Around the World Update: Turkey, Pakistan, and Palestine

Ryan Grim and guests discuss Turkey’s upcoming election, Imran Khan’s arrest in Pakistan, and recent airstrikes on Gaza.

(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Supporters of People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend an election rally campaign in Istanbul, Turkey, May 7, 2023. Photo: Khalil Hamra/AP

On Sunday, Turkey’s presidential election could unseat Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim has a wide-ranging conversation with guests, covering Turkey’s election, the arrest of the former prime minister of Pakistan, and ongoing struggles in Palestine. Selim Koru, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey talks about the political climate in the country ahead of the election. Pakistani journalist Waqas Ahmed breaks down the arrest of Imran Khan, the cricket star turned politician. The Intercept’s Alice Speri discusses the one-year anniversary of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing and recent developments in the West Bank.

[Deconstructed intro theme music.]

Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.

This Sunday, voters in Turkey will go to the polls, with the opposition optimistic they have a real chance of ousting Tayyip Erdo?an, who has dominated Turkish politics for two decades. We talked with Selim Koru about whether the polls that show Erdo?an losing will hold.

Now, in Pakistan, on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that this week’s detention of former Prime Minister Imran Khan was illegal, ordering his immediate release. We interviewed Pakistani journalist Waqas Ahmed on Wednesday, ahead of that ruling, about his arrest. But, as you’ll hear in our conversation, Ahmed, who was actually scheduled to interview Khan just before he was arrested, already knew that the detention was illegal.

And, finally, Israel has launched airstrikes in Gaza again, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Intercept reporter Alice Speri recently visited the region, and she joined us to talk about what she saw there.

Joining me first to discuss the elections set to take place this Sunday in Turkey is Selim Koru. He’s an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. 

Welcome to Deconstructed, Selim

Selim Koru: Thanks for having me. 

RG: Can you walk us through why it was that the earthquake in Turkey has been so damaging politically to Erdo?an? I could see a world in which people say, you know what, obviously he didn’t produce the earthquake, but what was it about the damage it caused and the aftermath that has put him in so much political trouble? 

SK: First of all, it was a massive earthquake. It was bigger than anything in recent memory, though comparable to the ‘99 earthquake. The thing is, though, that it doesn’t seem to have had a huge effect on his political chances in this Sunday’s election. So, in terms of the impact on the elections, it wasn’t huge, but I think it did shake confidence in Erdo?an’s ability to govern.

The Erdo?an government is known for its fast and loose construction. Before elections, for example, they also give building amnesties, where unregistered buildings are registered automatically without proper checks being conducted, so that sort of thing didn’t look good. People knew that he was very much in favor of this sort of fast and loose construction sector, and that really hurt him, I think, in the long term, especially. 

RG: Can you also talk a little bit about how the economy has kind of spun out of control in Turkey? I occasionally see Erdo?an’s approach described as unorthodox. What has he done economically? 

SK: It’s described as unorthodox specifically because he has decided that, contrary to recent Turkish history, he doesn’t need an independent central bank, right? Because Turkey’s economic policy was pretty mainstream liberal economics, right? You had to have an independent central bank, you had to have fiscal prudence, and that stuff was built on the AK Party’s first term.

When they won in 2002, they actually got this foundation of an IMF program that they maintained pretty well throughout those first couple of terms. And that gave them this basis of economic growth. More recently, so towards the end of the pandemic, he decided to basically fire his economics team, and conduct monetary policy on his own, effectively, is what he’s done, which caused rapid inflation. 

RG: So what did he do? He rapidly lowered interest rates to fight inflation and [that] only drove it further? What’s been the result out in the street?

SK: So, he argues that lowering interest rates is better for inflation always, right? And markets don’t like that. So, the result has been just rampant inflation throughout. For some sectors, that’s good. If you’re an exporter, for example, sometimes that can be good, right? A weak currency can help you. But it means that the country doesn’t have a well-defined strategy, right? That the president is not very transparent, let’s say, in conducting economic policy. Which, over the long term, people don’t like. 

RG: And I’ve seen reports of inflation running as high as 50 percent, maybe. Maybe higher. What’s that like to live through?

SK: Well, consumer inflation is significantly higher. There’s a group of economists who calculate inflation, approximating numbers, because the Statistical Institute of Turkey, TURKSTAT, used to be an excellent institution, but now nobody trusts their numbers anymore. So economists kind of try to calculate things on their own and, you know, sometimes they calculate 200 percent consumer inflation.

And it’s not just that. The housing market is in disarray, especially in the big cities — in Istanbul, Ankara, in Izmit — it’s really hard. Or also places like Mersin. It’s very hard to find apartment buildings that you can live in that are actually affordable. Also, food inflation is incredibly high.

RG: And so, as I’m thinking about this upcoming election, I’ve been also thinking about the Hungarian election, where the opposition to Victor Orbán felt confident that they had, at least, a shot. That people were frustrated with his leadership, and were going to be able to pull it together and give him a real challenge.

