Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East expert, is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and directs its New Internationalism Project. She has appeared on PBS, NPR, BBC, and CBC. She is the author of many books including Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis and Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN. Her latest books are Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Challenging Empire.
Welcome to the program.
Thanks very much. Great to be with you, David.
I’m going to start with a couple of poems, one by Langston Hughes called “Harlem.” I’m doing that deliberately because I think it might give us some sense of the current crisis and war. Hughes writes,
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over–Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
And the other poem is by Mahmoud Darwish, the National Poet of Palestine. In a famous couplet, he asks,
“Where shall we go after the last frontiers where should the birds fly after the last sky?”
Wither the Palestinians of Gaza, where shall they go after the last sky?
The two poems together are an extraordinary combination. They both speak to the loss of hope. I think the only question is, was there hope before this? Was there hope before October 7th? Was there hope before the escalation that we are now seeing? Gaza had been under siege for 16 years with shortages of food, of medicine, of electricity, of water, crucially of water. In 2012, and again in 2015, the United Nations told the world that Gaza would be, in UN words, unlivable by 2020. And 2020 came and went, and Gaza became unlivable, and the world did nothing. The world did nothing.
And I think many people in Gaza, particularly the young people, half of the population of Gaza, Gaza has almost two and a half million Palestinian people. Half of them are below the age of 18. And those people mostly have never been outside this narrow little strip of impoverished, crowded land. They’ve never seen even the Palestinian West Bank or occupied East Jerusalem, let alone be inside the 1948 state of Israel, and let alone see any part of the outside world. So, for those people, was there hope that was now smashed by this escalation? Maybe for some, but I think hope has been in very short supply in Gaza for a very long time.
Well, as our friend and mentor, the great Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, once ruefully observed, “Palestine is a thankless cause, one in which if you truly serve, you get nothing back but opprobrium, abuse, and ostracism. How many friends avoid the subject? How many colleagues want none of Palestine’s controversy? How many bien pensant liberals have time for Bosnia and Somalia, Rwanda and South Africa and Nicaragua, and human and civil rights everywhere on earth, but not for Palestine and Palestinians?” He said those words in the late 1990s. Has anything fundamentally changed since then?
Absolutely. I’m so sorry that Edward passed when he left us in 2003, because the change had not started yet. But some of the things that he helped put in place, including the creation of what has become the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. It was Edward who taught us so much about what was needed at that time, which was specifically a movement, not just an organization, but a movement that focused on changing the discourse, the narrative in the United States. And over the last 25 years, we’ve seen extraordinary shift in that narrative. Less than two years ago, about a year and a half ago, recent polling by the Jewish Electoral Institute showed that 25% of American Jews believed that Israel is an apartheid state. 38% of young Jews said the same thing. That’s an extraordinary shift. 44% of Democrats earlier this year said they believe Israel is, quote, like apartheid.
They didn’t say it was apartheid, they said it’s like apartheid. That’s a complete reversal of the longstanding view that Democrats were even more pro-Israeli than Republicans.
Bibi Netanyahu in his years as the prime minister of Israel, and he’s had way too many of those years, has transformed that so that now, unlike the goals of AIPAC and other parts of the pro-Israel lobbies for many years, whose complete goal was to make sure that Israel remained a bipartisan point of unity, a bipartisan consensus in the Congress. Well, it’s not that anymore and it’s very much a Republican issue. Support for Israel has become a Republican issue. Now that doesn’t mean that in the context of the horrific attacks of October 7th, the killing of 1400 Israelis, if we ask those same people today, do you think Israel is an apartheid state? I have no illusion that we would get the same result.
But at any moment a poll is nothing but a snapshot. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time. What’s significant about those earlier polls that I mentioned, is that they have been part of a trend and the trend has been consistent. We will see some ups and downs, we are seeing now a revitalization of the consensus in Congress, the notion that all but 10 members of the House voted for a completely one-sided resolution, saying we stand with Israel, essentially, regardless of what they may do in response to what happened on October 7th. And it’s become very difficult to get support for a simple issue like a ceasefire, a ceasefire on all sides, so desperately needed to stop the killing. This is what we need right now. And instead, we see Joe Biden’s bear hug diplomacy that undermines anything he might say when he claims to show concern for civilian lives, anything like that.
But nonetheless, I shouldn’t say I hope after listening to the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Langston Hughes the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, but I do have a little bit of hope that we are going to maintain those shifts in discourse that make possible a shift in the media, and that makes possible ultimately a shift in the political discourse, the policy discourse. We’ve already seen some of that. We have right now 300 former staffers for Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, the two most progressive members of the Senate, urging them, begging them, demanding that they call for a ceasefire, that they put forward a resolution parallel to the one that Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib put forward in the House, to say we need a ceasefire now. We need an immediate ceasefire.
