In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Helga Tawil-Souri, a Palestinian-American scholar and university professor.
Since 1948, thousands of news articles, hundreds of hours of TV and radio programs, tens of books and countless research papers have been produced about the root causes, ramifications and human cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, several questions remain unanswered and, as time goes by, it becomes more evident that the international community is either unable or not determined to find a solution to the crisis.
Noam Chomsky, a distinguished American linguist and political commentator, once said that Israel’s actions in Palestine are “much worse than apartheid” in South Africa. Desmond Tutu, the South African cleric and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has also said that Israel’s “humiliating” treatment of Palestinians is akin to the policies of the apartheid regime of South Africa and pleaded to the Israeli people to liberate themselves by liberating Palestine.
The UN General Assembly and the Security Council have passed numerous resolutions and issued scores of statements about the conflict. The latest was the Security Council Resolution 2334, which in December 2016 condemned Israel’s settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, noting that they constitute a “flagrant violation” of international law and have “no legal validity.” Apart from the United States, which abstained, the remaining 14 members of the Security Council voted in favor of the resolution.
Israel, which is referred to as the “occupying power” in UN documents, has repeatedly ignored UN Security Council resolutions, including those on the state of Jerusalem, the disproportionate use of force against Palestinians and the two-state solution. It also continues to impose an all-out blockade on the Gaza Strip, the most densely populated place in the world.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Helga Tawil-Souri, a Palestinian-American media scholar and documentary filmmaker, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues and there seems to be no conclusion on the horizon. Which party do you think is responsible for the prolongation of tensions between the two sides and the humanitarian catastrophe that is happening in the Gaza Strip?
Helga Tawil-Souri: First, I’m not sure it helps to think of the conflict as simply between two parties. There are multiple diverging views from a variety of sides, and there are many external players, such as other countries, that it is difficult to simply say this is Israeli vs. Palestinian. There are Palestinian citizens and non-citizens inside Israel, there are diverging views among Jewish Israelis, there are Palestinians and Jews who are outside of Israel and Palestine that the conflict continues to impact, etc.
Nonetheless, there is a set of institutions and players which definitely and definitively have more power and more control; and a resolution — of any kind — largely falls on their lap, and that is, whether we like it or not, the Israeli government and its explicit and more silent supporters such as the US government, other European nations, other Middle Eastern nations and beyond.
There is not much that Palestinian parties and individuals can do or give up or agree to negotiate, because there is not much they are holding on to: They don’t control the land; they don’t control the borders; they don’t control settlements; they don’t control the economic conditions, just to name a few. Israel does. And thus any resolution or change has to largely come from the Israeli side and, it must be said, Israel must be willing to give certain things up. That has not been the case over the past seven decades. And it certainly doesn’t seem like it will be the case now or in the near future.
Second, it is a serious misnomer to call Gaza a humanitarian catastrophe. It is definitely a catastrophe, and it does directly impact 2 million, those inside Gaza — although many more are impacted beyond Gaza too. The conditions of Gaza are entirely manmade, outcomes of political and historical decisions. There is no natural disaster that has happened: the lack of resources, the lack of basic necessities of life, the poverty, closures, destitution, all of those are outcomes of explicit and purposeful political decisions on the part of Israel, but also on the part of others — Egypt, the US, the international community and the Palestinians, too.
It’s even problematic that we have gotten to the point where it is largely accepted to speak about Gaza independently of the West Bank, or of other Palestinians. That too is an outcome of political happenings.
In terms of how do we improve the condition of life inside Gaza, there is no doubt that the first step is to loosen Israel’s grip, as well as recognize that Palestinians in Gaza as much as in the West Bank and as much as Palestinians elsewhere are all part of the same group that is impacted by these political decisions.
Ziabari: What do you think about President Donald Trump’s suspension of US funding to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees? Was this decision motivated by a personal dislike of Palestinians, or does it point to the larger US Middle East policy?
Tawil-Souri: First, I don’t think of this as separate from Trump’s other policies and criticisms of other supra-national entities. Trump has criticized NATO, the UN, NAFTA, the Paris Agreement on the environment and so much more. He’s obviously a president that believes — if I can say that he believes anything — that none of these international institutions are worth being part of and, in fact, seems to want to work against them, and in some cases dismantle them.
So, it’s easy to see the refusal to fund UNRWA as a way for Trump to work against the UN, an entity he has voiced animosity toward. Of course, one also can’t help but see this in the longer historical context that it is, unfortunately, often Palestinians who pay the price for larger geopolitical decisions. Those who suffer the consequences are most often the people.
