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A Debate on Gaza: Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada vs. J.J. Goldberg of The Jewish Daily Forward

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We host a debate on U.S. media’s coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict and the roots of the crisis with two guests: Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the website Electronic Intifada and author of the new book, “The Battle for Justice in Palestine”; and J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large and columnist at the newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward. Abunimah and Goldberg discuss news headlines that ignore the massive Palestinian toll, whether the ceasefire should address the Gaza blockade, and the history of the conflict.

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StoryJul 11, 2014Gaza Debate: As Palestinian Deaths Top 100, Who’s to Blame for Escalating Violence? What Can Be Done?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a debate on the U.S. media’s coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Two days after Israel launched its offensive on the Gaza Strip, The New York Times drew widespread attention on social media when it ran a story with the headline, quote, “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup.” One of our next guests, Ali Abunimah, tweeted in response to the Times, quote, “Israeli missile stops by Gaza cafe for a drink and dialogue with its Palestinian friends.” The Times later changed their headine to, quote, “Israeli Missile Kills 8 Palestinians at a Beachside Gaza Cafe.”

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss this headline and much more, Ali Abunimah joins us from Chicago. He’s the co-founder of the website The Electronic Intifada and author of the new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine. And here in our New York studio, we’re joined by J.J. Goldberg. He’s the editor-at-large and columnist at the newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ali, let’s start with that headline, the original headline in The New York Times that we just read, “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup.” Can you take it from there? Explain what happened in that situation?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, it’s very simple. The New York Times headlines makes it sound like the Israeli missile stopped by the cafe for a friendly chat. But what the missile actually did was blew to pieces a number of people who had gone to the beach to try to escape from the horror of Israel’s pogrom in the rest of Gaza and to watch a World Cup match, like billions of people around the world, and they died there. That’s what happened. But that’s not what you would get from the New York Times headline.

And I think that the media are failing to convey the enormity of what’s happening to people in Gaza. This morning, I heard from my friend Refaat Alareer. He’s the editor of the wonderful book of short stories by Gaza writers called Gaza Writes Back. He’s outside Gaza now, studying, separated from his family, which is even worse than being in Gaza, for people whose families are there. This morning, he lost his best friend in Israel’s pogrom in Shejaiya, his best friend Usama, who happens to also be his wife’s brother. And his family, his wife’s family have lost eight people in the last five days. This catastrophe, this mass destruction in Gaza, the randomness of the slaughter and the killing is not being conveyed. We have to hide from it in this country because if we reveal the full truth about the horrifying pogrom that Israel is carrying out, a lot of people won’t be able to handle it.

AMY GOODMAN: J.J. Goldberg, can you first respond to that headline, which the Times then changed to reflect that eight people had been killed, but—and then talk about the larger coverage as you see it?

J.J. GOLDBERG: Well, in general, I find headlines in newspapers to be awful. Having started as a headline writer, you’re trying to be cute and get people to read the article. And the headline writer probably assumed that when they said “missile,” the readers would understand that it was going to kill somebody. But you don’t act cute when you’re talking about people dying. So, Ali was right to call attention to it.

I haven’t heard any mention of the fact that Israel is being bombarded. Now, Israelis are not dying because Israel has a good missile defense system. Gaza does not. I don’t think Israel is going to apologize for having a good missile defense system. Israel made it clear: When the rockets stop coming from Gaza, we will stop bombing Gaza. And Israel accepted an Egyptian ceasefire. Hamas, as you briefly mentioned, did not, and does not. So if it’s really so awful that your people are being killed, accept the ceasefire, and then talk about the conditions of the ceasefire, the things you want to come up.

Ali said that there’s—you’re not allowed to mention the deaths. I’ve been watching a lot of television, reading in a lot of newspapers. The deaths, the suffering of the people in Gaza is pretty much all that’s covered here in the last few weeks, partly because of the way news works in America: If it bleeds, it leads. We’ve been inured by local news to bang-bang and shoot-shoot. So, the fact that people are dying in Gaza, which is awful—it’s awful—but that’s the whole story here, how many people are dying. And then there’s some—the fact that there’s a politics behind it, that there is a war going on in which one side wants to destroy the other side and the other side doesn’t want to be destroyed, that’s hardly covered at all.


AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Yeah, I mean, J.J. has offered us all of the propagandistic talking points that don’t stand up to scrutiny, and that’s one of the points of the media coverage. The only side that is being destroyed now is Palestine. We’re witnessing the destruction of Palestine—in Gaza, in the West Bank, in the Naqab, in the Negev, where Bedouins are being ethnically cleansed. The destruction of Palestine has been going on for almost 70 years. And J.J. Goldberg has the chutzpah to say that people in Gaza—

J.J. GOLDBERG: The word’s “chutzpah.”

ALI ABUNIMAH: —who are fighting for their survival and their existence, are trying to destroy Israel. This is the kind of Orwellian propaganda that is coming from the Israeli government and its apologists in the media here.

Let’s talk about the false claims that J.J. Goldberg made about the ceasefire and Hamas. You know, you can only make those claims, J.J., if you ignore the fact that after the November 2012 ceasefire not one rocket came out of Gaza for three months. Who did violate the ceasefire, J.J.? It was Israel. It bombed Gaza dozens of times. It killed and injured dozens of people. It fired on farmers and fishermen. Even The New York Times had to admit Israel’s frequent ceasefire violations. J.J., the answer, if you want to stop rockets, is time-tested and easy: Israel can stop attacking and killing people in Gaza; it can lift the siege.

Also, let’s talk about—you know, it’s not just having Palestinians bleed on television that’s the point of coverage. Where are the Palestinian voices? Yesterday, The Electronic Intifada published a statement by 91 civil society leaders in Gaza, people from the Red Crescent, from the universities, from the media, Supreme Court judges—91 members of civil society—and they said, “We do not want a ceasefire without justice, because going back to the status quo is a living death.” The choice we’re being given is between being blown to bits or dying slowly without the world listening.

You know, when there’s a ceasefire, J.J. Goldberg isn’t agitating in The Nation — excuse me, in The Forward, for an end to the siege. What we have is this liberal Zionist navel gazing about how to preserve Israel as a so-called Jewish and democratic state. Enough Palestinian babies have been blown to pieces for this insanity. Enough of lecturing Palestinians that their resistance is illegitimate or futile.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, J.J. Goldberg, let’s—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Palestine is being destroyed, J.J.

J.J. GOLDBERG: Let’s let him go. He’s having a good time.

ALI ABUNIMAH: We’re witnessing the destruction of Palestine, and you have the chutzpah to claim that Israel is in danger.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about this point that Ali raises of the siege, that what Mahmoud Abbas has also said it supports Hamas in is not accepting a ceasefire until the siege is lifted, as well?

J.J. GOLDBERG: Right. Mahmoud Abbas came around to that after finding, during his meetings in Qatar, which were apparently very tense, that he wasn’t going to get Khaled Meshaal to accept the Egyptian version of the ceasefire, which is first stop the killing and then talk. And since—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Why can’t Israel stop the killing now, J.J.? Why does Israel have to slaughter 60 or 70 people a day? Why don’t you tell Israel to cease the bombing and the killing now? Why are you telling Palestinians to stop—

J.J. GOLDBERG: You don’t know what I write. You obviously haven’t read a thing that—

ALI ABUNIMAH: —defending themselves?

J.J. GOLDBERG: Should I stay here or leave?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, J.J. Goldberg, why don’t you explain—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Palestinians have a right to self-defense, J.J.

J.J. GOLDBERG: Should I stay here?

AMY GOODMAN: You should stay here and explain what is it that you write, what is it that you say in The Forward.

J.J. GOLDBERG: I have been writing for years that Israel is doing a great disservice to itself and to the Palestinians by resisting a two—

ALI ABUNIMAH: It’s a pogrom, not a disservice. Use the correct words, J.J.


