- James Colbertpolicy director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
- Yousef Munayyerexecutive director of the Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just arrived in Egypt, where she will hold talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi about a possible truce between Hamas and Israel to end the Gaza conflict. Clinton has already met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As efforts to secure a ceasefire continue, we host a debate on the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip with two guests: James Colbert, policy director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; and Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As efforts to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas continue, we host a debate on what’s happening in the Middle East. James Colbert is joining us from Washington, D.C., policy director for JINSA, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. And Yousef Munayyer is here in New York. He is executive director of the Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center.
James Colbert, we now have figures in. Of course, they are changing every moment. More than 139 Palestinians have been killed. Five Israelis have been killed. The ceasefire has not been achieved at this point. The Israeli military is continuing to bombard Gaza. And in Tel Aviv, we have a bomb exploding on a bus, injuring, we believe, about 21 people. Talk about what’s happening right now.
JAMES COLBERT: Well, you’re seeing, in an ongoing conflict, a war Hamas is waging against Israel that has been going on for very long time. As it cycles up as Hamas has felt more emboldened by changes in Egypt, by changes in support from Iran and—excuse me—other changes related to the Palestinian Authority, it has rapidly increased the amount of rocket fire into Israel and then took the not unprecedented but further step, a week and a half ago, of targeting Israelis in Israel, not through indirect fire—rockets and mortars—but by direct fire—anti-tank missile onto an Israeli position and a buried bomb that was tunneled under sovereign Israeli territory, both of which resulted in casualties to the Israeli military. This was viewed in Israel as definitely an escalation. In conjunction with the massively increased rocket fire, paralyzing the south of Israel, the Israeli authorities believed that they could not—no longer sit by and not respond to this latest round of fighting that Hamas initiated.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yousef Munayyer, can you respond to what James Colbert said and also talk specifically about what you do in your most recent article, the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, and its role in this?
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Sure. I think one of the biggest mistakes that we make is we totally remove the situation from the context in which it’s in. And to describe this as a war, I think, is incorrect. If it is a war at all, it is a war on the people of Gaza. To describe it as a war between and create the impression that there is two equal sides or parity in any way is really misleading. This is not a international conflict between two states. This is a domestic issue within the Israeli state that it is using massive force to repress a Palestinian population.
Look, if you look at the Gaza Strip on the map, it’s this tiny strip of land in the corner of what was Palestine. Eighty percent of the people there are not from the Gaza Strip. They’re from outside of the Gaza Strip. They were made refugees during the depopulation of Palestine in 1948.
So what you have here is literally the backing of thousands of people—millions of people into a corner. If you let the underlying causes of this fester for year after year, it is only natural to see people acting out in frustration and aggression against this type of policy. So, until we look at the underlying causes here, this type of really horrific scenes that we’re seeing is going to perpetuate.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: James Colbert, can you—can you respond to that? What do you see as the underlying causes of this conflict?
JAMES COLBERT: Well, the underlying cause of this—the proximate underlying cause of this conflict is Hamas’s absolute rejection of the existence of the Israeli state. Their entire—the Hamas manifesto, if you will, explicitly calls for the elimination of Jews and Israelis, the elimination of the Israeli state, and its replacement with a theocratic Islamist fundamentalist state to be ruled by sharia law: There is no place for Israelis or Jews in the Middle East. In fact, you can actually—it expands a little bit larger, possibly the world. This is—and the organization’s goals are well known. They do not shy from announcing them and repeating them. This is the proximate cause. The underlying cause is an ongoing struggle by many organizations and groups to delegitimize Israel, to remove Israel from the region because they consider it to be an illegitimate state that does not deserve to belong there.
AMY GOODMAN: And James Colbert, what do you see as the reason for the latest Israeli assault on Gaza? What was the cause of this?
JAMES COLBERT: Well, the most recent cause, I already discussed, the ratcheting up of violence perpetuated by Hamas against Israel. You know, it had not gone away. If you look at the number of rocket and mortar attacks, it’s been ongoing for the last several years, since in fact the last operation the Israelis used to try to suppress that. What Israel is simply trying to do is deter Hamas from launching any more rockets and mortars into Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Munayyer—
JAMES COLBERT: And I think if you—
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s have Yousef respond, from the Palestine Center.
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah. Well, I—
AMY GOODMAN: What you see as the timeline of what has taken place? Then respond to the broader issue.
