“Gaza is a tiny coastal enclave adjoining Israel. … The story of how people got there requires us to go back some 75 years.”Stephen R. Shalom
[This is a lightly edited version of a podcast recorded on Oct. 19 and aired on Oct. 22, 2023.]
Michael Albert: Hello, my name is Michael Albert and I am the host of the podcast that’s titled Revolution Z, now sponsored by, and a component of, znetwork.org. Now for our 252nd consecutive episode, we have as our guest Stephen Shalom. Steve is a retired professor of political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He’s on the editorial board of New Politics and is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing on the Israeli-Palestine question has appeared over the years in Znet and Z Magazine, as well as other outlets. So welcome back to Revolution Z, Steve.
Stephen R. Shalom: Glad to be here.
Michael Albert: So how about if we start with some basics? How big is Gaza, how many Palestinians live in Gaza and how did they get there?
Stephen R. Shalom: Gaza is a tiny coastal enclave adjoining Israel. It’s bordered on one side by the Mediterranean, on the long side and the eastern short side by Israel and on the western short side by Egypt. All together it’s 140 square miles, which is a tiny place in which to house 2.3 million people. It’s one of the most densely populated places on earth.
The story of how people got there requires us to go back some 75 years. At that time, the United Nations partitioned the British colony — they called it a mandate, but it was essentially a colony — of Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, and these were not contiguous pieces. One of the pieces was going to be the Arab piece of Gaza. Altogether, the Arab state was given — even though it had two-thirds of the total population — just 45 percent of the territory. War broke out. There’s lots to say about that war and its conduct. Palestinians were driven from their homes, and Israel ended up not with 55 percent, but with 78 percent of Palestine. The little piece that was going to be Gaza became even smaller. Israel took over lots of the land around it, and so what you had was the Gaza Strip. It was occupied by Egypt, and three-quarters of the population were not people who were born there, but Palestinian refugees from other parts of Palestine who had been driven out of their homes.
Egypt continued to administer Gaza until 1967, when there was an Arab-Israeli war and Israel then conquered Gaza plus the West Bank, plus East Jerusalem (as well as Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights). So all of the British mandate of Palestine was now under Israeli control.
Michael Albert: How did Israel justify conquering Gaza and the other areas?
Stephen R. Shalom: Israel said, “we fought a defensive war and so this was just the result of that defensive war.” There are two things to say here. One is that the war was not defensive. Israel attacked first. Lots of people around the world were very nervous for little Israel facing big Egypt and Syria and Jordan. But in the Pentagon and in the Israeli military establishment they knew very well that Israel had the military advantage. The CIA predicted if there’s a war, Israel will win within a week. Israel attacked and Israel won within a week. But here’s the thing: Even if you don’t think Israel was the aggressor here, even if you think Israel acted defensively against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, that provides no justification for keeping the people of Gaza as occupied citizens. If Egypt did wrong, punish Egypt, but that doesn’t take away the right of self-determination of the people of Gaza.
Michael Albert: Okay then, what are the circumstances of Palestinians in Gaza? Why is Gaza called, for example, an open-air prison? Why is there a Palestinian struggle for freedom at all?
Stephen R. Shalom: There is a Palestinian struggle for freedom in general because back in 1947, when the UN partitioned Palestine, there was supposed to be a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, Israel, but there never was a Palestinian state. Israel expanded, Jordan took territory (the West Bank), Egypt took Gaza, and the Palestinians were nowhere to be seen and Palestinians were driven from their homes. They were made into refugees. Lots of them went to Lebanon, lots of them went to Jordan, lots of them spread all over the world, lots of them concentrated on the West Bank and lots of them concentrated in Gaza. They have been struggling for self-determination ever since then. Israel especially wants to hold on to the West Bank because that has valuable land, Gaza not so much. In fact, for many, many years, Israelis took the view that if Gaza would only “sink into the sea” (in the words of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin) — that would be great. They didn’t want to have to administer two million Palestinians, and so in 2005, under Ariel Sharon, they moved their troops out of Gaza and put them on the border of Gaza. So it’s as if you had a prison and the guards moved to the outside, the outer boundary.
