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Fmr. Clinton Special Counsel Lanny Davis vs. Israeli Professor Neve Gordon: A Debate on the Israeli Assault on Gaza

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Israel has poured thousands of reservists into Gaza as Israeli troops push deeper into Gaza City in the seventeenth day of fighting. Nearly 900 Palestinians have now died, including 275 children. Another 4,100 Palestinians have been injured. The Israeli death toll is at thirteen. We host a debate on the crisis with Lanny Davis, senior adviser to the Israel Project and the former special counsel to President Clinton, and with Neve Gordon, an Israeli professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 05, 2009Israeli Professor Under Hamas Rocket Fire, Neve Gordon Condemns Israeli Invasion of Gaza
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli troops are pushing deeper towards Gaza’s towns and cities as thousands of Israeli reservists enter the conflict for the first time. Israeli warplanes continue to bombard targets across northern Gaza and in the town of Rafah on the southern border with Egypt. Meanwhile, Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets into southern Israel.

The Israeli military is continuing to surround Gaza City, and many residents in the outlying suburbs are moving into the city center. A Palestinian human rights group told The Guardian newspaper up to 90,000 Gazans, more than half of them children, had fled their homes across the territory. Israel and Egypt have refused to open their borders to allow Gazans to flee the fighting.

The death toll now stands at nearly 900 Palestinians, many of them civilian, including 275 children. Another 4,100 Palestinians have been injured. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, including three civilians hit by rocket fire and ten soldiers. Four of those soldiers died in friendly fire incidents.

Aid agencies are warning of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza with the territory’s one-and-a-half million residents in urgent need of food and medical aid. The BBC reports the main hospital in Gaza is close to collapse with patients reportedly dying because of a lack of specialist doctors and basic medical equipment.

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the offensive was nearing its goals but that the assault will continue. Olmert also spoke out in defiance of the UN Security Council’s call for an immediate ceasefire, saying, “Nobody should be allowed to decide for us if we are allowed to strike.” Both Hamas and Israel have rejected the UN resolution. Meanwhile, talks between Hamas and Egyptian officials are continuing in Cairo.

We turn now to a debate on the issue. Attorney Lanny Davis is with us. He’s a senior adviser and spokesperson for the Israel Project, former special counsel to President Clinton. He joins us from Washington, D.C. Joining us on the line from Beersheba, Israel is Neve Gordon. He’s the chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is author of Israel’s Occupation.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Lanny Davis, you’re in full support of the Israeli invasion. Tell us why.

LANNY DAVIS: The right of self-defense. When terrorism kills innocent civilians intentionally, there isn’t a civilized nation in the world that wouldn’t attack back to try to prevent that terrorism. I use “terrorism” with a very specifically defined expression. When a party shoots to kill innocent civilians intentionally for a political purpose, including one’s own citizens to be exposed to death for political purposes, that’s terrorism. So I support the right of self-defense against terrorism, as any country would if this were happening, I believe. And the United States certainly would. If Rochester were being exposed to mortars and rockets from Montreal, I believe that the United States would not sit idly by and allow the Canadians to do that. So I think the first and most foremost right is the right of self-defense against terrorism, which is intentional killing of civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue proportionality, the number of people we’ve seen dead, close to 900 Palestinians, over 200 of them children, overwhelmingly civilian, versus the thirteen Israelis who have died, ten of them soldiers, four of them in friendly fire.

LANNY DAVIS: Yes, it’s very disturbing that there are so many more deaths and suffering by innocent people in Gaza. I grieve and regret that as a human being, as an American, as a Jew who has supported a Palestinian state ever since I was a child and have been very critical through the years of the Israeli government not supporting a Palestinian state until just recently. So I grieve for those numbers, but I don’t understand the word “disproportional.”

