JPost reporter reflects: My top six stories

‘Jerusalem Post’ reporter Ben Hartman looks back at the stories that stood out during his seven years covering the country and region.

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July 5, 2016 03:30
‘CAIRO WAS ONE of the first times I’d encountered a severe disconnect between how a global news stor

‘CAIRO WAS ONE of the first times I’d encountered a severe disconnect between how a global news story looked on TV and how it was on the ground.. (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)

 
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Over the past seven years at The Jerusalem Post I can think of countless stories that had an impact on me and which I remember clearly to this day.

Some were planned out more than others, but almost all were improvised to some extent or another.

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In every case the same principles held true – the most interesting people aren’t politicians, generals, or “experts,” and more often than not when I actually went out and did the story I was surprised and forced to reexamine what I thought was going in.

As I prepared to leave the paper at the end of June, I recalled some stories – among many – that I’ll take with me.

The Ushrenko family funeral – October 18, 2009

The strangest thing was the quiet.

I had arrived at the Kibbutz Givat Brenner cemetery on October 18, 2009 the day after six members of the Ushrenko family were murdered in their Rishon Lezion home in one of the worst crimes in the history of Israel.

Inside the apartment was total chaos – six people brutally murdered, including two children strangled and stabbed while they lay in bed. Two years later a former employee of the father would be convicted of the murder, carried out due to a personal grudge. In the days after the murder there was speculation that it was linked to Russian organized crime, perhaps a serial killer, but in the end, the case was further proof that some of the most brutal crimes can be carried out for the most mundane reasons.

At Givat Brenner there was something oddly serene about the surroundings. Perhaps because Russian-Israelis are more reserved or simply because most of the family had been murdered and the usual wailers at funerals – parents and grandparents – were themselves being buried as well.

Beyond the horror of the crime and the six gurneys and six graves dug side by side, the story sticks out most in my mind because it was the first one I ever wrote for the Post – my first assignment the funeral of an entire family murdered in their own home. I had never covered a funeral before, nor had I even been at one since my grandmother’s 15 years earlier in Austin, Texas.

I remember picking up a few pointers from the Post photographer – hang back, try not to intrude too much, and try to get on high ground to get an overhead shot of the crowd. The picture I took from up close ended up on page 1 – a mound of dirt over the grave of a four-month-old murder victim with a white teddy bear left by a loved one on top of the flowers.

Peter Beinart and little Khaled from Hebron – April 30, 2012

In the Anglo-Israeli media in late 2011 and early 2012, there was little you could do to avoid the words “The Crisis of Zionism” or “Peter Beinart” short of joining a monastery.

Journalist Peter Beinart’s book on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the changing views of American Jews towards Israel was unavoidable, inspiring think pieces in the Jewish media at a breakneck pace.

Much overlooked was the intro to the book, in which Beinart said the book was largely inspired by a video he saw of then five-year-old Khaled Jabari crying out for his father, who was arrested by Border Police officers during a clash in the West Bank village of Baka in August 2010.

“I wrote this book because of my grandmother, who was a Zionist, and Khaled Jaber, who could have been my son,” Beinart wrote.

In early 2012, amid all the hoopla, one thing was clear – we had to find the Jaber family. I knew no one who knew them, and began calling Israeli NGOs that work in the West Bank. One said they thought Khaled and his father Fadel lived in a village outside Hebron and gave me a cellphone number, though they said they weren’t sure it was a different father and son from another clash with Israeli forces caught on video.

That cellphone number though, led me to two Palestinian men living in a shack with their wives and kids in a vacant area across from the road leading to Kiryat Arba.

None of them spoke English or Hebrew, but I managed to piece together enough Arabic and show them the video of Khaled and the Border Patrol officers.

The two men were not related to the Jabers, but one of them knew Fadel’s father in law, who he got on the phone.

Badran, Khaled’s grandfather, was a retired sociology and geography professor at the Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron, and spoke good English. He told us to drive to a building next door to Hebron City Hall, and about a half hour later, we were sitting in the living room of the Jaber family house in Hebron when little Khaled walked in and started acting up for the camera.

