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The Passion of Husam Zomlot

4 Aug

I gave this guy something of a hard time when he came to deliver a talk at MIT a few years back (watch around the 54:30 mark). To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t really paid him much attention since, even though he frequently appears on international TV and radio to discuss an issue I follow closely (Palestine).

But this morning I feel compelled to profess my respect for the moral and intellectual seriousness on display in this BBC interview clip, a longer version of which aired last Friday. US citizens especially would do well to listen.

Below is my transcription of the latter chunk of the clip, which features Dr. Zomlot delivering an impassioned contestation of the mainstream narrative surrounding Operation Protective Edge. I did my best to include supplementary links for his main points, particularly the putatively controversial ones.

Husam Zomlot: There are two wars happening, my friend. 

There is a war by the Israeli army, the most sophisticated in the region and maybe 4th in the world, against our people, against the Palestinian people. This war has seen entire neighborhoods obliterated. This war has seen the devastation and the mayhem. Wholesale murder, everywhere. 

BBC: But it’s not against Palestinians, is it? It’s against Hamas. It’s against the group that’s firing rockets into Israel.

Zomlot: I’m sorry. No. That is absolutely a lie and not true. And we should stop this because this is the second war.

The second war that is waged by Regev and his likes. The spinning and the PR and the game of deceit to blame the victim. 

I have not seen any Hamas fighter being targeted by Israel. What I have seen is families that I know–I am from Gaza, I lived with these families, I grew up with these families, I know them–I see entire families being wiped out.

I see hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the streets of Gaza as we speak.

I see a UN shelter being targeted and 16 killed.

I see the only power plant being targeted by Israel, to devastate.

I see the water supply being cut off so they devastate the entire nation.

I see the Israeli military doctrine.

BBC: So are Israeli forces just deliberately targeting civilians?

Zomlot: Yes

Because this is the founding military doctrine of Israel. Israel was founded on murdering as many civilians as possible to put pressure on the political and military leadership of the Palestinians…

Despite four mind-numbing weeks spent inundated with emotionally-laden Gaza coverage, I found these remarks from the mouth of a spokesman for Fatah–a party whose leadership actively collaborates with the occupation and carefully hedges its public image to retain the good graces of the very powers which oppress it–quite moving.

Let’s hope the UK was watching.

Update: Another brief, powerful excerpt:


Edit Note: Just after posting, I realized I needed to append the opening to mention for context that this interview was originally published by the BBC last Friday. This thought was almost immediately followed by the grim realization that the BBC’s headline (“Gaza crisis: ‘There was never a ceasefire’ – Fatah spokesman”) is just as accurate today, despite a new ceasefire that was supposed be in effect: 

A seven-hour unilateral “humanitarian window,” which was announced by Israel on Sunday evening and took effect in Gaza from 10 a.m. local time (3 a.m. EDT) Monday was almost immediately broken by an air strike on the al-Shati refugee camp in northwestern Gaza, Agence France-Presse reported.

A Gaza Health Ministry spokesperson told Al Jazeera that at least 30 people, including women and children, were injured in Israeli shelling on a residential building in the camp. And, according to other media reports, Israeli air strikes near Gaza City also killed Daniel Mansour, a commander of the Islamic Jihad group — a close ally of Hamas — just hours before the latest cease-fire was to begin. One child too was killed in the latest air strike on the refugee camp, AFP reported, citing doctors.

Israel had declared on Sunday that it would hold its fire in the Gaza Strip for seven hours following widespread international condemnation, including from the U.S. and the United Nations, over its attack on another U.N.-run school — the third one since the operation began on July 8 — on Sunday. The attack on the school in Rafah, which was reportedly sheltering thousands of displaced Palestinians, killed 10 people and injured 30 others.

Indeed, as increasingly outraged calls for an end to the violence echo from virtually the whole of the international community, basically everything in this exchange (aside from the specific strike times Zomlot rattles off at the beginning) is equally valid at the time of writing.

