How do human rights orgs operate in the West Bank?

An interview with Zvi Yehezkeli about the documentary series ‘Double Agent’ (‘Shtula’), revealing behind the scenes of the human rights organizations operating in the West Bank.

 JOURNALIST ZVI YEHEZKELI in the documentary series ‘Shtula.’ (photo credit: Channel 13)
JOURNALIST ZVI YEHEZKELI in the documentary series ‘Shtula.’
(photo credit: Channel 13)

All the material that journalist Zvi Yehezkeli gathered for the documentary series Double Agent(Shtula in Hebrew), which just began airing on Channel 13, sat in his desk drawer for three years, until it was approved for broadcast.

“I’d gathered 3,000 hours of footage and recorded numerous interviews for which we needed legal approval in order to use them,” Yehezkeli explains. “This type of content involves a great number of individuals, and so the risk of being saddled with international lawsuits is huge. The whole process was absolutely insane. I’d never worked on such a long series before,” he says.

The series Yehezkeli created is being broadcast on TV as the security situation in the West Bank is worsening, just after the controversial gas agreement with Lebanon was signed and while protests over the wearing of the hijab in Iran are escalating.

“If you’ve spent any time with regular people who live in Iran, you’ll see that the story is different from what you hear about the Middle East,” says Yehezkeli, the Arab Affairs correspondent at Channel 13.

“They want to be like us – they admire us. They don’t care at all about Khamenei and all the complicated politics. This is a generation that grew up after the Islamic Revolution, and they want freedom. They want to be able to make money.

Zvi Yehezkeli undercover as Sheikh Abu Hamza (credit: CHANNEL 10)Zvi Yehezkeli undercover as Sheikh Abu Hamza (credit: CHANNEL 10)

“The intensity of this wave of protests has shown us how stressed out Iranians feel, and that Iran is like a powder keg that is going to explode at any moment.”

The Double Agent series follows a pro-Palestinian Swedish woman who arrives in Israel as a tourist to study architecture. One day she meets a man from the settlement town Eli, who explains the Israeli angle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to her.

“Slowly, she integrates herself into a human rights organization in the West Bank and becomes an intelligence agent for the Israelis,” Yehezkeli explains.

“After a year, she goes to a meeting with senior Hamas leaders, who reveal details to her about their fundraising apparatus, and the connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas headquarters in Europe and the human rights organizations. In other words, the human rights organizations, including BDS, are operated by Hamas personnel.

“This agent ends up uncovering a wealth of intel, including secrets that Hamas operatives told her, some of which are documented in written correspondence.

“So, we started creating a documentary series. It’s extremely complicated, since we used a lot of hidden cameras, and we also need to make sure that our agent remains safe.”

Was the agent compensated for her work?

Yes – with a cup of coffee.

Most commentators report that this wave of protests is not strong enough to bring about the demise of the current regime in Iran.

I, of course, don’t know what will happen, but there have been a number of violent waves, from the days of Ahmadinejad and continuing on until the current time. The West never backed the protesters, the US hasn’t intervened, and so hordes of people were butchered. I’ve seen photos of mass graves in Iran.

If the protests reach the political echelon and the military, perhaps something will begin to change. As far as I can see, this regime is so cruel and so ready [to employ force against the protesters] that I am truly doubtful anything will really change. The only way I can see this happening is if a large number of Revolutionary Guards defect, and currently that’s not what we’re seeing.

What about here in Israel? Is there a chance the security situation will calm down any time soon?

Do you see how white my beard is? I’ve been reporting on Palestinian affairs for 25 years. I was here when [Yasser] Arafat moved into the territories. I thought things might move forward. When I sat down with Mahmoud Abbas in his headquarters, he said to me, ‘If you would just put a stop to the occupation, we’d be like Singapore.’ Two years later, after many of his people had been hanged, I asked him, ‘When are we going to see Singapore?’ He replied that it’s been a failure for them, as well as for us.

What do you think of the maritime agreement with Lebanon?

In the Middle East, it’s never a question of what, it’s always a question of how. Any way you spin it, this agreement shows that Israel capitulated and made a decision out of fear. This agreement does nothing to create deterrence. We signed the agreement because neither Israel nor Nasrallah wants the situation to escalate into war.

You’re considered to be a correspondent who leans to the Right. Do you consider yourself in the same camp as journalists who support Netanyahu?

No, I don’t consider myself part of that camp. 

Some of my reportages have had a radical Left-leaning stance, while others have been toward the Right. I report on the Palestinians. I let them tell their own stories, with no influence from my personal opinion. 

I provide viewers with a glimpse into what the Middle East tells about itself. These messages are not always easy to hear, but they are the true reality.

By the way, the whole categorization of Right and Left is a function of people’s misreading of the Arab world. One person says, ‘Leave them alone and let us enjoy our coffee here in Tel Aviv.’ Another person says, ‘No, we cannot live with the status quo.’ Neither of them, however, really understands what’s going on. I live in this world. Until we begin to understand the Arab mentality, we will not be able to place people in a specific box.

How can we learn more about the Arabs?

First of all, by learning to speak Arabic. Enhance your knowledge base. Read books. Go to mosques. Read their poetry. Become acquainted with the issues that we journalists wrestle with every day.

