Rashid Khalidi: The Israeli Security Establishment Is Terrified of a Nonviolent Palestinian Movement

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Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation are continuing this week as Israel begins to mark the country’s 70th anniversary of its founding in 1948. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, Israeli forces have killed 33 Palestinian protesters over the past three weeks since the “Great March of Return” protests began to commemorate the mass expulsion of Palestinians during Israel’s establishment. Palestinian authorities estimate nearly 4,300 Palestinians have been injured in the peaceful protests—many were shot with live ammunition or rubber-coated steel bullets. Gaza authorities have also accused Israel of deliberately targeting journalists and medics. Since the protests began, one journalist—Yaser Murtaja—was killed, and 66 journalists were injured. In addition, 44 medics have been wounded, and 19 ambulances were reportedly targeted. The protest marches are set to last to until May 15, recognized as the official Israeli Independence Day. Palestinians mark the date as Nakba Day, or “Day of the Catastrophe.” For more, we’re joined by Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. He’s the author of several books, his most recent titled “Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.”

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation are continuing this week as Israel begins to mark the country’s 70th anniversary of its founding in 1948. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, Israeli forces have killed 33 Palestinian protesters over the past three weeks since the “Great March of Return” protests began, to commemorate the mass expulsion of Palestinians during Israel’s establishment.

Palestinian authorities estimate nearly 4,300 Palestinians have been injured in the peaceful protests. Many were shot with live ammunition or rubber-coated steel bullets. Gaza authorities have also accused Israel of deliberately targeting journalists and medics. Since the protests began, one journalist, Yaser Murtaja, was killed, and 66 journalists were injured. In addition, 44 medics have been wounded, and 19 ambulances were reportedly targeted.

AMY GOODMAN: The protest marches are set to last until May 15th, recognized as the official Israeli Independence Day. Palestinians mark the date as Nakba Day, or “Day of the Catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, their expulsion began. On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began celebrations of Israel’s 70th Independence Day at a ceremony in Jerusalem with a nod to U.S. plans to move its embassy there from Tel Aviv.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] We all praise the historic decision by President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as our capital and to move the embassy there of the world’s biggest power. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, America.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “Best wishes to Prime Minister @Netanyahu and all of the people of Israel on the 70th Anniversary of your Great Independence. We have no better friends anywhere. Looking forward to moving our Embassy to Jerusalem next month!”

For more, we’re joined by Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, the author of a number of books, his most recent, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

Talk about what’s happening right now in Gaza. It’s almost getting no attention in the United States. But this period of time leading up to March 15th.

RASHID KHALIDI: May 15th.

AMY GOODMAN: May 15th.

RASHID KHALIDI: It’s remarkable that it’s gotten as little attention as it has in this country, because this is a new phase. It is almost entirely nonviolent. The Israelis try and focus on other issues, claiming that it is violent or people are throwing things or whatever. But you have literally tens of thousands of people walking to the fence, camping along the fence, carrying out protest activities, which are then met with a hail of hundreds and thousands of bullets. I mean, the numbers speak for themselves, the hundreds of people who have been—the thousands of people who have been wounded, the dozens who have been killed.

And what it shows is, I think, the Israeli security establishment is terrified of Palestinian nonviolence. Any narrative in which the Palestinians use violence is easy for them to master. But a narrative in which the Palestinians walk towards the fence and ask for their rights is one that they’re very uncomfortable with.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But this isn’t the first protest of its kind in Israel-Palestine, but is it the first one in which the Israelis have responded so disproportionately?

RASHID KHALIDI: It’s not the first of its kind. The most underreported story in Palestine is the nonviolent nature of enormous amount of protest. We pay a lot of attention to violent actions. But the First Intifada was largely nonviolent. I mean, for three or four years, Palestinians were engaged in massive nonviolent protests, which were met with systematic repression. Rabin said, “Break their bones.” That was his order to his soldiers when he was defense minister. So, it’s not the first time that the Israelis have used this kind of violence. I don’t think that they’ve ever gotten to the point of shooting down literally thousands of people in this way, so maybe that’s unprecedented.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what do you think accounts for that?

