Podcast / Start Making Sense / Oct 19, 2023

Gaza and Us: Amy Wilentz

On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, a conversation about Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinians.

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Gaza and Us: Amy Wilentz | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Israel and Gaza, Hamas and the Palestinians, war crimes and mideast history: On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, we have comment and analysis from Amy Wilentz, Nation contributor and former Jerusalem correspondent of The New Yorker.

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Israeli soldier at border near gaza

An Israeli soldier walks past a destroyed house in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the border with Gaza, on October 11, 2023.

(Menahem Kahana / Getty)

Israel and Gaza, Hamas and the Palestinians, war crimes, and Middle East history: On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, we have commentary and analysis from Amy Wilentz, Nation contributor and former Jerusalem correspondent of The New Yorker.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

American Origins of the Israel – Palestine Conflict, plus Climate Hope | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

The most important event in the history of Israel and Palestine was not the 1948 founding of Israel and the Nakba, or Israel’s 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories. It was the outlawing of immigration of Jews (and others) to the US from Russia, Poland, and Eastern and Southern Europe. That was the purpose of the immigration restriction act passed by Congress in May, 1924, 100 years ago this month. Without that, the Jews of Europe would never have moved to Palestine, Harold Meyerson argues.

Also: The New Yorker’s award-winning climate writer Elizabeth Kolbert talks about her fascinating new book, “H is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z.’”

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation Magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. We have to talk about Israel, Hamas, Gaza, and the Palestinians. Amy Wilentz will comment – in a minute. 

 [BREAK]

For comment and analysis, we turn to Amy Wilentz. She’s The New Yorker’s former Jerusalem correspondent and the author of Martyrs’ Crossing, a novel about the Oslo peace process in Jerusalem in the mid-nineties, among other books. She’s written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Nation where she’s a longtime contributing editor. She’s also a 2020 Guggenheim fellow and she teaches in the literary journalism program at UC Irvine. Amy, welcome back.

Amy Wilentz: Thank you so much, Jon.

JW: We are taping this conversation on what is Tuesday night in Israel and Gaza. This is before Biden’s trip there on Wednesday. As of Tuesday, Israel has killed more than 3,000 people in Gaza, left more than 12,500 wounded. And we are recording this the day that reports in The New York Times say Israel bombed the hospital in Gaza City, killing how many people?

AW: More than 500.

JW: And what would you like to see happen now after the bombing of the hospital?

AW: Well, I think it’s time for Israel to stop and think rather than react emotionally. And that may be hard with someone like Netanyahu at the head of the country, but I think they should cease fire immediately. Stop the bombings. I think they should open up passage for humanitarian aid in large quantities, contributing perhaps themselves to that humanitarian aid. I think they should contribute medical aid immediately. They should bring heavy vehicles to the border with Gaza so that the Palestinians can begin cleaning up rubble and getting to victims of the bombings. They should do all the humanitarian things that are correct in an attempt to rescue themselves from the debacle they’re now putting forward.

JW: And of course, Israel is still reeling from the toll of the Hamas attacks on October 7th. It’s now 1,400 dead, at least 3,300 wounded, 289 of the dead were soldiers, the rest civilians. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are holding hostage something like 199 soldiers and civilians including some foreign nationals. You wanted to say something about the hostages?

AW: Well, I think it’s important to think about the hostages when you look at what Israel is doing in Gaza right now. The families of the hostages aren’t very happy that their hostages are being bombed along with the entire Palestinian civilian population of Gaza and the Hamas perpetrators of the crimes. Theoretically, they’re all there in Gaza. So I think that they are an element that Israel usually considers very carefully like the soldier, I think his name is Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas for five years. And the Israelis did not bomb even a street in Gaza for him because they cared about his survival.