Number one, if it was one child, if it was your child who was intentionally killed by a terrorist, and you asked your government to respond, and in order to respond, the people who launched the rockets placed their rockets among schoolchildren and innocent civilians deliberately — and that is an undisputed fact that Hamas has located its rocket launchers deliberately among civilians in schools, beneath hospitals — then that unfortunate and terrible tragic death of innocent civilians has to be more attributed to Hamas’s calculated strategy of exposing its civilians to death, but certainly does not take away from my first statement of the horror and the grief of any innocent civilians, whether it’s one child in Israel or a hundred children in Palestine or in Gaza. To me, they’re equally tragic. There is no disproportionality. They’re equally tragic.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Neve Gordon, you and your family have spent a good deal of time in a bomb shelter against the Hamas rockets in Ben-Gurion University, in the area around Ben-Gurion University where you live. You have called for the invasion to end now. Why?

NEVE GORDON: I would call for the invasion not to begin. We just had a rocket here about an hour ago, and the issue — I agree with some of what Lanny says. First of all, I agree with the idea of a basic right to self-defense. And the right to self-defense is a right to self-defense from violence. We have to understand that the occupation itself is violence. It’s an act of violence. Putting people in a prison, in a prison of one million and a half million people and keeping them there for years on end without basic foodstuff, without allowing them to enter and exit when they will, is an act of violence. Without electricity, without clean water, it’s all an act of violence. And these people are resisting. I am against the way they’re resisting, but we have to look at their violence versus our violence.

About between ten and twenty people, Israelis, have died from rockets in the eight years that rockets have been launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel. During the same amount of time, 4,000 Israelis have died from car accidents. And yet, we don’t see an outrage against the terrorism on the streets in Israel. But from these twenty people, we’re allowed to enter into the Gaza Strip and bomb them from the air into their cage and kill 275 children. And Lanny says that it’s not about disproportionality, but it is. Disproportionality is a term from international law. And by saying that he doesn’t agree with it, he’s defying international law.

And Israel has been defying international law and international agreements and international decisions from 1967, or probably from before. One of these decisions is that Israel must return these territories. And by maintaining and holding onto these territories through violent means, Israel is creating a situation where basically all the doors in the Gaza Strip are closed except one door. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, said it. Israel has closed all the doors in the Gaza Strip again, except for the mosque doors. We’ve closed the school doors. We’ve closed the economic doors. We’ve closed the medical doors. And so, and then we’re surprised that we have to deal with Hamas.

So I think we need to change the hard drive, and the hard drive has to be that you don’t solve things through violence. You solve things — you solve diplomatic issues, political issues through negotiations and talks. And it’s about time that Israel sat down with Hamas and started negotiating with them. Hamas is the elected government of the Palestinian people. We don’t need to like them. I don’t like them. But they are the elected government, and we need to sit down and talk with them and not bomb them.

AMY GOODMAN: Lanny Davis, your response?

LANNY DAVIS: Well, first of all, I appreciate — Professor Gordon and I probably have the same heart, and we probably have the same empathy, and we probably have the same goals of a two-state solution where people negotiate peace. And I appreciate Professor Gordon is sitting in a situation where his family is exposed to death, and I’m sitting safely here in Washington. So I don’t mean to be judgmental, and I greatly respect what the professor just said, but I focus on facts, and I’m sorry to say that I must disagree with the professor’s misstatement of certain facts, or omission might be also accurate.

Let’s start with the international law issue. It is a violation of international law to deliberately launch rockets from within civilian areas. Article 53 of the Geneva Accords expressly says that. Yet the professor forgot to mention that. It is not a violation of international law to defend yourself if you’re not intentionally targeting civilians. The Hamas is intentionally targeting civilians. The professor forgot to mention the distinction between defending yourself and tragically killing civilians in trying to find those who are launching missiles against you intentionally to kill civilians.

