Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show, here on The Real News, and I’m Marc Steiner. It’s good to have you with us. And as you know, on this program I have been covering issues in Palestine and Israel for a long time, and there is no better time than the present to wrestle with what’s going on. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world in its horrible deadly grasp, it brings into sharp focus the inequities of wealth and power between the developed world and those mired in poverty and lack of power in the developing world. And in few places is it more stunning or geographically close than between Israel, the occupied territories and the besieged Gaza Strip. And that’s what we’re going to focus on today.
Marc Steiner: And Israel has one of the finest healthcare systems in the entire planet. Its responses to COVID-19, within Israel itself, has been a beacon to many countries around the world about how to proceed. Yet Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Gaza are facing an epidemic disaster in large part because Israel denied vaccines and assistance to the Palestinian Authority. Saying it’s not their, not Israel’s, responsibility. That they have no responsibility under the Oslo Accords that were done in the early 1990s, and that Gaza is what it is because it’s under siege, blockaded by Israel and Egypt, so it receives little or nothing, even while settlers on the West Bank are being vaccinated in the occupied territories. So it begs a lot of questions which we’re going to try to explore today. COVID has just laid bare, in startling relief, why efforts to end the occupation and force resolution between Palestinians and Israelis should be at the top of the agenda for this new Biden Harris administration. And that’s a much larger conversation, but it needs to be said.
Marc Steiner: So we’re joined today by our two guests. Dr. Osama Tanous is a physician, a pediatrician, based in Haifa, now studying and working on his fellowship in Atlanta. He has a master’s degree in public health and is an Al-Shabaka policy analyst and has recently written these two really interesting articles on the COVID crisis that I read. One was for Al-Jazeera, and the other for 972. So welcome for the first time. Good to have you with us.
Marc Steiner: And, Lia Tarachansky, a former Real News correspondent in Palestine and Israel who produced many incredible programs for us, is an award-winning film-maker and journalist who grew up in the occupied territories in a settlement and produced films like On the Side of the Road and one of her newer pieces, Ethnocracy: Israel’s African Refugees, among many others. And Lia, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
Lia Tarachansky: Thanks, Marc.
Marc Steiner: So let me just begin with one of the things you wrote about, Osama, was the question of structural violence and how it plays itself out during this COVID crisis. Could you just begin there for us and talk about what that means?
Osama Tanous: Yes. Well, thank you for having me, Mike, and hi, Lia. Marc. Well, I think what’s important for a lot of the audience in the US, or generally in the Western world, that see all the headlines about Israel Palestine but don’t really know all of the historical background that people talk about them as if they are two neighboring countries or two countries that have dispute over borders, and the thing is that is completely not the case. So when we talk about the West Bank and the occupied Gaza Strip, these are fake geographical entities that were created by Israel, by colonial frontier expansion. So there is no clear border to where Israel begins and where Israel ends, because you have settlements, you have the wall and then claiming the annexation of settlements, and then the besieges of Gaza Strip. So it’s important to keep in mind that while Israel as a settler-colonial project was being established and expanding, that has created the artificial borders that came to be the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Osama Tanous: These geographical entities are not countries, they are not islands, they are not out there, and they were created by Israel, and then they became a place to host refugees that were expelled from ’48 Palestine. So it’s very important to go back to ’48 in order to understand what has happened. Since then the West Bank and Gaza has been military occupied by Israel, along with the Golan Heights and Sinai later on. And the international law that forces the occupation to hold responsibility for the population it occupies in terms of providing them with healthcare, it is meant in order to make occupation not a long-standing issue. It is created in order to make occupation a hard task, because you don’t only occupy these populations but you have to provide them with healthcare until the occupation, as a temporary state of mind, is supposed to end. Right?
Osama Tanous: So that has prolonged and then that has produced the Oslo Accords, which was supposed to bring an end to the occupation but it did not, because Israel still controls basically the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in terms of sovereignty over land, military occupation checkpoints, import, export. So the Palestinians are not independent in any way, and then they cannot establish, when you don’t have sovereignty over the ground, sovereignty over your land, your territorial borders, your airports or ports. You cannot establish a healthcare system in that sense, and this is why the healthcare system in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is so weak, because it’s basically fragmented between governmental institution, NGOs, UNRWA and so on.
Osama Tanous: And Israel always goes back and forth between the claim that it has no obligation towards the Palestinian at all, because you have the PA that is responsible, to saying that Israel, although having no obligation, it fulfills its humanitarian obligations. So it’s very easy to swing back and forth without defining, and these are the origins of the true problems that we see in COVID but have been there with everything, with dealing with heart disease, with cancer, with any kind of disease in the West Bank and Gaza.