I speak Arabic with my children so that they will be familiar with the language and be able to communicate with our Arab neighbors; so they won’t feel anxious when they see Al Jazeera reporting on TV.

In my opinion, every Israeli needs to watch this channel in order to better understand the other side and open up their mind. We’ve been suffering from terrorist attacks here in Israel for 150 years, and the violence is not going to stop anytime soon. Terrorist activity is constantly taking place because we allow it to. 

The fact that Israel is a democratic country, which operates in a democratic fashion, is what enables terrorist activity to continue.

So what’s the solution?

There is no solution. Islam, as a rule, cannot allow for there to be a solution to the conflict.

‘Hudna’? [truce]

Okay, now you’re getting into the meat of things. 

Excellent. If you were to say, ‘Let’s sign a long-term interim agreement, like two tribes,’ well, that would be something else. The Middle East is fundamentally a tribal society, not a region made up of states. It comprises tribes, and religion came along much later on. When a tribe makes a hudna [truce] with another, it does so from a place of strength. You need to come to your rival and say, ‘Do you need water? We’re willing to give you water, but you first need to understand who’s in charge here.’ And even if you’ve achieved a hudna, you need to remain alert every second, since there’s always the chance that your rival will disregard the conditions set out by the hudna in a creative fashion.

Since 2005, close to 10,000 Palestinians have been killed. If we had reacted the moment the first condition was broken after the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza, things would have turned out quite differently. Again, I’m referring only to the ‘how’ and not the ‘what.’ If we’d responded with serious gunfire after the first rocket fell, we would have saved thousands of Palestinians and Israelis who’ve died since then. We’re still living [as though we’re living in] Europe, while they’re living [as is normal in the] Middle East.

What have all of Israel’s prime ministers failed to understand over the years while they strived to achieve peace agreements?

We have a Western mentality. Our lives are comfortable. When I was born back in the 1970s, my parents told me that perhaps by the time I was 18 we’d no longer have to join the army. Arafat once told me, ‘Your people want to sign an agreement so that there’ll be peace and quiet. We’re signing so that you won’t be here anymore.’ Do you understand the difference? 

Politicians are always trying to find solutions. I’m talking about the essence.

YEHEZKELI, 52, has seven children and lives in the settlement Bat Ayin. He says that twice a day he goes by himself to take a dip in a natural spring and that he doesn’t have a TV at home.

Yehezkeli was born in Jerusalem to parents who had made aliyah from Iraq. In his younger days, he worked for Army Radio as its West Bank correspondent, and then for Channel 1’s Yoman magazine. In 2002, he joined Channel 10 as the head of its Arab Affairs Desk.

Before I set off for my interview with you, a friend of mine told me, ‘Yehezkeli is a Kahanist in disguise.’ What is your take on Itamar Ben-Gvir?

I don’t know him personally, but I do know that if his star is rising, then it’s a reaction to things that are happening. We had Operation Guardian of the Walls and felt a lack of security on the streets, and so in reaction the popularity of someone like Ben-Gvir has skyrocketed. If it hadn’t been him, we would have found someone else who played the same role.

We had 12 years of a right-wing government. So [when you say it’s a reaction –] a reaction to what?

The terms ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ are not relevant. There is a lack of security in our society. When a Bedouin man steals a car, or breaks into a house and rapes a Jewish girl, or when women are sexually harassed on the street in Beersheba, there is only one name for this: jihad.

So long as you don’t recognize this or call it this [jihad] and insist on calling these incidents [crimes] with a ‘criminal’ or ‘romantic’ background, you need to understand that you will pay a price for this at the ballot box. You can’t walk [the streets] in Lod and in Ramle, in Beersheba and in Jerusalem. What did you think, that this wouldn’t be taken into account at the polling station?

In response to your friend, I would say to him: ‘Behind all these smiles, you’ll find a Jew.’ Abbas wants Safed. And while we’re at it, why not give back the land of Ramat Hasharon? There are those who want it. So, perhaps you, too, are a Kahanist? I have a feeling I’ve spent more time with Arabs than your friend has.

Nowadays you’re considered an outsider in the media, but it wasn’t always that way. What brought about this change?

I’ve been working in journalism since 1998. You’re welcome to take a look at my 24 years in the media and say whatever you like. Uri Dan, Arik Sharon’s adviser, once commented that Zvi Yehezkeli planted the PLO flag in Israel because [Marwan] Barghouti was my friend. I knew him well and visited him in prison. So what do you say [to that]? I report what people said.

Were you offered a job to work at Channel 14?

No. But when Channel 20 was formed, I had a program called Masa Leili, in which we hosted guests. I received job offers from other channels but never from Channel 14.

You have said that you were surprised when people on the street in the middle of Tel Aviv wanted to take a selfie with you. Do you miss the days when you were a sex symbol?

I switched from the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] to Army Radio, which is like going from the world of shadows directly into the spotlight. I wanted to be on the front line. If I hadn’t loved basking in the adoration you get from an audience, I never would have started working in the TV industry. And then something happened: I became religious. All this glamour is foreign to my world, but that is my mission. So I do it, but less out of stardom. I don’t shake people’s hands, and I don’t go to all the mingling sessions and [social] scenes. I think the main reason the public respects me is that I stand up for my truth. 

Translated by Hannah Hochner