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Interview with Yoram Binur

In an exclusive interview Israeli journalist Yoram Binur shared with RT his experience of living among Palestinians disguised as an Arab.

Yoram Binur: I got the idea to write my book after being a correspondent in the territories for about three years. Things got to the stage that I used to go to my editor and bring him, like, ten stories every week. And he’d tell me – Yoram, rest, go. All I need is one story. We can’t make the whole newspaper only Arab news.

RT: How did you become an Arab, did you change the way you look, the way you dress?

Y.B.: Very easily. Arabs don’t look different than Jews. I avoided wearing these glasses. Not to wear shorts which is unaccepted in the Eastern societies, Eastern cultures. Take a big newspaper under your armpit. No big deal. Smoke Arab cigarettes. In the days when I was posing in the Israeli part, I would emphasize it more by carrying this plastic basket, wearing old clothes – like torn trousers and a white shirt that I stole from my father and a t-cap from the days of the British mandate in Palestine. And, of course, you talk Hebrew, very broken Hebrew in a strong Arabic accent, or Arabic, or English – or whatever.

RT: Were you ever afraid in Arab areas like Gaza?

Y.B.: Yeah, there was a risk. Not a risk like today, because at the time the Arabs, the Palestinians were not aware of the work of the Israeli security services. They were not aware that every third person was an informer. So, I would say that the common security, public security awareness of the simple people was not there. So, I could work.

I had a cover story. In most places that I worked, like in Gaza, I had one person who knew the secret and who would protect me from a distance, and he would hear and he would arrange things for me. But it was not totally safe, of course.

RT: Were there ever any incidents? Do you remember ever being frightened?

Y.B.: I was interrogated once in Gaza. I was invited. I told them that I am from the family of refugees, from Nablus. I have friends in Lebanon, my father lives in the United States and he has a car mechanic shop, because I am very good with mechanics, and nobody can… I tried to stick to the truth as much as I can. I am good at mechanics, so, I put it always in my story, in case I’m asked. So, they invited me for lunch. They brought a big plate with chicken and rice. And he held. I was sitting on the floor in this hot, in the refugee camp in Djebeliya, which is the biggest refugee camp in Gaza. And he held the knife and instead of cutting the chicken, he held the knife and he started looking at me. “Ah, so, you are Palestinian, eh? So, where are you from you said?” You know, like in all these tones that… And my mouth got a little bit dry. And then he asked me – well, are you praying? And he tried to go into religious stuff which is extremely difficult. I know it, but not that good. I told him that I am secular, blah-blah-blah. I gave him, I sent him a hidden message that I am like him, I am left, I am popular front. I remember I brought up the name of Josh Habbash, who is the legendary leader of the popular front. They said – ok, ok, but you sure know some chapters in Koran? And Allah helps me that I am in the chapter he wanted me to quote was the simplest one, which is the Fatihah. This is like every Muslim knows, almost every Muslim knows. So, I quoted it to him, I know this chapter, thanks God. So, I gave him the Fatihah, and then – he started to cut the chicken and not me. I think he suspected me. And I think that he was… I know that he asked about me later and later and later, he tried to investigate more. He was unsure.

RT: Did you experience anything surprising?

Y.B.: I had the rare chance to listen to Arabs speaking Arabic without hearing a Jew, an Israeli Jew, around. It’s totally different. From this entire book that I pose for 8 months – I was beaten up a little bit and I was in dangers of life, and I was here and I was there.

I saw some great things. If you ask me what’s my strongest memory. I used to work in Tel Aviv in the waiting hall. We used to sleep in the industrial building in the night. I was there working as an Arab and I worked with another three young Palestinians from Gaza. At the time, Gazans used to… Gazans built Tel Aviv, you know. Everywhere you go, you see Gazans in the restaurant, in the street. Gazans were working here. So, we used this waiting hall, you know, for doing dishes, all kind of manual jobs, hard work. And at night, since it was an industrial building, there was a small room there, where they would lock us inside. Not so much because we were prisoners, but to defend us from police, people, gangsters, whatever.

