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Peter Beinart: Israel Will Only Be Secure & Safe If Palestinians Are Given Freedom

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Image Credit: Rafael Shimunov

Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, discusses proposals for a prisoner swap with Hamas, the ongoing cycle of Palestinian oppression and resistance, censorship of pro-Palestine advocacy in the United States, what he calls a “generational struggle” among American Jews over Zionism, and more on Israel’s current assault of Gaza.

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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 War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

In Israel, family members of some of the 240 hostages being held by Hamas have begun a five-day march from Tel Aviv to Benjamin Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem, where they plan to arrive Saturday. The family members are accusing the prime minister of not doing enough to free their loved ones.

On Monday, Hamas offered to release up to 70 women and children hostages in exchange for a five-day ceasefire and the release of 275 Palestinian women and children prisoners being held in Israeli jails. Israel has ignored the offer so far and has rejected all calls for a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., for a March for Israel, where speakers and rallygoers repeatedly voiced opposition to a ceasefire.

To talk more about the overall situation, we’re joined by Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, the City University of New York. He also writes a newsletter on Substack called The Beinart Notebook.

Peter, welcome back to Democracy Now! I want to start with President Biden saying there’s about to be a hostage release. And if you can talk about what this deal you see — you can’t possibly know exactly what we’re talking about here, but the issue of a trade for these hostages for prisoners, and who these prisoners are that Hamas is demanding be released?

PETER BEINART: I don’t know the details, but I pray that this will happen. Many of the hostage families have been calling for this. I can’t even imagine the agony of these families not knowing where their relatives are and if they’re alive or dead. In our own family, we have all the names of the hostages on our refrigerator door so we see them every day. But there are Palestinians who have been in prison, often for a long time, sometimes in administrative detention, without any due process. And it seems to me that allowing women and children, Palestinian women and children who have been held under those conditions, as part of a negotiated deal would be a humane gesture on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about some of the leaders who are imprisoned by Israel right now, like, for example, Marwan Barghouti?

PETER BEINART: Right. So, I think one of the problems in Palestinian politics is that there’s a whole generation of leaders, really, who are in jail, most famously, Marwan Barghouti, the nationalist leader. He’s not an Islamist like Hamas. Polling consistently shows he’s the most popular Palestinian leader.

And I think Israel needs to think about what its political strategy is here. You can’t defeat Hamas militarily, because even if you depose it in Gaza, you will be laying the seeds for the next group of people who will be fighting Israel. We know that Hamas recruits from the families of people that Israel has killed. You need, it seems to me, to support Palestinian leaders who offer a vision of ethical resistance, not what we saw on October 7th, but ethical resistance, and a path to Palestinian freedom, that also means safety for Israeli Jews.

Marwan Barghouti, although he was involved in armed attacks during the Second Intifada, has spoken from jail about the path of Nelson Mandela, about reconciliation, about justice not vengeance. If Israel wanted legitimate Palestinian leaders that it could work with to build a horizon for Palestinian freedom, because only Palestinian freedom in the long run will ensure Israeli Jewish safety, then it could let him out and create the beginnings of a more legitimate Palestinian leadership, rather than Mahmoud Abbas, who’s viewed as a corrupt, authoritarian subcontractor of Israel at this point.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter, I’m wondering your response to the way that many pro-Palestinian voices are being silenced in the United States. Last week, for instance, Columbia University suspended Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace as official student groups through the end of the term. And your sense of what — the impact of these kinds of policies and the pressures from a lot of university donors on their universities to silence these voices?

PETER BEINART: I think when historians look back at the periods of repression of free speech in the United States from World War I to the Red Scare of the McCarthy era to the post-9/11 era, tragically, we are writing another chapter now. And it’s being done in part because of the cowardice of university administrators and others, people who were sworn to defend the principles of free speech and academic freedom, because of pressure, as you say, very, very often from donors.

You don’t have to agree with everything that Students for Justice in Palestine says. I myself don’t. But they have the right to make their voices heard. Yes, do some of the things they say — are some of the things upsetting to some Jewish students? Yes. Some of the things that the pro-Israel groups on campus say are upsetting to some of the Palestinian students.

The point of a university is that people are able to express their views. And for goodness’ sakes, one of the things we’ve been hearing from people on the right for years and years in their opposition to cancel culture is that universities are supposed to make you uncomfortable. Physical safety is one thing. Intellectual discomfort is another. It is not the job of university presidents to protect students from hearing things that, because they were raised in pro-Israel families, they find deeply upsetting. The point is to allow people to have these conversations. And it’s really deeply, deeply disturbing to me that in these places that are supposed to be bastions of free speech and academic freedom, we’re seeing this kind of crumbling.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and I’m wondering also — there was a report in The New York Times today, which inexplicably, in my view, should have been on the front page but was buried in the back, about an attack on the Al-Shifa Hospital on Friday that initially the Israeli Defense Forces claimed was, again, errant missiles of Hamas, but The New York Times has been able to document that — from some of the fragments of the missiles, that they were actually anti-tank artillery from the — Israeli anti-tank artillery. And this really raises deep questions about the credibility of prior statements of Israel about some of these attacks. Wondering your response.