In the end, he waltzed to a landslide victory, and the opposition kind of felt that they really actually didn’t have a chance, and had been overestimating the possibility of challenging him. Because he controlled so thoroughly every lever of power, and controlled effectively every kind of media organization, institution in the country, and there was just no way for the opposition to break through.

You now have a united opposition in Turkey — correct me if I’m wrong — maybe the most united in decades, but they still face some of the same structural obstacles, in the sense that, you know, Erdo?an and his party are so dominant across the country.

And so, is there a possibility to break through it? And, if so, how are they going to manage to do it? 

SK: I think it’s an apt comparison, but the timeline’s a bit off. The thing is that, we in Turkey have had this kind of scenario before, where the opposition has tried to come together, but they found repeatedly that Erdo?an’s system was too powerful, that Erdo?an’s political career was still strong enough to resist a challenge.

But, at this point, people feel much more optimistic, because Erdo?an has kind of shot himself in the foot with his extremely unorthodox economic policies. And also that this regime is kind of aging, that the AK party elite, the sort of new elite in the country, is now sort of recognized as being very corrupt, and they’re not as motivated as they used to be.

All of those are, I think, strong factors, and reasons why the opposition has been able to unite and grow bigger than it has ever before. 

RG: And how are the Kurds playing into this election? 

SK: So, it used to be that for the centrist opposition, or the main opposition, to work with the Kurds was kind of painted as being taboo. And Erdo?an reinforced this taboo, even though he has worked with the Kurds before. He, especially after the coup, reinforced this taboo of working with the leftist Kurds, right? The HDP.

I think what K?l?çdaro?lu — Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu, the leader of the opposition — has now done, that’s perhaps one of the most significant things, is that he has been able to overcome that taboo. And he has built a coalition that spans from pan-Turkic nationalists to the Kurds, the leftist Kurds, right? That the entire spectrum of the opposition, if you will. And he has been able to hold that together fairly effectively. 

RG: Was there anything done differently? Or, what did he do differently to accomplish that?

SK: Various things over his tenure, of more than ten years, I’d say. If people know anything about Turkish politics in the outside world, it’s that there’s this sort of Kemalist strain that’s very secular and, you know, hostile to religion. And then there’s this Islamist strain that Erdo?an represents. What K?l?çdaro?lu has done is really softened that harsh secularism, and made it more sort of liberal and pluralistic. That allowed him to work with the center-right opposition, it allowed him to work with the pan-Turkic opposition. It also allowed him to work with the Kurds.

So he has sort of liberalized and made the main opposition party more pluralistic, I would say is the main thing he’s done. 

RG: And Erdo?an has, in some ways, kind of played up his confrontation with the U.S., or with some other Western leaders. What’s the sense inside Turkey of what the kind of western posture is toward either K?l?çdaro?lu or to Erdo?an? How is that affecting people’s postures toward those candidates?

SK: The West posture is actually a very big element in Erdo?an’s campaign. Because Erdo?an is telling his followers, his supporters, look, the West is with the opposition, the West are our enemy, so you should really support me if you want a strong leader that will face down the West, right?

He feels like the Kamalist strain within Turkey is sort of deferential to the West, and that he is competitive with the West. He doesn’t just want to confront them, he wants to compete with the West, and that’s very much at the core of his argument, I would say. Whereas K?l?çdaro?lu is saying, look, we want Western standards in this country, we want European standards. For that, we’d like to have good relations with the Europeans and the Americans.

RG: If Erdo?an loses, does that have any impact on the way that Turkey’s posture toward Ukraine and Russia has been? 

SK: If Erdo?an loses, I do think it would be a significant shift in foreign policy. But foreign policy is a big ship, obviously, and it would be gradual change. What would happen, I think, over time is that Turkey reengages with the European Union, and it adopts a more orthodox stance on things like Ukraine.

It wouldn’t, of course, be free to act like a central European country, like Poland, towards Russia, for example, right? Turkey is dependent on Russian gas, it has close business ties with the Russians. So it wouldn’t take a hawkish stance on Russia, but it would take much more of a conservative stance, I think.

RG: Well, Selim, thank you so much. Really appreciate it. 

SK: Thanks, Ryan, for having me. 

RG: That was Selim Koru, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. 

[Deconstructed mid-show theme music.]

RG: Now we go to Pakistan to talk about the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Waqas Ahmed joins us now to discuss the latest developments. He’s a Pakistani journalist who has worked as an editor in multiple Pakistani newsrooms, including the Daily Pakistan and the Business Recorder. 

Waqas, Welcome to Deconstructed.

Waqas Ahmed: Thank you for having me, Ryan. 

RG: And so, Waqas, can you catch us up to speed? What happened to Imran Khan? 

