A lighting flare, fired by Israeli forces in northwestern Gaza, is seen from Sderot, Israel, on Oct. 31. Credit: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu/Getty Images
Editor's Note: Ilene Prusher is a journalist and writer who spent two decades covering the Middle East. She teaches journalism at Florida Atlantic University, where she is MediaLab@FAU's digital director. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- We arrived at the Erez checkpoint. Israeli soldiers check our passports, examine all our luggage and let us through. After a long walk through an entrenched no-man's-land, Palestinian officials register our names and passport numbers and ask us for a list of people we plan to meet. Our Palestinian intermediary intervenes, reminds the gunmen to be nice to us foreigners, and presto: we are in Gaza. On the list of the three or four people we plan to see throughout the day is at least one senior Hamas official.
This is a routine I participated in, on and off, for 16 years of my life, as I reported on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for American media outlets in the 1990s and 2000s, until my last trip to Gaza in January 2009, at the end of another Israel-Hamas war that shocked the world and caused needless death and destruction.
Later, in 2014, I covered for TIME magazine a much deadlier war between Israel and Hamas that lasted 50 days, this time from southern Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, mainly because by then I already had two young children at home and no longer believed that risking going into Gaza was worth it.
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On almost every trip I made, and there were too many, I met with Hamas officials, as all good journalists seem to have done. Like many others, I was curious to know their point of view and, at a time when pacification was a possibility and Israel was handing over territory to the Palestinian Self-Government, I wanted to understand why they did not accept the land-for-peace agreement known as the Oslo Accords.
The Oslo process of dividing the land with Israel and creating a zone of Palestinian autonomy, and possibly a state, had been accepted, at least tepidly, by the late Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Hamas, the PLO's most important Palestinian rival, was radically opposed to peace with Israel, insisting that the only way forward was "armed resistance" to eradicate Israel. Throughout the 1990s, as the peace process was advancing, Hamas tried to disrupt it by blowing up Israeli buses and cafes.
By the early 2000s, when the peace process came to a standstill, hundreds of Israeli civilians had been killed in this way, leading to a further separation of Israeli and Palestinian societies.
The Hamas leaders and spokesmen who agreed to our interviews were rarely what one would expect from representatives of a terrorist organization. They were men who spoke English fluently, who expressed their grievances logically, and who also had higher education, usually in engineering or medicine. They presented themselves as part of a "political wing" of Hamas, which was unaware of what the more secretive military wing was planning. Often, these spokesmen insisted, they had no idea that an attack was imminent.
In general, we journalists swallowed it. Our editors wanted us to have access to this shadowy group and explain its appeal to ordinary Palestinians and, in particular, the strategic challenge it posed to Arafat. By claiming that the organization's left hand didn't know what the right was doing, Hamas easily avoided difficult questions, such as why attack civilians instead of military targets, and it behooved many of us to feel like we were taking the Palestinian pulse rather than sitting down to tea with terrorists.
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So we sipped their bitter teas, and they knew what to say. "Look, we're not happy to see Israeli civilians blown up," a spokesman told me, at a time when Hamas's worst weapon was a suicide bomber in an urban area, before insisting that such attacks were the only rational response to what they saw as Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.
When I asked them why Hamas didn't try to negotiate instead of doing that, they replied that there was no point in talking to Israel, and that Israel wasn't exactly willing to talk to Hamas either. The spokesman insisted that he not use his name with that almost empathetic quote about not being happy about killing Israelis. In hindsight, I wonder if he said it because he knew it sounded good to the Western ear.
Hamas played other games with language, presenting itself as reasonable by saying that its leaders would theoretically accept a hudna, or long-term truce, with Israel.
His words sound good, who wouldn't prefer a lasting truce to the horrific carnage and destruction we are now witnessing? But the reality was that Hamas would never sign a permanent agreement with Israel because, its leaders told me, Islam forbade it.
And then there were the blatant distortions. Prior to October 7, Hamas deceived Israel into believing that the organization was not interested in aggravating the situation and wanted to improve life in Gaza. With that idea in mind, Israel effectively eased Gaza's border crossings in late September, a week before the attack, to allow more Palestinian workers into Israel. Unfortunately, the opening to thousands of additional workers from Gaza turned Israel into an information sieve from which Hamas reportedly obtained information for its October attack.
