In the Age of Geraldo, it seems almost an anomaly that a rumpled, 56-year-old professorial British-newspaper foreign correspondent could draw a string of standing-room-only throngs to American university auditoriums. But thats exactly what the London Independents Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk has been doing from Chicago to Los Angeles, generating an often rock star--like reception (a crowd of 900 saw him last week in Cedar Falls, Iowa!). Though hes rarely published in the United States (except for occasional short pieces in The Nation), Fisk has built a loyal following that pores over his every word via the Internet with almost cultlike devotion. Fisk, who has covered the region for 26 years, is considered by many to be simply the best and most knowledgeable correspondent currently working in the Middle East.
But Fisk also has his detractors: critics who allege that he is knee-jerk anti-American and anti-Israeli, a patsy for Yasser Arafat.
But any in-depth discussion with Fisk reveals a thoughtful man, immersed in Middle Eastern history, tempered by decades of reporting and ready to argue in ways guaranteed to rankle true believers on any side of the conflict. The L.A. Weeklys Marc Cooper interviewed Fisk on Sunday at the home of the Independents Los Angeles correspondent.
L.A. WEEKLY: In your public speeches, you have been suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might turn into something as apocalyptic as the French-Algerian war of four decades ago -- a horrendous war that took well over a million lives. Are things that dark?
ROBERT FISK: I think we already have reached those depths. If you go back and read the narrative history of the Algerian war, youll see it began with isolated acts of sabotage, a few killings of French settlers, followed invariably by large-scale retaliation by the French authorities at which point, starting in the 60s, the Algerians began a campaign against French citizens in Algiers and Oran with bombs in cinemas and discotheques, which today translates into pizzerias and nightclubs in Israel. The French government kept saying it was fighting a war on terrorism, and the French army went in and erased whole Algerian villages. Torture became institutionalized, as it has by the Israeli authorities. Collaborators were killed by Algerian fighters, just as Arafat does so brazenly now. At the end of the day, life became insupportable for both sides.
At Christmas, Ariel Sharon called French President Chirac and actually said, We are like you in Algeria, but we will stay.
And its quite revealing that Arafat himself keeps referring to the peace of the brave. Whether he knows it or not, thats the phrase De Gaulle used when he found it necessary to give up Algeria.For those who have watched this conflict over the years, it sometimes seems confounding what Ariel Sharon is thinking strategically. If one accepts the common view that Arafat has been a reliable and often compliant partner with the Israelis, what does Sharon think he has to gain by undermining him and opening the door to the more radical groups like Hamas?
Remember that when Arafat was still regarded as a superterrorist, before he became a superstatesman -- of course hes reverting back now to superterrorist -- remember that the Israelis encouraged the Hamas to build mosques and social institutions in Gaza. Hamas and the Israelis had very close relations when the PLO was still in exile in Tunisia. I can remember being in southern Lebanon in 1993 reporting on the Hamas, and one of their militants offered me Shimon Peres home phone number. Thats how close the relations were! So lets remember that the Israelis do have direct contact with those they label even more terrorist than Arafat.
In the cowboy version of events, they both hate each other. In the real world, they maintain contact when they want to.
As to Sharon, I was speaking with [former Palestinian official] Hanan Ashrawi last week, and she made the very good point that Sharon never thinks through the ramifications of what hes going to do, beyond next week or the week after. Thats what we are seeing now.
In that regard, Sharon has many parallels with Arafat. When I had the miserable task of living under Arafats awful regime in Beirut for six years, you could see that Arafat also would get up in the morning and not have a clue as to what he would be doing three hours later.
But back to Sharon. One thing he knows is that he is opposed to the Oslo [peace] accords; he doesnt want it. Hes systematically destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. Its interesting to note that the European Union is now pointing out to the Israelis that $17 million of our taxpayers money, investment in the West Bank infrastructure as part of the American peace plan, has been bombed and smashed to pieces by the Israeli military.