On Wednesday, October 18, the Lever’s David Sirota hosted a live event with Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein and Palestinian-American political analyst Omar Baddar to discuss the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas and the mounting humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
David, Naomi, and Omar spoke about the historical and political context that led to this moment, the double standard being applied by corporate media outlets in their coverage of Israel and Palestine, and recent responses from members of Congress. They also took live questions from the audience. An abridged and edited transcript can be found below.
You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.
Naomi, why don’t you tell us what is happening right now and why you think it’s so important.
I would just say that solidarity is medicine in these times. There was a cease-fire rally, calling for a cease-fire and humanitarian assistance immediately [held by] Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, which are two Jewish-led organizations that are kind of the other Jewish lobby, really bringing a much younger, progressive perspective. It was the largest Jewish-led protest in solidarity with Palestinians in US history. There were thousands upon thousands of people in front of Congress.
More significant than that was the civil disobedience: five hundred people went into the Capitol rotunda and were arrested — including lots of rabbis and many, many young people. It was a real show of solidarity. The message was: “Every life is precious.” It was really a message of total rejection for the targeting of civilians, no matter where they live. It wasn’t this double standard that you hear inside Congress of “absolute horror at the targeting of Israeli civilians (yes, I agree) but then bomb the hell out of them indiscriminately if they’re Palestinians.” I really do believe it was a historic day. I was honored to be there.
It was also in support of a cease-fire resolution that is being led by [Rep.] Cori Bush [D-Mo.] but has sign-ons from a lot of other members of the so-called Squad. I also spent a lot of time meeting with different congresspeople trying to get more people to sign on to this cease-fire resolution, and more people did sign on. So you really did see the power of pressure. But it’s still too small. And the calling for blood is very, very loud in there. It was an emotional day.
Omar, Naomi mentioned this double standard about civilian casualties. Talk to us a little bit about what that feels like to the Palestinian-American community, to Palestinians who hear that.
Naomi, I think you’re putting your finger on a very, very serious problem that is long-standing, even beyond this crisis we’ve had, leading up to before even the Hamas attack.
There had been 250 Palestinians killed this year, primarily in the West Bank, as a result of Israeli government actions and settler attacks. And there’s hardly any mention of it in mainstream media discourse and hardly any commentary about it from Washington. And then we had this absolutely horrific attack that Hamas launched. As a result of that we see, on a loop, the depth of Israeli humanity — we have parents being interviewed at length, giving emotional testimony about who their children were and how difficult losing them is.
They’ve closed down every single possible peaceful political avenue for Palestinians to push for their freedom, while Israeli political rhetoric has gotten more and more viciously anti-Palestinian.
But the sharp contrast with the utter disregard we see for Palestinian life is quite grotesque, frankly. And that continued even as Israel started launching this massive onslaught throughout the Gaza strip, when we’re describing indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas. We are talking about war crimes. And more than that, frankly, I think the word “terrorism” is the correct word that comes to mind.
There have been many, many, many bombings of Gaza by Israel before, and when human rights organizations investigate them, the conclusion they reach is that Israel has engaged in reckless and deliberate bombings, and indiscriminate ones, of civilian areas. In some cases, even when there was this great March of Return out of Gaza in 2018, Israeli snipers were taking aim at journalists, medics, and activists who were clearly unarmed. We have this pattern of Israel behaving in a way where it shows disregard for Palestinian human life.
Yet the dominant narrative is that when Palestinians kill civilians, it’s because they’re barbarian monsters. And when Israel does it, “Oh, it really has to be an accident because Israel is way too nice and civilized to ever do something like that intentionally.” That conveys a level of racism and dehumanization of Palestinians that I think is very, very deeply aggravating for a lot of people watching, and, more crucially than just the emotional impact of it, it stops us from pursuing better policies and moving things in a better direction if we believe that there’s a fundamental disparity in the humanity of people on either side.
Because ultimately, beyond just this crisis, I don’t think we’re going to find a military solution for anything. Israel has believed for many decades that if only they pummeled the Palestinians hard enough, and if only they squeezed them and confined them strictly enough, that they’re going to resolve this issue, and then Israel gets to live happily ever after. The lesson has been, repeatedly, that this approach does not work. All it does is produce the kind of despair on the Palestinian side that then leads to an explosion like the one we just saw.
What we really need is a shift in Israel’s approach. That can only be achieved by American pressure to accept that the only true way out of this is one in which Palestinians and Israelis get to live in safety, freedom, and security. That entails ending Israel’s siege — an occupation and apartheid system that has made Palestinian life really unlivable.
