“The goal of a supremacist state is to have a monopoly on the legitimacy of violence,” says Palestinian writer and organizer Lea Kayali. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes and Lea Kayali explore the history of Israeli violence against Palestinians — and the colonial dynamics that enable it — and discuss what you can do about it.
Music by Son Monarcas
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.
When people in the U.S. object to the bombardment of Gaza, and the apartheid policies imposed on Palestinans by the Israeli government, they are often met with the deflection that, “it’s complicated.” We also hear talk of Israeli “self defense,” in spite of the phenomenally disproportionate scale of the violence we are witnessing. For years, supporters of Palestine in the U.S. have faced false charges of anti-semitism, as well as stark professional consequences, and a widespread unwillingness to engage with the topic from people who dismiss the violence as too complex or entrenched to comprehend or impact.
But in this terrible moment, as Israeli bombs once again rain on Gaza, and Israeli mobs, escorted by Israeli police, violently force Palestinians from their homes en masse, in order to steal and occupy their land, solidarity for Palestine is rising. Tens of thousands of people in the United States have taken to the streets in recent days, as a moment of global protest against Israel’s bombardment of Palestinians in the Gaza strip continues to unfold.
A rift has cemented around the crisis in the Democratic Party, with some members urging President Biden to condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza. On Sunday, the United States once again blocked a joint UN statement calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. And on Monday, word broke that the Biden administration had approved the sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel, even as Israeli attacks on Palestinian hospitals, press offices, homes, and schools operating as bomb shelters continued. Over the weekend, an Israeli airstrike at a Palestinian refugee camp killed at least ten people, including eight children.
As of this recording, over 200 Palestinians, including 61 children, have been killed by Israel’s ongoing aerial assaults, while ten Israelis have reportedly been killed by Hamas rocket fire.
While a great deal has been made of the need for Israel to defend itself, it would be intellectually dishonest to characterize Israel’s military posture as one grounded in self defense. In a 2018 speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “In the Middle East, and in many parts of the world, there is a simple truth: There is no place for the weak. The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”
Morally speaking, this situation is not complex. But the U.S. media and education system have spent decades minimizing or completely erasing the truth about Israeli aggression and the Palestinian struggle for self determination and survival. I have gotten a number of requests from friends and listeners for an episode of Movement Memos that would help break down some of the history and dynamics that they haven’t been exposed to over the years. Even many of us who are supportive have a lot to learn, so in this episode, I talk with Palestinian activist Lea Kayali about some of the history and politics at work in this situation. This conversation is geared towards people who are new to the topic, but I hope that everyone will find it as enriching as I did.
KH: Today’s guest is Lea Kayali. Lea is a Palestinian community activist, writer and digital organizer. She is also a Truthout contributor and you can find her most recent piece, “My Grandparents Lived Through the Nakba. Now It’s Happening Again,” on our website at truthout.org. Lea Kayali, welcome to the show.
Lea Kayali: Thank you so much for having me.
KH: How are you doing today?
LK: Well, I’m actually feeling somewhat energized today. It’s been a really heavy week but here, I live in Boston and we had at least over a thousand, probably thousands of people come out to our protest yesterday and so that was really energizing for me after a tough week, so I’m hopeful, cautiously optimistic.
KH: It really has been amazing to watch these protests unfold, and I’m so grateful you could make time to be here, amid everything that’s happening. People in the U.S. rarely have a clear picture of what’s happening in Gaza. So just to frame the urgency of the moment a bit, can you tell us a bit about what’s happening on the ground in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine and Israel right now?
LK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ll start by saying like to be real, this is merely a continuation of the ethnic cleansing and the violence that was started 73 years ago in Palestine but this most recent incursion of Zionist violence, I would say, sort of began around the planned dispossession of Sheikh Jarrah. Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem, and so this is part of the Israeli plan to rid Jerusalem of its Indigenous Palestinian population to sort of claim that city as wholly Israeli, and Sheikh Jarrah villagers were committed to defending their homes, bringing international attention to their cause and resisting their active dispossession and so this was happening over the last few weeks. Settlers were attacking villagers, taunting them during Ramadan, during our Iftar, which is their breakfast of Ramadan.
Settlers would invade the village and throw things to indignify Palestinians there, and that escalated eventually to the military coming to protect and reinforce those Zionist settlers by doing things like dowsing Palestinian homes and skunk water so bad that I’ve been told you can smell the homes from blocks away. Then, they also were firing rubber bullets, at least on one occasion, settlers fired live bullets into a crowd of peaceful protesters in Sheikh Jarrah. Also, like something I always want to clarify is that, rubber bullets in Palestine, they’re not like nerf bullets. These are rubber coated steel bullets that do real damage and the same thing happened during the brutal attacks on Al Aqsa in Jerusalem during the most holy night of Ramadan, the Laylatul Qadr and there are also attacks on Palestinian Christians as they’re observing orthodox Easter in the last weeks.
