Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently on CNN, “It’s not only our war, it’s your war too.” He was right: The Biden administration has armed, funded, and supported Netanyahu every step of the way as Israel wages a campaign of terror bombings against Gaza. In five weeks of sustained Israeli airstrikes and ground operations, one in 200 residents of Gaza has been killed. Of the more than 11,000 deaths, 4,600 of them are children. President Joe Biden remains entrenched in his support for the scorched-earth campaign of his “great, great friend” Netanyahu.
This week on Intercepted, independent journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Jeremy Scahill discuss the horrors facing the people of Gaza and the history of Biden’s support for some of the most extreme actions of Israel. They discuss the unprecedented killing of journalists in Gaza and the violent campaign being waged by Netanyahu-backed Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. Kouddous also discusses Israel’s killing of Al Jazeera correspondent and U.S. citizen Shireen Abu Akleh and decries the lack of solidarity from U.S. and other Western journalists. We also hear recent public remarks from author Ta-Nehisi Coates as he describes his trip to Palestine last summer as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature and offers his analysis of the siege of Gaza.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Over the past five weeks, the Israeli government — led by Joe Biden’s, quote, “Great, great friend, Benjamin Netanyahu” — has presided over a scorched-earth campaign to mercilessly and collectively punish the 2.2 million Palestinian residents of Gaza. In that time, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed; one of every 200 Gazans has been erased from this earth. More than 4,000 of these human beings were children. In fact, more children have been killed in five weeks during the Israeli siege than U.S. soldiers died during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
As Israel intensified its attacks on Gaza last week — including strikes against multiple hospitals — and presided over a forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes, President Joe Biden was asked about the chances of a Gaza ceasefire. “None,” Biden shot back. “No possibility.”
The U.S. is bankrolling and arming this killing spree, with the justification that all of this death and destruction falls under the umbrella of Israel’s right to self-defense. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked, quote, “Far too many Palestinians have been killed. Far too many have suffered these past weeks. And we want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them, and to maximize the assistance that gets to them.”
Now, setting aside the fact that all of this was done with U.S. weapons and U.S. support, it begs the question, how many dead Palestinians is acceptable to the U.S. government?
Benjamin Netanyahu has brazenly exploited the grief of Israeli citizens, whose lives were torn apart on October 7th when Hamas launched a series of murderous coordinated attacks inside Israel. Those raids resulted in the deaths of 846 civilians, 278 Israeli soldiers, 44 police officers; all those numbers according to the latest figures provided by Israel.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have made repeated statements that indicate that what they are doing amounts to an effort to erase Gaza. One minister said on Israeli TV that they were rolling out Nakba 2023. That’s a reference to the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 in order to create the state of Israel.
Over the past month, Joe Biden has cast doubt on the extent of Palestinian civilian deaths, he’s defended Netanyahu’s violent extremist agendas. He’s made clear that the U.S. position amounts to this: collectively punishing Palestinians for the actions of Hamas falls under the doctrine of self-defense.
Joe Biden stood by Israel as government officials have openly described an agenda of ethnically cleansing Palestinians, of threatening to do to Beirut what Israel has done to Gaza, labeling hospitals and ambulances legitimate military targets. Israel’s accused U.N. workers of being Hamas, journalists of being accomplices in crimes against humanity. And more than a hundred U.N. workers have been killed in Gaza since October 7th. At least 40 journalists and media workers.
The White House’s mounting effort to spin itself as being concerned about civilian deaths, and that it’s doing all it can to urge Israel to avoid massacring civilians on an industrial scale, it’s all an effort to obfuscate the U.S. role as Israel’s central ally enabling this slaughter. It’s a grotesque parlor game, and it only works if facts and history don’t matter. This crisis has undoubtedly solidified Joe Biden’s legacy as one of the premier American defenders of Israel’s crimes, including disproportionate attacks against an overwhelmingly defenseless civilian population.
In an alternate reality, one where the rule of law was applied equally to all nation states, Israeli leaders would likely face war crimes charges for the raising of Gaza. In fact, leading genocide scholars and international law experts have cited the statements of Israeli officials about the aims of their operations in Gaza as potential evidence of, quote, “genocidal intent.” A coalition of international lawyers representing Palestinian rights groups has already petitioned the International Criminal Court to open an inquiry and issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu and other officials.
But such attempts at accountability should not focus solely on Israeli leaders. The United States is Israel’s premier bankroller, its arms dealer, not to mention its political defender. There are several U.S. laws and treaties that prohibit support for and failure to prevent genocidal activities. Among these is the Genocide Convention Implementation Act, signed into law in 1988. You know who its sponsor was? A senator named Joe Biden.
On Monday, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit in the United States on behalf of Palestinians in Gaza. That suit is seeking to block the Biden administration from providing further military aid to Israel. The suit names Joe Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
It’s unfathomable, given the current world order, that any meaningful legal accountability is going to be served on U.S. or Israeli leaders. But on a moral level, on a moral level, it’s important to remember that these legal efforts to confront the slaughter and the complicity of Biden and other Western leaders happened, that it didn’t go unchallenged.
The U.S.-enabled horrors of the past five weeks should remain a bloody permanent stain on the fabric of Joe Biden’s political career and legacy. But, among the U.S. political elite, it’s simply going to be noted as: Joe Biden did his job.
I’m joined now by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an independent journalist who reports frequently for Al Jazeera, Democracy Now!, and Mada Masr; that’s Egypt’s leading independent news outlet. His documentary for Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines titled, “The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh” — which is about Israel’s killing of the U.S. citizen and journalist — won a prestigious George Polk Award in 2022. Sharif is also one of the coordinators of PalFest, a literary festival that travels around occupied Palestine.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous, welcome to Intercepted.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous: Thanks for having me.
