Examining the “Israel Has a Right to Defend Itself” Narrative
Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges and Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour deconstruct the narrative around Israel’s right to defend itself and the media’s depiction of the Gaza assault
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Thousands took to the streets of Washington Saturday in one of the U.S.’s largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations. As the death toll in Gaza surpassed 1,800, Israeli forces have carried out a unilateral withdrawal from portions of Gaza. But Israeli airstrikes continue, killing a six-year-old girl and injuring dozens.
Meanwhile, the United Nations, along with the United States, has condemned what has become the seventh Israeli strike on a UN school being used as a shelter, this time killing seven people. This is what the State Department had to say about the incident. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said, quote,
“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which at least ten more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed. (…) We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.
But even as the U.S. steps up its criticism of Israel for killing civilians in Gaza, new documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden bring to light the complicity of the U.S. government in Israeli military actions. Glenn Greenwald writes in The Intercept, quote,
“The new Snowden documents illustrate a crucial fact: Israeli aggression would be impossible without the constant, lavish support and protection of the U.S. government, which is anything but a neutral, peace-brokering party in these attacks. And the relationship between the NSA and its partners on the one hand, and the Israeli spying agency on the other, is at the center of that enabling.”
And now joining us to discuss all of this are our two guests, Linda Sarsour and Chris Hedges.
Linda Sarsour is a Palestinian-American activist serving as the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York.
And also joining us is Chris Hedges. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a senior fellow at The Nation Institute, and a regular columnist at Truthdig. He was also the former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times and has reported extensively from the occupied Palestinian territories.
Thank you both for joining us.
CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST, SENIOR FELLOW AT THE NATION INSTITUTE: Thank you.
LINDA SARSOUR, EXEC. DIR., ARAB AMERICAN ASSOC. OF NY: Thank you for having me.
DESVARIEUX: Linda, let’s start off with you. You took to the streets of Washington with thousands of others this past weekend expressing your outrage at the ongoing civilian death toll in Gaza. As I mentioned in the introduction, 1,800 people have been killed. So what’s your response to supporters of Israel who say they have a right to defend themselves?
SARSOUR: Every country has the right to defend itself, but it doesn’t justify the killing of over 85 percent civilians, children, schools, mosques in the region. And to continue to say that you have the right to defend yourself while you have a whole entire population under siege in the largest open-air prison, for me, is beyond anything that I can personally comprehend.
And our message is that we can’t just continue to call for ceasefires. We need to call to an end of siege on Gaza. We need to call for an end to military occupation in the West Bank and go back to the table with real negotiations, genuine negotiations, and not ones that include one million and one conditions by the state of Israel.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And Chris, as I mentioned in the introduction, it’s no secret that the U.S. supplies Israel with billions of dollars weapons and diplomatic support. What’s the significance of these newest Snowden revelations?
HEDGES: Well, I think they confirm something that those of us who cover the region always suspected, and that is that there is a close intertwining of the American military and intelligence establishment with the Israeli military and intelligence establishment. Let’s not forget that many of the ordinances that are being dropped on Gaza are actually manufactured in the United States. I’ve picked up pieces of shell casings from bombs that have been dropped by the Israeli Air Force on Gaza City, and it says, “Manufactured in Dayton, Ohio”. So this is just one more piece of the puzzle. We are deeply complicit in the slaughter that is being unleashed by the Israeli military against a defenseless population, a population that has no air force, no navy, no command-and-control, no mechanized units, no heavy artillery, and certainly no air force.
And the idea that this is a war or that the Palestinians in Gaza represent any kind of an existential threat to Israel is absurd. Under the UN Charter, Article 51, a group of people that are attacked like this and that appeal to the outside world for help, and when that help is not forthcoming, have a right to defend themselves. I’m not excusing the indiscriminate rocket fire that is unleashed on Israel. That is a war crime. But it in no way compares to the war crimes that are being carried out against the Palestinian people by the Israeli military, who fatuously talk about defending themselves–this is absurd–and use terms like war, which is also absurd. There’s only one word for what’s happening in Gaza, and that’s called murder.
DESVARIEUX: And I want to turn and talk about how the mainstream press is covering this. Chris, you mentioned how people have been complicit in the slaughter, but there are some saying that they’ve been more willing to challenge the Israeli narrative. I want to play a clip from BBC’s [Channel 4’s] Jon Snow questioning Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren about claims that Hamas uses human shields. And then we’ll run a clip from CNN’s Chris Cuomo asking State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, how can you condemn Israeli attacks while giving them weapons. Let’s roll that clip.
