The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has initiated a total blockade of Gaza amidst a merciless scorched-earth bombing campaign. The country’s defense minister said Israel will operate with an iron fist in its war against “human animals” following the well-coordinated surprise attacks over the weekend led by Hamas. The unprecedented raids into Israel over the weekend killed scores of both Israeli military and civilians. Hamas has vowed to execute Israeli hostages in retaliation for Israel’s bombing of civilian sites in Gaza.
This week on Intercepted, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara joins Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain for a wide-ranging discussion on Hamas’s strategy, Netanyahu’s possible attempt to draw the U.S. into a war with Iran, and the prospects for a wider Middle East war. They also discuss the difference in media coverage of Palestinian and Israeli violence and the deaths of civilians, as well as the Biden administration’s role in the crisis.
Jeremy Scahill: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.
JS: Maz, I think that people who listen to this show, Intercepted, are following very, very closely the state of siege right now that’s happening in Gaza, with Israeli officials basically saying that they are locking the entire place down, and that they’re implementing scorched-earth bombing. There’s talk of a full scale ground invasion, and reservists are being called up.
And we’re already seeing, in the aftermath of the heavy civilian death toll among Israelis that was a result of Hamas’s blitzkrieg attacks against Israel over the weekend, we’re now seeing skyrocketing numbers of Palestinian civilian deaths as a result of the Israeli military campaign.
And we’re going to be talking to the political analyst Marwan Bishara in a moment, but Maz, you wrote a really good piece for The Intercept this week called Biden Doubled Down on the Abraham Accords to Devastating Consequences. The subtitle of it is, “The Biden administration’s Policy of Ignoring Conditions in Gaza Contributed to This Weekend’s Explosion of Violence.”
Talk about that piece Maz, and what you were writing about.
MH: Sure, I think, essentially, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been to attempt to ignore the Palestinians, and to proceed with a Jared Kushner / Donald Trump approach of building arms deals and diplomatic agreements between Israel and countries with which it doesn’t have any direct conflict, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates. And this very thorny, difficult issue of diplomacy between these two countries with a great history of enmity and hatred and violence between them — two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians — to sidestep that issue and get these flashy diplomatic wins, mostly for domestic consumption in lieu of that.
And I think we see now that it was a very shortsighted, immature strategy. Really a simulation or simulacrum of what real diplomacy should be like, which is about making tough deals between enemies and putting conflicts to an end. And that policy of ignoring the Palestinians and ignoring conditions in Gaza, which were reaching such a horrifying breaking point in recent years, has really proven its downfall at this moment.
Very, very tellingly, a few weeks ago, Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor to the White House, he was saying that the Middle East is more peaceful than it’s been in many, many years, just before this catastrophe. So you can imagine the level of hubris and the shortsightedness that was prevailing within the administration.
And I’ll say, also, that it was very horrifying to see this attack, what happened from Hamas in southern Israel against these communities. But also it’s very important to know that this was not an outburst of violence in a condition of peace before. There were several massacres and mass killings that took place by Israel in Gaza during this time period, years leading up to this, including peaceful marches that took place to the separation barrier that contains this territory, [in] which many, many Palestinians were shot and killed, and the response of the international community was quite muted.
So, what you see is really the ignoring of a festering, horrifying situation there, which has now broken out of its containment. And the consequences, now, we’ll see playing out in the weeks, months to come. It could get very, very bad, in fact.
JS: Yeah. And you know, Maz, I mean, it’s — and we’ll talk about this later — but, you know, all Palestinians that are ever allowed to be interviewed about this, the first thing they need to do as a requirement is to condemn Hamas. And I don’t remember hearing Israelis or Israeli civilians who are dealing with horrifying deaths of civilians being meted out against them, having, like, the first question be asked, “Are you going to condemn Benjamin Netanyahu’s state of siege against the civilian population of Gaza?”
I think this is an extremely important point for us to understand. Obviously, yes, people have a right to say, do you condemn the murder of women, children, regardless of their race or their religion or which side they’re on. Obviously, that should go, even without saying. But that standard is not applied to the Palestinians. There is a completely different set of standards.
And I also, while I think it’s utterly grotesque to be murdering civilians, I also want to know for people who are demanding that all Palestinians have some political position on Hamas, what do they want Palestinians to do? Because Palestinians have tried nonviolent marches. Palestinians have tried appealing to the international community. Like, what is the solution that those who want to condemn all Palestinians to just collective lifelong imprisonment, what is the solution? What is an appropriate means to resist these conditions?
This isn’t an endorsement of Hamas. This is just a question I think that legitimately should be asked to anyone who supports Israel’s policy against the Palestinians. What is a legitimate way for the Palestinians to respond or to fight back against the collective punishment that they are forced to live under for decades, for entire lifetimes?