Marc Steiner: So you’ve laid out a lot here, and let me parse some of this through. And Lia, one of the things that struck me about this whole thing we’re going through at the moment is that, on the one hand, Israel is saying it has no responsibility to the occupied territories because of the Oslo accords of 1993 and ’95, and then some others I’ve seen have written pieces saying, “But look, we’re not discriminating because we take care of the Arab citizens of Israel. The Palestinians inside of Israel.” But to me the glaring contradiction here is how if you look at the Geneva Accords, Israel is allowing death to take place and this epidemic to surge among Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza. So I mean, help parse this out, both politically and emotionally.
Lia Tarachansky: Well, I think if you are going to be looking at international law as a framework in which to understand the actions of Israeli’s [inaudible 00:07:51], you’re going to be very disappointed, because Israel has followed international law only when it suits its own purpose, like so many other countries. And it’s not just to do with Palestinians. For example, the Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust, and Israel itself, were the driving force behind the 1951 UN convention on the rights of the refugees. And yet, Israel having created now the longest-standing refugee crisis in the world, having African refugees at its doors, has completely ignored that convention, even though it was instrumental in bringing it about. So, I think that the mistake you’re making is looking at it international law and saying, “Hey look, Israel violated it again.” I mean, it’s not really a mistake, but it’s just to going to give you many answers.
Lia Tarachansky: I think that what we’re looking at right now is a very sobering reminder that every aspect of care for the masses is a political decision. The Israeli government has been using COVID for its political purposes since the very beginning. Not just vis-a-vis the Palestinians but also vis-a-vis Israelis. In the beginning the response was very good. They shut down the country very quickly. The spread was almost halted completely in its tracks, and then when the criminal prosecutions against the prime minister became frontline news again, suddenly the lockdown is canceled, and COVID is no longer a big deal, and people go out into the streets and spread is astronomical. Right?
Lia Tarachansky: So the government has been using COVID cynically for political purposes, like so many other countries. Right now, I’m doing a PhD in Canada, and here we have the vaccine now, and it’s being rolled out in three phases, and the first phase is essential workers, doctors on the frontline, people like that, and the only other exception is indigenous peoples. So Canada made a political, conscious decision to first of all take care of those people who its existence has historically marginalized and oppressed. Israel has done the exact opposite, because Israel is completely ignoring the fact that it’s a flagrant settler-colonial state that is engaged in constant absolute race against apartheid in an attempt to expel and exclude and gerrymander various ways in order to minimize the non-Jewish population of the country. And COVID is just another one of those examples.
Lia Tarachansky: I think that it’s gotten so much attention, and I’m very glad it did, is because COVID is now something that all us around the world experience. Every single person in the world has a relationship with the COVID pandemic, and suddenly the experience of not having the vaccine, not because it doesn’t exist, but because, for cynical political reasons, it’s being withheld from you by a powerful state, one of the most powerful armies in the world, a nuclear power, a regional hegemony, economically massive state that’s receiving billions of dollars in aid and in trade. And to have that kind of state withheld a vaccine from a population that’s been battered down for so long and kept on the edge of poverty for so long, for political cynical reasons, I think that’s so stark right now. So unbelievable. So unexplainable that that’s whey you’re seeing so much attention being paid to it.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk for a moment about what’s really happening here. There was a interesting quote that I found by Omar Shakir from Human Rights Watch. He said that after 50 years of occupation with no end in sight Israel’s duties go beyond offering spare doses. And so the question of what can be done with all this? I mean, everything I’ve read, both in some of the Arab press and in some of the Israeli press, is that COVID is spreading like wildfire in Gaza, though we have no real statistics, and it’s also devastating parts of the West Bank where Palestinians live. And you also on top of that have the new ruling by the International Criminal Court saying Israel can be investigated and brought up on charges because of human rights abuse in the occupied territories, and this could be added to that, if it spreads even more. So the question is where do you both think this goes politically? What happens now? I mean, unless I’m missing it, I’m not seeing a lot of-
Lia Tarachansky: Well…
Marc Steiner: Go ahead. Lia, go ahead. You were about to say what?
