Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of several books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo today as the Israeli attack on Gaza enters it seventh day. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also in the region after calling for an immediate ceasefire and warning an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would be a "dangerous escalation" that must be avoided. As ceasefire talks continue in Cairo, Hamas has set two conditions for accepting a ceasefire: lifting the military blockade on the Gaza Strip and international assurances that Israel would stop assassinations and other military measures. We speak with Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies based in Washington, D.C. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: As Israel continues to bombard the occupied Gaza Strip after killing 34 people Monday, the deadliest single-day toll since the assault began last week, the overall Palestinian death toll has topped 116 over the last week, more than half civilian. Israeli death toll from Palestinian rocket attacks stands at three. We go to Washington to Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Phyllis, a Reuters flash: The Egyptian president says the Israeli assault on Gaza will end today. Hillary Clinton has left Obama’s Asia trip to go to Jerusalem. They say she’s going to Jerusalem and Ramallah, I believe to Cairo, as well. Talk about what’s happening now in Gaza.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, we don’t know yet what the announcement from the Egyptian prime minister means. There was an announcement from the Israeli side that they will delay—I think that was their word—the possibility of a ground invasion, but they are continuing, as we just heard, the air bombardment that has killed so many people in Gaza.
This is, Amy, very definitely a U.S. central, institutionalized action that’s going on. We heard just in the last couple of days from the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, who said directly, this effort could not have been concluded without the generous and consistent support of the American administration, led by President Obama. I think that’s the most important thing for those of us in the United States to keep in mind. This is something where the United States has made clear that it is giving Israel carte blanche to use U.S.-made weapons that—we’re talking about F-16s, we’re talking about Apache helicopters, we’re talking about armored Caterpillar bulldozers, we’re talking about drones—most of which are produced in the United States, purchased with our tax dollars, in violation, in this use, of U.S. law, specifically the Arms Export Control Act, that makes it illegal to use U.S. arms in an illegal way—for example, in maintaining an illegal occupation, in violating the Geneva Conventions, etc.
What we’re looking at is a moment where, for both the United States and Israel, as they take up this question of whether there could be an immediate ceasefire, as the world is demanding, the question of the Middle East having changed so dramatically since four years ago during Operation Cast Lead. At that time, Israel could count on a U.S.-dependent dictator in Egypt, governments throughout the Arab world that had no accountability to their own population, that were accountable really only to the U.S., and, in that context, were prepared to play nicely with Israel, do whatever the U.S. wanted them to do, vis-à-vis Israel, whether it be peace treaties, whether it be trade arrangements, etc., because the U.S. was calling all the shots.
Today, the situation is very different. The two countries the U.S. most needs to act as interlocutors in the region, Turkey and Egypt, are arguably right now the closest and most important allies of Hamas. Hamas is no longer an isolated outlayer in the region. Hamas now is arguably less isolated than Israel is. Israel is more isolated than Hamas, has fewer friends. And that changes the dynamics. It doesn’t mean that any Arab countries are about to join the war against Israel. That would be disastrous. That kind of escalation would not help anyone. But the that fact Israel cannot count on diplomatic support from Arab governments, etc., changes the dynamics. It puts far greater pressure on Israel, so that the possibility becomes much more realistic that there could be an immediate ceasefire, perhaps today, as the Egyptian prime minister said.
The question will be immediately with the ceasefire, is there going to be a change in the policy? As we heard from Dr. Mona El-Farra just now, if there is not an end to the siege of Gaza, if the Gaza crossings are not opened, the Israeli-controlled crossings, because we should remember, Gaza is still under occupation—despite the withdrawal of troops and soldiers in 2005, Israel continues its control over the airspace, the waters, the borders. Everything about Gaza is under Israeli control. Given that, if there is not an agreement to end that control, to open the border crossings, to let Gaza breathe, this will continue. It will continue in a year, in two years, in four years—maybe, once again, just after the next U.S. elections. That seems to be the favorite Israeli timeline; maybe just before the next Israeli elections, which is what we’re looking at right now. Much of the timing of this has to do with the pressures on Netanyahu as he looks to his re-election in January. So, all of those political factors are underway. But the possibility right now that there might be a desperately needed ceasefire is made more possible by these massive changes in the region, where the U.S. is no longer able to count on compliant dictators willing to violate the wishes of their own populations to abide by Washington’s dictates.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, give us a quick timeline. Israel says they’re doing this because rockets—Hamas and other groups from Gaza fired hundreds of rockets onto Israeli soil. Can you give us the timeline of how all of this has taken place?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, Amy, history can be determined by when you start the clock. If we start the clock the way most of the U.S. press now is, which is a change, now saying that this escalation began when Israel assassinated a Hamas leader on November 14th, that’s one timeline. The Israeli position was, "Well, we did that because they fired—the Palestinians fired a rocket at an Israeli jeep."
Well, why did that happen? That happened because a few hours before there had been that firing on an Israeli military jeep and a patrol, there had been the killing of a 13-year-old child in Gaza who was playing soccer. Two days before that, there had been the assassination of a young man walking in the no-walk area, the no-go zone near the border, where Israelis say, "We told him, we called out to him not to go there, and he didn’t listen." It turns out this was a mentally disabled man who maybe didn’t hear, maybe didn’t understand, continued to walk, and he was shot dead. We could start the clock then.
But at the end of the day, we have to—we can look back four years. We can look back to the end of Cast Lead and say, since Cast Lead, 271 Palestinians, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, have been assassinated by Israeli air strikes, by drones, by planes, by helicopters—271 Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israelis, zero Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets. If Israel was seriously trying to protect its population, that’s the period when no Israelis were killed. During this escalation, three Israelis were killed, tragically, civilians who should not have been killed.
