Gaza in Real Time: Geopolitics vs Genocide
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 6 Nov 2023
31 Oct 2023 – A modified version of this interview conducted by Daniel Falcone, with a long introduction, was published online in Truthout on 29 Oct 2023. The situation in Gaza and its increasingly regional implications grow more humanly distressing and politically menacing with each passing day. Israel has succeeded in influencing the Global West and its corporate main media platforms to accept two interpretations of events following the Oct 7 Hamas attack that are at best highly contentious and controversial and, in my understanding, deeply misleading and distorting:
- that Hamas is nothing other than a group of terrorists engaged in barbaric crimes, and should be addressed in the same manner as ISIS and Al-Qaeda;
- that it is legitimate in such a conflict to override normal rules of international law, even to the extent of engaging in genocidal means of ethnic cleansing.
In my view it is truer to the realities of its existence and behavior to regard Hamas as a political actor, freely elected and in charge of administering Gaza since 2007 despite an Israeli blockade and a pattern of punitive harassment.
Israel from the perspective of international law remains the Occupying Power in Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and as such is bound by the 4th Geneva Convention governing Belligerent Occupation. As a result it has extra legal obligations to protect the Occupied People and although entitled to maintain its security by reasonable means. It has no valid basis for claiming self-defense as if Hamas was a foreign entity.
Israel’s ‘politics of deflection,’ induce its own and world public opinion to overlook the true motivations and goals of Israel in mounting this genocidal response to the Hamas attack. The attack should be further contextualized by reference to the behavior of the extremist Netanyahu government that took over at the beginning of 2023, making issues other than the vengeful retaliation seem more illuminating: Given Israel tactics as articulated by its leaders, especially Netanyahu and Gallant, the behavior is not primarily about countering the Oct 7 attack. In other words it is less about restoring Israeli security than it is devoted to the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. If security was the core concern in the aftermath of October 7, would not Israel have emphasized its all out effort to correct the gaps revealed by the failure of its surveillance capabilities to warn and its military border strength to protect?
Don’t other find it strange that the most obvious, least disruptive Israeli response would have been to restore its own border security with a sense of urgency, negotiating a prisoner exchange for the hostages, and agreeing to a long-term ceasefire with Hamas, which has been proposing for almost a decade?
- Can you talk about how misinformation and propaganda serves as an extra arm to overall the Israeli military policy?
FALK: Israel has long been a master of what is called in Hebrew hasbara, that is the spinning, manipulating, and distorting of public discourse so that it either justifies what Israel is doing or diverts attention from the message of critics and skeptics to the supposedly questionable credibility of the messenger. ‘The weaponizing of antisemitism’ is a cynical example of the deployment of hasbara stratagems designed solely to deflect criticism and shift the conversation to persons falsely accused.. Smearing reputable critics and discrediting objective criticism of Israel by giving voice to irresponsible allegations of hatred of Jews that is known by the Zionist apologists to be untrue is reflective of the hasbara mentality. The hasbara mission is to shield Israel from its critics, regardless of whether the criticisms are accurate or not. The quality of hasbara discourse is not evaluated by their truthfulness, but solely by their effectiveness in changing the subject to an attack mode and inflicting a discrediting, undeserved punishment on their target. Such diversionary maneuvers are undertaken whenever substantive arguments in Israel’s defense are weak or non-existent.
Asa Winstanley has written a powerful book on years of defamatory attacks on political figures or activist citizens who spoke positively about the Palestinian struggle in the UK and advocated that initiatives be taken to put pressure on Israel in influential opinion-forming venues or by way of activism as in the BDS Campaign. Winstanley compiles evidence showing that these tactics were being strongly and materially encouraged by Israeli officials and even subsidized by government money. The book carefully narrates the well-orchestrated campaign to destroy Jeremy Corbyn as a credible political leader of the Labour Party by widely disseminating knowingly false intimations of antisemitism of his part. [Winstanley, Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn, (OR Books, 2023)].
Happening to know Jeremy Corbyn I can testify to his absolute acceptance and affirmation of the Jewish people, and his criticisms of Israel are directed at the objectional nature of their apartheid policies and practices, which have been confirmed in elaborate, documented reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The only reasonable conclusion is that hasbara ethos, fully embraced by Israel’s political leaders and pro-Israel lobbying groups around the world is ‘anti-truth,’ and not just ‘post-truth’ in the pre-modern sense of relying on beliefs more than empirical evidence.
Perhaps, as formidable as are these actual attacks on individuals or institutions are the intimidating secondary impacts on the mainstream media and public atmosphere to the effect that any public manifestations of pro-Palestinian views and acts of solidarity will be stigmatized and harmful to individuals in the workplace or social settings. Many persons are made reluctant to take public stands critical of Israel because fearful of Zionist pushbacks.
