Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to reject international calls for a ceasefire and says Israel will oversee security in Gaza indefinitely. This week on Intercepted, Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain discuss Israel’s monthlong scorched-earth campaign in Gaza and the U.S. government’s complicity. Then Mairav Zonszein, an Israeli American journalist and a senior analyst on Israel–Palestine at the International Crisis Group, joins to discuss developments in Israel and Gaza. Zonszein, who is based in Israel, discusses the political developments in the country, the failures of Netanyahu during the crisis, and the tragic implications for Palestinians in Gaza.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.
JS: Maz, this has just been a horrifying month to watch everything unfold in Palestine, and I’ve hit the point where I almost can’t even look anymore at the images that are being broadcast on social media. I also think anyone that has children and is following what’s happening, you just start to see your own kids’ faces.
One of the videos out of Gaza that really just… I’ll just say it bluntly: it made me cry. A baby was… These two young boys who had been pulled from the rubble, they had been rescued, one was maybe three years old and the other was maybe five or six, and they’re just trembling. And the littler kid is just looking at his body, he’s looking at his hands shaking, and he sees a wound on his hand, and he’s looking at it himself. And then he’s showing it to the older child, and that child is also trembling, and trying to comfort him, and it just really … On a gut, human level, it just brings home who is suffering the most, here.
You and I both have reported on Israel’s sieges of Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine over the years, and so, on one level, what we’re seeing, we’ve seen play out — I mean, you could make an argument that it’s played out for 75 years — but just, even in the past several Israeli campaigns, we’ve witnessed this killing of civilians. But the scale, the industrial scale on which children are being killed right now is shocking to the soul.
And as an American, I look at what the White House is saying, I look at what they’re doing. And, as a student of American imperialism and U.S. foreign policy, nothing about Biden’s position shocks me. But when you look at the fact that Israel is bombing hospitals, that Israel is repeatedly bombing refugee camps, that roughly half or just under half of the reported deaths in Gaza have been children. And then you juxtapose that with the rhetoric coming out of the Biden White House, and the fact that the administration is continuing to ship arms to Israel, and is refusing to say anything other than, “Oh, we might need a pause,” is the preferred term right now. It makes you feel great shame. I think, if you’re a person of conscience, it makes you feel great shame.
And the Israelis have started — The New York Times had a piece about it this week — the Israelis have started their own campaign, both behind-the-scenes and publicly, to try to shift the narrative about their killing of civilians. And, in The Times piece, they’re reporting on how Israeli officials are increasingly starting to raise many of the episodes in which the United States has been responsible for large-scale civilian deaths. Israeli officials pointing out that the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that during World War II, British warplanes trying to take out a gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen hit a school, killing more than 80 people.
So the Israelis are pointing to Fallujah, and the campaign against ISIS, and saying that no one would question whether or not the allies in World War II were justified in the kinds of bombings that they were doing in an effort to wipe out the Nazis, and that civilian deaths are just a part of war. And, to a degree, I think there is some aspect of what Israel is saying that is worth mentioning, but not in the way Israel is doing it.
It’s that the United States itself has a very long history of accepting large numbers of civilian deaths in order to achieve whatever stated objectives the administration in power claims are important. But what I think needs to be stated right now is that both Biden, and the last Democratic president before him, Barack Obama, on numerous occasions would make claims that what separates the United States from the barbarians of the world is that the United States doesn’t intentionally kill civilians. It doesn’t want to kill civilians. These are regrettable episodes when the United States kills civilians.
Now, of course, that’s a complete lie, if you look at U.S. history, but let’s just take it on its face. That has been the line from Obama during his many wars during his eight years in power, and that’s been Biden’s position as well. That what separates the United States from countries like Russia is that we don’t intend to kill civilians, we don’t intend to bring terror to civilian populations.
I don’t see how any reasonable person can make an argument that that’s what Israel is doing right now; accidentally killing civilians. Israel knows that these are crowded civilian-populated areas, and they are engaging in, at times, carpet bombing, dropping 2,000-pound bombs on crowded refugee camps, and many prominent international law experts have said these are war crimes, and that potentially charges of genocide could be leveled against Israel, because of the statements of Israeli officials openly saying that civilians, essentially, are fair game.
And so, to conclude my point here: when Biden and Obama say, this is what separates us from the barbarians of the world, this administration now is enthusiastically backing a scorched-earth campaign, while simultaneously condemning Russia for engaging in the same kind of conduct in Ukraine. And so, while I’m not shocked, I’m ashamed. I’m not shocked.
I think it’s important to recognize that there’s something different this time around, Maz, and it seems like the mask is entirely off right now on how central U.S. support is for Israeli war crimes, and has been for a very long time. And Joe Biden is one of the most ardent supporters of the most extreme Israeli policies in modern American political history.