I think it’s important to understand that these proceeding incidents for Palestinians of faith, this is like the most egregious indignation that we could possibly imagine. I remember when I visited and prayed in Al Aqsa three to four years ago when I was in Palestine, I mean, it’s a very sacred spot, it’s the most holy site for Muslims in Palestine and it was like a refuge in a city swarmed by militarized Israeli police occupation. So to have the military and Israeli settlers storm that compound and brutalize worshipers, fire rubber bullets into the crowd of worshipers, I mean, it’s unspeakable. I want to reiterate something that I heard from a friend’s cousin in the aftermath of the attacks on Al Aqsa, which is that her father was praying in Al Aqsa, when the attack started, and he’s a doctor, so he immediately ran to the medical unit on the compound, and as he was treating the wounded, the medical compound came under fire, and he was actually injured by a rubber bullet and was unable to continue to help people. So, this is preceding the attacks on Gaza. So, Palestinians have been facing just astounding levels of violence, of dehumanization, the attacks on the home defenders of Sheikh Jarrah, the assault on Al Aqsa and now, the bombardment of Gaza and last I had seen, Israeli forces have launched I think over 1000 air and artillery bombs that have now killed I think almost 200 people, and over 50 of those who have been martyred are children. So, as a Palestinian watching this happen, seeing the headlines scroll through, I mean, we’ve all … I think Palestinians all around the world have been in a constant state of doomscrolling for the last couple of weeks.
It’s like we want to hold every martyr’s name and every person’s story, but the headlines and the messages are just coming in faster than we can read them. I do want to uplift the story of Reema Saad, who’s a Palestinian journalists in Gaza who … she was killed with her five year old son and her husband in an Israeli airstrike. These people are not a security threat. The whole families have been wiped out, like the  members of the Al-Kulak family are not a security threat. So, this is … sorry for going on, but this is the reality for people in Gaza right now. They have nowhere to run. There was a recent attack on an international a multi-story building that hosted international news outlets. That’s not a security threat, that’s a PR threat to the Israeli state.
So, this is what’s happening in Gaza and another thing I’ll just say is I’m getting personal news from folks on the ground that families are sleeping in the same room so that if they’re bombed, they’ll die together and really for families in Gaza, like I said, there’s nowhere to run and all they have is luck. The urgency could not be more severe right now in Palestine.
KH: Well, thank you for that explanation and I also appreciate you emphasizing that rubber-tipped bullets are, in fact, made of steel, because I think it’s a problem that we see a lot here in the U.S., that people accept these so-called non-lethal weapons as innocuous, because of the names they’re given. But while those names may soften the PR impacts of those weapons, they do not soften the physical impacts that people experience when they’re attacked. Skunk water, for example, sounds almost cartoonish, but it is not a harmless substance. For our listeners who may be unfamiliar, skunk water was first used by the Israeli military against protesters in the occupied West Bank in 2008. The smell has often been compared to a combination of sewage and rotting flesh. It’s deployed in handheld canisters and fired from guns, and also from water cannons, on armored vehicles, sometimes against crowds at protests, and sometimes dousing businesses and entire neighborhoods as a form of collective punishment. The resulting smell can linger for weeks. Josh Breiner wrote in 2017, that “skunk is liable to cause physical harm, such as intense nausea, vomiting, and skin rashes, in addition to any injury resulting from the powerful force of the spray. Examinations by police and army medical teams in the past also indicated that the excessive coughing caused by exposure can result in suffocation.” So, I want people to be mindful when they hear these terms that we are talking about weapons that inflict immense suffering, and that they are deployed with that intention.
But, circling back, May 15 marked the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba, when Zionist militias drove 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. In your piece in Truthout, you talked about how your grandparents were among those displaced. Can you tell us a bit about those catastrophic events in 1947 and 1948, and how your family and grandparents were impacted?
LK: Yeah. So I mean, I want to start by just appreciating how you said 1947 and 1948, because I think one of the biggest successes of messaging propaganda around the Nakba is to present the quote, unquote, violence as a reaction to the creation of the Zionist state, which is not the reality at all. The reality is that this was premeditated, ethnic cleansing of non-Jewish Palestinians from their homelands in order to make room for Jewish settlers. This started, as early as the partition in November of 1947, where basically a bunch of Europeans, in Britain particularly, drew lines on a map to dispossessed hundreds of thousands of people. So, in the ongoing Zionist militant violence, that was the carrying out of that plan, over 500 villages were wiped off the map.