JS: Sharif, I want to start with some of the comments that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made over the weekend when he was doing a tour of American media — CNN, State of the Union, NBC, Meet the Press — and, on a political level, Netanyahu was making an argument that Israel’s battle right now — which he defines through a narrow lens of, it’s a battle against Hamas — is akin to the battle against the Nazis in World War II. He also compares it to the so-called War on Terror, post-9/11.
He raises the issue of civilians killed during World War II by the allies in pursuit of destroying the Nazis, of civilians killed when the United States was trying to exterminate ISIS from Mosul and other areas, to justify the fact that civilians are being killed in Gaza. But more civilians have died in Gaza — in fact, more children have died in Gaza — than U.S. soldiers died in the entirety of America’s occupation of Iraq.
I just wanted to ask you — as someone who has reported on the ground, who has seen the toll of previous Israeli military campaigns in Gaza — to respond to Netanyahu’s line that he repeats over and over and over, that Israel takes extraordinary caution not to kill civilians, that Israel — more than any other nation state — is trying to provide means and methods for civilians to escape the warzone.
SK: I think this is just patently absurd. I first went to Gaza in 2011, and have [traveled there] repeatedly over the years, including two of the assaults in 2012, the Israeli assault then, and 2014 which, up until this assault, was the most brutal one. Also, The Great Marches of Return, wherein snipers were just picking off peaceful demonstrators. In all of those cases and including this one, civilians have been targeted.
Israel targets schools, residences, hospitals, civilian infrastructure. And you’re talking about a very, very densely populated area. And we all hear the statistic that nearly half of Gaza is children but, really, when you’re there, and you see it on the ground there, there’s just children everywhere. It’s a very closely knit society. Children will be taken care of by the grocer or the baker, children are taking care of other children.
And we’ve seen this shocking toll; 4,000 children killed, 11,000 in the space of a month, a record number of journalists killed, a record number of U.N. workers killed. Right now, Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, which was, really, it’s Gaza’s place of refuge. It’s a massive hospital that, in successive assaults, it’s where people go to seek shelter, because it is presumably the one safe place in Gaza.
There were tens of thousands of displaced people there. And now, the people who were able to leave, have, as the Israeli military has encircled it, and this is all happening with this complete siege. No fuel, no food, no water, no medicine. There are babies dying in the neonatal ward because there’s not enough electricity for the incubators. I mean, this is a real moment of moral bankruptcy in the world, and it has to stop.
JS: I don’t think anyone in the world could disagree with the fact that the doctors at these hospitals are incredible heroes. And also, there are a handful of non-Palestinian doctors also, who are on the ground at the Indonesian hospital, and also at Al-Shifa. You have Dr. Mads Gilbert — who is a Norwegian doctor who spent many, many years on the ground in Gaza — releasing a desperate plea as the hospital was under attack over the weekend for President Biden and European union leaders to listen to the cries that we all could hear as we watched his video.
Mads Gilbert: President Biden, President Biden, President Biden? Mr. Blinken, Mr. Blinken, can you hear me? Prime ministers and presidents of the European countries, can you hear me? Can you hear the screams from Shifa Hospital, from [inaudible] Hospital? Can you hear the screams from innocent people? Refugees sheltering, trying to find a safe place, being bombed by the Israeli attack forces this morning inside the hospital? Hospitals that are the temples of humanity and protection. When are you going to stop this? You’re all complicit.
JS: Now, President Biden came out this week and said Gaza’s hospitals need to be protected, but he only did so after he was asked about it by a reporter.
Reporter: Have you expressed any specific concerns to Israel on that, sir?
President Joe Biden: Well, you know, I have not been reluctant in expressing my concerns about what’s going on, and it’s my hope and expectation that there will be less intrusive action relative to the hospital. We’re in contact with the Israelis.
Also, there is an effort to take this pause to deal with the release of prisoners, and that’s being negotiated as well with the Qataris that are engaged. So, I remain somewhat hopeful. But the hospital must be protected.
JS: But responding to the mounting global outcry and outrage against these scenes coming out of Gaza, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials are accusing Hamas of having command and control centers buried deep underneath the hospital. In fact, they’re characterizing Al-Shifa as essentially camouflage for the most important command center of Hamas.
Sharif, what’s your response to that?
SK: They’ve provided no evidence of this whatsoever. And this is a government that has repeated false claims over and over and over again, and has been proven and shown to lie on a regular basis to justify its actions.
But let’s for a moment assume that this is true. You’re not allowed to bomb a hospital or a school just by claiming that there is a military target underneath it. If there’s a school shooter in a school in this country, you can’t go bomb the school to get rid of the school shooter and kill all the children inside. So, even by their justification, their rhetoric, it’s a war crime.
And there’s no evidence that this is the case. This is a hospital. A hospital. There are tens of thousands of wounded, there’s people being buried in the parking lot because they can’t take the bodies outside and the morgue is full. And they’re justifying attacking it.
I don’t see how these claims are taken seriously by the press, by government officials. And, increasingly, we’re seeing an outcry, finally, but it’s been too little, too late. And right now, the hospital Al-Shifa is surrounded, and people who want to leave now, can’t. They’re saying they’re being shot at while they’re trying to leave.
The latest reports say there’s about 650 patients inside, 500 medical staff, and 2,500 displaced Palestinians. And, yeah, I can only imagine — I can’t imagine, actually — what they’re going through, and what the endgame here is.
JS: Sharif, when Joe Biden was asked last week — he was wearing sunglasses coming out of the White House, heading to go and do an event in the Midwest — he was asked about the possibility of a ceasefire in Gaza, and Biden shot back, “None. No possibility.”
Reporter: President Biden? What are the chances of a Gaza ceasefire?
President Biden: None, no possibility.
