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Nathan Thrall on the Historic Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Control from the River to the Sea

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We look at the crisis unfolding in Israel-Palestine with Nathan Thrall, former director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group and writer now based in Jerusalem, who says despite a buildup of Israeli troops on the Gaza border, Israel wants to avoid a ground invasion of the besieged territory and return to the status quo that existed before the latest round of violence. “Israel’s preference and its policy is to have Hamas remain in control of its little island of Gaza after this is finished,” Thrall says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. You can get our Daily Digest mailed to you by sending the word “democracynow,” texting that, to 66866. That’s texting the word “democracynow” — no space — to 66866.

The death toll in Gaza has reached at least 83 as Israel’s aerial bombardment of the besieged territory enters a fourth day. The dead include 17 children. Over 480 Palestinians have been injured. The death toll in Israel has reached seven as Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups continue to fire hundreds of rockets into Israel.

We’re joined now by Nathan Thrall, former director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group. He’s now a writer, based in Jerusalem, author of the book The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine. His latest piece for The New York Review of Books is headlined “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: One man’s quest to find his son lays bare the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli rule.”

Nathan, if you can comment on the latest escalation and what this means, including the U.S. response? And then tell us the story of Abed and his little 5-year-old son, Milad, and what happened to him.

NATHAN THRALL: Thanks for having me, Amy.

What we’re seeing right now in the land under Israel’s control, from the river to the sea, is an uprising that’s taking place in cities in the West Bank, where it is being suppressed by Palestinian security forces. It’s taking place in Palestinian cities inside of Green Line Israel, pre-1967 Israel. And, of course, it’s taking place in annexed East Jerusalem and in Gaza. And I have to say that, having lived here for quite some time, this feels unlike any other time that I’ve been here. To have lynch mobs roaming through the streets and attacking people purely based on their ethnicity is really quite frightening and disturbing to all the people around here. And it’s really a unique moment.

I think the most significant thing that’s happening now is actually the attacks within Green Line Israel and, as some of your previous guests were saying, the unity that you are seeing among Palestinians that Israel had attempted to fragment for decades. And this has been a key part of Israel’s strategy and Israel’s success in maintaining an occupation for over half a century. And actually, for the entirety of Israel’s existence, save for six months, it kept the majority of the Palestinian native population under its control, under some kind of a military regime, while having a separate regime for the Jews living here.

And what we’re seeing now is really an attempt by Palestinians to connect what had been very separate struggles of Palestinian citizens of Israel for equality. Palestinian citizens of Israel are prevented from even living in hundreds of Jewish-only communities within Israel. What we’re seeing is a unity of Palestinians in Jerusalem who are demanding that Israel cease to implement a racist law which allows Jews to obtain properties held before 1948, while not allowing Palestinian residents, taxpaying residents of the city, to do the same thing. And, of course, in Gaza, we have a brutal siege that shows no sign of ending, and utter desperation among the people there to find some way to end it.

Within the West Bank, you have Palestinians living in — most of them, living in 165 little islands of supposed Palestinian autonomy, that is in fact under total Israeli control. Israel enters these islands of autonomy at will. They’re disconnected from one another. They need Israeli permission to go between them. And the Palestinian security forces now, in these disconnected islands, are suppressing the protests that are taking place.

If we look at the whole territory altogether, these Palestinian islands of autonomy, 165 of them in the West Bank, plus Gaza, they amount to about 10% of the territory of mandatory Palestine, the territory under Israel’s control, not including the Golan Heights. So what we have is Israel directly administering and controlling 90% of this territory, and we have 10% of it that is in this pseudo-autonomy, which is not a real autonomy.

And the international community describes this situation as something totally other than what it is. The international community describes this as a situation of the so-called Palestinian-controlled West Bank or the Fatah-dominated West Bank. Well, actually, Israel not just controls all of the West Bank, but it actually directly administers the majority of the territory in the West Bank. The entire discourse of the international community about this conflict is one of wishful thinking, that we have a Palestinian state in the making and an Israeli state, and it’s really a kind of a border conflict between them, rather than the reality of the situation, which is one sovereign state controlling all the territory, and 165 tiny little islands, that make up less than 10% of the territory, that don’t have real autonomy, don’t have real sovereignty and don’t have any prospect of freedom or independence anywhere on the horizon.