JW: And as you know, Israel has cut off food, water, medicine, and fuel to all of Gaza. More than 2 million people, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes. And now Biden, as we speak, is on his way to Israel as The New York Times said, the trip, “Ties Mr. Biden and the United States to the bloodshed in Gaza.” Doesn’t the trip seem like an endorsement of what Israel is about to do in its invasion of Gaza? Or could it be that Biden will be able to restrain them?

AW: Well, it feels like an endorsement. You don’t send aircraft carriers to the shores and then arrive yourself in the middle of a war without it seeming like an endorsement of Israel’s behaviors. But it of course depends on what you say publicly. If he is going to give even a public comment while he’s there, I mean, my guess is the attempt is to both restrain/calm Israel and also shore up support in the region where it can be found for some kind of refusal to accept further hostilities against Israel itself.

JW: You say the key is what Biden says when he gets there. He did say in a call on Saturday to the head of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, Biden said, “Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination.” And National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday on Face the Nation that it was critical that Israel, “Embrace the rule of law and the laws of war.” He specified that meant the protection of civilians and the protection of those people who are trying to get to safety as well as their ability to access food, water, medicine, shelter. “These things should be respected,” Sullivan said. So the United States is saying a lot of the right things, don’t you think?

AW: They seem to be speaking out of two sides of their mouths. They’re saying all of the right things if you consider Sullivan to be a spokesman, which he is, and they’re supporting Israel with military backup and Israel is doing what it’s doing. So how are the water and fuel and electricity and communications still cut off for those people, 1.1 million, if Israel has its way, people who are leaving northern Gaza in a flood, and how can they claim to be doing anything other than tormenting them and trying to kill them? And they bombed some of the convoys. I don’t know on purpose or not on purpose, but if you’re an army, you’re supposed to be able to see a convoy. And now if it’s true that Israel bombed this hospital, whether on purpose or not on purpose, I mean they’re attacking the people they’re telling to flee.

JW: And Biden was on 60 Minutes Sunday, he said, “I think it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza again.” But what do you think about Biden calling a new occupation of Gaza a mistake?

AW: You mean it’s a little small?

JW: Yes.

AW: But that seems to be what they’re doing. But when you come in on the ground, it feels like an occupation. One is a bombardment and the other is a possible occupation. I also feel like Gaza is occupied. So a new occupation is a concept. I mean, I understand that means a political occupation with international acknowledgement that that’s what you’re doing rather than just putting them in what is often referred to as an open-air prison.

So yeah, I think it would be a mistake for Israel. I think it’s a mistake for Israel to continue setting up a situation where the perennial enmity continues, and this can only be a cue for the Palestinians as a group, as opposed to just Hamas, to continue that kind of relationship.

JW: And I think it’s also important to notice that Biden is criticizing an occupation. He didn’t say it would be a mistake to invade, destroy, and then leave.

AW: Right. Which may be exactly what the Israelis are planning to do. I mean, I haven’t heard peep from them about rebuilding the rubble they have created on the ground. I mean, I have to say, while saying all of this, I just want to reiterate that October 7th was a hideous, disgusting display of inhumanity.

JW: Well, here’s a question Biden should ask Bibi Netanyahu. Once Israel achieves its goal of toppling Hamas, who will govern Gaza? I guess Netanyahu thinks he will.

AW: I have a suggestion. Hamas will govern it. You can topple it, you can kill it, but what creates it is still in place, especially after this attack on Gaza. I just think, I mean, I understand Israel’s anger in response to October 7th. The horror that they’re feeling is very real. And for the Israelis it’s very personal, but you have to think about your country and its future safety and not just about revenge. And this feels very much like revenge.

JW: Let’s talk about American politics for a minute. In Congress, 420 representatives, which of course is both Democrats and Republicans, signed a resolution supporting Israel condemning Hamas, not mentioning Palestinian civilians. Then there was a letter from leaders of the Progressive Congressional Caucus per Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan urging Biden to push for access to food and water in Gaza and ensure that Israel follows international law. That got only 55 signatures. And on Monday, a separate resolution calling for, “Immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine and calling for sending humanitarian aid to Gaza.” This one was led by Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and AOC, that one got a total of 13 signatures. This is after Israel has killed 3,000 people, or now maybe 3,500 people in Gaza, left more than 12,500 wounded, forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. 13 members of Congress say, that’s enough. Let’s stop now. 13 out of 435.