How do we know that Gaza remains occupied? That’s what the UN and all the main international humanitarian organizations say: it remains occupied because Israel totally controls what goes in and what comes out. People, imports, exports. The Israelis claim that, well, we have to control their trade because we don’t want weapons going in. The point is, they also control their exports, and the only reason to do that is to crush Gaza’s economy, and Gaza is not allowed its own ports. When a flotilla of ships came with humanitarian aid in 2010, sailing to Gaza, Israel attacked them, killing 10 aid workers. This is still an occupied territory, and Israel has tightened the screws ever since 2006, when Hamas won an election.
I need to talk about the different Palestinian parties. There was a secular Palestinian force called Fatah, which was the main group in the Palestine Liberation Organization, and they worked out a deal with Israel – the Oslo Accords — that some Palestinians believed might eventually lead to a Palestinian state. Now, there are lots of reasons to have been very suspicious of that from the beginning. In fact, Israeli officials said any Palestinian state will be less than a state. It will not be a real state. There was to be a Palestinian authority, to administer and keep control over Palestinians for the Israelis. Over time, the Palestinian authority became more and more corrupt. And it became more and more clear that this was not going to lead to a Palestinian state. And so when Palestinians held elections in 2006, Hamas won. They got a plurality. Now Hamas came out of a right-wing fundamentalist Islamic background and lots of people did not support their program or their positions. But they were sick and tired of the corruption of the Palestinian authority, and they were even more sick and tired of the fact that the Palestinian authority seemed not to be advancing in any way towards statehood.
The West and Israel responded to Hamas’ election victory by imposing bitter sanctions on Gaza, trying to overthrow the Gaza government. Hamas threw the Palestinian Authority folks out from Gaza, and so you had this strange situation where there was the Palestinian Authority operating on the West Bank under Israeli control and Hamas was in control of Gaza. This enabled Israel to be able to say, you see, there’s no one for us to negotiate with, because the Palestinians can’t agree, though whenever the Palestinians would try to reach some kind of agreement, Israel would smash them one way or another. So Hamas has been in control of Gaza since those elections back in 2006. They’ve not held new elections since then, so we don’t know how they would fare in free elections. They’re pretty authoritarian. And in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, is in the 18th year of his four-year term. So Palestinians are not being well-served by their political institutions. In Gaza, Hamas is the force in control.
Michael Albert: Okay, we have this issue of the occupation and a lack of good political systems, even inside the Palestinian areas, but what about the situation of the population? Just briefly, what do the Palestinians have to complain about? That isn’t abstract, that’s actually their conditions.
Stephen R. Shalom: Whatever their own internal structures are, they are all subject to Israeli rule. They are colonial subjects.
Michael Albert: And what is the effect of that on their lives?
Stephen R. Shalom: It means they have no say over what happens to them. It means in the West Bank their homes are often taken, their land is taken, their olive trees are taken, they’re compressed into more and more concentrated areas of Palestinian population, while Jewish settlers from Israel move into the West Bank in settlements. And all these settlements are illegal under international law, which says you may not move your population into occupied territory. Israel has moved hundreds of thousands of people into this territory at the expense of the Palestinians who live there. To get from one place on the West Bank to another that’s just a few miles away, you have to travel all around in some convoluted route, because there are roads that are for Israelis only. There are checkpoints every so often. So it’s not like you’ve got one whole West Bank. You’ve got a checkerboard of pieces of Palestinian territory surrounded with Israeli-only roads and Israeli settlements, with huge amounts of land, lots of water, and access roads, while Palestinians are being slowly but surely dispossessed. There are some Israelis, including some in the current government, which is the most literally fascist government in Israel’s history, that would like to just drive out all the Palestinians. Finish the job they started in 1948. Others just want to concentrate them in tiny reservations and leave all the good land and good water for the Israelis.
Now that’s the West Bank. In Gaza, there aren’t the same kind of valuable land and water resources. Because of the continual Israeli bombings, killing people but also destroying infrastructure, because of Israel’s control over imports into Gaza that might allow them to rebuild because of their totally destroyed water system and sewage system – in Gaza there has been a humanitarian crisis and there has been this humanitarian crisis in Gaza long before the events of the last few weeks. In fact, a decade ago, the United Nations said that if things continue this way in Gaza, it will become unlivable in 2020, and nothing really has changed. So in terms of self-determination, in terms of being able to live a decent life, this is a humanitarian crisis that has been going on for a long time. Unemployment in Gaza is well over 50%. If this makes Palestinians want to leave Gaza entirely, Israel is happy, because that just furthers their expulsion agenda.