WA: Imran Khan was illegally arrested yesterday. You can say he was abducted by paramilitary forces, not the police. There was no warrant. They broke into court premises where Imran Khan was having his hearing, and during that hearing, they took him, kidnapped him, put him in a Rangers van; Rangers is a paramilitary force that answers to the Pakistani military. They put him in a Ranger’s van and they took him away.

They took him to an unknown location, not a police station. It was said they took him to an ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] safe house. He has been there since, and this is where we are at. 

RG: And so, we’re recording this on Wednesday, so he was picked up on Tuesday.

WA: Yes.

RG: And so, in the 24 hours since then, has any word leaked out about how he’s been treated? 

WA: He did have a hearing on Wednesday, and he said that by the NAB authorities he was reached OK, but the police kept him awake all night. They mishandled him, they roughed him up a bit. And he was taken from one location to another in the middle of the night. He thinks that his life is in danger. He feels, he said that — the message he sent out through his lawyers — was that they might inject him with something that would cause slow poisoning. So these are the fears that he has communicated to the outside world. 

RG: And one of Khan’s top advisors was similarly detained recently, and talked of being tortured in detention. Do you know what I’m referring to? What happened in that case? 

WA: Yeah, there have been multiple, actually. First was Mr. Shahbaz Gill. He was taken away by the military intelligence guys, basically. He was kept in a safe house. According to his account, he was stripped. He was tortured. His private parts were abused. He said he faced sexual torture. When he came out, he had been traumatized for a while. He was not allowed to leave the country. He just recently came to the U.S., and he’s going to different cities telling about what he went through.

And there was another aid of Imran Khan, Mr. Azam Swati, he’s a 70-year-old man. He went through a similar abuse. The stories that he told, like when the military abducted him, took him to an unknown location, stripped him and tortured him, and then later showed private videos of him and his wife at a government guest house in Balochistan. He was privately filmed a few years ago, and they tried to blackmail him with those videos. And he came out with all of those things.

So there’s focused, concentrated efforts to crack down on Imran Khan and his supporters, and the playbook is the same. It keeps on repeating.

RG: What’s been the reaction around Pakistan since his detention?

WA: Pakistanis have been furious. This has happened for the first time in Pakistan, that the Pakistani crowds have marched towards the GHQ, which is the Pakistan Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi; this is where all the generals sit. And Pakistani people marched up to the GHQ, and they broke open the gates and they went inside. This has never happened in the history of Pakistan. Pakistan has been through three coups, Pakistan has been through martial law, but crowds have never entered GHQ.

Similarly, in Lahore, they went to the court’s commander’s house, which is the highest ranking general who sits in that city. They went to his house and they burnt his house down.

All of this is unprecedented. And, I would say, historic. 

RG: Where do you think it’s going from here? Are you seeing it mushroom, or are you starting to see it fade, as a result of a crackdown? 

WA: It depends on how the government deals with it. The Pakistani military today has tried to take control of the situation. Troops have moved towards Islamabad. And, in Lahore, they’ve encircled these military installations. If you now go in front of these military installations, there are soldiers standing over there, and some of them have orders to shoot, we’ve been told. And there have been multiple deaths, so people are now scared.

This, like I said, is unprecedented. People have never faced their own military like this, in the 70-year history of Pakistan. Even though Pakistan has been ruled by military, controlled by military, people have never come face to face with them. So, nobody knows how to deal with this situation.

People went out yesterday and, amazingly enough, it was the woman of PTI (Pakistan Tehreek Insaf) who were leading these processions. And all the videos we saw, these women leading the protest, these women facing these soldiers, and the soldiers not understanding how to deal with this situation, because Pakistan is a very patriarchal society. They’ve never dealt with situations like this. So all of this is very new, to Pakistani soldiers and Pakistani civilians alike. 

RG: For people who are new to this, how would you describe Imran Khan’s politics?

WA: Imran Khan’s politics, if we try to simplify it, is center to the right, more populist kind of politics. But it is also Pakistan’s middle class politics, which has its history and context.

Pakistan, for a long period of time, did not have a sizable middle class. In the ‘90s, and especially in the early 2000s, during the Musharraf era, Pakistan started to grow a sizable middle class. And this consisted of the educated people who were getting university education, lots of these young people, and Pakistan also saw a boom of young people at this time.

So, this demographic change of the Pakistani middle class realized that Pakistani politics is completely dominated by the Pakistani feudal elite or the Pakistani military, and they wanted to assert themselves also as a group in Pakistani politics. They did so by pinning their hopes on Imran Khan, who appeared on stage at that point. It could have been someone else, but it happened that it was Imran Khan, and the Pakistani middle class put their hopes up on Pakistani middle class.

And Imran Khan understood the Pakistani middle class, and Imran Khan understood they’re slightly conservative. They’re not completely liberal, as you might perceive from the Western lens. They’re against corruption. They’re against what has been happening in Pakistan for the 70 years: how the feudals and the military treat Pakistan. So he understood this, and Pakistani middle class latched onto him.