There were more than 50 massacres, I think, around 70 massacres that have been documented. So there were 750,000 Palestinians dispossessed but there were 15,000 Palestinians murdered. So, perhaps like one of the most infamous of these massacres was the Deir Yassin massacre, which happened in April of 1948. That’s where some 200 villagers were subjected to rape and torture before being essentially paraded around town and gunned down. That’s a story that every Palestinian I know carries. The psychological element of the Nakba is also so important to understand because the survivors of these massacres were then sent away from their desecrated homes, to carry the message to the other villages that, “You’re next.”
I’ve heard stories of loudspeakers that were paraded through villages, that were blasting sounds of cries of Palestinians escaping violence, essentially, again, to send that message like this will happen if you don’t leave. And I grew up with these stories. My family fled by boats and by foot and bus from Jaffa, Palestine, under fire to Gaza and it was horrific. I mean, they had been hearing for weeks, “You’re next, you’re next,” and then, finally, Zionist militants rolled through town, and displayed unconscionable violence against villagers, and people fled by boat, because for most people, that was the only way to go. Jaffa is on the coast of Palestine. So, in my family, in particular, I’m thinking about my grandmother’s story and my grandmother was the oldest of three very small children at the time, including one baby, my great uncle.
My great grandmother in Jarrah became so ill during their Exodus, that she couldn’t nurse her baby, my great uncle, Sajid. After they had fled Jaffa and were among the refugees in Gaza at the time, they were trying desperately to find other new mothers among the refugees that could nurse him. Eventually, he actually died of malnourishment. My great grandfather also died of the stress of the catastrophe just months after he was finally able to resettle his family in Lebanon. My grandfather also died young. So the Nakba, even just the initial 1947, 1948 Nakba is actually generations of trauma and violence that’s been inflicted on Palestinians and the survivors of the Nakba and their descendants like myself.
KH: I am so sorry for what your family has endured and I just want to say how grateful I am to you for revisiting that history, so that others can better learn and understand. And I hope that people will honor that gift and opportunity by taking what you’re saying here today to heart. You also wrote that the Nakba is ongoing, as evidenced by the evictions, mob violence and bombings we’re currently witnessing. Can you tell us a bit about how the violence of the Nakba has continued in the decades after Israel declared itself a nation state?
LK: Yeah, definitely. I think this is such an important point for Palestinians that the Nakba never ended. We think about it traditionally as being ’47 and ’48 but in reality, it’s ongoing. So even looking to immediately afterwards, in the 1950s, the new Zionist state created several citizenship laws that told Jewish people from around the world that they could settle in Palestine and that the new Israeli state would make room for them. What that means is that they would dispossess Palestinian families, so again, trying to debunk this myth of a land without people, we were there. Then looking to the 1960s, there was the Naksa or defeat or setback. And that was when all of historic Palestine came under Israeli occupation.
So in ’47, and ’48, a large part of historic Palestine became occupied, but then in ’67 all of historic Palestine, as we see now, came under Israeli occupation. Then, in the Naksa 300,000, Palestinians were dispossessed and about half of them, that was the second time they had become refugees. So those were survivors of the Nakba, who then became survivors of the Naksa as well. And in the ensuing decades from then, until now, we’ve seen a whole array of apartheid laws, depriving Palestinians, even Palestinian citizens of Israel, I think that’s important to note, the same protection as Jewish Israelis. So there’s separated school systems, segregated sports leagues, separate benefits to people who serve in the occupation forces versus not.
Then, in the military occupation in the West Bank, there’s ongoing destruction of Palestinian villages, ongoing demolition of Palestinian homes, ongoing incarceration of Palestinian children. These policies are designed to break our bones, destroy our homes and our spirits, and fortunately, the last part has not been successful yet, but it’s important to note the sheer totality of this ongoing ethnic cleansing and violence. And when we think about the laws and the project of the Israeli state, I think it’s really important to know, obviously that Zionism is a political movement, entirely separate from the existence of the Jewish faith and Jewish people. It’s also important to understand that Zionism seeks to maintain Jewish supremacy within the Zionist ethno state of Israel.
So, I think that is difficult but important piece to really hold because that’s why the Nakba is ongoing, because demographic control is actually central to the settler colonial project of Zionism, and this is why Palestinian refugees cannot return. It’s the maintenance of the supremacy system. That’s why we’re now some eight million refugees globally. My grandmother is obviously older than the state of Israel, and yet she can’t return to the home that she was born in. For me, this is how the Nakba continues.
KH: The Gaza Strip is often referred to as an “open air prison,” but I think a lot of people don’t fully conceptualize what that means. Can you say a bit about the conditions that are imposed upon people in Gaza?
