An Interview with Matt Rees

November 18, 2004

Matt Rees, Jerusalem bureau chief for Time Magazine, has been reporting from the Middle East for nearly a decade. His new book, Cain's Field, provides incisive perspectives into the internal conflicts faced by both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. He forces the reader to look at the pressures within both societies that act as a break on the peace making process.. Click here to read FPC's review of Cain's Field.

Of special interest to (FPC) are Rees' revelations that in June 2002, at the peak of the Intifada and Palestinian poverty, Arafat sent $2 million to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs in Gaza, while only $30,000 was allocated for the salaries of all official PA employees. Those familiar with the work of FPC and its report Managing European Taxpayers' Money: Supporting The Palestinian Arabs - A Study In Transparency will recall the speeches of Commissioner Patten and his comrades. They completely denied, and continue to deny, that the PA payroll included such terrorists.

It is also fascinating to read how the peace process is constantly placed at risk because of greed. Chairman Arafat deliberately restricted the activities of his General Intelligence services, the very body set up to protect the Oslo Accords within the Palestinian territories. Militias and violent smuggling gangs are allowed to act freely against Israelis and Palestinians in order to protect their own "territory", even at the expense of the Road Map.

FPC met with Rees before the launch of Cain's Field. The following interview will be of considerable interest to FPC members, and indeed to anyone who takes an interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

FPC: Thanks for giving us time to discuss Cain's Field and your experiences in the Middle East. Maybe we could start with where the idea for the book originated?

Matt Rees: Some years ago I went to interview Ahmed Jabril, a PLO faction leader, in Damascus. And all his answers worked forward from 1917, from when he believes the troubles began. Ironically, this is also the year when my two great uncles were in the region, assigned to Allenby's forces.

The Allied troops turned up in Jerusalem in November in summer clothing. One of the uncles had been wounded. Yet they kept going, spurred on by a feeling of unity of aim and spirit. Firstly, there was a Christian perspective. When the troops entered Jerusalem, church bells were wrung throughout Britain, celebrating the liberation of the city from the hands of the infidels. And secondly, they were pushed forward by the concept of the British Empire and its continued growth.

Since then, it struck me that everyone in the region had been "disunified" - on both sides. For example, in the revolt between 1936 and 1939, Arabs killed more of each other than they killed Zionists or British troops. And so it struck me that what I needed to do was to look again at the whole conflict.

From that, I asked the question, if I look at the internal issues, how much do they contribute to the big conflict with the other side. How much are people refusing to look at the real problems of peace-making, which exist within their own society. This is something, which ordinary citizens can affect and contribute towards.

If the other side wants to argue with each other or kill each other, and to the point where you can't negotiate with them, well, there is nothing you can do about that. But, you can deal with your own side, and hope that this will encourage along the "opposition".

FPC: So, this book is not a history of the region. Nor does it present your version of a "plan for peace". You seem to be urging the sides to look at the micro aspects and thus the hope and drive to peace will come through?

Matt Rees: Exactly. I think it is more a matter of identity than political lines on a map. It is a question of Israelis and Palestinians understanding who they really are. For example, the Palestinians need to decide what they want to be, which is not necessarily what is dictated to them by the rulers of the Orient, by left-wingers, or by the Presidents of America.

This comes through in the last chapters of each section; the Arab filmmaker and the Israeli musician struggling to create an identity within their own societies. With that aim achieved, they say to the world: "I know who I am. I am secure in myself. I can go out and meet others, without feeling threatened."

FPC: What is refreshing is the book asks each side think about themselves.

Matt Rees: This was certainly one of the aims. Arab colleagues from the world of journalism noted how it was one of the few occasions were a senior PLO official - Zakaria Baloush, the deputy chief of General Intelligence in the Gaza Strip - had dished so much dirt. (He revealed how Arafat had sidelined his activities to protect the peace process, in favour of the Al-Aksa Brigades).

What I feel is that the institutions of both sides come out badly in the book. But, the profiled individuals come out well, more-or-less whoever they are. The idea is to show them in the light in which they would like to be seen.

FPC: It appears that Hamas comes off lightly in the book; almost as a Robin Hood organization. Is that the way you see Hamas?

Matt Rees: Although I can understand why you might think that, you should know that in my articles for Time magazine I have no hesitation in calling Hamas a terrorist group.

But let's consider the story of Imad Akel, a Hamas fugitive sought by both the PA and Israelis. What I was trying to show is the perspective of a man, who believes that his role in life - right or wrong - is to go out and kill Israelis, even if it this leads to his own death.

In fact, Akel rapidly became caught in an emotional turmoil. He wanted to attack Israelis for his God, for his people, and for his country. And, at the same time, he began to realize that these bastards (the PA) killed his own brother. They are the very people who had supposedly been leading the struggle for all these years. He was perceived as a hero but he suddenly became an outlaw in his own society.

What goes on in that man's mind, when his life is suddenly threatened by his own people? He took on a new priority. He needed to sort things out on his side of the fence, before he could continue to lob Kassam rockets at his original enemy. That is one of the main themes of the book.