RASHID KHALIDI: They are very, very worried about two things. They’re worried about the fact that the Palestinians might actually finally realize that nonviolent action is smarter and might be more effective. And secondly, they don’t like one of the demands of this protest movement, which is the issue of return, because it brings up the issues that the Israelis hoped had been buried from 1948 onwards, which is to say their expulsion of three-quarters of a million Palestinians back in April, May and so forth, of 1948, their confiscation of their property and their refusal to allow them to return. And that’s what this March of Return is about.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Are there additional demands, apart from—

RASHID KHALIDI: That’s the main focus of it. That is the main focus of it. I mean, almost the entire population of Gaza, with a very few exceptions, are refugees. And so they are living in this cooped-up, enormous prison camp, right across the border from the lands that they once owned and cultivated.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the organizing that went into this mass nonviolent protest that’s happening, particularly on Fridays after prayer.

RASHID KHALIDI: Right. This started off as a civil society initiative, which was then, of course, picked up—cynically, picked up by Hamas, which has realized the bankruptcy of its own approach and its unpopularity with Palestinians. But it started off as a movement by young activists who wanted to do something. They’re living in this pressure cooker of Gaza. They can’t—

AMY GOODMAN: Describe it.

RASHID KHALIDI: They can’t get out. They can’t go anywhere. It’s the highest population concentration on Earth. To get a permit to go to get medical care or to study abroad or to visit your family in the West Bank or Jordan is almost impossible for the overwhelming majority of Gazans. So they are imprisoned in Gaza. They’re suffering without enough electricity. There is sewage. I mean, one could go on and on.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to just some of the incidents that have taken place. Earlier this month, a Palestinian stepped forward to say he was the unarmed man who was shot by Israeli sniper in a gun sight video recorded last December that went viral.

RASHID KHALIDI: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: The video captures the sound of a gunshot, the Palestinian man falling to the ground, then a voice celebrating in Hebrew and cursing the sniper’s victim. Tamer Abu Daqqa says he was shot in the leg without warning as he stood about 200 meters from Israel’s fortified border. He told Al Jazeera he posed no threat to Israeli troops.

TAMER ABU DAQQA: [translated] Some young people near the border were lying on the ground. They couldn’t get out. So I came to protect them and ask them to go back. Then the Israelis shot me. How am I a danger to the Israelis? We were on our land. We didn’t cross. I was in the buffer zone. I had no weapons in my hands. I had nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel’s military has criticized the soldiers who shot Abu Daqqa for cheering, but has defended the shooting itself, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying the sniper deserves a medal. And he not only said it for the sniper who shot him last December, but he’s saying that no Gazan is innocent. Explain the significance of Avigdor Lieberman’s statements and who he is.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, this is part of a systematic defamation of the entire Palestinian people. I mean, what Lieberman and the security establishment is essentially saying is the Palestinians are a terrorist people, and whatever they do is beyond the pale. And I think the thing to focus on here is the use of snipers to gun down people at a sufficient distance from this—you could see in the video that we just saw—at a sufficient distance from the fence, that it is impossible that they could cause any harm to the Israelis themselves.

So, heavily armored Israeli soldiers with sniper rifles at hundreds of meters are picking off, systematically, Palestinian protesters or people who try to approach the fence or whatever. And that this is a policy that the government is proud of, that Lieberman is praising the snipers who have shot down literally thousands of people? I think it tells us a lot about Israel’s attitude towards Palestinians, that they are subhuman.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I think one of the perceptions that’s quite common—I mean, you said earlier that Palestinians are now increasingly disenchanted with Hamas, and Hamas is not very popular in Palestine and with the residents of Gaza. So, can you explain why people still have the sense, in fact, that the majority of Palestinians are sympathetic with or support Hamas, and how that sense kind of emboldens Israel to carry out the kinds of—I mean, this disproportionate violence of which we’ve been speaking?

RASHID KHALIDI: I mean, if you go back and look at the way in which Israel has dealt with the whole issue of Palestine and the Palestinian national movement, they always demonize whatever appears to be the leading movement. When it was the PLO or Fatah or whatever, they were terrorists, they were beyond the pale, you couldn’t talk to them. And the same is now true of Hamas.

I think the interesting thing is, not just Hamas, all of the political parties are discredited in the eyes of most Palestinians. They are seen to have failed. Hamas with its policy of—so-called policy of resistance, which in fact is a sham. Hamas prevents people from firing rockets from the Gaza Strip. It is carrying out, without a security agreement, the same kind of role of protecting Israel that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is carrying out with a security agreement. And Palestinians see that. They see the cynicism of that, and they see that both sides—that is to say, the PA in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza—in fact, are bankrupt.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So why is Hamas doing that? And why did—

RASHID KHALIDI: Why are they doing it?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, why?