University administrators, at best a timid lot, withhold funds and even discourage the sponsorship of campus events opposed by unscrupulous pro-Zionist groups and individuals, including apolitical cultural gatherings deemed in some sense to be anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. It would seem that the motivations for such mounting such hostile pressures is the belief that cultural expression humanizes ‘the enemy’ and renders less tenable the use of the terrorist label to dismiss Palestinian grievances. Wealthy individuals are aware of this sensitivity, and exert donor influence to achieve desired results with an overtness that erodes freedom of expression and rights of dissent in the midst of an ugly political confrontation, which calls for free discussion and a social atmosphere where dissident views are respected.
I have a young relative living in New York City who tells me that even her silence about current events in Gaza is interpreted by her Jewish friends as a covert criticism of Israel, and a colleague in the West who opposes what Israel is doing but keeps his mouth shut because it will harm his business relationships. As much as we in universities complain, we generally do enjoy the benefits of academic freedom not available in the corporate world, and so we have mostly ourselves to blame for not acting as citizens of conscience who express their beliefs rather than keep our true views closeted.
Although in academic settings, the last few weeks have seen university administrators run scared, and impose regulations that prohibit shows of support for Palestinian struggle amid some reports of threats against Jewish students. Given the unscrupulous tactics of hasbara practitioners suspicion about the source of such threats, but given what is happening in Gaza it would be irresponsible o ignore them. After 9/11 an atmosphere of Islamophobia existed in the Global West, but it evoked little concern and what may be more relevant, no donor or community pressures.
The principal point is that the distorting impacts of manipulating the news are not just the spontaneous work of Zionist enthusiasts associated with NGOs and Jewish advocacy and lobbying organizations., They follow a deliberate effort by the most influential Israeli think tanks and the highest levels Israeli officialdom to influence, confuse, and if possible, shape public discourse. When in 2001 the International Criminal Court’s decision authorizing investigations of well-grounded Palestinian complaints about Israeli war crimes post-2014 the technical arguments advanced by lawyers on jurisdiction attracted far less public interest than the outburst by Netanyahu that the ICC decision was a display of ‘pure antisemitism.’
Israeli strategic think tanks have long understood that controlling the main arenas of public discourse are as important as battlefield results and military capabilities, including intelligence. As Israel’s regional security have weakened over the years, hasbara has assumed an ever growing strategic importance in the conduct of Israeli foreign policy, which includes obscuring territorial expansionism and intensification of settler violence in the West Bank. This behavior has become more widely appreciated in the one-sided presentations and reactions to the current orgy of violence in Gaza unleashed by Israel after the Hamas attack, especially the defiant rejection of humanitarian claims by Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant, Minister of Defense.
Both rely on false analogies between ISIS and All Qaeda to underpin their claim that their war is similar to that launched by the US after 9/11 against terrorism and for the sake of security or more absurdly, to the US response against the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the while ignoring the elephant in the room, that the Hamas attack only occurred because of a barely believable lapse in Israeli security. It would not require a PhD to grasp the fact that Israeli security and reputation would have been dramatically enhanced by so responding, and in the process do something constructive in the face of Palestinian grievances and frustrations. This, of course, was not to be in part because this incredibly violent response, as barbaric, if not more so, than the events of October 7, serves other purposes, above all Israeli objectives of seizing land and dispossessing people.
Four elements differentiate Israeli hasbara from standard forms of pro-war state propaganda in periods of intense conflict:
- Unscrupulous tactics to discredit views perceived as hostile consisting of lies, defamation, and subsidized campaigns;
- greater sophistication, including seeking the deflection of criticism by recourse to false allegations and misleading analogies rather than genuine efforts to defend policies under attack;
- abundant public and private funding of Zionist anti-truth messaging, lobbying, and lawfare to win support and destroy adversaries;
- an insistence that it is a justification of the Hamas attack to bring up the context of Palestinian long-term and recently acute victimization, which was the sin of Guterres, met with Israeli calls for his resignation.
Only during the height of the Cold War were criticisms of the American early role in Vietnam met with discrediting responses that such views were tacit endorsements of Communism and disloyal. By and large, efforts to oppose the latter stages of the Vietnam War or to support BDS as part of an anti-apartheid South Africa campaign were opposed by conservatives as impractical or inconsistent with foreign policy priorities, but not giving rise to punitive witch hunts that have been the experience of critics and activists supporting non-violent pro-Palestinian. initiatives. Nor did the governments of South Vietnam or South Africa get seriously involved in shaping the public dialogue within the United States on nearly the scale or style that Israel and its civil society ardent and well-funded Zionist infrastructure have in the main urban sectors of the Jewish global diaspora.
- For those who rely on local and national news outlets, and for people who just started watching television coverage in recent weeks, how prevalent do you suspect the “both sides are at fault” account for the casual viewer with this war? And where can non-specialists go to find the context and explanations of the ongoing asymmetries with Gaza and Israel?