MH: Yeah. It seems quite clear that this campaign is not just about deterring or destroying Hamas, but punishing the general population in Gaza as well, too. As evidenced from the statements of Israeli officials, as you said, but also the conduct of the Israeli military, as we can see it very viscerally, day to day.
Israel has a doctrine of disproportionate retaliation to attacks by militant or terrorist groups, and employed this throughout history, but never on a scale that we’ve seen like this before. And, certainly, the campaign seems to be in its early days as well, too, and roughly 10,000 people have been killed so far, the majority of them children, tracking to the fact that Gaza’s population also mostly consists of children.
So, it’s difficult for me to see — although I guess it will happen — how the administration can continue defending this on a day-to-day basis. But what’s happening — and you pointed out very accurately that they could criticize Russia for this in other places — is that the U.S. is bleeding away the moral pedestal that it claims to appoint to itself to dictate what’s moral or not, globally. And I think this narrative of U.S. exceptionalism morally does not have much purchase outside very small quarters of the West, and shrinking quarters of the West today, too.
If you look at the reaction from countries in the global South, almost universally, there’s criticism [of] — or at least great distance from — the U.S. position on this subject, and certainly nothing close to the blank check that the Biden administration is giving Israel at the moment.
JS: One more point, Maz — and I know you spoke a short while ago to a guest in Israel, and we’re going to hear from her in a moment — but just one final point I wanted to make.
If you look at how this is also playing out inside of the United States, you have massive demonstrations — the scale of demonstrations we haven’t seen since the Iraq war — in cities across the United States, in countries across the world. And I think, finally, right now you’re seeing the kind of mobilization that was desperately needed for decades to stand up for the Palestinian people.
And, in the United States, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, she’s currently the only Palestinian American in Congress, and there is a witch hunt against her right now. Both Democrats and Republicans are coming for her and trying to censure her. There are going to be primaries against Democrats who have called for a ceasefire, but the smearing of people who I think are on the right side of history, for sure, in standing up for the civilian population of Gaza is just utterly shameful.
And people should pay attention to this because, if someone like Rashida Tlaib can be taken out for being the lone Palestinian American voice in the United States Congress, for having a long track record, also, of condemning acts of terrorism when committed by groups like Hamas; I mean, Rashida Tlaib is no apologist for Hamas by any stretch of the imagination. But this ultimately attacks core values that the United States claims to uphold.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out in the 2024 election. I know a lot of Arab Americans who have been interviewed recently are saying that they voted for Joe Biden, and that they are not going to vote for him again. Donald Trump certainly is no friend of Muslims or Arabs around the world, he spent his time in the White House engaged in racist attacks.
But, at the end of the day, I really think that this is going to be a stain on Joe Biden, and a stain on the Democrats who supported this. The question is if it’s going to have political consequences in the form of Donald Trump winning the White House, we don’t know that yet. But I do feel like we’ve crossed a Rubicon on the issue of Palestine, and I think a lot of people are saying, there is a line in the sand right now. Either you stand up now, and denounce this, and do everything you can. to stop the mass slaughter of civilians, or we’re finished with you.
MH: Yeah, I agree. I think we’re reaching an inflection point like that, as we speak.
Earlier, I spoke about the situation in Gaza and Israel with Mairav Zonszein, an Israeli American journalist and a Senior Analyst on Israel-Palestine at the International Crisis Group.
Mairav, welcome to Intercepted.
Mairav Zonszein: Thanks, Murtaza.
MH: Mairav, last time we spoke a few months ago, we were talking about the Israeli government’s rightward lurch, and protests over the country’s proposed judicial reform. Now, it’s a few months later. We’re talking about this October 7th Hamas attack on Israel, and the Israeli military response in the Gaza Strip.
First of all, can you tell us how you’re doing, and how your family’s doing in light of these events?
MZ: Thanks for asking. I mean, we are fine. Tel Aviv has been experiencing rocket sirens pretty much daily since this started, but luckily we have a minute and a half to get into a shelter. Luckily, we live in a place that has a shelter down below our building. A lot of people in Tel Aviv don’t have that, but, obviously, with kids, it’s very harrowing. And also, just knowing what’s happening just an hour south of me is also quite horrendous.
But we’re OK for now. I’m pretty concerned about the regional threats of a bigger war, but I’m trying to stay focused on the day-to-day.
MH: Yeah. It’s pretty sobering to think that Gaza is so close to Tel Aviv, in fact, and the way life is, is so different, and so close by.