JS: Joe Biden himself has a 50-year career in U.S. politics of being one of the most dedicated allies of Israel’s most extreme policies, and has repeatedly throughout his career — as I’ve documented in my own reporting — stood by Israel, and promoted Israel when it’s at its most gratuitous, in terms of violence against the Palestinians. Biden cast doubt on the civilian death numbers that were provided by Gaza health authorities. He’s also opened a spigot of $14-plus billion in new military aid to Israel.
His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, was interviewed on CNN over the weekend, and was asked directly if Israel is abiding by the law of war.
Dana Bash, CNN: Is Israel operating according to the rules of war?
Jake Sullivan: Well, Dana, I’m not going to sit here and play judge or jury on that question. What I’m going to do is state the principle of the United States on this issue, which is straightforward. Israel has a right — indeed, a responsibility — to defend itself against a terrorist group.
JS: Sharif, talk about the Biden administration position, because what we’ve seen in recent days is Secretary of State Antony Blinken [and] Joe Biden himself, sort of try to project this image that they are agitating for Israel to do what they call a humanitarian pause. Antony Blinken himself said, far too many Palestinians have been killed. It seems like the White House spin right now is to, on the one hand, give full-throttled support to Netanyahu’s scorched-earth campaign, but then project an image publicly that they’re trying to sort of moderate it a bit.
SK: Well, I think what’s been shocking — even to myself and to many observers who know of U.S. foreign policy over decades and what it means — [it] seems we’re at a turning point or something has changed, because this type of military campaign that’s genocidal, that scholars have documented as being genocidal, that’s displacing, and I don’t understand what’s going to happen afterwards with Gaza. But the administration is not just supporting it and enabling it with military and diplomatic and economic support, but they’re cheering it. They can’t even bring themselves to say “ceasefire,” when people like Senator Bernie Sanders can’t even bring himself to say “ceasefire,” then the mask is just completely off, now. That no longer can Western nations claim anything about human rights and democracy and all of this. This is going to change how people in the Middle East and elsewhere deal with and think about geopolitics in a certain way.
Everyone knows that there’s massive war crimes committed by Western nations, but there’s something of a different flavor of this and the response to it that I think is, really, a turning point. And Biden now — and Blinken, sort of — very timidly calling on Israel to protect civilian life for the first time since this all began, if there’s no consequences for Israel, the money keeps flowing, the arms keep flowing. It won’t make any difference, and we’re seeing that on the ground.
Israel, I don’t understand what their endgame is. They’ve already destroyed Gaza, OK? And half the population has basically fled south. It’s unsustainable there. I don’t understand where they’re supposed to go. Are they trying to push them out into Egypt, which is a longstanding colonial fantasy? Perhaps.
But, yeah. The situation as it stands now … And Netanyahu said that we’re just getting started, and intimated also that there will be some form of long term security occupation of Gaza. No, no, no, I think this is going to resonate for many, many years, and we’re already seeing attacks on U.S. troops in Syria and elsewhere escalate. So, there’s going to be a blowback to this, for sure.
JS: And the prospect for a full-scale invasion or war against Lebanon is certainly on the table. I mean, Israel’s defense minister, he’s like a caricature from an 80s Cold War movie, the sort of vicious warlord that Rambo or somebody needs to go and take down. I mean, he goes to the north of Israel along the Lebanon border, and he is saying, after the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech, the Israeli defense minister says openly, on camera, in a video promoted by Israel, that we can do to Beirut what we’ve done to Gaza.
You have other senior Israeli ministers, the former head of Shin Bet — Israeli intelligence service — he’s now the minister of agriculture. He’s interviewed on television, he says that we’re rolling out the new Nakba, which was the mass expulsions of 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel, where Palestinians were put on a death march, and we’ve seen those images occurring. You have videos of Israeli troops and their commanders on the beaches of Gaza saying, “this is now Israel, again.”
The language of ethnic cleansing, and even scholars are saying genocide, is being put out there for all to see. It seems as though part of the strategy is to try to put so much pressure on Egypt right now to essentially take the Palestinians into the Sinai, remove the Rafah border crossing, have the Palestinians go there. “Hey, this is your new home.” A huge tent encampment in what is now Egyptian territory. That does seem to be part of the endgame here, Sharif.
And I wanted to ask you, because you’ve reported with such nuance and depth and experience from Egypt, and you continue to work behind the scenes with journalists there. Talk about the role of Egypt right now. Egypt has in the past been one of the brokers of ceasefire agreements between Hamas and Israel, but talk about not only Egypt’s role, but also the position of the dictator of Egypt, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
SK: Right. So, when this assault began on Gaza on October 7th, there very quickly — from reporting through Mada Masr that we’ve done — there very quickly was pressure on Egypt from the U.S. and other Western nations to open up the Rafah crossing and facilitate what they call the humanitarian corridor to allow for the mass displacement of Palestinians in Gaza to Northern Sinai. Instead of pressuring Israel to halt its bombing campaign to protect civilian life, to let in aid, they were pressuring Egypt and offering economic incentives.
Egypt right now is suffering from a terrible economy with record-high inflation and massive amounts of debt. So, they’re offering economic incentives for Egypt to do this. The government of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has been staunch in its refusal to open the border in this way. This refusal has been met with a lot of support across Egyptian society, because no one wants to facilitate what they call the second Nakba. Egypt has always said they’ll allow dual citizens to leave, they’ll allow some wounded to leave, in exchange for some aid getting in. And that’s been the position.
Sisi has trafficked and used the Palestinian cause in his rhetoric, and that really rings very hollow. I think we have to remember that Egypt has been complicit in the siege on Gaza, helping to enforce the blockade for the past decade and a half. Egypt coordinates with Israel on security. It even allows Israel to conduct airstrikes and drone strikes in Sinai.