This is an important observation and question. In my mind to blame ‘both sides’ in contexts of asymmetrical responsibility such as exists between Jews and Palestinians is to consciously and unconsciously divert attention from the essential hierarchical structure of oppression and subjugation, which is the core reality confronting Palestinians. This is especially true for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since 1967 or even longer in the refugee camps of neighboring countries,, and to a somewhat lesser extent characterizing the lives of Palestinians living as Israeli citizens within ‘the green line’ since 1948.
Blaming both sides is also a comfort zone for those who are insufficiently informed or uncomfortable about adopting a controversial position. It makes a pretense of accepting the mainstream media orientation, which purports to be objective, proving it by stressing the diversionary argument that both sides are to blame for the failure of the 1993 Oslo Diplomatic Framework to result in Palestinian statehood, the disappointment with the peace process in general, and even the outbreak of violence. For years Israeli leaders and Zionist militants complained that Israel had ‘no partner’ in the diplomatic search for peace, when it was evident that Israel wanted supremacy and expansion more than it wanted peace and security, The Abraham Accords gave rise to the delusion that they could have both.
I find it to be an insidious line of argument or reasoning if applied to a grossly asymmetric conflict of the sort that has lasted a hundred years in relation to the contested, evolving future of Palestine as a continuous struggle between the indigenous residents and the colonizing immigrants. It has falsely situated the locus of responsibility for a continuation of the prolonged tragic experience of the dispossessed and subjugated Palestinian people as well as facilitating Israel’s continuous settlement expansion, territorial ambitions, and contribution to the creation of conditions that over time have situated the attainment of Palestinian rights and aspirations well beyond horizons of realistic hope.
It has been dramatically illustrated in liberal circles addressing the interaction between the Hamas attack and the Israel provocation and response. By characterizing Hamas as ‘terrorists’ with no credibility as representatives of the victimized Palestinian people, and Israel as the democratic government understandably overreacting in its Gaza attack in the spirit of a traumatized victim ‘both sides’ can be blamed, although in this instance in a manner perversely oblivious to the long Palestinian experience of Israeli state terrorism under the umbrella of its international role as Occupying Power.
To find accounts sensitive to the asymmetries between Israel and Palestine is not a simple matter. There are several authors who have distinguished over time between the two sides in terms of crucial issues. I would recommend the reports of UN Special Rapporteurs for Occupied Palestine, especially the two more recent ones, Francesca Albanese and her predecessor, Michael Lynk. Their illuminating reports can be found on the website of the UN Human Rights Council covering the last seven years.
For more reflective perspectives over a longer time period it might be helpful to consult Richard Falk, John Dugard, and Michael Lynk, Protecting Human Rights in Occupied Palestine: Working Through the United Nations (Clarity, 20223). For a crucial depiction of historical background of the asymmetric and hierarchical relationship between the two peoples, I highly recommend the writings of Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (One World Oxford, 2008); for a fictional depiction of this relationship see the novels of Susan Abulhawa, especially Mornings In Jenin (Bloomsbury USA, 2010).
- Could you explain the bombing of the Gazan hospital? Norman Finkelstein has cited the overwhelming evidence that points to the Israeli targeting of ambulances. What is your take on the hospital bombing?
Given the pattern of Israel’s indiscriminate and disproportionate bombing, as well as the targeting of UN buildings, medical facilities, including ambulances, and schools, it is only natural to assume that the bomb dropped on al-Ahli Hospital was part of an Israeli attack, a perception reinforced by Israel’s consistent reliance on faked evidence in the past to evade atrocity allegations. My inclination is to hold Israel responsible for such a hospital strike as its forced displacement and lack of respect for civilian innocence has pervaded its behavior since the Hamas attack, and created a situation where such incidents happen by accident or design. The issue of intentionality measures the depravity involved, but it does not by itself resolve issues of legal and moral responsibility for specific acts.
As of now there is no definitive account of the facts surrounding the case of the al-Ahli bombing. There are conflicting views, reflecting broader alignments, as to whether the damage was done by an Israeli bomb or a Hamas/Islamic Jihad rocket mishap. In such circumstances, we my never know for sure what caused the lethal explosion but does it really matter. If trains carrying Jews to Nazi death camps collided and killed many of the passengers would it be fruitful to inquire into whether the accident was part of the Holocaust or something else?
- What are your thoughts on proportionality as a guideline in war regarding this conflict? How many human rights violations has Israel incurred just in the last week in terms of the overall big picture? What does global opinion suggest about Israel’s actions in the conflict, all done in the name of self-defense?
