinians in Gaza who used to have very close relations with Israel, I don't want to say everyone all loved each other, but in the '80s and '90s when I was here as a reporter before, about 100,000 Gazans used to work in Israel. And they all learned Hebrew and they had relations, and many of them had good relations with the people that they worked with and for, and now nobody goes to Israel to work. And young people only see Israelis dropping bombs on them or at the end of a rifle, if anything.

And so, you know, it's a terribly tragic situation. I also feel that since Hamas has taken over in Gaza, Israelis have essentially, emotionally, given up on the place. They don't really feel its pain. I don't want to say this flat statement. There are, of course, people who care, but broadly, the view is, that these people voted Hamas in, they're all sort of fanatic and poor, and we can't deal with them, and God knows how are we ever going to get out of this problem. But they don't see the humanity here. And I've always been distressed by that.

GROSS: Do you think that Israel is frustrated that the international community, including the UN, hasn't interceded to try to do something serious to stop Hamas from firing missiles into Israel?

Mr. BRONNER: Yes. In fact, to some extent, I think that this war was a frustrated response to that. That over the course of the years, Israel has said you guys need to help us stop Hamas from re-arming via Iran and the sea, and some of these are Chinese made, and so on. And nobody really did very much about it. And one of the results of this war, for Israel, and we'll see how well it goes, is to get the U.S. and NATO and others to agree to play a role in interdiction of these - of arms supplies coming into Gaza from Iran. And there have been some naval actions already, in the last week, at least one that I'm aware of.

So, in that sense, yes, that's what partly this was about, and it's been very frustrating for them. It's sort of the funny business, these rockets because of course, basically, one person a year dies. It's not - you know, it's hard to look at numbers. But if you live all day with the fear that a rocket could come flying into your kindergarten, it takes its toll.

You know, it's difficult to do a comparative suffering index, and whether it's worse for the Palestinians or worse for the Israelis. I think if you were forced to, you'd have to say it's much worse for the Palestinians. But that's not really the point. The point is that the Israelis have had this complaint, and it is a legitimate and serious one, and not much has been done about it. It's not an easy problem to deal with.

GROSS: Ethan Bronner, I want to thank you for doing this interview, but most of all, I want to thank you for the reporting you've been doing. Be well, and we really appreciate you talking with us.

Mr. BRONNER: I'm very grateful, Terry. Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to you.

GROSS: Ethan Bronner speaking to us from Gaza. Bronner is the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief.

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