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Pulitzer Winner Nathan Thrall on Gaza, Israel’s “System of Domination” and U.S. Complicity

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In Part 1 of our Memorial Day special broadcast, we speak with Jerusalem-based journalist and author Nathan Thrall, who was recently awarded the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy. Thrall discusses Israel’s ceasefire talks with Hamas and Israel’s intensified crackdown in the West Bank. “The restrictions on movement in the West Bank are the worst that they have ever been since the occupation began,” Thrall says. He also responds to the cancellation of some of his book talks in Germany.

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

AMY GOODMAN: In this special broadcast, we spend the hour with the Jerusalem-based journalist and writer Nathan Thrall. He just won the Pulitzer Prize for his most recent book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy, which tells the story of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank through one family’s tragedy. The book was published October 3rd last year, just four days before Israel launched its devastating assault on Gaza following the Hamas attack on October 7th.

Today we reair two interviews with Nathan Thrall: one just after he won the Pulitzer Prize this month and another interview recorded just after the book was published in October, when he joined us with Abed Salama, the central figure of his book. We begin with the interview Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I did with Nathan on May 9th, when he joined us from Berlin, Germany. I began by asking him about the day's top story, President Biden’s announcement that the U.S. would halt the shipment of 2,000-pound bombs to Israel.

NATHAN THRALL: You know, it’s too little, too late. It is a step in the right direction, but the administration has said that it has not made a final determination even about these paused weapons. Biden said something very important: “It’s wrong.” He also said something important months ago, which is that Israel is bombing indiscriminately. And it’s doing that indiscriminate bombing with U.S. weapons. So, it is very simple for Biden to end this and to have ended this a long time ago. And it’s not by threatening to pause a small portion of the weapons that are coming in. Very early in this war, Israel could not continue to conduct it without resupply from the United States. The United States is fully complicit. I am a U.S. taxpayer, and I am paying to kill Palestinian civilians.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Nathan, you’ve just mentioned, you know, ending the war, and there was a possibility. A ceasefire proposal earlier this week was accepted by Hamas, in a move that surprised many, including Israel, the ceasefire which was negotiated, put together by Egypt and Qatar. And just days earlier, before Hamas accepted the ceasefire, on April 29th, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, had said the proposal was, quote, “quite extraordinarily generous on the part of Israel” and that Hamas was the only obstacle to a ceasefire. And Israel has now said that the proposal falls far short of its demands, but it’s continuing its negotiations in Cairo. So, if you could tell us what you think the main points of contention are and how much that proposal changed from the one that Israel was initially — had initially approved and this one that Hamas has agreed to?

NATHAN THRALL: So, the fundamental obstacle in all of these ceasefire negotiations has been one central issue, and that is that Hamas has demanded that the hostage exchange be accompanied by an end to the war, and Israel has refused. It says it wants to get the hostages back and to do a prisoner exchange with Hamas, and then to continue pummeling Gaza. Hamas and any other party in its place would be insane to accept such a deal. It is the only leverage they have, and they cannot afford to agree to a ceasefire, a so-called ceasefire, that has them relinquish the only asset that they have that Israel wants without a commitment that this is an end to the war.

And so, the fundamental issue is that Hamas says that the proposal that was given to it does entail an end to the war, a full, sustainable calm, that’s guaranteed by the United States and other mediators. And Israel says it rejects that. And we have seen the text of the proposal that Hamas has accepted. It is very close to what has been reported on all of the negotiations over the past week. And we haven’t seen the text that Israel says slightly differs in wording.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s going on on the ground in Israel? I mean, we just reported that last night hostage families clashed with police in Tel Aviv. Two people were arrested. One sister of a hostage was hospitalized. Her mother said, “End the war with Hamas.” How significant is this movement of hostage families and all their allies? And is that putting pressure on Netanyahu? Do you think he is going to actually engage in this wholesale ground assault on Rafah?

NATHAN THRALL: The protests for a hostage exchange deal are a tremendous pressure on the government. And if they grow in size, they will make the current coalition and Netanyahu sweat even more. So they are very significant. But, you know, as we have seen, they are not sufficient yet to have gotten Israel to agree to a ceasefire proposal. And so far, Biden’s limited threat has not been enough, either.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Nathan, just to — you know, you have lived in Jerusalem, in Israel, for many years, over a decade. We last spoke to you just days before the October 7th attack. If you could begin by talking about your response to Hamas’s attack and then what’s unfolded since, whether you were surprised by this, by either the scale of the Hamas attack, and then, of course, what Israel has unleashed on Gaza?

NATHAN THRALL: The book tour that I was on began, you know, several days before October 7th, and I was actually in the U.S. and on Democracy Now! with the title character, Abed Salama. And he and I had returned from an event on Friday night, and we got the news late that night, as it was early morning, Saturday morning, in Israel-Palestine, and we were both utterly shocked. And we realized that the entire atmosphere that would be — first of all, the entire atmosphere that his family is living in was about to change radically, and his entire community was locked down immediately, and that the whole region was going to change, not to mention the fact that there would be much more hostility toward the message of this book and that it would be much more difficult for us to speak. And indeed, many of our events were canceled after October 7th.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nathan, could you situate — of course, you’ve just mentioned your book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy. If you could talk about that book, what prompted it, and situate it in the context of what we’ve seen in the last several months?

NATHAN THRALL: Yeah. So, you know, the genesis of the book was really a place of frustration for me in working on Israel-Palestine for many years and watching as a heightened period of violence, like a war in Gaza, immediately brings Israel-Palestine into the news. It mobilizes students, and it gets the attention of the world, and leaders around the world invariably call for a restoration of calm. And what I wanted to write about in this book was that so-called calm, which is anything but calm for Palestinians. It’s a system of domination that is extremely bureaucratic and elaborate and has lasted for over half a century, and it is not going anywhere. And so long as we are only seeing bloodshed, periodic bloodshed, and calling for a restoration of the so-called calm that existed before that bloodshed, we are doomed to see that bloodshed repeat.