Here’s hoping that Israeli operations are stopped by the time you read this post.


Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 2: “You never know when a tipping point is going to come.”

16 Nov

The educator’s spirit I alluded to in my first post on Khalidi’s talk was very much on display during that night’s Q&A.

While there were a few pointed and enlightening inquiries, the degree of background knowledge evinced by audience questions was often nil or, in the case of broad questions based on erroneous assumptions, less.

Khalidi handled confused questioners graciously–far better than many academics who’ve put in years speaking on this issue to a painfully ignorant and misinformed public. When an elderly Egyptian man used his turn at the microphone for a rambling five minute sermon exhorting Muslims and Jews to honor their ancient religious-Abrahamic kinship, Khalidi looked tired but, smiling, waited it out.

The Q&A’s high point came when Noor Elashi, daughter of Holy Land 5 prisoner Ghassan Elashi, stepped up to the mic to speak about her father and the plight of Palestinian political prisoners.*

To be immodestly frank, it was a relief just to hear an informed and specific query. 

Since I probably sound like an asshole, I should clarify that I don’t begrudge anyone their right to speak and be heard in a public forum, nor do I mean to slight those less-informed audience members who participated. On the contrary, it’s a heartening fact that so many older (esp. white and Jewish) Americans are taking an interest in long-misunderstood Palestine.

And it was precisely this spectacle of dozens of older and, it would seem, previously disinterested people flocking to hear an Arab-American academic deliver a historico-political critique of American and Israeli policy that ultimately brought me to the microphone queue.

The event was already running long and the last few responses had seen Khalidi’s animated hand gestures begin to lose steam. But, perhaps a bit selfishly, I hopped up to fill the void where the moderator’s “Was there one more question or shall we conclude?” was at first met with silence.

Below is a transcript of my question and Khalidi’s reply (very much worth reading in full), edited slightly for clarity.

William Brown
[i.e. me]: I’m curious as to how much of an impact changing public opinion, and specifically Jewish opinion, can have on US foreign policy without first dislodging 1. AIPAC and 2. Evangelical Christian Zionism. People like Peter Beinart, Norman Finkelstein, and others have documented that large swaths of the US population are changing their attitudes and their views toward Israel. But without overcoming those daunting pro-Israel power blocs, it doesn’t seem like they can do all that much–can they?

Rashid Khalidi: Well, your question brings up a couple things.

One is the fact that it’s clear that the basis for support for the kinds of policies that this Israeli government is engaged in has moved to a very large extent in American political life to the right of the American political spectrum. It’s no longer quite as strongly supported in a bipartisan fashion. It’s really a Tea Party-rightwing Republican-South West bastion.

Those are areas where, as you say, among many other things Christian Zionism [is significant]–[but] it’s also a worldview where force is absolutely necessary because the world is hostile. It’s more than just Christian Zionism. It’s more than just whatever attitudes people have toward Muslims. It’s a whole worldview about how the United States should perceive the world and about the use of military force. And Israel fits right into that. And so that’s why some of these people are as vehemently in favor of occupation, settlement, and Israeli aggression, and so on and so forth, as they are.

I don’t think, in spite of the fact that there has been that shift, I don’t think that it’s unimportant to pay attention to and try to further the kinds of transformations that are taking place among younger people in the Jewish communities, among students generally, among Churches, [and] in some unions. You are beginning actually to see significant movement in all of these groups–most importantly, I think, young people on campuses.

When I was an undergraduate, it was not permissible to even talk about Palestine. The idea of a group on dozens of campuses called Students for Justice in Palestine was unimaginable…You have…Turath, Arab Students and Muslim Students, Students for Justice [in Palestine], Campaign to End the Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace–[three to six] groups on a given campus operating more-or-less in coordination–[this was] inconceivable twenty years ago. Inconceivable! So something has happened with younger people.

