‘There’s an Asymmetry Not Only in Power, but in Compassion By Janine Jackson

22 May 2018 — FAIR

The May 18, 2018, episode of CounterSpin was a special on Gaza that featured three classic interviews—with James Zogby from  July 5, 2006; with Yousef Muneyyer from November 23, 2012; and with Phyllis Bennis  from April 6, 2018. This is a lightly edited transcript.

MP3 Link

Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson. This week on CounterSpin: The Palestinian health ministry in Gaza says Israeli soldiers killed at least 60 Palestinians and wounded as many as 2,700 in an eight-hour period on May 14. Palestinians protesting both the horrific living conditions in Gaza and their inability, despite international law, to leave it, to return to the homes from which they were expelled, along with hundreds of thousands of people, in the 1940s.

CNN: 37 Killed in Gaza Protests Ahead of Embassy Opening

CNN (5/14/18)

At the same time—and for many US TV viewers, on a sickening split-screen—Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, celebrating the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, declared it a “great day for peace.” Media could hardly avoid revealing the disjunction, even as many worked hard to tell you you weren’t seeing what you thought you were seeing—that the overwhelmingly unarmed people were a violent mob, that the snipers picking them off from a distance were defending their lives.

That sort of dissonance has marked elite US media coverage of Gaza for many years. Today we’ll revisit conversations with just three of the people that CounterSpin has heard from who are working to expand and deepen US audiences’ understanding of Gaza— the conflict, the context and the possible ways forward. We’ll hear from James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute; from Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights; and from Institute for Policy Studies‘ Phyllis Bennis.

Gaza and the US Press, this week on CounterSpin. CounterSpin is brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.


WaPo: Hamas Has Launched Another War. Israel Needs a Better Response

Washington Post (5/15/18)

A May 15 Washington Post editorial offered a primer on elite US media’s view of recent events in Gaza. The piece, headlined, “Hamas Has Launched Another War. Israel Needs a Better Response,” conveyed to readers that: One: Israel and Hamas are fighting a war, and Hamas is running it. It is not, then, that Gaza is a refugee camp, an open-air prison, under a 10-year blockade from Israel (and Egypt), where residents cannot leave, and Israel restricts what goods, including medicines, can enter—but a war, in which all of the deaths just happen to be on the Palestinian side. And the footage you’re seeing? It doesn’t reflect Israeli military killing Palestinians, but Palestinians getting themselves killed as a means of attacking Israel.

Two: All Palestinians in Gaza are Hamas. They are not people with their own response to conditions in Gaza, where the water is largely undrinkable and electricity only works a few hours a day, unemployment is at 44 percent and, as the LA Times‘ Ann M. Simmons reportedback in February, “breakfast for some schoolchildren is a cup of hot water flavored with a dash of salt.” All protesting Palestinians are Hamas, cynical and bloodthirsty and the cause of any conflict. Thus, when unarmed people are killed by sniper fire, the Post has prepared you with a label for those people: “nominal civilians.”

Three: It’s OK for Israel to kill protesters. The Post suggests the appropriate response to Monday’s massacre is relief, since if Israel “had allowed thousands of Palestinians to pour across toward nearby Israeli communities, the bloodshed could have been much greater.” In other words, Israel would’ve killed more of them.

And let’s call it three and a half: Those who object to Israel’s lethal and illegal actions are mindless robots. That’s the unhidden subtext of a line like, “On cue, condemnations of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu poured in.”

If and when you have absorbed these concepts, then when Israeli Deputy Minister Michael Oren tells the CBC that the sole purpose of the protests was to “break the fence and kill Israelis and destroy our country,” that might make sense to you; after all, it’s what the Washington Post suggested too. Though you might be left to consider whether the Posteditorial board likewise shares Oren’s view that journalists who ask questions about Israel’s actions are responsible for the bloodshed.


CounterSpin has talked about US media coverage of Gaza many times over the years. It’s not true that nothing’s changed, but it’s remarkable how much has not.

In July of 2006, we talked with James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, and co-founder, with James Abourezk, of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. His 1975 book Palestinians: The Invisible Victims has just been republished with Mondoweiss.

A month before we spoke with Zogby, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas militants. He was later released in a prisoner exchange. This is James Zogby, from 2006:

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James Zogby

James Zogby: “You have what amounts to a prison camp. People are free to roam around the yard…but they cannot go out freely, do business and live a regular life.”

James Zogby: I think that generally the problems in the US are a function of how we have, in our broader culture, come to perceive the conflict as one being Israeli humanity confronting a problem. The problem is always seen in an objectified, not very personal, way.