Michael Albert: All right. So the plight of people is evident. What have been some of the ways in which Palestinians, in whichever site, have sought to challenge and escape their oppressive circumstances? What have been some of key responses to their efforts? Now, I know this is a big topic and it’s not fair to ask you to address it quickly, but, in summary, what kinds of reactions have Palestinians had and what kinds of response has Israel delivered?
Stephen R. Shalom: So in the 1980s, Palestinians rose up in what was called the first Intifada uprising, and it was largely a nonviolent uprising, and Israel responded with great brutality. The chief of staff of the military, Yitzhak Rabin, who was later assassinated because he was considered too pro-Palestinian, told his troops to break their bones. There was tremendous brutality used in crushing this largely nonviolent Intifada, and in the years since then, Palestinians have tried various kinds of nonviolent struggles many times. In the early 2000s, when a second Intifada began, Israel applied deadly violence to it early on, provoking it to become a violent Intifada, and lots of Israelis died in that, but many more Palestinians died. But that, too, failed because in terms of military capabilities, Israel has tremendously more assets than the Palestinians do. They’ve tried various diplomatic initiatives. In 2003, Saudi Arabia proposed — and all the Arab states and the Palestinians signed on — that if Israel allows the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, all the Arab states will recognize Israel and establish peaceful relations with them. Israel refused.
In 2018, Palestinians in Gaza marched to the boundary, the wall, the fence that the Israelis had put around Gaza. They marched to the fence initially non-violently. Later there were people throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and so on, over the border, but Israeli snipers killed almost 200 people, who were not threatening any lethal harm; and they shot medical workers, journalists, children. And so many Palestinians are very frustrated with non-violence. Many Palestinians, of course, say but we don’t really have an armed option here that will leave us victorious.
Michael Albert: So we come to basically the present and we have the Hamas attack two weeks ago now. I’m not even sure what goals it might have had. Was there an Iranian role, as has been proposed? Are recent rightward trends in Israel a factor, and to what extent can we justify with or empathize with — not the same thing — the feeling in Gaza that their back is against the wall, they face continued slow death, and they’re willing to risk something more aggressive to escape it?
Stephen R. Shalom: There are a number of separate questions there. First of all, what were they hoping to achieve? It’s not clear. There are several things that were going on. You mentioned the right-wing nature of the Israeli government. This is a real factor. This is a government that said we are not interested in, we’re not even going to pretend like previous governments did, that we eventually will support some kind of reduced statehood for Palestinians. No, we don’t want that at all. Our goal is to annex as much Palestinian land as possible. One reason Hamas was so successful in its military operation in Gaza on October 7th is because much of the Israeli military was moved from the environs of Gaza to the West Bank to provide protection for armed settlers who were committing pogroms against Palestinians on the West Bank. So all Palestinians were seeing a great escalation in Israeli violence, Israeli encroachments on their religious sites, and Israeli seizures of land. So that’s one thing in the background.
The second thing is, in terms of international dynamics, the United States was trying to work out an arrangement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Now, since 1948, when Israel was established, most Arab states said we are not going to recognize Israel until it provides justice for Palestinians. Egypt broke that in 1979 when they worked out a deal to get back Sinai, which had been conquered by Israel. Jordan has a relationship with Israel. Morocco: under Trump and his Abraham Accords, Morocco agreed to recognize Israel in return for Israel and the United States recognizing Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara. So there were breaks in that uniform Arab position. But if Saudi Arabia went along with Israel, the Palestinians would have looked like they were in a hopeless situation. But the reason I don’t think that’s a sure factor is because many people don’t think that that rapprochement was actually going to happen, because the Saudis said we’ll only do it if Israel makes concessions to the Palestinians. And maybe some other Israeli government might have made some cosmetic concessions, but it’s doubtful that this Netanyahu right-wing government would have, and so I’m skeptical that an Israel-Saudi deal would have happened.
Some think that Iran was especially worried about an Israel-Saudi deal and therefore they encouraged Hamas to launch this attack, hoping this would disrupt any possible Israeli-Saudi negotiations. It’s definitely the case that Iran was providing training and arms and money to Hamas. But the planning for this operation must have begun at least a year ago, and so it’s not clear that any immediate factors could have been the explanation.
