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Journalist Steven Erlanger: 'A Madness in Gaza'

"There is a madness in Gaza now." So says New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Steven Erlanger, who joins Terry Gross to talk about the Palestinian power struggle that's erupted recently and how the battles between the Hamas and Fatah factions are affecting life in the West Bank and Gaza.

Erlanger has reported from all over the world, serving in Moscow, Bangkok, Prague and other cities. Prior to his tenure at the Times, he wrote for The Boston Globe.


Other segments from the episode on July 18, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 18, 2007: Interview with Steven Erlanger; Review of Teddy Thompson's album "Up Front and Down Low."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Journalist Steven Erlanger on the Palestinian power
struggle between Fatah and Hamas

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"The civil war that Palestinians insisted could never happen just has," writes
my guest, Steven Erlanger. He's the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York

After forming a unity government, Hamas and Fatah fought for control in Gaza.
Hamas won. Erlanger says Gaza now looks like Somalia, broken and ravenous.
Israel and the Bush administration are trying to isolate Hamas and Gaza and
help Fatah, which is now in charge in the West Bank. We invited Erlanger to
talk with us about the divide between Palestinians, how it happened, and what
it means for the future of the Middle East. He came to his studio in
Jerusalem for our interview, which we recorded this morning.

Steve Erlanger, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In the profile that you wrote in
Sunday's New York Times Magazine, you have a sentence that starts, "There is a
madness in Gaza now." What have you seen in Gaza that you haven't seen before?

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER: Gaza's been under a lot of pressure for quite a long
time, even before, obviously, Hamas won the election in January 2006, but the
pressure's been much higher, and what we've seen is really a civil war in
Gaza, a true fight for power between Hamas and Fatah, and which has been long
dominant in the Palestinian world.

And you saw things that Palestinians never used to do to one another, and you
saw people being thrown from apartment buildings, patients in hospitals either
dragged out or shot in their hospital beds. You saw clerics being murdered.
You had kind of assassinations of the kind that you never had: people on
their knees, handcuffed, shot in the back of the head. You had a kind of
fierceness that was accelerated by a kind of madness, some of it based in
religion, some of it simply based in fear.

And you had, on the part of Hamas, a feeling that having suffered a crackdown
in 1996 at the hands of Fatah and then-alive Yasser Arafat, that this was not
going to happen to them again. But what--you had a lot of people in Gaza
shocked because Palestinians, you know, liked to say, you know, `We're
brothers and you know, we're all about the national project,' and
`Palestinians don't kill Palestinians.' But, of course, part of what we've
seen, let's say, in Iraq, is we never used to think that Muslims would blow up
other Muslims in mosques, either, which was a kind of shocking idea; or would
fire on a funeral.

And there is this kind of sweeping craziness that comes out of a long period
of broken nationalism in the Palestinian world, maybe defensive nationalism, a
sense that resistance somehow gives life meaning when you're stuck in this
place where there are very few jobs and there's not much meaning, where
justice hasn't been working, where the law authorities don't work, where the
police don't work. Where people are thrown back on these pre-modern
loyalties, which are the mosque and the family, or the clan. And kids with
guns feel proud

And then you also have in Gaza an enormously young population. Sixty percent
of the population of Gaza is under 19, and 76 percent is under 30, so you have
a lot of free-floating testosterone. You have real political struggle. You
have lots and lots of guns. And you have people who feel, certainly on the
part of Hamas, that they're acting in the name of Islam. And it's a very
potent, fiery and explosive mixture that went up.

GROSS: Would you say that the civil war, that the actual fighting part, is
over now that Hamas is clearly in control of--well, control's maybe the wrong
word, but they are the power group now...


GROSS: Gaza.

Mr. ERLANGER: Yes. I mean, the fighting has stopped, and there is a kind of
quiet now. Part of the quiet is built on fear, but people are out at night
and they're in the streets, and there's no more gun firing back and forth.
People feel much safer. Ordinary people feel much safer. People who are
affiliated with Fatah are afraid, and some of them have been arrested. There
have been reports of some people tortured in prison who may have died, at
least two people. There're some journalists who feel they're being
intimidated by Hamas. Women are nervous, though not much has happened.
Christians are nervous, though not much has happened since the first days of
the civil strife. It is safer. It's quieter. Hamas is clearly in control
and Hamas sees it as its responsibility to restore stability and law and
order. The other day the political director of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, actually
made a kind of apology for things that had happened, mistakes that had taken
place. Clearly Hamas feels some pressure.