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, I certainly disagree with the timeline. And if you only want to look at the actions of Palestinians, then you will only notice the timeline that is convenient for your narrative. But if you look at all of the facts, what you see is there is persistent violations of Gaza’s territory. There are persistent violations of Palestinian human rights inside Gaza through the firing on fishermen, through the firing on people inside Gaza from the outside, through periodic bombardment through air strikes. And this began on the 8th of November, when the IDF, the Israeli military, acknowledges it crossed into Gaza and, during clashes there, killed a 12-year-old boy. And this is when the responses began. The responses were fairly limited, and the situation began to die down. For a 24-hour period, there was a lot of quiet, where we thought this was going to end. And it was when—at the end of that 24-hour period, when the Hamas leader, Ahmed Jabari, was working on a long-term ceasefire with the Israelis, that they decided to assassinate him.
The other point that I want to respond to, I think, is this question about, you know, Palestinians denying the Israeli state’s right to exist. Look, if you look up the Universal Declaration of States Rights, you’ll find that one does that exist. There’s a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the legitimacy of states is based on the extent to which they respect the human rights of people within their borders. The question here is not, “Does Israel have a right to exist?” The question here is, “Is the way in which Israel exists, as a colonizer, as an occupier, and as an apartheid state, right?” And I think that Palestinians and many people throughout the world are 100 percent within their rights to say, “No, this is not right.” And that’s what’s going on here, and has been going on for 64 years.
The genesis of this, sir, is not with the creation of Hamas, which was in 1987. It goes back much, much farther than that to the depopulation of Palestine in 1948. So I think if we want to start our calendars at dates that are convenient for us, we’re going to have a problem here. We have to look back at what the entire context is here, and that begins with Zionist colonization of Palestine.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: James Colbert, can you respond to what Yousef Munayyer has said?
JAMES COLBERT: Absolutely not. What Yousef Munayyer is saying, using slogans and terms such as “apartheid,” “depopulation,” I mean, it takes this—this is not a debate. This is simply sloganeering. These terms have no basis in a reality. And you talk about, you know—at one hand, we talk—I hear claims of genocide, of an attack on the civilian population. And yet, what we see after hundreds of Israeli air strikes, all of which—nearly all of which are videoed, put online—you see the secondary explosions—how can Israel drop so much tonnage of precision weaponry over and over and over for days, destroying Hamas rocket arsenals, and yet the reports from Gaza is 130-plus people have been killed? Unprecedented in warfare.
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t understand.
JAMES COLBERT: I don’t think there not a possibility that a state could take more care.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m not unsure I understand. Are you saying that’s a lot or a little? I think I’m missing your point here.
JAMES COLBERT: I think it’s unbelievably little. I think it shows that the Israelis are target—
AMY GOODMAN: A hundred thirty-nine people and hundreds wounded?
JAMES COLBERT: When you’re talking about the amount of tonnage of precision weaponry dropped on Hamas arsenals, which are intentionally put in civilian structures, basements of hospitals, apartments buildings—
AMY GOODMAN: But, James Colbert, you’re talking about 139 people killed, many of them children, and over a thousand people wounded. This is not a large number of people?
JAMES COLBERT: Is this not a large number of people? It is unfortunate when any person dies?
AMY GOODMAN: A hundred thirty-nine, at least, at the last count, and over a thousand people wounded.
JAMES COLBERT: When any person loses their life in this conflict, it is a terrible tragedy. However, Israel is trying to destroy the Hamas weaponry that is intentionally in place amidst the civilian population of Gaza. And I think it shows the character which Israel strives to avoid civilian casualties that so few, relatively, have been killed, considering where these munitions are stored, where they are intentionally stored, where they are fired from. Video evidence, by the hundreds, shows that Hamas chooses to launch rockets from the courtyards of mosques, from the courtyards of hospitals and schools, from the roofs of apartment buildings. This is a military force that cloaks itself in its civilian population and dares its enemies to attack it, meanwhile showing no compulsion about attacking Israeli civilians directly and announcing that their target is indeed Israeli civilians.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to the role—
JAMES COLBERT: And you can’t possibly compare the two.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: James, I want to turn to the role of the U.S. in the present situation in Gaza. A clip of—I’m turning to a clip now of President Obama responding to a question about Israel during the third presidential debate last month in Boca Raton, Florida. Moderator Bob Schieffer asked if the candidates would be willing—would be, quote, “willing to declare an attack on Israel as an attack on the United States.” This is part of President Obama’s response.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I’ve made that clear throughout my presidency.