Okay, now you also asked about justification as well as explanation. Of the 1400-odd Israelis who were killed on October 7th, over two-thirds of them were civilians. Killing civilians, in my view, is always reprehensible and not justified. There are tough cases of a civilian who might not fully be a civilian. For example, you’re working in a tank factory. Are you a civilian? You’re the secretary of defense, who is technically a civilian, etc. So there are tough cases, but there are no tough cases involving babies, and so killing these sorts of innocent civilians is absolutely wrong and unacceptable. But one can certainly understand why people who have been dehumanized and brutalized for so long might explode into that kind of rage. Likewise, an even larger number of civilians have been killed in Israel’s retaliations, and those too are understandable. We understand the feelings of revenge, etc. But that doesn’t make them acceptable. And both of those death tolls — the Israelis killed on October 7th, the Palestinians killed since then — pale in comparison to the number of people whose lives are at risk going forward, which is in the hundreds of thousands, and that’s where our real emphasis has to be in the days ahead.
Michael Albert: When the Israelis, or supporters or advocates of Israeli policies, talk about it, they talk about a right of self-defense. This always comes up. I thought maybe we could address that a bit also. First of all, what does it mean? What does a right of self-defense mean? And secondly, if it exists, did Hamas have such a right justifying its recent actions? Does Israel have such a right justifying its current actions? And could one but not the other have such a right? So what does it mean? First, what does it mean to say that a country has a right of self-defense?
Stephen R. Shalom: I believe that countries and people have the right of self-defense. A pacifist might disagree. A pacifist might say it is never justified to use violence or force against another person. But most people take the view that there are certain circumstances that justify the use of force. And the most important of those circumstances is if someone has used force against you first, then you are entitled to the right to defend yourself by inflicting harm on your attacker. So you always have the right, of course, to put up your arm to block a blow. But you also have the right to return a blow if someone jumps you in the street etc. But all moral thinkers say granting a right of self-defense does not mean that that right is unlimited. There are certain restrictions on it. One restriction is the restriction of proportionality. That is, if somebody comes up to you and bumps into you intentionally, you can’t then take out an Uzi and machine gun them and their family. Yes, you’re responding, but that’s disproportionate to the harm and the danger that you faced. There’s another principle here, and that is if you are already engaged in an unjust act, then you don’t have the right of self-defense. So a bank robber goes into a bank, shoots a guard, says give me the money and somebody, one of the customers maybe, takes a gun out to shoot the robber. Does that robber have the right of self-defense to shoot that customer? No, because you had no right to be there in the first place, and so in the same way a colonial occupier does not have the right of self-defense against those trying to break out of their colonial occupation. So in China or the Philippines during World War II, if you were under Japanese occupation and you decided to ambush a Japanese army patrol, whether they were shot on first or second didn’t matter. They are occupiers, they have no right of self-defense. Now, yes, you have the right of self-defense, even if you’re an occupier, if you are protecting yourself from an unjust act by an occupied people. So if somebody breaks into an Israeli home and is about to kill a baby, that’s not a just act of self-defense and therefore you, an Israeli in that home, would have the right of self-defense. But as a general rule, Palestinian resistance is legitimate within the confines I’ve mentioned, and Israeli self-defense is invalid.
Michael Albert: Obviously, you don’t have to go to the extreme cases to see that there’s a difference between self-defense and ubiquitous revenge. There’s a difference between your case of somebody defending a baby in their household against an extreme, unjust, vicious attack, on the one hand, and the country of Israel turning off water, food, electricity access and bombing cities into dust as an act of revenge, on the other hand. At any rate, this might be a little off the trail that we’re on, but I think it’s worthwhile to address. So a good number of leftist advocates of the Palestinian cause have, after the Hamas action, supported and even felt identity with the Israeli response. I’ve heard this from various friends I know myself and know that that is the case. But why might it be the case? Why might somebody who’s been a backer of the Palestinian cause suddenly feel an affinity with the Israeli response? And should it be the case?
