Phyllis Bennis: Israel holds back from all out attack on Gaza concerned about reaction of Egyptian public opinion
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Gaza, a truce of sorts has been declared by Hamas and Israel–at least, they’re not firing on each other as we speak. But at least 14 people in Gaza were killed after Israeli buses were attacked by terrorists. More than eight Israelis were killed during that attack. But as we’ve reported on The Real News, there’s been no evidence of any actual link to Gaza of the attackers. But in spite of that, Israel launched an attack on Gaza. On the other hand, many people were predicting, especially with all the domestic protest going on in Israel, that these attacks on Gaza might become a wider war and has not. Joining us to talk about why and the significance of these events is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s also the author of The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Thanks for joining us again.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you.
JAY: So, first of all, talk a little bit about what happened and what you make of Israel and Gaza.
BENNIS: Well, there was a terrorist attack–and the word, I think, is appropriate: it was an attack, a direct attack on civilians, first on a bus and then on a car. Eight Israelis were killed. This was in southern Israel near the town of Eilat. The immediate claim by the Israelis, absent any evidence, was that these were, number one, Palestinians; number two, that they came from Gaza, that they had gone from Gaza into Sinai and had come all the way down Sinai, from the very northern tip of Sinai to the very southern tip of Sinai, and attacked Israelis back inside Israel at that point–without any evidence; in response to which they launched these attacks on Gaza, which is, of course, a scenario where you have 100–sorry–you have 1.5 million people locked into this tiny territory with collective punishment on this scale, a clear violation by a government, not a terrorist, but by a government, maybe the definition of state terrorism, attacking, they said, the organization they believed to be responsible. Later, as one of the–.
JAY: Who later denied any involvement.
BENNIS: Later, the Israelis, in an interview with one of the Real News reporters, denied that that was even their claim, saying that wasn’t–we didn’t ever claim that they were the ones responsible. The reality is, no one even knows who these terrorists were at this point. They may have been Egyptians. We don’t know who they were. In response, in some of the back and forth near the border, an Israeli patrol, an Israeli military patrol, were attacking someone they said was fleeing, and in the process killed three Egyptian soldiers inside Egyptian territory. There’s conflicting reports whether it was ground troops or whether it might have been an Israeli helicopter, but there’s no disputing that it was Israeli soldiers who killed Egyptian soldiers on Egyptian territory. The public opinion in Egypt went wild. This was one of the worst things that had happened in Israeli-Egyptian relations in many, many years, and there were huge demonstrations outside of the Israeli embassy in Cairo. There were immediate demands that Egypt expel the Israeli ambassador and recall their own ambassador from Tel Aviv. They did recall their ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations. They did not expel the Israeli ambassador. And they now have pulled back, saying, well, we only recalled him for some discussions and we’re not cutting relations. They’ve pulled back from the immediate effort to pacify public opinion. But in, I think, an unprecedented response, Israel didn’t quite apologize but did express, quote, “regret” for the killing of the three Egyptians. Now, in traditional Israeli political terms, that’s a game changer. That’s–has never happened, that kind of an acknowledgment that some kind of human responsibility, even if they didn’t say we’re sorry–it was not an apology, but that acknowledgment of regret was huge. It has not pacified public opinion inside Egypt, but it has–.
JAY: But I guess the issue here is or the question here is that people were expecting this would be the kind of trigger for a much bigger campaign in Gaza, and we didn’t see this.
BENNIS: And the fact that it was not was, I think, having everything to do with that public outrage inside Egypt. Israel right now is very much afraid that their long-standing relationship with Egypt, their 30 years of the Camp David agreement, their reliance on Hosni Mubarak as a repressive government at home–they didn’t care about that, as long as he kept the border secure and kept natural gas flowing at discounted prices to Israel (something else that’s been a great problem for people inside Egypt right now). That was all they were worried about. Suddenly, they can’t depend on that. Suddenly, they’re facing a government which is very concerned about maintaining some level of popular legitimacy, some level of popular support. The government in Egypt, which was installed by the military after the overthrow of Mubarak, is not popular. They’re not seen as doing what the revolutionary forces wanted them to do. They’re barely holding on. And if they were seen as acquiescing to Israel in this context, they would likely be overthrown. Israel is as aware of that as the Egyptian government is.
JAY: Now, the other factor, which is completely new in terms of the politics of the Middle East, are these mass protests inside Israel. And as our Lia Tarachansky’s reported, a Real News reporter there, you can see there’s a growing dialogue, there’s people talking about you can’t just have justice for people who can’t afford their apartments; we’d better start talking about justice for Palestinians.
BENNIS: Exactly. Social justice in Israel is suddenly having to deal with the issue of apartheid, discrimination, and occupation, human rights, the right of return, the right to equal housing.
JAY: Well, I don’t know if it’s gone as far as the right of return now.
BENNIS: I’m just saying that–I don’t think it has either, but I think there are people–there’s–one of the tents, for example, in the tent city, the row of tents along this fancy street in downtown Tel Aviv where the protesters have been camped out for three and a half weeks now, one of those is the 1948 Tent, and they are speaking very directly about return. I’m not saying that that’s yet a call that’s been taken up by the Israeli activists.
JAY: But it’s significant the tent is still standing.
BENNIS: It is still standing, and–.
JAY: Because before these protests, someone with a tent like that would have been trashed.
BENNIS: Absolutely. And one of the things that’s been so fascinating to see is how people–how quickly this became a targeting of the Israeli leadership. It became very political. Bibi Netanyahu is very much the target, and the chant has been “Mubarak, Assad, Bibi Netanyahu.”
CROWD: Mubarak! Assad! Bibi Netanyahu!
BENNIS: That’s a huge thing, for Israelis to compare their elected leader, the, quote, only democracy in the Middle East who elected this guy, and comparing him to the dictators of Egypt and Syria. This is huge.
JAY: But still a very dangerous moment.
BENNIS: It’s a very dangerous moment.
JAY: Netanyahu is not going to retreat.
BENNIS: No. And the danger of a war in Gaza in the hope of derailing these protests is still a very real possibility.
JAY: Now, the rumblings are still about something Lebanon [incompr.]
BENNIS: It’s always a possibility. Israel has always looked to wars on its borders, shoring up fears about its borders, as a way of deflecting popular protest, whether on social and economic issues or on other issues. That’s not different now. What is different is that the environment in which Israel is able to depend or not dependent on these border situations is very different.
JAY: I’m going to interrupt you for a sec, ’cause I think we’re actually experiencing an earthquake. And the whole building is rocking. And I think we’ll just for now enjoy the ride. We’re still taping here. But if you’re seeing things go and hearing the building, we have just been in an earthquake. And the power is on its way out. No, the generator has kicked in. The camera’s still rolling. And, now, whether that is an earthquake or something else, we’re going to find out.
OFF CAMERA: Okay. Everybody’s leaving.
JAY: Alright. So we’re going to leave now. But as Phyllis leaves, let me just say–let’s keep taping here–thanks for joining us on the Real News Network. And we’re getting out of the building. Okay, let’s turn the cameras off, guys. Let’s not go crazy.
End of Transcript
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