Can you talk a bit about the October 7th attacks, and the impact on Israeli society? It was an event which was pretty much unprecedented in contemporary Israeli history. Can you talk about how it’s affected people’s views of their own society, of the conflict, and of their place in the region?
MZ: Yeah. So, it is really hard to convey and kind of overstate just how earth-shattering a moment it has been, and that it’s still going on. Because the bodies have not all been identified, some people still don’t know if their loved ones are dead or missing, and the rescue workers continue to provide details and testimony about what they found, and what exactly happened on that day. So, it’s kind of a rolling trauma.
And also, it really has shattered the sense of security for Israelis, all over the country, but especially, of course, those who are now internally displaced, either because they were from the south and their homes were damaged, and even if they wanted to go back, they couldn’t go back at this point. But also, in the north you have communities that I think it’s pretty unprecedented for Israel to have evacuated, I think, two dozen communities along the border with Lebanon.
And so, there’s various degrees of impact for various communities, but the bottom line is that Israelis don’t feel safe, and they’re also extremely angry with the government, and with Netanyahu specifically. And they feel like the social contract that they had with the government and with the army to provide them with safety and security has completely been broached, and they don’t know when it will be restored.
And there’s obviously a consensus that, you know, Hamas has to go in Israel, but I think a lot of people are realizing that Israel’s tactics aren’t necessarily that effective, or that the price that they’re going to have to pay is going to be very, very large.
So, I think there’s a bit of a mixed sense of what exactly Israel needs to do, but just the very personal security of everybody I know has been undermined, and there’s also a lot of people who are carrying weapons now. I mean, men who served in the army, a lot of them are walking around with weapons; I think it’s set to triple the amount of gun owners in Israel.
And people have rational and irrational fears and paranoia, some of them are more understood than others; you can’t really judge. But, you know, Israelis just feel like, nowhere are they safe? Um, not just from the rockets, but from like, they’re just scared, you know, that a Palestinian is going to show up and try to hurt them. And the fear and the hatred has really just gone up, extreme.
And, of course, the other side as well, which we can get into. But Palestinians in Israel and in the West Bank are just being incited against, being hurled with violence and harassment. And so, the fear and the hatred is really just upped on every level, for everyone.
MH: Yeah. Mairav, I wanted to ask you more about conditions in the West Bank as well, too, but before, I want to get into something you just mentioned. You mentioned this contract that people felt that they had with the government and with the military. And, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu, a lot of his appeal to people was that he’s a very, very security-focused prime minister. And even his campaign ads, I remember, a few years ago, he talked about security, and to be the ultimate deliverer of that.
Can you talk a bit about how but people’s perceptions of him have changed, in light of that? And I’ll ask, specifically, because in the U.S., whenever there’s a crisis, people tend to rally around the leader, and rally around the flag. But it seems like in Israel, it’s different and there’s a lot of criticism which has emerged as a result of the October 7th attacks, of him, personally.
MZ: Even before October 7th — obviously, as you mentioned — there was a judicial overhaul plan. There were protests, mass protests, a lot of the security establishment, the former security establishment, the people in the army were openly protesting against Netanyahu and his government. And there were already a lot of people going on record saying they don’t trust him with Israel’s security. And there were warnings from within the General Security Service here that the government’s policies and plans have undermined the national unity and resilience, and are making us look weak in the eyes of our enemies. This was the kind of statements that were being put out by top security officials in Israel. So, that was. already happening before October 7th.
Since October 7th, it’s just across the board that, literally, I would say, nobody in this country wants Netanyahu in his chair, and yet he’s still there. And it’s hard to really overstate how much the failure is on him. Like, people really hold him responsible. And it’s not just that day, but also years and years of … He’s basically been the longest serving prime minister. Something like 15 years now, he’s been in power, and so, he’s shaped Israel’s entire approach to the Palestinian issue in general, and to Hamas specifically.
There’s been tons of criticism about the fact that he’s basically propped up Hamas, and left Hamas to kind of be in power and be funded by Qatar while undermining the P.A. in order to basically avoid any kind of dialogue, any kind of political framework or negotiation towards a solution.
So, Israelis definitely understand that, and they definitely are extremely angry with him, and they believe that he will have to move from his chair. Some believe it’ll happen during the war, some think it’ll happen after the war. It’s kind of amazing that he’s still there because, really, nobody trusts him. And you can also see in the way that he’s been handling this war, in his public statements, and just his general approach, is [that] he lacks any empathy for the families of the kidnapped. There’s clear disarray in his cabinet, and he clearly is interested in himself and his legacy, and also in trying to save whatever is left of his political career.