JON SNOW, PRESENTER, CHANNEL 4 NEWS: I was on the streets of Gaza last week for several days. And I have to say the idea that these people are human shields–you see people being wounded and killed simply because strikes hit the street they’re on. I mean, they are not human shields. This is a densely populated area in which there are ordinary people living ordinary lives, inasfar as is possible in this extraordinary situation. They’re not human shields.
CHRIS CUOMO, JOURNALIST, CNN: You say, this is wrong, you can’t do this kind of shelling or targeted attacks. You are providing the weapons and artillery that allow these attacks to continue. Does that complicate a message of humanity coming from the United States?
JEN PSAKI, SPOKESPERSON, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: Well, Chris, let me first say that it’s no secret to anyone in the world that the United States and Israel have a strong security relationship. And that includes providing them with equipment and supplies when it’s needed. That’s been ongoing. We also do an enormous amount of funding for the Iron Dome. We worked with their military.
But that does not change the fact that when you have a situation where innocent civilians are killed in Gaza, there’s more that Israel can do to hold themselves to their own standards. And the United States, of all countries, has experienced this in places like Afghanistan. We’re saying they need to hold themselves to their own standards and do more here in Gaza.
DESVARIEUX: So, Chris, we just saw those clips. What’s your take? What’s your response to that?
HEDGES: I think the American press has not done a particularly good job in covering this conflict. In fact, it’s pretty much caved to the Israeli lobby in the same way that our elected officials, including 100 percent of the American Senate, have caved to the Israeli lobby, which, of course, includes supposedly our most liberal figures in the Senate, like Bernie Sanders and others. As somebody who comes out of the region and spent as long as I did the region, I’m kind of appalled. I thought the BBC [Channel 4] interview was good in that it was so exceptional, but the European coverage of this has always been better than the American coverage. You see such a disproportionate amount of time handed over to Israeli spokespeople, especially on the airwaves. And if you get a voice in that dissents from the Israeli narrative, it invariably, in terms of time, is cut off. And often these people are banished, especially the most vocal critics; people like Rabbi Henry Siegman, the great scholar Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, you know, real critics of the Israeli policy are pretty much not on the airwaves at all.
DESVARIEUX: Linda, I want to get your take. What about Palestinian voices? Do you think the mainstream media has done a good job at representing their voice?
SARSOUR: I absolutely agree with Chris that if you compare the airtime that Palestinian voices have received versus Israeli voices, it’s not comparable. And when someone dares to criticize the bias of the media, their interviews get canceled, as we saw recently with Rula Jebreal criticizing her own network, MSNBC.
And I think there has been a shift from previous attacks on Gaza and in this entire conflict that we’ve been dealing with for 66 years is that social media has played a huge part. There is no way the media cannot report on what’s happening in Gaza while civilians and citizen journalists and surgeons are putting out horrific images from the region and videos of people getting murdered as they’re taping, for example, destruction of neighborhoods. So social media has been our opportunity and the opportunity for the Palestinians in Gaza to tell their own story. And nobody can deny, no one in the media can deny what is happening right now in Gaza. And while some media outlets can continue to justify what’s happening based on the premise that Israel has a right to defend itself, which then justifies the killing of innocent children, mostly, and women and men and seniors, but at the same time the general public, I mean, the outcry across the world has been really pro-Palestinian. And I think people can’t deny what’s happening in Gaza. And social media has been a very important tool to tell our story.
DESVARIEUX: This premise that Israel has a right to defend itself really has picked up in Congress. As Chris mentioned, Congress unanimously voted to support Israel. And, Chris, I want to take get your take on this, because this is more than in the past. We’ve had Glen Ford on who mentioned how Representative Barbara Lee in the past was against supporting resolutions like this. But now we’re seeing this united front. What’s behind this? What do you think’s the rationale behind this?
HEDGES: Money. You know, money. That’s how AIPAC works. And they have a lot of money to spend, and they have a large public relations arm to punish people who don’t toe the line. So there’s no daylight between the Republican and Democratic policy vis-à-vis Israel. And it really comes down to something that crass. Bernie Sanders, who wants to run for president, is not going to buck the Israeli lobby. And it’s kind of pathetic that there’s not even one dissenting voice on something that is this flagrant in terms of the violation of international law and the clear carrying out by the Israeli Defense Forces of war crimes. That’s not a contentious issue. That’s a fact.
DESVARIEUX: But, Chris, money was always an issue before. Why? Is it because it’s an election year? Is that really what, specifically? Or is there more to this?