AW: 13 people are not pandering. So they’re not pandering to the Jewish block of contributors to campaigns who support Israeli policy no matter what. And the rest of them, I think are. They’re worried about their votes. I mean, Israel’s a longtime ally of the United States, but another concern I have is little things that seem very remote can explode in your face globally, as we saw when World War I began. You say that you will protect and defend no matter what, and then you’re in trouble when your ally behaves in an irresponsible way. And I think that the rapidity of Israel’s response and its cruel, capriciousness feels not that considered.

JW: Hamas, of course, knew this attack would provoke massive Israeli retaliation, certainly bombing and probably an Israeli ground invasion, maybe sustained occupation of the civilian population of Gaza. And Hamas knows it cannot protect the people of Gaza from Israeli retaliation. So what do you think is their strategy here? Why would provoking a massive Israeli attack on the civilians of Gaza be something that Hamas wanted?

AW: Well, I think they don’t care about protecting Palestinians right now. Their goal is longer. They want to embroil Israel in a terrible situation that can lead it down a path of destruction for the Israeli nation and getting it involved in an occupation of Gaza, a long and bloody occupation of Gaza, having it bomb hospitals. I’m not saying that Hamas is responsible for Israel bombing a hospital, that’s carrying it a little far, but bringing it in and attracting it by doing this terrible atrocity in the kibbutzim around Gaza, I think that draws Israel into an embroil where it loses all global support and that’s what they’d like to see, along with Hezbollah and Iran, certainly Syria.

JW: We’ve been told that the initial attack on October 7th was Israel’s 9/11, that underestimates the impact that percentage of the Israeli population killed that day is many times greater than 9/11. The methods of killing were far more personal and bloody taking those civilians hostages was especially terrible. But the 9/11 comparison does work in a couple of ways.

One is refusing to talk about the root cause of the attack, namely in this case, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Of course, the history here goes back to 1967 when Israel seized control of the West Bank and Gaza. And before that, of course, in 1948 when the new state expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Israel and many of its supporters simply deny the facts of the occupation. You wrote at thenation.com about the strange ability of Israelis to simply forget about the occupation and live as if Tel Aviv were Miami. I doubt there are any Palestinians on the West Bank or in Gaza who can forget about the occupation.

AW: Not many of them were invited to the Supernova rave that was under attack when Hamas came in on October 7th. That rave to me, it’s almost too tragic an example of how normalized Israelis feel around the occupation. They could be five or 10 miles out of Gaza and be conducting a rave, not considering what’s happening inside the fences and barriers that contain the population of Gaza under basically Israeli control. The idea that they were there is so amazing and an example of how Israelis behave around issues of the occupation except when it bursts forth in this kind of violent way.

JW: I’m sorry, but we need to take a short break here. We’ll be back in a minute.

[BREAK]

We’re back. We’ve been wondering how much support Hamas has among Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip. There’s been only one election in 2006 in Gaza and the West Bank. There was international monitoring of an election for the Palestinian assembly. Hamas did get a few more votes than Fatah, 44% for Hamas, 41% to Fatah.  I looked this up.  Hamas won most of the seats to the new Parliament. Fatah, just to remind people, was a secular socialist organization which had led the Palestinian movement for decades under Yasser Arafat. It was cooperating with the United States and Israel in the Oslo Accords, and Hamas was an Islamic fundamentalist movement that refused to recognize Israel, certainly not the Oslo Accords, and had been carrying out terror attacks against Israel for the previous five years.