Every day there’s different news pieces here about how he’s already trying to put blame on others in the security establishment, or he’s trying to show that the movement to refuse to serve in the reservist duty before, during the protests, are a reason why Hamas saw us as weak. And so, he’s really just very explicitly interested more in his own career right now than in the stability of the country, so Israelis are really up in arms about it, and they’re not sure how to get him out of there.
MH: You alluded to this a bit but, obviously, Netanyahu had some role in helping entrench Hamas in Gaza to this point. And now that this attack has happened and, as you said, there’s this public push for ejecting Hamas from Gaza one way or another since the war started.
I’m curious of your take: how much had Israel prepared for this conflict? And we talk about the price that people are sort of girding themselves to pay. Have they gamed out what that may look like, or what people might find acceptable?
We’re about a month into the war, and I think that on the Palestinian side, they estimate about 10,000 dead and, on the Israeli side, I think several dozen soldiers have been killed in the war so far.
Given how deeply entrenched Hamas is, and how there could be a high price, is there a limit to what people are willing to tolerate? Or is there even a game plan for what they expect to happen going forward?
MZ: I assume when you say “they,” you mean the decision makers? Because…
MH: Yeah, the Israeli government. And then, corresponding to that, the public in terms of limits they may expect, and what becomes intolerable in a conflict.
MZ: I mean, there’s several things to unpack here. I think the public right now, it’s just kind of bracing itself, it doesn’t really know what’s going to happen. And, obviously, soldiers are paying the price with their lives, and Israelis across much of the country are not able to function as normally, because of the rocket sirens.
I think that Israelis are willing to continue to be in this mode for quite a while if it means that, at the end of it, they’ll have security. But I think they’re not convinced, and nobody can guarantee that they will have that security.
And so, I think the real problem is that the government, I don’t think, knows exactly what is going to happen the day after Hamas is deposed. And I also don’t think that it’s clear that it knows how to depose Hamas, even though it is clearly, explicitly, very dedicated and determined to do so.
But, as you said, Hamas is entrenched in Palestinian society, and in Gaza, specifically. And, of course, the tools that it uses are not all legitimate, and the Hamas attack on October 7th was, it definitely … It’s war crimes, crimes against humanity could even qualify as attempted genocide as well under international law.
But, in Israel, all of that overshadows the fact that (A), it is a political movement, it has a political strategy. It’s not just that it’s an irrational actor, right? And also that the Palestinian people on the whole have a liberation struggle, and that’s something that Hamas is a part of.
And so, even if you get rid of Hamas, you don’t get rid of the need to resist occupation, or the desire to have political independence and self-determination. And these are all things that I don’t think the Israeli public or the government is really considering right now, it’s not something that is at all on their agenda, you know?
So, as far as the day after, I think Israel has no good options, and it’s not really preparing for that. I think, right now, it’s just completely in a mode of trying to get the military to achieve specific goals. And I think that it’s already had to walk back or walk down the tree that it climbed when it said that it’s going to destroy Hamas completely, because it’s just not necessarily going to work that way.
And in terms of the way that the war is developing, Israel keeps saying it’s going to take months and months, and it’s going to be very long. But I don’t know if Israel has all that time, because of the humanitarian toll in Gaza, because of U.S. pressure, because of the regional threat. There’s just a lot of different factors that are playing a role in this, and I think time is not on Israel’s side. So, we’ll have to see how that develops.
MH: So, given Netanyahu’s collapse in popularity following this attack, and given the failures that led up to it, are there other actors in the Israeli political spectrum who may be more empowered going forward? I guess it’s still too early to say, but are there more conciliatory parties who may benefit from his decline? Or is it more likely that Israeli politics will shift more to the right, in the wake of the trauma of the October 7th attacks themselves?
MZ: I think the long term effects are harder to understand. I think there will be new and different energies and movements that come up as a result of what happened. But in the shorter term and medium term, I think Israel definitely will move further to the right.
I think, for most people, this was proof that Hamas is not an actor that you can negotiate with or that you can get anywhere with. That it wasn’t really interested in governing Gaza. Which is true, I don’t think it is interested in governing Gaza, and I think this attack serves its goal of being pushed out of governance, and returning to its roots as a resistance/guerrilla/underground-type group.
But there’s nobody in Israeli leadership today that has a different approach on Hamas — or, really, on the Palestinian Israeli conflict — that has any power. But even those who don’t really have much power, there’s no alternative. So, even if Netanyahu were to step aside, there’s nobody who would provide an alternative.
I mean, there are people who are considered more trustworthy, like Benny Gantz, or maybe a little bit less corrupt. Maybe more moderate, although a lot of the people around Netanyahu — and also Benny Gantz, who has joined this narrow war cabinet — are not necessarily more moderate when it comes to military strategy in Gaza.