HEDGES: Well, you get a little more variance in the House. So when you talk about Barbara Lee, you’re not talking about the Senate. But always there’s been pretty much overwhelming support within the political establishment for–you know, I hate to call it Israeli policy. It’s really a neocon right-wing policy. I covered the election campaign Yitzhak Rabin carried out for prime minister, and AIPAC and these groups put a lot of money into Likud at the time to challenge Rabin because he wanted to carry out a peace process, which led, of course, to the Oslo agreement. And that’s why when Rabin was inaugurated as prime minister he did not invite these American groups like AIPAC to his inaugural. There was a great deal of tension. So I think sometimes we misname this when we call it an Israeli policy. It’s a neocon far right wing policy.
Bibi Netanyahu has been unequivocal, before he became prime minister, about saying he would never permit a Palestinian state. He may mouth a sort of mantra of the two-state solution, but we have all sorts of stuff, including in his book, where he says that he will never, ever allowed the Palestinian state.And then all we ever hear about is Hamas in their charter. And, you know, I have issues with Hamas. I’m not defending them as sort of any kind of paradigm of democracy and enlightenment. But Israel gets a pass on this. The Israeli government that is in power now, including Avigdor Lieberman and others, are unequivocal in their statements that they will never, ever permit a Palestinian state. And the fact is, with the expansion of settlements, the use of force, the creation of ringed ghettos, open-air prisons like Gaza–but we must look at the West Bank, where we have essentially created eight roughly podlike structures completely surrounded by the Israelis, the impoverishment, the kind of Africanization of the Palestinians so that they must struggle at a subsistence level–all of this is done by design.
And the fact is, whatever Hamas says, they don’t have any capacity to affect the Israeli state, while the Israeli state is carrying out a policy not only of–I think at this point genocide is not too strong a word, but certainly the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents, but it’s also carrying a policy of a landgrab, 40 percent of the land on the West Bank, and the kind of creation of apartheid, an apartheid-like system that makes any semblance of a Palestinian state impossible. And I think many of us fear that with the expansion of Israeli policy day by day–I mean, take a look at East Jerusalem. It’s unrecognizable from when I went first went there in 1988 because of Israeli buildings and seizures of land. We are seeing an active campaign by the Israeli state to do what they accuse Hamas of doing and not being able to do, and that is crushing the existence of the Palestinian state itself. That is the policy, that is what is being carried out, and that is never spoken.
DESVARIEUX: I’m glad that you mention Hamas and this idea of coexistence, because that’s one of the biggest arguments against Hamas is that there’s a portion in their charter that says that they want to kill the Jews, they don’t want to coexist with Jews. But what are the real facts behind this, Linda? Can you give us sort of an update?
SARSOUR: So I’m obviously no expert on Hamas and on their charter, but what I do understand is that their point of contention is that Hamas has in their charter that it will not recognize the state of Israel. And people will say, how do we then acknowledge a Palestinian state or Hamas if they don’t recognize the existence of the state of Israel? My understanding is that in 2006 they moved away from that position as they were getting ready for elections that they obviously won. And my understanding also is, in a recent interview that Khaled Mashal, one of the top leaders of Hamas, who’s currently in Qatar, said to Charlie Rose, look, we’ve always been ready to coexist with the Jews; we’re just not ready to coexist with the occupiers. So the talking point always stands with the other side and the opposition, because they don’t want anyone to know that there could potentially be progress, but that there is a potential for peace and that Hamas could be a part of the Palestinian unity government.
I mean, we just saw recently Fatah and Hamas join together for a unity government. This is when all the chaos erupted in the Middle East and, I mean, in the region. So I’m no defender of Hamas, even though I am a pro-Palestinian, I’m a Palestinian myself, I support the plight of the Palestinian people for their own state, I support an end of siege on Gaza and an end to military occupation. And, unfortunately, the opposition has equated all of that with people, to say that we are pro-Hamas and anti-Semitic for even believing those three things. So I’m no defender of Hamas or an expert on their charter, but my understanding that’s clearly documented online is that they have moved away from their position about wanting the destruction of the state of Israel and not to recognize Israel as a state.