BOB SCHIEFFER: So you’re—
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And—
BOB SCHIEFFER: You’re saying we’ve already made that declaration.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will stand with Israel if they are attacked. And this is the reason why, working with Israel, we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history. In fact, this week we’ll be carrying out the largest military exercise with Israel in history, this very week.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was President Obama speaking—responding to a question by Bob Schieffer at the third presidential debates last month. Yousef Munayyer, could you respond to what the president said?
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Well, I think the president is describing his policy. He stood 100 percent by the Israelis as this has continued. And I think the problem with that is it shows a complete lack of strategic thinking about how to move this situation forward, a lack of strategic thinking that’s echoed, by the way, in the Israeli government.
You know, they refer to what they’re doing now in Gaza as “mowing the lawn.” This—the bombardment of a largely civilian population, most of whom are refugees, they refer to with the callous idiom of “mowing the lawn,” a periodic bombardment that they have to do to set back the capacity of the factions there. That’s not strategic thinking. What morality is there in a war whose repetition is planned? There is none. And there is no strategic thinking in Israel about how to move the situation forward. The answer from them has always been to respond to Palestinians with force. You simply cannot think mowing the lawn is going to succeed if you sow seeds of hate.
And finally, just a note to our interlocutor on the language, if he has a problem with the term “Zionist colonization” or describing the Palestinians as “native” or “indigenous,” I suggest he take that up with the Zionist writers and philosophers who coined those terms in their writings to support the Zionist movement in the early 20th century.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to President Obama 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: Yousef Munayyer, and then James Colbert, respond to this.
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Right. I think that, you know, the problem again here is the lack of context. What nation would accept being depopulated from their homes, being colonized, being besieged, being trapped, being bombarded? What nation would accept that and also accept that they have no right to self-defense? You know, there is no security for anybody when the idea of security is a zero-sum game. And unfortunately, that’s—that’s the thinking that we’ve seen out of Israel, is that, you know, as long as the Palestinians are more insecure, the Israelis will be more secure. But that’s simply not the case.
AMY GOODMAN: James Colbert of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, what do you see as the solution?
JAMES COLBERT: The solution to which specific issue are you referring? Very important to know which solution.
AMY GOODMAN: To, first, what’s happening right now, the bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli military, and also the broader solution to how this conflict will end, which clearly endangers the security of Palestinians as well as Israelis.
JAMES COLBERT: Well, the immediate hostilities could be brought to a conclusion if the Hamas is willing to abide by a ceasefire, which has structural elements that show that it will last, not simply a status quo ante, where—which we’ve seen in the past, where the rocket fire will start to increase over time to a point where the sovereign government of Israel, which is responsible to its citizens, being a democracy, cannot sit idly by while its citizens are attacked from a territory outside the borders of its state.
I’m curious to understand the description of Gaza as occupied, considering the Israelis withdrew from it, and have, in many ways—and many critics have said—by their withdrawal, they have paid a security price, because had they still been there, these rockets wouldn’t be flying. But Israelis chose to do that because they were seeking peace, and they have paid a price for that. But they have shown no compulsion or compuncture to go back in and reoccupy. Nobody, I think, in Israel really wants to reoccupy Gaza. However, they pay a security price for not being there.
AMY GOODMAN: That issue of occupied Gaza, Yousef?
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, “occupation” is defined in international law as effective control over territory. And just because the Israelis remove the colonists who were there in 2005, who should never have been there in the first place, to begin with, because that’s illegal under international law, does not mean they no longer exercise effective control over Gaza. To think that they don’t effectively control Gaza is to say that you don’t effectively control the life of a fish living in a fishbowl in your house just because you don’t swim with it. The reality is, the Israelis—
JAMES COLBERT: That is a ridiculous analogy.
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: —control what is going in and out of Gaza. They control the airspace over Gaza. They control imports, and they control exports, OK. They control who gets to go from Gaza to the West Bank, which is a violation of the Oslo Accords that they agreed to. So, the idea that there is no effective control over the lives of people in Gaza is just absolutely preposterous and doesn’t square with the facts.