One thing is that they’re no longer in thrall to the mainstream media because nobody reads news sources made of dead trees anymore. I know graduate students…who’ve never actually seen a physical New York Times, although they read like fifty other sources online. So the access that they have to information is completely different [than] their elders’. And that has helped enormously. They disbelieve what is in the mainstream media, so…the lies, the Orwellian language–they’re not really affected by it, they don’t see it. And I think that’s helped a lot.

Now a lot of people are being indoctrinated in other ways, so it’s not the case that everybody at every university is exposed to all sides of the issue, but that change is [still] enormously important. The change in a lot of mainstream Protestant churches is very important. The change in a lot of parts of the Jewish community, especially younger parts of the Jewish community–those are really important things.

And I think as time goes on, the task of AIPAC and the myriad organizations with zillions of dollars at their disposal will operate in the public sphere harder and harder. The media is still pretty much occupied territory, Capitol Hill is completely occupied territory. But outside of those very important and crucial bastions, I would not like to be fighting the other side of this issue because they have no moral case whatsoever, there’s not much of a strategic case in my view, and a lot of the myths that were so essential to the early decades of Israel’s establishment and expansion, and the way in which it fixed itself in the American mind, have much more of a hold over people in their 70s and their 60s and their 50s than they do over people in their 20s or 30s.

You know, the connection between the Holocaust and Israel, the idea that Israel was on the verge of extermination in the [June 19]67 war–these are articles of faith among people much older than you. Articles of faith. Not for everybody, there’s lots of smart 70-year-olds and 60-year-olds who figured it out–just look at most of the people in this room! [*laughter*]–but that stuff just doesn’t cut any ice with you[nger people], including people who see themselves as very pro-Israel. They just don’t believe it. They know it’s not true or it doesn’t make any sense. That’s really important. And it’s not been replaced with anything equally powerful.

I mean, I speak to groups who never would have received me decades ago and it’s clear that the other ones don’t have the kinds of absolute vehement certitudes that the older ones had. So that change is very, very important.

Where it leads in terms of politics in the future, I don’t know. I can’t tell you.

I can tell you what I see when I go around. Something I see on campuses is a level of activism that I’ve never, you know–unimaginable, even a decade ago. BDS is changing things, Jewish Voice for Peace is. There are a few groups, four of five of them. The amazing thing is, each of them is following its own path, each is doing something slightly different. But they have enough of a level of coordination that it all works to bring more information.

I mean, look–this was an issue on which there was one side in this country from the dawn of Zionism right up until the 70s or 80s. There was only one side to this story, you couldn’t find a book that told you the other side. It was unavailable, it didn’t exist. Or if it did it was very, very hard to find.

Well today, it’s hard to find…properly vetted, respectable academic publications that don’t at least pay serious lip service to both sides of the issue. And a lot of great scholarship–historical or sociological or anthropological or literary–which tells the whole story and gives you entirely different narratives that weren’t available to anybody 30 or 40 years ago.

So, in academia, anybody who actually studies the issue, whatever your political positions are, you’re going to know things today, you will be exposed to things today, that were impossible to find out about 40 years ago. Whatever your views were, if you were pro-Palestinian or whatever–it didn’t matter. You couldn’t know those things unless you were yourself a first-person researcher out in the field.

Well, any graduate student, any undergraduate, has access…and I’m talking about academic stuff. And then there’s the internet, and they can find out about what’s actually happening today in real time.

So, I think those are very important changes. And I think that stuff that in one sense seems like it’s not moving in some senses moves much faster. You can see that in Egyptian and other transformations that have taken place.

Think of the things that have happened in Egypt since 2010–in less than 3 years. Amazing things have happened very rapidly that were unimaginable thirty or forty years ago. So stuff can happen very quickly. I could give you examples from Lebanese or Palestinian or other cases of people’s views changing very rapidly. I’m not saying that’s definitely going to happen, but it can. And so you never know when a tipping point is going to come, you never know when suddenly opposition is going to become completely indefensible.

