Financing the Flames could not have been written by any journalist other than Edwin Black — and even Black could not have written it 10 years ago. Ten years ago, this attempt would likely have seen him end up as just another casualty in the treacherously dangerous politics of the Middle East. However, Black’s well-earned reputation as a tenacious and hard-hitting, but fair and accurate investigative author gave him the unique ability to obtain unprecedented access and cooperation from normally suspicious participants involved in a deadly political war.
At its core, Financing the Flames documents Black’s attempt to bring sense to the apparent disconnect between the allegedly documented civil rights abuses by the Israeli Defense Forces on powerless Palestinians, and the Israelis, a people with a history of suffering great hardship, pain and unspeakable acts at the hands of would-be exterminators. Black also harkens to a favorite exhortation of mine from Exodus 22: “Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in Egypt.” In typical Black style, he went straight to the source, talking to the key players on both sides of the conflict, from the highest military authorities to the common factory worker and senior executives from human rights organizations. Black witnessed for himself the regular demonstrations that provide the fodder for many of the allegations, interviewing both Israelis and Palestinians in those conflicts, firsthand. From the finest hotels to the most dangerous bad alleys, Black brings the reader along.
Also typically, Black followed the money.
The result is a compelling and stunning exposé of how American taxpayers are literally financing the flames of confrontation in Israel, with U.S. tax-exempt organizations paying for training, participation and organizing a dangerous street theater in the Middle East. Not only paying for it, but these “human-rights organizations” are providing the directors, the producers, the scripts and the marketing campaigns. And yes, some of the actors are Americans and others from the Western world. Black even documents how these dramas become well-scheduled performances. Unfortunately, all the actors do not go out for a drink afterwards. Some are injured. Some die.
Black documents the intentional use of children on this deadly stage, placed in the starring cast by their own families.
Financing the Flames paints a picture of a pathetic Government Accountability Office that either cannot or prefers not to address apparent U.S. subsidies for captured terrorists while they serve prison terms for vicious crimes — the more heinous, the greater the reward from U.S. taxpayers.
As Black tells the back story of the personalities he encounters, the reader understands the real pain and suffering these subsidies cause, on both sides of the conflict. From the innocent stabbing victim, whose attacker will likely be rewarded with wealth, to the Palestinian factory worker who loves his job and yearns for peace but fears any spotlight.
Black’s effort is also well documented, drawing the reader into his own in-depth exploration. His ability to show the multiple perspectives throughout the book gives the reader a compelling peak over Black’s shoulder. You are there, as Black visits the regional “sheikh of the sheikhs” in his tent near Hebron, Sheikh al-Jabari, one of the most powerful people in the Palestinian Authority. You cannot help but hear the words Black hears as Sheikh al-Jabari says, “Millions of dollars are given to these organizations, and they say it is ‘for peace.’ But these organizations do just the opposite. Instead of putting water on the fire, they are fanning the flames.”
From the interviews with the funding agencies and NGOs he is investigating, to the wounded IDF second lieutenant whose family has lived in the region for centuries, to tea with a family of demonstrators, the reader is there feeling either danger or smelling the aroma of coffee.
In a possible first for investigative journalism, Black makes a literary work filled with poetic descriptions, alliteration and onomatopoeia. The book opens with this one: “When the morning sun arcs over Jerusalem, its sparkling rays find gaps in the canopy that shade the great fourth-floor breakfast patio of the exquisite David Citadel Hotel. The sunlight finds every reflective surface — the edge of saucers, the parabolas of spoons, the metallic buttons of shoes, the shiny buckles of belts and even the sheened hinges of eyewear. When you look up from coffee and gaze across to the walls of the Old City through this sun-glinted air, you know you have come to a place conquered many times over many centuries by many peoples — yet a place devoid of natural resources. Here, in Jerusalem, no oil lies beneath, and no gold, copper, or silver veins lie below. The city’s most precious natural resource is only light. Yet, so many have tried to possess and dwell in that light. What is it? That is the raging debate among the peoples and within the souls who reside in and contend for Jerusalem — and have contended for thousands of years. For each person experiences the light of Jerusalem in his or her own unique way. None wish to relinquish it.”
Nor will the reader wish to relinquish this book once started. Financing the Flames will stun and anger the reader. Perhaps it will change the facts on the ground and the financial fires as well.
Mark Abramowitz is a California-based policy analyst and a follower of Mideast affairs.