So, by 2013, he was getting mass following, and Imran Khan understood that. By 2018 he was in the position to form the government, finally. And we see this Pakistani middle class now, which is also the main constituent of Pakistani military, by the way. So, demographically, the Pakistani military officer core basically comes from the Pakistani middle class; urban middle class, usually.

These people are now pitched against each other for the first time in Pakistani history, as the Pakistani middle class as a group comes up. And the previous traditional power broker in Pakistani politics, the Pakistani military, and nobody knows how this will go.

RG: How do Imran Khan’s supporters think about his ouster? And what role do they believe that the U.S. played in pushing him out of power? And how is that influencing the political dynamic now?

WA: The U.S. role, initially, when it happened in, 2022, April, Imran Khan claimed that there was a big U.S. role in removal of his government. At least he expected the U..S to speak up against his removal. Because one thing was for certain: that Imran Khan’s government was removed by the help of the Pakistani military, and if the Pakistani military is going to remove him, that is an unconstitutional illegal act according to the Pakistani constitution, how Pakistani rules of business are. And, since this illegal act happened, nobody, especially Western partners, did not speak up against it.

A democratically elected prime minister was removed, and nobody said anything about that. And this is something, also, that the Pakistani people didn’t like. Pakistani people were furious that a democratically elected Prime Minister was removed.

At the time of his ouster, his ratings were low, he was not doing well, because Covid had ended and people did not have a good year for the economy. And, by the end of Covid, inflation was rising, so people were unhappy with him. And this is what, also, the military realized at that time.

But, as soon as he was ousted, nobody anticipated that people would be so angry at it, because Imran Khan, whatever his performance was, people did elect him. And he came through a mass movement. He came by breaking the monopoly of a two-party system, and that was a big deal in Pakistani history.

About Imran, about the American aspect, Imran Khan eventually toned down on that. Iran Khan eventually realized that it was not America that played a major role in his ouster, it was his own military. And this realization is like the process of four or five months when, after his ouster, initially he was talking a lot about American interference. Because he had one clue about that.

The clue he had about that was a cable that he claimed the Pakistani foreign office got from the Pakistani ambassador in the U.S. And the contents of that cable, according to Imran Khan, were that there was an undersecretary, a U.S. undersecretary who had talked to the ambassador about Imran Khan’s removal, and how there is going to be a vote of no confidence that the American government supports. This was the allegation.

Later, it turned out it was his own general, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was the Army Chief at the time. And, Mr. Imran Khan then turned his gun on Mr. Bajwa.

RG: What do you mean, it was his own general?

WA: He was the Army Chief when Iran Khan was the Prime Minister and, technically, he worked, Imran Khan was his boss. And his general, it turned out, was doing a lot of things behind the scenes to ensure Mr. Imran Khan’s government collapses in April. 

RG: What I mean is, what was the role of the undersecretary, after he explored it more deeply?

WA: The cable is real. Many people in Pakistan have seen that cable, there are journalists who have seen that cable. And, also, the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. at that time, he has not denied that cable.  Allegedly there was a dinner meeting in which that undersecretary, Mr. Donald Lu, said that there is going to be a vote of no confidence against Mr. Imran Khan. And, if Imran Khan’s government is removed, there could be an American reset with Pakistan. And if it goes unsuccessful, there will be consequences for Pakistan.

These are the contents of the cable that many diplomats and journalists agree on.

RG: And so, why is it then that Imran Khan has moved away from pointing at that? Because he felt like the military had its own agency? 

WA: One, he feels that the military had its own agency. And, secondly, he feels that he should not fight America. And there is this tendency for him I’ve seen in the past few months to tone down on that.

Not just that. He has tried to reach out to U.S. senators and congressmen through overseas Pakistanis. Americans, basically, who live in America who have Pakistani roots. So, these people, who are, many of them are Republican and Democratic donors, they’ve reached out to their senators, they’ve reached out to their congressmen. Because of those efforts, we’ve seen Congressman Brad Sherman speaking up against human rights abuses in Pakistan.

So, it seems that Mr. Khan is trying to reach out to America and say, I’m not as bad as my army, made me out in front of you. Basically, he feels that Pakistani military has been badmouthing him in front of Americans and American diplomats, especially, and American congressmen and military people. And they’ve been presenting Imran Khan as a rightwing populist who is anti-American, who wants enmity against America, and who wants to go into the China camp.

Imran Khan has been trying recently after going out of power, after realizing that he has to build relationships with everyone. He’s been trying to mend these fences. He’s been trying to dispel this image of his. 

RG: I see. And waving around the charge that the U.S. was partially or primarily responsible for his ouster gets in the way of getting the U.S.’ help in getting him back into power, I would imagine.

WA: Yes.

RG: So what are the charges that they’re cooking up against him?