FPC: Israel is a pluralistic society. It practices coexistence, even though some aspects have diminished following the onslaught of the Intifada. In contrast, Palestinian society today is not able to allow for such diversity. This key difference does not come through in Cain's Field. Why not?

Matt Rees: Certainly, Palestinian society is run on the basis of some kind of dictatorship, even when its leader is struggling to survive on a life support machine thousand of miles from his home. On the Israeli side, people feel that they have some kind of a say. That means that Israelis have to be pushed further before they would take the law into their own hands, and some Israelis do not respect the law. For example, the Palestinians have not killed their own Prime Minister.

There is no absolute parallel between the two sides. But I think both societies are influenced politically by their fringes. For example, currently, the Israeli security services have increased their protection of Ariel Sharon and of the Al-Aksa mosque from Jewish extremists.

Those people who would perform those acts are mush more of a fringe, though not as much of a fringe as Israelis would like to think. For example, in the chapter on Israeli settlers, I portray that there is no great admiration of Kach (a fringe movement whose views have been described as rascist). But, many of the things, which Kach would say, are received with apathy. When does apathy become silent approval, particularly when things are very bad?

FPC: The issue of Palestinian reform has become a key theme for many overseas politicians. They frequently quote the success of Salim Fayyad, the Palestinian Finance Minister, but ignore the ineptness of all other cabinet ministers. Why is this?

Matt Rees: Fayyad was forced on Arafat and is not dependent upon him for power. Everyone else is basically Arafat's choice. This means that they have been paid off. So, no matter how bad things get, they are left with 2 basic choices; to strike out on one's own and try to make things work or to keep the money coming, including car and office. The additional aspect in the Intifada is that there are gangs wandering around who are vaguely answerable to Arafat. So the only protection you have is to be close to Arafat.

Fayyad did not come in as Arafat's guy. In fact, he started when there was particular pressure from the donor countries to get things straight.

FPC: Much has been made recently of Arafat's riches. Surely the real question is where did this money come from?

Matt Rees: I mention in Cain's Field how the Al-Aksa Brigades receive $2 million, when there is precious little money for the salaries of other PA officials. I also describe how Abu Iyad received $10million from Libya to assassinate President Sadat, although an Islamic group eventually performed the attack. And then there is the money, which the Gulf countries paid out in order that the PLO would not blow them up.

This is where I believe of the bulk of the money comes from. It's not just Gulf States saying that we want to help the Palestinian revolution. It's more that they hope that a revolution does not happen on their own plot of sand.

And Europeans countries may view this in the same way. Not wanting to be the locus of terrorism, you pay the guy off.

FPC: And how should one view the vast sums ploughed by the Europeans and Americans into UNRWA and other relief agencies?

Matt Rees: The aims of these agencies - schools, road building etc - need to be performed. Where the international community has been remiss is allowing the other money to go where its gone, military purchases and "other businesses", which the PLO has run. For example, airlines in Africa.

The UN should have turned round and said: If you want us to spend all this money, you too should put in some of your own money.

Similarly, Britain persists in treating some of these Hamas fronts, like Interpal, as charitable organizations. Hamas does not even have the "cover" of having signed the Oslo Accords.

FPC: Even today, the world does not seem to want to admit that hundreds of millions have disappeared in to the black hole of PA finances. Why is that?

Matt Rees: There are 2 things. Before the Intifada, there was very little attention paid to this. Just as there was very little attention paid to Arafat's non-performance of commitments. It is no coincidence that the donors began to have enough of both aspects by the middle of the Intifada.

As long as things seemed to be going well, despite the hiccups willfully ignored, countries wanted to be on board. They wanted to be seen to be pushing him along.

FPC: And yet the money still flows in, whether it be from Brussels, the DfID in London or from elsewhere.

Matt Rees: As I show in the third chapter, entitled "Heroic Scum", the PLO has been a fount of corruption. This is not an anti-Palestinian statement, because the Palestinians think that too. And this is part of the reason why Hamas is so well regarded.

This is a pattern of corruption in which Gulf and European governments have been complicit. And, in the typical way of events, the longer something goes on unchecked, the less inclined a government will be to fix it, even when a new party comes in to power. It is the same civil servant at large.

FPC: So what now?

Matt Rees: Right now there is an opportunity. There is pressure from the donors. And Arafat is dead. He was the man who used the money to buy people and to control people. It was a way to balance all the different interests - at least that is the most favourable cast that can describe Arafat's actions.

Now that he's gone, Abu Mazen does not have the same kind of control on the ground. He does not receive the same kind of loyalty from those wandering around carrying guns. So, he does need money. More importantly, he needs legitimacy. And the best way for him to get that appears to be through elections. That will enable him to talk to Sharon.

Having said that, there is already trouble within Fatah about accepting real elections. The argument goes that as they never had to do it before, why should they do it now?

Cain's Field by Matt Rees is published by Free Press at US$26.00. For further information, you are advised to consult

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