And it was after those elections in 2006, in 2007, Hamas took control of Gaza, expelled Fatah. Neither the Palestinian authority nor Hamas has ever had an election since. So we really don’t know. Neither side wants Palestinians to vote, it seems like. There is a fascinating poll of Gaza conducted in July by an American institute. Let me just recite these findings because there’s nothing else like this. They found 62% of the people in Gaza wanted Hamas to maintain a ceasefire with Israel. Half agreed with the following proposal, Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. 70% of the people in Gaza supported a proposal that the Palestinian Authority should, “Send officials and security officers to Gaza to take over the administration there with Hamas giving up separate armed units.” 70% supported that 47% strongly agreed, and we’re told this is not a new view. This proposal has had majority supported Gaza since they first started asking this question in 2014.

This poll was conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy just led by among other people, Dennis Ross, who’s a famous negotiator of Mideast peace going back to the first Bush and then the Clinton administrations.

Let’s assume that this poll is sort of accurate. In July, a majority of the people of Gaza did not want a war and wanted the Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza, not Hamas. How do you think Israel’s war has changed that? Israel, of course, wants the Palestinians and Gaza to blame Hamas for provoking these attacks and to withdraw their support for Hamas.

AW: So the Palestinians are caught between dying because of the Israeli retaliation for what Hamas did, and being disloyal to Palestine by feeling or saying what the Israelis want them to feel or say. So they’re stuck. They know that the immediate cause of this bombardment was the Hamas action on October 7th. But they also know that the long picture is about the violence Israel has committed against them, as well as small but horrific strikes against Israel by various militants over the years. This one being the most bloody, most egregious and most horrendous.

So if I’m a mother in Gaza, I’m not feeling very warm toward the Israelis right now, but I would be extremely unhappy with Hamas for helping legitimize it, if you want to say that. I can’t even really answer your question other than to say it’s going to certainly make them feel more Palestinian, more alienated from Israel, angrier at Israel, whether it will make them also feel the same way about Hamas and who Hamas is loyal to. Is it loyal to the Palestinian people or is it loyal to its allies outside of Palestine? I don’t know how they’ll be analyzing that in the days to come. However, many of them are left to analyze.

JW: There’s no doubt that Israel can, if it wants to level Gaza City, kill more thousands of people, hunt down Hamas militants. The Israeli idea seems to be that the people of Gaza will learn that every suffering that Hamas inflicts on Israelis will be returned to them tenfold. And the Israelis believe that the Palestinians will, as a result, basically stop resisting the occupation once and for all. This is the Israeli plan right now. We’ll do this, we’ll be so harsh, we’ll be so terrible, they will once and for all agree to stop resisting. What do you think of the idea that Israel’s idea of crushing Hamas once and for all will solve this problem?

AW: Once and for all has to me a ring of genocide to it, especially looking at what’s happening right now. You starve them, you take away their fuel and their electricity and you bring in ground troops with an aerial bombardment. If you look at the photographs coming out of Gaza, I mean, putting to the side the human damage that we’re seeing, the architectural infrastructural damage that we’re seeing is an irrevocable symbol of what Israeli is planning for the Palestinians. And I say, and one always says, you knock them down, they come back stronger. You can’t uproot this kind of thing through violence. There has to be a political solution to it.

Of course, one has said this for years to the Israelis and their intransigence is pretty intense. We saw Yitzhak Rabin the least likely person to organize peace with the Palestinians doing just that and struck down by the Israeli right, the religious right in Israel, as they were working toward this. It’s always the right then the religious on both sides, and then people think Hamas is a left organization, but it’s not. It’s just an anti-colonial, anti-imperial organization. And these two have conspired against peace since I’ve been working in the Middle East, certainly, and since before.

JW: I want to talk about the Israeli politics as well as the American politics and the future of Netanyahu. He’s clearly responsible for the stunning failures of intelligence and military preparedness. He was already facing the biggest opposition ever seen in the history of Israel over his efforts to undermine the Supreme Court. Will Netanyahu now or soon face the blame for his failures? Here the 9/11 parallels are also worrying, George Bush, of course, was reelected after 9/11.