Second, I also don’t see this as separate from the example of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump’s stance vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine is so obviously and overtly right wing — Israeli right wing, I mean — that cutting funds to UNRWA or moving the embassy to Jerusalem are outcomes of such a stance. These are very much the dreams of Israeli right-wing governments and right-wing supporters in places like the US.
It is also no secret that Trump’s Middle East advisors are themselves ideologically along these same right-wing lines. Jared Kushner, David Friedman, Sheldon Adelson, David Miller, among others, are certainly not people who look at Israel-Palestine and think that a peaceful solution is one that will take into account the Palestinians — not at all. They have a very one-sided view of what the “resolution” should be. And Trump’s decisions so far are very much a reflection of that. But Trump’s US policies are not so shocking if we see them along the larger historical trajectory of US support for Israel.
I’m sure there is no love lost for the Palestinians in any case. Trump certainly isn’t a person who has ever said anything positive about anyone from the Middle East, or many other parts of the world for that matter. But I don’t think that it’s animosity toward Palestinians per se that is the driver on Trump’s part, which it may be on someone like Sheldon Adelson’s part. But that’s a different question, as much as it is entrusting a selected handful of people with very explicit right-wing views to craft the administration’s Middle East policies.
Ziabari: As an academic, do you find it challenging and difficult to criticize Israel? While Israel invests heavily on its hasbara campaign, the critics of Israel are often vilified as anti-Semites and racists. Is it easy to deal with the repercussions of criticizing Israel for its behavior and policies?
Tawil-Souri: Of course it’s not easy to criticize Israel, whether one is an academic or otherwise. I might add that my work is also not just about criticizing Israel, but equally about critiquing various forms of inequalities and powers, whether they emanate from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, the US government or sociopolitical decisions.
It is unfortunate that it comes with the territory of 1) being a Palestinian and 2) being critical of anything the Israeli government does that one has to be ready to be attacked, and in some cases vilified. What I mean is that no academic goes into researching or thinking about Israel and Palestine and not expect backlash. We can respond all we want that criticism of a government is not the same as criticism or hate for an entire people. And we can respond that all kinds of people are Semitic, including Arabs, but these responses largely fall on deaf ears. Or rather, the hasbara and vilifying campaigns are not about paying attention to the complications, contradictions and nuances, but rather it is their intent to portray things in extremely simplified, black-and-white ways.
But as a scholar that has anything to do with Israel and Palestine, I of course always receive criticism, sometimes threats, sometimes smear campaigns, sometimes worse. One learns to live with it. I also choose to remain committed no matter these attacks or criticisms. I stand by the research I do, I stand by what I think should be fundamental rights, I stand by what I criticize as atrocious policies. It’s not about who does them or who is impacted by them, but that these are happening and people are impacted.
Ziabari: Do you agree with the assumption that Israel is facing a legitimacy crisis and needs distractions, such as a perceived threat from Iran, to divert global attention from its campaign in the Gaza Strip and its settlement activity in the West Bank?
Tawil-Souri: I think there are some people and politicians within Israel that believe that Israel is facing a legitimacy crisis. This is not simply related to Iran, but to Israel being, more broadly, a state that has not been “welcomed” in the region; a state that has been built upon a pre-existing people and society; a state that often is met with a UN resolution to everything it does — because it often breaks the rules, it must be said; a state that is met with aggression and responds with, and sometimes instigates with, aggression; and so on.
I do not doubt that there are those that are convinced that Israel is threatened. But I also think that this threat is much more perceived and imagined than it is real. I mean no one is going to destroy Israel, no one is going to bomb it to oblivion, no one is actually going to “push the Jews into the sea” even if some say this, and even if a fragment of those who say it might wish it.
But your question gets at the underlying point: This sense of threat, or of living in a state of siege, has been the status quo for Israel since day one, and it has also proved “productive” for Israel and many of its policies. It is what in a sense legitimizes its military growth and prowess; it is what legitimizes support from others, such as the US; it legitimizes Israel’s own insecurity, which then feeds its need for “security.”
On the other hand, your question also gets at another dynamic, which is that Israeli governments have often veiled their policies and practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and also within Israel proper, at moments when other threats or other things are going on. There are many things that can serve as a “distraction”: 9/11 was one, the 2003 Iraq War was one, the Arab uprisings were one and Iran is one. But they’re not simply distractions; they are excuses too, as these often strengthen the argument that Israel is at threat.