GROSS: What is the split about between Hamas and Fatah, a split that is so
acrimonious that it led to this vicious kind of fighting?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, Hamas has been around for a very long time. I mean, as
the Muslim Brotherhood--its Palestinian branch, if you like, of the Muslim
Brotherhood which, started in Egypt. It's been around since 1928. It wasn't
political and it wasn't particularly military, but when Fatah turned to
negotiations with Israel after the Oslo accords in the early '90s and began to
set up the Palestinian Authority, Hamas objected to Oslo and it did not take
part in the Palestinian Authority and it began to work in social ways to
Islamacize the population. I mean, it really is about bringing Islam to the
Palestinians, but it also had a good sideline in fighting Israel.

And it became very good at suicide bombings and terrorist acts inside Israel,
and it began to win more support from people who felt that Oslo and Fatah were
not bringing them the state that they had been promised. In fact, Hamas'
success pulled Fatah in its direction. Arafat started his own band of thugs,
really, the al-Aqsa martyrs' brigades, who were an armed militia affiliated
with Fatah, who also got very much involved in the fight against Israel. To
the point where, in 2002, the Israelis re-invaded the West Bank and took it
over. They decided not to do that in Gaza because suicide bombings weren't
coming from Gaza. Gaza was pretty separated from Israel. Some in Israel
wished they had done it then, but they did not.

So you have an occupied West Bank, which keeps Hamas under control. But in
Gaza, where the Israelis pulled out their troops and settlers two years ago,
it really opened up the field for Hamas.

And the fight is really over the nature of Palestine and what the future's
going to be. Fatah is a secular nationalist movement. It came out of kind of
left-wing terror days, on the one hand, and Arab nationalism on the other
hand, and it is secular. It did finally agree that Israel had a right to
exist, and supported a two-state solution.

But Hamas has a religious orientation, and its charter, which can be quite
shocking to read. Its charter does not recognize Israel's right to exist. It
sees all of British mandate Palestine as Islamic land given to the
Palestinians, the Arabs by Allah, and no Muslim is allowed to sell any of it
or give any of it away. So the Hamas line has been, `We will fight Israel
until it disappears, because the land was given to us by Allah.' Now, there
are others in Hamas who say, `This isn't practical, and we really want to, you
know, have a Palestinian state and its 1967 boundary lines, and we recognize
Israel exists, even though we won't admit it has the right to be there. We
recognize the reality of it.' But the Palestine that Hamas sees is not at all
the Palestine that Fatah sees, and this is really the source of the fight.
It's not just politics. It's about ideology and religion and a notion of
what, actually, God would find acceptable.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
Times. He'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Erlanger. He's the
Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.

In Sunday's New York Time Magazine, you profiled Khaled Abu Hilal, who's a
former member of Fatah in Gaza, but he's now in Hamas. Why did you profile
him? What does he represent in the split between Fatah and Hamas?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, Abu Hilal struck me--his journey struck me as Gaza's
journey. It was a way to explain how Gaza had started in one place and ended
up where it is now, in the hands of Hamas. He was born in Gaza of a refugee
family and grew up in a refugee camp, and at 16, just before he was 16, he
threw a bomb at an Israeli Jeep, and he spent the next 11 years in Israeli
jails. He was in six of them. He joined Fatah and became radicalized.

And when he came out, though he opposed Oslo because he didn't trust Israel,
he did go to work for Arafat, but became very disaffected with what he felt
were the padded bureaucrats of Fatah who'd given into Israel and into all of
the West's blandishments and had forgotten their real aim, which was to fight
and win an independent Palestinian state. So when Hamas won the elections, he
actually went to go to work for Hamas, and he helped them build their parallel
police force called the executive force, and he was an important part of the
Hamas victory in June. He believes that he has left a Fatah that's corrupted,
that has lost touch with the Palestinian people, and he thinks Hamas is on the
right track.

GROSS: You asked Hilal how he justifies Palestinians fighting each other.
What did he tell you?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, he considers it this, you know, they spend a lot of time
in prison studying a form of political science, and he's a little self-taught,
but in his eyes this was the necessary price for freedom, that you have a very
angry young generation of Palestinians with nowhere to go and nothing to look
at, and who are dealing with Israeli incursions and their rage. And he
regards their rage, and even their sacrifice, as a necessary fuel for the
revolution in Palestinian thinking that has to come.