WA: There are 140 cases, actually. There are so many charges. There is one charge about a watch that he purchased that was gifted to him, and he purchased it at half the price and sold in the market. The recent case that they got him in, the thing that they arrested him on is about this university land that was gifted to his wife by a rich property dealer in Pakistan, Mr. Malik Riaz. And they say that he acquired that land for the university illegally.

But it doesn’t matter. There are going to be so many cases. Every step that he has taken in the past four or five years, they might be able to find some irregularity because, in Pakistan, systems are so weak and so loose, there are always irregularities in things. But, generally, the Pakistani people agree that Imran Khan is not a corrupt person. He’s spent his public life for 50 years in front of Pakistanis. He has built three cancer hospitals, he has collected funds for universities, and people have generally found him, to be honest, in his financial dealings at least.

So, these charges, they have been unable to stick these charges on him. They’ve been unable to convince the Pakistani public that Imran Khan is an evil guy. But they do have the process on their side. I won’t say even, like, justice, because the Pakistani Supreme Court has been pushing out these cases, rejecting many of these cases.

But still, today, on Wednesday, there was a case in Islamabad High Court about Imran Khan’s paternity from many years ago, at least, 15, 16 years ago. That was a case in a California court whether Imran Khan is the father of Ms. Tyrian White. And that case is now restarting in a Pakistani court in Islamabad High Court. But today there was a three-member court that sat. Two of these judges said that this is a frivolous case, and there’s no need to reopen this case again. But the Islamabad High Court Chief Justice immediately when realizing that two of the judges were against reopening the case, he broke the bench and said that he will reconstitute a new bench to hear the case again, because these judges were biased.

So, basically he’s been trapped in many cases at the same time. When he was out, till Tuesday, he used to go into a court hearing every other day with his broken leg. He got fired at in November in his assassination attempt, so he would go in his wheelchair sometimes. Sometimes he would go to court every day, a court hearing every day. And this has been going on for a while, and they will keep him occupied in this. And the only reason to keep him occupied in this is, basically, they don’t want him to participate in politics, they don’t want him to run elections. They want him to become unpopular. They’re afraid of this because they’ve seen over the past year how popular he has become.

He has become bigger than the military, and that is such a huge feat in Pakistan, for someone to become bigger than the military, because [the] military is a grand institution. It controls everything. It controls business empires. It controls your politics. It controls your scientific research, universities. In Pakistan, there are no institutions that are free from the military. Even if you find a civilian institution, there is going to be a leftwing general, major general sitting on top of it. And, in this situation, to become a brand bigger than the military is unacceptable to the military. If he wins the next elections, he might fire many of these generals who are doing all of this to him, who have allegedly tried to assassinate him, who have allegedly assassinated a journalist aligned to Mr. Imran Khan. And that’s unacceptable. 

RG: Well, Waqas Ahmed, thank you for the update, and we look forward to following your work.

WA: Thank you so much, Ryan. 

RG: And that was Waqas Ahmed, a Pakistani journalist who is starting a member-funded news site covering Pakistani politics and economy called The Brief.

Next, I’m joined by my colleague Alice Speri, who reports on U.S. foreign policy, abuses by military and security forces, and the repression of dissent there. She has a new story out this week marking the one-year anniversary of the Israeli government’s killing Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh

Eleni Giokos (CNN): Is the IDF willing to apologize, ready to apologize? 

IDF Spokesperson: I think it’s an opportunity for me to say here that we are very sorry of the deaths of the late Shireen Abu Akleh.

RG: Alice, Welcome to Deconstructed. 

Alice Speri: Thank you for having me. 

RG: And so, you are just back from another reporting trip to Israel and the occupied territories, and you’re joining us on the week that — I don’t know if you’ve followed this, but, you know, it’s the 75th anniversary of the Nakba. But here in Washington Rashida Tlaib was hosting an event to commemorate the Nakba, which marks the day — you can get more into it — but marks the day, basically, the founding of the modern country of Israel.

Kevin McCarthy blocked her from having it, calling it anti-Semitic. Bernie Sanders invited her over to the Senate side and allowed her to hold the event there, because he’s the Chair of the Health Education Labor Committee, and said, you can use my space to mark this.

It’s also the one-year anniversary of the killing, by Israeli forces, of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

So, first of all, I’m curious, as somebody who’s been there so many times, how have you seen it change over the years?

AS: Yeah. This last trip was particularly difficult. I’ve been going back since 2006, that was my first trip to the West Bank and, you know, going pretty regularly every year or two. And, you know, there’s a lot of visible differences on the ground. Like, you can see that, primarily, the settlement enterprise, it’s really kind of sprawling. I mean, every time I go back, there are new neighborhoods built out of nowhere, there are new cities, there’s additional checkpoints, additional restrictions on movement for Palestinians.

