PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And joining us now from Oakland, California, is Reese Erlich. He’s the author of the book Conversation with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire, and he’s just about to begin a national tour. He’s a longtime foreign correspondent and covered the region in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Iran and other places for more than 42 years. Thanks for joining us, Reese.
REESE ERLICH, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thank you so much for having me.
JAY: The Conversations with Terrorists, I guess that is a bit ironic in your title, because the list of people, some of whom are now called terrorists and others are called respected national leaders—. So tell us a little bit about the theme of the book and who you’re talking about.
ERLICH: Conversations with Terrorists profiles six leaders from the Middle East and South Asia—Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel. And it includes people like Khaled Mashal, the head of Hamas, and Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, and Geulah Cohen, who is a right-wing leader in Israel and a former member of the Stern Gang in the pre-1948 period when the Zionists were using terrorist tactics against the British and the Arabs. So the book looks at these people, delves into who are they really, what do they really believe, are they really terrorists, and if not, what should the US policy towards them be.
JAY: In terms of the approach of your book, how do you define terrorism, then?
ERLICH: For me, terrorism is the use of violence or murder against civilians for a political purpose. So, for example, when a Palestinian straps on a suicide vest and intentionally goes into a shopping center or some other place where there are civilians, that’s clearly a terrorist act. When Israel drops a 500 pound bomb on an apartment building in Gaza, allegedly to go after one Hamas leader but knowing full well that dozens of civilians will be killed, that’s also an act of terrorism. And, of course, everybody in the US government and Israel would agree to the first definition, but they take great disagreement with the second one and say, claim that Israel goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties. And the record is very clear, and the book makes it very clear that that’s simply propaganda.
JAY: So the recent UN report on what happened on the flotilla that was an aid—group of boats going to Gaza to try to break the blockade on Gaza, it’s now found that the Israeli commandos dropped on the boat, and according to this report, the people that were killed were—many of them were actually lying down as they were shot, according to what the report says the forensic evidence shows. Would you define that, then, as an act of terrorism?
ERLICH: Well, I think clearly the Israelis attacked a group of unarmed civilians who were on a boat bringing relief supplies to Gaza. Now, they claim they were attacked and one thing or another, but the facts as established by the UN Human Rights Commission was that they executed several people at point blank range. There was incontrovertible forensic evidence that the Israeli soldiers came up behind them and shot them dead after they were either wounded or simply lying on the deck. So yes. But the Israelis argue that—somehow turn themselves into victims for this, that they were under assault by Turkish fundamentalists or something. I mean, I’ve covered the Middle East now for 25 years. I’ve been to Israel seven times. I’ve been to Palestine, in Gaza and the West Bank. I’ve been to Lebanon. And, you know, the Israelis all too often simply make stuff up, and it’s echoed by the US government and by the media here.
JAY: Now, if Hezbollah, Hamas, they seem to accept the idea that what they call martyrdom operations against civilians—. I know I—we just got back from the Middle East a few months ago, and if you talk to ordinary Palestinians, they actually distinguish very much between attacks on Israeli military and Israeli civilians, and I think popular opinion amongst the Palestinians is very much against attacks on Israeli civilians. But Hamas and Hezbollah seem to accept it as a tactic they won’t take off the table. So would it be then correct to call these organizations terrorist?
ERLICH: Well, the first thing that gets lost in this discussion is that Hamas has not sanctioned any suicide bombings since 2005. That was a decision they made in light of the political situation in between Israel and the Palestinians. So—but this is an argument I’ve had with Hamas leaders, with Khaled Mashal, with others in camps in Lebanon. Their argument is the Israelis kill our civilians any time they want, and Israelis must serve in the army, therefore there’s no such thing as an Israeli civilian, so therefore our attacks on them are justified and they’re acts of resistance. I think that’s absolutely dead wrong. It’s both immoral and it’s counterproductive politically. And as you pointed out, there are other views among Palestinians that say, no, we should not attack Israeli civilians; we have to live with these folks long-term; and if you’re going to engage in armed actions, it should be against military, police, or other sectors of the people they think that are oppressing them.
JAY: Now, the Republican Party continues to use all the rhetoric of the Bush administration, that the war is a war against terrorism, as terrorism itself being the enemy. The Obama administration seems to go back and forth on it. Sometimes they seem to buy into the war on terrorism. Sometimes it’s about al-Qaeda. How do you assess the discourse as it now exists in the US on this?
ERLICH: I think the Obama administration really had an opportunity to change course quite significantly, even within the context of mainstream politics in the United States, and they failed miserably. The Obama administration doesn’t use the term "war on terror", but it carries out the same kind of propaganda. So it lumps together Al-Qaeda, who certainly do use terrorist tactics against civilians, and FARC guerrillas, that is, the Colombian Marxist guerrillas, and the Spanish separatists of ETA in Spain. I mean, somehow, anybody who uses violence against the US or its allies is a terrorist. I—stop and think about it. Is there anybody in the world who currently uses violence against the US that’s not a terrorist? And it’s absurd. You can’t have a war against a tactic. It’s a prescription for never-ending war, because you can never win it. There will always be somebody out there potentially who could blow himself up. Therefore you have to keep the United States in economic crisis and political crisis permanently.
JAY: Well, you can see the evidence of that in the fact they’re continuing the prosecution of [Omar] Khadr, the young kid in Afghanistan who’s being charged with a war crime for throwing a grenade when the compound he was under in Afghanistan was being bombed. It became a war crime to attack an American soldier, essentially a terrorist attack.
ERLICH: You know, you can’t have aggressive wars abroad without having economic crisis at home and repression at home. So all of these things that people were shocked under the Bush administration doing, like asserting the right to arrest American citizens and hold them without trial because they’re accused of being terrorists, the Obama administration upholds that. They’re now going in to seek greater backdoor entry to your computers and to your Internet, email, etc., because they claim they can’t get enough information without it otherwise. I mean, a whole series of civil liberties issues, the Obama administration is pushing just as hard as Bush did to take away our civil liberty.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.
ERLICH: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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