So, in the same way that a lot of people talk about how the P.A. is defunct and illegitimate, I think, in Israel, you have a real crisis of government and leadership as well, where even if you held elections today, there would not necessarily be a much different outcome. And I think Israelis really are at a loss for how to proceed.
And there is a tiny minority of people, who are either on the left, or people from the south, who have gone through so many rounds of violence with Gaza, they understand that Israel’s policies have not worked. And they also understand that the more people you kill, the more hate and retribution you cause. So, I think there is an understanding amongst a small population that there needs to be a political solution to this issue, that it can’t be a military solution.
But that’s a tiny minority, and they don’t have political representation.
MH: Mairav, you mentioned the military strategy in Gaza as well, too, and the uniformity among different players. In the run up to the military attack on Gaza, there were some very shocking statements from some Israeli military and political officials about what their intentions were for the campaign.
I think there was one minister who said that they would turn Gaza into a city of tents. And, recently, another minister in Netanyahu’s government mused about using nuclear weapons against Gazans. Things which suggest a very, very extreme sort of anger and lack of distinguishment between Hamas and Gazan civilians.
Can you talk a bit about what could ensue in Gaza, in terms of humanitarian toll? I think to date we have about 10,000 people who have died there, but the military campaign is still in the very early days. And, given these statements and some Israeli military conduct, how bad could it theoretically get in the months ahead?
MZ: I mean, again, that’s a question of how the U.S. and international actors might put pressure on Israel. But I do think that, as far as Israel’s approach, it feels like it’s doing what it needs to do. It’s telling Gazans to evacuate and to move south. Many of them have. Some don’t want to, some can’t. There’s obviously complexity in demanding that so many people move in an already closed and condensed place.
But I think, on this issue, there’s no way to wage the kind of war that Israel is waging in Gaza without killing a lot of civilians and destroying a lot of civilian infrastructure. It’s just not something that’s really possible. And that’s just how it is. So, as far as Israel is concerned, it needs to target Hamas infrastructure and officials, and I’m sure it’s very plausible that Hamas officials are embedded in civilian areas with civilians. So, as far as Israel is concerned, that’s just part of the war.
So that’s kind of the status quo right now, and I think the international community, as we’re seeing across Western cities, people are demanding a ceasefire, and I don’t think that Israel can continue on this path much longer in this way, but it all depends. I mean, if Israel can feel like it has achieved gains, and if in the next few days or weeks it’s able to show some kind of progress that would allow it to feel like it could reach a negotiation, then I assume it might do that. At this point, it doesn’t feel that way, and it’s not being pressured to call for a ceasefire.
So, there’s a lot of different factors involved in that, but I think it’s clear to everybody, the humanitarian toll on Gaza, and this is one in a long series of humanitarian tolls on Gaza. The problem is that the international community, as much as it’s trying to push for the humanitarian aid, it’s not really able to come up with a plan for the political solution, because that’s really the issue here. That Gaza is not just a humanitarian issue, it’s a political issue.
MH: At this moment, when the Israeli military is going into Gaza, and you have the sense of heightened crisis, what role do you think the U.S. could play, constructively? Because right now they’re giving, effectively, a blank check to the Israeli military with very few, if any, red lines on their response.
Do you think that this is constructive, or is it sort of giving the Israeli government a moral hazard to do things which may be not just harmful to Palestinians, but also to its own interests?
MZ: Yeah. I think what we’re seeing is very clearly a failure of the U.S. to create a situation that is safe and that can save lives, because it’s not calling for a ceasefire. And this is not just a failure of the moment, but it’s also a failure of years of policies that have enabled Israel to reach this moment of hubris, of just this notion that it’s invincible and that it can do as it pleases.
And the U.S. has the leverage and has the power to constrain Israel, and I think, in some ways it’s trying to do that, but it’s clearly not succeeding at doing it. And there’s something about the way that the U.S. has positioned itself, which is very clearly, again, giving Israel the legitimacy to destroy Hamas, but without really thinking through what that means, how effective that can be.
And also, the U.S. is trying to deescalate, I think, and prevent a regional war from happening. But, in some ways, the way that it has provided Israel with weapons and with support could also drive Israel’s adversaries in Lebanon and Iran to hype up the situation, rather than be deterred.
So, the U.S. is kind of trying to play it both ways. It’s saying we need to prevent humanitarian catastrophe, but we also need to destroy Gaza. And so, I don’t think it completely understands how to handle that and, at this point, Israel is kind of just doing what it needs to do, what it feels that it needs to do.