If we look back to 2021, the last time that Israel assaulted Gaza, it wasn’t nearly as bad as this, but there was still a siege underway and there were days of bombing, and hundreds of Palestinians were killed. And at that time, again, President Biden was saying, “We don’t need a ceasefire yet.” Just like he’s saying now, not enough people have died yet, we don’t need a ceasefire yet. And on that occasion, you had 12 Jewish members of the House writing a letter to their own president, they were all Democrats, saying, “Please, Mr. President, we need a ceasefire now. Please call for a ceasefire.” Twenty-five senators wrote and said the same thing. And then, my personal favorite, and maybe the most influential of all 500 former Biden-Harris campaign staffers, the people who actually run the state campaigns and the city campaigns, who actually brought them into power, who brought them into the White House, 500 of them wrote to Biden in an extraordinary letter that talked about 73 years of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, in an incredible moment. And at that moment they were saying, okay, we need a ceasefire now.
And what was so important about that moment, they were also saying that this meant they had come to the conclusion that it was not any longer an act of political suicide for a political operative in the Democratic Party to criticize Israel. That they thought they would still be able to get a job in the next election a year later. And they did. No one lost their job because of that. The sky didn’t fall, because there was this shift in discourse, this shift in narrative.
Anyone looking at the press today would say, “Oh my God, the press is so incredibly one-sided. How can there be anything positive about it? How can we say anything good about it?” Well, the way we can say something good about it is, compare it to what it was five years ago, compare it to 20 years ago, compare it to the year 2003 when Edward Said left us. Compare it to that and we see the legacy of his work, the legacy of all of our work, the legacy of our movement, is that there is a whole new different way that the press even now has to approach the question of covering this. There are Palestinian voices, yes, they are being suppressed in far too many arenas, in far too many places, but there is fight back now. There is fight back and there are Palestinian voices appearing. There is the description of the horrific humanitarian disaster that is happening in Gaza every day on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The lead story on NPR, the lead story on the PBS NewsHour. All the mainstream elite media have to be covering this. They don’t do it right, they don’t do it enough, I’m not claiming that. There’s plenty of criticism that needs to go forward and it should be harsh and consistent. But we also have to recognize what has changed and that’s the only thing that gives us hope.
Talk about what’s been going on in Israel itself in terms of internal politics there. This is way before the October 7th attacks. The New York Times calls the government’s “lurch to the right” with extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich holding key positions. “Israel was at war with itself” according to David Ignatius in the Washington Post, over Netanyahu’s judiciary plan. Netanyahu was pushing for that very aggressively. So, what’s going on internally in Israel prior to the war?
I think prior to this war, what we were seeing was what David Ignatius said, that there is an enormous split dividing the Israeli Jewish population. But we should be clear about something. There is a divide between the current coalition that’s in the cabinet right now, which is a coalition of the right, the far right, the extreme right, and I use the term carefully, the fascist right. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, the two that you mentioned, of course being the best examples of that. One of whom likes to call himself “a fascist homophobe.” Another who was imprisoned for supporting a terrorist organization, a racist Israeli Jewish organization terrorizing Palestinian civilians. So yes, this is an extremist government, the most extreme there has ever been, but I wouldn’t call it a lurch to the right that implies somehow that it was something other than the right before that.
It was a completion of the shift to the far right, but it was also at a moment when the opposition, the so-called centrists, including what passes as the left in Israel, was fighting back around questions of support for the independence of the judiciary, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, a whole host of issues very important to Israeli liberals.
What they were not challenging was Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, Israel’s apartheid policy that has been so devastating for Palestinians inside Israel, in the occupied territories, and among the refugees who were denied their right to return home. That was never on the agenda, because the organizers of that protest movement knew that if that demand was included in the broad demands of the movement, they would not be seeing 200,000, 300,000, 400,000 protestors in the streets every week. They would be seeing 300, or 400, or 500 protestors, maybe a few thousand.
They would not be seeing what the world saw, because there is not that level of support for Palestinian rights. And it’s wonderful to see people protesting for their own rights, that’s a good thing but we should not have the illusion that that somehow was also designed to protect Palestinian lives, or Palestinian rights. It was not. And in fact, some of the leaders of that movement included former prime ministers and former other government ministers, including those who were longtime supporters of the occupation.
One of them, Benny Gantz, who when he ran for prime minister in, I believe it was 2016, I’m not sure I have the right year. His campaign video started with video that he took from a helicopter following the 2014 war Israel waged on Gaza, that went on for six weeks and left 2200 Palestinians dead from Israeli bombs. And his show-off was, “Look what I did. This is why you should vote for me for prime minister.” This is what he was so proud of, was the devastation he wrought in Gaza. So that was one of the leaders of the protest movement in Israel. So, we have to have no illusions about what that protest movement was and wasn’t.
On October 24th, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres addressed a special Security Council meeting. He, I’m quoting now, “condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7th October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel. Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians, or the launching of rockets against civilian targets.” He added, “It is important also to recognize that the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.” Israel’s UN ambassador has called on Guterres to resign, saying he’s “justifying terrorism.”
