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Bloody Israeli Assault on Gaza Enters Fourth Week, Palestinian Death Toll Tops 1,100

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It’s Day 21 of Israel’s assault on Gaza. Israeli warplanes attacked forty targets across Gaza overnight, as Israeli troops backed by tanks have pushed deep into the heart of Gaza City. Since Israel started its bombardment of Gaza, over 1,100 Palestinians have been killed and more than 5,200 wounded. At least 700 civilians are among the dead, including more than 350 children. We speak with Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s Day 21 of Israel’s assault on Gaza. Israeli warplanes attacked forty targets across Gaza overnight, as Israeli troops backed by tanks have pushed deep into the heart of Gaza City.

The Quds hospital in Gaza is now empty after it had to be evacuated because of a fire caused by a tank shell on Thursday. The evacuees included sick and wounded patients on stretchers and wheelchairs.

Meanwhile, thousands of Gazans are expected to turn out to the funeral of a top Hamas leader who was killed on Thursday. Hamas Interior Minister Said Siam was killed along with his son, brother and two other Hamas officials when his brother’s house in Gaza City was bombed.

The Israeli army has closed all access to the West Bank for the next two days, following a call by Hamas for Palestinians to observe what it called a day of wrath, by staging anti-Israeli protests at Friday prayers.

AMY GOODMAN: Since Israel started its bombardment of Gaza, over 1,100 Palestinians have been killed, more than 5,200 wounded. At least 700 civilians are among the dead, including more than 350 children. Thirteen Israelis have died, ten of them soldiers, including four by so-called “friendly” fire.

The Palestinian Statistics Bureau is reporting Israel’s assault has cost the Palestinian economy at least $1.4 billion. The bureau said 26,000 Gazans were unable to live in their homes and were being housed in temporary shelter. Much of Gaza’s infrastructure lies in ruins. 20,000 residential buildings have been damaged; 4,000 have been destroyed.

On the diplomatic front, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Palestinian officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah and urged Israel to declare a unilateral ceasefire. Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is due to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington today, and an Israeli envoy was sent to Cairo to discuss ceasefire terms offered by Hamas. Hamas is reported to be offering a year-long truce if Israel withdraws from Gaza and lifts its blockade.

Rashid Khalidi is with us now. He’s the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and the director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University here in New York. His forthcoming book is called Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Hegemony in the Middle East. He joins us here in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

RASHID KHALIDI: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: Your analysis of what’s happening in Gaza right now?

RASHID KHALIDI: The United States is allowing Israel to continue, as it has in every war that I can remember, to move forward — in this case, move over, in effect, the bodies of women and children, as you mentioned. Over 300 of the killed are children. 55 percent of the population of Gaza are children. So, every tank shell, every artillery shell, every bombardment risks killing children, and a huge proportion of the casualties are civilians. We don’t know how many, because there are probably people buried in ruins of neighborhoods that the Israeli army makes too unsafe for rescue people to go into.

AMY GOODMAN: And Israel just says if Hamas stops shelling southern Lebanon with its rockets, they’ll stop.

RASHID KHALIDI: They do. They have carried out one of the most brilliant propaganda campaigns I have ever seen, long before this began. The dehumanization of the Palestinians and the demonization of Hamas laid the groundwork for this. They did what I call “clearing the crime scene before the crime” by removing all witnesses. When I was in Jerusalem in November, Western journalists were complaining bitterly to me that they couldn’t get into Gaza. And, of course, there are no Western journalists in Gaza, because they have basically carried out the recommendations of the Winograd report that was issued after their war in Lebanon in 2006, one of which was you have to control the media. You have to make sure that you manipulate data, control images.