So, their motivation is more that they don’t want to have a mass rest of Palestinian population on their land, akin to Jordan, Lebanon, where they can then launch resistance attacks. They don’t want to have to deal with a mass humanitarian crisis. But this is where it stands right now, that they’re not opening the border and allowing this mass displacement.
And, again, like I was saying before, this is an old colonial fantasy. There are many plans that have been documented; most recently, a document leaked last month from Israel’s intelligence minister detailing a plan for a postwar solution in Gaza that includes the transfer of Palestinians to Sinai. There was also something called “the island plan.” In the 1970s, thousands of Palestinians were expelled to Northern Sinai. They eventually returned some 20 years later, only to be displaced again.
So, this is a very real issue, but it’s coming up against such a severe humanitarian crisis that it’s unclear what’s going to happen next. Because there are hundreds of thousands from Northern Gaza now in the South, the aid that is getting in is what the U.N. has described as a drop in the ocean; sometimes 80, sometimes 100 trucks a day, sometimes far fewer, and this is compared to 4- to 500 trucks a day before October 7th, before there was this massive, brutal assault, and before this total siege.
So, there’s severe malnutrition, people are drinking dirty water. At some points, Egypt may have to let people in, and maybe they’re negotiating to get as much money out of it as possible. It’s very hard to know.
But I have to mention, also, there’s a growing movement now in Egyptian civil society that’s calling itself the Global Conscience Convoy. It’s being led by the journalist syndicate in Egypt, and they’re organizing a convoy of journalists, of artists, activists, writers, public figures — both Egyptian and foreigners — to head to the Rafah border crossing sometime in the next 10 days or so to break the siege, and to allow in medicine, and food, and water, and fuel, and humanitarian aid, as well as journalistic crews to get into Gaza.
So, we’ll have to see what happens. And I think the government will allow them to get to the Rafah border crossing, because their interests align; Egypt wants the aid to get in to relieve this humanitarian crisis so it doesn’t force this mass displacement of Palestinians into Egypt.
JS: I also want to ask you, [since] it’s getting attention in some quarters, but it really isn’t getting the attention I think it deserves right now, and that is: as you have this scorched-earth campaign being waged in Gaza in the West Bank, you have Israeli settlers waging their own campaigns of terror, with the full backing and support and facilitation of the Netanyahu government. But these Israeli settlers are waging campaigns of terror and assassination against Palestinians.
And, while this is happening, and Palestinians are being terrorized by these Israeli settlers, you had a vote at the U.N. General Assembly, a U.N. resolution demanding an end to the illegal settlements. And the resolution condemned all illegal Israeli settlements, and labeled them illegal and an obstacle to peace. That resolution passed 145 to 7, and it called for the immediate and complete cessation of all Israeli settlement activities in all of the occupied Palestinian territory.
Sharif, just five countries joined the United States and Israel in voting no to that: Canada, Hungary, and then three small island nations, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Nauru. Talk about that part of the war that’s being waged against Palestinians right now, the settlers’ campaigns of terror against Palestinians in the West Bank.
SK: This is not new, as we both know, it’s just accelerated since October 7th in a very real way. Something like 10 or 11 Palestinian villages have already been depopulated, many of them in the South Hebron Hills, but across.
Speaking to friends who live in the West Bank, a lot of them don’t want to leave their homes very much. There’s checkpoints everywhere, and these settlers are rampaging freely, and they’re represented in government, with this very extreme government. I mean, every Israeli government, its goal is the settler colonial project, but the rhetoric, obviously, is more extreme with people like Ben Gvir and Smotrich having the mic. And they have empowered the most violent, radical, right-wing settlers who feel they have license now to… Really, they go and attack Palestinians in their homes in villages at night, to the point where they end up having to move, for the safety of their families and so forth.
And you have very draconian laws being passed now. One, I forgot what it’s called… “Passive Consumption Law.” It sounds like an 18th century disease, but it’s, you know, if you’re basically reading the wrong thing on social media, they can come arrest you, and people have been arrested for their WhatsApp statuses and so forth.
JS: And people should look, there are videos of Palestinians — who are Israeli citizens — where they have Israeli law enforcement show up at their door reading to them their WhatsApp posts. And, in one case, a case that went all around the world, it seems like the woman had posted something innocuous, the kind of thing that you see people who are horrified at what’s happening in Gaza post all over the world, and it’s a totally human interaction that you’re watching. She’s completely dumbfounded. She cannot believe that they’re telling her that she’s being arrested on assertions that, effectively, she’s a propagandist for Hamas for posting something to her status on WhatsApp.
And they immediately respond and go, and they not only arrest her, then they go and they arrest her husband.
SK: Yeah, and this is happening every single day. There are raids happening in Palestinian towns and cities and villages across the West Bank almost every day. Jenin, which is a militant stronghold in the north, is being raided by Israel. They recently fired a few airstrikes on Jenin and killed, I believe, 14 Palestinians there, which is the highest number in a single day since the Intifada in 2005.
So, while the world’s attention is focused on Gaza, this is all happening in the West Bank. We’re getting some coverage of it now, but this is all part and parcel of the settler colonial project, which is to continue to take land, to continue to displace the indigenous population, and to imprison them and to silence them. And to have this apartheid state, which preferences one ethnic group over another.
JS: I think it’s important, also, to say, Sharif, that, as Netanyahu is doing all of this, what was happening with Netanyahu on October 6th was that his government was in jeopardy of falling apart, his political future was in question. And he has very, very cynically — and we had the great Israeli American analyst Mairav Zonszein on the show last week laying this out — how Netanyahu is exploiting the grief of the people of Israel — in fact, of Jews across the world — to ram through his extreme agenda.