I got to say, the Israeli diplomatic corps has a lot of chutzpah, they really do. Not that they should be held accountable for what many, many public scholars around the world, including genocide scholars, that’s a field, many of them Jewish, have identified as acts of genocide in the Israeli war that has gone on these three weeks. That they should not be held accountable for that, but that someone who calls them out for it should somehow be forced to resign. This is extraordinary.
A population living under a military occupation has the right under international law to use armed force, to oppose that military occupation. It does not ever have the right to attack civilians, to kill civilians. So, what happened on October 7th with the killing of so many civilians was an unequivocal crime, a war crime, a crime against humanity, period, full stop. Nothing justifies it. And if we have any hope of preventing it from happening again, it is crucial that we understand why it happens, how it happens, and where it comes from. Otherwise, we will simply repeat cycles of violence as if those eruptions simply happen out of the sky, and they don’t, we know that. They don’t. They happen in response to conditions that become unbearable. Do unbearable conditions give people the right to attack civilians? Absolutely not. It remains a crime. And we have to understand what those conditions are.
When we look at international law, it gives us important clues here. The definition of genocide, for instance, has two parts. Part one is, there has to be a specific intent to destroy all or part of a group defined by race, religion, ethnicity, language, a host of other possible criteria. I think there’s no question that we have that in the Israeli statements over these last weeks, the statement of a member of the Knesset who said, “We need another nakba.” He used the Arabic term, the word means catastrophe, and it’s the word that Palestinians use to describe what happened to them in 1947 and 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled, were dispossessed of their homes and of their lands, and forced to become refugees. Overwhelmingly, the population of Gaza today is made up of those refugees from southern Palestine, from 1947 and 1948, who ended up in the Gaza Strip as refugees.
And that was certainly not the only statement. We have the President of Israel saying that, as if it was an impossible thing to imagine. He said, “You want to talk about Palestinian civilians,” implying that there was no such thing as civilians, “after what happened on October 7th?” Meaning when Israeli civilians were killed, there is appropriately shock and outrage, but he’s saying the notion that there even are Palestinian civilians is simply not true. So, we have these statements. Another statement from the president when he said, We are not talking about people, we are talking about “human animals.” That’s what he called the population of Gaza, the 2.3 million Palestinians, half of them children.
I think that was Yoav Gallant, the defense minister who said that.
These are all evidence of a genocidal intent. The second part of the law of what makes up genocide or potential genocide, is a set of five acts, any of which carried out with that specific intent makes it genocide. It turns it from mere ethnic cleansing, the action, into genocide, when the intention is against the whole group. Israel is now carrying out three of those five, killing members of the group, wounding or injuring members of the group either mentally or physically, and creating conditions that make life as a group impossible, such as a siege where water, and food, and medicine, and electricity are denied. Those three things together are all among the criteria for determining what is genocide. Add that to the clear genocidal intent and you have something that the International Criminal Court should be investigating right now. They should be calling it out right now and saying, “If Israel continues these actions, based on these statements they have already made, this places Israeli officials, military as well as political officials, in danger of being indicted in this court for genocide, for the act of genocide.” And I don’t see that happening, but I think that’s what the world needs to be demanding.
First up, we need to be continuing to demand a ceasefire. We desperately need a ceasefire right now. None of the aid in sufficient amounts will be able to get in if the bombing continues. These little caravans of three trucks, seven trucks, 15 trucks is enough to feed the people that are hanging out at the Rafah crossing trying to get out for two days. It’s almost nothing relative to what’s needed.
The hospitals, three quarters of them have already announced they’re shutting down, because they have no water, they have no fuel for their generators, they have no electricity, and many of their doctors and nurses have been killed. 75 of the ambulance drivers, EMTs, emergency workers have been killed. All of the ambulance services have now announced they can’t send ambulances to help anyone. Anyone who is injured, anyone who is caught under a building, they’re on their own. There is no help to come. The medical kits that are waiting to be sent in, include birthing kits designed for people who don’t know how to assist a woman giving birth, for people who have no medical training, because they know that they will be the ones who are assisting the women giving birth all over the Gaza Strip in these next days. It’s a horrific thing to think about, that that’s one of the things that have to be prepared by the humanitarian organizations.
The term genocide was coined by a Polish Jew, a famous jurist, a lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, having seen what the Turks did to the Armenians in 1915, and then the Holocaust. Now there’s an Israeli historian of genocide, his name is Raz Segal, and in the issue of Jewish Currents, he calls Israel’s assault on Gaza “a textbook case of genocide.”
And he’s not the only one. There is a petition that has been signed, I don’t know how many, I think it’s over 100 scholars around the world, scholars of genocide. That’s an academic discipline. Hard to imagine, but it is. And they are the ones who understand better than anyone what international law actually says and doesn’t say about defining genocide, holding accountable those accused of acts of genocide, and crucially, the obligations of, in this case, the member states who have signed the convention against genocide, which include of course the United States and Israel. Any outside third party who is a signatory to that convention has an international obligation to act to stop it. So, what is our government doing? We are not only sending Israel $3.8 billion every year as a starting amount. It’s already, this year, up way over $4 billion, but we are now just announcing $14 billion that the Biden administration wants to send for this war.