Stephen R. Shalom: One of the things we know about terrorism is that there are several things wrong with terrorism. One thing wrong with terrorism is its morality. A second thing wrong with terrorism is if your goal is to build, as the ANC wanted to build in South Africa, a multiracial state, then certain kinds of tactics make the building of a multiracial state more difficult, and that’s why the ANC was very limited in the amount of terrorism that it engaged in. So that’s a second reason. And a third reason against terrorism is that in general — I don’t know if this is a universal rule, but in general — the result of terrorism is not to make your opponents say, oh my God, we’ve been in the wrong, but rather to elicit blind rage, hatred, revenge. In general, studies have shown every time there was a terror bombing in Israel in the 1990s, the rightwing share of the vote went up, because the right wing says, vote for us, we’ll smash Palestinians. So this is, I think, a natural human response that when people you love have been murdered, you get angry. And some people can see beyond that and look for more humane ways to try to resolve the situation. But it’s often the case that people don’t do that and I think that that’s at play here. But I think it’s also important to note that, although we hear lots of voices calling for revenge from Israel, we also hear a smaller number of people saying I lost a close relative, but do not use that as an excuse to kill Palestinian civilians. Do not use that as an excuse for escalation. In these circumstances, those kinds of voices often get submerged. And the same thing happened in the United States after 9-11. The drive for war swept up not just the old standard warmongers, but lots of others were swept up as well because of the horrors that people had seen.
Michael Albert: So it’s understandable, but that doesn’t make it right, of course.
Stephen R. Shalom: Of course.
Michael Albert: And it’s also possible. I have to admit I do find it hard to understand how someone can see that, after decades and decades of subordination and horrible conditions and deaths and all the rest, to strike out in a way that kills civilians is not only counterproductive but wrong, and not see that to strike out after an act which kills a thousand people by attacking a million people, half of whom are kids, which is what I’m told is true of the population of Palestine, is also wrong. Not only to see that it is wrong, but to see it as something I want to rally around, that I want to celebrate. It’s hard for me to understand that. I can sort of feel it, but it’s hard. Anyway, western media are often called out as biased and hypocritical in their coverage of Israel and of Palestine. And so first I want to ask you why is that? That is, set aside right and wrong for a minute. Why do people claim that Western media is biased and hypocritical in their coverage?
Stephen R. Shalom: The media have followed very much the US government line on Israel-Palestine and the US government has largely followed the Israeli line on Israel-Palestine. And there are several explanations here. One is the similarity of Israeli Jews to Americans compared to the Third World Palestinians. There is the fact that the US security state has aligned its interests with those of Israel. Israel has served important purposes supporting US policy in the Middle East. People sometimes talk about it as Israel against the Arabs, but it’s often been Israel and the reactionary Arab states that support the United States on the one side and the radical Arab states on the other. So, for example, in 1967, when Israel went to war against Egypt, Egypt at the time had quite a number of troops in Yemen fighting in a civil war there, where the Saudis were on the other side. So there was an inter-Arab conflict between the monarchy of Saudi Arabia backing the royalists in Yemen on the one side and the sort of more radical regime of Egypt supporting more radical forces in Yemen. The United States was on the side of the royalists. So Israel’s defeat of Nasser, the Egyptian leader, in 1967, wasn’t just of benefit to the Israelis, but it was of benefit to the Saudis. It was of benefit to the US oil companies that were connected to the Saudis, and it was of benefit to the US government. So those are some of the reasons why the media’s approach has generally taken Israel’s side in these questions.
Michael Albert: It’s a slightly different question than I was seeking an answer to, which is not your fault. It’s my fault in the way I asked. That is, you answered the question “Why might Western media behave in a way that we would deem biased and hypocritical, that is subservient to a particular perspective, despite the facts?” But what I wanted to know about was what about its reporting causes people to think Western media is biased, not what the cause of the bias is, but what the evidence of it is. What is the evidence that Western media actually is behaving in a way that’s biased, not objective, that’s hypocritical and not — I don’t even know what the opposite word is for hypocritical in their coverage of Israel and Palestine? I mean, your answer is in many ways more important, but there is this question of when you disagree with something, why are you disagreeing? You can disagree with it because it’s an honest disagreement and you can disagree with it because you feel that the other side is in fact not being honest, is not giving its best effort to see what’s actually going on and report what’s actually going on accurately. And I think that the claim that Western media is biased and hypocritical isn’t just a disagreement about what the facts are, but it’s even a disagreement about whether or not they’re being honest in their reporting, whether or not they’re covering things in a manner that is trying to get to the truth of the situation. Maybe it’s clearer that way. If not, we can just go on.