We know the name of the soldier. We even had, in a couple of articles, the names of the soldiers who were killed at the checkpoint when Shalit was kidnapped. But we don’t know the names of any of the Palestinians who were victims, and have never seen stories, really, about them. And so there’s a sense of a very personal conflict that Israel is facing, versus an impersonalized political problem that Arabs have to “get over” so that Israel can live in peace.

And everything else flows from that. There’s an asymmetry not only in power—Israel’s got power; Palestinians don’t—but an asymmetry in compassion: Israel suffers and Palestinians don’t.

Janine Jackson: And it’s true the media coverage seems to be all about timeline and “who started it?” and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the timeline virtually always seems to start with a Palestinian action to which to which Israel “responds.” And also, the timeline doesn’t go back very far. In your recent column on Gaza, widely circulated on the web, you talk about some of the relevant history of Gaza that many people may never have known. Can you tell us a little about that history?

JZ: Gaza is one of the most depressed areas on Earth. It is one of the most highly congested areas in the world. And with 80 percent of the population living today at the poverty level, 80 percent of young people, never had a job and no prospect of a job, when the single largest source of wealth in Gaza was day labor jobs in Israel, and they’ve now been replaced by civil service jobs, because that was the only way that the PA [Palestinian Authority] could absorb those young, unemployed men, and they are now not being paid, you have an economic basket case.

Compounding that is the fact that because Israel has maintained off-again and on-again closure of Gaza since the early ‘90s, but has, since the election of Hamas, intensified that closure, even after they so-called “withdrew” from Gaza—they withdrew from the interior of Gaza, but maintained their fortifications and their strangling of Gaza, land, sea and air—the result is that you have what amounts to a prison camp. People are free to roam around the yard, they can get occasional gifts from outsiders and visits from international visitors, but they cannot go out freely, do business and live a regular life.

This is not only an economically distressed area, it’s not only suffering from shortages of food, fuel and medicines, but there also are tremendous psychological problems that are developing, as people are hemmed in to a very small area and have been hemmed in—literally, for their entire lives—without gainful employment. It’s a nightmare, and you’re right, absent the history, what started it all is that the prisoners did something bad. Why they’re in prison, how this all developed, that Israel has shown no intention of loosening their grip on Gaza, none of that is reported. And frankly, history could have been very different, but never got a chance.

JJ: It’s interesting, your point on last year’s “kind of” withdrawal, because the flavor you might get from US coverage was that Israel redeployed from Gaza last year, and that was kind of a gift that the Palestinians have squandered.

JZ: Israel’s ability to control the narrative, to start the story where they want to start it, has been, I think, very significant in all of this. The reason why it’s “Israeli humanity versus the Arab problem” is from the very beginning, I mean, the earliest years, Israel portrayed this as—as one leading spokesperson called it decades ago—”the forces of civilization confronting barbarism.” It stuck. “When it was tiny, Israel declared its independence in ’48, and was attacked by its surrounding neighbors.” It stuck. All the way up to “Barak made the best deal ever and Arafat rejected it and turned to violence,” and it stuck. As we learn in the play Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss, when the people hear it over and over again, they believe it.

Palestinians, not accustomed to telling their story, but believing that justice is on their side and people ought to “get it,” have been victims, I think, of the fact that they’ve not engaged in the West to tell their story, and to project their storyline, so that history doesn’t begin whenever the Israelis say it begins, with the Israeli victims responding to the Palestinian attack. I mean, that’s how the Israelis want to tell the story, but frankly, the Palestinians could tell another one, and they just never get a chance to do it.

Haaretz: Who Started?

Haaretz (7/9/06)

JJ: Let me ask you, finally and briefly, it’s always interesting and disconcerting to us how much more critical of Israel the Israeli press seems capable of being than the US press, and I’m thinking of a recent piece in Haaretz by Gideon Levy, in which he said, “There is no violence worse than the violence of the occupier…so the question about who fired first is therefore an evasion meant to distort the picture.” I think many Americans would be shocked that that perspective is aired openly in Israel.

JZ: Back in the 1970s, I used to distribute the translations from the Hebrew press to a network of people, when I was running the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. And I learned as early as back then that you get far more debate in Israel than you do here, and far more debate in Israel than you certainly get in the Jewish community here, far more debate in the Knesset than you get in the US Congress. And the result of that is that the forces in Israel who want peace don’t get support from their counterparts in the United States, because we end up supporting the hardest line, the most reactionary positions. And those courageous journalists and peace activists in Israel never get any support from us because, frankly, their counterparts in the US, in the liberal wing of the Democratic party, are so blinded—either by fear, willed ignorance (just not wanting to know about it) or because they actually believe the crap they read in the American press—they don’t do anything.

JJ: That was author James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institutetalking with CounterSpin in 2006.