HEDGES: There’s long been negotiations through Egyptian security officials with Israel. That is why al-Qaeda condemned Hamas as an apostate movement, because they had communications with the Israeli government, especially under the Mubarak regime, through a third party. And I don’t think it’s fair to Hamas, or, certainly, to the Palestinians, to talk about this kind of hostile attitude toward the Israeli government while you have the blockade in place, where even the most basic amenities–medical aid, food, and everything else–is denied intentionally to the Palestinian people so that all of their energy goes into the struggle to survive itself. And that’s an Israeli policy. I mean, there’s very little difference between life in Gaza and life in the ghettos that were set up by the Nazi regimes initially in Europe. Of course, those regimes eventually went on to do something Israel will never do, extermination camps and everything else. But the existence, the horror, the overcrowding, the fact that people can’t leave, can’t work, have struggles just getting clean water, what they have done, this collective punishment on 1.8 million people, is one of the most egregious war crimes on the planet. And to somehow expect the Palestinian people to lie down and speak civilly to a government that is carrying out this horror–and let’s remember that most of the residents in Gaza are children–I think it’s just not fair. I don’t think it’s fair to the Palestinians, and I finally don’t even think it’s fair to Hamas.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Just finally, really quickly, I want to get both your takes on this issue. You rarely hear the mainstream media talk about the root causes of this conflict. And Hamas and the Arab world has offered Israel peace if they withdraw to the 1967 borders. Why is this never discussed in the mainstream, and why is it so critical to achieving peace? I’ll ask you first, Linda.
SARSOUR: It’s absolutely critical to achieve peace to go back to the root cause of military occupation, and even the shift within the Jewish community and the pro-Israel folks who are pro-Israel about ending military occupation. And I think the media again toes the same line. There is, like, this–I mean, I try not to be a conspiracy theorist, but I’m really–personally, as a Palestinian, I sit back and I’m like, really? There are people right now in Gaza who cannot even become refugees again. And when we look at the atrocities, for example, in Syria, we look at people fleeing to Jordan, fleeing to Turkey, the Gazans have nowhere to go. And for us to continue to sit back and talk about this as if it just started three weeks ago and not talk about the open-air prison, not talk about military occupation and the apartheid wall and checkpoints and the conditions of the Palestinian people is beyond me. And we must go back to the root cause, right?
But what happens is, when we start going back to the root cause, we become the radicals, we become pro-Hamas, and we become toeing the line of the Palestinian terrorists. And I think one of the talking points is that Hamas equals Palestinians and Palestinians all equal Hamas, and that is why the justification of killing of innocents in Gaza is justified by the Israeli government, because, oh! They all voted for Hamas, so they deserve this; they put themselves in this situation. And I think that is the most ridiculous argument. When we look at our country as Americans, when we had George Bush as our president, I didn’t vote for George Bush and he did not represent my interests when we killed over 1 million Iraqis in Iraq in a war that was based on lies. So I think that same rhetoric and that same talking points are being used against the Palestinian people. Fifty percent of the population of Gaza is under the age of 14. These young people are not eligible to vote. And I think that mainstream media needs to start pushing back on these talking points that are all put in this PR playbook that every single Israeli official has used if you watch and compare the interviews that have happened.
So, yes, let’s go back to the root cause, let’s look at long-term solutions and not temporary Band-Aids by calling for ceasefires.
DESVARIEUX: Chris, I’ll let you have the final word.
HEDGES: Well, I mean, this is the problem: people don’t have any context by which they understand what’s happening. Go back to 1948: 700,000 Palestinians driven in a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing, which included the massacre of large numbers of civilians intentionally to drive them into Gaza, into refugee camps, out of the country. This process of ethnic cleansing by various forms has long been a part of the Israeli agenda. It has certainly been ramped up under the right-wing Kadima and, previously, Likud governments. We see the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, calling for transfer. That means throwing people, Palestinian families, over the border, out of the country, or, in his words, driving them into the sea.
And I think rather than respond to this particular event alone, we have to understand that this is part of a process, and a very dark and criminal process, not only denying the dignity and right of Palestinians to control their own lives and their own fate, but an attempt to essentially seize the entire land of Palestine, to violate international law by not only not going back to the 1967 borders, but creating, in essence, bantustans or Israeli-type townships where you have a dwindling and an impoverished and deeply repressed group of Palestinians withering away. That is the policy, and the attacks on Gaza illustrate that when put into that context. It’s part of a pattern. And we have many statements by people who who are in power, including Netanyahu himself, some of which were recorded candidly, that confirm this.
So the problem is the press tends to look at things in isolation. Americans are not good in terms of historical knowledge and putting issues in context. And when you don’t put things in context, you can’t understand what’s happening. You can understand the horror of the moment, but you don’t finally understand what it means. And the press has done a bad job.
But it’s not, in the end, the job of the press to do it. One has to have a sense of history in order to make rational judgments about what’s happening anywhere in the world. And the Israel-Palestinian conflict is no exception to that.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Chris Hedges and Linda Sarsour, thank you both for joining us.
HEDGES: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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