Learning the ‘Hama Rules’ of Mideast Politics : FROM BEIRUT TO JERUSALEM <i> by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $19.95; 513 pp.; 0-374-15894-1)</i>


Thomas Friedman, the New York Times diplomatic correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting in Lebanon and Israel, has written an intimate portrait of his 10 years of reporting in the Middle East, chronicling his change from awe-struck lover of Israel to outspoken critic. The change dates from the Sabra and Chatilla massacres of September, 1982, where hundreds of Arabs were slain by Christian Falangist militiamen permitted into the refugee camps by the Israeli military command.

Friedman coins the phrase “Hama Rules” for the ruthless ethos of the Middle East. In 1982, in order to put down a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian President Hafez Assad ordered the leveling of Hama and Homs, two of the oldest cities in Syria. Estimates of the dead run to 20,000. “Sabra and Chatilla was something of a personal crisis for me,” Friedman writes. “The Israel I met on the outskirts of Beirut was not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with. It was an Israel that talked about ‘purity of arms’ to itself, but in the real world had learned to play by Hama Rules, just like everyone in the neighborhood.”

This riveting book, honest and clear, wipes away many of the shibboleths of the press. Frankly and openly, Friedman admits his prejudices. “Although an ‘objective’ journalist is not supposed to have such emotions, the truth is they made me a better reporter.” Friedman credits his white heat, his fury at Israel, with the intensity of effort that he put into his reporting on Sabra and Chatilla, which eventually won him a Pulitzer Prize. “I took Sabra and Chatilla seriously as a blot on Israel and the Jewish people. Afterward, I was boiling with anger--anger which I worked out by reporting with all the skill I could on exactly what happened in those camps.”

Friedman makes no bones about the power the PLO held over the Beirut press corps. “For any Beirut-based correspondent, the name of the game was keeping on good terms with the PLO. . . .” He recounts the discomfort he felt upon being told that Arafat’s press adviser, Mahmoud Labadi, wanted to see him immediately. When informed of this, “the paranoia I had kept in check all summer ran riot and I lay awake on my bed the whole night worrying that someone was going to burst in and blow my brains all over the wall.” The next morning, Friedman went to see Labadi. “He handed me the telex (the PLO office in New York had critiqued Friedman’s work). I read it over and then read it aloud. ‘Sounds okay to me, Mahmoud,’ I said, laying it down on my lap. ‘It’s not good enough,’ Labadi said coolly.”


Like most of the press corps, Friedman and his wife lived in the Muslim sector of West Beirut from 1979 to 1981, when he worked for UPI, and from April, 1982, to 1984, when he was New York Times bureau chief. He arrived back in Beirut just six weeks before the Israeli invasion. He was not in Lebanon during the critical year before the invasion, and there is no indication that he developed as close relations among the Christians as he did with the PLO.

Along with his colleagues, Friedman was a victim of the Israeli invasion and bombardment of West Beirut. “There I sat on the toilet, my head in my hands, waiting for the shelling to stop. . . .”

Friedman thinks the Christians wanted to retain political privileges that they were not entitled to, but his enmity is the result of the Christian role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre that occurred two days after the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the commander of the Phalange militia. The massacre was carried out by a select group of Christians most of whom are now in Damascus along with their leader Elie Hobeika. But Friedman tars the entire Christian community with the responsibility.

Friedman’s analysis of the cause of the Palestinian uprising in Israel, the intifada, is brilliant and passionate, as is his rich use of anecdote to reveal the schism in the soul of Israel. “On any given day, one could find the Israeli army arresting all Palestinian males ages eighteen and over in one West Bank village, while in the next village an Israeli contractor would be hiring all Palestinian males eighteen and over to build a new Jewish town.”


Friedman chronicles the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians and feels that Yasir Arafat has been positive as a unifying symbol. He advocates an Israeli territorial compromise but doesn’t think it will happen.

“Israel is too important for American Jews to be left to Israelis alone,” Friedman argues and advocates that the United States adapt a tougher, even imposing, role with Israel.

Friedman has written a very special book. Although one may disagree with his opinions and conclusions, one applauds his honesty and integrity. This is a must read.