So, we are paying for this war. Israel’s entire military budget is $23 billion. When this $14 billion goes through, and there’s little doubt that it will, it will mean that the United States taxpayers are paying more than 75% of Israel’s entire military budget this year. That’s shocking. For a government that is carrying out acts that are at best war crimes, and may well be crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide. We are culpable. Our government is accountable and we as taxpayers have to do even more to say, “Not in our name. We need a ceasefire now.” This is the necessity to stop the killing. Will a ceasefire solve all the problems? Of course not.
We also need humanitarian aid. We need accountability for all of the crimes, including the crimes of October 7th. We need all of that. We need the hostages to be freed. It’s now over 10,000 Palestinians being held illegally in Israeli jails, we need them to be freed. 160 of them are children. Twelve of those children are being held under administrative detention. It’s shocking. Israeli military detention laws apply to children as young as 12. It’s the only country in the world who has a military juvenile justice system. So, it’s a shocking reality and we need to keep up the pressure. There was a piece in the New York Times today saying that the Biden administration is feeling the pressure from a divided Democratic Party. One of the biggest divides is between the elected Democrats who still, I think, are living in a bubble thinking somehow it’s political suicide, it’s what their base does not want, to criticize Israel. That’s just not the case. It hasn’t been the case for a long time, but it’s really not the case now. And yet, we’re seeing this enormous divide between the Democratic Party base and those elected by the Democrats on this issue, among other issues. There’s plenty of issues where there’s a divide, but this one may be more dramatic than any because there’s such passion around stopping it, because we are seeing in real time what this war looks like. We are seeing genocide beginning to take place. This is not a warning that Israel might do something. This is it. They are doing it. With the water cutoff in Gaza, we are very soon going to be seeing waterborne diseases adding to the triggers of death. It’s not only going to be people who are dying of thirst, but people are going to be dying of cholera and other waterborne diseases, and who’s going to die first? The babies, the children, and the elders because they’re the most vulnerable. And we are watching it happen in real time. We’re watching it on our screens. The first thing that people in Gaza are doing when they get a moment of electrical outlet from somebody, from a car that somebody starts and the battery is available, people charge their phones, so they can send word to their families to say, “We’re still alive,” and to the world to say, “Stop it.”
Talk about Hamas and describe what kind of organization it is. It won an election in 2006, it takes power in Gaza in the following year. It has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. But what level of support does it have among ordinary Gazans, and does that support extend to the West Bank, or is it strictly Gaza oriented?
Hamas is a very complicated organization. It has a political wing. As you say, it won an election in 2006 that made it the ruling power in Gaza, not in the West Bank. It has a social welfare contingent. It’s what makes it possible for many of the poorest people in Gaza to survive, beyond the UN. And it has an armed wing, which at times has carried out actions that are legal under international law, and on many occasions has carried out, as it did massively on October 7th, horrific criminal acts in violation of international law, because no one, including an occupied population, has the right to attack and kill civilians. So, it’s a complicated organization. The notion that we hear from the Israelis, “We’re going to wipe out Hamas.” What does that even mean? You’re going to wipe out members who voted, members of a party who signed on to vote for Hamas back in the last election, which was in 2006?
The question of how much support does Hamas have. It’s the same question, how much support does Fatah have? The mainstream organization of the PLO, that is the dominant political force in the West Bank, the dominant political force within the Palestinian Authority. The so-called president of the Palestinian Authority is also the leader of Fatah. And Fatah, like Hamas, both had elections in 2006 for four-year terms. Thirteen years later, they’re still the same people in office. They’re old, they’re decrepit, they don’t have a whole lot of support from anyone in the context of elections.
On the other hand, if you ask Palestinians, “Do you support Hamas as some abstraction?” In some polls up to 30% of Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, but in the West Bank as well. I don’t know the figures for the West Bank, significant numbers will say, “Yeah, of all of them, they’re the best.” That’s a pretty low bar. It’s a pretty low bar, because Palestinians tend to be very distant from their elected officials of all political stripes.
I think that the complication is that Hamas isn’t simply a militant military organization, it is a number of other things. And what has become clear is that the political wing and the humanitarian wing, the social welfare wing, had had no advance information about what was planned in this attack of October 7th. That’s part of the complication of how these things work out. The notion that Israel thinks they can wipe out Hamas simply doesn’t make any sense. You’re talking about a political, and economic, and social welfare organization that is based within, of course, a civilian population.
These are people who are from Gaza. They’re not dropped in from the sky into Gaza from somewhere else. These are Gazans. They have families, they have children, they have elders, just like every other Gazan. So, all of that has to be taken into account. If a house is the house of someone who is an official in the social welfare department of Hamas, does that make them a legitimate target and their family, the babies, their grandchildren, their mother-in-law, are they all legitimate targets? According to Israeli actions the answer would be yes. According to international law, absolutely not. So that’s sort of the complication that we see here.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was on Deutsche Welle on October 11th, and he talked about Hamas when Netanyahu was prime minister in the 1990s. This is what Olmert said, “For years, Netanyahu explicitly preferred to deal with Hamas in order not to have to deal with the Palestinian Authority. Hamas was financed with the assistance of Israel for years with hundreds of millions of dollars that came from Qatar, with the full knowledge and support of the Israeli government led by Netanyahu.” I dare say few know about Israel’s connection with Hamas in this period.
