When journalists have the much sought after opportunity to interview the heads of states and organisations with appalling human rights records the very least we expect is to see such people given a thorough cross-examining. What we don’t expect is for heads of terrorist organisations to be provided with a platform from which to give the equivalent of a party political broadcast and to get away with it virtually unchallenged. And yet that is precisely what we got when the BBC’s Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen recently interviewed Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas.
Hamas leader Meshaal warns of Israeli 'extremism' after elections, reads the baffling headline that accompanies Bowen’s interview. Think what you like of Israel’s Netanyahu, but it is a little much to hear the head of a violent Islamist organisation making allegations about other people’s extremism. Rich indeed to have Hamas complaining about the outcome of the Israeli elections when, since Hamas seized control of Gaza back in 2007, not only have the militants never held any elections of their own, they have quite systematically murdered and driven out most of their opposition in Gaza.
Still, Meshaal clearly wanted the message of Hamas’s supposed moderation to be the main takeaway from the interview, and Bowen didn’t get in his way. Along with comparing himself to Nelson Mandela and George Washington — unchallenged of course — Meshaal was also eager to register his opposition to Isis.
But that hardly makes Hamas moderate. Al-Qaeda has opposed Isis. Hezbollah and Iran’s Ayatollahs have all been waging the most almighty war against Isis. None of these people are moderates. Yet the closest that Bowen came to challenging Meshaal on this was to remark that there are plenty of people who would 'laugh' at the notion that Hamas is moderate.
In his accompanying analysis Bowen suggests that Hamas would accept Palestinian statehood along the 1967 lines, which he argues puts them in agreement with recent statements from the White House chief of staff.
That of course is to ignore everything else that Hamas actually says and does. Not least the fact that Hamas has made clear that accepting the ’67 lines would only ever be part of a temporary truce along the way to achieving the wider goal of obliterating Israel. This, and not the improvement of life for the Palestinian people, is the core objective of the Hamas charter; a document that calls for the killing of all Jews and that states plainly 'There is no negotiated settlement possible. Jihad is the only answer'.
While Bowen insinuates that there is no daylight between the White House and Hamas positions, it is worth keeping in mind that the White House has not been rebuilding Gaza’s offensive tunnel systems, nor training Palestinian adolescents in some eighteen new terror training camps, nor test firing long-range rockets into the Mediterranean. But in recent weeks Hamas has been doing all of those things.
We’ve seen Bowen doing this kind of thing before. During last summer’s war in Gaza he went as far as to write in the New Statesman 'I saw no evidence of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields.' Perhaps he didn’t. But plenty of other journalists documented the firing of rockets from built-up civilian areas at the time. Worse still, UNRWA found that several of its humanitarian facilities had been used by militants for the storing of munitions, while more recently Amnesty International documented the launching of attacks close to sites where civilians were taking refuge. Hamas’s use of civilian shields was widely known about at the time, and regardless of what Bowen himself saw, why use words that cast doubt on all these other reports?
We might have expected to see Meshaal questioned about some of this in the interview. At the very least we should have seen him asked about Hamas’s treatment of Palestinians and the brutal public execution of Gazans alleged to be Israeli collaborators. Because letting Hamas off the hook does nothing to help the people who live under its fanatical rule. The only people it can possibly help are those who wish to harm Israelis.
Tom Wilson is Resident Associate Fellow at the Centre for the New Middle East at The Henry Jackson Society