And my intention was to choose something seemingly commonplace, like a bus accident involving a group of Palestinian kindergartners, to describe the system of control and how ordinary people, Palestinians and Jews living in this area, both navigate through the system that’s controlling them and also implement and create this system. And so, the idea was to bring our attention to this deeply, deeply unjust system that is fully supported by the United States and its Western allies.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what was happening, Nathan, in the West Bank prior to October 7th, and now the number of people who have been killed since, killed and arrested, the Palestinians, since October 7th?

NATHAN THRALL: Prior to October 7th, we had already seen a spike in aggressive behavior from the army and armed settlers in the West Bank. The U.N. issued a small report at the end September talking about unprecedented levels of forced displacement of Palestinian Bedouin. And it said that roughly 1,100 Palestinian Bedouin had been displaced in the last year and a half.

In the period immediately after October 7th, while all the eyes of the world were on Gaza, an even greater number, more than 1,200 in just the weeks after October 7th — more than 1,200 Palestinian Bedouin were displaced in the West Bank. There has been a surge in violence. There have been hundreds of Palestinians who have been killed, huge numbers who have been arrested, many of them held without trial or charge under so-called administrative detention, which can be held for up to six months and then renewed indefinitely.

And in general, the restrictions on movement in the West Bank are the worst that they have ever been since the occupation began. It now takes me hours to get to locations that took me a half-hour or 40 minutes in the past. All of the jobs, virtually all of them, in the settlements and in Israel, which so many Palestinian extended families depend on — these are the higher-paying jobs for Palestinians in the West Bank — those have all but disappeared. And so, Palestinians are strangled economically. They are strangled in terms of their movement.

I just went a few weeks ago to a dinner, an iftar dinner, at Abed Salama’s home. And his brother, who — his entire family lives in Anata. His brother lives in Ramallah. And he said he had not left Ramallah since October 7th, because the restrictions on movement and also because of the unsafety, the settler attacks and all of the violence that is happening in the West Bank while the world’s attention is focused on Gaza.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, Nathan, explain. You’ve said — why is — why are all the discussions about a one-state or two-state solution as the possible resolution to this, why you think the discussions around a two-state or one-state solution are the wrong discussions to be happening?

NATHAN THRALL: You know, these conversations are premised on the notion that Israel eventually has to choose: It has to either give the millions of Palestinians living under its control without basic civil rights — it has to give them either citizenship, with equality, or statehood. And so many people in the diplomatic community would like to have, as they have been having for decades, debates about what a two-state outcome should look like, whether there should be two states or one state or confederation or what have you.

And all of that is an enormous distraction from the reality on the ground, because the fact of the matter is, Israel does not have to choose between two states and one state. It doesn’t have to choose between giving Palestinians sovereignty or citizenship. It has a third option, which is to continue on the path that it’s going down. The path that it’s going down is slow, de facto annexation of the West Bank, an absorption of the West Bank settlements in Area C, a takeover of Palestinian land, and a constriction of Palestinians into small walled-off or fenced-off communities, like the town of Anata, where my book takes place, or like Gaza.

And so, rather than focusing on the reality, which is a movement in the opposite direction of either two states or equality in one state, but rather a deepening of this system of control that leading human rights organizations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Human Rights Council and Al-Haq and B’Tselem, have all described as a system of apartheid — rather than addressing that system, Israel would very much like for everybody to debate what would be the ideal outcome, what is the future utopia that we would all like, and let’s only address this structural inequality, this systematic domination, once we’ve all agreed that we’ve landed on the right, perfect outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan, before we go, we were remiss in not congratulating you on the Pulitzer Prize this week for your book. When you came here, it was —

NATHAN THRALL: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It was two days before October 7th. Your book had just come out. You had events up the wazoo. So many of them were canceled. And you’re in Berlin right now, in Germany. Germany has been a remarkable scene, where you have German police arresting Jewish protesters, saying that they cannot criticize Israel. What has happened with your events, from Germany to the United States, as you raise questions about Israel’s war on Gaza?

NATHAN THRALL: In Germany, I had an event that was to take place on Tuesday in Frankfurt that was canceled at the very last minute by the Union International Club in Frankfurt. And none of the people who canceled the event had read the book or knew a thing about it. And none of them had or provided any substantive reason for the cancellation. And the same thing was happening to me in the United States.

And the reason in Germany is everybody is afraid of being accused of antisemitism. And what they’re really being accused of is not antisemitism, but criticism of Israel that is described as antisemitism. And Israel has spent years — Israel and its allies have spent years, in the United States and in Germany, putting forward a definition of antisemitism that includes criticism of Israel, entirely legitimate criticism of Israel, and trying to get around our basic democratic commitment to free speech by describing speech that is entirely legitimate as antisemitic. And so, that’s what’s happened here.

And who, of course, is the close ally of Israel, the most pro-Israel force here in Germany? It’s the far-right party. As we see elsewhere, ethnonationalists love Israel as a model for the kind of place they want to become: an ethnonational state that will dominate over people who are not like them.

AMY GOODMAN: The Jerusalem-based writer Nathan Thrall, speaking in early May. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy. When we come back, we turn to an interview we did last October with Nathan and Abed Salama. Stay with us.

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Next story from this daily show

“A Day in the Life of Abed Salama”: How the Death of Abed’s 5-Year-Old Son Sheds Light on Life Under Israeli Apartheid

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