JAMES COLBERT: Well, you know, that point alone, Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip, won—had an election, won it, then made sure that there will never be another election, threw out Fatah in a brutal but short civil war in Gaza, of which Fatah activists were thrown from the roofs of buildings rather than be repatriated somewhere else.
To this day, you know, Gaza’s occupation is nonexistent. It’s not occupied. These terms, international law—we could discuss the territories, if you will, as the remaining 10 percent of the old Palestine Mandate. This is a history that can certainly be opened up and looked at. But to continue to call all the people of Gaza “refugees” and the Israelis “colonists,” these slogans and terms really take this discussion and put it right back into a gutter, of which there will be no progress, none at all.
Israel, as a sovereign, independent, democratic, liberal and tolerant state, exists. To pretend that it isn’t or cannot or is illegitimate really sets the stage for no progress at all. The hope, of course, of the Israelis has been focused on the Palestinian Authority, which unfortunately has—had taken a backseat to Hamas and its violence and its expected support from Egypt and its—certainly the support it’s receiving from Iran.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yousef Munayyer, you’ve made a comparison, as have some others, of the most recent Israeli military strikes on Gaza and what happened four years ago during Operation Cast Lead, and you say that the cause has something to do with the forthcoming elections in Israel. Can you talk about that?
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you look at the dynamics of fire over the past several years and you look at when the rockets have been—when projectiles have been fired from Gaza, they have occurred, the vast majority of them—probably over 90 percent have happened after Israeli extrajudicial assassinations in the Gaza Strip. It is the Israelis that can control the escalation here with their ability to inflict high casualties in the Gaza Strip. And so, it’s very clear, from a point of view of security, that the way to solve this problem is through dealing with the parties on the ground. And every time that they’ve done that, through third parties with the Egyptians, they’ve been able to largely limit this rocket fire while at the same time continuing to have their way with the people in the Gaza Strip through periodic violations and incursions.
The question here is, why now? You know, you look at the situation now, and you look at the fact that this did not have to happen. And the Israelis knew that by attacking in the Gaza Strip and murdering Ahmed Jabari that they would only provoke a significant amount of rockets. So why do it? And I think the only answer is that there are domestic political calculations here on the part of the Israeli government. We saw the same thing prior to Cast Lead. We saw the same thing prior to the Israeli operation in Lebanon in 2006. There’s a very, very strange but significant correlation between vast Israeli military operations and Israeli elections happening shortly thereafter.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m curious, do you see a one-state or a two-state solution being the solution, ultimately, James Colbert?
JAMES COLBERT: The ultimately, the United States government is committed to a two-state solution. The Israeli government has accepted a two-state solution. The problem has been finding a partner willing to work toward that goal.
AMY GOODMAN: And Yousef Munayyer, what—
JAMES COLBERT: As far as what was recently said, I’m sorry, but the assassination of the Hamas leader is a targeted killing of a known terrorist who had blood on his hands. This would be the same as saying the United States should not have taken out Osama bin Laden, because by doing so, you would inflame al-Qaeda worldwide and invite more attacks on the United States. It’s—for a democracy to show justice, to show its people that it takes care of them, it must follow through on its laws. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, by Europe, by Israel, by other countries. This is not some kind of a, you know, benign entity whose leaders are not active in fomenting violence and the carrying out of suicide bombings and a promotion of violence through their educational system.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Yousef Munayyer, your final response?
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: The reality is, between the river and sea, there are close to 10 million people; almost half of them are Palestinian Arabs, the vast majority of which have no right to vote for the state that controls them. That is the reality on the ground. If our friend here wants to call that “democracy,” I think, you know, he should probably be engaged in a profession of rewriting dictionaries, because that’s not what that is. That is de facto apartheid. And the United States, unfortunately, has only helped perpetuate the situation by telling the Israelis that there are no costs to occupation and have made perpetual occupation a viable policy option for the Israeli government.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Yousef Munayyer is executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, its educational program, the Palestine Center. And James Colbert, policy director for the JINSA, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
The latest news as of this moment, at least nine Palestinians have been killed in air strikes so far today, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 146. Up to 21 people were injured in a bus bombing in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem Post reports none of the injuries to those wounded in the Tel Aviv bus bombing are life-threatening. Two Israelis—a soldier and a child—have also been killed, bringing the death toll, Israeli death toll, to five. U.S. Secretary State Hillary Clinton is meeting with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi as we broadcast to discuss a possible truce in Gaza. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.