- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

Palestinian elections

It’s always nice for a journalist when news breaks right under his nose.

Managing Editor Fran Coombs and Deputy Foreign Editor Willis Witter were more interested in educating themselves than in filing news stories during a visit to Israel and the West Bank last week.

Their travels had taken them to the office of Sheik Hassan Yousef, the leader of Hamas in the West Bank, who had been turning on the charm while gently teasing them, telling them, “Now you can tell everyone you have met with a terrorist.”

A cell phone rang and Mr. Yousef took the call. After speaking into the phone in Arabic for a while, he hung up and explained to his guests what had transpired: Mr. Yousef’s Hamas counterpart in Lebanon had called to say he had been approached by Palestinian Authority (PA) officials wanting to know how Hamas would react if scheduled Palestinian parliamentary elections were postponed.

Mr. Coombs and Mr. Witter immediately appreciated the news value. A day earlier they had interviewed Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who had told them he suspected such a move was in the works.

The journalists had three more meetings scheduled that day with leading officials in the PA and the Fatah party that controls it; at each stop they asked about a postponement and were told it was likely.

“It looks like [the elections] will be delayed,” said former Cabinet minister Qadura Fares, who represents Ramallah in the Palestinian parliament. “By the next week or the week after the final word will be out.”

The result was a world exclusive story matched only by the Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds, prompting wire agency pickups. Not bad for a pair of editors on their first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

First impressions

It was the second week in the region for the two editors, who were accompanied by Deputy Editorial Page Editor Deborah Simmons. They had spent the first week in Egypt, getting a firsthand look at that country’s tentative steps toward greater democracy, and were seeking a better understanding of a place that dominates our international news coverage like no other.

Joshua Mitnick, the outstanding freelance correspondent who has covered Israeli-Palestinian issues for us for the past three years, made the West Bank interviews possible by putting us in touch with a driver and translator/guide who took care of the rest.

“We just picked up the fixer at her apartment in the West Bank and went from appointment to appointment,” Mr. Witter said. “There were nice parts, and there were parts that were run down with scruffy vacant lots, so we knew we were no longer in Israel.

“We met a deputy minister whose office overlooks Israel’s West Bank military headquarters. During the worst of the intifada (uprising), crowds of kids throwing stones would approach the soldiers every Friday, week after week, and the soldiers would shoot back. They figure 30 kids were killed at that site.”

Mr. Witter was pleasantly surprised to find that even in Ramallah he was able to withdraw cash from an automated teller machine. Currency was available either in Israeli shekels or Jordanian dinars.

Mr. Coombs, for his part, was struck by the ironies that cannot be avoided by any first-time visitor to the region — such as a senior figure in a terrorist organization like Hamas who expresses a genuine affection for the copious house plants that adorn his office.

He was also pleased to find that many Palestinians look to the United States as a potential ally rather than an enemy, and are less likely than some other Arabs to believe cockeyed conspiracy theories — such as that the United States engineered the attack on the World Trade Center towers.

“I was really impressed with the sincerity of these guys, both the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Mr. Coombs said.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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