And finally and most importantly, I share the professor’s desire for negotiations. And as I said, since I was a child, contrary to my father’s strong views, I favored a Palestinian state, independent, and I still do. But Hamas’s stated public objective is the destruction of Israel. There isn’t a civilized country in the world that would sit across the table from a party that is launching terrorist — and it is defined as terrorism to intentionally kill civilians, as opposed to military. Nobody denies that’s what Hamas is doing. And to sit across the table from an organization that says, “We will not recognize you. We want to destroy you, and we will use terrorism against your innocent children,” is impossible. We did sit across the table from Fatah. We do have the beginnings of a negotiation with Mr. Abboud [sic.]. And we certainly do have the Fatah opposed to the terrorism of Hamas. After all, they were expelled by a military coup by Hamas.

So all of the issues that I believe the professor and I have in common, we should at least agree on basic facts, and the overwhelming one that I don’t think the professor would deny is Hamas’s aim is terrorism, to kill innocent civilians, and its objective is the destruction of Israel, not the recognition of Israel, not two states that can live side by side in peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Neve Gordon?

NEVE GORDON: The problem is the — yes, intentions are important, but the facts are more important. And the fact is that Israel is the one that’s doing the harm to — much more harm to civilians than the Hamas ever did and ever will do. Israel has killed in the past two weeks 275 children, and not Hamas, regardless of the intentions. You mentioned the school. Israel is dealing with a propaganda war. Israel is the one that disseminated a video of Hamas shooting rockets from a school, a video that’s almost two years old, claiming that the video was taken a day or two earlier. So Israel is in a propaganda war. Yes, the Hamas is fighting out from a civilian population, but Israel has the choice whether it’s going to bomb the civilian population ore not, and it is intentionally deciding to bomb the civilian population. So in terms of intentionality in bombing areas where there are civilians, Israel is acting like a state terrorist. So, if your definition of terrorism doesn’t take into account the identity of the actor — and state actors can also be terrorists — then when you bomb a school and when you bomb a university and when you bomb a neighborhood and you’re killing much more civilians than militants, then you’re doing something that is an act of terror.

And I have a problem. I think my views are pro-Israelis. I would like to see Israel existing in the Middle East sixty years down the line, and not only the first sixty years. And the only way for Israel to continue to exist in the Middle East is if it changes its approach towards the region and see itself as a leader of peace and not a belligerent actor in the region. And Israel has been living on the sword. Some of our neighbors have been living on the sword. But we have to come out and say we no longer want to live on the sword, because those who live on the sword, as the Bible tells us, also die on the sword. We have to come out and say we are willing to talk with our enemies, even with people that say that they do not believe in the existence of Israel. The PLO — you mentioned Fatah — the PLO said that they do not believe in the existence of Israel for many years. And ultimately, we sat down and talked with them, and they are now considered our Palestinian partner. I believe that if there is a pragmatic side, a strong pragmatic wing in Hamas, that if we start negotiation with them, over the years these people will also agree to the existence of Israel and be willing to live side by side with us. If we do not talk with them, if we continue this cycle of violence, ultimately Israel will be destroyed, because ultimately, the technological edge that we have over our neighbors will not be meaningful. So we have to change our approach. We have to be pro — by changing our approach, we’re actually pro-Israeli. We say we want to see Israel a hundred years from now. And the only way we’ll see Israel exist a hundred years from now is if Israel makes peace with Syria, with Lebanon and with the Palestinian people.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Neve Gordon and Lanny Davis, we’re going to break, then come back. Then, we will be joined by Congress member Dennis Kucinich, speaking to us from Cleveland, one of five Congress members to vote against the resolution in support of Israel. And then we’ll be speaking with Jewish women who are standing up to the Israeli invasion of Gaza, one in Toronto, one here in New York. A major protest is planned today outside the Israeli consulate at 5:00 in the afternoon. Lanny Davis is former attorney, former special counsel to President Clinton. He is currently an attorney, and he’s a senior adviser and spokesperson for the Israel Project. Neve Gordon is in Beersheba in Israel, chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are attorney Lanny Davis, senior adviser, spokesperson for the Israel Project in Washington, D.C., and Professor Neve Gordon, chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, author of Israel’s Occupation

. I want to talk about why Israel invaded at this point. What is your understanding of this? They said Hamas broke the ceasefire. Professor Gordon, is that the reason you feel that this happened?