Stephen R. Shalom: Oftentimes the media accepts Israel’s framing of the question. So, for example, I mentioned that Israel has moved hundreds of thousands of settlers into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They’ve built these settlements. There are also a few settlements that have been built by far-right crazies that are not in the places that the Israeli state has chosen. They’re trying to encourage the Israeli state to go at a faster settlement pace than it wants to. Those settlements don’t have permits from the Israeli government. The Israeli government says these are illegal settlements and the Western press generally uses that language. But of course the world court has said every Israeli settlement, even the ones — especially the ones — that are approved by the Israeli government, are illegal. So in their coverage saying so-and-so a member of an illegal settlement, they’re hiding the fact that yes, there are the crimes and illegalities of these crazies, but in fact the whole Israeli state is engaged in an illegal undertaking and one can find examples of that kind of thing in all kinds of ways. So we heard for so many years that the Palestinians aren’t willing to recognize Israel, but in fact the Israelis were not willing to recognize the Palestinians and that we never heard.
Michael Albert: The thing I’m trying to get at poorly, is that a media organization can put forth a position. It could be a wrong position. The people doing it may actually believe it’s the truth. Alternatively, it could put forth that wrong position and the people know it’s a falsehood. And some place in the middle it could put forth that position and it could certainly be the case that the people writing it, the people editing it and the people putting it forward would without any difficulty understand its false but somehow keep themselves from paying any attention to that understanding. I don’t know whether the nuance of this difference makes much of a difference in the end. It certainly doesn’t make a difference to the actual content of the emergent article. It’s distorted and I’m not even sure which is worse. But these differences do exist, and they also creep into the interpersonal interactions that people can have. So you’re talking to a family member about Israel and the family member says things that are just false, that are or that reveal to a sober analysis an obliviousness to the well-being and rights of huge numbers of people which that person ordinarily would never express, never feel, would even understand and rebuke. And it’s hard to understand exactly how that kind of situation emerges; how a sensible, caring person comes up with views and stances that are utterly opposite to what they ordinarily would hold to be the case. Maybe we should just move on, but the situation that now exists, I think, brings to attention these kinds of problems when you’re trying to organize around it.
Stephen R. Shalom: One of the things that has been a problem for critics of Israel for a long time has been that their opponents accuse them of antisemitism. This is a very powerful accusation, and, given the history of antisemitism and the history of antisemitism on the left as well, no one wants to be accused of that, and so people often shy away from criticisms of Israel because they don’t want to be accused of that. That’s why it’s important that there are Jewish organizations that stand up for Palestinian rights, because it’s harder to accuse them of antisemitism. But, as Noam Chomsky found years ago, the response instead is okay, you’re not an antisemite, you’re a self-hating Jew. Now some people are willing to accept those attacks and go on and stand up for the rights of Palestinians, but it puts a lot of pressure on them, and so I think that’s another factor.
Michael Albert: I agree that it is another factor. I’m not so sure that it’s fear of ostracism, so to speak, as compared to desire for being included. And it’s slightly different. If I say the things that Chomsky says. I’ll be ostracized on the one hand, but I will also, short of that, not be part of the team. That says other things. And I suspect the desire to be part of the team rather than fear of ostracism might be what’s at work.
Stephen R. Shalom: So, for example, a whole lot of people at Harvard are part of organizations that signed a statement that was, to my mind, badly worded and too supportive of Hamas. But the result has been there are trucks going around with big signs with the names of all the people who were members of these groups, hoping for them to lose jobs, have jobs rescinded. So is this fear of being harmed or of not fitting in?
Michael Albert: That’s fear of being harmed. It’s a very good example of the threat and trying to avoid the threat. But when I hear stories of people who are pro-Palestinian and who suddenly, as a result of the Hamas attacks find themselves dismissing pro-Palestinian stances as antisemitic, etc., I wonder are they doing it because they want to avoid being attacked? I don’t think so. Rarely are they danger of that. Or is it more that they want to be part of the Israel-supporting team? The reason I think this is important is because I think it’s important to how a leftist activist, somebody who’s trying to talk about the situation and be heard, should speak. It probably has bearing upon what has to be said in order to have a conversation that might have a meaningful effect, as compared to just saying what’s true with no eye toward actually having a meaningful effect.
Stephen R. Shalom: I don’t think the number of people who were supportive of Palestinian rights, who dropped their support as a result of these events, is actually very large. In Jewish Voice for Peace circles. I don’t know of anyone who sent an email saying, please cut off my membership. Now there are some people who objected to some of the formulations that some groups have come up with and sometimes severed their ties with those groups, but I don’t have evidence that in those cases they were rejecting the Palestinian cause.
