The long road to an interview with the leader of Hamas

The journey began a year ago with the disappearance in March 2007 of the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston. There was no news for a couple of days. Then we came to suspect he too had been kidnapped.

During this period, I established closer contact with various Hamas officials and advisers to its leader Khalid Meshaal, as little can happen in Gaza without someone from Hamas knowing something of what is going on.

Eventually, I heard he was okay and would be freed within days.

Then I went into producer mode – I wanted Sky News to speak to Meshaal about the forthcoming release of Alan Johnston. It sounds absurd to compare Middle East negotiations with an episode of Little Britain, but we received the ‘Vicky Pollard’response: ‘Yes, but no, but yes, but no, but… ‘It wasn’t to happen.

I remained in contact, and on a visit to Damascus visited the Hamas leader to explain what I would like to do. He very kindly sent me one of his shiny black limousines, complete with blacked-out windows, black curtains and the best chauffeur you could imagine. We screamed through the freeways and back streets of Damascus. It was a Middle-Eastern Starsky and Hutch experience. The security was tight. Men with guns outside and inside. An airport X-ray machine checked my bag. ‘What is this?”It’s a tin of biscuits for Mr Meshaal”.

We sat in his reception room drinking tea and talked about the interview. I said we HAD to ask ‘difficult questions’and we had to be ‘balanced in our reporting”. ‘We will have to ask you questions which some of your supporters may find embarrassing”. ‘No problem,’he replied, ‘I want a tough interview to show I have nothing to hide. There will be no preconditions.”

Obviously, there were certain security issues. Don’t reveal the location and don’t discuss with too many people when the interview will take place.

A date was set and cancelled, so was another. Eventually, we agreed on a time… and the place? The journey was a succession of instructions to our driver over a mobile phone. Security was slightly easier, despite all the television equipment we brought – and I carried a cardboard box of chocolates.

We were guided to the interview room and waited.

An hour later than planned, Khalid Meshaal walked into the room to begin the interview with Tim Marshall, Sky News’ foreign affairs editor. After some serious probing by Tim, Meshaal used the interview to invite Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for talks in Gaza, give reassurances that a kidnapped Israeli soldier was being well looked after, and make an offer to Israel to only target military personnel. Not a bad return for a year’s work… but, of course, the journey continues.

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