In November 2012, Israel was pounding Gaza with drone missiles and artillery. At the time, CounterSpin spoke with Yousef Munayyer, then director of the Jerusalem Fund, now executive director of the coalition US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. This is Yousef Munayyer, talking with CounterSpin‘s Steve Rendall in November of 2012 

Yousef Munayyer

Yousef Munayyer: “The media reflect US interests and US policy, which has always been to favor stability through the use of force.”

Yousef Munayyer: Yeah, well, it’s very difficult to talk about, “Where does it all end?” when we don’t really understand where it all began. And the problem with the United States media, and I think it’s not just the United States media, but particularly in the United States, is that this is not an important issue in the United States media priorities until it is at crisis point, like it is now, when people start paying attention. But when you only pay attention at crisis point, you lose all the nuance and the context and the history that led up to this, that are vital for understanding what the problems are, and consequently how to solve them.

And so I think that to have a discussion about how to move forward, and how to fix these issues, we need to have a much better understanding of the genesis of these issues, of the underlying causes and factors for Palestinian discontent, for us to understand how to resolve it. And unfortunately, I think it’s just the nature of our media, that is far more concerned with spending endless TV hours on the salacious affairs of military generals than talking about the serious problems that affect people around the world.

I think that the coverage is extremely slanted towards the Israeli perspective. I think that’s slightly improved over time, but [it’s] still largely in favor of the Israeli narrative. And I think the proof of that is that when Israeli citizens are not being bombarded with rocketfire from Gaza, there’s no coverage of events that are continuing to take place because of Israeli incursions and violations in the Gaza Strip. It is only when Israelis are put under a difficult situation that the US media start to pay attention. And so, because of that, we really lose perspective here, as viewers and as readers and as a general audience of US media.

And of course, to your point, this is not a war. You know, this is by many been covered as a war between Israel and Hamas. This is not a war; this is not two armies or two states battling against each other. This is a domestic problem where the Israelis are oppressing violently the dissent of Palestinians who are demanding their rights from a state that does not want to give it to them. And we need to put it in that context to really understand what’s going on. Unfortunately, in the world of two-minute soundbites and whatnot, it’s not conducive to proper understanding of an extremely nuanced situation, whose genesis is 64 years in the past.

Steve Rendall: I mentioned at the top the regional political changes, and there’s been some funny discussion in US media about those changes. NBC news correspondent Andrea Mitchell, in what could be described as an awkward moment of candor, stated, “So you don’t have a reliable dictator or a totalitarian leader in Egypt, whom the United States can do military-to-military and diplomatic relations with.” She was lamenting the fact that there’s no longer an Egyptian dictator to help the US and Israel manage the “Palestinian problem.” What does that tell you about the American media?

YM: I think she, along with policymakers in Washington, are also lamenting the loss of dictators throughout the region to help them manage the Palestinian problem. What that means is that the media reflect US interests and US policy, which has always been to favor stability through the use of force, and the imposition of dictators throughout the region, without concern for the popular will.

And it is particularly clear in the Palestinian case, where you see the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people being denied so long as there are friendly allies of the United States willing to cooperate in denying them. And I think until we’re able to talk about those legitimate grievances as, in fact, security issues, then we’re not going to realize the impact that that has.

We cannot keep just saying, “We’re going to keep them under wraps.” It’s just not going to work. I think the Arab Spring has proven that that’s just not going to work.  I think what this has shown us in Gaza is that, as much as the Israelis might want the Palestinians to go away, they’re not going to go away. And you have to start dealing with them as human beings, as equals, for there to be a just solution to this issue, because the use of force is simply not going to work.

New Yorker: When the Smoke Clears in Gaza

New Yorker (11/19/12)

SR: In your New Yorker piece, you seem to think that the time for a two-state solution is passing, or has passed. In the remaining time, I wonder if you could talk about what possible good solutions might be available?

YM: Look, there are flaws to every solution. I don’t think a one-state outcome or a two-state outcome are perfect, and I don’t think we’re going to have a perfect solution. But the bottom line is, a solution that’s going to work is the one that comes closest, the closest approximation to justice for the largest number of stakeholders involved.

And, unfortunately, the two-state solution is no longer able to provide that, if it ever was. The continued expansion of Israeli colonies on Palestinian territory has made the process for peace a process of turning Palestine into little dismembered pieces. The possibility of a Palestinian state emerging there, I believe, is beyond the realm of geographic and physical possibility.

So we need to start thinking about what other outcomes—within a one-state framework—can provide for an approximation of justice for the largest number of stakeholders possible. The first step is having that discussion. Then we can start talking about policies that will move us in that direction. But it’s about time to have that discussion.

Janine Jackson: That was Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, in 2012.


