It used to be just a trickle, a steady drip-drip of hate mail which arrived once a week, castigating me for reporting on the killing of innocent Lebanese under Israeli air raids or for suggesting that Arabs – as well as Israelis – wanted peace in the Middle East. It began to change in the late 1990s. Typical was the letter which arrived after I wrote my eyewitness account of the 1996 slaughter by Israeli gunners of 108 refugees sheltering in the UN base in the Lebanese town of Qana.
“I do not like or admire anti-Semites,” it began. “Hitler was one of the most famous in recent history”. Yet compared to the avalanche of vicious, threatening letters and openly violent statements that we journalists receive today, this was comparatively mild. For the internet seems to have turned those who do not like to hear the truth about the Middle East into a community of haters, sending venomous letters not only to myself but to any reporter who dares to criticise Israel – or American policy in the Middle East.
There was always, in the past, a limit to this hatred. Letters would be signed with the writer's address. Or if not, they would be so-ill-written as to be illegible. Not any more. In 26 years in the Middle East, I have never read so many vile and intimidating messages addressed to me. Many now demand my death. And last week, the Hollywood actor John Malkovich did just that, telling the Cambridge Union that he would like to shoot me.
How, I ask myself, did it come to this? Slowly but surely, the hate has turned to incitement, the incitement into death threats, the walls of propriety and legality gradually pulled down so that a reporter can be abused, his family defamed, his beating at the hands of an angry crowd greeted with laughter and insults in the pages of an American newspaper, his life cheapened and made vulnerable by an actor who – without even saying why – says he wants to kill me.
Much of this disgusting nonsense comes from men and women who say they are defending Israel, although I have to say that I have never in my life received a rude or insulting letter from Israel itself. Israelis sometimes express their criticism of my reporting – and sometimes their praise – but they have never stooped to the filth and obscenities which I now receive.
“Your mother was Eichmann's daughter,” was one of the most recent of these. My mother Peggy, who died after a long battle with Parkinson's three and a half years ago, was in fact an RAF radio repair operator on Spitfires at the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940.
The events of 11 September turned the hate mail white hot. That day, in an airliner high over the Atlantic that had just turned back from its routing to America, I wrote an article for The Independent, pointing out that there would be an attempt in the coming days to prevent anyone asking why the crimes against humanity in New York and Washington had occurred. Dictating my report from the aircraft's satellite phone, I wrote about the history of deceit in the Middle East, the growing Arab anger at the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children under US-supported sanctions, and the continued occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza by America's Israeli ally. I didn't blame Israel. I suggested that Osama bin Laden was responsible.
But the e-mails that poured into The Independent over the next few days bordered on the inflammatory. The attacks on America were caused by “hate itself, of precisely the obsessive and dehumanising kind that Fisk and Bin Laden have been spreading,” said a letter from a Professor Judea Pearl of UCLA. I was, he claimed, “drooling venom” and a professional “hate peddler”. Another missive, signed Ellen Popper, announced that I was “in cahoots with the archterrorist” Bin Laden. Mark Guon labelled me “a total nut-case”. I was “psychotic,” according to Lillie and Barry Weiss. Brandon Heller of San Diego informed me that “you are actually supporting evil itself”.
It got worse. On an Irish radio show, a Harvard professor – infuriated by my asking about the motives for the atrocities of 11 September – condemned me as a “liar” and a “dangerous man” and announced that “anti-Americanism” – whatever that is – was the same as anti-Semitism. Not only was it wicked to suggest that someone might have had reasons, however deranged, to commit the mass slaughter. It was even more appalling to suggest what these reasons might be. To criticise the United States was to be a Jew-hater, a racist, a Nazi.
And so it went on. In early December, I was almost killed by a crowd of Afghan refugees who were enraged by the recent slaughter of their relatives in American B-52 air-raids. I wrote an account of my beating, adding that I could not blame my attackers, that if I had suffered their grief, I would have done the same. There was no end to the abuse that came then.
In The Wall Street Journal, Mark Steyn wrote an article under a headline saying that a “multiculturalist” – me – had “got his due.” Cards arrived bearing the names of London “whipping” parlours. The Independent's web-site received an e-mail suggesting that I was a paedophile. Among several vicious Christmas cards was one bearing the legend of the 12 Days of Christmas and the following note inside: “Robert Fiske (sic) – aka Lord Haw Haw of the Middle East and a leading anti-semite & proto-fascist Islamophile propagandist. Here's hoping 2002 finds you deep in Gehenna (Hell), Osama bin Laden on your right, Mullah Omar on your left. Yours, Ishmael Zetin.”
Since Ariel Sharon's offensive in the West Bank, provoked by the Palestinians' wicked suicide bombing, a new theme has emerged. Reporters who criticise Israel are to blame for inciting anti-Semites to burn synagogues. Thus it is not Israel's brutality and occupation that provokes the sick and cruel people who attack Jewish institutions, synagogues and cemeteries. We journalists are to blame.
Almost anyone who criticises US or Israeli policy in the Middle East is now in this free-fire zone. My own colleague in Jerusalem, Phil Reeves, is one of them. So are two of the BBCs' reporters in Israel, along with Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian. And take Jennifer Loewenstein, a human rights worker in Gaza – who is herself Jewish and who wrote a condemnation of those who claim that Palestinians are deliberately sacrificing their children. She swiftly received the following e-mail: “BITCH. I can smell you from afar. You are a bitch and you have Arab blood in you. Your mother is a fucking Arab. At least, for God's sake, change your fucking name. Ben Aviram.”
Does this kind of filth have an effect on others? I fear it does. Only days after Malkovich announced that he wanted to shoot me, a website claimed that the actor's words were “a brazen attempt at queue-jumping”. The site contained an animation of my own face being violently punched by a fist and a caption which said: “I understand why they're beating the shit out of me.”
Thus a disgusting remark by an actor in the Cambridge Union led to a website suggesting that others were even more eager to kill me. Malkovich was not questioned by the police. He might, I suppose, be refused any further visas to Britain until he explains or apologises for his vile remarks. But the damage has been done. As journalists, our lives are now forfeit to the internet haters. If we want a quiet life, we will just have to toe the line, stop criticising Israel or America. Or just stop writing altogether.