Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli troops during a protest on the Israel-Gaza border, ny Abed Rahim Khatib/Shutterstock.com
[Prefatory Note: What follows is a slightly modified interview conducted by Daniel Falcone on the theme of ‘The Renewal of Violence—Gaza/Israel’ in Jacobin, Nov. 2019. This latest cycle of transborder violence initiated by a targeted assassination of a well-known military commander in Islamic Jihad in Gaza, leading to a rocket barrage directed at southern and central Israel, followed by many air strikes and artillery shells fired at Gaza targets. Whether this latest cycle of violence has ended as of now is difficult to assess, and it should not be confused with the violence at the Gaza Fence as a result of weekly demonstrations of Palestinians at the Gaza fence in the course of the Great March of Return, a civil society initiative (later joined by Hamas as unarmed demonstrators) that has continued since March 30, 2018, a remarkable exhibition of sumud on the Palestinian side and of excessive lethal force—where no imminent threat existed—on the Israel side.]
Q: how has the mainstream press been treating this renewed violence?
Mainstream media, as well as even the UN, is treating this renewal of violence in a highly misleading way as if the only truly valid issue is whether a sovereign state, in this case Israel, has the right to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism. The events unfolding between Israel and Gaza are misrepresented in two principal ways: by treating Israel as defending itself without taking account of the deliberate surrounding provocations on Israel’s part; and by using language in media coverage to weight perceptions of readers to believe that Israel as a state is fully entitled to use force to uphold security as opposed to its terrorist adversary that has no rights whatsoever except to be hunted down. This is a perversion of law and justice as the Palestinians are treated as interlopers in their own homeland while the Israeli settler colonial authority is being regarded as the sole legitimate political authority in the whole of Palestine. In the case of Gaza, to resist sustained, severe, collective, and comprehensive punitive deprivations and lawlessness inflicted on the helpless, occupied Gaza people seems an intrinsic right, or at the very least a highly relevant circumstance that deserves to be taken into account. In the background is more than twelve years of blockade, condemned by many world leaders, and even the prior UN Secretary General.
The immediate context of this latest cycle of violence was the targeted killing of Baha Abu-Ata along with his wife, on November 12th while they were sleeping in their home in a Gaza apartment building. Abu-Ata was a member of Islamic Jihad, a military commander, alleged to have been responsible for past rocket attacks on Israel, and supposedly engaged in planning further launches. After the assassination 200 rockets were fired from Gaza as a response, causing no serious casualties. Israel immediately responded to the rockets with several days of drone missile strikes, air and military assaults, killing 34 Palestinians, wounding more than 80. As far as is known, no Israelis have so far killed or injured by the Palestinian rockets, although that by itself does not make their use ‘legal.’ Israel’s response raises many international law questions of proportionality with respect to the use of force, collective punishment, and as significantly, issues of provocation, the timing of the assassination of Abu-Ata and associated violence quite possibly a Netanyahu a final failed gesture designed to break the Israeli electoral impasse in his favor. The media utterly failed to connect the outbreak of violence with the underlying desperation and vulnerability of the Gazan population of about two million, with the domestic pressures in Israel to break the impasse that has blocked the formation of a new government, and the months of frustration with the Israeli killings at the Gaza border to demoralize the demonstrators taking part in The Great March of Return. This truly heroic, almost totally nonviolent phenomenon of Palestinian is where the msm should be if they were doing their job.
Jonathan Ofir, well known as an Israeli activist and musician living in Denmark, gives a radically different, and more humanly sensitive rendering of this Gaza violence that contrasts with what continues to be disseminated by TV and print: “What Israel reserves for itself is the right to conduct seasonal massacres in the uninhabitable concentration camp called Gaza, when it sees fit.” This is admittedly strongly emotive language that could be as misleading as the msm approach unless better contextualized. What is more to the point from a legal/moral/humanitarian perspective is that Gaza is a territory ‘occupied’ by Israel since 1967, and not a foreign country. Hence, Israel’s behavior is subject to the Geneva Conventions, especially Convention IV governing belligerent occupation. Israel rejects these international law constraints altogether, unilaterally invoking its right to defend itself by periodically launching massive attacks on Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. Israel also completely avoids the primary duty under Geneva IV to protect a civilian population living under its occupation, which renders its reliance on self-defense under international law an absurdity when the adversary is the occupied society itself.
