You may ask why journalists want to go to war zones and front lines. Odd Karsten Tveit is one of them: “I came to the Middle East for the first time in 1975 from desk work in the NRK. There was a war in Libanon. Others, who had children and families didn’t want to ruin their summer. I was actually an economist, and an expert on North Sea oil, but that wasn’t exciting enough, so I transferred to foreign news. I’m very curious, I want to travel and experience things. It’s not that I get high from wars or seek out dangerous situations. But as a reporter, you have to be close to what is happening, and I travelled to the frontlines with the photographers. I didn’t sit in a bar or an editorial office, using press releases from Reuters and AP. At the same time, I used the Norwegian Mountain Code – I talked to locals, checked the weather forecast, and knew that it would be wrong to turn back”, says Tveit.
His colleague Robert Fisk writes about Tveit in Pity the Nation. Libanon at War (1990) that he had “an insatiable appetite to see for himself what was happening in the Libanon war. He went to the battles.” Fisk was constantly surprised that Tveit wasn’t killed out there, and considered him a survivor. Fisk’s rule was to be around people like this. “Robert Fisk is a good writer, but sometimes he exaggerates a little bit”, says Tveit. ”I was a correspondent who wanted to come back alive. The news don’t come to you, you have to go out and find them. We travelled together, and we were both afraid for our lives. He is one of the best correspondents I know.”
In his recent book De Skyldige, NRK-correspondent Odd Karsten Tveit discusses the role of the military, the diplomats and the intelligence agents in the conflicts in the Middle East, but also Norway’s involvement in the region. According to him, “things are never what they seem”. The book is over 1100 pages long, and covers several decades: from the 60-day war in 1967 to the Lillehammer assassination in 1973, the Libanon war, the first intifada in the 1980s and up to our own time.
Most people at that time stayed in the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, a hotel Tveit describes for Modern Times: “The Commodore became the journalist hotel in the heart of West Beirut. Shots were fired at the hotel and car bombs went off outside it. The bar in the hotel became the place where gang leaders, spies, journalists, military personnel and diplomats hung out. There was a fantastic atmosphere. Later, I learned that many of them were spies for the CIA. For instance, Yassir Arafat’s closest intelligence adviser, Abu Hassan Salame.”
Fisk also describes this circle of journalists as a place where they shared experiences. Tveit comments: “Yes, you shared things with people you trusted, and who had seen something rather than those who based themselves on rumours. We were constantly being tricked and lied to by people in positions of power. Today, I think about Nietzsche, he wrote that men of power never tell the truth, but rather stories which suit them – even if it’s a lie or a half-truth.”
There are a lot of liars in De skyldige. “This concerns everyone. You can’t trust them. A Jewish-American journalist who was undercover in Palestine already in 1948, once said to me: ‘Always double-check the story. If your mother says that she loves you, double-check that as well.’”
“Yes, I’m disillusioned about the Middle East. But my job is to report, and hopefully, to be a good writer. De skyldige will not be my last book.”
Sabra and Shatila. Tveit followed the invasion of Libanon in 1982 and the following war. He was also one of the few to report from the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, along with Robert Fisk. Fisk describes how Tveit “counted the bodies and reported, void of emotion”.
“I went in with Robert Fisk from The Times, Loren Jenkings from the Washington Post and AP-photographer Bill Foley. That’s when we saw the bodies”, says Tveit. “We tried to act calmly and sensibly. I had a clear head, and reported into my audio recorder. But my body reacted. I threw up all the time. I tried to count how many bodies I saw, because I knew there would be questions later about whether we were telling the truth or exaggerating. Later, I made a documentary based on video clips others made at later dates, combined with my own materials as a radio reporter. In the NRK Brennpunkt documentary Sporene etter Sharon (The traces after Sharon) you get it all.”