It’s interesting. It goes back even before that. It goes back to the period of 1987 when Hamas was founded in Gaza. It had its origins with the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood, as you say, David, but it also from the beginning, as Olmert is saying here, but Olmert also has his partisan view. He’s saying this is all about Netanyahu. This actually began when the Labor Party, when Rabin was in power, when others from the Labor Party were in power. So, this isn’t just a Likud or Netanyahu issue. What is true is that the support for the creation of Hamas as a legal institution in Gaza very much reflected what the U.S. did in Afghanistan, when it helped to create the mujahideen led by, later, Al-Qaeda leader bin Laden . So, we have the rise of Al-Qaeda under U.S. sponsorship, as one of a number of mujahideen organizations that the U.S. thought would be very useful to fight against the Soviets.
Similarly, the Israeli view was, the PLO is really a problem right about now. We don’t want to have to deal with them any more than we have to. What better way to get people to not support the PLO within the Palestinian population, than to have an alternative, in this case a religiously framed alternative of an Islamist organization. Israel supported it and allowed it to thrive and allowed it to function legally at a time when PLO officials were being assassinated around the world. So, this has a long and complicated history that goes back even before Netanyahu was the prime minister.
Ismail Haniyeh is the Hamas political leader. He’s quoted in The Guardian as saying, “Our objective is clear. We want to liberate our land, our holy sites, our Al-Aqsa mosque, our prisoners.” He then added, “To the enemy,” addressing Israel, “we have only one thing to say to you, get out of our land. There is no place of safety for you.” Now, if you were an average Israeli and you heard that, you wouldn’t be too excited about cuddling up with Hamas if there’s no place and no safe place for you.
That’s absolutely right. I wouldn’t feel so good about that either, and I’m not an Israeli. I think what’s important, is to look at how the political, and military, and other leadership of Hamas, and others in Hamas have changed their positions over the years. For many years, they refuse to accept any acknowledgement of or negotiations with Israel. As it turns out, over the years, they have negotiated many times with Israel, most recently in a prisoner exchange, something that Israel does routinely. Unlike the U.S., Israel is very public about its willingness to negotiate for any prisoners or POWs left behind. There was one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been held by Hamas in Gaza for five years. The negotiations continued for most of that time. It took years, but at the end of it, Gilad Shalit was released to his family, in return for the release of almost a thousand Palestinian prisoners.
There’s no question that Hamas sees the taking of POWs as a way of getting their prisoners back. Is that legal? Not if it goes after civilians, absolutely not. But is it understandable? Sure, it’s the way you get prisoners released. And I think in this context, it’s pretty clear that the Israelis see it the same way. In the last week, there have been over 5,000 more Palestinians, 4,000 of whom were workers from Gaza, who had permits to be working inside Israel. They were all suddenly swept up and imprisoned. They almost doubled the number of Palestinian prisoners being held illegally in Israeli prisons. I say illegally, because number one, they’re not being charged. Number two, it’s illegal for an occupying power to transfer prisoners, or transfer any civilians, from the occupied population into the occupying country. It’s simply illegal across the board. So imprisoning Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank or occupied East Jerusalem to a prison inside Israel is by itself a violation of the Geneva Conventions, a war crime. So, all of that is going on, and it’s pretty clear that the reason Israel suddenly went after 4,000 more Gaza workers who had had permits to be in Israel is because it gives them more people. I think they’re looking forward to a prisoner exchange of some sort. Maybe with the currently held, illegally held we should be clear, civilians and military people that are being held by Hamas. So, this is a very complicated thing. There’s no clarity on how this is going to be resolved.
We talked a little bit about the elite media. Let’s continue along those lines. How shall I say it? The performance of mainstream media coverage of the conflict. Veteran Middle East journalist and American University of Beirut professor, Rami Khouri, gave the media an F grade. He also advised, “CNN is bad for your health.” Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, Erin Burnett, Nic Robertson, et al, provide cheerleading for Israel. There’s no history, no background, no context. They regurgitate IDF talking points such as human shields, terrorist strongholds, and hornet nets. Embedded assumptions are never challenged. Israeli government spokespeople, who all incidentally speak excellent English, are featured time and time again. Palestinian voices are few and far between. And almost without exception, it’s always Iran-backed Hamas, Iran-backed Hezbollah, Iran-backed Houthis. Never U.S.-backed Israel, that’s a given. Talk about that media coverage.