But, if you’re paying close attention, you know that many of the most vocal Israeli opponents of the siege of Gaza are people who have paid the highest price, whose loved ones were killed in the raids that Hamas conducted on October 7th. More than 800 civilians were killed in those raids; those are the most recent figures that the Israeli government has put out. And I think it’s really important to remember those voices in this, because they don’t often get airtime, but they are some of the most vocal opponents of the mass killing of the people of Gaza. The people whose loved ones were killed on October 7th.
But, Sharif, back to the issue of the West Bank. I wanted to talk to you about an incredible piece of journalism that you did for Al Jazeera with Laila Al-Arian. It was about the killing of the veteran Palestinian American journalist, who was also an Al Jazeera correspondent, Shireen Abu Akleh. She was killed while reporting on an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank on May 11th, 2022. You did a film, it won the very prestigious George Polk Award.
Talk about your investigation into her death, and how her death speaks to the posture of the Israeli government right now in Palestine.
SK: Well, for those people who don’t know who Shireen was, she joined Al Jazeera in 1997, not long after the channel was founded, and she was hired as one of their first field correspondents. In a career that spanned nearly a quarter of a century, she became one of the most prominent journalists of her generation. She was really a familiar face to millions across the Arab world, and internationally, and just a trusted reporter for so many viewers, especially of my generation, watching her report on the Second Intifada. And she was very dedicated to her job, and the critical role journalists like her play in occupied Palestine.
On May 11th, 2022, she was In Jenin reporting — as she so often does, and she reported a lot on Jenin — on an Israeli raid in the refugee camp in Jenin. And, very basically, this incredibly prominent journalist in broad daylight, wearing a helmet and flak jacket with the word “press” clearly emblazoned on it … There’s no crossfire in the area, there’s eyewitnesses all around, and much of it is captured on video. And her and her colleagues are methodically targeted — it’s not errant gunfire — they’re methodically targeted by an Israeli sniper, and she’s killed.
And, despite all of this — and Shireen is also an American citizen — we don’t have justice in her case. And if someone like that can’t get justice, what chance does anyone in Palestine have?
JS: What did U.S. government officials tell you as you were reporting this story — or members of Congress — about this? Because, when Jamal Khashoggi — who was not a U.S. citizen, he was a legal permanent resident of the United States — was killed, this was all over the world, solidarity, as there should have been, when he was butchered by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. But you did not have anywhere near the scale of solidarity or outrage being expressed from — I’m sorry to say it — journalists, and certainly not the U.S. government.
What were you told as you investigated her apparent assassination by Israeli forces?
SK: The Biden administration’s position has been to adopt and accept the Israeli position, which is patently absurd.
First, let’s go back. Israel reverted to its playbook in these situations to evade accountability. So, first they said it was a Palestinian gunman who killed Shireen, they released a video to support their claim, a video that was very easily debunked that same day by B’Tselem. And we went to that spot, too, and showed how, from there, there’s no clear line of sight to Shireen.
Then, Israel said the evidence was inconclusive. Then, after multiple investigations by news outlets — including AP, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the UN, human rights groups — Israel finally admitted in its final report that an Israeli soldier likely killed Shireen, but that she was caught in crossfire. It didn’t provide any evidence to back up that claim of crossfire, and that claim is directly contradicted by eyewitness testimony and by video evidence.
The U.S. adopted that narrative, and said … There’s something called the U.S. security coordinator who didn’t conduct their own investigation, they just kind of summarized the Israeli investigation and the P.A.’s investigation, but the P.A. didn’t really do an investigation. And they basically said that she was killed by an Israeli sniper, but there was no evidence of intentionality, although they don’t, again, explain how this came up.
And so, there have been, actually, calls in Congress by people like Senator Van Hollen and others calling for an independent investigation into the case. The FBI eventually did open an investigation, the Israeli government openly said it would not cooperate. Israeli soldiers wear body cams, [but] we don’t have any of the body cams of the units, no transcripts of interviews with those soldiers. And, as it stands now, there’s been no accountability.
And you mentioned Jamal Khashoggi. The first White House Correspondents’ Press Association dinner that happened after Shireen was killed, President Biden had the parents of Evan Gershkovich there.
JS: The Wall Street Journal Moscow correspondent who is in jail right now, and has been in jail for months.
SK: Yes. And he spoke about Austin Tice, the journalist who disappeared in Syria, over a decade ago. And there was no mention of Shireen Abu Akleh. This is an American citizen, also, who has … Does she not deserve the same justice? Does she not deserve the same support? Biden refused to meet with the family when he went to Palestine, and in D.C., when the family came to D.C.; Blinken did meet with them, but Biden did not.
And I just have to say, also, I mean, let’s take a look at what’s happening right now in Gaza. This is also mirrored, right? This is the deadliest month for journalists since CPJ began gathering data in 1992.
JS: CPJ is the Committee to Protect Journalists.
SK: Right, and is kind of the world’s leading watchdog on press freedoms. At least 35 Palestinian journalists have been killed in Gaza in a month, 35. I don’t think we know the number of injured.
So many of the ones who are still alive have lost so much, lost their family members. Al Jazeera’s Bureau Chief for Gaza, Wael Al-Dahdouh, lost his wife, his son, his daughter, and his grandson in an Israeli airstrike on a refugee camp in central Gaza. He was somehow back on the air the following day, shattered, somehow mustering the strength to keep reporting and keep us all informed about what’s happening on the ground.
Why have we not seen widespread and unequivocal condemnations from western newsrooms of the killings of Palestinian journalists by Israel? They were very critical and open of the imprisonment of Evan Gershkovich by the Russian government, and rightly so. They were very critical of the Saudi government for its brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But when Palestinian journalists are killed in record numbers by Israel, there’s something close to silence. It’s unconscionable. It actually betrays a very heavy bias in these newsrooms.