He, because he comes from Fatah, he believes in a two-state solution, but he
believes that Israel will only negotiate a fair solution with a Palestinian
movement that it has come to respect, with an enemy. I mean, he says you make
peace with enemies, not with friends, and `They don't respect us. Oslo was
the work of traitors. It didn't bring us peace. It brought us subjugation.'
So he's trying to pull Fatah back to the pre-Oslo days, but, of course, for
the rest of the world, that was a Fatah that carried out airplane hijackings
and murders and killings. He's talking about a fighting Fatah, but it's a
fighting Fatah in alliance with Hamas.

GROSS: But again, how does he justify Palestinians killing each other?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, he says it's a great tragedy. It's not that he
necessarily justifies it, but he sees it as the inevitable price of an
occupied people coming to understand its real interests and its real
historical necessities.

GROSS: What kind of relationship do you have with Hilal? How long have you
been talking with him and how has that helped you, like, understand his

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I've been talking to him, really, since about February
of 2006, which is just after Hamas won this election and set up its government
in Gaza and in the West Bank, and he had gone to work for the tough Hamas
Interior minister, Sa'id Siyam, and I started to talk to him. Now, he speaks
fluent Hebrew, which he learned in prison, and at first, you know, he was a
spokesman, and we would talk about what was going on. But as I got to know
him better I realized there was really a brain working there and I began to
think of a profile of him, so I began to spend more time with him and ask him
much more searching questions. And then, as he became more prominent, it
seemed to me that this was someone worth focusing on as a kind of metaphor,
really, for what was going on. I mean, I've had seven interviews with him, I
think, in the last year or so.

GROSS: You wrote that Hilal, if he lives, presents the first major internal
challenge to the Fatah establishment.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's true. Because he has set up this kind of
separate Fatah in Gaza, which he's called Fatah...(unintelligible)...Yasser,
Fatah named after Yasser Arafat, and it's a break-away faction. And I said
`if he lives' because there are a lot of people who do consider him a quisling
and in the pay of Hamas and really want him dead. I mean, while he says he's
still part of Fatah, Fatah says they've excommunicated him--it's always in
religious terms--and that he's, you know, left Fatah long ago. But he
represents, to me, the first open challenge to Fatah. I mean, most people
feel, even in the West Bank, Fatah has lost its way and is almost inevitably
going to split in some fashion, certainly generationally if not ideologically,
and this may be the beginning of the real splitting of Fatah.

GROSS: How difficult is it for you to get to Gaza now to interview Hilal or
see what's happening there? What's it like trying to get there now?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's easier now they're not shooting each other, so
you're not caught in the crossfire. And it's gotten a little easier now
because Hamas has stopped firing so many rockets toward Israel, so Israel has
stopped retaliating quite so hard from the air. There's a period of
wait-and-see. So the streets are safer. So now you can go--you go from
Israel into Gaza. The problem is there's no coordination on either side,
because the people that used to man the border were Fatah and they all
disappeared, and Israel won't deal with Hamas. So part of the problem is once
you're in Gaza, it now feels safer because my friend and colleague Alan
Johnston was finally released from his extraordinary kidnapped captivity.
You're still worried about it. The American consulate that governs
Palestine's affairs tell us not to go. It's very dangerous. But we do go.

The problem is, sometimes, coming back, because you're walking up to the Eraz
checkpoint--which Israel keeps a great eye on--and there's nobody really to
talk to. I mean, the last time, which is not very long ago, that I came back,
you faced this big cement wall and this big pipe, and somebody yells at you,
`Go back!' And you say, `No!' And then they say, `Go back, go back!' and you
say you're a journalist. And they say, `Go back!' So you start making phone
calls and finally reach someone who will send someone out to come get you.

GROSS: You know, you said that Gaza now is more cut off than ever because
Hamas is in control and Israel won't recognize the Hamas government. So what
does that mean for the people living there?

Mr. ERLANGER: It's very, very difficult. It's a very important point,
because the main goods crossing between Israel and Gaza is something called
the Karni crossing, and when the Israelis pulled out, everybody said, `This is
going to be the lungs of Gaza,' and a lot of money was spent on security.
Karni's now been shut since June 12th. There hasn't been a single bit of
export out of Gaza since June 12th. The imports coming into Gaza have been
really food, medicine and needed items to keep people alive. No one wants a
humanitarian crisis. But the normal economy of Gaza, which was already pretty
sick and dying, because factories can't get what they need to produce
anything, and when they do produce something, they can't export it.

