Correspondent Amy Kellogg, Cameraman Andrew Psarianos and I had to get some interviews and get out within two days. As a journalist in a war zone, I'm aware that sometimes we have to wait for the story. The problem is — life doesn't wait for us. Andrew had a flight booked to London and his wife was expecting him to attend a 50th wedding anniversary of a close friend. Amy needed to get the story put together and catch a plane as well. My brother had just passed the bar exam and my family was expecting me to attend a party for him on Thursday night.
The clock starts ticking the moment we leave the Israeli checkpoint into the strip. It is now Wednesday morning. The Erez Crossing locks down Thursday at 9 p.m. If we don’t make that time, we're stuck in Gaza.
Our Goal: An interview with Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, a man who spent many years in practice as a thyroid surgeon, a man who now heads Hamas in Gaza, and a man who's name is at the top of Israel's, currently idle, hit list. The Israeli government nearly killed him once. They fired missiles into his home and killed his son. The last two people to head Hamas in Gaza, Shiekh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi were both assassinated by Israel.
Two weeks before Rantisi was killed, correspondent Mike Tobin and I did a similar interview with him. The report aired on "Special Report with Britt Hume." Predicting Rantissi's assassination was imminent, Mike and I titled to report "Dead Man Talking."
I had been pursuing Zahar for some time. Using a cell phone has proven deadly for different Palestinian leaders. So we had been exchanging messages the old fashioned way through "a fixer" in Gaza named Nael. He knows a guy who passes a message to another guy who passes the message to Dr. Zahar. Two days earlier the message had come back through Nael. Zahar promised an interview to Fox News.
The Appointment: Wednesday 25th of May, 2005
Time: 5 p.m.-ish (not sharp for security reasons.)
Itinerary: Do the interview, head for the checkpoint, catch our planes and make our parties, it should be easy…or so we thought.
5pm came and went. Nael worked the phones, but the Doctor didn't show up. He's in hiding and there is no way to reach him.
Thursday, May 26th: We were prepared to accept failure and leave as scheduled. But we heard Dr. Zahar is scheduled to meet with an Egyptian delegation at 5 p.m. in the very hotel where we were staying.
4:45 p.m. Gaza Beach Hotel: The Doctor shows up. No more message exchange. We can communicate with him directly. "Wait guys," he says in Arabic. "We will do the interview after the meeting." We currently have four hours and 15 minutes until the checkpoint closes.
The Plan: We set up lights and cameras in Andrew's hotel room so there will be no delay when Zahar gets out of his meeting. Shoot it at 6:15, break down the gear make it to the border by 7:15 and back in Jerusalem by 10:00 p.m.
6 p.m.: No break in the meeting.
7p.m.: Still no break. If we were to leave to get some food, we risked the meeting breaking and missing the interview. We survived on strong Arabic coffee, bottled water and some Palestinian pastries. Normal people can watch their diets and count carbohydrates. News people eat what they can when they can.
8 p.m.: The meeting breaks for dinner — dinner for the delegation. The news crew still goes hungry.
8:30 p.m.: Ditch the plans for parties and planes. We're not getting out of Gaza. Calls are made to the bureau in Jerusalem. Andrew changed his flight and called his wife to give her the news. I called my brother, now a lawyer, and congratulated him and told him I would congratulate him in person as soon as possible.
11 p.m.: We hear word that the meeting has ended. Zahar was on his way, but not to see us. The Doctor had left the building. The three of us are in such a bitter state of frustration and disappointment, no one says a word. We've got no interview and we're not going home.
Discouraged, Andrew starts to pack up his camera kit, and then without warning he says, "Let's go find him." Driving around Gaza at midnight can be a bad idea, but we were motivated at this point by a combination of anger, frustration and stubbornness. Soon we were bundled in a cab. For the sake of time, Andrew disregarded all of his professional gear and camera cases and cradled the video camera on his lap like a baby as we bounced over the dusty potholes in the Gaza streets.
Guided by Nael, we found Zahar's current lodging. On the run, he had moved from house to house. Much to my surprise, he was back living in the same house the Israelis had bombed two years ago. Nael and I rounded up some of the Dr. Zahar's people and there in the middle of the night Amy Kellogg joined us as we stood on the street debating Zahar's people, pushing for him to make good on his promise to do an interview.
12:45 a.m.: Word comes back. No interview. The Doctor is sleeping. And our defeated news crew heads back to the hotel.
Friday, May 27th, 9 a.m.: We meet for a simple breakfast of bread, cheese and strong coffee. Whether it is because she has been hardened by reporting in the field or just deep in thought, Amy seemed to be unaware of the flies sharing her cheese. Andrew was unusually silent. Clearly upset over disappointing his wife and having nothing to show for it. I was just wondering what I could have done differently.
My cell phone rang. It was Nael. He had been up most of the night working the phones. He informed me that minutes ago, he received an important call. I hung up, looked at my silent colleagues and said "Guess what guys, the Doctor calls." Their faces lit up. Their demeanors changed from discouraged to purposeful. There was no discussion about yesterday's run around. They were professionals with a chance to achieve a goal.
10 a.m.: We were back at the Doctor's house. It was quite surprising to see the leader of Hamas greet us at his front gate. He served us a sweet tea and apologized many times. Our appointment lasted 45 minutes.
We had our interview. The doctor went to Friday prayers and we headed back to Jerusalem.
It's the Gaza strip. You never really know what could happen there.
[Andrew Psarianos contributed to this report.]
Catch the interview with Dr. Mahmoud Zahar Tuesday, May 31st on "Special Report" at 6pm ET.