Opinion: I reported on Hamas in Gaza for over a decade. Here are the questions I’m asking myself now

Editor’s Note: Ilene Prusher is a journalist and author who spent two decades covering the Middle East. She teaches journalism at Florida Atlantic University, where she is the digital director of MediaLab@FAU. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

We arrive at Erez Checkpoint. Israeli soldiers thumb through our passports, examine every item in our bags, then wave us through. After a long walk through a barricaded no-man’s land, Palestinian officers register our names and passport numbers, then press us for a list of people we’re planning to meet. Our Palestinian fixer intervenes, reminds the guys with the guns to be nice to us foreigners, and presto: We’re in Gaza. On the list of the three or four people we’re scheduled to see in the course of the day is at least one senior official in Hamas.

Ilene Prusher - Jordana Miller
Ilene Prusher - Jordana Miller

This is a routine I participated in, on and off, for 16 years of my life while reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the American media throughout the 1990s and 2000s, up until my last trip to Gaza in January 2009 at the end of another Israel-Hamas war that shocked the world and caused needless death and destruction. Later, in 2014, I covered a far deadlier 50-day Israel-Hamas war for TIME magazine, this time from southern Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, mainly because by then I had two toddlers at home and no longer believed entering Gaza was worth the risk.

In nearly every trip I made — and there were too many to count — I met with Hamas officials, like seemingly every good journalist did. Like many others, I was curious to hear their viewpoint and, back when peacemaking was a thing and Israel was turning territory over to the Palestinian Authority, I was keen to understand why they wouldn’t get on board with the land-for-peace deal known as the Oslo Accords.

The Oslo process for dividing the land with Israel to create a zone of Palestinian autonomy — and possibly statehood — had been embraced, at least tepidly, by the late Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Hamas, the PLO’s most significant Palestinian rival, was fundamentally opposed to peace with Israel, insisting the only path forward was “armed resistance” aimed at eradicating Israel. Throughout the 1990s, when the peace process was moving forward, Hamas sought to derail it by blowing up Israeli buses and cafes. By the early 2000s, when peacemaking ground to a halt, they had killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in this manner, leading to further separation of Israeli and Palestinian societies.

The Hamas leaders and spokesmen who agreed to our interviews were rarely what you would expect of representatives of a terrorist organization. They were men who were fluent in English, logical-sounding about their grievances and highly educated to boot, usually in engineering or medicine. They portrayed themselves as part of a “political wing” of Hamas, one that was unaware of what was being planned by the more secretive military wing. Often, these spokesman insisted, they had no idea that an attack was imminent.

By and large, we reporters ate it up. Our editors wanted us to have access to this shadowy group and to explain its lure for average Palestinians — and in particular, the strategic challenge it presented to Arafat. By claiming that the organization’s left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, Hamas made it easy for themselves to evade tough questions — like, why target civilians rather than military targets? — and convenient for so many of us to feel like we were putting our fingers on the Palestinian pulse rather than sitting down for tea with terrorists.

So we sipped their bitter brews, and they talked a good game. “Look, we take no joy in seeing Israeli civilians get blown up,” one spokesman told me — back in the day when Hamas’ worst weapon was a suicide bomber in an urban area — before going on to insist that these attacks were the only rational answer to what they saw as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. When I asked why Hamas wouldn’t take a crack at negotiations instead, they responded that there was no point in talking to Israel — and Israel wasn’t exactly jumping to talk to Hamas either. The spokesman insisted I not use his name with that almost-empathetic quote about not taking joy in killing Israelis. In retrospect, I wonder if he said it because he knew it sounded good to the Western ear.

Hamas played other games with language, presenting themselves as reasonable by saying that its leaders would in theory agree to a long-term hudna, or truce, with Israel. Their words sound nice — who wouldn’t chose a lasting truce over the horrific killing and destruction we are now witnessing? — but the reality was that Hamas would never ink a permanent deal with Israel because, their leaders told me, Islam forbade it.

And then there were the outright distortions. Ahead of October 7, Hamas duped Israel into thinking that the organization was uninterested in inflaming the situation and wanted Gazans’ lives to improve. With that in mind, Israel actually relaxed the Gaza border crossings in late September — a week before the attack — to let more Palestinian laborers into Israel. Sadly, the opening to thousands of additional workers from Gaza turned Israel into an information sieve from which Hamas reportedly gathered intelligence for its attack in October.

