According to Ronen Bergman's new book, it's a miracle I'm still alive. Here’s my recollection of the fateful day I met the PLO leader in Beirut and lived to tell the tale
Israeli journalist Uri Avnery meets with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut, Lebanon, July, 1982. Photo Anat Saragusti
Having read Ronen Bergman’s report that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon didn’t care if I were killed in an assassination attempt on Yasser Arafat, I’m grateful for the precautions the PLO chief took.
According to Bergman’s revelations, it’s a miracle I’m still alive.
Bergman is a journalist who has specialized in covering Israel’s secret services, and he has obtained a lot of information from them. Now his book “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” has been published in the United States. Excerpts appeared in the New York Times.
One revelation in the book concerns my meeting with Arafat in July, 1982 in besieged Beirut during the first Lebanon war, when Ariel Sharon was defense minister. Sharon had a pathological hatred for Arafat. Bergman recounts that the Mossad learned that I was going to meet with Arafat, and its people secretly shadowed me to find him and kill him. Sharon didn’t care if I would also be killed in the course of this action. To him, that would have been a small price to pay.
When a war breaks out, I feel a powerful impulse to get close to the front and see it for myself. That is what happened in the Yom Kippur War, when I chased after “Arik” [Sharon] all the way to the Suez Canal, and it was the same this time around as well. The Israel-Lebanon border was sealed, but I still managed to cross it several times and get as far as Sidon in my own vehicle.
This time I received an official invitation. The Israel Defense Forces had taken the eastern, Christian section of Beirut, trapping the PLO forces in Muslim West Beirut. The IDF Spokesperson Unit set up shop in the Ba’abda neighborhood in south Beirut, and invited the editors of Israeli newspapers to come on an organized visit. As editor of [the weekly news magazine] Ha’Olam Hazeh, I was invited too. I suggested that two other members of the staff, photographer Anat Saragusti and reporter Sarit Yishai, join me. We drove up in my car.
When we arrived at the IDF Spokesperson’s office in Beirut, some other guests were waiting for us, including foreign journalists who were permanently stationed in Lebanon. One of them was a German television reporter who recognized my name, since articles of mine had been published in Germany. I told him I was interested in meeting with Lebanese leaders. He gave me their phone numbers, and then asked a stunning question: “Why don’t you meet with Yasser Arafat?”
He told me that it was possible to make phone calls between the two parts of Beirut, because the main phone company branch was in the western part of the city, under PLO control. He gave me the number of Arafat’s office. I hurried to my hotel room and dialed the number. An Arabic-accented voice answered. I said that I was Uri Avnery from Tel Aviv and that I would like to meet with the Ra’is. “I’ll call you in the evening,” the man answered. I was certain nothing would come of it, so I drove with the two young women journalists to Jounieh, the port city north of Beirut, which was in Christian hands. We returned to Beirut late at night, slightly tipsy, and I sank into a deep sleep.
Suddenly the phone rang. “You want to speak Hebrew or English?” a familiar voice asked. It was Imad Shakour from [the Arab Israeli town of] Sakhnin, who had once worked for the Arabic edition of Ha’Olam Hazeh and then abruptly disappeared. Rumor had it that he’d moved to Lebanon. Turned out, he’d become Arafat’s adviser on Israeli affairs. “Be at the museum checkpoint at exactly 10:00 tomorrow,” he said. “A man named Ahmed will be waiting for you there.”
I raced to the room of the two women journalists and suggested that they join me. I told them it could be a little dangerous. Anat leapt at the chance right away. Sarit, a single mother with a young daughter, hesitated a bit, but then she also agreed to come.
An idea suddenly occurred to me. I rang the German journalist and proposed that he accompany us too. He realized it could be an international scoop and immediately said yes. And so we set out the next day – three Israelis and the German television crew – to go to the checkpoint. That day there was a lull in the fighting. There was a terrible traffic jam and we crept along very slowly. First we passed an inspection by IDF soldiers, who took me for a German. Then came the inspections by the Lebanese army and the Christian Phalangist forces. It didn’t occur to anyone that we were Israelis. And then we came to a tall mound of sand. PLO fighters were climbing on it. Their appearance reminded me very much of the Palmahniks of ’48 – unkempt, bearded, in scraggly uniforms.
Ahmed turned out to be none other than an old acquaintance of mine, the deputy of Issam Sartawi, Arafat’s envoy in Paris, with whom I’d previously met over the years. He ushered the three of us into Arafat’s armored Mercedes. We were also joined by Arafat’s chief bodyguard.
The route to the meeting place was a bit odd – we drove in crazy zigzags, back and forth, right and left. I presumed that Arafat had instructed that they take careful measures to ensure I wouldn’t be able to recall the way. I knew, of course, that West Beirut was full of Christian Phalangist agents who wanted to kill him. It never occurred to me that we were being tracked from the air. The account that the Mossad people gave Bergman seems a bit suspect to me. As I said, I myself didn’t know about the meeting until less than 24 hours beforehand.
The meeting did not take place at an official PLO site, but in the private home of the Shakour family, in an ordinary apartment building. It lasted about two hours and dealt entirely with the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. It was the first time Arafat had met with an Israeli, and from this perspective, it could be called a “historic meeting.” The date was July 3, 1982. I recorded every word, and the German crew was invited to film the last 10 minutes.
After the meeting, we walked around in West Beirut. At the request of Sarit Yishai, and with Arafat’s permission, we met with the Israeli POW who was being held by the PLO. We also visited a hospital.
In the evening, we returned to the Israeli border, after taking from the Germans a copy of their recording (which was broadcast that same night on Israeli television). On the way to the northern Israeli border town of Rosh Hanikra we heard on Israel Radio that Arafat’s office had made an official announcement about our meeting. We wondered if we’d be arrested at the border. That didn’t happen (though the government later decided to instruct the attorney general to examine whether I could be charged). The police took a deposition from me, but then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir concluded that I hadn’t broken any law. At the time, there was no law barring Israelis from meeting with PLO members, and the law forbidding entry to an enemy country didn’t apply to us, since we’d crossed the border at the invitation of the IDF.
Ha’Olam Hazeh published the conversation word for word, and excerpts were printed in some of the world’s most important newspapers.
Reading Bergman’s revelations, I’m very glad now about all the precautions that Arafat took.
I returned to Beirut to witness the PLO forces’ departure from the city. I lay on a rooftop at the port when the convoy of trucks passed by below, carrying the Palestinian fighters to the ships. I tried hard to catch a glimpse of Arafat, but he was surrounded by his men who blocked any view of him. I don’t believe the Mossad was able to film him.
In subsequent years, I met with Arafat numerous times, at first in Tunis and later on in Israel. Twice, members of Gush Shalom, including my wife Rachel and myself, went to stay in the Muqata (Arafat’s headquarters) in Ramallah as “human shields.” Once, Sharon publicly claimed that he couldn’t have killed Arafat at those times because we were there. Given Bergman’s revelations, that obviously wasn’t what hindered him. It was the Americans’ objections that held him back.
The Americans were insistent that Arafat could not be killed in any way that would cast suspicion on Israel. And indeed, Arafat did die mysteriously, and to this day it is unclear how he died and who is responsible for his death. Even Ronen Bergman doesn’t know.