The main people crossing is called Rafah, which is southern Gaza, between Gaza
and Egypt, which is sort of monitored by the EU, with Isarelis looking on
cameras. Well, Rafah's been shut since June 9th, so you have about 5,000
Palestinians trying to get back to Gaza who simply cannot. Israel wants them
all to come through Israel, through a crossing point inside Israel called
Kerem Shalom, but Hamas objects because, frankly, you know, through Rafah,
Hamas could bring in money and smuggle in, you know, money and people without
the Israelis there. The Israelis would like to stop that.

And Karni's a big problem, because it's easy for Israel to send in imports.
You know, that's not a security problem, but exports are a security problem,
and without a Palestinian agreement on the Palestinian side of a group of
people the Israelis can deal with, Karni's going to stay shut. And, frankly,
Fatah in Ramallah, which is setting up its own government with American and
Israeli support in Ramallah doesn't particularly want Karni open, either. It
wants to keep the pressure on Hamas. So Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the
Palestinian Authority, and Fatah have kind of quietly suggested to the
Egyptians and to the Israelis that it's not such a bad thing if Rafah and
Karni are kept shut. Let Hamas deal with this victory it got itself in Gaza,
which Abbas considers a coup, and suffer the consequences. So the line
between that and collective punishment for the people of Gaza is a moral
problem that is facing us.

GROSS: Steven Erlanger, speaking to us from Jerusalem. He's the Jerusalem
bureau chief for The New York Times. He'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Steven Erlanger,
Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. He's joining us from
Jerusalem. We've been talking about the civil war that broke out in Gaza
between Hamas and Fatah. Now, instead of a Palestinian coalition government,
Hamas is in control in Gaza, and Fatah runs the government in the West Bank.

Israel and the United States don't recognize Hamas. The United States
considers Hamas a terrorist group. Hamas is officially for the destruction of
Israel. So now that Hamas is no longer a part of the government in the West
Bank, Israel and the United States are recognizing the government in a way
that they didn't before. Money is being released to the government that had
been withheld. What are other ways that Israel and the United States are
dealing with this new government in the West Bank differently than they had
dealt with the Fatah-Hamas coalition government?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's probably not a good metaphor in the Mideast to use
a pig, but in a way they're kind of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's
ear. The capture of Gaza by Hamas was a disaster for American and Israeli
policy. It bifurcates the Palestinian world. Bush wanted a Palestinian state
in place by the end of his term. Well, that state is now in two parts and the
United States and Israel are clearly supporting one of them.

They hope to make the West Bank a model to pour in aid, to help Salam Fayed
and Abbas create functioning institutions, to help them create the kind of
thing Hamas promised when it won the election, which was change, reforms,
security, stability in the West Bank. Part of what Tony Blair was supposed to
do--he's the new diplomatic representative of the quartet--which is the United
States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. Part of his job
is the help the Palestinians, i.e., the West Bank non-Hamas Palestinians, to
build these institutions and prepare themselves for statehood down the road.
But part of it is also to make the West Bank into such a garden that Gaza will
somehow, you know, want to join despite Hamas or...

GROSS: This is like the people of Gaza you're talking about, because


GROSS: ...certainly isn't going to say, `Wow, we'd better just do everything
Fatah is doing.' So they're hoping that people in Gaza would say, `We want
some of what they've got so therefore we don't want the Hamas government

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's precisely right and that's one reason why they're
keeping so much pressure on Hamas by keeping the crossing shut. I mean, if
you can't have a normal economic life in Gaza, if you can't export fruits and
vegetables, if people can't work, it's not going to be a very attractive place
to live. And the idea is people will blame that on Hamas.

Now, Hamas is already kind of making gestures toward reconciliation with Fatah
and wants to talk again about a unity government and going back more towards
status quo ante but Mahmoud Abbas, for the moment, though he had decided to
have a unity government with them only a few months ago, has said, you know,
`These people, I can't work with them.' He's actually called them a murderous
gang of terrorists, which is shocking and interesting language from any
Palestinian about other Palestinians, let alone from the Palestinian
president. So for the moment he has set his face against Hamas. He seems to
have listened to the Americans and the Israelis who say to him `Hamas is your
enemy, not your friend. You can't work with them, you can't deal with them.'
And he is being helped, though he's considered a weak leader, to try to create
something better for the people of the West Bank.