And you have a situation now where foreign journalists are not being allowed into Gaza. Some have gone in embedded with the Israeli military for a few hours under very tight restrictions, but no foreign media has been allowed in to report freely on the ground. Israeli military officials even told Reuters and Agence France-Presse, we can’t guarantee the safety of your employees in Gaza.
Then, many of the Palestinian journalists on the ground there are killed. And then Israeli talking points are used by these newsrooms, and Palestinian claims on the ground are met with skepticism. It’s really beyond the pale … And, I know, Jeremy, you and I are among hundreds of journalists that signed this open letter condemning Israeli killing of reporters in Gaza and criticizing Western media’s coverage of the war. I am still somehow shocked by The New York Times’ coverage.
The New York Times’ coverage of Palestine has always been deeply problematic. I’m somehow still blown away by… Forget how we think about Palestine, how we think about colonialism. I’m just saying basic, basic reporting. There’s been articles that are really written like Israeli press releases.
Let me read one sentence from an article on October 25th that supposedly explored Israel’s military campaign in Gaza: Quote, “Officials and analysts sworn that a potential ground invasion of Gaza could be even bloodier than the air war. They argue that strikes that ease an Israeli ground advance will help reduce the loss of life for Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers alike once the invasion begins,” end-quote.
So, this is a claim that’s left completely unchallenged, literally saying that Israel is bombing Gaza in order to protect civilians. It is both absurd and shameful, and this is the coverage that we have. And the language that’s used, always, is so problematic.
Just to give an easy example, almost without fail, every news outlet says that the U.S. and the European Union have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. Fine, you can say that. But seldomly, and never with such confidence and regularity, do they also report that the world’s leading human rights groups — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, even Israeli human rights group B’Tselem — have concluded that Israel is an apartheid regime. Why the different standard?
This kind of coverage has led directly to the situation we’re seeing on the ground. It has led directly and facilitated this type of killing, and this type of impunity, and it’s deeply problematic. And we’re seeing it now; people are protesting outside The New York Times, there’s a lot of dissent happening from within, and I think people need to speak out. This is the time.
JS: I want to ask you in a moment about PalFest, the Palestinian initiative that you are one of the co-coordinators of. But, before we do that, just one final point on the immediate situation.
What we’re seeing in the United States and around the world — certainly in places like London — is massive street protests, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And we’re also seeing a crackdown on speech, and a crackdown on activism, trying to raise awareness about the civilian costs to the Palestinian people of Israel’s actions in the United States at universities like Columbia, for instance.
The Columbia University administration banning the student group Students For Justice in Palestine, as well as Jewish Voice for Peace. You have universities issuing instructions to students that they’re not allowed to say the phrase, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” You have, in Germany, also, and other European countries, an attempt to criminalize speech, and to conflate speaking out in defense of the Palestinian people or Palestinian civilians with antisemitism.
We’re in the midst right now of a very dangerous moment. Even beyond the horrors in Gaza, we are seeing so-called western democracies starting to attack the free speech rights of people whose speech is not liked by those in power. And, for all of the whining, crying, screaming that right-wing activists have done over the past several years about how their free speech rights are being abrogated, their free speech rights are being are being trampled on, at this moment, many of those people who claim to be free speech warriors are some of the loudest voices advocating to shut down the speech of people speaking in defense of Palestine. This is a very, very dangerous moment.
And you also have been organizing, Sharif, in the United States, a series of events trying to raise awareness about what is happening right now in Palestine through PalFest.
First, explain what PalFest is, and how you got involved with it. And then, in a moment, we’re going to talk about a very high profile writer that spoke at one of your events recently about, sort of a conversion that he had, when he finally accepted the invitation to go to Gaza; I’m talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates. But first, talk about PalFest, and its origins.
SK: Well, PalFest, which stands for the Palestine Festival of Literature, was founded in 2008 by the Egyptian novelist and writer Ahdaf Soueif with the aim of showcasing and supporting cultural life in Palestine, breaking the cultural siege imposed on Palestinians, and strengthening cultural ties between Palestine and the rest of the world. And to affirm, in the words of Edward Said: the power of culture over the culture of power.
I was invited as a guest and, basically, what the essence of PalFest is, is it brings writers from around the world to Palestine. It’s a traveling festival. So, because Palestinians freedom of movement is restricted by the Israeli occupation, the festival crosses checkpoints to reach its audiences. And so, during the day, the international participants in the festival, they meet with artists, they meet with activists, they meet with people on the ground, and take part in these tours that bring them face to face with the physical realities of life under occupation, and life under apartheid.
And, at night, we host free public events where these writers go on stage alongside their Palestinian counterparts and perform a series of readings, poetry, discussions, musical performances, and so forth. I was first invited as a guest to PalFest in 2014 and, since then, have been one of the producers and organizers of the festival.
And so, PalFest 2023, this year’s festival, was held in May under the theme, “Palestine and the global South.” We had authors from Palestine, from Kashmir, from India, from Ethiopia, from the United States, and it was our biggest and most varied program ever. And, among those writers, was Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s one of 15 international writers who joined us, it’s his first time in Palestine, and it had a very profound effect on him.
He said later that when he came back, people, family members, friends told him that he had changed. And he said, I have changed. And very often, Black American and Indigenous writers see ties to the Palestinian struggle as deeply connected to their own.
So, in PalFest 2023, the group went to, for example, the home of the Tamimi family in Nabi Salih. They met with Ahed Tamimi and Bassem Tamimi, her father, both of whom are arrested now and in prison. They went to Al-Khalil — or Hebron — where There’s certain roads that Palestinians from there are not allowed to walk down and they are allowed to walk down, it’s a very clear depiction of apartheid and segregation. They went to Alibd where they hear about ’48, and the Nakba, and what happened there with ethnic cleansing.