MH: You know, it’s interesting, this attack which took place by Hamas, it was very terrible for many, many reasons, and the impact on civilians, of course, as well, too. But I’m not sure that if they’d limited their attack to Israeli military and police, that the response would have been much different. I think that the same military/political response would have prevailed. And, as horrible as it is, on its own terms, I’m not sure if it would have made a difference, because I don’t think that there is any form of resistance which is viewed as legitimate to these conditions.
Non-violent resistance was viewed as not legitimate; people were shot at the border, it was considered defensible and normal. Political attempts in international fora to raise action against Israel, also deemed not legitimate. So, I think that they were placed in a position where it’s almost a nihilistic position, where nothing was left, there’s no action they could take to augment their actions, which would win more favor from the international community.
And you put them in a position where they lashed out, and the lashing out, and the actual aspect of it — or the way it looked and the way it manifested itself — was horrible, but this was a time bomb. It was a time bomb which was going to explode, it was very, very obvious. There were many warnings from many parties — Palestinians, Israelis, others in the region — that it was going to happen.
And now it’s exploded. And now we can only see where it’s going to lead.
JS: Yeah. Well, for more on this situation, we are joined now by Marwan Bishara. He’s the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, he’s the author of several books about global affairs and war. He also happens to be a Palestinian who was born in Israel.
Marwan Bishara, thank you very much for being with us here on Intercepted.
Marwan Bishara: Thank you for having me.
JS: Marwan, you’ve written a couple of really, really prescient pieces this week for Al Jazeera, and since the attack by Hamas began, and the siege of Gaza. And we’ll get into some of what you’re writing about, including [whether] this is an effort to draw the United States into a wider war with Iran.
But I want to just start with your analysis of what is happening right now in Gaza. In many ways, this was predictable. You know that Netanyahu was going to go for scorched earth. You have the defense minister saying that Israel is now fighting “human animals” in Gaza. It’s just been massive bombardment, but talk about what is happening right now, your understanding inside Gaza.
MB: I hate to say it, but it really is more of the same, but on a much larger scale.
So, for the past 15 years as the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, I had to cover, basically, four wars, right? Four Israeli wars in or on Gaza. And I think we’re seeing the same pattern repeat itself, again and again.
I think both sides seem to be stuck in this cycle of so-called actions and retaliation. And, clearly, there is a root cause for all of this and, clearly, everyone knows what it is, including, to my mind, the Israelis. There is an occupation and there’s a siege. The siege of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are the root causes for all of this. It’s almost become a cliché to repeat it again and again.
But the problem with clichés is that they tend to sort of reduce an entire human experience into a word or two and, being repeated, [it] becomes meaningless. And I think one has to be really close to the situation there, to the people in Gaza and in the West Bank, to understand the difficulty of living under occupation.
I could say it in a word or two, again, in terms of cliché, but it is torturous. It’s torture. There is the psychological and mental torture, which is racism, and racism has been with us now since before the State of Israel, since Zionism first made its first colonial appearance in Palestine. And then there is the physical torture, violence.
And I think these two factors, the psychological mental torture and the physical torture of Palestinians, have been going on for decades now. And the people in Gaza felt it more than others, because of the occupations, the siege, the overpopulation of the area, having 2.2 million people in this open prison. I hate to say it, call it a refugee concentration camp, but it’s really become that way. And the fact that, for the past 17 years, there’s been such a tightened siege of the strip, have basically radicalized the population there, and certainly radicalized the Palestinian factions there.
And, as we all know, it’s been sort of ruled by the Islamist movement, Hamas, in conjunction with some of the smaller groups, like jihad Islam, and so on and so forth. And these groups have, in so many ways, de facto ruled the strip since 2005, and they have been capable of managing life, if you will, under siege.
But, at the same time, they’re not exactly accepting it as de facto, as apparently the Israelis have. They thought that they could just lock the Palestinians in, throw the keys, and start talking to the Saudis and the Emiratis. And I think a lot of it, just in terms of the immediate timing, was triggered for many Palestinians, and because that’s what I’ve been seeing or hearing from them the past number of days, is that it seems that Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations have shocked so many, when in his usual smug and boastful bravado, brought up his fancy map to the U.N. podium, and started speaking about a new Middle East, from Saudi Arabia into Morocco, centered around Israel, and completely omitting the Palestinians, as if they were invisible people.
Well, I think the last weekend the Palestinians have finally once again made themselves visible.
MH: Can you talk a bit about what some of the motivations would be of this particular offensive? Because, obviously, between Hamas and Israel, the Israeli military, there’s a huge gap in the level of force they can bring to bear, and many have said that, well, this assault will inevitably invite a far greater counter assault. And even the manner in which it was carried out seemed to entail some level of provocation, in terms of the targeting of the kibbutzes and so forth.
Can you talk a bit about why they may have carried out this assault now, and why it took the shape that it did?
MB: In terms of immediate causes, I can think of three.