Lia Tarachansky: Yeah, about 12 years ago I had the privilege of interviewing the woman who is now the head of the ICC, and 12 years ago I was asking her, “Israel has just bombarded the Gaza Strip in Operation Cast Lead. There’s so much evidence that it violated so many different international laws. When are you going to prosecute Israel? When are you going to prosecute Israel?” And they were on the edge of it back then, 12 yeas ago, and Israel has thrown everything in its power in order to halt and sabotage the process.
Lia Tarachansky: Unfortunately, so did the Palestinian Authority, but at the moment now, what we’re seeing is that the lovers of justice have finally succeeded in getting to the point where the ICC has, not just the legal justification to prosecute Israel, but also now the political protection and ability to do so, and I think that that’s a very interesting development.
Lia Tarachansky: Unfortunately, Israel is not a signature to the Rome Statute, and so therefore anything that the ICC does do will only apply to the actions of Israeli citizens working in the Palestinian territories. So it would be very, very, very limited, and the high level criminals might get away in exchange for low level war criminals like soldiers on the ground getting their punishment, but I do think that this is a very positive development, because if we do not have accountability, international law is meaningless.
Marc Steiner: Did you want to add to that at all, Osama, before I move on?
Osama Tanous: Yeah, I think it would be very naïve, this whole assumption that Israel is a normal democratic country that is misbehaving, that commits crimes here and there, and then it can be punished here and there or be taught to correct its behavior and then behave normally with the Palestinians it occupies. This is really too simplistic and naïve, and it completely ignores that Israel, per definition, per excellence, it was defined by excluding Palestinians, by defining who is Israeli by who is not Jewish. And then expelling the vast majority of Palestinians, creating these pockets to concentrate refugees, whether it’s the West Bank and Gaza and then occupy these territories and so on.
Osama Tanous: And we shouldn’t aim at thinking how can we provide a better life condition under occupation. How can we make the Gaza Strip or the West Bank… Pump them with money, and pump them with medical care and equipment and NGOs. People have the right to live free everywhere. And also for Palestinians inside Israel, everybody has the right to live free under a country of all its citizens. A secular, democratic state that provides equality for everyone, and that can be achieved only through decolonization of the entire place, from the river to the sea.
Osama Tanous: And what seems a very normal thing anywhere. That a country is the state of its citizens, not a state of part of its citizens and of people who are outside of its territory but can become automatically citizens, right? This does not make any sense, so in order to truly make also a better health for everyone and equity and equality in health and in politics, we need to achieve to that kind of solution. And the tools can vary, whether it’s the ICC or other tools, but we shouldn’t aim at creating better life condition under Israeli law.
Marc Steiner: So let me stay with you for a moment, Osama. We’ll bring Lia right back in as we conclude. You’re a physician. You practice for the most part in Haifa in Israel, and I’m curious what you have heard from colleagues, from friends, who are working in the occupied territories or the West Bank and in Gaza, about what the situation is and what’s been happening, even with this trickling in of some vaccines are being allowed in. The Israelis are allowing in a modicum of vaccines for some health workers. Russia is supposed to be sending their vaccines in but not enough. So talk about what you know about what the current situation is.
Osama Tanous: Yeah, so I mainly work in Haifa, but I’ve had the chance of working also in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip on volunteering with Physicians for Human Rights, so I quite got to know the medical system also in these places, and it’s just a whole mishmash of disorganized network. When there is no social contract between the people and the government, and you don’t know exactly who is in charge of your health, who is giving you health insurance, who is your health provider? So people tend to try to maneuver their way to whatever is possible, whether it’s a governmental hospital, the UNRWA hospital, for profit or try to get permits to go to Israel. So people with anything that happens, you’re always under stress because you want to make the best out of that, and sometimes you’ll have to cross military checkpoint and be politically pressured in order to get a permission.
Osama Tanous: And, of course, there is a lot of frustration and anger with the function of the PA, right, because the Palestinian Authority is also a product of the Oslo process. It’s a by-product of the occupation, so it doesn’t truly fulfill its job in ensuring the best medical care for Palestinians. And this is not just about COVID, right, because we have to remember that Palestinians on average live 10 years less than Israelis. They die more of every possible disease, and after COVID is over they will return to die more from a heart attack, from heart diseases, from kidney diseases or any other preventable disease, right? And this is why people are so frustrated, but they don’t know anything else.