PETER BEINART: I mean, look, I’m not a military expert. I would just say this: Israel is saying that Hamas is embedding itself in civilian areas and using Palestinian civilians as, quote-unquote, “human shields.” There may be cases in which that is true, but we know that this is the way guerrilla armies fight, right? The Viet Cong, when they were fighting the United States in Vietnam, didn’t just walk out into the fields and say, “Here we are.” They embedded themselves in villages. This is the nature of fighting against a guerrilla movement, against an insurgency. It doesn’t give you carte blanche to then basically go and kill vast numbers of civilians.

The underlying lesson is you can’t defeat an insurgency unless you address the core political grievances. This is the fundamental flaw behind Israel’s strategy. And Israel, it’s so tragic to see this, because it’s been happening again and again for decades. Israel went into southern Lebanon in the early 1980s to depose the PLO, and they kicked the PLO out of Lebanon. And what happened? They ended up in an occupation that led to Hezbollah. Israel is not laying the foundations here for anything that will lead to mutual coexistence and mutual freedom between the two societies. The civilians it kills are laying the groundwork for more and more destruction and death on both sides, because Israeli leaders are not willing to face the fundamental fact, and American leaders are not forcing them to, that the issue, even deeper than Hamas, as horrible as Hamas is, the issue is the lack of Palestinian freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Beinart, you just wrote a piece in The New York Times, “There Is a Jewish Hope for Palestinian Liberation. It Must Survive,” where you talk about the ANC. If you can talk about apartheid, Palestine, the ANC and the day after, as they say?

PETER BEINART: The point I tried to make is that the African National Congress, although it did use armed resistance against apartheid, it tried hard to not go after civilians. And one of the reasons it was able to maintain this ethical line, which tragically Hamas brutally crossed on October 7, was that it saw its strategy of ethical resistance was working. It saw that it was resonating around the world. By the late ’80s, an anti-apartheid movement had grown that had led to sanctions, that had led to divestment. And this created a kind of virtuous cycle that made it easier for the ANC to resist in an ethical way.

The point I wanted to make in the piece is, if we find what Hamas did on October 7th despicable, as I did, it is incumbent on us to support Palestinians who are fighting for their freedom in an ethical way. And when you shut that down, as the United States has done again and again — you shut down Palestinian efforts at the U.N., you shut down Palestinians’ efforts at the International Criminal Court, you criminalize Boycott, Divestment and Sanction, even though these are nonviolent efforts in the language of human rights and international law — you are actually empowering forces like Hamas that will resist in these immoral ways. We have to create paths for Palestinians to fight for freedom ethically, and we have done the opposite.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering also — you tweeted on Monday, quote, “American Jewish institutions have assembled alibis for the horror Israel is inflicting on Gaza. They’re not just intellectually flimsy. They aim to squelch our noblest emotions: solidarity with suffering people + outrage at the state that is killing them.” Could you talk about the enormous battle that is occurring within the American Jewish community, where groups like Jewish Voices for Peace are being arrested by the hundreds in cities across the country, yet many of the major Jewish institutions continue to line up behind Israel?

PETER BEINART: Yeah. You know, it says in the Talmud that the imperative of human dignity is so great that it overrides all rabbinic commands. And it’s really — it’s tragic to me to see that the institutional leaders of our Jewish community have forgotten that in this moment when it needs to be remembered most. And instead what you have is a series of alibis that just don’t make any sense. For instance, the idea that people in Gaza deserve this because they voted for Hamas in 2006. Well, most of the — only 25% of the people in Gaza were even alive during that election. And if we set the precedent that you can be killed because you vote for the wrong political party, I think that’s going to have very, very bad consequences for many people all around the world.

There is a generational struggle, above all, that’s happening among American Jews. The bulk of the people who are leading these protests, these Jewish people who are protesting in the name of a ceasefire, are young. And what gives me hope is there are people on both sides, Hamas and the Israeli government, who basically see this struggle as a zero-sum struggle of tribe versus tribe, and that logic is going to lead to greater and greater destruction and misery; what I think we’re seeing among young American Jews is a different claim. It’s that this is not a struggle of Jews against Palestinians; it’s a struggle of Jews and Palestinians and people of conscience from all around the world around a series of basic principles. The principle is that there has to be safety and freedom and decent lives for Palestinians, if there is ever going to be safety and decency and dignity for Israeli Jews, as well, that these two people are bound together in a garment of destiny, as Martin Luther King said. And I actually think that it’s this multiracial, multireligious, multiethnic movement that, in this incredibly dark time, is the one thing, I think, that we can cling to as something as a source of hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, we have less than a minute, but what is your assessment of what President Biden is doing and should be doing?

PETER BEINART: President Biden keeps saying that he would like Benjamin Netanyahu to do something else, and Benjamin Netanyahu keeps doing what he’s doing, because there is no stick attached to what President Biden is saying. Right? There are no consequences. Now Netanyahu is saying that Israel is going to reoccupy Gaza. Biden knows that this is a nightmare for Israel and a nightmare for the United States. It will be a quagmire, an insurgency for as long as the eye can see. America has to use its considerable leverage to get the Israeli government to do something to show Palestinians that it has — that there is a way for them to fight for their freedom, that Israel and the world will offer them; otherwise, we are going to have round after round after round of this hideous killing on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Beinart, we want to thank you for being with us, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, professor at CUNY Journalism School. We’ll link to your recent New York Times op-ed headlined “There Is a Jewish Hope for Palestinian Liberation. It Must Survive.”

This is Democracy Now! Coming up, we speak with Rabbi Alissa Wise with the newly formed Rabbis for Ceasefire. Back in 30 seconds.

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