NEVE GORDON: Hamas did launch an incredible amount of rockets at the end of the ceasefire. Israel actually is a first actor that broke the ceasefire on November 1st, when it attacked in the Gaza — November 4th, when it attacked in the Gaza Strip.

I think the actual reasons have to do — the two major reasons — with rebuilding the reputation of the Israeli military after its humiliation in 2006 in Lebanon and the upcoming Israeli elections. Both Labor and Kadima, the two out of the three major parties, were behind in the polls against BB Netanyahu’s Likud, who was blaming them of being soft on the Palestinians. And I think the timing, in terms of the elections, which are on February 10th, was perfect to show that Kadima and Labor, that are in party, know how to be tough on the Palestinians. And in fact, already in the polls we see that Labor has added almost 50 percent to what it had before the war began. So I think there’s some cynical political issues and reputation issues that played a dramatic part in initiating this war.

I think that Hamas also acted — or miscalculated and acted totally wrong, that it launched the rockets on Israel. I think, strategically and morally, it was a mistake. But I’m not sure Israel had to react through such a war. I think through diplomatic means it could have been stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: Lanny Davis, are you concerned about the blockade not only on the Palestinians, but also on information? The New York Times, the BBC, Reuters, CNN have all filed a complaint with the Israeli prime minister not allowing international press into Gaza. Why do you think Israel is not allowing press in?

LANNY DAVIS: Well, first of all, I don’t want to duck your latter question, because I’m in favor of greater media going into Gaza so they can report the facts rather than false reporting. I’d like to get back to that.

But let me start with your use of your word “blockade.” That’s an inaccurate or at least a biased word. I don’t say that you intended it that way, but it is. There is a blockade of tunnels and any other means of access that the Hamas has used to allow the import of these rockets from Iran. This is an Iranian-subsidized operation, just like Hezbollah. And yet, 165 trucks of humanitarian, medical, food aid went into Gaza yesterday from Israel. It is the Egyptians that have blocked access. You must ask the Egyptian government, “Why are you blocking access?” Because they know these tunnels have been used by Hamas not to resupply their people with food and medical aid, but with rockets who are placed among civilians, next to schools, under hospitals, to kill civilians in Israel. So “blockade” is really, I think, a word that needs to be changed. It’s a selective blocking of terrorist war instruments that are being supplied primarily by Iran, and the Egyptian government has the ability to open those tunnels, and they see the same danger as does Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me put that question —-

LANNY DAVIS: On the issue -—

AMY GOODMAN: Just one sec — on the issue of the blockade to Professor Neve Gordon, which predates the Israeli invasion, the total blockade of Gaza that many people have been challenging around the world. Can you explain what that blockade is, Professor Gordon?

NEVE GORDON: Well, since Hamas was elected into government in a democratic election, Israel decided basically to economically boycott the Palestinian people, and particularly Hamas and the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, and is basically controlling all the borders and deciding who can enter and who can leave and what can enter and what can leave. And it is actually allowing a certain amount of humanitarian aid, and it’s allowing this humanitarian aid, according to Israel’s own claims, in order that there won’t be a humanitarian catastrophe. So, basically, Israel is saying, “We’ll allow 165 trucks so there won’t be a humanitarian catastrophe, so we can continue the war against Hamas.” So it’s a kind of new war ethics, a war ethics that you’re fighting against not another military, but militants in an armed wing of an organization that are within the civilian population, and so you’re basically attacking the civilian population, and you’re saying, “We don’t want a catastrophe to happen, so we can continue attacking you.” There’s something very cynical about it and something horrific about it.