Osama Tanous: This has been the case for 70 years or more, and these kinds of deaths are not… How can we say it? They are not theatrical. It’s not like bombardment. It’s nothing that you see on the news when people die from bombing. It’s nothing spectacular. So, it’s just an ongoing way of misery, of preventable death, of frustration and anger when the electricity shuts down in Gaza, and then the hospital has to go to a generator, or when there is a military checkpoint so the ambulance cannot pass. If you’re a Palestinian physician, you will also probably try to go abroad and live in a better condition, so it’s an entire system that is engineered to make your life much more harder and much more miserable. Pre-COVID, during COVID and post-COVID, right? And this is what frustrates so many physicians and practicing people in the West Bank and Gaza.
Marc Steiner: So, Lia, unless you want to jump in on commentary on that. We’d love to hear what you think, but I’m also curious why there’s so little uproar inside of Israel itself about all of this.
Lia Tarachansky: Well, it’s not a mystery. I mean, since COVID has been used so clearly for political purposes in Israel, we’ve seen a very exciting movement, a very powerful protest movement against the government, against Netanyahu specifically. People have been protesting by the masses every day since basically early spring, and that’s very interesting, and that’s very exciting. However, they are completely silent about what’s going on vis-a-vis the Palestinians, and it’s not because they’re heartless colonizers who are sub-human in some way, but it’s because they don’t know. And because the whole system is… while it’s very evident, it’s also incredibly obscured. I grew up in Israel. I grew up in the middle of the West Bank in a settlement, and I had my first conversation with a Palestinian when I came to do university in Canada. So the system is built in a way that constantly segregates in a very conscious way-
Marc Steiner: That’s pretty stunning, Lia, what you just said, though. I mean, that’s very stunning, what you just said. I didn’t mean to stop you, because you were on a flow, but that you had not met a Palestinian till you got to Canada. I mean, that just made me stop for a second. I forgot [crosstalk 00:21:39].
Lia Tarachansky: Right. I mean, in the American South during Jim Crow, when you look at segregation during slavery, white people and black people are in the same space, but are they interacting? Do they know about each other’s lives? Do they have any real understanding of what the other lives like? No, because the whites created that system for the benefit of the whites and exclude, through violence and constant oppression, the blacks. It’s the same in Israel. Israel’s an apartheid system. It’s a version of modern day Jim Crow. It’s a very brutal system, and that oppression can only really continue en masse in a country where there’s a draft of people going to the army, if you are constantly obscuring it and justifying it.
Lia Tarachansky: So I would say that the Israelis see once in a while the once of a hundred thousand Palestinians whose suffering is brought into an Israeli hospital. Like, for example, a few years ago I was covering the story of Muhammed [Zaza 00:22:38], who was a 15 year old kid in Gaza who was playing with his 12 year old cousin, Ibrahim, and Israel dropped a missile on them, killed Ibrahim, and then the Israeli government brought Muhammed into Israel to treat him. He underwent 20 surgeries. He lost his cousin.
Lia Tarachansky: In a later war, Israel accidentally bombed his house. His father had to come to Israel to take care of him in the hospital, and so the family had no income. They fell so far into poverty that it had a whole chain, decade of consequences, but because that one kid was brought to Israel to get treatment and was paraded in front of the cameras, Israelis perceive of their healthcare system as this benevolent force that gives healthcare even to the oppressed.
Lia Tarachansky: Once in a while the Israelis bring in a fighter from Syria, and they treat him, and it’s all over the news. “Look how generous we are. The Syrians say that they want to drive us in to the sea, and yet we are bringing their fighters here to give them healthcare.” But those tokens are used in order to create a whole system of obfuscations that denies and makes invisible the very basic thing that once you see it you cannot unsee it, which is that we are in a colonial system.
Lia Tarachansky: We are the colonizer. The suffering of millions is within reach of or actions, and that the Palestinians have been fighting for their liberation and freedom since the beginning. And that’s why their fighting us. It’s not a mystery. They’re not anti-Semites. There’s no other thing. They want their freedom. They want the right to live free on their own land. It’s not rocket science, and COVID is a piece of that puzzle, and how we get to a place of equality, that is the question. And I think that with these incredibly stark examples like COVID it becomes unignorable.
Marc Steiner: As we conclude, I mean, the things you both just concluded with are really important, and so I wonder how you think… And since we don’t have all the details of what’s happening in the occupied territories or in Gaza when it comes to COVID. We don’t have all the stats. I’ve been researching it this morning. They’re very difficult to find, but we know that the deaths are way beyond the percentage of most other places on the planet, especially in the Gaza. So how do both of you think, very quickly, this will affect the future? One of the things I said at the end of my opening was that this should be something that forces the American administration to open its eyes again to what’s going on. Whether it will or not is another question. How do you think this horrendous situation among the Palestinians and COVID and the deaths and the infections…. Will it affect any change? How do you see it falling out? Osama, I’ll start with you, and we’ll conclude with Lia.