Well, I never disagree with Rami. Let’s start with that. He is a brilliant analyst and a great media critic. I think he’s right, they deserve an F. I would say that five years ago, they deserved an F-. So, I like to think of things in process. If you don’t, working on this issue, you’ll never survive in this movement. You just don’t. So, I look at it in the context of what has changed at the time of Operation Cast Lead, when Israel assaulted Gaza in 2008 and ’09. One of the first things Israel tried to do, and was quite successful at doing, was keeping the international press out of Gaza. By now, they don’t try to do that. I mean, they try a little bit, they announce it, but there’s no real effort. Why? Because there are stringers for mainstream media outlets based in Gaza, who were already there.
That happened during Cast Lead. There was one young woman stringer from the New York Times based in Gaza. They couldn’t do anything about her, because she lived in Gaza, she lived with her parents. And she was great, and her stuff was on the front page for days, but a little tiny piece in a sea of pro-Israel assumptions and whatever. Now that’s quite different. We are hearing Palestinian voices. Some of that has to do with the work of an organization called IMEU, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, which started 10 years ago. And 10 years ago, they had one person on staff and had to struggle to get anybody to pay any attention to them. Now they have a huge staff, I don’t know how many are on it, but it’s a lot of people, and they can’t keep up with all the demands for assistance, for Palestinian voices. Who should we interview? How do we reach people in X refugee camp? It’s an extraordinary difference.
Now, is that going to reverse the decades, and it’s multiple decades, of pro-Israeli assumptions within the U.S. press? Of course not. We can’t be naive about this, but I also think to see it without the context is a mistake. It exists within a broader context, of how much things have changed. So, does there still need to be constant criticism of the U.S. press? Absolutely. Do we still need to target specific journalists who sound like they’re spokespeople for the Pentagon or for the IDF? Absolutely. There are still plenty of them on very influential outlets, but there are also others. You now have different people that have come up, younger reporters who have come up in a different era, whose assumptions that they were learning about politics when they were in high school, and they were in college, and when they went to journalism school, was not the same as those who went to high school, and college, and journalism school 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or 40 years ago.
So, there are differences. And even among the most pro-Israeli voices, Tom Friedman for God’s sakes, has actually shifted a bit in terms of how he’s seeing the situation on the ground. Because anyone who isn’t completely unwilling to acknowledge what they see in front of them, what they see directly in front of their own eyes, has got to be recognizing that. And the notion that you can stand back and say, “We don’t need a ceasefire now,” is actually not an easy thing to do.
For politicians it’s easy, because there’s a history. This notion of we don’t need a ceasefire yet, is a longstanding U.S. position. We saw this in 2006 when Israel was at war in Lebanon, when Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State for George Bush Jr, said explicitly, “We don’t need a ceasefire yet.” When the Security Council was voting and virtually every other country on the Council was saying, “We need a ceasefire. This is crazy. This is desperate. We need a ceasefire.”
Her answer was, “We don’t need a ceasefire yet.” And you have to read that as, “Not enough people have died yet, we need more people to die. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a few days we can have a ceasefire.” What will be different then, other than more people will have died? In 2008 and 2009, during Cast Lead, the same thing at the United Nations. Again, with Condoleezza Rice at the end of the Bush term, “We don’t need a ceasefire yet.”
But what happened this time, I mentioned what happened in 2021, when President Biden now is saying, “We don’t need a ceasefire,” and suddenly there’s pushback from members of Congress. And these are not members of Congress who necessarily actually support Palestinian rights. These are including people who have never said anything in support of Palestinian rights. But for their own human reasons and political reasons, in terms of what this means for how the world perceives what the United States is all about, for all of those reasons, they’re prepared to say, “We need a ceasefire.” Even if they start and end their letter with, “Israel has the right of self-defense to do whatever it wants, and we should pay them as much as they want for whatever they need.” They say all of that, but in the middle of it, they say, “We need a ceasefire.” That’s huge.
Is it enough? Of course not. Have we done enough work with those members of Congress and their staff? No, we haven’t. But it is huge that they are now saying that there is a resolution calling for a ceasefire now, that members of Congress are saying maybe they won’t sign onto the resolution, but they will call for a ceasefire. Or if not, if that word has become too toxic, they will say, “I will call for a cessation of hostilities.” Means the same thing. Fine, use whatever language you want, but call for a ceasefire, because that’s what’s so desperately needed. And that’s where we have seen a change. It’s not enough of a change. Rami is right, they still get an F, Congress gets an F–, because they have more power. But nonetheless, it is changing. It is changing.
Acquisition of land by force is an undisputed part of international law, as is collective punishment. We’ve talked about that. The latter is a long time Israeli practice, homes are blown up. East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights have been annexed by Israel in flagrant violation of international law. It rarely comes up in any kind of a discourse, but particularly the Syrian Golan Heights, maybe their full-page Israeli ads extolling the virtues of Golan Heights wine in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. But other than that, you don’t see much of it. Large swaths of the West Bank have been taken for Israeli settlements. There are at least a half a million settlers, probably more than that, on the West Bank. How does that portend for any kind of viable Palestinian state?