AW: Right. The United States is a big country. Not everyone was sitting in Washington and New York when 9/11 happened. Not everyone was fully aware of the Bush administration’s failure to address the problem before it knocked down buildings. But people knew what was going on in Israel with Netanyahu. It’s not that much bigger than New Jersey, Israel. He can’t hide. And he is under indictment. He knows that if he hasn’t got executive privilege, he could go to jail. So he’s holding on tight to that prime ministerial seat. And instead of doing what any decent person would do, which is resign in the face of what happened on October 7th or indeed taking responsibility. He hasn’t even taken responsibility. He hasn’t said, ‘Yeah, I’m responsible.’ He’s afraid to say that because the Israelis know it already.

So many members of his cabinet have said, they’re responsible, of his military, have said, “it’s my fault,” but not Netanyahu. He won’t do that because he doesn’t function that way. It’s as if by responding super violently, he can get out of the responsibility for the violence that was done against his country. And I don’t think it will work. I think he will fall. He’ll either be prime minister for the rest of the history of Israel or he’ll fall.

JW: But of course, the key force in Israeli domestic politics is the settler movement. These people who think God told them that Jews should live in the West Bank and they’re the decisive force in Israeli politics. They hold the balance of power sort of, don’t they?

AW: Well, they have been, and I think Netanyahu wants to keep it that way, and he wants to keep the members, the right-wing members, and the religious members of his coalition in it. So yes, he is very susceptible to the demands of the settler community. And one of the fears is that Gaza will be swept clean of Hamas and settlers will be allowed to start settling around and even maybe inside of the Gazan periphery.

JW: But wait a minute, God did not say that Jews should live in Gaza. He only said they should live in Judea and Samaria.

AW: True, true.

JW: One last thing, Israel, and Mideast peace: Jared Kushner in 2020 said he had brought peace to the Mideast with what he called the Abraham Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. These Accords were based on the idea that you could achieve peace between the Arab states and Israel by ignoring the Palestinians. You are, as we often say here, the chief Jared correspondent for this broadcast. How do the Abraham Accords look at this point?

AW: Not great. He should have thought about Ishmael when he was making the Accords. There are some Arab states, but that doesn’t make a lasting or meaningful coalition. I don’t know what the members of that Accord are saying now. Probably not much, waiting to see, but I think the destruction of this hospital could prove to be a moment at any rate of taking stock of what the Israelis are really doing there.

JW: And it puts the question of Palestine at the center of not just Israeli politics, but of regional politics – in a way that we would like to think opens the door to a settlement.

AW: A settlement, and some kind of new thinking in Israel. But I have to say that new thinking in Israel is unlikely to move forward with Netanyahu at the helm of government.

JW: Another topic, Egypt. Egypt has cooperated with Israel for decades in sealing off Gaza and enforcing the blockade ever since Hamas took power in Gaza. Now, Egypt has been refusing to open the one way to get out of Gaza into Egypt, the Rafah Crossing. They have said they don’t want to become a refuge for Gaza residents. And they’ve said they don’t even want Germany welcoming refugees who would exit Gaza via Egypt. Why is that?

AW: They don’t want those refugees, of course. They believe there will be lots of seepage if they open it up and have Germans taking the refugees away. You can’t take away 500,000 to 1.1 million people.

JW: And I think they also feel the solution to the Palestinian problem is not to move them to Egypt or Europe.

AW: And the Jordanians can speak to them about that and the Lebanese also. They were moved out. They were pushed out in the catastrophe, the Nakba, and it’s ongoing. It’s just they become permanent refugees.

No, Israel has to face up to what it is, what it has created, and what it has to live with, and decide how it’s going to live with those people. And I think it’s always morally unacceptable to commit a genocide. And for Israel, I think it has a double immorality.

JW: Amy Wilentz, you can read her piece about Israel, Hamas and Gaza at thenation.com. Amy, thanks for talking with us today.

AW: You’re welcome, Jon.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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