And they’ve done a brilliant job of that, at least in this country and to a lesser extent in Israel. The rest of the world sees what’s going on, because they’re taking the feeds by Palestinian journalists in Gaza, and the pictures and images by themselves and the numbers that you recited tell the story. On the other hand, we have the New York Times, which had an article this morning on the bombardment of the United Nations headquarters, the destruction of the entire food and medical supplies of the United Nations, and which managed to give ten paragraphs to Israel’s justification for an attack on the United Nations. I mean, even for the Times, that’s a kind of a record.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The lack of outcry by even Arab governments across the Middle East on this, your sense of how — what the role of the relationship of the Arab governments is to the street, to the Arab street, right now?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, they are democratic, authoritarian, autocratic governments. They rule in spite of and against the will of their peoples. They have clearly separated themselves, those who have in effect supported or tacitly supported this Israeli offensive, because they desire to see Hamas weakened, governments like that of Egypt. And they are braving popular discontent. There have been quite major demonstrations in places like Alexandria, 50,000-60,000 people, which is unusual for Egypt, because the secret — there are a million — there are a million Muhabarat secret police. They’re huge. I was in Cairo two weeks ago. When the president moves, literally tens of thousands of security people flood the streets. And that’s the kinds of — those are the kinds of regimes that are supporting, in effect, tacitly supporting, this Israeli operation.

AMY GOODMAN: We actually have video of you in Egypt that came over Reuters a week before Israel launched its assault on Gaza. You warned against expecting major changes from Obama’s White House. This is what you said in Cairo in mid-December.

    RASHID KHALIDI: The lethal combination of the fear of appearing soft on terrorism, which has sort of replaced the fear of being soft on communism in American public discourse, together with the unparalleled clout of the American military-industrial complex, may unfortunately help to prolong the agony brought on by the current heavy American footprint in the Middle East, whatever intentions President Obama may have.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you elaborate on this?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, we have an absolutely huge presence in the Middle East, unprecedentedly large. Never since World War II has the United States had such an enormous presence. At the height of the Cold War, when the United States was ostensibly facing a formidable rival, the United States did not have this many troops, this many bases, and so on and so forth. There’s an enormous investment in that, and that is something that I think has to be addressed at the root. Why do we have so many forces in these countries? It is very unpopular. Overwhelming majorities of Iraqis in every poll that I have ever seen are against our military presence in Iraq. And I think you’d find the same kinds of numbers in most other countries. This is one aspect of it.

And another aspect of it is the stranglehold of conventional wisdom in Washington, as far as what is to be done. It is distressing to see the same people who have engineered the failures of American policy over three — you could even say four, back to Reagan — successive administrations being considered for positions in the Obama administration dealing with Middle East policy. These are not just retreads. These are people who have comprehensively failed. In fact, many of them have written memoirs talking about how and why they failed. Let us just read what they say and see why we should never put these people anywhere near the levers of power.

AMY GOODMAN: Like who?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, the most preeminent among them is Dennis Ross, but there are others.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The trajectory of Obama’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the days — from his earlier days ’til then to the campaign and now to his silence during this period now before his inauguration, could you comment on that?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, our President-elect is a politician, and he is, I assume, attentive to these wins, as he is to all political wins. There is not in this country a movement, there is not in this country a sustainable major political force able to say — which I think represents a large majority of Americans, if they knew, and even a large — I would guess a majority of the American Jewish community, many of whom do know. On the contrary, what we have is the appearance of a one-sided debate. We don’t have a debate in our political discourse, and in most of what appears in the media, we have what we had in the New York Times this morning: an atrocity and ten paragraphs of the New York Times carrying justifications of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet —-

RASHID KHALIDI: And -— sorry, Amy. And television is far, far worse.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you have a growing opposition in this country at the grassroots. I mean, particularly now on Gaza, yes, you have major demonstrations of Arab Americans and Palestinians, but also a growing number of Jewish Americans —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- who are speaking out all over the country by the thousands.

RASHID KHALIDI: Right. I mean, if I were to say something to any American politician, it would be “Look at the votes in this last presidential election in the American Jewish community.” 76 percent of the American Jewish community — 78, by some other figures — voted for Obama. Barack Obama was described as a Muslim. His middle man, Hussein, was stressed. The fact that he had a connection with me, a Palestinian who had political connections, was repeated by the presidential and vice-presidential candidates on the Republican side. In spite of that, he won 76 or 78 percent of the vote. The people who voted for McCain are the people who are really identified with AIPAC and the major American Jewish organizations. The people who voted for Obama, in spite of these things, are people who actually are open-minded on these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you make of this huge attack at him, especially at the end, if you can call it an attack, with McCain speaking on Larry King, Sarah Palin continually invoking your name —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- “Rashid Khalidi, Rashid Khalidi,” and putting it together with the word “terrorist.”