LK: I do think that the description of an open air prison is accurate. Israel has besieged Gaza for decades now. So, what that means is that Israel actually controls everything that goes in and out of Gaza and that means that a lot of basic sort of humanitarian supplies are actually unable to pass into the region. Gaza also has one of the highest unemployment rates, because people have absolutely no mobility. Returning to Gaza as someone who has left — there’s very little permeability across the border between Gaza and 48 Palestine, or now the State of Israel, so this all contributes to kind of the spiraling of conditions in Gaza that have led to severe unemployment and poverty, food scarcity, all of these things. And this is a very small and densely populated area. So, particularly when we see the bombardment of Gaza, that’s so important to understand because Israel likes to tout that they warn Gazans when they’re going to bomb them, but this is, like I said, these borders are not permeable, so there’s no place for people to go when that happens.
KH: For our listeners who aren’t really familiar with the geography, which I think if we’re honest is probably most people in the U.S., Gaza is a 140-square-mile strip of coastal land along the Israeli border with Egypt. So it’s about the size of Detroit. But Gaza is home to about 2 million people, whereas Detroit is home to about 670,000 people. So Gaza is the third most densely populated urban area in the world. So, as Lea mentioned, Israeli officials like to pat themselves on the back about the fact that they warn people that bombs are coming, when they attack Gaza, but we’re talking about a place where there’s nowhere to go, and people aren’t allowed to leave.
In 2012, the United Nations warned that the Gaza Strip might not be a “liveable place” by 2020, due to clean water shortages, crumbling infrastructure, power disruptions, shortages in medical supplies, and rampant poverty, and those were conditions that were being imposed on people even before the mass bombings of 2014, when Israel waged massive attacks on Gazan infrastructure, targeting hospitals and schools and residential areas, and the area’s only power plant. And now, in 2021, after a year of having their situation further compromised by COVID-19, which has had a devastating impact on Gaza, they are being bombed again. And I also think it’s worth noting that, in this densely populated area, where there are so few places to go, warning people that you are going to bomb their homes isn’t really merciful if you also bomb the bomb shelters, which is something that Israel has historically done.
Israel claims that it does not occupy Gaza, and characterizes Gaza as a foreign enemy, because it withdrew Israeli troops and settlers back in 2005, but Israel maintains external control over Gaza and indirect control over life within Gaza. Israel controls Gazan airspace, and all but one of Gazas land crossings, and the Israeli military enters and patrols Gaza at will, committing violence at their discretion, and very importantly, Gaza is dependent on Israel for its water, electricity, and other utilities. So with a blockade preventing Gaza from developing and maintaining its own infrastructure, or even supplying its own hospitals, and total control over things like electricity, we aren’t talking about two countries on equal footing, locked into some kind of continuous rivalry, as is often portrayed.
Gaza, came under Israeli control in 1967 following the Six Day War with Arab states. And while some efforts were made to create Israeli settlements, I think Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin represented the opinion of many Israelis in 1992 when he said, “I would like Gaza to sink into the sea, but that won’t happen, and a solution must be found.” And so that solution has taken the form of these periodic bombardments and attacks that Israeli leaders characterize as “mowing the grass” that devastate infrastructure and take years to repair, never really allowing the Palestinian people to create any kind of stability. Israeli authorities often cite the existence of underground tunnels that they say are being used by Hamas to move weaponry and personnel, as being the real targets of their air raids, but the specter of these tunnels really creates a sort of phantom target that allows Israel to bomb whatever wants, no matter how inhumane, and just blame Hamas for supposedly putting a tunnel or an office near that target, when in reality, inflicting widespread punishment, and damage to infrastructure, as a form of deterrence, is just consistent with Israel’s long standing military practices.
Tunnels also exist for the purpose of smuggling necessities into Gaza, given that the area is blockaded, and people aren’t allowed to access essential goods and materials, so we’re also talking about Israel creating a need for covert transport, and then using the existence of covert tunnels as grounds for bombing.
I was trying to explain a bit of this history to a young friend of mine this week, and she said, “They don’t really teach us about any of that in school,” and I had to explain that I actually was taught about Israel and Palestine in school, but that the narrative that was presented to us was full of lies and distortions, which of course, is really common in the U.S.
I remember distinctly, being in junior high, and being taught that Israel was a project designed to save Jewish people after the Holocaust, and then, the story just sort of lept forward in time to the present, to there being terrorists who claimed that Israel was actually their land, and that those terrorists would instigate attacks on their own communities, using women and children as human shields, so that they could demonize Israel. I had no clue until I was an adult that Israel had committed massacres or mass dispossession or waged war in violation of international law. I think that’s really common but I also think a lot of people in the U.S. encounter that information, if they do encounter it, very defensively. Jewish people, of course, are often taught to idealize Israel. But even non-Jewish people in the U.S. are taught to idealize the United States, and pointing the finger at Israel for its crimes also implicates the United States, both in terms of our active supportive of Israeli violence, but also in terms of reconciling Native genocide and chattel slavery and Jim Crow. The U.S. has a long tradition of twisting its own history of colonial violence into a narrative of innocence, discovery and exceptionalism. As a Native person, I am very cognizant of the parallels between the violence the U.S. has inflicted on Native peoples and the violence Israel has inflicted upon the Palestinian people, but I think that most Americans are averse to any reckoning with those parallels, or with the history or present day realities of colonialism in the U.S. because they don’t want to confront what that moral conversation might demand of them.