Hamas also played fast and loose with facts they gave us reporters. During the first major Israel-Hamas war in 2008 to 2009, known as Operation Cast Lead, Hamas said that fewer than 50 of the 1,400 dead in Gaza had been combatants. But more than a year later, Hamas’ interior minister acknowledged in an interview with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that between 600 and 700 of its militants were killed in that war. In that and in almost every war since, Hamas or other militant groups in Gaza launched rockets that fell unintentionally on their own citizens, but rarely if ever, owned up to the error, instead blaming Israel for the deaths.

Yet how often did that stop us from reporting what they told us? That dynamic was on display last month when many mainstream media outlets immediately repeated Hamas’ claim that an Israeli air strike had devastated a hospital and killed a big round figure of 500 Palestinians. More details later emerged, indicating that it was most likely Islamic Jihad, a Hamas rival organization, that had fired an errant missile that landed on the site, and that the casualty count was much lower.

Hospitals once again took center stage in the war when Israel surrounded the Al-Shifa Hospital after claiming that Hamas had operated out of it. Hamas has long denied using hospitals despite proof that they do, and did the same this time even though there is evidence that weapons were found on site and tunnels have been built to allow the organization to use Al-Shifa as a base.

Reporters can feel they have little choice but to rely on Hamas’ numbers and denials because there are few reporters left in Gaza and few options to verify anything independently. But many journalists could be more transparent about how they don’t have independent verification and provide context on how unreliable Hamas has proved to be in the past.

One thing already clear after October 7 is that members of Hamas didn’t sound like they experienced “no joy” in the slaughter of more than 1,200 Israelis and the kidnap of more than 200. Hamas gunmen laughed as they committed the attacks, according to eyewitnesses, and they recorded themselves as they gleefully rampaged through Israeli homes.

Did Hamas change? Or was too much of the media too willing to see them as something other than what they always were?

It’s probably a bit of both. Although founded in 1987 as an expressly Palestinian organization, there is evidence that Hamas has been influenced by the style and brutality of global jihadist groups in general, and ISIS in particular. Still, Hamas’ focus has remained on “the Zionist entity,” not the US, other Western targets or other religions per se. And to the extent there was once a political wing that might have had different aspirations, October 7 left no doubt that the military wing is now the center of Hamas power and strategy.

It’s not as if most of us in the media portrayed Hamas as innocent or moderate. But for years, too many of us treated the group more like an opposition party with occasional violent outbursts than a terrorist organization. In fact, while interning at Reuters at the start of my career in the mid-’90s, I learned that we were never to call Hamas or Islamic Jihad terrorists, only militants. Several outlets maintain that policy even amidst the October 7 massacre, which clearly meets the definition of terror as a deadly attack on civilians for ideological ends.

Journalists working in conflict zones too often pull punches in the interest of appearing neutral, or perhaps to ensure that they stay in the good graces of the gunmen in charge. Many of the questions that now reverberate in my head have no easy answers, but I can say that the ultimate goal for too many of us in the media was to ensure continued access to the big story, not to consider whether the people we were dealing with were good actors or reliable sources. Though it’s important for readers and viewers to hear Palestinian voices as well as those of Israelis, treating Hamas like a legitimate government was perhaps the worst of bothsidesism.

In 2014, a German journalist was heavily criticized for embedding himself with ISIS for a documentary. Trying to explain such a despicable group of murderers went beyond the pale, critics said. Weren’t there some actors whose behavior was so heinous that they didn’t deserve a platform or even so much as a quote, which might only afford them a measure of legitimacy?

Is this the approach we should have taken with Hamas, or ought to moving forward? In an ideal world, yes, but in this dystopian one we’re watching unfold, that may be too much to expect. In the meantime, if journalists continue to interview members of Hamas, we should report their words more critically and not take their comments at face value. We should provide context that notes how unverifiable their information is and how poor their track record for accuracy has been. And we should not shy away from asking ourselves whether our interviews afford them too much legitimacy and give them more of a platform than they deserve.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com