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, if I may mix metaphors, it was a failed Hail Mary. I mean, to their enormous credit, the American people didn’t buy it. They voted for Barack Obama and Senator Biden, in spite of the constant invocation of Bill Ayers and terrorism and in spite of the invocation of my name.

AMY GOODMAN: You knew him? Can you speak to him? Can you talk to him now? Do you have access to President Obama, or President-elect for the next few days?

RASHID KHALIDI: I mean, I was — we were his neighbors. We lived in the same neighborhood. We were colleagues at the University of Chicago. We saw each other quite frequently. I could — I mean, it is not easy to reach a president. The cocoons, the layers, are quite formidable.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in your expectation, once he comes in, do you think that there’s going to be any semblance of a change in policy toward the Middle East?

RASHID KHALIDI: There will be a change in policy. I mean we’re already seeing it insofar as Iraq is concerned. I think we hopefully will see it in other areas. No, there will be a change. The question is how far. And enormous change is needed. I mean, everything we’ve been doing over not just the past administration — it’s easy to criticize George Bush — but what has been done over several administrations has been fundamentally mistaken. And I don’t know how radical a turn he is going to be able to make, even if he’s willing and desirous of doing so.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he should have spoken out?

RASHID KHALIDI: Over Gaza, you mean?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, before he’s president, what people are calling for.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I mean, he’s the President-elect. He managed to deliver himself of pronouncements about Mumbai and about the economy. The only thing he said about Gaza was humanitarian, and he’s concerned about the casualties. I am more hopeful that once he is president, he will speak very directly to all the parties, not just to Israel, but also to the Egyptians and also to the Palestinian Authority. I hope he will change American policy. I think the important thing is when he’s president and when his team is in place, which it is not yet. The people who will actually execute whatever policies are decided at the top have not yet been chosen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense of the impact of this latest Israeli invasion on the political forces within Palestinian community in the Middle East, the relationship between Hamas and Fatah, and what this is going to mean in the end?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, we have two extremely weak and unpopular movements, led, in my view, by people whose ideas are bankrupt and mistaken, in Hamas and Fatah. When I was there — I was in the West Bank, I was not able to go to Gaza — when I was in the West Bank and Jerusalem, it was clear that in a free and fair election both groups together wouldn’t get 30 or 35 percent of the vote.

People detest Fatah. They loathe it. And their loathing has increased as a result of its failure to act in defense of its own people, not just during the siege; the Palestinian Authority was complicit in the blockade of Gaza for a year and a half. People who claim to represent the Palestinian people were conniving in the blockade of one-and-a-half million of their citizens, of the people they purportedly represented.

Hamas was extremely unpopular for firing rockets at Israel, to no purpose except causing civilian casualties and bringing fire and brimstone down on the heads of a million and a half innocent civilians.

So, both have been, I would argue, weakened. I would — my guess is the Palestinian Authority and Fatah much more. The Arab regimes, I think, have been weakened. Their position is detested and loathed by most of their people. People are ashamed of what their governments have done, all over the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: What could they do? What can the Arab governments do now?

RASHID KHALIDI: What could they do? They could insist on a ceasefire, I mean, very simply.

AMY GOODMAN: And why aren’t they?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, many of them are in agreement with the goal of weakening Hamas, very simply. I mean, in Egypt, this is a domestic security issue. Hamas is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the main opposition movement. It couldn’t be simpler. The same is true in Jordan: the Muslim Brotherhood is the main — or it is actually the main opposition movement in Jordan. And so forth. So, for these regimes, keeping their chairs, keeping their thrones, keeping their money, their power, is the only thing that’s really important. Their people? They don’t care about their people.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and when we come back — I know you have family in Gaza — we’re going to go to a professor, to an astrophysicist here in this country who has just lost his son, who was eleven years old. We’re talking to Professor Rashid Khalidi. He is a professor at Columbia University, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies. He’s also director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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