As we expected, the family knew nothing about Peter Beinart or his book, and when asked about Israel, Khaled’s mother Falastin said only that the country is a European colonialist entity destined to disappear.

I later told Beinart that I found the family and how they feel about Israel, but he said it wouldn’t have changed his decision to have them in the intro as his inspiration.

I don’t think it should, but regardless the episode showed a sort of disconnect between how many Diaspora and Israeli Jews view Palestinians, and how they often set them up as players in their own internal Jewish drama without actually asking them if they want any speaking roles in the play.

More than anything else though, I remember that story because of the ingenuity it took. We had no fixer, no connections, no link to the family, we just traipsed around the West Bank, dialed a number, did pantomime with Palestinians shepherds in a shack in the middle of nowhere, and found the family we were looking for.

It felt like a triumph.

‘Daphne Tent’ and day 2 of the social justice movement of 2011

To this day her number is saved in my phone as “Daphne Tent”. I first met the leader of the 2011 social justice movements – one of the biggest protest movements in the history of Israel – on the afternoon of Friday July 15, 2011. The night before, Daphne Leef and a few friends had camped out on Rothschild Boulevard’s pedestrian walkway to protest housing prices, but I assumed it’d fizzle out with police clearing the protest tent on Saturday evening, and just saved her number as “Daphne Tent” in the meantime.

At that point she and her friends were still answering their phones, and it would be days before they were to become the most talked-about people of the summer of 2011.

By that Monday, four days after Leef set up camp, the movement had spread across the country, with tent cities in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beersheba and beyond. The movement came to define the summer, the first time in years that Israelis had come out en masse to protest social issues.

There was also a momentum driven by the media that almost all of us were guilty of. Every time a group of five or six friends set up a “protest camp” anywhere in Israel it was a story, with journalists standing around a handful of young Israelis fumbling with tents, with Leef and her inner circle of protest leaders thrust – largely against their will – into a role they were woefully unprepared for.

It was also interesting to see the disconnect between the local media – which obsessed about the movement and rightly covered it as the biggest story in the country – and the foreign press, which largely ignored what they saw as an internal Israeli matter, boring as could be because it didn’t involve the Arab-Israeli conflict.


In the end, the movement was a great success and also a failure. Standing in those crowds of 200,000 or more people in Tel Aviv at some of the largest protests in the country’s history, it was easy to be convinced that this would change things.

In hindsight, maybe we should have predicted the truth – that five years later, the cost of living, especially housing, would continue to climb, and Netanyahu would remain the unquestioned leader of the country.

From hell to [hummus] paradise

It was a perfect feel-good story in the summer of 2010 – three refugees from Darfur who’d pooled their money together to open a hummus restaurant in the center of Tel Aviv.

Hummus Gan Eden, set up by Darfur natives Hassan Abdel Malik Mohammed, Muhi Mohammed Hassan, and Adam Mohammed, was a special place opened by three men with heart-wrenching stories who’d been through hell to find redemption making hummus in a country that takes chick peas way too seriously.

The story was published when the African migrant issue was yet to become explosive, when their numbers were still relatively small (the number of illegal immigrants would go on to reach nearly 60,000). It was before it became a major wedge issue, before the increase in crime and the feeling of insecurity among the residents of southern Tel Aviv that led to the riots of May 2012, with people smashing African-owned storefronts and attacking dark-skinned people on the street.

I can’t think of a story that I wrote that received better, happier feedback, especially when compared to the follow-up.

In December 2011, barely a year later, Adam was killed in a car accident in South Sudan, shortly after moving back to Africa to be with his family. In the months to follow, Hummus Gan Eden would go out of business, Hassan would find himself back washing dishes at a restaurant a block away, and Muhi would be recently divorced and working in housekeeping at a hotel north of Tel Aviv.

In a country plagued by conflict and bloodshed, this story taught me how much people love a feel-good story, a redemption tale set in their city, and maybe even more – how much they love hummus.