What happens on the ground during these times is also very real: closures, curfews, settlement growth, building of walls and special by-pass roads, checkpoints and so on. Of course, these things happen all the time, but they do often intensify when the world is busy watching some other emergency or catastrophe or threat.
Ziabari: What are your thoughts on the nation-state bill or the nationality bill adopted by the Knesset in July? Why did the law meet huge criticism worldwide? What is in this legislation that makes it so controversial?
Tawil-Souri: The bill is an unequivocal statement and result of what has been happening for years: of “upgrading” only the Jewish claims and “downgrading” any others’ — namely Palestinian — claims to the country. The bill states that only Jewish people have the right to exercise self-determination. This is a direct attack against any Palestinian desire or need for self-determination. It is also a continuation of Israel’s already-existing policies of treating Jews and non-Jews very differently and affording them different rights.
The bill has “downgraded” Arabic language to a “special status” rather than an official language. This is also a direct attack on the more than 1.2 million Palestinians inside Israel, as well as any Jews from Arab backgrounds. This downgrading of Arabic is not entirely new — one can see it in street signs, in what is taught in schools, in what is broadcast on the media, in names of places and so on — but this bill now makes it official.
Finally, the new bill also mandates that the “state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development,” but it does so without specifying where. Of course, one is tempted to see this as referring to Jewish settlements anywhere, well into the West Bank and Jerusalem for example. But it is also equally about negating any “Arab settlements” also anywhere across the entirety of the land.
As I mention, these practices are not effectively new, as Israel has long treated its different populations very differently. The difference is that now such discrimination is put into law. There too it must be said that there have been previous laws that have “legalized” racist or discriminatory practices, such as the right of return or laws about land purchases. Israel continues to exclude and attempt to erase Palestinians in various realms: legal, territorial, economic and so on. This is yet another example of this.
Ziabari: The moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem was one of the most debatable decisions of the Trump administration so far. Was it a symbolic decision or does it carry more significant implications?
Tawil-Souri: It is certainly symbolic, but it is also a lot more. For one, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise that Trump decided to do this. Second, while it’s very tempting to lay the blame fully on Trump, his decision was a result of actions that also made it possible to get to this point. For decades, the international community has only paid lip-service to the fact that Jerusalem remains occupied and annexed territory. But no one has really stood in the way of Israel doing what it wants with Jerusalem, whether that’s changing its municipal boundaries, increasing settlements in and around the city, evicting Palestinians or so much more that has fundamentally altered what Jerusalem is.
The US has long been a kind of silent, or really hypocritical, supporter of Israeli policies vis-à-vis Jerusalem. The US makes a few remarks about settlements, for example, but that’s it. This hasn’t simply been a Republican or Democratic issue, nor simply a Trump one. Republican presidents in the past have taken a hard line against Israeli policies, just as Democratic presidents have taken a much softer tone and continued to support Israel financially and militarily to a higher degree than Republican ones. So, Trump is a continuation of American policies that have increasingly been “negative” toward Palestinians and “positive” toward Israel. Deciding to place the embassy in Jerusalem seems a logical next step. This doesn’t mean that I agree with it, but we shouldn’t be surprised at this outcome.
What is obviously problematic is what is less talked about: That any one party or government can simply step into a place and decide where a capital city is. But Israel has done this, and now the US has done, and others are following. This is yet another example of creating what are euphemistically called in this conflict, “facts on the ground.”
Ziabari: Do Arab and Muslim nations feel they have a responsibility to help the Palestinian people, or have they compromised their moral responsibility to move toward normalizing their relations with Israel?
Tawil-Souri: For the most part, it seems that since 1967 most Arab and Muslim nations have not really cared about what has happened to Palestinians or to Palestine. The latter have often been treated as pawns or irrelevant in a larger political or geopolitical dance.
Certainly since the peace accords of the early, mid-1990s, this sense of letting go of any responsibility on the part of other Arab nations or Muslim nations toward the Palestinians has increased. The moral responsibility was compromised, as you say, long ago, and it is not because of any normalization with Israel.
In other words, it’s not normalization with Israel that is a moral compromise, but a lack of responsibility and solidarity that has been developing for decades. Sure, some countries decide to help a little bit here and little bit there, but there is no fundamental support or commitment to assist the Palestinians out of their predicament, nor any serious commitment to “end” the conflict.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.