GROSS: Now, if I understand correctly, part of what President Bush is trying
to do now is to define the Palestinians as the Fatah-led Palestinians. But at
the same time, Saudi Arabia, for instance, wants Fatah and Hamas to come
together again so that the Palestinians are unified. So are the Saudi
interests and President Bush's vision at odds right now?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, yes, they are. I mean, and one of the reasons is that
the Saudis believe that Hamas represents a significant portion of the
Palestinian population. And we can argue, it could be 25 percent, it could be
30 percent; on election day it was 44 percent, which was enough to give them a
win. But the feeling is you can't divide the Palestinians. There can't be a
consensus. You certainly can't negotiate a peace with Israel if you leave out
a significant portion of the Palestinian people. And that was Mahmoud Abbas'
idea, also, when he wanted to bring Hamas into politics in the first place.

Mr. Bush, whose speech seemed to have a kind of element of desperation to it,
presented Palestinian politics as the stark choice between a kind of evil
Hamas that, you know, wants to rule everything by force and won't ever
recognize Israel; and Fatah, which is somehow good. But the people of
Palestine voted against Fatah because it was hardly spotless and they were
sick of their corruption and the way they'd mismanaged things. If there were
an election tomorrow, Fatah might actually win it, but there isn't an election
tomorrow. And what one may have is a period of awkward confrontation, a split
Palestinian world, and a Gaza that sinks farther and farther into a kind of
isolated desperation. I was very struck from Bush's speech. He talked about
how Jordan and Egypt should do more to help the Palestinians in the West Bank
and Gaza, and open up their borders to trade. But of course it is exactly the
Egyptian border with Gaza right now that's completely shut.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger, the New York Times Jerusalem bureau
chief. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
Times. We've been talking about the fighting that ended the Hamas-Fatah
coalition government. Now Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah runs the government
in the West Bank. This week President Bush called for a Middle East
conference to be led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Is it possible to have a genuine peace negotiation, which would be the
ultimate goal, I imagine, of the direction the president wants to head in, if
half of the Palestinians are shut out because Gaza would not be included
because Gaza is run by Hamas?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I think it would be hard to do for that reason, but also
because Mahmoud Abbas is himself not a strong figure. He's not terribly well
respected now inside Fatah. I mean, he is the elected president of all the
Palestinians. He believes in nonviolence. He wants to negotiate a peace with
Israel, but Israel--right now, I think the Americans agree with this, frankly.
Israel believes that what Arafat couldn't say yes to, Abbas, a much weaker
figure, can't say yes to, and that negotiations could get to the point where
they would fall apart very quickly over the main issues of refugees and
Jerusalem, and could throw people back into another violent period of
intafada. In other words, the Israeli concern is negotiations that are bound
to fail with a people which is at war with itself--I mean, how can you make
peace with a people who's at war with itself?--could be riskier than not going
into negotiations.

So what Bush and the Israelis seem to have in mind, which is a ratcheting back
of expectations, is a period where the Palestinians think about this crisis
that has come upon themselves and this civil war they've had. Bush called it
a moment of clarity, and to some degree this is precisely right. Let the
Palestinians decide the future they want. Bush's idea is the West can help
them decide by making moderation attractive, and when the Palestinians have
made the right choices and created effective institutions, then they'll be
ready for statehood.

GROSS: Do you think that, in some ways, the Palestinians will be seen as
having compromised whatever power they have in peace negotiations because of
not only the lack of unity that they've shown, but the brutal fighting against
each other that happened in Gaza?

Mr. ERLANGER: The Palestinians are in despair about what they've watched
themselves do to themselves, and there are a lot of Arab countries who are in
despair about it, too, and the Saudi foreign minister was quoted one day
recently as saying the Palestinians had just about put the last nail into
their own coffin. There's a lot of fatigue.