ALI ABUNIMAH: It’s a pogrom.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali, let J.J. speak.

J.J. GOLDBERG: It’s not a pogrom, and it’s not “chutzpah.” And the word is “chutzpah.”

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going. You—

ALI ABUNIMAH: And it’s “Hamas,” not “Hamas.”

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, J.J. Explain this issue of the siege. Has The Forward, have you supported a lifting of the siege?

J.J. GOLDBERG: Yes, yes. The siege is extremely counterproductive. It’s cruel, and it’s not working in bringing down the Hamas government.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the siege is.

J.J. GOLDBERG: The siege is a closure of the—it’s essentially a collective punishment of the people in Gaza because they are ruled by Hamas, and Hamas is dedicated to the unmaking of the Israeli state. As Rula said before, Hamas is not working for coexistence between Israel and Palestine. Hamas came into power in Gaza by murdering leaders of Fatah, taking over in a coup d’état and turning Gaza into an armed state in order to attack Israel. That’s what’s been going on. Israel responded with an extremely counterproductive collective punishment.

Now, it’s been mentioned that Gaza doesn’t have—Israel bombed its only electrical power plant, which supplied 30 percent of its electricity. The other 70 percent was supplied by Israel. The Israeli power supply to Gaza was shut down by Hamas rockets a week ago, and the Israeli electrical workers are afraid to go out and fix the cables because of Hamas rockets. I don’t know where else to go here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: J.J. Goldberg, could I ask you also to respond to the point that Ali Abunimah raised about who violated the ceasefire? In one of your recent pieces, you wrote that “[t]he last seven years have been the most tranquil in Israel’s history.” That is, prior to what happened on July 8th. “Terror attacks are a fraction of the level during the nightmare intifada years—just six deaths in all of 2013.”

J.J. GOLDBERG: Right, I wrote that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So could you address specifically, yeah, the ceasefire, who violated it?

J.J. GOLDBERG: The ceasefire, who—well, first of all, it’s important to know that Hamas did observe the ceasefire from November 2012, after the Pillar of Defense, I think they called it, until this outbreak. There were rockets being fired by other groups operating out of Gaza. Hamas was trying to enforce the ceasefire. It did a decent job of it, but it wasn’t perfect. And when there were rockets, Israel went and bombed the rocket squads. And sometimes when Israel bombs the rocket squads, it hits civilians.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Hospitals, mosques, schools, children, everything. It hits everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, this issue of having a ceasefire and then negotiating the end of the siege?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, I mean, if J.J. Goldberg says that the siege is cruel and it’s collective punishment—all of which is true: It’s a violation of international humanitarian law; it’s in fact a war crime to deprive people under occupation of their basic needs—then why not tell Israel, lift the siege and then talk? Why is the onus always on the occupied, the dispossessed, the refugees, to prove their good behavior to the ghetto masters?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s just put that point—

ALI ABUNIMAH: It seems to me that—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s just put that point to J.J. Goldberg.

J.J. GOLDBERG: No, he’s not done. Keep going. You’re having a good time.

AMY GOODMAN: No, no. No, no, no. J.J., why don’t you respond—

ALI ABUNIMAH: J.J. just—I haven’t finished my point.

J.J. GOLDBERG: No, he’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Ali, you can make a second point after, but let’s just address that one point.

J.J. GOLDBERG: Well, first of all, he is right that depriving the occupied people of their basic needs is a war crime. They haven’t been deprived of their basic needs. They’ve been kept poor. But they haven’t been starved.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Have you been to Gaza, J.J.?

J.J. GOLDBERG: No, I would be shot if I went to Gaza.