And so, actually, there has been a blockade on Gaza, and it’s been a very severe blockade on Gaza. And even Israel claims that there’s been a blockade on Gaza and saying that Israel allows humanitarian assistance to enter so it can continue bombing them is very, very cynical.

LANNY DAVIS: Let’s agree on a basic fact here. Ms. Goodman, you used the expression “absolute blockade” a second time after I said the first use of your expression “blockade” was inaccurate or imbalanced. So I would like to suggest that you at least say “partial blockade,” because it is not aimed at anything other than preventing munitions and rockets coming in from Iran. That’s a fact. And ask the government of Egypt whether they agree. Secondly —-

NEVE GORDON: If a Palestinian wants to import a car -—

LANNY DAVIS: Professor, professor, let me just —- let me just make one other point.

NEVE GORDON: —- a car, he can’t import the car. If a Palestinian wants to import a cow, he can’t import a cow.

LANNY DAVIS: I really — I really wanted to interrupt you badly, but I appreciate you have a lot to say, and I’d like you to allow me to finish.

I am very surprised that you don’t start with the fact that we agree on: all Hamas has to do is stop sending terrorist rockets aimed at civilians — you’ve never disagreed with me on that; we agree on that — and make peace with Israel. That’s all they have to do, the same way that Mr. Abboud [sic.] and the Fatah have done in the West Bank, which is flourishing.

And secondly, most importantly, the occupation ended. In 2005, Israel took all of its troops out. Faced with a state or a terrorist state or a government that says, “I’m trying to destroy you, and I’m going to send rockets to kill your civilians,” is the reason why the economic boycott, as you call it, would occur in any civilized country in the world. If Canada or Mexico had a destruction objective of the United States and were launching rockets against Houston or against Boston —- if you think the United States or any other country in the world would allow that to happen without at least economic boycott while allowing humanitarian aid, then I would beg to differ with you.

On the media, Ms. Goodman, I -—

AMY GOODMAN: Lanny Davis, we began with you — I just — we’re going to have to wrap up because we’re headed to Dennis Kucinich.

LANNY DAVIS: OK. Well, just a quick comment on the media, which I didn’t answer. I think that there ought to be more exposure, and there should be more openness with the media. I think Israel is moving in that direction. I certainly think that the propaganda, for example, a false report that an Israeli tank shot on a UN convoy, took forty-eight hours for the United Nations spokesperson who put that statement out to say, “Well, I’m not so sure.” That was a forty-eight hour time gap. Everybody still believes it happened, because the withdrawal of the statement or the modification of the statement didn’t get the front-page headlines that the statement did.

So we have to be very careful that when we get our media into Gaza, that we get people who are objective reporting the facts as to where are these missiles. Are they under schools? Are they in hospitals? And if so, is that an act that is a violation and a war crime in and of itself? That’s why I want the media in Gaza, to prove the war crimes being committed by Hamas are where they’re placing their rockets.

AMY GOODMAN: Lanny Davis, we began with you; we will end with Professor Neve Gordon in Beersheba.

NEVE GORDON: I have two comments to make, one related to protest in media. 700 Israelis have been arrested since this war began, because they protested this war. This has not made it to an international media, and it’s an act of intimidation by the state against those who protest the war.

Second, regarding what Lanny said, that no country would allow another country to bomb its citizens, he’s right. He forgets one essential fact, and that is the occupation. And Gaza was not — is still under occupation, because Israel controls all of its borders, and the West Bank is under occupation, and East Jerusalem is under occupation. And the act — the first, the initial, the primordial act of violence is the occupation. The rockets are a reaction to that act of violence. And so, we have to keep in mind that within — it’s not between a state and another state. It’s been between an occupier and an occupied.

AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there. Professor Neve Gordon in Beersheba, chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is author of Israel’s Occupation. Lanny Davis, senior adviser and spokesperson for the Israel Project, attorney and former special counsel to President Clinton. Thank you both for being with us.

LANNY DAVIS: Thank you so much.

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