Do you think people in the U.S. are afraid of confronting what’s happening in Gaza because doing so would undermine their own mythologies?
LK: Absolutely, I think unlearning and deprogramming these mythologies is one of the hardest things to overcome, here in the U.S., and I will say I resonated a lot with what you were saying, as a Palestinian American, growing up in the U.S. public education system was … I mean, frankly, it was an absolute mindfuck, it really screwed with me. We had independent groups come to our classrooms, when I was just a primary school student, to teach us about how great Israel was. I was actively being taught propaganda in schools that was indirect contrast with my own existence of history. I have a very clear memory of being in a world history classroom in high school, and being shown a video about Israel Palestine, that really played into these normalizing myths about an equivocal or an equal balance between Palestine and Israel.
It was just like, properly disinformation about Palestine and even within that framework of normalization, I remember quite clearly when they profiled or had a portrait of a Palestinian family living in the West Bank, a student who was sitting next to me was like, “Yeah, we don’t like them because they’re against us,” and this was something that the teacher didn’t intervene, totally allowed. Actually, I remember nodding along and this is what it’s like to be a Palestinian growing up in the U.S. education system, is being taught things that that just contradict with our understanding of our own families. The human shield myth, like you were talking about is also, I think one of the most insidious ones because it’s this active attempt to twist history and rewrite it as it’s happening to make Palestinians responsible for our own deaths.
There’s this talking point that Zionist will tell you over and over again, that the destruction that we’ve seen in Gaza, is the result actually of Palestinians themselves, because they have been put in the line of fire by other Palestinians. This is obviously a lie but it’s not that unusual in the U.S. education system, when there’s similar racist myths that are perpetuated here in the U.S. about Native people and Black people. I think on the one hand, we talk about “Progressive except Palestine” is a phrase that describes the denial of Palestinian humanity among, otherwise, quote, unquote, “staunch progressives,” but on the other hand, for me, I kind of feel like how can we expect the U.S. state to acknowledge their direct funding of ethnic cleansing of Palestine when us settlers haven’t reckoned with their own legacy of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native peoples?
To me, this is why it’s so important that we’re learning about each other’s histories and deprogramming together, but it’s really hard and I’m definitely curious about, as you mentioned, sort of experiencing or seeing some parallels with your experience as a Native person here in the U.S. and I’m curious if any of this resonates with you too.
KH: Absolutely. I completely identify with what you were saying about being confronted with misinformation in school, and even when a bit of reality would break through, watching it get glossed over or dismissed. I remember being in class once, in like the fifth or sixth grade, when we talked about a massacre of Native people, and the conversation just sort of moved on without any acknowledgement of it having been wrong. And I spoke up and said, “And we all understand that was wrong, right?” And a classmate said, “Yeah, nobody cares.” And just like with your situation, the teacher said nothing. And then later, in high school, when we were about to talk about some of the realities of Native genocide — the sort of very limited, white-washed version of that history that sometimes makes its way into curriculums in some cities and states here — we got a 20 minute speech from our teacher about how you can’t judge the people of the past by today’s standards. And he refused to call on me, when I had my hand up, for like, the entirety of the speech, because I was, of course, going to point out that my people were also “the people of the past,” and we knew it was wrong to slaughter and displace us. And there’s this sort of colonial mentality, that you can’t judge someone for hurting other people if they didn’t think they were wrong to do it, which is just beyond absurd, because people are constantly rationalizing their harms, whether alone or in large groups, and of course we should be judging, and also learning. And those rationalizations, and that sort of programming, as you described, they are reinvented and reformulated over time as mechanisms of harm shift. So sometimes, a country might admit, like the U.S. occasionally does, about some things, that it made mistakes a long time ago, but everything it does now is justified.
I also think it’s very significant that both the United States and Israel sort of rely on these early narrative justifications of victimhood, of people fleeing oppression, as jumping-off points, because narratively, as the colonizer, if you were previously the target of violence and severe oppression, then you are justified in doing whatever you feel you have to do to make sure that you have a place in the world. Whereas that notion of previous harms justifying violence is never applied to the people being colonized, occupied or oppressed — as we see with the Palestinian people, who have been robbed, murdered and abused for over 70 years, and with Black people in the United States, who are routinely chastized for any form of disruptive protest. In these colonial narratives that we’re fed, any acts of violent or destructive resistance on the part of the people being colonized is always cited as evidence that overwhelming violence against them was actually necessary.