*Originally I had intended for this post to include an excerpt from Ms. Elashi’s contribution and Khalidi’s response. Unfortunately, my audio of this portion of the evening is particularly rough. If there’s any serious interest in this, let me know in the comments and I can try to produce an accurate transcript.

Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 1: “If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue.”

10 Nov

The first time you see Rashid Khalidi launch into one of his strident cri de coeurs, punctuated by fierce hand gestures and presided over by an intense, indomitable gaze, it can be a little unnerving.

But Khalidi’s indignation at the widespread misconceptions and propagandistic falsehoods which inform both popular and governmental understandings of Israel-Palestine in the US is tempered by an amiable and generous pedagogic spirit. After hearing the veteran Columbia historian speak last Wednesday at a Brooklyn For Peace-organized talk in downtown Brooklyn, I have little doubt as to the primacy of that educator’s spirit.

As I stumbled in a few minutes after 7pm, I noticed that the audience–predictably large, filling the capacious meeting hall nearly to capacity–was on the whole much older than I’d expected. Mostly folks in the 60s-and-up demographic–what I’d call “retirement age,” if such a thing could still be taken for granted–wearing the frowny, impatient countenances of veteran New Yorkers. The middle-aged crowd marginally outnumbered millennial BDS booster types among the rest.

The lecture centered on the malign American role in the past three decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Khalidi published a groundbreaking book on the subject in March of this year called Brokers of Deceit. You can read a reliable and insightful review of the book by historian Vijay Prashad here; and here is a clip of Khalidi answering questions about the book in, fittingly enough, Jerusalem.

For the last leg of the talk, Khalidi bridged the exposition of his book with some (partially extemporaneous) commentary on John Kerry’s ongoing efforts to jumpstart that interminable farce we call the “Peace Process.” The professor’s take was, predictably, almost wholly negative (“A fool’s errand!”)–and rightly so.

For Khalidi, these latest negotiations represent the continuation of a policy that dates back at least as far as the aftermath of Menachem Begin’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Khalidi characterizes this policy as one of US diplomats rhetorically posturing as unbiased mediators while actively closing ranks with Israel. This game, he informs us, of necessity always ends badly for the Palestinians.

Looking backward, on the basis of what I’ve just talked about, it’s pretty clear that the United States up to this point has in fact made a settlement much less likely. I’m very wary of making predictions…but I would offer that it is impossible to build anything lasting on the kind of rotten foundation that the United States has already established through its orchestration of this process.

We have a situation here where parties are negotiating on the basis of gaping inequality. One is occupier, one is occupied. The ostensible mediator overtly favors the stronger party. You have to know that it’s a big fat American thumb pushing the scale down even further on the side of the overwhelmingly dominant party.

The Olso accords and all the agreements thereafter, which form the basis of this process, are entirely based on Israeli blueprints–Begin’s blueprints for expansive Israeli settlements, actually–that were intended to prevent an equitable two-state settlement.[1]

I think Begin has basically succeeded. I don’t think a Palestinian state is very likely. Whatever transpires with…Secretary Kerry…these conditions seem to guarantee the outcome will not be a just and lasting peace in which the Palestinian people end their century-long odyssey and where both peoples end up living in peace and justice and security, whether it’s in one-state or two-state or some kind of federal arrangement …

The process that the Secretary of State is engaged in cannot produce such an outcome. It can only extend into the future the entirely unsatisfactory status quo.

As to whether we might hope to see any positive change in this state of affairs (of which “unsatisfactory” is a pretty understated assessment), Khalidi would by night’s end address several key sticking points. Regarding the role of the Arab states, he made the following diagnosis:

This [US] policy can only continue as long as undemocratic governments continue to dominate the Arab world. Governments like that of Saudi Arabia. These governments have basically capitulated on this issue. They talk a good game where Palestine is concerned, but in no case have they been willing to put the Palestine issue at the top of their agenda with Washington. In no case have they been willing to jeopardize their relationship with Washington over this issue. And the main reason that this is the case is that none of these are democratic governments. They don’t respond to the wishes of their people. People in the Arab world are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinians and completely baffled as to why the United States should follow the policies it does.