Let’s set aside Israel’s occupation. But, for argument’s sake, a terrorist attack happens, and Israel argues that the terrorists who committed that attack are deliberately basing their attacks from within civilian facilities, from within hospitals, schools, civilian neighborhoods. And so then the question comes up: What is a humane and adequate security response?
I don’t think there is a military response that is going to in any way get at the root of what led to those attacks. I think Israel is creating more “terrorists” every single day.
I was in Gaza in 2008. I met lots of little kids in the rubble. I met kids whose bodies had been burned with white phosphorus. Those are young men today. I saw the same thing in Iraq after the invasion. I believe Palestinians have a right — that people under occupation have a right — to armed resistance, up to the targeting of civilians, because that violates the Geneva Conventions, which are the legacy of World War II.
I don’t think there is a military response that is going to in any way get at the root of what led to those attacks.
We have an international legal architecture that is one of the legacies of the Holocaust and the other horrors of World War II. And right now Israeli officials are going on television and just shrugging it off. You can’t shrug off international law in the morning and then invoke it in the afternoon when it’s Israel, who is violating international law.
I have been talking all day about Israel’s war crimes. But the thing about war crimes is that you have to apply the standards, no matter who violates it. It’s not like, “My team’s okay. And your team is not.” It just doesn’t work that way.
It’s a really perilous time. But everyone now looks back on their response to the September 11 attacks with a lot of regret, right? Because, ultimately, those were criminal acts that could have been responded to as if they were criminal and not through these massive wars that are basically unending, even if our governments no longer admit it.
I think we’re repeating the same mistakes all over again. I think also, like 9/11, there were people in the George W. Bush administration who had a whole plan for redrawing the map of the Middle East, and they saw their moment. And we have to remember that and think about people like Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a very extreme far-right government, who has been openly espousing genocidal ideas and talking about how they don’t want to deal with Gaza anymore. Basically they’ve been calling for ethnic cleansing. They want to take the entire West Bank, and they are seeing their moment here.
I bet there are folks here who remember, during the 2004 presidential campaign, that George W. Bush and the Republicans just lambasted John Kerry for saying that it would probably have been a better idea to have dealt with 9/11 as a law enforcement matter. I remember thinking, has everyone gone insane? I’m not a huge John Kerry fan, but what John Kerry was saying, when it comes to a response, makes perfect sense. And I’ve wondered, in this last week, when did the response to 9/11 become a guidebook rather than a cautionary tale?
Omar, if we stipulate, just for argument’s sake, that some terrorists are basing their operations among civilians, what is a humane response from the Israeli security forces to something like that?
It’s part of the challenge with what effectively amounts to a suicide attack, when you send militants across the border with the expectation that they’re going to be there to fight and die. When it’s over, you’ve killed the people who perpetrated the attack. You now have a question of the extent to which you want to go deeper into Hamas’s broader responsibility as an organization.
That does absolutely become a law enforcement issue, first and foremost. It’s a question of what it means to pursue a sensible judicial process by which you hold Hamas members accountable — whether you’re trying to get people arrested, who you’re appealing to, who gets to do it? All of this is a nonstarter for the Israeli government, because they’re so offended at the prospect of [how] an attack like this [would give] Hamas any sense of power. The goal for them, first and foremost, is not to pursue justice by any stretch of the imagination — it is to punish them for daring to do something like this. And that involves decimating them in every way possible.
The goal for them, first and foremost, is not to pursue justice by any stretch of the imagination — it is to punish them for daring to do something like this.
That is the approach, and it’s obviously not one that’s going to work out. The only way you’re going to eliminate Hamas’s existence is by committing unspeakable atrocities that literally flatten huge parts of Gaza. You’re talking about genocidal practice in order to be able to achieve something like that.
There’s a lack of nuance in the way that we talk about this that, to me, is very, very important. Militants who use guerrilla warfare and guerrilla tactics because they don’t have airplanes and tanks are, by necessity, going to be embedded in civilian areas. They’re not just going to all gather in one empty part of Gaza and say, “We’re all here, we’re staying away from civilians,” because then one Israeli missile takes them out. There is an imbalance of power that makes it impossible.
Let’s talk about the US response to this. Naomi, in your opening remarks, you mentioned this resolution that some folks in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are pushing. This resolution struck me as not only entirely sensible but kind of like the most minimal statement that any nonsociopath should be able to agree with. It’s just a statement of “don’t kill, and limit and reduce and eliminate the killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians.” And yet, as best as I can tell, it only has fifty-five or sixty cosponsors.