But then, really what’s changed, I would say, over the last several years is, just kind of like the level of hopelessness that many Palestinians feel. Like, they are completely fed up with the occupation, many of them are very fed up with their own leadership. There’s just a sense that things are getting worse and worse. The violence in the West Bank and in Gaza is escalating; and, by violence, I mean really Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities.

I think oftentimes when I speak with Americans or people who haven’t been to the territories, there’s not a full understanding of what the landscape looks like. And, you know, the West Bank is occupied, territory is divided in different kinds of areas. The cities should be, in theory, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but the Israeli military has increasingly been raiding cities, and really invading them. And that’s actually what Shireen Abu Akleh was reporting on last year when she was in Jenin, which is a city in the northern West Bank.

She was reporting on these increased incursions when she was killed in broad daylight. She was nowhere near fighting that had happened earlier that day. She was wearing a clearly visible press vest. And, even though Israeli authorities initially tried to really distort the narrative of what had happened: they said she was closer to fighting. We’ve, since then, had a number of independent investigations, and even a pretty detailed reconstruction of the dynamics of the event by Forensic Architecture, which really leave no doubt that she was visible and identifiable as a journalist. And she was reporting on these incursions that have been going on with increasing frequency since then.

Last year was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the second intifada in the early 2000s, and this year is already far worse than last year. So there’s a sense that things are just not getting any better at all. 

RG: In your recent piece for The Intercept, you talk about how the State Department says that their conclusion — or their assumption, at this point — is that Israeli forces unintentionally shot Shireen Abu Akleh. Having looked at the kind of forensic reconstruction of the killing, how on earth did they come to that conclusion? 

AS: It’s really interesting. I mean, that was a conclusion that the U.S. security coordination, which is this position that sort of responds to the State Department and DOD, and it’s the security liaison between Israel and the Palestinian Territories based in Israel. And he put out this statement in July, actually, over the July 4th weekend; there was a lot of controversy around that, because it was sort of buried on a holiday weekend. And, you know, this was after a number of independent investigations by the Associated Press, CNN, The Times — many other — Bellingcat, had sort of reconstructed already the dynamics of the incident.

And, at that point, the security coordinator said that he had reviewed the existing investigations, the Israeli investigations, which cleared the military of any wrongdoing, as they always do. And the Forensic Architecture reconstruction hadn’t been released yet, that came a few weeks later. And, following that — which you know, is online for everybody to see, it’s a pretty detailed, kind of horrifying reconstruction of the events — following that, there was a large pressure campaign, including, you know, several members of Congress repeatedly called on the State Department to do more about this. 

And so, the USSC — the security coordinator — re-embarked on a new investigation, and has been doing this work for the last several months, including interviewing people. He actually met with Forensic Architecture and with Al-Haq, which is a Palestinian human rights group. And I think, you know, just a side note there, I think it’s important to mention that, because Al-Haq is one of six Palestinian NGOs that the Israeli government declared terrorist organizations last year, in an effort to stifle their work. And these are organizations that have repeatedly brought filings to the International Criminal Court about Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians.

So, the security coordinator was supposed to deliver a classified briefing for members of the Senate that asked for it, and that hasn’t happened yet. He was expected to release a report on his investigation a few months ago. That also hasn’t happened yet. And, last week, Senator Van Hollen publicly said that he had heard that this report was now being circulated within the administration that wanted to make some modifications before they released it to Congress. Which, you know, of course, he pushed back against.

The State Department won’t really say anything more about it, but they did say in a briefing last week that, basically, the conclusions remained the same, which is the conclusion that this was unintentional. And I really have no way of knowing how they got to that conclusion. I mean, anybody that sees the video will certainly have major doubts about that. 

RG: Yeah, the Forensic Architecture — and I would encourage people to go find that, and you can find it on YouTube — the reconstruction shows what the vantage point was from where the Israeli position was. So it shows how visible the press would’ve been, and it also shows the shots that missed, missing only by a couple of inches and hitting a tree next to her. And it really makes it very, very difficult to imagine that this was just a random spraying of bullets that just happened to all land right at the spot that was necessary for her life to be taken.

So what is the assumption among her colleagues, and others who have looked into this more closely?

AS: I mean, I think anybody that was there, and also pretty much all the other independent reviews that have happened on it really show that there is a clear targeting of this group of journalists. Actually, the U.N. released a report before Forensic Architecture and, you know, the U.N. is usually pretty measured when it comes to these assessments. And they said the bullet was “well-aimed.” The fact that Shireen Abu Akleh was killed with a single bullet to the head. I mean, again, when you watch the video reconstruction, it’s clear how visible she was, and how identifiable as a journalist she was.

My understanding is that the security coordinator has been raising doubts about the intentionality element of it, but it’s hard to say how that conclusion was reached. It’s also worth noting that this was not an isolated incident. Like, Palestinian journalists are regularly targeted by Israeli forces.