On November 1st, we decided as PalFest to host an event here in New York. We do most of our stuff in Palestine, but because of this atmosphere of censorship, this atmosphere of silencing, this brutal propaganda campaign against Palestinians, we thought it was important to open up a space for discussion.
And so, we basically invited Ta-Nehisi Coates to speak alongside Rashid Khalidi, who’s one of the preeminent historians on Palestine in this country, a professor at Columbia University. Michelle Alexander, who wrote a very important op-ed in The New York Times in 2019 called, “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” where she cited Martin Luther King’s antiwar speech in 1967, and called on Americans to condemn the Israeli occupation and settler colonial project. We had people like Muhammad el-Kurd, the poet and writer and activist, Natalie Diaz, Noura Erakat, an incredible human rights lawyer.
And, first of all, it was very difficult to find a venue. The place that we ended up hosting it at — the James Memorial Chapel, which is a historic chapel at Union Theological Seminary — was the fifth place we had approached. The other venues all said no, and it wasn’t because of capacity or a scheduling issue, let’s just put it that way. We secured that church the day before the event, actually. And then there was this incredible turnout, it literally circled an entire city block, the line to get in, so there was clearly this hunger for people to hear these types of voices, despite this vicious atmosphere of censorship.
And I thought it was a very moving event, where you had people like Ta-Nehisi speak about how he was affected by what he saw on the ground in Palestine, how it resonated with him as an African American. And yeah, there were calls to action. We had also Jewish Voice for Peace, who have been doing incredible work in this country, read a message from their rabbinical council.
I think it was a special event and one that was necessary in this time.
JS: Well, Sharif, we’re going to end our show today by playing excerpts of Ta-Nehisi Coates at the PalFest event in New York on November 1st. People may have seen some of the clips online, on social media. My friend and colleague Josh Bagley posted some really powerful clips on Twitter, and you can also see them on PalFest social media accounts as well.
But, before we do that, Sharif, I just wanted to thank you very much for all of your work, and thanks for being with us here on Intercepted.
SK: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: That was Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s an independent journalist who reports frequently for Al Jazeera, Democracy Now!, and Mada Masr in Egypt. He’s also one of the coordinators of PalFest, a literary festival that travels around occupied Palestine. You can find out more at palfest.org.
Before we go, we wanted to share excerpts of award winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking at a public meeting in New York on November 1st, organized by PalFest, the Palestinian Festival of Literature.
Coates is the author of a number of acclaimed books, among them, “Between the World and Me,” “We Were Eight Years in Power,” and “The Water Dancer.” Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I had this degree of anxiety about going, because I knew I was going to see something, something I couldn’t quite name. And I knew because of my upbringing, because of my mother, because of my father, because of my wife, because of my son, because of my community, that, after I saw the thing, I would have to come back and talk about it, that there was no option in which I did not talk about it.
And I thought I was going to another country but, in fact, what amazed me was I actually felt that I was in the same country. But I was in a different time. I was in the time of my parents and my grandparents. I can think back to all the articles I’ve read, all the things I’ve seen said about how complicated and how complex the situation is, and the occupation is. It’s complex, it’s complicated. And it’s made to sound as though you need a degree in Middle Eastern Studies or some such, a PhD to really understand what’s happening. But I understood the first day.
We went to East Jerusalem, to try to visit in the way that Muslims visit to Al Aqsa Mosque. And I can remember being there, and there were four IDF guards, biggest guns I’d ever seen in my life, and they checked IDs, and they gave us our IDs back, and then they did nothing. They just made us wait. And we waited, and we waited, and we waited.
There was no list, there was no protocol, there was no anything. They were just making us wait because they could. And somewhere in the back of my mind I was like, I know what this is, I know exactly what this is.
The second day we went to Hebron, and I can remember walking down streets with a Palestinian guide. And we would get to certain streets, and he would say, “I can’t walk down this street with you. You can walk, I cannot, because I’m Palestinian.” And I thought, I know what that is.
As we drove through the occupied territories, and I would look out, and I would see roads that Palestinians could use, and roads that only Israeli Jews could use, I said, I know what this is. As I saw different colored license plates for different classes of people, I said, I know what this is. As I saw communities that I can only describe as segregated, I said, this is Chicago, it’s Baltimore, it’s Philadelphia.
And I don’t mean to center the whole world on America — we have a tendency to do that — but my lens is my lens, this is all I have. And what I felt was a tremendous weight. I felt the obvious thing that I think all of us feel, that our tax dollars are effectively subsidizing apartheid, subsidizing a segregationist order, a Jim Crow regime. But I also felt that, as an African American who was reared on the fight against Jim Crow, against white supremacy, against apartheid, I felt tremendous shame. How could I not know? How could I not know that the only democracy in the Middle East, as it bills itself, is segregated? How did I not know that?
And what I came to, Michelle, was that Israel is a democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East, in the exact same way that America is the oldest democracy in the world. So, the relationship was quite clear. It was quite clear. It was palpable, it was felt, and the responsibility was clear after that.
I think it’s really important to acknowledge something, and that is that, I’m a relative latecomer to this. It’s not something that I had a real knowledge of. I had an intuition for it, I had an awareness of the tradition, but it really was not until I went there that I had a tactile feeling for it.
One of the things I will probably be making amends for until the day they put me in the ground, if I’m honest, is in one of my most celebrated works of journalism, when I had to demonstrate tangibly how a reparations program could be done, I looked to Israel. And you know, like, I think about that. And one of my golden rules about writing is that, you only write after you’ve reported, you only write after… And I wrote without going. I wrote without going.