The blog writer and regular contributor to The Electronic Intifada, Maureen Claire Murphy, assesses Israel’s violence in the larger context of the relationship between Israel and Palestine: “Abu-Ata and Palestinian fighters in Gaza like him are resisting a cruel and illegal siege, a half-century of military occupation, and more than 70 years of forced displacement and dispossession.” There is no indication that Murphy is defending the Gaza rocket responses, but is she rather relying on the relevance of context in correctly grasping the respective behavior of these antagonists. Until we have some awareness of this broader context, our understanding of the isolated incident cannot be properly interpreted, and feeds hegemonic constructions of political reality that produced one-sided commentary at the expense of a victimized people. In this regard, msm in relation to the Palestinian national struggle seems to act as if its main function was quite the opposite–to ignore on principle the context of Palestinian violence no matter how relevant. By so doing, Israel can be portrayed as the hapless victim of primitive rockets that are mainly symbolic Palestinian efforts to exhibit their spirit of resistance in frustrated response to a wider pattern of oppressive and unlawful governance. There is no reason to deny that the threat, however remote, posed by these rockets does produce great anxiety in Israeli communities living near the Gaza border, and is unacceptable because of its inherent indiscriminateness. Without minimizing Israel security concerns, it should be recognized that far worse anxiety is the continual reality experienced by the entire population of Gaza, and for many years. Until this wider pattern of Israeli dereliction of its duties under international humanitarian law is brought into view, we are reading thinly disguised propaganda, sophisticated fake news, that confers impunity on the militarily strong side in this struggle, and excessive accountability on the weaker side. Such a pattern is an obvious perversion of justice.
These concerns about media coverage vary from issue to issue and even context to context. The Israel/Palestine context is distinctive in several respects with regard to slanting the news in Israel’s favor. It is respectable in America to be an outspokenly pro-Zionist journalist, while being even neutral is viewed as sufficiently discrediting to keep you off the air, and daring to be critical of Israel sends often results in an intense professional pushback. Marc Lamont Hill discovered this when a rather balanced speech given at the UN was distorted by Zionist groups in ways that managed to induce his abrupt dismissal as a CNN consultant without even the courtesy of a right of response. This enveloping reality of bias exerts pressure to present the news as shaped by the Israeli and American governments, and an entourage of think tank and ‘expert’ apologists. Even an irresponsible Zionist extremist like Alan Dershowitz is welcomed as a respectable network guest on talk shows while a media appearance by Noam Chomsky is a rarity, and if it occurs it is treated as giving space to a dissenter, normally offset by a second guest who adheres to the party line. This informal mode of censorship is reinforced by the powerful and feared AIPAC lobby that has a watchdog reputation as ending the political careers of those few in Congress who over the years are perceived as somewhat critical of Israel or even cautiously supportive of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights.
When well-funded lobbies, think tanks, websites, and wealthy donors exist on one side of a national policy debate and there are no comparable countervailing forces that effectively represent the other side create a dangerous atmosphere with respect to public discourse. The side with the power and funding—as they say, ‘follow the money’—controls, marginalizes, and discredits other viewpoints, and punishes for all to observe those who get too far out of line. In regard to Israel, this has been reinforced, at least since 1967, by the consensus that the US ‘special relationship’ with Israel is a strategic alliance that is vital for upholding American strategic interests in the Middle East. The corporatized media of this era is almost as responsive to Pentagon briefings as it is reflective of pro-Israeli access and influence when it comes to this central symbolic conflict of the post-Cold War, post-apartheid era.
Q: From where is it possible to get reliable information on issues such as the legal status of Gaza violence?
There is no mainstream answer to such a question in the West, which is itself a rather remarkable breakdown of journalistic standards. This unhealthy state of affairs is reflected also in the one-sided political debate now dominating the American media during battle for the Democratic Party nomination. Without exception, the candidates seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party become shy, or worse, when it comes to criticizing Trump’s unabashedly pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian record. As the recent Gaza incident illustrates, even the most progressive among the candidates are silent or mindlessly repeat the mantra about Israel’s right to defend itself. None dare say ‘end the blockade,’ ‘treat Hamas as the elected government of Gaza,’ and ‘uphold the obligations of international humanitarian law’ if what is at stake is ending this Gaza violence, and in the process, actually making Israelis more secure, not less. If one among the candidates dared speak plainly, a blacklisting pushback would assuredly quickly follow, particularly if viewed as someone with current popular support such as Sanders or Warren.
When it comes to finding the best media coverage available, I would suggest reading the digitized media widely and selectively, as well as what is written by Al Jazeera and other regional media outlets in the Middle East, including even the Israeli press, which is far more open than the American. I receive a far better sense of the unfolding struggle between Israel and Palestine can be found in Haaretz, or even The Jerusalem Post, than from the New York Times or the Washington Post, and this by itself says a lot. Is there anyone in the msm as critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people than Gideon Levy or Amira Hass? There are occasional progressive treatments of these issues to be found in more obscure publications such as The Nation, London Review of Books, and Le Monde Diplomatique. I suppose the most independent analysis, but it is in the form of periodic reports, and not event oriented or lively reading, is to be found in the biennial reports of the UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, currently Michael Lynk.