The second part of your question, I think is the easy one. There is no longer a possibility of a two-state solution. It’s very clear. This is not a debatable issue at this point among anybody who knows anything. The two-state solution, or as it usually is called very quickly, the two-state solution with swaps. You have to say it very fast and you have to say with swaps, is something that exists for politicians and diplomats who have no answer, who have no answer to what to do about the oppression of Palestinians, the apartheid facing Palestinians, the settler colonial reality of Israel. They have nothing to offer to solve that challenge. So instead, they say, “We need to get back to a two-state solution.” There’s not going to be a two-state solution, because there’s no land left for a viable contiguous Palestinian state.
Now putting that aside, the question of annexation remains a very key one. And we did hear not too long ago, some specific and terrifying realities about the occupation and now annexation of the Golan Heights. The annexation of the Golan actually was announced by Israel back in 1981, just a few years after it was occupied in 1967. It wasn’t recognized by any country in the world. That changed in 2018. Donald Trump is president, he goes to Israel. He meets with Netanyahu, and he says, “I now declare that we recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights as legitimate.” It’s like, who said you can do that? In complete violation of international law, and no one calls him out on it.
And worse, then he gets back to Jerusalem and he announces that the U.S. embassy is now going to be moved, again in complete violation of UN resolutions and international law. He’s going to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and he comes back to the United States and he meets with a group of wealthy Jewish Republicans, main donors of the Republican Party and of his campaign. And he looks around and he says, “I, for the first time, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.” And then he says, “And when I did, I was with your prime minister.” And not one of them stood up and said, “Excuse me, Mr. President, we’re not Israelis. We’re Americans. We don’t have a prime minister in Israel. Netanyahu’s not our prime minister. You are our president.” Nobody said that. It was the ultimate kind of anti-Semitic canard that says that Jews have dual loyalty to Israel. It was an outrage and no one called him out on it that was in the room or in the mainstream press. Those of us outside of those arenas did.
And then he went on in that same meeting, and he looked around and he saw Sheldon Adelson, one of the wealthiest funders of the Republican Party, and of Israeli occupation and settlement processes, and his wife. And he looked around and said, when he was talking about the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, essentially the U.S. was recognizing the annexation of Jerusalem, also illegal and recognized by no one. He said, “Sheldon and Miriam, I did it for you.” What could be a clearer acknowledgement that he is making his policy based on the desires of wealthy Jewish money? Exactly what Ilhan Omar was excoriated for anti-Semitism, when she talked about it as a phenomenon that some politicians will make their decisions based on money provided by different lobbies, and she mentioned the tobacco lobby, big pharma, a third one, and the Israel lobby. She mentioned four separate lobbies, but because it included the Israel lobby, she was excoriated for anti-Semitism.
President Trump at the time makes an explicitly anti-Semitic reference to making his decision, because his wealthiest donors wanted it. And nobody says a word. So, it’s an extraordinary thing, this whole notion of annexation. But whether it’s proforma annexation, meaning that they go through the motions of it, they’re annexing that land, whether it’s acknowledged or not, or de jure annexation, meaning it’s legally announced, is really not very significant for the Palestinian lives that are uprooted from this. When people are thrown out of their land, their houses are demolished, their olive trees are uprooted, and they and their families are physically moved, forced out of their land. That’s why there’s no land left for a Palestinian state. Whatever we may have thought about an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, why it wasn’t ever equal, et cetera, et cetera. It doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s just not going to happen, because it’s not possible any longer. Whether it was just or not, it’s not even the issue. The issue is there’s no land left, let’s move on.
The issue is now not about states, one state, two state, red state, blue state. That’s not the issue. The issue is rights. Do we have equality and human rights for all, or do we not? What we have right now is a situation where the entire territory of what was once historic Palestine, the territory from the river to the sea, including the 1947-48 borders of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and occupied East Jerusalem. All of that together is under the control of one government and one military, that of Israel. And what rights people within that territory have is partly determined by where they are and their ethnicity, their religion, their language.
That’s the definition of apartheid. When populations in one territory ruled by one force, one government have different levels of rights depending on issues like nationality, religion, ethnicity, language, et cetera. That’s the definition of apartheid. That’s why all the major human rights organizations in the world, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’Tselem, several more in Israel, parts of the United Nations have all determined that Israel is carrying out the crime of apartheid. That’s not a complicated reality anymore. It is widely understood.
Let’s talk about the Gaza War and its implications for the wider region. Supposedly Biden and Blinken were close to a deal with Saudi Arabia and MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi prince and de facto ruler. Incidentally, he’s gone from “pariah” in Biden’s word to partner, some real mental jujitsu going on there. How about Saudi Arabia and its implications?
It’s very clear that the potential deal that would’ve normalized relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has always been a bit of a false claim. There are longstanding relationships between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The difference is, they’re quite quiet. They’re not acknowledged, they’re not public, they don’t include high visibility things like tourism for Israelis, things like that. All of that was going to be now very public, that’s the big difference. The actual relationships, security relationships, anti-terrorism as they like to call it, those kinds of relationships, economic relationships, all kinds of relationships already exist, but they’re very covert, they’re very quiet, and they’re not nearly as extensive as both sides would like them to be.