This is quite a bundle of international law questions. The overarching claim of self-defense is both of questionable relevance to specific charges of war crimes or broad contentions of collective punishment, unconditionally prohibited by the 4th Geneva Convention Governing Belligerent Occupation. But there is a prior question about the legal applicability of ‘self-defense. From the perspective of the UN and international law Gaza (as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem) are Occupied Territories subject to the constraints of international humanitarian law. Israel as the Occupying Power is entitled to take reasonable steps to main its security (that can be considered a practical equivalent to the frequent affirmation of ‘Israel right to defend itself’), but Israel has no legally distinct right of self-defense against an administrative actor and political movement operating totally within territory it occupies by international writ, such as Hamas that is not the government of another sovereign state.
Its October 7th attack on Israeli territory certainly qualifies as terrorism by its modes of enactment, although as a political undertaking it possessed a hybrid character, as besides the criminality of its action on the ground it was a long provoked act of resistance to Israeli crimes associated with its failure to comply with the provisions of Geneva IV, including the protection of civilians living under occupations and the various prohibitions safeguarding the land and societal rights of an occupied people.
The legal constraint of proportionality and discriminate targeting are universally considered to be valid rules of international customary law but have functioned even in modern times more as admonitions than strictly implemented legal constraints, giving way in combat zones to self-justifying of contentions of military necessity.
Israel’s persistent bombing of residential areas and civilian targets, given the precision of modern weaponry at its disposal, seems to amount to war crimes, and as applied to the densely populated demography of Gaza deserves to be treated as a species of collective punishment, especially in conjunction with the blockade imposed since 2007. In the current phase of violence in Gaza the bombing is reinforced by the forced evacuation order applicable to half the population and by the siege decree cutting the delivery of food, water, fuel, and electricity to the whole of Gaza, a policy widely viewed as ‘genocide,’ The accompanying language used by Yoav Gallant, Israel’s Minister of Defense, in decreeing the siege that described Palestinians as ‘human animals’ that deserve to be treated accordingly certainly strengthens and grounds the accusations of genocide. Leaving aside Gallant’s slurred regressive reference to animals this is a clear instance of genocidal language by a highly placed Israeli official, made more authoritative as reflective of the views of the Israel’s government because such language has been neither qualified or withdrawn.
The Israeli order of ‘forced displacement’ within 24 hours of 1.1 million Gazans from their place of residence in northern Gaza to the southern part of Gaza is itself a most serious and cruel. example of collective punishment and a distinct wrong, constituting a gross crime against humanity aggravated by being implemented while the siege and blockade persists, and the prospect dims of allowing those displaced to return to their homes after the end of the military operation.
- How aware is Israel of the varied perceptions of conducting this war and how does that factor into their decision making?
Israel has long been cynical and opportunistic in its approach to international law as has been the United States. Both countries invoke international law and moral outrage when it helps validate their bellicose allegations or justify their own controversial behavior. Israel defies international law, or treats it as irrelevant, when it goes against its policies and practices, and refuses to act in compliance with international law or show respect for UN authority. This lawlessness has been a prominent feature of its administration of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza since the IDF occupied Palestinian territories in 1967, most routinely through the continuous expansion of unlawful settlements and the imposition of multiple form of collective punishment, culminating in apartheid, and now in Gaza with the siege, forced displacement, and systemic bombing of civilians and their places of shelter.
Until now Israel has managed to get away with such behavior mainly because it enjoys the unwavering political support of the United States, EU, and other countries. Israel’s diplomacy has managed through its military prowess and political skill to neutralize hostile action by most of its Arab neighbors, including many countries in the Global South, and shift their security away from Israel due to the common threats attributed to Iran. This normalizing dynamic, which has proceeded by way of pushing Palestinian grievances further and further into the background, has now been disrupted, perhaps forever. If Israel persists with its current policy in Gaza, demonstrations around the world will be enlarged and radicalized, exerting increased pressure on governments to act responsively, particularly in the Middle East, despite risks of a wider war involving Iran growing by the day, with potentially disastrous consequences.
On October 18th Biden delivered a dangerously arrogant speech that overlooked numerous experiences of American frustration and political defeat since the Vietnam War, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. The speech reaffirmed the global role of the United States as leader of the ‘democratic’ forces of good in the historic battle against ‘autocratic’ forces of terrorist evil, referencing Hamas and Putin. With no show of humility Biden ended his talk with these history-defying words reaffirming ‘American exceptionalism’ at one of its darkest hours:
“In moments like these, we have to remind — we have to remember who we are. We are the United States of America. The United States of America. And there is nothing, nothing beyond our capacity, if we do it together.”
Indeed, we do have to remember who we really are and realize that when we act together, we may pose to others, and ourselves, the greatest danger the world has ever faced. The U.S. Senate shockingly voted 97-0 last week as the tragedy for the people of Gaza daily unfolds and the House of Representatives voted one-sidedly promising Israel ‘no strings’. diplomatic backing along with assurances that funds for weaponry will be available as needed.
Richard Falk is a Jewish member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London, Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.
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