“Mad Max” in Cairo – and the ride in from the airport

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it – a young Egyptian man standing in front of a cinderblock checkpoint lit by a bonfire, holding a bullwhip and wearing a purple and gold LSU football sweatshirt.

That man – who checked our passports and waved us on – was one of countless young men and boys manning improvised checkpoints on the way from the Cairo airport to Tahrir Square that night early in the 18-day revolution to topple Mubarak.

I lost count, but our cab must have been stopped at dozens of such checkpoints, each time with smiling young men holding BB guns, chains, bats, sticks, pretty much whatever they could get their hands on. It was without a doubt the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen and whatever I managed to accomplish covering the revolution for the Post those four days, the ride in from the airport alone made it worthwhile.

After arriving and getting out on foot, my traveling partners and I began to discover a city in the throes of a revolution, a vaguely apocalyptic feeling of watching a country on the brink, with no cops anywhere in sight. It felt intoxicatingly free, and terrifyingly dangerous.

While we were in town, Anderson Cooper of CNN would get smacked around by a mob a few feet away and later that day Mubarak supporters would storm the square in the “Battle of the Camels” as the revolution took another very bloody turn for the worst.

Fearing for our safety, we’d leave within several days, with Cairo no longer feeling like a great place to be the only three Israeli journalists in town.

It was also one of the first times I’d encountered a severe disconnect between how a global news story looked on TV and how it was on the ground. True, there were hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir Square, but even just a few blocks away you could find pockets of serenity, and further out in the suburbs life hummed along seemingly like normal. Also, while it was obvious Mubarak’s days were numbered, the narrative that the people were united to overthrow him was clearly false – he very obviously had many supporters and they weren’t all paid thugs.

Those days in Cairo were a priceless opportunity to observe a historic, global news story taking place before my very eyes. I’ll always feel fortunate I got to put my own small stamp on it, and got to experience it even if just for a moment.

The south Tel Aviv odyssey – Election Day 2013

My day started out typically enough – voting at a local high school and then going door-to-door at brothels near the bus station to see what the sex workers thought about our elected leaders.

The verdict: They may have sex for money, but the real whores are in the Knesset.

My Election Day idea for 2013 was to spend the morning traversing south Tel Aviv in neighborhoods like Hatikva and Shapira – for years strongholds of the Likud – to gauge the vibe on the street. A pass through Neve Shaanan and the Central Bus Station area would give a look at how the down-and-out are taking part in the election – if at all.

To this day it remains one of my favorite stories and best days on the job.

In and around the fleshpots and shooting galleries of the Central Bus Station there was little sympathy for Netanyahu or interest in the election, while in Hatikva and Shapira, something was changing on the ground.

Time and again at Hatikva Garden locals who for years had voted Likud said they’d changed their minds this time, with surprising levels of support shown for Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Shelly Yechimovich (Labor), and Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi). Shas stayed strong in Shapira and beyond, but elsewhere, something on the ground made it clear that Yair Lapid would be the surprise of the 2013 election, and that Bibi and the Likud would be in trouble in former strongholds like HaTikva.

In the end, the “Likud Beitenu” joint list got 31 seats, a severe drop from the 42 that Likud and Yisrael Beitenu received when they were two separate party lists in the 2009 elections. Yesh Atid would win 19 seats, leaving Yair Lapid looking as shocked as the rest of us.

The day was interesting, fun, and completely improvised. No Election Day interviews were arranged with “experts” or pollsters, but the feeling gained from people on the ground held true after the polls closed.

That article inspired me to do a similar piece on Election Day in March 2015, which I spent walking around Or Yehuda, a classic working class development town that had for years been solidly Likud. There, within minutes it became clear that the pollsters who were calling this one for Herzog and the Zionist Union were in for a rude awakening. That short trip made it obvious that with all the anger and dissatisfaction with the Likud and Bibi, in countless places across the country like Or Yehuda people will again vote for the Likud, especially when faced with the possibility that the center-left (and “the Arabs”) will take the reins of the country.

Working on that piece showed how much insight can be gained just from a short trip outside central Tel Aviv, and what can be learned when you just listen to the unheralded experts – everyday Israelis.


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