One is that, in recent years, the repression of the new, sort of more fanatical, more fascist Israeli government has taken a whole new shape in the occupied territories, in terms of increasing the illegal settlements, increasing repression, increasing night raids against Palestinians, increasing the reconsecration of Palestinian religious sites, that it really angered Palestinians and pushed Palestinian groups like Hamas, or forced it to act in response to the Israeli violations. So, in so many ways, the Hamas attack is in response to the last few years of increased repression by the fanatical government in Israel.
Two, I think it was also, in a way, to make the Palestinians visible as recent American/Israeli diplomacy trying to bring the Arabs into the fold with Israel, basically having the Arab world recognized and normalize Israel’s apartheid regime, with the blessing support of the United States, making the Palestinians totally invisible. I think that certainly wasn’t to the liking of the Palestinians and their leaders. And, hence, this operation was meant to remind the world once again — by the way, not too dissimilar from the PLO’s actions in the 1970s to remind the world that there is a Palestinian question, a Palestinian cause, a Palestinian refugee issue, and so on and so forth — by carrying, also, at the time, what was the term, terrorist attacks, and so on and so forth.
And, third, I think there is an issue of prisoners. There are thousands of political prisoners in Israeli prisons, many of them under administrative detention, meaning they did not even go through the court system. And, over the past 50-plus years, some million Palestinians have gone through the Israel prison system, so you can imagine that this is a major issue for Palestinians and their leaders.
And, speaking of leaders, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, spent 22 years in Israeli prisons, and he was supposed to spend the rest of his life, under life sentences in Israeli prisons, if it wasn’t for the prisoners’ exchange — I think it was back in 2011 — when Israel released over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier that was held in Gaza. So, at that time, Israel released more than a thousand in return for one. Now they have more than 100 captives, and they certainly want to exchange them for thousands of Palestinian political prisoners. That’s on the immediate.
But to your point about, why would they do it knowing that the Israelis are going to definitely react that way they’re going to do, which is basically demolishing Gaza, I think from 300 years of history, at least the last hundred years of history of asymmetrical welfare, the logic of the smaller weaker party has always been to provoke the stronger party in order to overreact against the population of the weaker party, hence creating more hatred, more hostility by the weaker party around their leaders.
And I think Hamas understood, and Hamas wasn’t exactly very popular in Gaza the last several years. And certainly now, with Gazans being busy running for their lives, I think it was important, in terms of this logic to take its way, as it were, whereby Hamas provokes — in a very bloody, gruesome way — in southern Israel, Israel expectedly, and I would say stupidly, falls into the trap. And overreacts, hence creating more and more hostilities among the Palestinians.
And just one last comment on that. Recently I was reading Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shabak in Israel, [his book] “Friendly Fire” … And I don’t mean to give it any publicity; he was accused of war crimes. But in his book, and in his testimony, along with five other former heads of intelligence services in Israel, in The Gatekeepers, that famous documentary, they all seem to agree that Israel’s excessive use of force is the main cause for extremism among the Palestinians.
Israel always overreacts, over-retaliates, and certainly uses excessive force against the Palestinians, and that creates more hostility on the part of the Palestinians at large.
JS: You know, Marwan, I’ve watched numerous interviews where Palestinians — including Palestinians who are living in Gaza — have been interviewed on BBC or other major news networks, and they’re often interviewed either right after or right before an Israeli official, including Israeli officials who are saying, “…we’re going to cut off all electricity, all water, it’s going to be scorched earth.” Essentially saying things that very easily would be part and parcel of a Hague prosecution if uttered by leaders of other nation states that are allowed to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.
And I’ve thought a lot about this, and I thought about this the last time Israel laid siege to Gaza. The sickness of forcing every Palestinian that you speak to about their life experience to have a political commentary or a moral condemnation of Hamas. I wouldn’t have an objection to that if there was consistency, where Israeli guests were confronted with the horrifying war crimes that are being committed by their government.
I think all of us, any human being who hears the stories or sees the footage of what was done to Israeli civilians, is horrified on a visceral level. But if you don’t have a history of being horrified on a visceral level, when you see Palestinian children slaughtered on the beach, when you see whole families wiped out in drone strikes, when you see entire residential buildings blown apart, then any demand that a Palestinian from Gaza have a political position about Hamas, or to say something about what happened at the rave music festival in a desert that is situated a stone’s throw away from an open air prison camp, it’s bankrupt. It’s utterly morally bankrupt to say to someone who is a victim of collective punishment for their entire young life, as the first question, “what do you say about Hamas?”
And this, I think, cuts to the heart of why the media discourse is so utterly vapid around Palestine, is because Palestinians… There is always a demand that they have a big moral condemnation of any violence that is coming from their side, when the opposite is never true. And I think that this situation now is bringing to a head that reality.
You cannot talk about what Hamas has done — and I am utterly opposed to the killing of civilians by any side, I don’t celebrate the murder of civilians — but to discuss that and pretend like that is the, is the entry pass to have anything else to say about your life experience, which has been entirely lived in an open air prison, where now you’re being called a “human animal” by the leader of a vastly superior, nuclear-armed nation.