And I remember one night after very hard day of work, we went to sleep, everybody. You know, it’s not king and queen bed. You know mice, rats and cockroaches… a lot of fun. And in the darkness, they were like 15, 14, 16 years old guys, one of them – I heard the voice in the room. Totally dark small room with 4 people in it. And he said one sentence in Arabic which I will never forget. He said in Arabic …(speaks Arabic)… “With God’s blessing, a day will come, and we’ll take our revenge from them.” This one sentence. No big thing, no crying, no arresting, no police, no demonstrations. For me, it’s the strongest memory.

RT: Do you think it is representative?

Y.B.: Yes, very much, very much.

RT: Is this getting worse?

Y.B.: It is getting worse because the rivers of blood on both sides are getting wider and deeper, you know.

RT: Were you surprised by what you experienced in these months? 

Y.B.: I’ve learnt two or three lessons. One of the lessons is one people put you in a drawer. When you decide you are an Arab you can speak Yiddish, and go to the shul and pray, make it by mix but you are an Arab. People don’t change their mind, they get the impression from the first sight – and that’s it. I used to work in a shawarma place in the end. It’s kind of – you know – dirty, I don’t advise anyone who comes to Israel to eat shawarma. Read by lips. Anyway I used to make the shawarma.

Shawarma is a shish kabob, a big piece of meat which is baked on open fire, anyway it was called the Parat restaurant, and you know I was a young man and there was working there a very nice waitress, and I started you know to talk to her and …

It’s hard to be an Arab. Anyway I like animals, I like dogs and in the night dogs would come around and I would give them a lot of shawarma, especially the shawarma was not mine, and it was not any better than dog food. For a Jewish girl to go out with an Arab is a very big step, it’s very problematic, it’s a taboo. One day I was giving the dogs some shawarma, and I was carrying food, and she said: well, I did not know Arabs liked dogs. That’s it, you know. Swell sentence. So if you are an Arab, you cannot be a human. Funny. So this is one of the things. Or I had a Jewish girlfriend, she did not know that I am a Jew and one night her friends came, and they were a close circle of friends and she told them: he’s from Nablus. And I was sitting in front of a guy, and he tells me: how can we trust you? The moment we turn our backs to you you’ll stab us. You know – such a generalization, such a prejudice, such a fear.

RT: Did this experience change you as a journalist?

Y.B.: When I sit an interview and he tells me we are basically brothers – if we go to biblical times my father, your father – we are brothers, and there should be peace…I know Palestinians cannot have peace with us, they will not forgive us. It is not that I deny them – I do not deny them, I am not very judgmental about this fact – but they will not forget. They will not forget. And from the Israeli side too, you see, I don’t buy this slogan, I’ve seen things happening on the ground, and Israel has been working on the ground of the West Bank in Gaza since 1967. All the time the ground was changing. This is the struggle here. The basic struggle is that the Israelis want the soil to speak Hebrew.

RT: How did the collapse of the Soviet Union affect the Palestinian story?

Y.B.: I think the collapse of the Soviet Union mainly affected the Palestinian parties, organizations or fractions which were connected to the Soviet Union. They were fed also economically, the Palestinian Communist party which became a club, a small social club of scholars, of teachers.

They are nice people, but no political influence whatsoever, no budgets.

RT: Do you think the peace process talks that are happening now are going to achieve anything?

Y.B.: You know, another deal, not really peace. Because the Palestinians need to be an important side that somebody takes seriously. So if you don’t have a side that you have take seriously – why give them anything? You know, it’s down to pure transaction. They don’t even have the strength they had in the media, in public opinion – they destroyed it by killing young, innocent people in Tel-Aviv. They destroyed it.

RT: And how about Barack Obama?

Y.B.: He might not give the same 100% unconditional support to Israel to do everything we want in the territories. He would relate differently to the Middle East, which is connected of course.

Then things may change but I still don’t see Palestinians getting their own country, their own Palestinian State because there are also a lot of Arab interests against it – it is not just Israel who is playing and Israel is cooperating with Arab states in order to prevent this Palestinian State – to prevent a strong Palestinian State.