MH: In the early weeks of the conflict, there was a leaked document from the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence that talked about the possibility of transferring Gazans to the Sinai Peninsula. And, last week, this was followed up by a report in The New York Times, which seemed to echo that report, claiming that Israeli officials had talked to Egyptian officials, trying to put pressure on them to accept such an outcome.
Previous rounds of conflict in Israel-Palestine since the establishment of the State of Israel have resulted in these mass displacements of Palestinians, either to other countries in the region or other parts of what was the province of Palestine, prior to the creation of Israel.
Can you talk a bit about why Israeli officials might want to push Gazans to Sinai, and why Palestinians may be particularly resistant to that sort of outcome, even if, in the short term, it may protect them from dying in an Israeli military assault?
MZ: I think it’s important to keep two things in mind. One, there’s extremely genocidal language and rhetoric coming out of certain people in the Israeli government and, also, far-right thinktanks, and all kinds of various people of more or less influence in Israel, who very clearly want to push Palestinians out of Gaza, also of the West Bank. They would prefer to see them all leave and go to Jordan, to Egypt. I’ve spoken to plenty of settlers who believe that they should be encouraged to emigrate and, if they don’t want to emigrate, then they need to be pushed out by force.
So, this is something that exists in Israeli society. It’s not necessarily on the margins — it is extreme — but it’s not necessarily something that I think Israel’s decision makers are going to try to implement, or that they could, even if they wanted to.
At the same time, I think, in this specific war and this specific operation, there is a desire, clearly, on some level, for Gazans to evacuate the Gaza Strip, because then Israel has more freedom to do what it feels it needs to do in Gaza without hurting civilians. So, ideally, I guess, for Israel, the majority of the population, the civilian population, women and children, would be able to go into Sinai for a period of time, and then come back.
But, from what we know of history, and from what we know of Israeli policies, it’s very understandable that Palestinians don’t believe that they’ll be able to come back to those places. And it’s also very difficult to ask somebody to leave their home, regardless.
So, I think, in the same way, Israel is not necessarily interested in its own interests — economic, military — to reoccupy Gaza, for example. I don’t think it’s interested in putting settlements back into Gaza. Even though, again, there are people on the right who want that, and who say that, but I don’t think that that’s its plan. I do think it will probably have some kind of temporary occupation or presence in Gaza — which you kind of can already see now — in order to regain security control. So, it’s a little bit more nuanced.
But, the fact of the matter is that, regardless of what we think, you can see that Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank are being pushed out of their homes and, in some cases, they’re not able to come back. So that’s just a reality, and it’s not extreme to say that. There are Israeli policies that are continuing a line from 1948, which is that we want this area to be for Jews and not for Palestinians.
MH: Yeah, I wanted to ask you a bit about the West Bank as well, too. You wrote recently that more than 120 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and settlers since October 7th, and I think that number has even gone up since then.
Obviously, in the West Bank, Hamas is not the ruling party, but there’s still this very extreme uptick in violence targeting Palestinians. Can you talk a bit about conditions there, and how they’ve deteriorated over the last month?
MZ: Yeah. So, the West Bank has already been experiencing one of the deadliest years for Palestinians since the Second Intifada. A lot of IDF raids, search-and-arrest operations that often end with shootings and killings of Palestinians.
And then you have settler violence, which is something that has also been around for a long time, and has gone up steadily every year. And then, this year, especially, it’s also at unprecedented numbers, and the U.N. has been following that quite closely, and there’s a few Israeli human rights organizations that also follow it.
Basically, since October 7th, you’ve had a combination of, I think, Israeli settlers and soldiers who feel vengeful, and are able to take out their anger on Palestinians in various ways, in addition to what is already a very kind of calculated campaign to force Palestinian communities out of their homes. This is something that has been documented very, very well over the last few months, and then we’ve seen an uptick since October 7th.
And, basically, the IDF now, all of the mandatory service soldiers, are in the south or in the north. And so, what you have in the West Bank right now, mostly, are reservist soldiers. Some of them are not that familiar with the situation in the West Bank. And, as a general rule, soldiers feel that their job is to protect Israelis and not Palestinians.
So, there’s plenty of times where soldiers will see something happening, see a settler harassing or assaulting a Palestinian, and do nothing about it, or actually arrest the Palestinian and not the Israeli settler. So there’s all kinds of situations like that.
And, with all eyes on Gaza, and with so much of the efforts and forces and attention on Gaza, then the people in the West Bank who are extremely radical, and who want to take up every hilltop and kick Palestinians out, are now doing so with even more impunity and more free reign than ever before.
There’s just a horrible record of Israeli police and soldiers detaining, arresting, charging, or convicting settlers for assaulting Palestinians. And so, even though there’s warnings about how the West Bank could erupt in violence if this continues, for some reason, nobody in the government is doing anything about it.