But the reality is that this goes back to the occupation. If we don’t acknowledge this in the context of occupation, the siege of Gaza, the traditional occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, we will never be able to stop it. We can get a ceasefire right now, stop it for the moment, but then it will continue, because there is no option. When the world abandons a people under occupation, as we have seen in the Palestinian territories, there is reaction from those people. We hear a great deal from world leaders about the responsibility to protect, the new mantra of the United Nations. "We have a responsibility to protect the people of Libya. We have a responsibility to protect the people of Syria." There are serious reasons why the responsibility to protect should have been invoked, in my view, not the way it was, but the world did owe a level of protection to people living under repressive regimes around the world. That’s also been true of U.S.-backed regimes that continues around the world, what we’ve seen in Bahrain and other places.
But in the question of Palestine, that responsibility to protect, for the Obama administration, as was true of every administration before it, only applies to Israel. We heard it again and again from President Obama, from other officials of the administration, from members of Congress. "Israel has the right to defend itself. Israel has the right of self-defense." Asked whether Palestinians have the right of self-defense, the State Department spokesperson said a couple of days ago—when asked that question, her answer was, "Israel has the right of self-defense," implying that Palestinians have no rights at all. They only apparently have the right to die under Israeli rockets.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip right now of Churkin. This was on—this was Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, who said on Monday his delegation is preparing a Security Council draft resolution on the conflict in Gaza. He indicated the effort is likely to face resistance from some quarters.
AMB. VITALY CHURKIN: Some members of—one member of the Security Council—I’m sure you can guess which—indicated sort of quite transparently that they will not be prepared to go along with any reaction of the Security Council, somehow allegedly that could hurt the current efforts carried out by Egypt in the region. We could not figure out how that could be the case, because it was the Arab League who proposed the press statement, and of course Egypt is a very active member of the Arab League.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Phyllis, comment on that. And also, just how much does this have to do with Netanyahu coming to the United Nations for—seen as very much humiliated by many around the world, his opposition to President Obama, and moving into elections, his own elections?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, on the—on your second question first, Amy, on the question of the internal politics going on inside Israel with the Netanyahu camp, he is facing a great deal of opposition inside Israel these days for having dissed President Obama, for having essentially campaigned for Romney during the U.S. campaign. And there’s a lot of resentment about that, how that undermined the traditionally strong U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Part of what this escalation against Gaza led to was an immediate reassertion of the longstanding U.S. position, which in fact had never changed during those periods. Even when there was tension between Obama and Netanyahu personally, the U.S. support for Israel had never changed. But there was—there was a fear that it could lead to a diminishing level of U.S. support for Israel, and so there was opposition growing to Netanyahu. What this gives him the opportunity to do is to convince the far-right wing of his supporters, a growing cohort, that whatever he might do vis-à-vis the U.S., he is still prepared—even if he’s not bombing Tehran, as they might prefer, he still can kill and bomb Arabs in Gaza. So, that was partly driving the timing of this.
The fact of this escalation was longstanding. The chief of staff of Israel’s army said over a year ago that the time was very close when Israel would have to go back into Gaza, said that it would have to be painful and harsh and that it would be necessary to shore up Israel’s power of deterrence against Gaza. So that was longstanding. But the timing has a lot to do with the coming Israeli elections, which are scheduled for this January.
Now, back at the United Nations, I think what the Russian ambassador, what Ambassador Churkin was referring to, of course, the idea that the U.S. would certainly use a veto against any resolution that was perceived to be evenhanded. Evenhandedness is considered a crime in U.S. political circles at times. The irony here, of course, is that right now, on this issue, President Obama and the Congress, which are so determined to keep this focused solely on Israel as a victim, as if Israel was not the occupying force with a far greater military force, where almost all the casualties are on the Palestinian side—only three on the Israeli side; 116, most of them civilians and including far too many children, on the Palestinian side—what we’re looking at is a scenario where that—that reality is still seen as unacceptable to talk about in political circles here in Washington, but it’s no longer the popular view. If you look at the polls just two days ago, there was a new poll by CNN that indicated that when you divide it by parties—and this is becoming an increasingly partisan issue—Democrats dropped their support by 11 percent lower than it was four years ago when asked, "Do you think that the Israeli move is legitimate?" Only 41 percent of Democrats said, "Yes, we think this is legitimate."
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to—
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Four years ago, 52 percent said that.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to President Obama speaking on Sunday.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So, we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, as Hillary Clinton leaves President Obama in Asia to come to—to come to Jerusalem, and apparently to Ramallah. It’s being touted as her, you know, negotiating a truce. Can she do that?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: The negotiations are going on in Cairo. Presumably she will go there, as well. I suppose she will not go to Gaza, unlike the leaders, the prime ministers, the foreign ministers, the parliamentarians of countries across the region, including key U.S. allies like Turkey, are sending their top diplomats, their top officials, to Gaza in a show of support and solidarity for the people there that are living under Israeli bombs. It’s extraordinary for President Obama to say no country would allow this, as if the Palestinians don’t even exist, that they don’t have those same rights.
So, I think if we’re serious about this, two things need to happen: an immediate ceasefire on all sides to stop the rockets in all directions, stop the bombings in all directions, but immediate end to the siege of Gaza that has given rise to this kind of desperate resistance in the first place. If that doesn’t happen, the immediate ceasefire that will happen, whether it’s today or tomorrow, that will happen, but it will not last unless the fundamental, underlying root causes are addressed. The immediate root causes have to do with the siege of Gaza, the closure, the turning of 1.6 million Gazan residents, half of them children under 16, into inmates in an open-air prison. That’s what has to stop.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Pyllis. Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, written a number of books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
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