And when we look at these legacies of colonial militarism, we can see how it all intertwines and compounds over time, in practice. U.S. soldiers, today, refer to being in enemy territory as being “in country,” which is derived from the phrase “Indian Country.” They have missiles they call Tomahawks and of course, U.S. Apache helicopters, that are now used by the Israeli government against Palestinian people. We know that some of the same weapons are unleashed on protesters here and in Palestine, and in many other places.
The Red Nation podcast actually had an excellent episode recently about some of the parallels that I think everyone should check out. One of the important distinctions that they highlighted was that the U.S. government’s objective where Native people are concerned has been assimilationist for some time now. The process of annihilation has given way to assimilation and co-optation, and sort of rewriting our role in history.
We have right wing forces in this country that are seeking to disenfranchise us, by attacking Native voting rights, but the larger anti-Native project is one of assimilation, at this stage of U.S. colonialism. Whereas Israeli leaders who want an Israeli ethnostate are threatened by Arab and Palestinian people, in part because of the rising population of Arab and Palestinian people in Israel, that makes apartheid and the absence of democracy the only way for that sort of ethno-dominance to continue. So while we aren’t talking about that same kind of siege and apartheid, here in the U.S., at this moment in our history, I do feel strong historical ties between these histories of dispossession, concentration, and annihilation, and the present-day right-wing attitude in the U.S. towards the rising majority of non-white people. Because rising numbers of Black people, Latinx people, and other people of color, have a lot of racist white people terrified. Because they recognize that if they want to maintain white domination, free and fair elections simply aren’t an option for them, so they are desperate to institute these anti-voting laws and anti-protest laws.
LK: Yes, yeah. I resonate so much with that. I’m definitely looking forward to listening to that podcast. I think, to me, a lot of it comes down to these projects of supremacy and then, you spoke a lot about the demographic threat that in the U.S., non-white people pose to white supremacy and in Palestine that non-Jewish Palestinians pose to Jewish supremacy within the Zionist state. It’s hard to deprogram all of these institutions that have been built up to maintain those levels of supremacy. I mean, I can remember an instance where I was talking to a neighbor when I was a child who, literally, I was trying to explain some of the context in Palestine and the brutality of the Israeli military and this person literally put their hands over their ears and said out loud to me, “I don’t want to hear this. I can’t hear this.”
KH: Oh my god.
LK: I think this speaks to the level of indoctrination that has been quite successful and really, it speaks to the strength of these institutions that have been built to maintain supremacy. I mean, like systems of policing, incarceration, racial domination are inherent to the states and institutions that we live in the U.S., also in Israel and it’s really quite difficult to extract those myths about the necessity of those things like policing, incarceration, racial domination, from our sense of order and justice. I think decoupling those things when particularly for folks who benefit from the systems of supremacy, [who] have been indoctrinated in them, it’s really hard but it’s necessary and it’s urgent.
KH: Absolutely. I want to talk a bit about international law, and also about the limitations of framing atrocities within the context of international law. Israel is widely known for flaunting international human rights laws in terms of failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians and in terms of the proportionality and necessity of their attacks, with regard to the humane treatment of civilians and imprisoned Palestinians. Of course, attacks on civilians, disproportionate violence, torture and assassinations were hardly pioneered by Israel. But Israel has adopted a PR policy of attempting to legitimize these actions in ways that have had broader impacts.
Daniel Reisner, who headed Israel’s International Law Division of the Military Advocate General’s unit until 2005, has said of Israel’s tactics, “What we are seeing now is a revision of international law. If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries. International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it. At first, there were protrusions that made it hard to insert easily into the legal molds. Eight years later, it is in the center of the bounds of legitimacy.”
So Israel pushed targeted assassinations as being legally valid and collateral damage in such attacks as being acceptable. Subsequently, we have seen other countries including the U.S. who previously might have enacted such measures covertly, seek to legitimize such killings. Generally speaking, the most powerful countries in the world have never submitted themselves to the strictures of international law, but I think there’s something noteworthy about the way that that process of proliferation, of moving the line by making the violation the norm and insisting it makes sense. We have also seen this domestically in the U.S. in terms of how police violence operates, which to me suggests that the law itself, while important, and something we should talk about, is not the moral line in the sand we would like it to be. It’s a very flexible line, and it’s shaped by violation.
I warn people about this in the U.S. with regard to policing all the time now, because we’re seeing the emergence of these anti-protest laws and people who live in Democratic states tend to think they won’t be subject to those laws, but police and military forces are not instruments of the law. They wield the law, when it suits them, but they are not inhibited by it. They wield the law like they wield their weapons, at their discretion, to maintain the order of things, and the more normalized something becomes, the more likely people are to accept it as part of that order. So the cops break the law or colonial violence unfolds in Palestine, and we say, “but that’s against the law” and people say, “well, you know that if you do X, then Y is going to happen.” The institutional infraction just becomes the order of things, and people accept the order of things until something inspires them to reject it.