Michael Albert: All right, I have two questions that I want to ask that are forward-looking. One is difficult, I think. It’s about the position that Palestinians have found themselves in. Let’s assume for a minute that Hamas was a representative organization of the Palestinian people and was out for the well-being of Palestinians in Gaza and wanted to do something that would impact the slow death that they’re enduring. Is there something that they could have done other than what they did do? I know it’s reaching for us to even venture into such a possible suggestion, but it also may teach us something about what can work and what can’t work in difficult times. So can you think of something?
Stephen R. Shalom: Imagine if Hamas did their same operation, knocked out the observation sites with their drones, broke through the fence, and did all that stuff but just attacked the eight military bases. They actually attacked, as you know, eight military bases and some 20 communities and a music festival. But imagine if they didn’t attack the villages and the communities and the music festival at all, but just attacked the military bases. It seems to me that that would have been morally very different. And it would have been much, much harder for the Israel government to have mobilized its population in response. It might indeed have been the case that the Israeli population, which was already fed up with Netanyahu, would have been angrier at him than at Hamas.
Michael Albert: Let me take it one question further. Hamas leaders are sitting in a room in Gaza and, as you mentioned, it may have been planning this over the course of a year. I wonder how could they not know what you just said? How could they not, in the course of all that thinking about the action, have understood what the difference would be between attacking the military bases on the Israeli side and then doing this other thing? Could it have been the case that they had no intention of some of that other stuff? And that other stuff was just in the moment and in the fear and in the paranoia and in the violence and outburst of some actors?
Stephen R. Shalom: It’s certainly possible, but the numbers make me a little skeptical.
Hamas has said a number of things, but one of the things they’ve said is that after they broke through the fence, a bunch of criminal gangs followed them through and they’re the ones responsible for all the attacks on civilians. That seems to me unlikely.
Michael Albert: And yet it would make more sense, in the sense that you can understand such gangs behaving thusly. It’s hard for me to understand a politically sophisticated organization, however nationalist or anything, overlooking the likelihood that what they were proposing to do would have adverse rather than positive effects.
Stephen R. Shalom: Yes, but there are two reasons that I don’t think that the bulk of the killings were by criminal gangs. Two different interviews with Hamas officials offered rationalizations that you wouldn’t offer if this were criminal gangs. If it were criminal gangs to blame, Hamas would have been the first to condemn them. Instead we had one Hamas official telling an interviewer: Well, you’re calling them civilians, but if you’re a female who works at your computer doing cyber-attacks for the Israeli government, we don’t consider that a civilian. Now, there was no effort to interview or prove who each individual, one of these victims was. We know that there were a bunch of peace activists among the dead. We know that there were a bunch of Israeli Arabs — Palestinians — among the dead. So this rationalization cannot be taken seriously.
A second argument advanced that suggests Hamas responsibility is the claim that says that settlers are not civilians. Now, in one regard that’s true. A lot of the settlers on the West Bank run around with weapons and are armed, and they are not civilians. But it’s often extended to include anyone who’s a settler – for example settler babies — and to extend it further. Settlers, in the view of many Palestinians, are not just those who occupy the West Bank in their settlements, but every Israeli, because Israel is a colonial settler state. Now, yes, I think Israel is a colonial settler state, but so is the United States. And if someone killed you and said Mike Albert is the citizen of a colonial settler state and therefore it is morally permissible to shoot him, we wouldn’t accept that. But some of that language is unfortunately also on the left when they talk about colonial settler states.
Michael Albert: Just to make the point in reverse, now consider those who are supporting Israel at the moment, who are basically justifying not some people going through a barrier, breaking out of a jail and being violent, but starving the entire population of a country.
Stephen R. Shalom: And the president of Israel has said essentially all Gazan civilians are guilty.