MH: It’s interesting. I noticed recently that the head of the Shin Bet — Israel’s internal security service — warned about the impact of this potential settler violence, and specifically said it could lead to an explosion in the West Bank. Which is describing the situation where the Israeli military seems very stretched on multiple fronts. First in Gaza, obviously, then in the north near the Lebanese border to deter Hezbollah. And then in the West Bank, where they’re controlling millions and millions of Palestinians under military occupation.
Can you talk about what the impact [would] be if there were an explosion of violence? What is the head of the Shin Bet really referring to? And how would that impact Israel strategically, especially given the fact that [there’s] still the risk of a regional war spreading as well, too?
MZ: I think probably what he means is that Palestinians will start to rise up more. He could mean a third Intifada. He could also mean just a lot more instances in which Israeli civilian settlers are armed and shooting at Palestinians, and then Palestinians are trying to protect themselves and, in whatever way possible, attack back. And so, then you start to have these militias who are just going around and attacking people, and that would just cause complete chaos and havoc.
So, there’s different scenarios for how the West Bank would explode, but it’s already in an explosive situation. And the government, and the people who are running the West Bank — specifically Bezalel Smotrich — they just very openly and explicitly seek to annex the West Bank, seek to formalize Israel’s control there. Especially in Area C of the West Bank, which is 60 percent of the West Bank, where all the settlements are.
They have all these clear intentions. And so, in some ways they’re able now to implement them even more while this stuff is happening in Gaza, and the security establishment is not stopping it. And so, it makes no sense in Israeli security interests to allow this to happen, because then it really will be overstretched, and it really will have a lot more problems on its hands.
So, I don’t really understand what the strategy is, there, to be frank.
MH: You mentioned earlier that there is a small but quite vocal human rights community in Israel, more left-leaning. And there was an interesting guest essay in The New York Times last week by Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer, and he said something very interesting.
He said that, in light of recent events, there’s been an active suppression of speech of internal critics of the government inside Israel. And, obviously, as we see in different countries, when there’s a security crisis, people who are trying to talk about civil liberties and human rights come under greater pressure. And even before October 7th, there was that pressure in Israel.
Can you talk about how that may have increased, or what’s happened since then, in terms of pressure on Israelis not to express dissent over government policy in the West Bank and Gaza?
MZ: This is something that happens after every kind of Gaza war, but now it’s even more on steroids. Where Israelis who want to protest against the war, or protest in solidarity with the people of Gaza, are silenced, or sometimes there are far-right activists — thugs, whatever you want to call them — that come and attack the protest. That happened a lot in 2014.
There’s also this phenomenon of anybody who speaks out against the war in any way, not even specifically saying, oh, we need to cease fire, or anything. It’s just, any kind of expression is being censored or silenced. And we’re seeing that specifically, now, with social media posts by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
I’ve seen reports of people being detained for a post with a Palestinian flag from years ago. There are teachers in various colleges and schools here who have been suspended for a social media post that Israel claims can be understood as supporting Hamas. So, the restriction on free speech just goes way up during wartime, and that’s something that we’re seeing.
And then, as far as Jewish Israelis, I think it’s very difficult for them to be able to articulate their opposition to the war. Like, you don’t really have protests now that are calling for a ceasefire, or opposed to the war. You really have just the families of the hostages calling for a hostage release. That’s really what’s dominating the public arena right now, and it’s very difficult for Israelis to express themselves.
It doesn’t mean that there isn’t any of that. There is. And even some of the victims in the south, some of them are pretty well-known peace activists, and they’ve been advocating for a cessation of the hostilities. But, again, they have no influence, and no power. But the police, for example, have been very explicit about the fact that they’re not going to really tolerate any kind of protests that identify with Gaza.
So, there’s places like Haifa and Umm al-Fahm, and different areas’ Palestinian citizens of Israel who are not really able to have their protests, because the police basically just said that they’re going to shut it down.
MH: It’ll be difficult to answer this question until the war is over, but I was curious, Mairav, of getting your take on what the long term outcome of this conflict could be.
Obviously, before the conflict, there was still a very dire situation in the West Bank and Gaza, not a very clear political horizon. But, now that this war started and the October 7th attacks have happened, it’s brought up the Palestinian question again — internationally, at least — and said, well, is there a possible way that this could end, still, with the creation of a Palestinian state? Or, more remotely, maybe a binational state?
I’m curious. What do you think is realistic, or what do you think is possible, given the Israeli public sentiment after these events that could lead to a political change in the future? Or is it narrower, the window for that to happen?