RASHID KHALIDI: Out of fear of Israeli retaliation.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas fracturing?

RASHID KHALIDI: It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, sadly. I mean, this is the overwhelming demand of the Palestinian people, that these useless politicians get together and end this meaningless split, so that the weaker party, the Palestinians, can at least present a unified front.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the journalists who have been killed. Let’s talk about the Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja, who was fatally shot by the Israeli army while covering the protests along the Israel-Gaza border. Photos show the 30-year-old journalist wearing a flak jacket clearly marked ”PRESS” at the time of the shooting. This is Murtaja’s mother and brother speaking after his killing.

MUTASEM MURTAJA: [translated] I was next to him at the protest. Targeting the journalist was very clear, to the point that they targeted the two of us directly using snipers and gas bombs.

YUSRA MURTAJA: [translated] We thought it was just an injury, and he will be injured for a while, and then God will heal him, and he will come out of it like the rest of the injured people. I didn’t expect him to die.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, that’s what happened in Gaza. And then you have today’s headline in the West Bank: Press freedom groups are expressing alarm over the arrest of a journalist early Wednesday by Palestinian security forces. Relatives say the officers presented a search warrant, arrested Hazem Naser without mention of what he’s being charged with. He works for Najah Broadcasting Channel, which frequently covers Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes, arrest of Palestinians. He’s arrested in the middle of the night.

RASHID KHALIDI: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Murtaja was killed.

RASHID KHALIDI: I mean, I think the thing to say about the murder of this journalist and the murder of many of these people is that there is a policy of targeted assassination. It’s not just snipers randomly shooting people. It is an intelligence system which collects information on everybody who’s in activist, and these people are then being targeted. They are murdering specific people. They’re not just shooting at random. They are doing that, as well, but some of these—many of these killings—there’s a wonderful book by a man named Ronen Bergman on the history of Israel’s targeted assassinations. This is a policy of killing Palestinian leadership. They’ve been doing it for decades and decades. And now they realize that some of the most dangerous people are not people who are firing rockets, but rather people who are organizing popular demonstrations and nonviolent action.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But do you see any transformation or intensification of that policy on Israel’s part as a consequence of Trump’s election and his—I mean, one of the many steps that he says he’s going to take is to move the capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. So what kind of message is that giving to Netanyahu and those who support him?

RASHID KHALIDI: I mean, frankly, they’ve always had cover from Washington for whatever they did. But I agree—I think your question points to a reality, which is they have even greater impunity with a president like Trump, who will give them complete carte blanche for whatever they want to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And is moving the U.S. Embassy.

RASHID KHALIDI: Precisely.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of that, now following—the U.S. saying it’s doing that right around the 70th anniversary? Guatemala says it will follow suit.

RASHID KHALIDI: Right. This is really very important. Jerusalem is the most important of all the issues in the Palestine-Israel conflict. And the Trump administration’s decision that it recognizes, apparently, from what they’ve said, the entirety of Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory has implications for the entire conflict. It has implications for the rest of the occupied territories. It has implications for Israeli annexations, not just of Jerusalem—of the Golan Heights, of other areas that they might choose to annex. So, they are giving them a, basically, open season in terms of further annexations, further expansions, and so on and so forth, by this Jerusalem thing. It’s not just recognizing Israel’s capital as Jerusalem or moving the embassy. It has all kinds of other implications.

AMY GOODMAN: What will happen on May 15th?

RASHID KHALIDI: The consulate in West Jerusalem will be turned into an embassy.

AMY GOODMAN: And what will happen at the wall, the Gaza-Israel wall?

RASHID KHALIDI: I have no idea. But at the rate at which things are going, unfortunately, we’re probably likely to see even more savage, vicious, brutal, murderous repression.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rashid Khalidi, we want to ask you to stay with us as we move on to Syria. Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. His latest book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. When we come back, we’ll also be joined, from London, by Moazzam Begg, who was held at Guantánamo, in Bagram in Afghanistan, for several years, held by the U.S. military. This is Democracy Now! He also spent time in Syria over the last few years, and we’ll talk to him about what he found there. Stay with us.

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