Another problem with relying so heavily on the law is that it positions morality within the bounds of the law, and while the colonized and occupied people do have the right under international law to resist, they also have a fundamental right to resist, regardless of anything that’s been codified by legal or legislative bodies. The law has frequently been on the wrong side of morality, and when it’s on the right side, it rarely applies to the powerful in practice. I think we need to know the law and talk about the law, but I think we need to appeal to something more fundamental in our struggles.
LK: I have to say, I love this analysis, because I think it’s really important to talk about explicitly, the limitations of structures of law and legality. What this comes down to, in my mind is kind of the omnipresence of neoliberalism and its tight grip on our framing of justice, because I think … and I look at Palestinian society, for example, after the Oslo Accords, which were the peace deals that happened in the 1990s, we saw a really detrimental shift in international discourse about Palestine that really framed everything in terms of the rights of the individual, everything centering the individual and the ascendance of the state as the ultimate goal of the Palestinian people. This is where we get this discourse about, one-state, two-state solution, building a Palestinian state over Palestinian people.
We also saw out of this out of this period, like this rampant escalation of human rights discourse, so Palestinians just want their human rights and that’s true, but I want my existence and liberation to be valid, whether or not the UN agrees with me. So I think what this framing can deprive us of is an understanding of collectivism and an understanding of liberation. And yes, absolutely, it can be helpful to talk about human rights violations and how Israel does violate international law, because they do egregiously violate international law. However, international law is not a moral compass. That’s exactly what I’m hearing from you as well. In fact, to the contrary, a lot of these legal systems, as you pointed out, are actually designed by imperialists and supremacists.
So, think Mohammed El-Kurd who’s one of the home defenders in Sheikh Jarrah said this really well, that … he said, “I do not derive my moral compass from the U.S.,” on an interview the other day and that’s so powerful, because part of U.S. hegemony or in the Palestinian context, part of Zionist hegemony is the idea that legality as determined by colonizers and imperialists is morality. That’s simply not the case. As you alluded to, laws can be designed to create restoration and justice, but laws can be designed to enforce racial hierarchy. They can be, like you said, wielded by law enforcement and military to reinforce oppression. When that’s the case, laws serve actually, in fact, to gaslight the oppressed population by saying that, we deserve what we got, because in some cases, we broke the law or like you said, if Y happens expect Z for example. You live Gaza, it’s almost expected that violence will be subjugated upon the Palestinians there and that’s acceptable under this framework. And I think, what we really need to ask ourselves in these moments, and in our movements for liberation are questions about people’s well-being, justice and liberation and how do we want people to live? What do we want to build together? And Palestinians, yes, we are just asking for basic freedoms and dignities but we deserve them whether or not we legally have a [legal] right to them, particularly when law is dictated by our oppressors. So, in this framework, another thing that I’ll just say is that ironically, the state is personified and ascended, but people are dehumanized.
That’s where we get this discourse about Israel has a right to exist, but the Palestinian people don’t, and to me, that’s what’s the extreme extent to where the framework of law, and legality can become problematic, where a state has more of a right to existence than a people do.
KH: And when we’re talking about the law, and grounding morality in the law, I think we really need to look at these claims of self defense, because that’s something that we’re hearing a lot from people. This morning, someone on social media said, “Okay, but how much violence is Israel supposed to endure before they respond?” And the vagueness of that concept of a “response” was just too much for me, so what I said to them was, “Well, if you hurt me and I hurt you back, a lot of people would be understanding of there being some retaliation on my part. Whereas if you hurt me, and then I blew up the block that you live on, people might be less understanding of that. And if you hurt me, because I have controlled the entire context in which you live, dominating you, killing and imprisoning your family, restricting your rights and making your life miserable, and you lashed out, and I reacted by blowing up the block you live on, then I hope that would generate a different reaction than if we were just talking about two people who hit one another.” I think we need to be incredibly critical of this concept of self defense when it’s deployed by countries with powerful militaries, and that we need to question who has access to that concept. Like here in the United States, Mariame Kaba has written about how Black women are treated as though they have no selves to defend. Marissa Alexander wasn’t allowed to invoke the Stand Your Ground law, even though she only fired a warning shot in self defense. Palestinians are attacked while praying. They’re evicted from their homes by state sanctioned mobs, and they’re being slaughtered.
The idea of self defense is not on the table for them. Meanwhile, Israel can destroy as many residential buildings as it wants, and no matter how disproportionate the response, they will call it self defense and the U.S. will defend that, thematically, because the U.S. relies on those kinds of themes and lies, as well, domestically and abroad. The U.S. fought a whole war with Iraq over a threat they didn’t actually pose.