The discourse, Marwan, that we’re watching, and the demands made of Palestinians when they are given that rare opportunity to actually speak from their state of siege in Gaza.
MB: Yes, absolutely. Because I live a lot, a [large] part of the year in Western capitals between Europe and the United States — I also travel around the world — I sense that your sense of indignation, of course, mostly is about Western hypocrisy. Because when you travel throughout the world, you’ll notice that, actually, in different countries, it’s a whole other ballgame.
There’s a certain Western centric hypocrisy about this whole issue. And, of course, the Western media leads and, in so many ways, then it kind of sets a tone of some sort. But I think more and more Western media, like Western leaders, are becoming more and more isolated in the world, because of their hypocrisy and double standard.
I saw last Sunday, on one of the talk shows in the United States, they finally invited a Palestinian. Of course, you would invite a Palestinian only because the first question you want to ask him or her is, do you condemn Hamas, right? I mean, you don’t invite a Palestinian when Palestinians are getting screwed and bombarded or whatever. You invite a Palestinian after Hamas, or the Palestinians have carried some gruesome attack, and then your first thing you ask is, do you condemn it?
Now, what I found interesting when I was watching that segment on the American network is that I don’t recall, as someone who’s covered international relations for media and in academia, ever, ever in my life, a journalist coming up to anyone, from Russia and Ukraine, to France and Algeria, to America and Vietnam, and tell an indigenous person: do you condemn? I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen media approach anyone in the West, or in the developing world, or in the Middle East. Not even, not even in Iraq, by the way, not even in Iraq. Not even in Afghanistan, right? I haven’t seen an American journalist coming over and saying, do you condemn the Taliban? Do you condemn, I don’t know what, the Shiite death squads in Iraq? I haven’t seen that.
But on the question of Palestine, something completely flips all the time. Now, I think a lot of it could be explained in different ways. One is that you tend to see that the media follows in some paradoxical way the government sort of broad line on the question of Israel/Palestine. Here in France, or in Germany or in the U.K., the way you see them now, everyone’s kind of draping themselves with the Israeli flag from the Eiffel Tower to god knows what. You get the sense kind of from the government trickles down this idea that now we can stand with Israel’s right to defend itself. And no one asks themselves, what about the Palestinians?
Do they have the right to defend themselves? Because 50 years of occupation… It’s not just a word, it’s not a set of clichés. Occupation is a system of violence. That’s what occupation is. It’s a system of violence. Except it’s not dramatic, [something] that can be captured on TV cameras every day and every other day of people dying in the desert. It’s just an ongoing daily routine of people to live in a system of violence. That’s not captured by cameras, and that’s not recognized, necessarily; in fact, many of those Western outlets and governments would like to forget it altogether, and they try to do that, unless and until the Palestinians have reminded them of their existence.
And the third quick point on that, is that I feel American media in general is sending less and less people out to the world to cover. I remember as soon as they left, as soon as most of the American soldiers left Iraq, the American media left the next day. You hardly find an American television correspondent, for example, in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and so on and so forth. They’ve all basically disappeared.
And I think a lot of the media agenda nowadays in the West is driven by the newsroom, rather than by the journalists in the field. Either because there are no journalists in the field, or because there are few of them, and most of it is determined by the newsrooms in the power centers, which happens to be London, New York, Paris, and so forth.
And in those power centers, the newsrooms are defined and driven by what they read in The London Times or The New York Times, and by what they watch on Fox and Sky, rather than by what actually is happening on the ground. So they are editorially-driven, rather than driven by the actual facts of what goes on in places like Israel and Palestine.
MH: Marwan, can you talk a bit about what you foresee the Israeli objectives may be in this forthcoming operation? The Israeli military is currently bombing Gaza. and they’ve said that they plan to undertake a ground invasion of the territory, which the estimates say could start within the next 24 to 48 hours, according to U.S. sources.
Some have suggested that they may be planning to reoccupy Gaza, to govern it in the manner of the West Bank. Others have suggested more extremely that perhaps the goal may be to expel the population to Egypt, through the Rafah crossing. What’s realistic? And what do you think that the Israelis may be thinking of the end goal will be of this operation, which is getting started at the moment?
MB: To my mind, the way I’m reading it, and the way I’ve read Netanyahu’s press conference the other day, is that they’re sort of building it up as they go along. I think most of it came the day after, right? When the Israelis, of course, were totally shaken, with their pants down, and they tried to recover within hours. But after they were completely humiliated, I think they tried to regain the initiative. And, apparently, they started thinking, what do we do now?
And here, of course, the first reaction is, as you just stated correctly, that there will be retaliation, pounding of Gaza, crippling the Palestinians. Of course, much, much more than they did in 2014 or 2021. Really, this time, trying to make it hurt more than ever, right? And yes, apparently preparing for a ground invasion, recalling 300,000 infantry reservists, and so on and so forth. So, all of that aspect of it is correct.
But I think, from my understanding of history, then a number of factors start playing in. First of all, how do you turn this crisis into opportunity? And how could this crisis serve me, Netanyahu, or the fanatics in his governments, us, personally, politically, and so on? And I think, for Netanyahu, who’s been indicted on corruption charges as we all know, and who is responsible for the total intelligence and military screwup that Israel went through over the weekend. Black Saturday is Netanyahu’s Black Saturday, as far as Israel is concerned, and the commissions are going to start when the war stops.
So, for Netanyahu, the longer the war is, the more delayed accountability is, and the more delayed that he’s going to be held responsible. Not just for his corruption, but for his actual political crimes against the Israelis by allowing this to happen, when he boasted nonstop of Israel’s incredible capabilities in cyber, and in intelligence, and this, that, and the other thing.
And the way Israel was attacked was even more humiliating than 1973. That was 50 years ago, when Israel was surprised in the October War. Well, 50 years later, you would expect something different from Israel, now the strongest, most powerful, most sophisticated [inaudible]. So, I think there is a vested interest for Netanyahu and his government to prolong this war.
Three, I think the fascists and the fanatics in his government — namely Ben Gvir and Smotrich, the Minister of Security, Minister of Finance — have other ideas, even to that of Netanyahu. They want to see the Palestinian Authority destroyed. They want to see the Israeli Army go back to the entire cities and refugee camps of the West Bank. They want to see settlement multiply, illegal settlement, Jewish settlements multiply. And they want to see a squeezing out of the Palestinians of the West Bank happening slowly but surely.
Because they believe historic Palestine is the greater land of Israel, and they have god’s right to it, and the entire arrangements post-Oslo of the Palestinian Authority is not acceptable to them. And I think they are the ones who are gaining momentum in Israeli politics, and in the Israeli government.
Four, I would say the following, in terms of turning a crisis into an opportunity: as you, Murtaza, have written, over the past three decades, Netanyahu has always had this wet dream, if I could use that expression, about attacking Iran. He’s always demonized Iran since 1992 and, before he became first prime minister in 1996, always predicting every other year that Iran is going to have nuclear power in two years, three years.
Of course, it never happened, but he was always obsessed about Iran, and its assets and clients in the region, including al-Jihad [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], Hezbollah, and so on and so forth. And I think it is a chance today for Netanyahu to expand the war, because with 900-plus Israeli dead, with unconditional support by the United States and European powers basically telling him, do what it takes, as long as it takes. With the United States, after a conversation between Netanyahu and President Biden, dispatching its aircraft carrier, the Ford, along with a number of destroyers into the Eastern Mediterranean. Certainly, it’s not because Israel wants to bomb Gaza, or it needs help with bombing Gaza, or it would ever accept any American troops on Israeli soil, because it never did and never will. Certainly, the goal of all of this is to turn this crisis into an opportunity to widen the war, with the help of the United States, and the unconditional support of Western powers, to Lebanon, to Syria and, perhaps, to Iran.
JS: We said a lot over the years of the Trump administration that, you know, while everyone was focusing on Russiagate, there was a very clear collusion scandal playing out that was not even, really, thinly veiled. It was just playing out in the open, and that was the Trump administration’s collusion with a number of other nations to drive the world toward a war with Iran. And, certainly, Netanyahu knew how to play his cards with Donald Trump.
And then you had Joe Biden coming into power — and Murtaza wrote about this as well — and then continuing on with the sort of farcical Abraham Accords of the Trump era, keeping the U.S. embassy in a very provocative way, where it’s now going to be situated. And Biden himself has a very, very long history of … You know, he will say he’s been pro-Israel, but support for Israel at its most violent, most bloody, going back decades. In fact, Joe Biden, early on in his political career, even shocked some Israelis with how much of a defense he put up for Israeli war crimes. So, the continuity of U.S. policy, unfortunately, is quite clear, from Trump to Biden.
But you wrote this piece for Al Jazeera over the weekend, and the title was, “Netanyahu Is Drawing the U.S. Into War With Iran.” I want you to expand on that but, before you do, I just wanted to read this quote that a Haaretz columnist unearthed just a few days ago, where it was Netanyahu reportedly saying at a 2019 meeting of his Likud party, and this is the quote from a columnist at Haaretz, attributed to Benjamin Netanyahu: quote, “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”
It’s quite interesting to read this quote. It hasn’t been verified by other outlets, but even The Times of Israel is saying that it’s consistent with other things that they’ve heard from Netanyahu at the time; this is supposedly Netanyahu in 2019. U.S. media are now really hyper-focused on, what was Iran’s role in all of this? Certainly, Netanyahu wants to fuel those kinds of stories.
You also have Netanyahu’s history of seemingly supporting the idea that Hamas should be a dominant political player, because it plays into our hands, and going so far as saying we should be transferring them money.
Talk about this complicated potpourri of politics surrounding Netanyahu on Hamas, Iran’s role with both Hamas and Hezbollah, and now your point, that you think Netanyahu is trying to pull the U.S. into a wider war with Iran.
MB: Over the summer, I had to basically, what’s the word? Squeeze my nose or something, and read Netanyahu’s book, “Bibi.” It’s a monstrosity of some 700, 800 pages. It’s just an apocalyptical guide to arrogance, egoism, and chutzpah, all in one. And you can tell just how ambitious this guy is, and how much he’s driven by personal, not patriotic, beliefs. And that he is quite extremist, and he is his father’s son, and he comes from a family of utter extremists, and that’s how he sees the world. And he tries to be slick, with his American accent, and this and that, tries to talk to the West, with soundbites and clichés and all of that.
But, at the end of the day, he’s not just a hardcore Zionist, he’s a populist Zionist, who has never been serious about any prospects of diplomacy or peace with the Palestinians. And he just lies to his team, like the French president, and the American president, and much of the Israeli public have recognized throughout that he is just a pathological liar, so there’s nothing he could say to be trusted.
But on the question of Hamas and Fatah, the historian Rashid Khalidi also has written in the Journal of Palestine Studies some years ago, about the controversial history of Israel in relation to Hamas, and why Israel tried, in the early 1980s, to support Hamas against Fatah. So there’s a long history, imperial history of divide and rule. And you would expect that. Nothing surprises me there, right? I mean, what else would you expect from the Israelis than to divide the Palestinians? Actually, it works for their interest, if they don’t want a viable Palestinian state next door. If they want them to be preoccupied with one another, that’s what they do.
Second, with the help of the United States, according to a large exposé in one of those American publications that hopefully will come to mind now, clearly there was an attempt in 2006 to create a civil war among the Palestinians. And they succeeded, by bringing in Mohammed Dahlan, the head of security in Gaza, against Fatah, and so on and so forth, and really create the space for, basically, a civil war among brothers in the Gaza Strip, leading to two entities: one in the West Bank, and one in Gaza. One controlled under Fatah, and the other controlled by Hamas.
And since then, the Israelis and their supporters have tried to continue the divide, and deepen the divide between the two. In fact, I remember clearly a few years ago, it was almost comical to read Martin Indyk — a former national security advisor on the Middle East and former U.S. ambassador to Israel — recommend to Hamas in Gaza to declare their own state in Gaza. Their own state in Gaza. That’s one big refugee camp smaller than Brooklyn, right? And they wanted them to declare it. Why? Because it’s part of the idea of divide and rule, and just try as much as possible to divide the Palestinians. So, that certainly has been the case for the Israelis.
Except, I think, in this very particular case of the last two, three years, the Israelis became so arrogant that they thought they were actually now succeeding in both containing Fatah and Hamas, and kind of conspiring in a way that they can trick Hamas into separating from al-Jihad al Islami [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] as it happened in 2021, when every day as I was covering the war, Israelis were saying, no, no, we agree with Hamas, that this is only a problem between us and al-Jihad [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], as they were pounding Gaza. Clearly, Hamas has its own agenda and its own timing, and it wasn’t tricked by Netanyahu. If anything, it used Israel’s arrogance against it, by hitting it in a new and gruesome way where it hurts most.
JS: And on the issue of Iran, you’re asserting that it seems to you as though part of the game here with Netanyahu is to pull the U.S. into a wider war. There’s an increased focus now, the big piece in The Wall Street Journal, big piece in The Washington Post, starting to say, look, Iran may well be behind all of this. How did they get all of those weapons in there? We know that Iran has a long history of supporting both Hamas and Hezbollah.
I mean, it does seem like you have this sort of whiplash again, where there’s lingering in the background, anonymous officials whispering about Iran.
MB: You know, back in 2003, I had relations to The International Herald Tribune, which later became The New York Times International, and I had the chance to write three articles on the eve of the war and during the war, basically saying this war is going to really backfire big time. This is hubris at its worst for the United States. Of course, these articles would not be published in the United States itself, but only be published outside.
In that time, I was a minority voice among hundreds of columnists that were basically building the case for war against Iraq. You know, weapons of mass destruction, and this and that and the other thing, right? Saddam being the new Hitler, and all of that.
All of these arguments now are, slowly but surely, are being built up against Iran. They were already being built up against Iran before, but the Obama administration dismissed them, and forged a nuclear deal with Iran. But now, most of the arguments that we’ve heard against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, now, of course, are being used against the clerics in charge in Tehran, about Iran being a destabilizing force in the Middle East, building the nuclear bomb, a threat to Israel, a threat to American interest, a threat to America’s allies in the region, spreading chaos in the Middle East, a fundamentalist autocratic government, and so on and so forth.
All the arguments that were used against Saddam Hussein, and worse, are now used against Iran. And I already, in the last 48 hours, aside from before the war started, you can see how the case for war is building up. And it’s amazing that the article that was published in the Wall Street Journal was based on such flimsiness. It is incredible that it would pass through the Journal and become a thing that we all have to quote, about Iran’s officials meeting with Hamas officials, and militants, and Hezbollah militants, in Beirut. Two long meetings over several months, preparing and planning, and orchestrating the war in Gaza, or the Gaza attack, the Hamas attack on Israel. And, in fact, the Iranians deciding when the time was to pull the trigger.
That Wall Street Journal [article] was based on flimsy reporting, on unnamed sources in Lebanon, right? But it passed, and everyone else started quoting it. Except that the correspondent who apparently got those quoted was dismissed from Reuters years before, because of her unprofessional and fantastical kind of reporting. That’s just the Wall Street Journal.
JS: Just to clarify and give specifics to what you’re talking about there, Marwan: the main reporter on this Wall Street Journal story was the subject, then, of some Tweets from her former editor at Reuters, Andrew McGregor Marshall. And he tweeted on October 9th: “The main reporter on this story has a history of dishonesty and inventing stories. I fired her from Reuters in 2008 for this reason. I’m surprised that The Wall Street Journal has hired her, and is publishing her stories that are clearly bogus.” He later then added that she would have been fired, but she was allowed to resign first.
Just want to clarify, in fairness, that that is the specific case that you’re talking about here, Marwan.
MB: But on the spectrum of Israel and the United States, the neoconservatives that basically built the case for the war against Iraq are now, and you go back to the various sources in the United States, and you see the writing now everywhere, right? And the same guys, right? And the same pro-Israelis, who also built the case against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, are now building the case against Iran and Khamenei, and so on and so forth.
Except that there’s a major difference. Iraq 2003 is not Iran 2023. Iran 2023 is a totally different country in terms of size, in terms of capacity, in terms of assets and interests, in terms of its ability to really set the region on fire. The clerics in Iran are not Saddam Hussein. And if the United States screwed up big time in 2003, and basically lost its so-called superpower status, the one and only power in the world, the benevolent empire and all of that. If it lost most of that, and now we’re having more and more of a so-called multipower world … Well, a war against Iran, driven or manufactured or incited by Israel, as the gullible Biden administration and its vice leading security, national security team, start building up that case also for American deployment in the East Mediterranean, one that could start a third world war.
If that’s the situation we have, I think a lot of unintended consequences even before the war could start unraveling. Meaning we could have some of the stuff that’s happening now in South Lebanon, or some of the stuff that could happen tomorrow in Syria trigger a wider regional war, and America being drawn into this sort of a war, that really will leave everyone burnt.
MH: Marwan, if the war expands in the way you described, theoretically, you could probably see Hezbollah attacking Israel from the north, and the Iranians have said in the past that they would attack Israel through Syria as well, too. And it would be what’s known as a multifront war. And, obviously, Israel is very stretched, because it was deploying troops in the West Bank to defend settlers there, and so forth, which is what led to and contributed to this emergence of an attack from Gaza.
What would that look like for Israel? Is that actually a conflict that they’re able to prevail in? It seems like, if that is Netanyahu’s plan to provoke a larger conflict, is that a conflict … What would it look like for the region? And would the Israeli military, from your estimation, be actually able to sustain multiple fronts in such a case?
MB: OK. So, to clarify, I think two conflicts could be going on there. Already, one conflict is happening, but that’s an asymmetrical conflict, and asymmetrical warfare against Gaza, against Gaza’s factions: Hamas Jihad, and so and so forth. And I think it will take a long time to explain the difference between asymmetrical warfare; of course, Jeremy knows all about this, and worked on it.
But, just to be clear, this is not a conventional war. And even when we continuously talk about war, what’s happening in the last 40 hours is Israel pounding Gaza mercilessly, indiscriminately, and so on and so forth. And, of course, it’s Air Force, and its rockets are not going to face that much of a resistance, right? I mean, every once in a while, Hamas might shoot a few rockets in the air, and usually they are shot down by Israel’s own defense system.
But it’s not war, and it’s not even war in the terms of dissymmetry. I’m not just talking about imbalance of forces, because that’s dissymmetry, right? Iraq and the United States, that war was dissymmetrical, meaning one was hugely powerful and the other was quite weak. And the United States would be able to decimate the Republican Guards and Saddam Hussein’s forces within days, right?
But the real asymmetrical warfare started after that, right? And America basically fell prey to the asymmetrical warfare, the resistance, the guerilla, and so on and so forth, within Iraq after that. And mission accomplished became mission unaccomplished and, in fact, became “mission hell,” after that.
I think the same thing that we’re talking about here, there’s the issue of war against Iran. And there [are] all these asymmetrical conflicts that could spring out of it with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iranian assets in Syria and Iraq and all of that. There’s that.
But, before we get to the wider war thing, let me just… Just to be precise about a few things. Netanyahu always blustered, at least [during] the last decade, about the war against Iran, but he would have never carried any such war as Israel against Iran, because that’s a risk he cannot take. He’s not that kind of a wartime president, by the way. I mean, of everything we know, and despite all his bluster, he’s more of a Reagan than he is of a Bush, meaning he would bluster and talk about the evil Iran, like Reagan talked about the evil Soviet Union, but he would not get involved in actual war with Iran, right? He would leave that to the United States, for example, against Iraq.
But now there is an opportunity whereby, if he can draw the United States in, then we are talking about a wider war. He is not going to engage Iran in a wider war himself, right? As Israel, that’s not going to work, he’s not going to be able to handle it. Certainly not with Iran’s assets in Lebanon and Palestine and all of that, as it were. So, I think the idea would be to draw the United States in. Without the United States’ support, direct support, there’s going to be no conflict in Iran.
Two, I think the idea that Biden did not send a few Patriot missiles, or more and more ammunition to Israel, but sent this huge naval strike force, it’s almost like the pivot to Asia, right? The pivot to Asia was adding one more strike force like this one. That was the pivot to Asia, back during the Obama administration, right?
So, now we have a pivot to the Eastern Mediterranean with this one big strike force that is able, really, to get involved in the bombings in Syria and Iran, and so on and so forth. Will Biden do that? Well, Biden is the one who boasted of being the man who will end the forever wars, right? And being able to take in the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. But, as it were, for the benevolent empire, it never actually withdraws from the war, it simply redeploys in the war, as it does redeploy in the Middle East.
So, now there are tens of thousands of American forces in the Middle East; none of them in Israel, by the way. Tens of thousands of American forces in the Middle East, redeployed in various bases, and so on and so forth, involved in a couple of conflicts like Syria, Libya, and other places, right? So, the idea is that they are there, anyway. Biden said he wouldn’t do it but, in fact, he redeployed in the area. And now he is slowly but surely getting drawn in by giving Netanyahu carte blanche, green light to do whatever needs to be done, as long as it needs to be done. That could only give Netanyahu the power, then, to draw the United States more and more into conflict because, if it does really heat up on the southern border and the northern border with Lebanon, and Lebanon does come into the equation, and then Iran starts moving other assets in Syria, and so on and so forth, then we actually could start talking about wider war, and the United States will not be able to sit idly by, right? So, there are these.
And then, one last comment on that, just to be clear. I don’t think this has to be jumping on the war [drum] banging immediately. Already Israel has called 350,000 reservists. That’s certainly not to fight a war in Gaza, not to fight a war. It doesn’t need that. Not even on two fronts — Gaza and Lebanon — it doesn’t need 350,000 reservists, right? This is only needed in case of a wider war. So, there is that.
Two, I think one of the most important cases, one of the most important factors for Israel and Netanyahu in particular, once the dust settles from the bombing and the pounding of Gaza, is what to do about what they call the hostages, or the captives. The Israeli soldiers and civilians being held in Gaza. That’s the biggest issue for Israel and for the Israeli government.
There’s something sensitive for the Israeli public opinion, de facto or by design, I’m not going to get into that, but Israelis cannot handle the idea that more than a hundred of their own people, soldiers and civilians, are held by Hamas captives in there. We know from history of Gilad Shalit, the prisoner held in Gaza, that nothing happened to him, right? It’s not like he’s going to be tortured or whatever. And yet, Israelis cannot handle it, this government is not going to handle it.
So, I think the first thing on the mind of Israelis in the United States when the dust settles on the bombing of Gaza is what to do about the Israeli captives there. And I think now they all know that Egypt does not have leverage on Hamas and Jihad. Neither do any of the surrounding Arab countries. Apparently, only Iran has leverage with Hamas and Jihad to release hostages.
So, I would say, the first order of business for the Israelis and Americans would be perhaps, behind the scenes, is to tell Iran, look, either you risk a wider conflict here, or you’re going to have to tell your people in Gaza, as it were, to release the hostages, to release the captives, and so on and so forth. If Iran behaves indifferently or insists that it has absolutely nothing to do with this, as it has been claiming, then I think that will leave the door open for further escalation in the region.
Now, this could all be, by the way, my own fantastical thinking, right? What do I know? I’m just reading a bit of history, right? What happened in 2003, just this very most recent case, when I saw the exact same thing of building up the case for war, and flimsy or misinformation about threats and autocracies, and weapons of mass destruction. And we’ve seen what happened over the past 20 years. I just hope and wish that this does not repeat itself the next 20 years.
JS: We’re going to have to leave it there, Marwan, we’re out of time, but always fascinating to read your analysis. And thanks so much for coming on the show to offer your analysis with us here on Intercepted.
MB: Thank you for having me, and thank you for your patience, listening.
JS: That was Marwan Bishara, he’s an author and the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.
MH: Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Legal review by David Bralow. And this episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
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JS: Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.
Correction: October 12, 2023
In an earlier version of this episode, Marwan Bishara said Hamas was not involved in the 2021 war between Israel and Palestine. In fact, Hamas was part of that conflict. The audio and transcript have been edited.