The extremes of the Arab world’s approach to Israel

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Journalist Ohad Hemo describes covering the World Cup in Qatar and his adventures with Iranians and Palestinians.

 OHAD HEMO: Diplomatic decisions made at the top don’t necessarily trickle down to the people. (photo credit: SARAH BEN-NUN)
OHAD HEMO: Diplomatic decisions made at the top don’t necessarily trickle down to the people.
(photo credit: SARAH BEN-NUN)

MARRAKECH – Sources in Tehran and the West Bank have in the past made contact with an Israeli journalist – at a risk to their lives – for one reason: the oppression that they experience in the societies they live in is unbearable, and they wanted the world to know.

The Israeli wasn’t just anyone, but Ohad Hemo, Channel 12’s high-profile West Bank Palestinian affairs reporter.

He told an audience of nearly 300 Israeli travel industry heads in Marrakech, Morocco, on Wednesday, of the risks, motives and dangers faced by people who do the unthinkable and reach out to an enemy journalist.

On the flip side, Hemo also described the hatred of Israel he has witnessed the past two weeks in Doha, Qatar, covering the FIFA World Cup.

The industry heads were in Marrakech for the annual conference of the Israel Association of Travel Agencies and Consultants, on hiatus for the past two years due to COVID. The first-ever conference, 27 years ago, took place in Morocco, closing a meaningful circle for folks who make their living bridging people across borders.

 FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group D - Tunisia v France - Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar - November 30, 2022 The flag of Palestine is displayed in the stands after the match. (credit: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS) FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group D - Tunisia v France - Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar - November 30, 2022 The flag of Palestine is displayed in the stands after the match. (credit: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS)

Hemo flew into Marrakech straight from Doha. He and other Israeli journalists experienced culture shock when they discovered that, despite the Abraham Accords and the warmth in ties that they appeared to reflect in Arab countries’ shifting attitude toward Israel, this was not always true of the people themselves.

“People came up to us with hate in their eyes and started on monologues. I didn’t have what to say to them; I realized I didn’t have an audience on the other side,” Hemo said.

The discourse over this dissonance was documented mainly on Twitter, where others testified to the opposite, that they were received with open arms and curiosity.

For Hemo, Qatar captured the fascinating place that Israel holds in the region: The Middle East is polarized. On the one hand, there is an obsession with Israel; its existence and success are baffling. On the other hand, what he saw in the streets was “pure hate.”

In late March, Hemo published a piece documenting life inside Tehran. The way he got the raw footage was not on his own initiative, but through an offer from an Iranian man.

When the man made contact, Hemo was immediately hesitant, aware of what the consequences would be for this man if he were found out. “I didn’t want to dirty these hands with that,” Hemo said.

After the man sent pictures of the camera, showing how small it was, and provided a sample of a day’s worth of footage walking around the bazaar of Tehran, assuming a different alias with every person he talked to, Hemo agreed.

Three months of footage later, and there was one word that was never heard: “Israel.”

When the man entered a closed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chapter at a university, Hemo told him to erase the footage and cut contact, fearing for his life.

“So why would someone actually do this?” Hemo asked. “If someone feels like they’re being listened to for the first time, they’ll talk.

“He told me the reason he did what he did was because he wanted to remove the extremist Islamic heads of Iran who are killing their own people. ‘We want to show the world how foul they are. This is for revenge,’ he told me,” said Hemo.

Iran has come under universal global scrutiny for its crackdown on protesters throughout the country following the killing of 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini after she was taken into custody by Iran’s morality police for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly in public.

Amini’s death took place on September 16. Anti-government protests, inside and out of Iran, have taken place since then, and they are not slowing down. The death toll is over 300 as of last month, according to Iran Human Rights, a nonprofit human rights organization.

Suhaib Yusuf

AROUND JUNE 2019, Suhaib Yusuf, who worked for Hamas in Turkey, boarded a plane for East Asia.

Suhaib is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yusuf Khalil, a prominent Hamas head in the West Bank. Hemo received an email one day that could pass for any spam message, but it wasn’t. It was from Suhaib, a request to meet.

So Hemo flew out.

“My first thought was, why would he do this? He’s sitting there in front of me in silence, and then finally says, ‘I hate them. I grew up in a home that was run solely by my mother because my father was in your prisons. I’m doing this for revenge on Hamas.’”

What explains this? Hemo said he thinks it’s that once Suhaib got out and was able to see Israel from a different angle, to see it all from a distance, it suddenly becomes “quite different from the thing you were raised to hate.”

In another instance, Hemo was in Ramallah in the West Bank on assignment. While there, a man pulled him aside and gave him a piece of paper with a telephone number on it. He called it later, and after getting an address, showed up in an apartment.

The man handed him a book filled with handwritten accounts and told him it was a “journal of my life.”

He then asked Hemo to pass it on to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). “He lives in Ramallah, he hates it, and he wants to work for Israel,” he recounted.

Hemo declined to pass along the notebook, saying that doing so would cross a moral and professional line he wasn’t willing to do.

These instances and dozens more that Hemo didn’t recount but said had happened to him over his career, happened before, during and after the accords.

Diplomatic decisions made at the top don’t necessarily trickle down to the people. Just look at the experiences recounted by Israelis in Qatar.

Morocco seems to be cut from a slightly different cloth in that regard. “Here, there is a different story,” Hemo said. “The Middle East I know is unpredictable, a region that doesn’t know what will be tomorrow. That’s not the story with Morocco; the ties here are uncharacteristically warm.”

Why?

Because Morocco is far away, it is not so entrenched in the delicate throes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its relations with Jews go much further back than the establishment of the State of Israel.

Scholars debate this, but the Jewish presence in Morocco dates back at least 2,000 years. It is a deep, tolerant, respectful relationship, so that, according to Hemo, when the time came to normalize ties, the decision was not merely strategic, diplomatic, regional, but also a tip of the hat to the rich, deep and ancient relationship between Jews and the Maghreb.