Michael Albert: There is a mental weirdness going on that allows you to understand it on one side but not on the other side, even in the most extreme cases, even where the side that you understand it on is sort of nuanced. There is a degree of nuance on the side of the Palestinian behavior. On the other side, there’s no nuance at all. There is a militarily incredibly powerful state declaring war, in essence, on two million people, and somehow that is legitimate. That’s what I have trouble with, how a thinking person can reject one and accept the other, where the one they accept is so much more obviously, not just in its scale but in its lack of anything to empathize with, I think. Anyway, it should impact, I think, the way we talk about this stuff, when we’re talking about people, all right, but what about going forward? What about a solution? You answered very well, I think, the question of could anything differently have been done during the incursion, during the jailbreak, let’s call it, by the Palestinians. Now comes the question: is there a solution to the situation going forward? And let me then break that into two things. What would have happened if, when Biden went to Israel just now, despite all the rhetoric for the public — we support, etc., etc., etc. – imagine he walked into the room and he said, okay, end it right now, end the assault. Let’s talk about ways to back out that aren’t, too self-incriminating, but back out of the genocidal massacre that you’re planning and let’s also reach a condition of peace and a degree of justice. I won’t say the ultimate revolution, but peace and a degree of justice going forward. Had Biden said that, what would have been the result? And if it would have been ample? And then the question arises, why not say it?
Stephen R. Shalom: Yes. So Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist who’s very well connected in policymaking circles, has had a number of op-eds in the last few days that essentially say that it will be a disaster to go into Gaza. It will not solve the problem, it will just make things worse, and keep the situation going forever. So you’ve got to hold off that assault, and you’ve got to find some way to advance the “peace process.” Now this is different from my position because the peace process he wants to advance is a very skewed peace process. But I don’t know at this point what Biden said to Netanyahu in private. For electoral reasons, he said the things he said in public. But maybe he did say to Netanyahu, look, we assess this will be an unmitigated disaster and therefore we’ve got to find some other way. Now it’s also possibly he said, we’ll try to work out some token humanitarian aid deliveries into Gaza as a way to cover you when you carry out your slaughter. And the announcement today that 20 trucks of humanitarian aid were let in through the Rafah border, the one with Egypt, for a population of two million, is just astounding. It’s ludicrous. But I don’t know what he said, and it wouldn’t necessarily be because he’s suddenly got a heart. It may be that he realizes that from the interests of the United States it would be a disaster.
Michael Albert: I wasn’t suggesting a heart.
Stephen R. Shalom: Understood. I don’t know what he said, and we’ll probably learn that in the next few days if there’s an all-out invasion. The question is would it matter?
Michael Albert: Suppose the US said, for its self-interested, venal reasons, cool it. Stop and let’s generate a real peace process that leads to an outcome that stops the constant fighting. So not because I give a shit about the Palestinians or, for that matter, the Israelis, because I don’t, says Biden, but because I’m saying so and I’m providing $3 billion of aid a year for you and that’s with me as a friend. Think of what it would be like with me as an enemy. The United States has tremendous leverage over Israel.
Stephen R. Shalom: Some of the shipping of arms is more a show of solidarity than an actual important addition to the Israeli military. I think the aircraft carriers might in fact play a deterrent role against Hezbollah in Lebanon or even Iran. But, when the US vetoes a UN resolution, that’s another kind of support. And if the US said we’re not going to veto those resolutions anymore, so not only will you be isolated, but you will also have UN resolutions condemning you, calling for sanctions against you, etc. That would be a very difficult environment for Israel. If Israel felt its survival was at stake, it would ignore the United States. But I don’t think it can afford that now. We don’t know enough about this new coalition government it has. To what extent does the far right have an important voice in it? They might be more inclined to push on against US advice.
So in general, the US pretty much can get Israel to do what it wants, except in the rarest of circumstances. There were a lot of times the US applied some weak pressure to Israel and Israel snubbed them and the US backed down. But if the US decides not to back down, then Israel’s in a pretty subordinate position, generally speaking.
Michael Albert: We’ve been going a while now. Is there anything else that you want to try and cover? It’s obviously a big and a complicated situation and I know there’s an endless amount more that could be said, but is there anything that you want to add to the mix?
Stephen R. Shalom: I think it’s important for Americans to put pressure on their government. I think the demonstrations that have taken place the last few days in Washington, led by JVP and If Not Now, have been very Important. But it’s a tough fight. The Congressional resolution proposing an immediate ceasefire has 15 co-sponsors. The resolution that essentially calls for a blank check to Israel has 423 co-sponsors. So it’s a tough fight.
Michael Albert: All right, Steve, really good session. Thanks very much. This is Mike Albert signing off until next time for Revolution Z.
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