The One Place Where Israel and Hamas Are Communicating

By Debra Kamin

TEL AVIV—At 8 p.m. on July 12, Hamas forces in Gaza announced that in one hour they would destroy the city of Tel Aviv.

Even for a war that has played out in the bravado of hashtag campaigns, terror-group music videos, and Israeli-military propaganda memes, such a statement was unprecedented. Hamas had never issued warnings before firing missiles at Israel. So Ehud Yaari, the Israeli television journalist who is a fixture on the nation’s Channel 2 news, broke immediately from his regular coverage and reported the threat.

In the exact moment that he did, however, viewers of the Hamas-run television station Al-Aqsa TV were also watching him in Gaza. That’s because on July 12, as on so many other nights of this nearly month-long conflict between Israel and Gaza, Al-Aqsa was carrying Channel 2 live on air.

Thanks to flimsy copyright laws in the region, Israeli and Palestinian television stations routinely tap into each other’s transmissions and broadcast them to their viewers. Since Gazans and Israelis are barred from entering each other’s territories, this swap of feeds often stands in for reporters on the ground. The news broadcasts—a fun-house mirror of Israeli television showing Palestinian television showing Israeli television—sometimes offer the only window into the reality of life on the other side.

Occasionally, the voyeurism becomes even more surreal. Yaari, one of Israel’s most respected Arabists, often tries to strike up a conversation with the anchors in Gaza. Sometimes he succeeds. On July 12, however, he was rebuffed. “Can we talk?” he said in Arabic into the camera, moments after announcing the Hamas threat on Tel Aviv. In Gaza City, the anchor sneered. “There can be no dialogue between Palestinians and the Zionist occupier,” he responded in Arabic.

Despite the snub, Al-Aqsa didn’t cut away from the Israeli station. Instead, it stayed with Channel 2 as Hamas militants launched their promised barrage of rockets at Tel Aviv just after 9 p.m. But rather than conveying scenes of destruction and death, the tapped Channel 2 feed showed Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system knocking the rockets out of the sky. Minutes after air-raid sirens had blared across the city, residents were back strolling on the streets and eating at outdoor cafes. At one point in the clip, Yaari has the following exchange with a female anchor in his studio:

Female anchor: "You’re saying that they’re broadcasting us, and we’re broadcasting them. …"

Yaari: "They broadcast us all the time. … If you were to go to the beach in Gaza, everybody would recognize you."

Female anchor: "I really hope that one day we will all be able to visit Gaza."

“They were embarrassed,” says Yaari, 69. “There were no explosions in Tel Aviv. The Iron Dome did its job and they had to improvise all sorts of explanations, saying things like ‘the enemy is hiding its casualties.’ It’s tricky when you do it live, for both sides.”

During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Israel’s last incursion into Gaza, Yaari decided the time had come to reach out to his Palestinian counterparts. “I had noticed for years that sometimes they carry us live,” he notes of Al-Aqsa TV. “And I said to myself, ‘Well, I speak Arabic. The guy is there on the air, translating what I’m saying. I should call on him and engage him.’ So I did.”

Channel 2’s anchors were having a roundtable discussion inside their studios in the Jerusalem suburbs, and had Al-Aqsa TV playing live on the massive flatscreen behind their heads. Yaari, seeing his face fill the frame, directed his question to Al-Aqsa’s translator in the corner of the screen.

“You at Al-Aqsa, what do you think of our broadcast?” he asked in Hebrew.

There was a long silence, and then the translator answered—first in Arabic, and then in fluent but accented Hebrew—that he had watched Yaari for years while in an Israeli prison and always thought he was a “very good” journalist. Then he turned the question back on Yaari, asking, in a sentence blending Hebrew and Arabic, what the anchor thought about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for a ceasefire. “Hamas needs to understand that there isn’t going to be a victory for Hamas,” Yaari responded. When asked about the mood in Gaza, the translator labeled it “excellent,” adding, “The homefront is very strong.”

This time around, Yaari says, Hamas is feeling a lot less friendly. Twice during the latest conflict, which has cost the lives of nearly 2,000 Gazans and 70 Israelis, the Israeli anchor has tried to create another on-screen dialogue. Both times he has received a response, but then been shut down.

“By now,” he says, “they have issued an instruction to the anchors in the studio to not let me engage them. To not be responsive. So they tell me, ‘Yes we hear you, but we won’t talk to the enemy.’” Hopes of conversations were further dashed when Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza on July 17, and then, last week, carried out a bombing campaign on several major Hamas targets, including Al-Aqsa’s Gaza City headquarters. Its studio was badly damaged, but the channel continues to broadcast.

That doesn’t mean that communication between the two sides has been completely shut off. Behind the scenes at both news stations, Yaari explains, the reality is quite different. “I speak to Hamas all the time. And they know who I am,” he says. “They are under strict orders not to talk to us, but they do.”

Sometimes, he says, they have an agenda—Can you pass a message to the prime minister? Can you make this statement on air? Other times, however, they just feel like chatting. Either way, once the conversation is concluded and Yaari takes his seat before the camera, he knows that his sources are watching intently.

“They try to use you,” he says. “Of course they have other channels as well, but they will suggest to me, can you drop this idea to someone? And since they follow us, they know exactly what I say on air, what I took from the conversation and what my interpretation is.”

Sometimes Yaari knows what his sources are going to say to him before he even gets them on the phone. That’s because his reporting team—four Channel 2 reporters who work alongside him, plus two others who routinely monitor hundreds of Arabic-language news channels, fed into the station’s control room through a forest of satellite dishes—does journalistic work that could be mistaken for Israeli intelligence operations. They maintain a slew of computers with hidden IP addresses that can’t be traced back to Israel, and manage dozens of Arabic-language social-media profiles. They slip into chat rooms, monitor YouTube videos and Facebook feeds, and click away on smartphones in WhatsApp groups. It’s here, in the nooks and crannies of the Arabic-language Internet, that Yaari gets his most reliable information (Yaari claims that news operations across the Arab world are engaged in similar initiatives).  

When Hamas was prepping the first-ever video of Gilad Shalit, the former IDF soldier who was captured in a cross-border raid in 2006 and held in captivity for five years, Channel 2 got wind of the video days before it was due to be released to the Israeli government. “They were in the course of preparing the video. They had a raw version, without graphics, and it wasn’t ready for release,” Yaari says now. “We broke the story—it was such big news, the first video of the abducted soldier—and they were stunned … they never learned who it was.”

Yaari, for his part, regularly arrives in the Channel 2 studio with an earpiece in each ear—one in Hebrew for his producer, who speaks to him while he delivers the news, and one in Arabic, hooked up to a Palestinian station and offering a live feed that he can drop into the broadcast if he so chooses.             

Regardless of when the current conflict in Gaza subsides for good, the two sides will continue watching each other religiously. “We are playing a very dangerous game,” Yaari admits. “Whether they pick up our feed or we pick up theirs, when we do it live on air we lose control.” Nevertheless, he remains convinced that the benefits outweigh the risks.

“We have achieved the dream of any journalist, especially on air,” he says of his work at Channel 2. “Which is the ability, in times of crisis, to be instantaneous.”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/08/the-one-place-where-israel-and-hamas-are-communicating/375589/