Osama Tanous: Yeah, well, living in that part of the world and witnessing so many wars and so many absurdities in how people die in hundreds and thousands with a clear decision of killing them, right, it also would be naïve to assume that now once people are dying from COVID pandemic, that will bring sympathy and so on, but when Palestinians were being killed by Israeli… Palestinians or Lebanese or any other Arabs were being killed by bombing them with accuracy and with very well knowledge that also they didn’t move anything.
Osama Tanous: And we are also as Palestinians tired of being a charity case. We don’t want people to feel bad for us, because we are miserable and suffering and… We’re not poor. We’re not a charity case. We’re under occupation, and that should be a political decision, not a humanitarian decision. Not out of pity for us. So I don’t think that any US administration, in the past or currently, really saw the Palestinians as fully human, as people who are fully human and equal of a decent life. We’re always seen as a threat to the security of Israel, and that’s it, and how that game is played, we can be punished, or we can be given some extra credit. And that whole dialogue, that whole separation between the moderate Arabs, the moderate Palestinians and the extreme Palestinians, right?
Osama Tanous: So there’s something very wrong in assuming that someone that occupies you would really want you to be in full health. If he sees you as a human, why would he occupy you. So of course if he does, he sees you as sub-human. And we know that every settler colony, whether it’s the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, saw the indigenous living on the land as simply unworthy of that sovereignty, unworthy of that land, and they’re just an obstacle in order to achieve a larger settler-colonial state. So things should be fought and should be argued differently for an entire process of decolonization equality and not to alleviate suffering. Not from a pity, humanitarian approach, and this is how we should argue through the American public also and through the American politicians.
Marc Steiner: Lia?
Lia Tarachansky: I think that what scares me the most is that so many people have put so much effort into getting Biden and Harris into office in the US, which is the driving force behind so much of the actions that take place in Israel Palestine, that they’re going to see this win as a win for Israel and Palestine. And Biden and Harris may be a win for you, but they’re certainly not a win for us, because the only thing that Biden and Harris represents is a return to USAID version of occupation, and the complacency of, “Let’s just move things along, so that it looks like the peace process is going on, the peace process is going on.”
Lia Tarachansky: And it means nothing when you look at Israel and Palestine as a colonial, and settler-colonial dynamic, specifically. Now, I’m not saying that just because you have to fix the system from its roots by creating real equality, that you shouldn’t do anything, but I’ve seen what happened under Obama Biden, and if that’s what we’re looking for under Biden Harris, that’s going to be a disaster. And the last thing I want to say is if we can find a vaccine for the COVID virus, I don’t see why we can’t fix the colonialism virus.
That’s very well said, Lia. Thank you for ending it that way. I think it’s important for us to contemplate. Thank you both. Lia Tarachansky, always good to have you with us, and thank you so much. Dr. Osama Tanous, it’s wonderful to meet you, and we look forward to having you back with us again. Enjoy your stay in Atlanta, and thanks so much for both of your participation today.
Osama Tanous: Yeah.
Lia Tarachansky: Thank you for having us.
Marc Steiner: Thank you both. Thank you both. And I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from folks who really are looking forward to more Palestinian Israeli coverage. We’ll bring you as much as we can, at least from the Marc Steiner show, because it’s a vital issue for me personally, and I think for all of us across the globe, to wrestle with. So again, I’ll thank our guests, Lia Tarachansky and Osama Tanous, for joining us. And you see scrawled across the screen firstname.lastname@example.org. Please write to me. Let me know what you think about this episode, what you’d like us to be covering. Bring your ideas to the table. I’ll do my best to bring them on to the table. So for the Marc Steiner show, here on the Real News Network, I’m Marc Steiner. Take care, and thanks for joining us.
From our latest episode of “The Marc Steiner Show,” Palestinian physician, public health scholar, and Al-Shabaka policy analyst Dr. Osama Tanous and award-winning filmmaker and journalist Lia Tarachansky join Marc to discuss COVID-19 and Palestinians’ public health crises under Israeli occupation. Israel has faced international outcry over its refusal to provide Palestinians substantive access to COVID vaccines; however, as our panelists argue, this is merely the latest example of the structural violence of occupation.
Listen to full podcast episodes of “The Marc Steiner Show.”