The Palestinians--everyone wants them to have a state. The real question is,
of what size and will it be responsible? And you can, you know, justice and
fairness and history aren't, you know, aren't necessarily decisive in what
happens. But everyone believes, even it they don't care about the
Palestinians themselves, that the struggle between Israel and Palestine
poisons the atmosphere of the Middle East, and it gives the extremists and the
radical Islamists that the United States is trying to battle in different
places more justification for the fight. And the Sunni Arab states feel
they're on the wrong end of history and they're very nervous about it.
Jordan's fragile. Mubarek in Egypt is old. He's trying to get his son into
place, it seems. There's a lot at stake here. It's not just about oil. It
really is about the future of secular moderate governments throughout the
Middle East.

GROSS: What are Israel's security concerns now with a Hamas-led government on
its border in Gaza?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I think Israel is still more obsessed with Iran than any
other topic, and lately it is also quite worried about Syria, you know,
whether the Syrian discussion of war or peace is going to lead to anything.
The Palestinians are a big problem, but they're not an existential problem in
the same way. Even Hamas in Gaza, its weapons are still quite primitive.
Israel, there are people in Israel--there are always people in Israel who
think it would be a good idea to go into Gaza in a serious way and whack back
Hamas power, if only to make it harder for them to fire rockets into Israel or
to make Mahmoud Abbas' life easier on the West Bank. There are other people
in Israel who say that's counterproductive, it would be too expensive. It
would cost too many lives, and then what do we do on the fourth day? No one
in Israel wants to retake Gaza and keep it.

GROSS: This month marks the first anniversary of the start of the war between
Israel and Hezbollah, and that war really shook up Israeli politics because it
was seen as a strategic failure in many ways. Could you just give us an
overview of what you see happening in Israel politics now?

Mr. ERLANGER: Yeah. The mood is really bad. I think it's worse than it
probably needs to be, but the war was seen as a military disaster, though not
really that bad a defeat, but a political nightmare. It's destroyed the
political future of this government. It may have destroyed the political
future of the new party Kadima, which Ariel Sharon built out of the remnants
of Likud and parts of Labour, the great third way, I think, is falling apart.
If there were elections today, Likud on the right would win it, and Kadima
would probably come in a poor third place next to Labour. So it will have, in
the future, big meaning, too.

And you have a government here that's functioning, but it doesn't seem to have
much of an agenda. It has very little popular support. Nobody's quite sure
how to replace it or with what, and what the army is doing is very busily
looking at its mistakes. The air force acquitted itself pretty well, but in
terms of military intelligence and in terms of ground forces and how the army
deals with rocket fire, there's an enormous amount of self-searching. The
advantage of Israel as an open democracy which is very self-critical is that
this is the kind of process that goes on at a high level, at a high decibel
level. And they will, I think, fix most of their problems, but it was quite a
shock last summer.

GROSS: Let me get to al-Qaeda for a second. The national intelligence
estimate was released this week and it reports that al-Qaeda's leadership has
reconstituted and al-Qaeda has re-strengthened itself and is determined to
attack inside America's borders. How are you interpreting that? Like, how
does that read from where you are?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it reads that the cost of the war in Iraq is still being
counted, and you can't see the end of the page. That's what it feels like
here. I think that's what a lot of Israelis feel about it, also. It has made
the Middle East a more dangerous and fragile place and, certainly, the
Israelis are very worried if the Americans pull out of Iraq too quickly, if
Western powers seem to have been defeated in Iraq by global jihadism, it's
going to be difficult to restrain global jihadism. And this is the feeling of
Egypt and Jordan and the Gulfees and many moderate Arab states, even if they
don't want to say so aloud.

It's not such a problem in Palestine, partly because Hamas is not very
interested in al-Qaeda. It has worked to keep al-Qaeda out of the Palestinian
territories. Hamas has a sort of nationalist focus; it's interested in
Palestine. It's not terribly interested in this larger al-Qaeda agenda of
Westerners out of the Middle East. Hamas keeps saying, `Our issue is with
Israel and the state of Palestine. It's not with Americans. It's not with
Jews. It's not with anybody else.' And you can believe them or not, but
that's what they say.

GROSS: With journalists being targets for murder and for kidnapping, you
know, around the Middle East now, what are some of the precautions you have to
take? You told us a little bit more about how particularly during the
fighting, it was very difficult to get into Gaza, but in general what kind of
precautions do you have to take now when you're reporting?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, you know, we have bulletproof jackets and helmets. I
try to wear them as little as possible because I think they make you
conspicuous rather than--I mean, they sort of make you into a target. There
are too many people who sort of what to shoot at you and see what happens. I
think it's easier for me as a print journalist to try to be inconspicuous. I
travel, as I said, with Palestinians, and I sometimes will ask a third
Palestinian in addition to the driver to come and just watch the crowd while
I'm working. So if I'm working with one translator, I keep the driver in the
car and I have a third person listening to the crowd to see if anything sounds
wrong, and once in a while that person has said to me, `Let's go. It's time
to go,' and off we go. I just end what I'm doing.

I try not to advertise where I'm going. I don't make appointments very far in
advance. But, you know--and this is really a Gaza issue--but it's not Iraq.
It's not as dangerous as that. There aren't really people out to kill us, and
I hope now in Gaza there are people who don't any longer feel it's useful to
kidnap us.

GROSS: Well, Steven Erlanger, I want to thank you very much for talking with
us and, you know, be well and thank you.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Steven Erlanger is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
He spoke to us from Jerusalem. Our interview was recorded this morning.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by singer and guitarist Teddy
Thompson, featuring his versions of well-known and not so well-known country
music songs. This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Tucker on Teddy Thompson's album "Up Front and Down

Teddy Thompson has just released his third album called "Up Front and Down
Low." Teddy is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, who were a Great British
folk rock duo before going their own ways. On Teddy Thompson's new CD he
covers famous and obscure American country songs. Rock critic Ken Tucker has
a review.

(Soundbite of "The Worst Is Yet to Come")

Mr. TEDDY THOMPSON (singing) Such a little time has passed
Since you went away
Where are all these heartaches coming from?
I can't hardly stand the pain
Of missing you today
And I know the worst is yet to come

(End of soundbite)

KEN TUCKER reporting:

Teddy Thompson sings a gorgeous version of "The Worst is Yet to Come," a song
whose choice demonstrates his wide knowledge of country music. "The Worst Is
Yet to Come" was written in 1966 by Liz Anderson, whose daughter Lynn Anderson
became a bigger star than her mom in the '70s. Numerous acts, most notably
Merle Haggard, have recorded it, but few have infused it with the soulfulness
of Teddy Thompson.

(Soundbite of "My Heart Echoes")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) My heart echoes now that you're gone
My heart echoes with misery
All the times that I wasn't true, dear
My heart echoes it back to me

There's an emptiness tonight
There's a longing in my heart
For your tender, loving smile
And sweet caress
Oh, if you could only see
What your leaving did to me
You'd come back here
And fill this loneliness
My heart echoes...

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: Indeed, soulfulness is Teddy Thompson's long suit, as he also
demonstrates on that tune, a nicely baleful version of Jimmy Osborne's 1948
hit "My Heart Echoes," with typically subtle backup harmonies by Iris DeMent.

In general, Thompson approaches American country music the way many British
fans do, including his father, Richard. That is, as an offshoot of folk music
that has its roots on their side of the continent. Using mostly acoustic
instruments, he scales back the great George Jones' hit "She Thinks I Still
Care," and he turns it into what almost sounds like a solemn chamber piece,
flooding it with the emotion in his tremulous voice.

(Soundbite of "She Thinks I Still Care")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Just because I asked a friend about her
Just because I spoke her name somewhere
Just because I rang her number by mistake today
She thinks I still care
Just because...

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: Sometimes Thompson errs on the side of tastefulness. His version of
Ernest Tubbs' "Walking the Floor over You" takes an exuberant honky-tonk whirl
and reduces it to a meandering stroll. When he wants to be mopey, he fares
best with his own songs. The one original cut on the whole album, a song
called "Down Low," maintains a tone of delicately controlled despair.

(Soundbite of "Down Low")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Love, I've been thinking of you
And things I used to do
And the trouble I made
Love, you'd be better off dead
With a bullet in your head
Than to come back to me

Keep it on the down low
Don't tell everybody you know
I love you more than I should

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: Teddy Thompson, on the young side of 30, sings with the
thoughtful melancholy of an older man. That's one reason why country songs
from decades past sound so natural from him. What he adds to many of these
interpretations is a piercing simplicity and directness. He's the musical
equivalent of an arrow to the heart.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Teddy Thompson's new CD, "Up Front and Down Low."

Teddy Thompson will perform on our show tomorrow.
(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Well, I guess I must have had a change of heart
You don't treat me like you did at the start
Your campaign of love was quite a work of art
Now I guess I must have had a change of heart

Guess I took too much for granted...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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