That’s off the agenda for now, only for now, I think probably until the current king, who is quite old and quite ill, until he passes away, and the Crown Prince, the pariah Crown Prince, who was responsible of course, according to the CIA as well as the rest of the world, for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and responsible largely for the Saudi engagement in the war in Yemen, leading to the people of Yemen suffering until now. And clearly, it’s worse in Gaza, but until then, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world according to the United Nations, that was very much MBS, Mohammed bin Salman.
So, all of that is not going to happen until the king has passed. The king of Saudi Arabia who does not seem to have any power at this point was responsible back in 2002 for what became known as the Saudi Peace Initiative, or for some the Arab Peace Initiative, which essentially expressed a position very much grounded in international law, that said that normalization of relations between Israel and the various Arab states would happen only when Israel had withdrawn from its occupation of the 1967 territories. And that meant the withdrawal of settlers, et cetera. That was welcomed around the world. But of course, it was rejected by Israel and the United States, because it did not allow for the continuation of the colonial project that was already underway. And in that context, it sort of faded, but because it’s associated with the king of Saudi Arabia, his son, I think, has been a bit reluctant to completely abandon it. And he’s going to wait until both Gaza crisis has tamped down a bit and until his father has passed. So, I don’t think that’s off the agenda. It’s just going to be delayed for a while.
Were you surprised in any way, by China mediating an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
In some ways, this was a new position for China, which has been engaged in the region very heavily in economic terms but has not played much of a diplomatic role. So, this was something new. This was something the U.S. was really not happy about, but it happens in the context of what the U.S. was trying to do in terms of the normalization process between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Certainly the U.S. has not been happy about China emerging as a serious diplomatic player here. And this was particularly complicated, because at the same time or in the same period that China was negotiating this deal, which apparently the U.S. didn’t even know about, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. was negotiating this deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and that was going to include a massive escalation of the military, as well as economic relations, between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, including granting Saudi Arabia the right to enrich uranium, supposedly for peaceful purposes only, but what would clearly be the beginning of another nuclear arms race across the region. It would include a number of guarantees of U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia in case of any regional conflict, which would put the U.S. in a position to have to go to war against Iran, for instance, if the Saudi-Iranian tension erupted.
So, it was a number of important questions, as well as of course completely sidelining the issue of Palestine and Palestinian rights, which were not to be considered in this process of normalization. The normalization of the so-called Abraham Accords in the region has been devastating for Palestinians because even though none of the Arab governments provided actual support for Palestinians in any way, shape or form, the illusion of support from the Arab world, because there is widespread support in the Arab populations, meant that losing that, having it be explicit that Arab governments were perfectly content to normalize relations with Israel, without a moment’s thought to what that would mean for the Palestinians, represented a significant weakening for Palestinian diplomatic efforts. So, there were consequences all over the place for this. And while the U.S. was clearly not happy about China emerging in that context, it was certainly consistent with how the U.S. is seeing its foreign policy as being shaped on a global level around keeping down Chinese influence. So, this was going to be one more example of it that had to be tamped down.
Finally, and I’m sure you’re asked this question in every interview you do, what can individuals?
Right now the issue is ceasefire. That’s the only issue that matters right at this moment. Soon there will be a host of other issues. But right now, we need a ceasefire. That is most urgent. There needs to be humanitarian aid. The hostages need to be released. There are all kinds of things, but first and foremost, we desperately need a ceasefire. That means calling over, and over, and over again to your congress person’s office. If they have signed on to the ceasefire resolution, praise them, thank them, offer them flowers, whatever it takes to encourage that, and then urge them to do more. Urge them to send their own letter on top of the resolution to the White House saying, “You need to call for a ceasefire.” We can’t accept this refusal to call for a ceasefire.
The protests all last week, including the one on Wednesday that was spearheaded by Jewish Voice for Peace, that saw over 300 people being arrested saying, “Jews need a ceasefire now,” and included over 25 rabbis who were arrested in the Cannon Office Building. Those protests were all focused on the issue of ceasefire. And that discipline to be very clear about what has to happen right now, is a matter of life and death. There are only a few more days before we start seeing massive death among the most vulnerable, among the babies, among the elders, among the children in Gaza, from lack of water and from waterborne diseases. Because when there is no palatable potable water, people will drink contaminated water, and they will drink salt water from the sea.
Drinking from the sea is an old expression about Gaza, and it’s going to be become a reality within hours or days. So, there is no time to waste. People need to do the work of calling their members of Congress, writing to letters to the editor, writing to everybody they can think of, calling their family, saying, “Please call your member of Congress over and over again.” They’re counting how many people call, and it’s important that those numbers go up. So, keep it up, keep up the pressure. We need a ceasefire now, a ceasefire on all sides. It’s the only way to stop the killing.
Thanks very much for your time.
Thank you, David.
(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)
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