In fact, this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report that identified the killing of at least 20 journalists in Palestine — the majority of them Palestinians, a couple of them were foreign citizens. And it notes that many of them — I think the number was 13 — were clearly identifiable as press, or were driving in press vehicles, at the time they were targeted. So, really being a journalist in Palestine offers no additional protection. They are just as exposed to Israeli military violence as all Palestinian civilians. 

RG: I was struck by another section of your piece, where you wrote about this infamous recent kind of pogrom that went on in the West Bank, and a journalist was contemplating going to cover it. You know, most journalists, when those things are happening, grab the bag, run to get there to the scene as quickly as possible. This time she said, no; A, out of fear, and B, out of, I think she said, you know, “What’s the point?” 

Was that a new kind of emotion that you were encountering on this trip?

AS: This is definitely something I’ve been hearing from a lot of Palestinian journalists, many of whom were personal friends of Shireen Abu Akleh. And you know, to be fair, many of them continue to do the work. And even in the days after she was killed, Al Jazeera kept sending crews to Jenin, and people kept reporting on the story. In fact, Al Jazeera has been one of the most consistent organizations covering the story and investigations.

But what many of them told me is that it wasn’t just a sense of fear that kind of permeated their work — although that’s there too, of course — but the sense that, you know, really their lives are not worthy. The particular journalist you mentioned — who is a freelance Palestinian American journalist who has actually contributed to The Intercept before — what she was saying is like, really, there’s this sense that we don’t matter, that nobody’s even talking about Shireen Abu Akleh anymore.

She mentioned the White House Correspondents’ dinner last week, during which Biden talked about Austin Tice, the American journalist who’s been missing in Syria for years, and he talked about Evan Gershkovich, who’s detained in Russia. And he didn’t mention Shireen Abu Akleh’s name. There’s this sense that she doesn’t count. Even though Shireen Abu Akleh was not only a Palestinian journalist, a very well respected journalist, she was an American citizen too, which I think is another element of the story that we can kind of talk more about. 

But there’s this sense that this happened, the U.S. government has done what it usually does, which is like, you know, kind of minimal criticism, or initially only calling for Israel to investigate, eventually giving in and sort of starting their own investigation. But then there’s this idea that we move on.

And so, I think a lot of Palestinian journalists are just feeling really disheartened and kind of abandoned, even by some of their colleagues. I mean, some organizations have consistently called for justice for Shireen Abu Akleh, but a lot of media organizations have moved on and sort of, you know, forgotten.

RG: Right. And, since your previous trip, the Israeli government has taken an even further hard right turn, with the new government there. How does this new government talk about Shireen?

AS: I don’t know that I have specifics or things they said, but one thing I’ll say about the new government is that, if you talk to any Palestinians, many of them are, you know, horrified on one hand. On the other hand, they’re also almost glad that this government is as explicit as it is in its racism and in its hatred of Palestinians. You mentioned earlier this pogrom that took place near Nablus in Hawara in February, where, you know, you had Israeli ministers basically calling for the city to be burnt to the ground. I mean, this is something that’s just now so explicit and so evident that it’s impossible to deny.

And the policies on the ground have not really changed that much. The settlement enterprise is developing as it always has. The targeting of journalists, the targeting of civilians has been an issue for years. This government is no different in that sense, but they are just much more open in their rhetoric. And I think, in a way, it’s kind of like the mask is off. And so, Palestinians, many of them have told me that if their international community cannot respond to the open racism and supremacism of this government, then, really there’s no hope they ever will.

And it’s been interesting to see. I mean, the Biden administration has certainly been tested by this government. They’re still very measured and careful in their statements, but they’ve been making increasingly critical statements. And, you know, that’s not much, they can do a lot more, but they’re definitely being put in a position that’s challenging to them. 

RG: And more than two dozen people have been killed in recent days in Gaza. Can you bring us up to speed there? What’s going on in Gaza? 

AS: Yeah. The interesting thing with Gaza is that you could have easily missed it. There is so little coverage in most American media, certainly, about what’s happening. But, basically, Israel has launched a bombing campaign again on Gaza, targeting members, in this case, of Islamic Jihad, which is one of the groups operating from there. But, you know, as they often do when claiming they’re targeting these members, they tend to target very densely populated areas. I mean, let’s not forget that Gaza is the most densely populated area in the world, where 2 million Palestinians are confined in this very narrow space.

And so, they’re targeting all these buildings that are home to civilians, and children are killed every time. This time, the death toll is currently 27 people, I believe. But these kinds of rates have been happening with increasing frequency. I mean, it used to be once every couple years you’d have a big military campaign in Gaza, and now it feels like it’s every few months.

And it lasts a few days, usually. Egypt comes in and brokers some kind of ceasefire, and then everybody moves on, and then six months in it happens again. And it’s hard to even write about Gaza, actually, as a journalist, because I feel like people are always like, “I’ve heard of that before.” And they’re just like, it’s always hard to kind of like, really explain what’s going on. But it’s just this constant, relentless, sort of day-by-day violence that’s just like, the Palestinians there have kind of become so used to. And, at the same time, you never really become used to it.