Both Tveit and Fisk are interested in the details surrounding Sabra/Shatila back in September 1982. Fisk describes how flies were buzzing all around the bodies – if he opened his mouth, it was filled with flies, they crawled across the white sheets of his notepad, on his naked skin. He describes it as a warm afternoon during the Black Plague. Children with their throats cut, bloated darkened babies, piles of men’s bodies, castrated, dead eyes staring, women lying over garbage pails, women with their stomachs cut open and foetuses pulled out, and a stench of dead bodies that got in your clothes. Tveit says to Modern Times: “We heard the sound of the flies because it was so quiet. Then we smelled the bodies. We saw dead people, heads, arms. Murdered women and children with blood still running. A man of over 90 years of age was lying next to his cane, his eyes had been poked out with a knife. It was gruesome. But you try to report as truthfully as possible. It didn’t give me nightmares. It’s a kind of craft – you have to be honest and do it right. It’s like someone making a chair. He tries to make it as well as possible, even if an asshole is going to use it afterwards. And you know that you’re never good enough.”
Regarding the details of the approximately 2000 people who were murdered, Tveit writes on page 338: “I saw a man’s head, children’s feet, a woman’s breast, a stomach that looked like a rock.” Almost the same sentence that Fisk wrote 25 years ago (page 364 in Pity the Nation). They followed each other around closely. Another situation described by Fisk, is when they both came across a dead, beautiful woman lying in a backyard under the clothesline she had been hanging clothes on. Fisk assumes that she had been killed only a few minutes before and that she had been raped, since her skirt was pulled up and her legs were spread. Was she just another body to count for you? I ask Tveit. «No, but journalists have different styles. I don’t get into details. I like to write about these things, but not exaggerate. People can think for themselves, people aren’t stupid.”
The guilty ones. Both Tveit and Fisk have described how two Israeli Hercules planes landed in Beirut 24 hours before the massacre, full of Christian Libanese militia groups, trained and given uniforms by Israel – but also how the road to Sabra/Shatila had recently been marked with signposts. This massacre was actually surrounded by Israel’s regular army. With Sharon as the responsible Minister of Defence, the Israelis gave these Christian Phalangists a map and lit up the darkness of night with a message to “Flush out the terrorists”. Tveit comments: “They basically told them what to do. In Sabra and Shatila the Zionists were also to blame, even if they themselves didn’t carry out the killing.”
One of Tveit’s colleagues at the time, Janet Le Stevens, went to the Phalangist headquarters afterwards and interviewed their leader, Joseph Hadad. She screamed at him that he was a butcher, he made the sign of the cross and remained silent. Tveit writes in the book that the Christian militia had been given “cocaine, hashish and hard liquor to become ‘brave’ enough to kill” (page 139). But what about Tveit himself – would he have been able to react like Stevens to all this misuse of power?
“No. I don’t do that. Yelling at people is not my style. Stevens was an activist. She is an American journalist who turned out to be a strong supporter of the PLO. I try to go about this as a professional journalist. That means that it’s not proper to be yelling at people at either of the sides of the conflict. My job is to tell people what happened. Once, when I was going to meet Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, my doctor asked how I could meet this murderer. I asked if he wouldn’t treat his patients as well if he or she was a murderer or your enemy? He looked at me and answered: ‘You’re right.’”
But Tveit has to pass judgement – how else could he have written a book with the title De skyldige (The guilty ones)? “Yes, there are a lot of guilty ones. As a TV or radio reporter you report less emotionally than when you write a book several years later.”
In his book, Tveit also criticises NRK. After he reported by telephone from the above-mentioned well-known massacre, the desk journalist at home in the safety of Oslo put his own name on the piece that was presented. “I felt that the reporter on the news desk himself wanted to get on the air, but there could also have been technical problems with the telephone line”, says Tveit. Regarding the public role of the reporter, I ask Tveit about his colleague Sidsel Wold, who quite erroneously has been criticised for one-sidedly defending Palestine during the Gaza war last summer. What does Tveit think about the public’s opinion about reporters?
“I don’t want to discuss this. It’s about the kind of person you are. Some people respond to criticism on the internet, I have chosen not to. If someone points out that I have made a mistake, I can apologize and say that I make mistakes all the time. But I don’t bother with getting involved with people who are just criticising me for things I haven’t said, or things they think that I’ve said. That’s probably why I’ve avoided a lot of criticism – because, who cares?”