If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue. It poisons everything else.

In a follow-up post I’ll include a transcript of Khalidi’s remarks on the transformative potential of changing popular opinion vis-à-vis Palestine. The sound on my recording is a little fuzzy here and there, so it might be a few days before I’ll have time for the painstaking work of jamming an earbud into my osseous labyrinth while I relisten to the same 4 second chunks of audio ad nauseam.

[1] Here’s the same analysis explained more carefully in Brokers of Deceit:

If one examines them carefully, there can be no question about it: the Camp David agreements, the Madrid framework, and the Oslo Accords on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority and the permanent occupation and settlement regime that resulted from this structure of commitments on the other, all of these things, summed up in the term “the peace process,” are in the end one single construct. This construct is and was always designed by its Israeli architects (and their American subcontractors) to be an impermeable barrier against true Palestinian emancipation, rather than a route in that direction. Thus, this construct does not, cannot, and is expressly meant not to, address the roots of the conflict, which lie in the unending subjugation of the Palestinians, and their refusal to accept their lot. We should not be surprised: all of these elements are inextricably bound to a scheme originally devised by Menachem Begin to avoid such emancipation, and to ensure permanent Israeli control of, and settlement in, the occupied territories, the core of what Begin called “Eretz Israel.” Israel’s pitiless occupation regime not only guarantees more oppression and Palestinian resistance to this oppression. It also guarantees continued, bitter resentment of the United States for helping to devise, uphold, and defend this regime, a resentment felt particularly acutely in the Arab and Islamic worlds, in much of Europe, and beyond, where these realities are concealed from almost no one. (135)

Peter Beinart: “It is immoral to have ethnically-based citizenship…”

22 Jul

[The following was originally posted 9/30/2012 on a short-lived blog dedicated to covering Palestine-related events in the northeastern US.]

In April of 2012 I attended a Peter Beinart talk at Harvard. He was there to debate the merits of his most recent book, The Crisis of Zionism, with Barry Shrage, a Harvard professor and president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. It was an interesting experience.

Despite facing a largely pro-Israel audience at Harvard at a time when his book had already elicited substantial scorn from many in the American Jewish community, Beinart presented his arguments about the immoralities and dangers of Israeli policy with dignified composure. That same composure attended his rejoinders to rightwing counterarguments from Dr. Shrage. He struck me as a very decent and unusually honest man. (My impression of Shrage was less flattering).

At the time I had been following the advance press and interviews for Norman Finkelstein’s then-forthcoming book, an ambitious exploration of waning Jewish-American support for Israel. One of Finkelstein’s key pieces of anecdotal evidence for his claim that liberal American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel’s more draconian policies toward the Palestinians is the case of Beinart: a figure of some standing in New York’s orthodox Jewish community whose CV includes a stint as editor at The New Republic—a staunchly pro-Israel publication.

I was initially skeptical about Beinart’s significance for those of us hoping to see American political discourse grow more sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. Before the Harvard lecture, I had caught snippets from reviews and interviews that made it sound like Beinart’s opposition to settlement expansion in the West Bank was solely a concern about Israel’s demographic integrity qua Jewish state.  Indeed, his statements were often adorned with reservations about the purported desire of Palestinians that Israel simply cease to exist.

But it’s clear that something significant is going on when you see someone like Beinart making this basic point about racism so bluntly, and at venues likes Shalom TV:

[Note: It looks like the timestamp embed code isn’t working, so to cut to the part I’m referring to here, skip to 35:15 mark or open this link in a new tab]

I disagree with many of his individual points as well as much of the narrative that frames them—e.g., he says Israel’s settlement projects in the West Bank constitute a “tragic mistake” rather than a predictable extension of a colonial project that goes back to the first Zionist aliyah—but ask yourself if you can remember anyone in the mainstream of the American Jewish intellectual establishment speaking so openly before, say, 2008, about the immorality of ethnicity-based citizenship policy in Israel.

More Bitter News from Gaza

6 Apr
The New York Times is reporting that the UNRWA, the relief agency which serves the Levant’s sizeable Palestinian refugee population, has “indefinitely suspended food distribution in the Gaza Strip after protesters angry over the cancellation of a cash assistance program for the poor stormed the agency’s main compound in Gaza City on Thursday”. It’s difficult to know how to respond to such a miserable situation. Ostensibly the aid-dependent people of Gaza’s ossified refugee camps are quite literally gnashing at the hands that feed them.

But note also that these protests have been orchestrated by the PLO.

Once the indispensable political front of the Palestinian national liberation struggle and still its representation at the UN, the PLO’s significance within Palestine has faded since the advent of Oslo and the establishment of the administrative body it controls, the Palestinian Authority. The PA has increasingly hemorrhaged legitimacy as the intervening decades since Oslo have brought unprecedented rates of Israeli settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories, few elections, and a steady terminal dimming of hope among the Palestinian people that they will ever see the establishment of an independent state.

Ascendant Hamas which currently governs Gaza has long been deliberately excluded from the PLO and in 2007 crushed a US-backed coup mounted by the PLO’s dominant party, Fatah.  Fatah was subsequently expelled from the territory but Hamas was expelled from the PA: PLO chairman and PA president Mahmoud Abbas immediately moved to formally dissolve the Hamas-led unity government and appointed ex-PA finance minister Salam Fayyad, a US-trained economist and banker formerly of the World Bank and IMF, to assemble a new coalition.

The schism has ensconced Fatah in the West Bank, where Abbas’s PA continues to govern under the discretion of the Israeli authorities, leaving Hamas in control of Gaza and Palestine divided.  These rival factions which effectively constitute the two main blocs of Palestinian political leadership have yet to seriously reconcile.

Of even greater contextual significance here than internecine Palestinian political strife is the context of Israeli occupation and international sanctions. Indeed, the stubborn absence of any substantive discussion of Israel’s relationship with Gaza’s desolate economy is the most striking aspect of Jodi Rudoren’s article.

Since the election of the Hamas government through free and fair elections in 2006, Israel, with the collaboration of its fellow US clients in Cairo, has subjected the densely populated Palestinian enclave to a devastating blockade, intermittent military incursions, political assassinations, an elaborate matrix of surveillance, severely curtailed access to arable land and fishable coastal waters, and several large-scale assaults by Israel’s state-of-the-art military apparatus upon Gaza’s largely defenseless civilian population and infrastructure.

In short, there is a clear and ever-present proximate cause behind the blighting poverty which pervades the Gaza Strip and gives rise to this kind of fractious tension between desperately insecure refugees and the squeezed UN agency charged with preserving what precarious economic life doggedly obtains among them. That such 800 lbs. apes escape mention in a story like this is both telling and inexcusable, and sure to nourish the narrative of smugly exasperated victim blaming so entrenched in the American (mis)understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict.


3 Jun

Standard aneurysm-inducingly warped American press coverage of Israeli brutality.  It’s heartening to hear recognition on a cable news channel that the people of Gaza are suffering severely under the Israeli blockade, but the framing narrative here is still crazy.

There’s a lot to object to in this clip, but allow me to comment on just one particularly galling moment, namely, Mitchell’s sly insinuation that the Goldstone Report was biased against Israel.  She suggests this matter-of-factly, in passing, as though it’s a given.

But Richard Goldstone is a Zionist and a world-renowned jurist. His daughter made aliyah to Israel. He documented Hamas crimes as well as Israeli ones. Yet still, even on supposedly liberal MSNBC, the logic goes,

1. if the report made Israel look bad,


2. it must be because of UN bias.

Good grief.