MZ: I think that the stakes are extremely high right now, and both peoples, I think, feel that they’re in an existential crisis, so that could lead us into a worse place, but it could also create opportunities. And, especially because the Israeli leadership is so broken, that could lead to eventual openings of political renewal. And, of course, the Palestinians also have been desperate for political renewal.
So, if you look at the history of Israeli relations with Arab countries, and the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan — and also the Oslo Accords, even, which happened after the First Intifada — there’s always violence, and war, and things like that, that happened before an opportunity arises for peace accords, or for something that is different.
So, my hope is that the shattering of a lot of the previous concepts, and the shattering of security, and the realization for Israelis that they can’t just build walls and think that that will provide safety, will open up the possibility for a political framework. But it’s very hard to see that now, with the government in place. It’s hard to see that because of years of American foreign policy that refused to push for that direction, and to make Israel kind of pay a price for some of its policies.
But I do think that, you know, you hit rock bottom, and then there are opportunities to try and open things up. And I do think that what happened on October 7th made very clear that Israel cannot win by might. I don’t know if that’s something that the decision makers are ready to accept, but I think, even after whatever they are able to achieve in this war, they’re still going to have to come back to politics and diplomacy. There’s just no other way to deal with it.
They can’t kill all the Palestinians, and Hamas can’t kill all the Israelis, and they’re all going to still be here when this is over, so they’re going to have to figure out a way to move forward. But that might take a long time, and a lot more push from each public for that to happen.
MH: So, Mairav, obviously, whenever there’s a conflict in Israel/Palestine, it heightens people’s emotions; not just in the region, but globally. And we’ve seen these big protests in the U.S. and Europe in recent weeks and, also, alongside that, we’ve seen this increase of hate crimes; some of them targeting Arabs or Muslims, but also a great increase in antisemitic hate crimes as well, too.
Talk a bit about how people may be feeling who are Jewish, globally or in Israel, and how, in any way, if perhaps the conflict may be contributing, also, to the sentiment of insecurity, or a fear that some Jewish people are feeling as a result of these heightened social sentiments.
MZ: Yeah. So, as much as it’s been horrible here on the ground, it’s also been horrible to see what’s happening on social media, and the disinformation, and the way people are really going into their silos, and are kind of incapable of showing humanity for the other side. And I think years and years of Israeli policies, and Israeli impunity and the West, allowing and enabling Israel to do that, has created a lot of anger, justifiably, amongst Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and also left and progressive circles around the world. And so, this is kind of the straw that broke the back, in many ways.
But, because of the severity and intensity of the Hamas attack, and because there are women and children being held in Gaza, there’s this feeling like the people who are calling for a free Palestine, who are calling for Israel to finally be held to account, are not capable of also understanding the very real victimhood of Israelis right now.
And so, the dehumanization that we’ve seen for so many years of Palestinians, and we’re still seeing in so many different ways — even the doubting of the numbers of the people who are being killed in Gaza, because Hamas controls the health ministry — all of these horrible manifestations of dehumanization of Palestinians, I think, in some ways, [are] making it very difficult for many people to also empathize and humanize Israeli victims of this attack. So, it’s something that I think has just accumulated for many, many years.
And also, Israel as a Jewish state, as the representative of Jews around the world, has spoken for Jews in many, many ways, and has been a major factor in American domestic politics for a long time now, in a way that, when Israel does something, Jews are affected in different parts of the world.
Now, that’s not Israel’s fault per se, but I would say that Israel is responsible for the fact that it claims to act on behalf of Jews around the world, when many, many Jews are either anti-Zionists, or who are not interested, or who don’t identify with it. And so, you’re seeing a real big backlash from years and years of Israel acting in ways that are clearly not in the interests of many Jewish people.
And I would say, even more so, that Israel’s raison d’etre following World War II and the Holocaust was to provide a safe haven for Jews, and even that, it’s having a hard time doing, for various reasons. So, this is something I think that is making Jews feel very insecure. And I can say that, me, personally, I’m somebody who hasn’t really experienced antisemitism in my life, and I feel like now, more than ever, there is a real fear of antisemitism around the world. And, of course, the same goes for Islamophobia, which is something that we’ve seen over and over again [since] 9/11, and in various different ways.
So, what’s happening on the ground … I think, when we call for a ceasefire, I think it’s not only in the interests of the lives of people in Gaza, but also because of the violence that this could, and it already is, triggering around the world.
MH: Mairav, thanks for joining us on Intercepted today.
MZ: Thanks for having me.
MH: That was Mairav Zonszein, an Israeli American journalist, and a Senior Analyst on Israel-Palestine at the International Crisis Group.
MH: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.
JS: 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 was done 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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MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.