A selective reading of online journalism that gives a more informed and balanced picture of the violent interactions between Israel and Palestinian resistance, especially refraining from automatically equating Palestinian resistance with terrorism in the struggle by the Palestinian people to secure their rights. In contrast, Israel’s reliance on excessive and often indiscriminte force, especially in seeking to intimidate and humiliate the civilian Palestinian population of Gaza should properly be considered as state terrorism. This Israeli violence has over the years been responsible for immeasurably more suffering, death, and anxiety that has the armed aspects of Palestinian resistance. Israel’s refusal to act humanely and to minimize political violence is nowhere more evident than in its responses to The Great March of Return since March 30, 2018 where weekly largely nonviolent protests demanding implementation of the long denied and unambiguous Palestinian right to return to their places of family residence and national homeland have not been met by any Israeli effort to achieve an accommodation, but rather have encountered unabasheds reliance on lethal force in the form of live sniper ammunition, causing Palestinian deaths and injuries almost every Friday for more than 80 weeks. Even ‘reliable’ journalism has not given this remarkable societal initiative in Gaza and Israel’s response the commentary and attention it deserves. This, too, is part of the context that thoughtful and balanced media coverage should be informing its readers about.
Q: Is the political end game for Israel domestically in this latest surge in killing related to election squabbling?
Of course, politicians never acknowledge political motivations for their military aggressiveness in election periods. The impasse in Israel at present is unprecedented, and accentuated by the seeming desperation of Netanyahu to retain the immunity of his office to avoid facing serious corruption and fraud charges. Against such a background, it seems reasonable to be suspicious of why Israel resorted to this high profile targeted killing at this time, knowing it would produce a violent response from the Palestinians, and that such a response would provide Israel with a political climate supportive of a more deadly and less focused Israeli assault on Gaza. This turn would lead to more Palestinian rockets being launched toward Israel from Gaza, and although most would likely be intercepted by the Iron Dome, and even when they get through, without so far causing casualties, it would still be treated as an occasion on which to raise Israeli fears and swing public opinion in Netanyahu’s direction. After all, whatever else, Netanyahu is looked upon as the unwavering guardian of Israeli security interests over the last decade. His opponent in the rivalry to lead government, Benny Gantz, adds to the anti-Gaza frenzy by also invoking as a positive credential his own bloody past record as an IDF commander in earlier Gaza operations. It is an unfortunate reality that politicians in Israel regard such militarist reputations as adding to their qualifications for political leadership, and the public goes along. This also means that it is politically helpful to ignore international law and civilian innocence in the course of displaying Israeli ruthless dominance whenever dealing with Palestinian oppositional activities, even if they take a nonviolent form.
Q: What is the political end game for Israel internationally and how does it relate to a simultaneous raid on Syria?
It is Israel’s apparent hope that with Trump in the White House, this is the time to push for an end to the conflict that achieves their main political goals. This means declaring an Israeli victory in the struggle, coupled ideally with an acknowledgement from the Palestinians of their decision to give up their struggle for rights. In exchange, an incentive of a better day to day life is given to the Palestinians, what is sometimes called ‘an economic peace.’ This is coupled with a warning of worse-to-come if the Palestinians refuse to bow down. As the Great March and robust global BDS Campaign demonstrate, such a wish for an Israeli one-state solution is highly unlikely to receive formal blessings even from the weak Palestinian international representation now provided by the Palestinian Authority. It is also evident that strenuous Zionist efforts to demonstrate that criticism of Israel is ‘the new anti-Semitism’ exhibits a recognition in Israel and Zionist circles that such a moral/legal challenge from below (as compared to diplomacy from above) poses a threat to Israeli ambitions that has become more formidable in the last few. years than armed struggle or military confrontation.
What seems to be happening, although not widely noticed, is that the core of the struggle to achieve a political compromise based on the equality of Jews and Arabs will shift from intergovernmental diplomacy, including at the UN, to Palestinian resistance initiatives and global solidarity efforts, both political undertakings of people not governments or international institutions. The two-state solutions has surely died alongside Oslo diplomacy, except in the mouths of diplomats who need to keep saying something. And yet an authoritative one-state alternative that is reflective of Palestinian and Israeli rights has not been born. Until such a birth takes place there may be temporary ceasefires and pauses in the violence but nothing resembling genuine peace.
To establish peace, Israel will have to make a major decision to accept a coexistence of equals with the Palestinian people. This also means dismantling its apartheid matrix of control that has been fragmenting the Palestinian people (as occupied, as refugees and exiles, as discriminated minority in Israel) ever since 1948. This kind of solution can only occur if pressure from within and without mount to the point that Israelis recalculate their interests, coming to the unexpected conclusion that they are better off living in real peace with Palestinians rather than hoping to keep them permanently confined in a variety of iron cages. The South African managers of their apartheid regime came to such a startling conclusion 25 years ago. It has already taken Israeli leaders far longer, with no good end in sight. We should never foreclose a benign future achieved through resistance and solidarity. This more hopeful scenario might begin to unfold if more of the media began fulfilling its own claims of offering trustworthy and objective reportage, especially on controversial issues of war and peace. Not only would this help resolve the Israel/Palestine struggle, it would restore confidence that a responsibly informed society would more often take the side of peace and justice, and compel their leaders to do the same, or face short career horizons.