The conflict over Palestine is not black or white, Tveit underlines. “There are so many grey areas. You can’t say that some are terrorists, and others aren’t
There are violators and criminals on all sides. But Palestine is occupied, and Palestinians are trying to get their country back. You should be careful about saying that all Palestinians are innocent, but the Israelis are guilty. There are guilty ones on all sides. But there is a misbalance – there is a weak and a strong power. But you can never be neutral when you’re reporting on a misbalanced war”, he says, and continues: “Norway is still a good friend of Israel. Norwegian authorities are friendly, but the public, on the other hand, has changed completely. When I came to Libanon in 1978, most people in Norway thought that PLO was a terrorist organization. Palestinians didn’t have the right to their own state, Israel did. Today, this has been reversed.”
Propaganda? In an interview in Modern Times in September, the Israeli Ambassador to Norway, Raphael Schutz, characterized journalism as leftist propaganda against his home country. Tveit comments: “An ambassador has been sent abroad to speak on behalf of his own government, and in this case, on behalf of a very conservative government. That’s his job. Some say that diplomats are people who are sent abroad to lie on behalf of their government. I’m not saying he is lying, but their job is to respond when Israel becomes subject to criticism.”
Tveit has the following comment to Schutz giving the same characterisation of Haaretz’ journalist in Israel, Gideon Levy: “I have read a lot by many Israeli journalists, but the most interesting ones among them, are those who are in danger of being killed for their opinions. It’s dangerous to criticise Israel. We in Norway have no problem with this, but I have great respect for people in all countries who dare to say something in spite of fearing for their own lives.”
Tveit points out that the Israeli army to an increasing extent is becoming an army of settlers. “Many Israeli officers live in settlements. One day they are settlers who might attack Palestinian civilians near the settlements. The next day they’re wearing uniforms and representing the Israeli army. Israeli journalists have mapped this out, and concluded that Israeli military personnel are far more right-wing than before, due to the fact that many of them live in settlements. More and more people are worrying about what will happen in Israel in the future. I understand them.”
What about the USA, Israel’s old supporter in the UN Security Council. Are changes afoot there?
“This is very complicated, but I believe the Christian Zionists and not the Jewish lobby are the ones who are actually promoting the US support to Israel. Even if on the surface it may seem today as if the US is criticising the Netanyahu government, they stand together in the end. This became evident again a few weeks ago, when the question arose about an Israeli flag outside the UN building. Israel and the US voted no. Norway, surprisingly, refrained from voting. But when the ceremony took place, Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende turned up in a show of solidarity. So in reality, the voting was about not wanting to cause problems within the Norwegian government while FrP (The Progress Party) are in government. This is internal policy, but not foreign policy.”
Does Tveit have his own opinion about the people he meets in the Middle East?
“I’m against states that are based on religion, whether this is Christianity, Islam or Judaism. I am for democratic states that defend their citizens, no matter what religion they belong to”
“But I’m not the kind of journalist who enters into discussions with politicians. I ask questions and try to report the answers as correctly as possible. I remember once when I criticised Yitzhak Rabin by saying that perhaps, I had asked a stupid question. He answered that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. I ask, but I don’t discuss with my interviewees.”
Norwegian diplomacy. Then what about politicians, should they be allowed to be ruled by emotions? In Tveit’s previous book, Farvel Libanon (Goodbye Lebanon) (page 293), he describes the former Minister of Defence Johan Jørgen Holst and his anger when he confronted his Israeli colleague Shimon Peres – after having found out that the Israelis were using torture during interrogations. “Later, when Johan Jørgen Holst became the Foreign Minister, he didn’t use the same kind of language, even when talking about torture. Politicans more often think about interests, rather than morals. I think it suited him to be softer towards the Israeli Labor government as a Foreign Minister than as a Defence Minister, when there was no secret diplomacy to consider.”
Foreign Minister Knut Frydenlund was also criticised by his colleagues for having suspected then Israeli Ambassador Keenan to encourage anti-PLO attitudes in Norway. Norway’s friendliness towards Israel was also evident in Kåre Willoch, according to Tveit: “Willoch was quite mild towards the Israeli government as Prime Minister. I asked him later: Why were you so mild towards them – after all, you knew about the occupation? You knew everything you know now, and only now you decide to support the cause of the Palestinians? He responded: At that time, I was Prime Minister, and had a coalition government with a Christian party. I didn’t want to destroy the government.”
So we shouldn’t trust the politicians? Tveit answers:
“Different times create different answers. An Israeli once told me: Ask ten Israelis one question, and you will get ten different answers. But ask one Israeli the same question ten times, and you will also get ten different answers. Answers depend on the situation. I think that’s the case in Norway as well.”
Another of Tveit’s many stories in the book is about the Supreme Court attorney Annæus Schjødt, founder of the Schjødt legal firm in Oslo. He hints at an earlier climate in Norway. Schjødt became the defense lawyer for one of the six people arrested after the Lillehammer assassination in 1973, Sylvia Raphael, who was unshakable in her stand to defend Israel as a long-serving Mossad agent. They had killed the wrong man, not the one they thought was Arafat’s closest intelligence adviser – Hassan Salame, called the Red Prince by Mossad. Schjødt later married the South African woman he had defended as a “soldier”. She had been very talkative about Mossad’s work in Paris, so out of consideration for Israel, Norway chose to hold the trial behind closed doors. Her sentence was halved at a later time after request but getting a residence permit proved more difficult. There was also an attempt on her life in Norway, according to Tveit, where Mossad (force 17) was revealed as trying to kill their former agent (page 433). Tveit’s description of the work carried out on ministerial level is interesting, even with the close bonds Norway had to Israel at the time: “Norwegian authorities worked to limit exposure for the Mossad agents. The story continues when Mossad succeeded in killing the Red Prince in Beirut in 1979. This is also a beautiful story with potential to become a TV series. I love writing about these stories from behind the scenes. For instance, ministers like Foreign Minsters Knut Frydenlund, did not fare well with this story. They were thinking in a political manner, not a judicial one.”
Tveit is good at telling these stories, the details, the crime stories. He also describes how people like Jens Christian Hauge and Minister of Justice Inger Louise Valle worked and how they were involved. Also, he reveals how the authorities and Schjødt preferred to hide the fact that Israel possessed nuclear arms, with deliveries of uranium to Fimona: “It’s interesting to see how Norwegian politicians and police were sitting on a time bomb. They knew that Israel had nuclear weapons, but they didn’t want to reveal it.”
Profession: Reporter. Is it really possible merely to report, to be a neutral reporter, or are you passing judgement by choosing who to talk to as a journalist? If so, is Tveit presenting his own opinions by doing this? In De skyldige, for instance, he descirbes former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, well-known to a Norwegian audience, as a non-corrupt politician in comparison to President Abbas. “As a reporter, I ask people in order to check”, he says. “The Palestinian people are the ones who consider Abbas to be corrupt, and that they haven’t seen the same behaviour with Fayyad. Abbas forced Fayyad to resign after confrontations, and now he’s being accused by Abbas’ security forces. Internal Palestinian affairs are not that clean either.”
Tveit has been observing this power struggle over 40 years. I ask him if the whole thing might seem theatrical?
«You have to be very imaginative to understand what is really going on, because when you look back on Israeli presidents and prime ministers, you find people who have been imprisoned for rape and corruption. I think you can find corruption everywhere. But in Israel it’s far more evident than other places. In Palestine, big trials on corruption have not yet taken place, so it’s still not out in the open. But people know.”
In the background work for the 1100 pages Tveit has now written, found intelligence agents from Mossad, Shin Bet and the CIA in far more places than in the Commodore Hotel. He also found out that the Jordanian King Hussein was on the CIA pay roll. And he has had access to the Oslo Process, as well as archives that other people have not had access to. So what is the conclusion and the experience from these 40 years, when he changed his course from economy and oil journalism and went to Libanon – with numerous reports on TV and thousands of written pages about the Middle East?
“I stand on the shoulders of other people when I write about the Middle East, so I am not the one to have figured all of this out. But I did find some first-hand sources who could tell me what has been happening over the past 40 years. For instance, I met Mustafa Sein. He was a very useful source, because he linked Arafat’s intelligence staff with the CIA in Beirut. The Red Prince, who they first tried to kill in Lillehammer and later did kill in Beirut, was not killed because he was part of Black September (who were behind the Munich attack). He was killed because Israel did not want the CIA to have close bonds to the PLO and Arafat, and find out what they were actually thinking. That’s why they killed him.”
It’s obvious that there are completely different reasons for things happening than we might think, once we look a little closer. I end the conversation by asking the reporter with the patch in front of one eye whether he has grown disillusioned after all these years.
See the article/interview in Norwegian at Ny Tid: