This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Intercept reporter Alice Speri, who has frequently reported from occupied Palestinian territory, and Palestinian American writer and political analyst Yousef Munayyer. Speri and Munayyer discuss the history behind the violence that exploded Saturday, with Hamas capturing and killing an unprecedented number of Israelis, including hundreds of civilians. They also examine the current spread of misinformation during the conflict, how the media has historically ignored violence perpetrated by Israel, and how the impunity surrounding many of those attacks by Israeli forces has given the government freedom to collectively punish Palestinian civilians broadly in revenge for the assault by Hamas.
Ryan Grim: On Saturday, Hamas militants stormed through the security barrier around Gaza, taking the Israeli military by surprise and capturing every base and outpost in the vicinity. They also infamously raided an ongoing music festival underway in the desert, massacring 260 innocent civilians. Others rampaged through villages; in some cases, going door to door and hunting for those inside, killing them, or dragging them back to Gaza as hostages, where they remain held.
The Israeli government responded not just with an unprecedented bombing campaign, dispensing with previous attempts at civilian protection, but with extreme collective punishment, which is against the laws of international war. Israel has said that, until Hamas returns its hostages, Palestinian civilians will be deprived of food, water, and electricity.
Already, thousands of innocents have been killed on both sides, and we’re standing at a precipice of a catastrophic loss of life. The Israeli Air Force said that, by Thursday morning, it had dropped 6,000 bombs against what it called “Hamas targets,” and posted photos of the apocalyptic scenes left behind.
Joining me today is Yousef Munayyer, head of Palestine-Israel Program at Arab Center in Washington, D.C., and my colleague, Alice Speri, who has reported frequently from Israel and the West Bank.
Yusuf, welcome to Deconstructed.
Yousef Munayyer: Thanks for having me.
RG: And Alice, thank you for joining me.
Alice Speri: Thank you for having me.
RG: And so, Yusuf, you and I actually spoke earlier, because you were generous enough to join my show Counter Points, that I cohost in the mornings with Emily Jashinsky. That was about six hours ago, and I imagine that you’ve been pretty packed in between then. And I’m curious for you … How surreal are days like this? Where everybody is suddenly eager to hear the perspective of a Palestinian American advocate and policy analyst, when [you] may not have heard from some reporters in some time.
YM: Thank you, Ryan. Yeah, I appreciate the question. You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last several days. I feel like I’m trapped in the “Groundhog Day” film and unable to escape.
It’s important that people are interested in what is happening now, and I’m always happy to speak to folks, and try to inform them about what Palestinians are experiencing in the situation on the ground. But we have seen so many rounds of this, and my phone always tends to ring when there are Israelis who are hurt by political violence.
So, in 2008, when there was bombardment of Gaza, people wanted to find out what I thought about that. In 2012, in 2014, in 2018, in 2021, and on and on. And, in between those moments, there’s very little interest in what Palestinian life is like, what’s happening, what kind of violence is taking place, who the perpetrators are, who the victims are.
And in every one of those moments, I’ve said the same thing, over and over again: unless we use these moments to address the root causes of political violence, we are going to be repeating this, over and over again. I don’t want to keep doing that. I want to get out of this film, I want everybody there to get out of it as well. And I just hope that somebody, somewhere, with some decision-making capacity, learns some lessons about how not to just keep repeating this.
RG: And Alice, I want to get your take on this question too, but Yusuf, I’m curious. Thinking about this cycle of interest — when there is violence, lack of interest for a year, or two years, then interest again, going back — it makes me think about what Hamas did in its assault.
Hamas is not, whatever you want to say about them, they’re not stupid, they’re strategic. They had to know that massacres of civilians were going to cost significant amounts of Western sympathy or support. And it makes me wonder, if they made a calculation that all of the Western so-called sympathy that they have engendered, that the Palestinian cause has engendered over the years, has not led them any closer to any type of autonomy or dignity or liberation. And, in fact, every day just seems to get harder and worse.
And so, it feels like there may have been a calculation that said, you know what? It’s just not worth it anymore. Like, what is this supposed goodwill getting us?
I’m curious, though, from your perspective, how both Hamas — but also Palestinians in general — do they think about Western support and interest in the cause? And how do you think that that relates to what happened over the last week?
YM: I don’t know exactly what they are thinking, it’s hard to say. But I think that the main audience that they’re communicating to is not to Western publics. I’m not sure that they’re particularly concerned about that. I think they’re trying to send messages to Israeli leaders about their decision-making more than anything else.
Obviously, all of these events have an impact on perceptions of the situation here in the United States, and elsewhere. But, you know, for the average Palestinian who’s been stuck in Gaza for a decade and a half — who’s grown up for the past 15 years or so under this siege, and has seen six or seven different wars every other year of their life — I’m sorry, but they don’t give a rat’s ass about public opinion polling here in the United States. It doesn’t make a difference to them.
RG: And that’s a decision itself, to say, you know what? That’s not our audience. Like, there’s no point anymore.
YM: Yeah. It’s just such an abstract concept to people who are dealing with life and death right now, and feel completely abandoned by the world. So, I don’t, I don’t know what the strategic calculus is, but it seems to me the focus is largely on trying to send messages to Israeli leaders about the sustainability of their policy, more than anything else.
RG: Yeah. I was just thinking about this over the last couple days, as I’ve seen so many people saying, “Oh, well, now they’ve lost me.” And I was thinking, well, OK … Well, what were you doing? Like, if they lost you, then apparently they had you a week ago. What were you doing? How was that benefiting them at all?
Alice, I’m curious for your take on the way that Israeli public opinion has unfolded over the past year, because there’s so much more nuance going on in the Israeli conversation as it relates to the war than there is here, in the United States. I’m thinking particularly about the kind of famous Haaretz editorial, saying that one person is responsible for this, and his name is Benjamin Netanyahu. Which is the kind of thing that, if you say over here, it gets you canceled, gets you tagged as antisemitic, or somebody who doesn’t approach this with the appropriate sensitivity, yet that’s becoming an increasingly mainstream opinion over there.
You’ve spent a lot of time there recently. What’s your sense of how the Israeli Jewish public is responding to this?
AS: Yeah. I mean, I really spend more time in the West Bank than in Israel, per se. But I think, in general, there’s more of an understanding of the context and the historical background to this among some Israelis than certainly there is here, speaking to American audiences.
I think one thing that strikes me as someone who’s been covering Israel and Palestine for more than a decade, and kind of writing the same stories over and over and over again, and kind of talking about the untenable, unsustainable situation. One thing that strikes me here in the U.S. is how everybody seems to have woken up on Saturday, as if there had been no history to any of this. So, you know, the really, kind of, short lived memory, and lack of context surrounding some of the discourse in the U.S., I think, is something that … It’s not something you see as much in Israel, because Israelis have been, if anything, aware of this for a long time.
But yeah. I think this really has been one of the most frustrating things in the last few days, is this idea that we have done this before, we have said this before. We have written the stories many, many, many times, and usually you see a media surge around the latest bombing campaign which has, as Yousef noted, have been, becoming more and more frequent.
I remember first writing about this in 2008. Now it feels like it used to be every couple years, now it’s every year, and this is unlike anything we’ve seen. But every time we feel like we’re starting from scratch, basically, in terms of like, even just explaining the very basics of what is happening.
Every time I write a story about this, I feel like I have to do a primer, and it is incredibly frustrating how the discourse hasn’t really budged much.
RG: Yeah. And Yusef, of course, there’s the underlying structural oppression that you’re talking about, the occupation, the siege, the history. And then there’s also the rightward shift of the Israeli government over the past year, and some specific decisions made by that government, to encourage pogroms and in the West Bank, to push ahead with de facto annexation in the West Bank. And, in doing that, to pull military resources from the south which, to my understanding, tends to be a left-leaning area, so it was probably in some tension with the right wing government.
And so, I can imagine both things. A, they want to move resources to the West Bank for this annexation project, and also they’re fine pulling resources away from the South, these folks that they consider not to be their political allies.
Do you think that this was fueled by that kind of rightward shift and that movement of resources? Or do you think that, even absent that, you would have been likely to have seen this, just because of the structural oppression underway?
YM: Well, I think that the rightward shift, the direction of Israeli politics, absolutely played into this. And I think that everybody in the region — not just Palestinians in Gaza and Hamas and others, but American allies in the region — have been warning about this, have been saying… You look, for example, at the statement of the Arab League from February of this year. They all came out and said, “We are moving towards an explosive situation in Palestine if this issue is not addressed.” And the direction that the Israeli government is going, and the provocations, and so on, in the West Bank and Jerusalem and elsewhere, are going to lead to things like this.
So, I think that the direction that this government has taken has absolutely contributed to these events. And when it comes to Israeli politics, we have seen in the past year a massive debate within Israel about what direction the country needs to take to safeguard Israel’s existence, security, and identity. And there have been clear lines drawn between two different camps.
The Netanyahu camp, which has been led by a figure who [over] his entire life has made himself out to be “Mr. Security.” His entire political career is built around the claim that he can keep Israel secure more than anybody else. And, of course, on the other side, you have many people who used to work for Netanyahu. Many of his political acolytes — who’ve broken with him because of his political corruption, but are nonetheless right-wingers when it comes to Palestine — saying, no, no, you are actually a security threat. You’re taking Israel in the wrong direction. You are dividing the country, you’re weakening the security establishment.
I think the events of the last several days have shown that Benjamin Netanyahu, among Israelis, will be associated forever with the greatest security failure in the history of the State of Israel. That is very difficult to come back from; that’s not to say that he’s not going to try. But I think the impact on Israeli politics of this is going to be significant.
RG: Alice, as people have been trying to follow this, there’s been a confluence of — as Yousef was talking about earlier — basically no Western press in Gaza. Gazans running low on battery power, internet, finding it increasingly difficult to communicate, coupled with the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk … Twitter was never necessarily the most reliable place for news but, in previous crises, you could at least distinguish between more authoritative and less authoritative sources, and it just seems that there’s been a proliferation of hoaxes and fraud, coupled with outright propaganda, getting pushed to the point where it’s very difficult for people to have any idea what to believe and what not to believe.
You’ve got a piece on The Intercept on this phenomenon. What are you finding that’s different this time? And do you have any advice for people to navigate this?
AS: Yeah. I think this has been a huge issue, and not just with this weekend’s violence, we’ve seen this also last year with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The amount of just unverified uncorroborated information that was going viral within minutes, and very little effort to verify. [It’s been] very challenging for journalists to verify, although I’ll say a lot of journalists have contributed to spreading some of the information.
There’s a lot we’ve seen in the last few days. We’ve seen horrific reports coming out of both Israel and Gaza, and then we’ve seen some really incendiary ones spreading, aided by U.S. political figures, by Israeli political figures …
RG: Including the president, even.
AS: Right, yes. Some of what we’ve been trying to do at The Intercept is just tracing the origin of some of these claims which we have not independently verified, but the IDF has not independently verified. And I actually just spoke with the IDF about some of the most egregious claims about beheaded babies, for instance, which is something that multiple U.S. politicians have repeated, that it’s all over the networks. And the Israeli military itself would not confirm something that is being attributed to soldiers.
So, this kind of shows you some of the challenges. And I think, certainly, that the transformation of Twitter under Musk is contributing to that. It’s not the only problem, but it just kind of shows the enormous responsibility we have, particularly at a time when information is just so lopsided.
I mean, we know of people in Gaza losing electricity, not being able to report. Citizen journalists who usually document life in the strip that are unable to do so. We know that at least six journalists have been killed in Gaza since this started. And this is not unique to this latest violence, of course; Palestinian journalists have been targeted, as we know very well. We, at The Intercept, have covered Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing for the last year.
And so, we see, really, an attack on those that are kind of seeking to provide the information, at the same time when you have all of this unverified information that’s spreading online.
RG: Yousef, how have you been navigating this kind of information and media space?
YM: You know, there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation right now. Any time you have these massive events, there are people that look to take advantage of this. There are people who look to spread misinformation. You have to look at the role, also, of state actors trying to deliberately manipulate the scene, because of what their interests are on the battlefield or elsewhere in terms of diplomacy.
We saw that in 2021, when the Israelis flat out lied to the media, and then had to admit that they did. And, of course, they targeted a building belonging to the Associated Press — and Al Jazeera, as well — at that time.
RG: What was the lie they told at the time? You mean about Hamas being in that building?
YM: No, no. I think it was involving troop movements or something like that. They essentially used the media for operational purposes at the time, and outraged many, many people.
RG: Oh, that’s right.
YM: And it’s certainly not the first time that there [was] disinformation sent out by the Israeli military.
Twitter has become something of a wasteland, it is extremely unfortunate to see. But the first time I remember finding Twitter useful was around world events, because it is so hard to reach certain voices around the world and hear from them in the mainstream media here in the United States.
Many people remember the Green Revolution In Iran being one of these major moments where they started following world events on Twitter but, for me, it was Israel’s war in 2008/2009 on Gaza. The only Western reporters on the ground were working for Al Jazeera English, and the only way that they were getting information out was on Twitter.
And so, for people who are used to following events like this in places like Gaza and other war zones, and other places where voices of people from the region are underrepresented, it remains an essential space to navigate despite all of the misinformation and attempts by others to manipulate the discourse.
RG: And, Alice, you were in the West Bank recently doing reporting on Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing and the investigation that followed. How do you feel like Israel’s — I guess, what would the word be, impunity? Lack of sense that there will be accountability? — is leading to the sense that an overwhelming response, a complete flattening of Gaza might be just simply accepted by the West?
AS: Yeah. We published a story earlier this week precisely about how the impunity for Israeli crimes up to this moment has really led to the crimes we’ve seen over the last weekend. I mean, we have seen crimes that very well may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity by Hamas, and crimes in response to those by the Israeli government, which is essentially declaring a siege on 2 million people, threatening to starve 2 million people by cutting off food and fuel. And then, of course, these bombing campaigns that are indiscriminately targeting civilians.
All of these are war crimes. There has been an International Criminal Court investigation open in Palestine since 2021, with very little movement, very little progress. This is an investigation that both the U.S. and Israeli government have very fiercely opposed, and neither country is a member to the International Criminal Court, but that is precisely what you have international mechanisms for. And this is something Palestinian political leadership — for all of the legitimacy problems they might have with a lot of the Palestinian public — that’s something that the Palestinian leadership has invested massively in, this international mechanism of accountability.
We’ve covered the invasion of Ukraine, and we saw, within days of the invasion starting last year, the International Criminal Court dispatching investigators to Ukraine. They opened an office in Ukraine, they very quickly started a case that implicated leadership all the way up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. We’ve seen none of that in Israel, even though there were calls for this investigation to be open for years before it actually happened. There have been multiple reports that have been submitted to the ICC; Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing is just one of many cases that have been presented to the court.
But, with Shirin Abu Akleh, since we’re talking about her, I think another important failure to highlight here is that of the U.S. government. I mean, Shirin Abu Akleh was not just a Palestinian journalist; she’s also an American citizen. And, as we have written about many times before, she was one of several U.S. citizens who were killed by Israeli forces with absolute impunity. To this day, the U.S. government has done nothing about her killing, it has done nothing about the killing of other Palestinian Americans. It has done nothing about the killing of Rachel Corrie, who was killed in Gaza 20 years ago. And so, there is, really, a history of failure to hold those responsible for these crimes accountable.
And when you have impunity — as any kind of international law expert will tell you — when you have that impunity, you’ll see the crimes repeated, and grow in wars. We saw that with Ukraine, where Russian crimes in Syria went unpunished and were repeated in Ukraine, and we are seeing this over and over in Palestine. And so, really, I think there’s a massive failure of our international justice mechanisms here.
And the ICC prosecutor has been quite silent on this. I asked the office for comment, and they basically told us that the case is ongoing, and it applies to current crimes, and if anybody has any information, here’s the tip line, and this is really as much as they did. When a previous prosecutor of the ICC put out preventative statements, warning parties that these crimes fall under the court’s jurisdiction, and letting them know that we’re watching … That has not happened in this case.
RG: And Yousef, to go back for a second to that Haaretz editorial that talked about [how] one man is responsible for this, Benjamin Netanyahu … Obviously, it goes without saying that Haaretz also says, well, of course, Hamas has some agency in the way that it carries this out, and obviously Haaretz does not support massacring civilians. At the same time, Hamas itself is also, in some ways, a creation, or somewhat the responsibility of Benjamin Netanyahu, and of the Israeli government.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship, the weird dialectical relationship between the Israeli government and Hamas?
YM: I wouldn’t necessarily say the Israeli government and Hamas on their own, but I would say this has played out in the context of the Israeli government’s relationship to Gaza over the last two decades.
When the Israeli government decided to quote-unquote “disengage from Gaza,” which effectively meant to change the nature of their occupation of Gaza by pulling their ground forces and settlers out, they decided not to coordinate the handover with the Palestinian Authority. And, ultimately, after elections in 2006, when Hamas came to power, there was a divide between the West Bank and Gaza, and this was a divide that was exploited by the Israelis very much.
In fact, in 2004, when that disengagement was taking place, Haaretz, once again, reported on the comments of the advisor to Ariel Sharon at the time saying, look, the disengagement with Gaza is formaldehyde for the peace process. This prevents us from having to do anything moving forward on negotiations with the Palestinians. It brings the idea of a peace deal to an end.
And Benjamin Netanyahu, despite being opposed to disengagement at the time, has made a career out of saying, “If we withdraw from the West Bank, look at Gaza, that’s what we’re going to get.” And, at the same time he has played a role in keeping Hamas in power in Gaza, while also making sure that they bombed the strip repeatedly.
And so, they have determined that this situation of constant political instability and violence is preferable over making some kind of larger political agreement that would actually lead to a final status outcome to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and they’ve chosen this path over that [one]. And I think we are seeing the results of that on full display in recent days.
RG: And can you talk a little bit about — and Alice, curious for your take on this, too — can you talk a little bit about what Palestinians in Gaza had been doing over the years, nonviolently? And Alice, I’d like to get your answer on the West Bank, some of those movements over there.
Nonviolently, because I think this goes back to the original question that I asked you, which is that, when violence flares up, you’re on the horn. When the … I don’t want to say “the violence goes away,” because the violence is there every single day. But when it’s not in the news, you’re less on the phone with reporters. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t civil society actions, and movements, and pressure, marches, other organized ways to push the Palestinian cause forward in Gaza.
Can you talk a little bit about what some of those have been, and what the Israeli response was?
YM: Look, there have been so many efforts to try to raise awareness about this situation and demand accountability. Every human rights organization with any credibility has been screaming about this situation in Gaza for years. The United Nations and international organizations like them have declared the situation in Gaza unlivable. We’ve seen civil society organizations — Israeli, Palestinian, and international — speak out about Israel’s policies to the Palestinians amounting to the crime of apartheid. We have, as was discussed, efforts to approach the ICC that have been going on.
RG: That was called “diplomatic terrorism,” if I recall correctly.
YM: You know, anything Palestinians do, they will be framed as terrorism.
YM: If they boycott, it’s economic terrorism. If they write articles, it’s journalistic terrorism. If they speak at the United Nations, it’s diplomatic terrorism. These are actual claims that have been made by Israeli officials; if it sounds absurd, please go look it up, because this is the level of discourse around this.
RG: And in Gaza, they were holding picnics, and kind of celebratory events near the fence, in a way to kind of draw attention.
YM: In 2018, there was the great Return March, which was a mobilization that went on for over a year. Before it even began, the Israeli Defense Minister dispatched 100 snipers to the border with Gaza. By the end of this mobilization, there were close to 40,000 Palestinians who were either killed or injured in the process, and the West effectively shrunk.
And I just want to raise one point about the ICC, because it was mentioned earlier, and the Ukraine piece in particular: the White House, the United States administration welcomed the involvement of the ICC in the case of Ukraine. They actively oppose it in the case of Palestine. And this is a White House that speaks about the importance of a rules-based international order.
So the question is: rules for whom? And when and how do these apply? And I think a major focus of American foreign policy on this issue has been to send the message to Palestinians that international law does not apply to you; you exist outside the rules. And I think this, of course, creates an extremely dangerous environment, and we’re seeing it now.
RG: And Alice, we sometimes hear when violence flares up in the West Bank. Oftentimes we don’t. But there have also been a lot of nonviolent efforts underway there. Can you talk a little bit about what’s been done in the West Bank, and how that’s been met?
AS: Yeah. Some of the diplomatic efforts that we talked about earlier that you mentioned, the Israeli government basically described as diplomatic terrorism, like the PA’s effort to get the ICC involved. We’ve also seen the Israeli government declare six major Palestinian NGOs terrorist organizations, with absolutely no basis, as we’ve reported on. And these are organizations that have done incredible work documenting the constant human rights abuses by the Israeli military, and settlers, and others. And they have been targeted specifically because of their work documenting these crimes.
There’s always been a tradition of popular resistance in Palestine, but I think what’s incredibly frustrating for Palestinians is that they always get asked to comment about the violence when there is violence by Palestinians, like what we saw on Saturday. And they are never really asked about the kind of daily killings. I mean, we saw last year, in the West Bank, we had the highest number of casualties, of people killed since the Intifada. And the year before … It’s been escalating, and with very little interest from people outside of the region.
There’s been some coverage around some of the most egregious events. We saw an assault on Huwara outside of Nablus earlier this year by settlers. Settler violence in general has been really spiraling out of control under the current government. It had been exponentially growing over the years, but it’s really reached untenable levels. But we see very little response to that.
And, for the most part, Palestinians getting on with their daily lives is nonviolent resistance. I’ve written a long story, for instance, about communities in Masafer Yatta, which is this part of the Southern West Bank that’s under evacuation order, where people are being forcibly displaced, constantly attacked by settlers. And just by going to their fields, and farming, and staying at home, that’s nonviolent resistance. And that’s something that we’ve written about, but very few people seem to be interested in.
RG: Yousef, a last question for you. We are witnessing — and I think, also, about to witness — a catastrophe in Gaza, a civilian humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza of unimaginable scale. On Tuesday night, President Biden his first national address on the question, and did not even kind of hint, as far as I could tell, at the notion that civilian lives ought to be protected as this assault unfolds.
How are you feeling, as we’re not just on the precipice, but in the midst of this ongoing slaughter?
YM: I think it’s an extremely dangerous moment. You had not only the speech by President Biden but, importantly, a statement by the United States, along with several other Western governments coming just before that which made no mention of the importance of respecting international law during hostilities. All the while, the United States is sending expedited arms to Israel in this moment. Sending aircraft carriers to the region to send a message that, do what you will in the dark in Gaza and we’ll make sure nobody gets involved.
This is extremely dangerous stuff, extremely dangerous stuff. The Israeli ambassador was on TV the other day, and was interviewed here, and said in response to a question of, what do you expect from America? And he said, “Well, usually you guys only hug us on the first day. We want to make sure you guys keep giving us a big hug several weeks into this.” And there is no sign right now that Western leaders — and particularly the United States — are sending any other message than a green light for atrocities on the ground.
And you have Israel responding to the biggest attack it’s ever faced, led by the most unhinged government in Israeli history. So, the storm that is brewing here brings together some very, very dark clouds.
RG: Well, Alice, thank you so much for joining me.
AS: Thank you.
RG: And Yousef, thanks for joining me again today.
YM: Good to be with you. Thanks, Ryan.
RG: That was Yousef Munayyer and Alice Speri, 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. Legal Review by David Bralow. Leonardo Faierman transcribed this episode. 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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