And let’s give the last word for now to Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of, among other titles, Understanding the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict.  We spoke with her last month, at the beginning of the Great Return march. I asked her about NPR‘s characterization of events: “Tens of thousands of people in Gaza answered the militant group Hamas’s call to protest.”

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Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis: “The idea that this was somehow called by Hamas is simply not true.”

Phyllis Bennis: It’s extraordinary. That was picked up all over the place, that Hamas was somehow the originator of this thing. It wasn’t. This was Palestinian civil society in Gaza, which is very vibrant, despite the horrific conditions, where 97 percent of the small amount of water that’s available is undrinkable, electricity is only available between two and four hours a day, the sewage system has never been rebuilt after the 2014 assault by the Israeli military, with the result that the beaches have been fouled. It’s a horrific catastrophe of humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and yet there are these very vibrant social movements and organizations, women’s organizations, trade unions, youth organizations, sports clubs…. All of these were involved in calling for this protest.

The protest organizers asked for endorsement and support from all the political parties, and got it. They all signed on: Fatah, Hamas, all of them. And because Hamas controls—to whatever degree it exists, which isn’t much—but to the degree to which a governing structure exists in Gaza, it is controlled by Hamas. They’re the ruling party. They won the elections in 2006. And in that context, they provided bus availability to get people to the area where the protests were happening, that sort of thing; but the idea that this was somehow called by Hamas is simply not true.

Hamas rarely calls for this kind of mass protest, largely because they don’t control it. And there’s a lot of discontent in Gaza with Hamas, as with Fatah, in the context of the much greater anger at Israel, for the years of occupation and siege and this long-standing blockade that’s been underway, that prevents Palestinians from having a functioning economy, from having clean water, from being able to travel, from being able to escape from what many around the world have called an “open-air prison.”

B'Tselem: Sorry Sir, I Cannot Shoot

B’Tselem ad: “Sorry Sir, I Cannot Shoot”

I think what is important right now, and what’s not getting enough attention, is the fact that Israeli human rights organizations, one in particular, B’Tselem, the very respected, longstanding human rights group inside Israel, started a campaign yesterday that is absolutely unprecedented. In a set of ads around the country, they are calling on Israeli soldiers to deliberately resist orders to shoot to kill.

They’ve used the term “patently illegal” to describe these orders to shoot anyone approaching the fence, and the reason that that phrase is so important, it has a particular history in Israeli military law. In 1956, there was another massacre of Palestinians in a village called Kafr Qasim, very well-known massacre site, and on that occasion, the village had been put under a sudden curfew by the military, with virtually no announcement, and the border patrol agents were told by their commanders, “Shoot to kill anyone who comes outside his home or her home,” and the border police went along with that, and they fired and they killed 47 Palestinians. These were Israeli Palestinians. This was inside Israel, in 1956.

And at that time there was a legal challenge, and the judges found that the order to shoot was what they called “patently illegal,” and they went on to define what that meant, in saying that what the soldiers were essentially trying to use was the Nuremberg defense: “I was just following orders.” And the judges said, that’s not OK, and that an order that is patently illegal must be disobeyed, and they described what that means, saying, and I’m quoting the judges here, Israeli judges:

We’re not dealing with a formal, hidden or not, illegality, not one seen only by scholars of law, but a clear and obvious illegality, a certain and essential illegality of the order itself, an illegality which pierces the eye and enrages the heart, assuming the eye is not blind and the heart is not made of stone or corrupt.

It was an extraordinary, almost poetic description of how outrageous and how obviously illegal this order was: “Kill anybody outside their home in their own village,” you know? The same way, the idea that you can shoot anybody who approaches the border fence on their own side of the border, when no one is at risk, there is no danger to life, there is no mortal threat, which is the only basis on which live fire can be used—it’s patently illegal, and using that term is a very important one.

Now, the sad reality is that neither B’Tselem nor the other brave Israeli human rights organizations have very much influence these days, as the political discourse inside Israel has moved so far to the right, unfortunately particularly among young people. But it is important for the international community that Israeli human rights defenders themselves are actually calling on their own soldiers to defy these illegal orders. That puts the human rights activists themselves, at B’Tselem, at great risk. And their willingness to take that risk, of isolation at the very least, if not potential legal consequences, it speaks to how serious this set of violations is, and speaks to the obligation of the international community to answer it.

JJ: That was Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, talking with CounterSpin last month.


In an interview with Vox, Yousef Munayyer cited a New York Times op-ed written by a Palestinian in Gaza, explaining why he goes to protest, even though he has a family he loves and values his own life. “I go,” wrote Fadi Abu Shammalah, “because I hope that there is a chance that change can come, and that my children don’t have to live the difficult life that we live. And that is worth risking my life for.”

NYT: Why I March in Gaza

New York Times (4/27/18)


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