And so, while there is this long tradition of solidarity, for me, personally, there’s a thing of making amends, and it is terribly ferociously important to me. I think about that, and I think about how gracious people were when I was over there. I think about how they took me into their homes. I think about how they fed me. And I think about how their only request was: When you go back, don’t lose your voice. That was all they asked.
I come back from Palestine. It’s like, late May, and I’m going crazy. Like, I’m going to sleep, and I’m dreaming about Palestine, and I’m waking up. And I’ve got that glassy-eyed look in my face, and my wife is worried about me, and everybody’s worried about me. And I emailed a friend, and I said, do you have a contact with Rashid Khalidi at all? And he said, yeah, I do.
And he connected us, and I wrote him. I said, man, you don’t know me from Adam, but I’ve got to talk to somebody about what I saw. And he said, it’s OK. He said, look, I’m having a dinner this weekend, I want you and your wife to come. And I came and we sat in community and it was the thing that I needed.
And, among the many things that he said that night, he said, “I have been fighting this fight for a long time, and I’ve never seen our side this strong. I’ve never seen the students of the university so galvanized, I’ve never …”
You can confuse the ferociousness of the pushback with strength, you know what I mean? But, the fact of the matter is, in African American history, for instance, here, in our struggle, the struggle is the most violent when people are the most threatened. The original, and the oldest, and the most lethal form of domestic terrorism was pioneered after the Civil War. And what it was, was in response to the fact that, suddenly, you had multiple states throughout this country with Black majorities. You had a majority Black legislature in South Carolina. The pushback had to be ferocious, it had to be violent. It needed to be, because of the sheer strength of the threat. That’s generally been our history.
And so, now, in this moment, when I look out, and I see not just my work banned, but I see the work of my colleagues banned, I see, as you mentioned, LGBTQ authors banned. When I situate myself within the history of Black writing, and I understand the fact that there was never any safe moment for Black writing in this country’s history. When I understand that, when Frederick Douglass publishes his narrative, and he goes and he talks about it, he has a price on it, he can be dragged back into slavery at any moment. When I understand that Ida B. Wells was driven out of Memphis, Tennessee for reporting on the lynching and the murder of her friends, and she continued to report on it, nonetheless. When I understand that Elijah Lovejoy was shot to death, and his press was shoved into the river.
You have to be realistic about this moment. What happened to you, man? You had to find another location for your talk tonight. That was it. Actually, quite simple, compared to the long history of things. My wife was kind enough to send me an article about this district where they had banned “Between the World and Me,” right? And this is a deep red district, and there’d been this whole fight about it. And they went and they interviewed the librarian. And the librarian said, this is the most checked out book we’ve ever had. It’s not because of me, that’s because of the ban. You understand what I’m saying?
And so, like, the very fact that you guys are here, the very unfortunate fact that some of you who are watching this couldn’t get in… You know what I mean? The fact that we had to struggle to find a venue for this event doesn’t say anything about the strength of this movement here, it doesn’t say anything about our strength. It says a lot about the threat, and what people feel, and the weakness.
So, I don’t know. Anybody that knows me knows that I am not one known for my optimism, but I feel it in this moment, I really do. It has taken years — and I’ve tried to work this out in my work — to understand nonviolence as an ethic, and I understood it in Israel. King would talk about, like, the corrupting influence of violence, like, what it did to the soul. And I have to say, and this is really, really important, as much as I saw my world through the eyes of the Palestinians, I saw what I can only describe as an alternative history through the eyes of Israeli Jews.
I understood how pain, oppression, genocide, how you can take the wrong lesson from it, and how you can take the lesson that the real problem is that, I did not have power, that I did not have the guns. And it was sad.
I went to Yad Vashem, and it was a deeply, deeply moving experience. Like, just, incredibly … I can remember coming in, and the first thing I saw was this collection of home movies that had been taken before the Holocaust, and it just, it broke me. And I walked through, and anybody who tells you it wasn’t as bad as they say it was? It was bad. It was worse. And I was so clear on that.
And I got to the end… And I walked outside, and there was a line of young soldiers out there with guns. And I just thought, what would it mean for all the suffering that I’ve endured as a Black person, individually? What would it mean for all of the violence that we’ve endured ourselves, for all the babies that were bombed in churches? For the fact that we as a people are the products of rape and sexual assault, that it marks every one of us, down to our genes.
What would it mean to have suffered some 250 years of enslavement, a period longer than our time of freedom? And to derive from that, that what we really need is power. And what we do with that power really doesn’t matter as long as we safeguard ourselves.
I was watching the news yesterday, and I saw, in fact, my congressman, actually. And journalists asked him, he said, “How do you measure the amount of death? The body count? At what point is it enough? At what point do you say, you know what, this is actually too much, this is actually tipping into something…” And my man couldn’t give a number. He couldn’t say when it was too much. And some people will watch that and get angry, and I understand that. And I watched it and got really sad, because I understood it, and I understood in me how the rage, the anger, the deep-felt pain of your own oppression, how you can take the wrong lesson from it.
And that’s, really, what King was trying to warn… Like, then I got him, you understand what I’m saying? Then I got him. Like, he would always talk about nonviolence for your soul, you know what I mean? And then I got it. Like, I really, really understood.
So, as much as the lessons were really, really clear that I got, and as much as I thank my Palestinian host, I have to tell you, I mean, the opportunity to observe Israeli society, it was a peek into a way not taken. Maybe because there wasn’t an option — thank god it wasn’t an option — but there was a deep, deep sense of sadness. It was the most unsafe place I’ve ever felt in my life. And I don’t mean in occupied territories. I mean in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv.
I felt power. I felt people with power. But I didn’t feel a safety.
JS: That was author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking on November 1st at an event in New York City organized by PalFest, the Palestinian Festival of Literature. For more information, you can visit palfest.org. That’s palfest.org.
And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. 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 is 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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Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.