ALI ABUNIMAH: That’s untrue. There are many international people in Gaza now who are not being shot. They’re actually bearing witness, and they’re under the bombing with Palestinians. So stop inciting against Palestinians by these false claims that, you know, Palestinians are such wild monsters that if they see a Jew, they shoot them automatically. This is libel. This is libelous, J.J., and it’s a libel that contributes to the bloodshed because it further dehumanizes Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to another headline, as we talk about media criticism. This was The Washington Post headline on Sunday’s front page. It was in large letters. It said, “2 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza clash.” And then the sub-headline says in smaller text, “Death toll tops 330 as Hamas militants step up attacks.” So, again, the large headline says two Israeli soldiers die, and then the smaller headline, it says 330 people die as Hamas sets up attacks, indicating perhaps it was Hamas who had killed them, let alone even if you thought it was 330 Palestinians, you—it was in the sub-headline. The next day, The Baltimore Sun ran this headline with a story by a McClatchy reporter: “Sharp rise in Gaza deaths: 13 Israeli soldiers, 70 others killed; Kerry to seek end to fighting.” “13 Israeli soldiers, 70 others killed,” your thoughts on that, J.J. Goldberg?

J.J. GOLDBERG: I would have to see the Post headlines from day to day. If all of their headlines were about Israeli soldiers being killed, then I would say that’s outrageous. But if—what I’ve seen is a lot of coverage, and headline writers need to break up the monotony. Now, there’s a certain monotony to massacre, when it happens day after day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: J.J. Goldberg, I want to turn to another point that you made in your most recent piece, which is that the momentum turned against Israel only on Sunday following what happened in Shejaiya, that international support for Israel diminished. Could you say a little about how you think that was reflected in media coverage, what the media coverage was like before, when there was more support for Israel’s military assault on Gaza, and what happened after Sunday, in the media coverage?

J.J. GOLDBERG: The media coverage has been fairly straight. It’s been reporting from Gaza on what’s going on.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Before and after.

J.J. GOLDBERG: Before and after. And when there’s a lot more people killed, it looks a lot worse. It is a lot worse. And so, the demonstrations and the rallies against Israel in Europe and America have increased. You begin to see European leaders beginning to distance themselves. I think I wrote the wind shifted, and I’ve written in a couple of tweets and so on that Israel jumped the shark. It went—it went overboard. It went a step beyond what it had been doing. The ground campaign essentially was a declaration of war on the Palestinian people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, J.J. Goldberg said there’s a monotony to massacre.

ALI ABUNIMAH: I’m still trying to get my head around that phrase, frankly, Amy, just the callousness of it, the inability to absorb the enormity of the catastrophe. Someone calculated that if Gaza were the United States, in terms of population, we’re talking about, you know, 80-90,000 dead in the space of a few days. There isn’t a single family in Gaza that hasn’t lost people. We’re talking about entire families wiped out. At the beginning, J.J. Goldberg was whining that there isn’t enough coverage of Israel being bombarded, as if there’s any comparison whatsoever, not just to what Israel is doing to Gaza now, but to what Israel has been doing to Gaza for eight years, what Israel has been doing to Gaza since 1967, what Palestinians have been going through for decades—being forced off their land, being killed. I mean, we’re not paying attention even to the West Bank. All eyes are on Gaza, but people are being killed in the West Bank. Land is being taken in the West Bank. The destruction of Palestine continues, so that people like J.J. can sit in New York and pontificate about how American Jews in North America need a spare country so that they can feel safe.

AMY GOODMAN: J.J. Goldberg, you have the last 15 seconds.

ALI ABUNIMAH: The destruction of Palestine has to end.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali, let J.J. Goldberg—last 15 seconds.

J.J. GOLDBERG: I hardly know what to say. The—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Call it a disservice, J.J., why don’t you?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there.

J.J. GOLDBERG: We’re going to have to leave it there.

AMY GOODMAN: J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Jewish Forward, The Jewish Daily Forward. His most recent article, “As Gaza Toll Rises, So Will Pressure on Israel.” And Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of the website The Electronic Intifada, author of the new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine.

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Gaza Debate: As Palestinian Deaths Top 100, Who’s to Blame for Escalating Violence? What Can Be Done?

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