I mean, one of the most horrifying stories this weekend was the one about a five-year-old child who died of a panic attack during the bombing. And this actually happened a few months ago in Bethlehem, where another child had a heart attack. A child at a heart attack because he was running away from the military.

So these are like, you know, you hear the numbers and you kind of like, forget what it’s like, but there are really horrifying stories for each of these people.

RG: And layered over this is the settlement project that you talked about. What do these settlements look like? Are these like, cul-de-sac American suburb-looking developments? What’s it like to see them? 

AS: There’s a variety of settlements. So, you know, they change quite a bit. You can go from like, high rise skyscraper-type buildings in parts of Jerusalem to these very suburban-looking neighborhoods that have been expanding into the West Bank. And, you know, usually they’re built atop a hill, so they kind of offer a vantage point, from a security perspective. Israel has kind of used the excuse of population growth to expand them, so many of them have additional neighborhoods that pop up, year by year, and take over the next hills. But also, I did a story earlier this year on this new sort of outpost.

So, one thing actually — sorry, let me mention this because I think people don’t know — but all settlements are illegal under international law. All construction by an occupying force in occupied territory is illegal under international law. In addition to settlements, which the Israeli government recognizes, there are also what they call outposts, which are just as illegal as the settlements, except they’re also illegal under Israeli law.

So you have the settlements that Israel has recognized, and then you have these outposts that are illegal under Israeli law, too, that have also been springing up everywhere around the West Bank. And Israel often will go back and retroactively legalize them.

So you’re seeing a lot of those. And a lot of these developments tend to be, basically, just land grabs. Like, you’ll have a few caravans and a few kind of makeshift structures built on a hill as a way to claim territory. And a new kind of outpost that’s been used quite a bit, particularly in the southern West Bank, is this agricultural outpost that I wrote about in my recent piece, where even just one or two settlers will go out with a few animals and kind of like stake a claim to a piece of land, and use the animals to kind of go into Palestinian farmers’ fields and destroy their crops, but also as a way to kind of claim that land. And so, that’s a very low cost, very easy to maintain type of settlement that really allows to take over more and more land, it doesn’t require a lot of people to do it.

It’s, in one case, one of the settlements I visited is just this one guy armed on a hilltop with his sheep. And, you know, very few Palestinians are willing to go up to their land to defend it.

So, yeah, we’re seeing a full variety of structures. But I want to say, last year, the settler population in the West Bank reached half a million people, which is massive. So, yeah. It’s certainly not stopping.

RG: Right. And becoming its own massive political constituency as well. 

AS: Yes, absolutely, and that’s a very important point. We actually have a couple members of the current government who are settlers, and very supportive of the settler enterprise. And there’s also divisions within Israeli society around this, and a lot of settlers, especially the most extremist ones, the ones that, you know, some of them, some settlements are basically suburbs, and people commute in and out of them. And there’s all these roads that are being constructed for settlers that allow them to easily get into Israel. And so, a lot of people commute from these settlements. Also because there’s an incentive to move there — like, housing is a lot cheaper — there’s all kinds of additional perks that are thrown in for people to move to settlements.

But then you also have very ideological settlers, that are the ones that tend to live in places like Hebron, right, which is a Palestinian city where, downtown, in the city, there are buildings that have been taken over by these very fundamentalist families. And those people, they’re not necessarily working as much. The army has to defend them. So I forget what the ratio of army to settlers is, but it’s become a burden on Israeli society as well, to essentially defend this enterprise. So there’s like, you know, not everybody in Israel is happy about this.

Something else I wrote about this year is this unit — this IDF unit — that was created a few years ago, initially as a place for orthodox men to serve, because Israel has a mandatory military draft, with some exemptions. Orthodox religious men are usually exempted for a number of reasons. So, this unit was set up as an opportunity for them to serve. It offers all kinds of religious accommodations. For instance, there are no women on their bases, and there are other exceptions. And so, it was used to incentivize this population to join the military, and really what ended up serving there are the most militant orthodox men.

And then, also, settlers were not necessarily particularly religious, but are really the ideologically driven one. And this has become one of the most violent units of the Israeli military, that’s been behind a number of abuses, including the death of another Palestinian American last year. And they were recently moved out of the West Bank into the Golan Heights, partially in response to all of the human rights abuses they’ve been accused of.

It’s a group that’s increasingly powerful, particularly with this Israeli administration. 

[Deconstructed end-of-show theme music.]

RG: Yeah, indeed. Alice, thank you so much for joining us.

AS: Thank you for having me. 

RG: Alright. And that was Alice Speri, reporter for The Intercept, and that’s our show. 

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief, and I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

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