Hamas also played to their advantage with the facts they gave to us journalists. During the first major war between Israel and Hamas from 2008 to 2009, known as Operation Cast Lead, Hamas said fewer than 50 of the 1,400 killed in Gaza had been fighters. But more than a year later, Hamas's interior minister acknowledged in an interview with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that between 600 and 700 of its fighters had been killed in that war. In that and nearly every war since, Hamas or other extremist groups in Gaza unintentionally fired rockets at their own citizens, but they rarely, if ever, acknowledged the mistake and blamed Israel for the deaths.
However, how many times did that prevent us from reporting what we were told? That dynamic was on full display last month, when many mainstream media outlets immediately repeated Hamas's claim that an Israeli airstrike had devastated a hospital and killed 500 Palestinians.
More details later emerged indicating that it was most likely Islamic Jihad, a rival organization of Hamas, that had fired an errant missile that landed at the site, and that the number of casualties was much lower.
Hospitals were once again at the center of the war when Israel surrounded Al-Shifa hospital after claiming that Hamas had operated from it. Hamas has long denied using hospitals despite evidence that it does, and did the same this time despite evidence that weapons were found at the site and tunnels have been built to allow the organization to use Al-Shifa as a base.
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Journalists may feel they have no choice but to rely on Hamas' figures and denials because there are few reporters left in Gaza and few options to independently verify anything. But many journalists could be more transparent about the lack of independent verification and provide context for how unreliable Hamas has proven to be in the past.
One thing that became clear after October 7 is that Hamas members did not seem to have experienced "any joy" over the slaughter of more than 1,200 Israelis and the kidnapping of more than 200 people. Hamas fighters laughed as they carried out the attacks, according to eyewitnesses, and filmed themselves as they gleefully razed Israeli homes.
Did Hamas change? Or were many of the media too willing to see them as something other than what they've always been?
It's probably a bit of both. Although it was founded in 1987 as a specifically Palestinian organization, there is evidence that Hamas has been influenced by the style and brutality of global jihadist groups in general, and ISIS in particular. Even so, Hamas has continued to focus on "the Zionist entity," not on the United States, other Western targets, or other religions per se. And to the extent that there was once a political wing that might have had different aspirations, October 7 left no doubt that the military wing is now the center of Hamas's power and strategy.
It's not that most of the media portrayed Hamas as innocent or moderate. But for years, too many of us treated the group more like an opposition party with occasional violent outbursts than a terrorist organization. In fact, while interning at Reuters early in my career in the mid-1990s, I learned that we should never call Hamas or Islamic Jihad terrorists, but militants. A number of media outlets maintain this policy, even in the midst of the October 7 massacre, which clearly fits the definition of terror as a deadly attack on civilians for ideological purposes.
Journalists working in conflict zones too often do not bend their arms to appear neutral, or perhaps to make sure they are on the friendly side of the combatants in charge. Many of the questions that now resonate in my head don't have an easy answer, but I can say that the ultimate goal for many of us in the media was to ensure continued access to the big story, not to consider whether the people we were dealing with were good actors or reliable sources. While it is important for readers and viewers to hear both Palestinian and Israeli voices, treating Hamas as if it were a legitimate government was perhaps the worst thing about falling into a false balance bias.
In 2014, a German journalist was harshly criticized for infiltrating ISIS for a documentary. Trying to explain such a despicable group of killers was beyond reason, critics said. Weren't there actors whose behavior was so egregious that they didn't deserve a platform, or even a quote, which would give them some legitimacy?
Is this the approach we should have taken with Hamas, or should we take in the future? In an ideal world, yes, but in this dystopian world we are witnessing, it may be too much to expect. In the meantime, if journalists continue to interview Hamas members, we should report their words more critically and not take their comments without question. We need to provide context that points out how unverifiable their information is and how poor their track record of accuracy has been. And we must not stop asking ourselves if our interviews give them too much legitimacy and give them more of a platform than they deserve.
Israel Hamas War