And this entire system is funded by the United States, paid for by the United States. And you hear liberals in the United States now calling for the U.S. to play a greater role — progressives even, well-meaning progressives, calling for the U.S. to play a greater role. But this is a totally contradictory position. If you understand that the U.S. is part of the problem, that the U.S. is funding the slow takeover of this entire territory, the constriction of Palestinians into even smaller spaces, then, of course, anybody in favor of Palestinian freedom and independence should not want a greater role for the United States.

That’s a very long answer, and I haven’t gotten to the piece. So, I’d be glad to discuss that now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, before we do that, Nathan, could you talk — now there is a real threat of an Israeli ground assault on Gaza. What do you think the prospects of that are, and what will the implications of that be?

NATHAN THRALL: It’s anybody’s guess whether it will actually happen. Israel is trying to signal that it is very possible, and it’s put its forces close to the border, and it may happen. Israel is very frightened of doing a ground operation, because it expects that there will be a large number of casualties, and it fears that Israeli soldiers will be kidnapped. And it’s not a decision that will be taken lightly in Israel.

And I think that most people would prefer — most in the security establishment would prefer to do this without a ground invasion, because at the end of the day Israel’s preference and its policy is to have Hamas remain in control of its little island of Gaza after this is finished. After this round of fighting or this war, whatever it turns out to be, after it is over, Israel wants to return to the situation as it was one week ago, which is the people of Gaza choked, Hamas ostensibly administering Gaza, while Israel controls everything that happens from the outside. And there’s really not much purpose in a ground invasion unless you actually intend to change that situation, stay there for a long time, attempt to replace the leadership in Gaza. And even that, it’s not clear that that’s feasible. I mean, what Palestinian leader is going to come in on an Israeli tank and actually succeed in ruling? So, Israel doesn’t really have any good options. And all of the bloodshed that we’re seeing right now is rather pointless, because it’s clear now that Israel’s intention is simply to return to the situation that it had one week ago.

And by the way, this is a huge problem with Israel-Palestine in general. All the good, well-meaning liberals and progressives in the world, they see — they ignore Israel-Palestine. They pay attention to it when there’s violence. Once there’s violence, what do progressives call for? They call for the Biden administration to make sure that the escalation stops. So that what? So that we return to the status quo, the status quo of slow Israeli takeover of this territory and Palestinians living under apartheid. So, a ground invasion really — it may happen, but nothing good will come of it for Israel.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nathan, we have a couple of minutes left. You described the situation through one day in the life of Abed Salama, in your New York Review of Books piece. Talk about the piece.

NATHAN THRALL: Sure. It’s the story of one man on one day searching to find his son when a tragic accident occurs. And to understand the story of this man searching through the labyrinth of Israeli rule to find his son, and all of the obstacles he faces, which are historical obstacles — they’re obstacles that go back to the beginning of Zionism, which I address in the piece — you need to understand where this man lives.

And he lives — Abed Salama, he lives in a community that has been separated from the rest of the Jerusalem by the 26-foot-high separation barrier. And half of this community — it’s surrounded on three sides by a wall, by this gray concrete separation wall, and, on the fourth side, by what’s known as the apartheid road, because it has separate lanes for Palestinian and Israeli traffic. And that road itself has a large wall running through the middle of it, so the two sides don’t see one another. So, this community is an enclave. It’s a ghetto, completely surrounded by walls. Half of it is within annexed East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967. And the residents in that half have blue ID cards. And they have the ability to go through a checkpoint in order to enter the rest of the city. So they’re passing by —

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan, we have 30 seconds.

NATHAN THRALL: OK. The story is really about life inside a ghetto, a walled ghetto that Israel has created. Half of the people in that ghetto are residents of the city of Jerusalem. And one man searches, throughout a horrible day, to find his son and to find out even what happened to his son on that day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue with you after the broadcast, because we have to hear this story in full. It has had an enormous impact. It is called “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama.” And we will bring you Part 2 at democracynow.org. “One man’s quest to find his son lays bare the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli rule.” I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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