Meanwhile, separately, there was a letter that circulated that I was appalled at from both Republicans and Democrats. It had this line in there that says, “We’re already beginning to see calls in some circles for de-escalation. Premature de-escalation would be a victory for the terrorists and allow them to continue to threaten Israeli civilians with future attacks.”
How do we explain why there’s relatively little support for a resolution that just says, “Let’s stop killing civilians” — and yet there is also support on Capitol Hill for a resolution that says any calls for de-escalation effectively make you a terrorist? How do we explain that?
I heard from multiple congresspeople today that “cease-fire” is now seen as toxic. It’s seen as not “standing with Israel.” And I saw a lot of signs in the hallways saying, “Stand with Israel,” which is code for blank check. It’s the same thing that the United States did after 9/11. Are you with us or with the terrorists? It’s a straight-up loyalty test.
It’s outrageous, because these US congresspeople should not be standing with Israel if that means that there are no strings attached to any of the weapons, any of the aid. They should be standing with international law. And so the question is, how did this happen so quickly?
I think that what the Israeli government did very deftly, and very quickly, was take a war crime and systematically and from out of the gate describe it as a hate crime.
I think that what the Israeli government did very deftly, and very quickly, was take a war crime and systematically and from out of the gate describe it as a hate crime, as the single deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust and the pogroms.
I’m not minimizing. I think war crimes are a really big deal. I think massacres are a big deal. But that is not how it’s been described. It has been taken out of its geopolitical context and put within a narrative of a primordial Jewish trauma and antisemitism, which inherently can’t be reasoned with, within that narrative.
That’s the only way that I can explain why people are so afraid of not standing with Israel. And that’s smart communications.
I would just add one other thing that I think is a factor here, which is that the occupied territories are a laboratory for what Israel calls “security without peace.” That’s what all the walls and the checkpoints and the siege are all about. It’s basically, “We don’t need peace when we can contain.”
When Hamas breaks through the Arab checkpoint, breaks through the wall, and inflicts this amount of civilian loss of life, the entire model is failing. But it’s not just Israel’s model. Every Western power plus India wants security without peace. What do you think is happening on our borders? We live in an incredibly unequal world that is becoming more militarized, more surveilled — and a lot of that weaponry, we’re buying from Israel.
I think that also partially explains the speed with which every Western power has come down to say we will protect the Iron Dome. We’re worried about our own iron domes. And it’s helpful to broaden it beyond Israel and Palestine.
I think the second aspect of it is the extent to which Republicans use Israel as a wedge issue against Democrats constantly. Democrats keep falling over each other to try to say, “No, no, no, we’re not anti-Israel.” Both parties, by and large, are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel to the point of saying “unconditional support, do whatever you want.”
You have a situation in which Israeli politics has moved further and further to the right. It has become more and more extreme. You would think that that would naturally break the dynamic in the United States, but it has not.
If the UN tries to vote against [Israel], we’re going to step in and veto it every single time. If Palestinians go to the International Criminal Court to try to get some accountability, we’re going to place enormous pressure on the criminal court to not bring charges against Israeli war crimes. They’ve closed down every single possible peaceful political avenue for Palestinians to push for their freedom, pushing us toward a situation of violence, while Israeli political rhetoric has gotten more and more right-wing, viciously anti-Palestinian — and yet the Democrats continue to be pushed further and further to the right as well.
Then, when an incident like this happens, it’s almost no surprise that we live in a political climate in which everybody is going to fall in line. Even in the face of literally genocidal rhetoric and the beginning of genocidal actions that we’re currently seeing in Gaza, we’re stuck.
It’s honestly infuriating that we don’t have an awakening of the American political consciousness at a moment like this to say, “Slow down, we get this is a big deal. This is really horrible. But cutting off food and fuel and water from a million children is not okay.” That ought to be a fundamental sense that our political establishment seems to be lacking.
I think it is an extremely disturbing climate, and I’m so grateful for groups like If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace who have given a voice to the voiceless and have stepped up. These are progressive American Jews who are saying, “Do not weaponize our pain in order to commit crimes against other people.”
And that’s the message that I hope creates some kind of awakening within the American political establishment to start understanding that the current trajectory is a deeply ugly, disturbing one that is going to lead us to utter disaster.
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate