Palestinian journalist blasts Arafat, Arab corruption

“Arafat is a powerful symbol. But today it’s very difficult to say that he has control over what’s happening on the ground.”

Coming from an Israeli journalist, such a statement would hardly be surprising. However, these are the words of a Palestinian journalist who used to work for the Palestininian Liberation Organization newspaper.

Now a producer for NBC News, as well as a correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, The Jerusalem Post and Jerusalem Report, Khaled Abu Toameh is not afraid to criticize the Palestinian leadership.

And he says that Arafat is doing little else these days but receiving foreign visitors and Palestinian officials, in his Ramallah compound.

Abu Toameh will be in the Bay Area next week for a number of appearances. His visit is being sponsored by Bridges to Israel-Berkeley, some of whose members were impressed with Abu Toameh when they met him in Jerusalem last year.

“This is the kind of person I think this area would learn something from,” said Seymour Kessler, one of the organizers of Bridges to Israel-Berkeley. “Especially those members of the Jewish community who are neither convinced on one side or the other.”

Sounding frustrated with the Palestinian leadership, Abu Toameh said that in general, they find it “convenient to blame Israel and America and the West for their failure,” rather than looking internally at its own corruption.

“This is a recurring theme throughout the Arab world,” he said, speaking from his Jerusalem home by telephone. “It’s the same line many Arab rulers take, and this is no way to survive. Arab leaders often incite against Israel and the United States, to distract attention from the problems at home.”

Abu Toameh was born in 1963, in the West Bank city of Tulkarm. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Hebrew University, he went to work for a PLO newspaper. But after several years, he grew tired of being a mouthpiece for the PLO and began seeking work with the foreign media, specializing in Palestinian affairs.

Jews who openly criticize Israel can be accused of airing dirty laundry at best, being a traitor at worst. But for Palestinians who openly criticize the Palestinian leadership, it can be far worse.

A Palestinian journalist reporting on the Palestinian Authority means subjecting oneself to harassment, beatings, imprisonment or, in a rare case, death.

Of the death threats the 40-year-old has received , he said, “It was a joke compared to what others have been subjected to. It happened only once and it came from one source only. I didn’t feel in immediate danger.”

Compared with the rest of the Arab world, Abu Toameh said, the Palestinian Authority is a bit less restrictive. But that doesn’t mean it exercises freedom of the press; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“We have many good journalists, but unfortunately, they are unable to operate or function within the framework, within the Palestinian media, so they are forced to go in search for work with foreign media.”

Abu Toameh said that for the most part, his colleagues don’t begrudge him for writing for the Israeli media.

Some, in fact, are jealous, he said.

He writes for The Jerusalem Post not because of its politics but because it’s “an opportunity to write freely without any obstacles or restrictions … I’m trying to be an objective, independent journalist in a place where it seems almost impossible.”

He concluded, “If the Palestinian media opens and gives me and my colleagues a platform, we’d go there tomorrow morning.”

Khaled Abu Toameh will speak at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 2, at Congregation Beth El, 2301 Vine St., Berkeley, $10; at 7 p.m. Monday, May 3, at Congregation Shomrei Torah, 1717 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa, $5; and 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 5, at Peninsula Jewish Community Center, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City, $5. Information: or Jewish Community Relations Council, (415) 957-1551.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."