And I also really want to emphasize for folks the way that these colonial entities borrow and build off of each other’s violence. In 2002, during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, Israel deployed armored bulldozers that flattened everything in their path, and the U.S. ultimately criticized the severity of Israel’s actions during that offensive. But a year later, the U.S. actually purchased some of those armored bulldozers from Israel and then deployed them during urban operations in Iraq. So I think it’s important to understand how colonial and imperial violence cooperates and compounds over time, regardless of whatever lip service is briefly paid to human rights, because we’re talking about fundamentally violent constructs that operate in concert with one another and rely on one another.
So I think we need to shut down claims of self defense anytime we’re looking at this kind of disparity of power, and anytime those words are only accessible to the side with more power.
LK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think I see the seeds of this happening, I think we’re at a point where people are beginning to understand the colonial nature of the Israeli state and that speaks to sort of like your example, if I control your house and your family and your neighborhood and completely dominate everything about your existence, and you respond, that’s closer to a characterization of colonialism than what we traditionally stay in U.S. media. So I think I’ve seen an informal channels of that conversation happening more and more. But I really think, what you’re talking about is so important because we really can’t answer sort of these questions of like, who is entitled to self defense? Who has a self to defend, I mean, dehumanization being so central to that concept, because I mean, to our earlier conversation, the goal of a supremacist state is to have a monopoly on the legitimacy of violence.
That’s what the U.S. both in domestic domination and in imperialist conquest and also the Zionist state have very effectively done is have a monopoly on the legitimacy of violence. So, I think we need to really have a deprogramming of how a lot of people in the U.S. understand violence to occur and what actually is violence, what it constitutes? I think, under this framework where colonial states have a monopoly on violence, that’s how you get headlines like Palestinians die, Israelis killed. I mean, just the other day, I saw a headline that was like, 20 Palestinians die, three Israelis killed. It’s like, “Okay, let’s address this framework and talk about what’s going on here,” because as you sort of alluded to, I mean, oppressed peoples, in this case, Palestinians will always be demonized for our resistance.
Our resistance will actually always be called violence, even if no physical human beings are actually being harmed and I think the characterizations of, for example, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement, sort of clarifies how that can happen, but that really, forces us to ask this question about what is violence? In the Palestinian context, Israel has one of the world’s largest and most well-financed military, bankrolled by of course, that 3.8 billion dollars of U.S. tax money a year. When we ask ourselves, what is violence, I’d highlight that life expectancy in Israel is 10 years higher than it is the West Bank and Gaza. The infant mortality rate in Gaza is more than five times higher than it is in Israel and several times higher than it is in the U.S.. Palestinians … and obviously, within the U.S. there’s massive disparities in those numbers as well, when we look at racial breakdown. And to me, this characterization is essential, because all of these things are forms of violence and Palestinians in every corner of historic Palestine are facing violent dispossession. So the reality is that the State of Israel does not want Palestinians to live. That is the core violence. Population control and demographic supremacy is literally baked into the idea of Zionism, as with any ethnostate, and it’s written into the laws of the country, as we talked about earlier.
So, this totality and absolute omnipresence of violence in Palestine is what Palestinian people are up against. I think once people understand that, we can begin to dissolve this racist weaponization of terms like self defense.
KH: We have been programmed pretty hard here in the States, and in many places to believe that only peaceful actions are acceptable on the part of oppressed people. Part of that is the way that history gets rewritten to depict nonviolent tactics as being the only successful tactics and violent action as always counterproductive or even as derailing the momentum of nonviolent action, that not only erases the role that violent or destructive action has played whether people like it or not in the propulsion of social change. It also plays into false notions of symmetry, which leads to words like clashes being deployed to describe U.S. police or Israeli forces enacting crushing violence against the people they oppress.
For a brief moment last year, I saw some potential in the U.S., for us to overcome this hang up when a police station burned to the ground, and public support for protesters remained high. Ultimately, people’s fear of Trump being elected shifted liberals back towards the status quo, but we are seeing a lot of activation in this moment. Do you think we are at a point of potential in terms of more people recognizing that Palestinians have a right to pursue a diversity of tactics?
LK: That’s a great question and it’s a hard question. I think, I do see potential in that … I see that intervention happening in conversations. I think to a lot of credit of the uprising in the summer of 2020, like you referenced that that really helped a lot of folks reframe or deprogram or understand these mythologies about peaceful protests being the only form of legitimate resistance. So, I do see a lot of potential for some of that nuanced understanding of the context of colonizations, of supremacy, et cetera, to inform how people are thinking about Palestine, but as any Palestinian, I’m quite cautiously optimistic about that, because I think there’s just such a lack of context, that particularly U.S. media narratives have around Palestine.
I still see so many of those false equivalences of, quote, unquote, “Palestinian violence and Israeli violence.” I mean, it’s just journalistic malpractice in my opinion if it present things that way. So, being that, I still see that narrative sort of transcending the noise and perhaps productive conversations that people are having in their homes and on social media. I’m cautious but I do think that there’s a reframing and a shifting that’s happening in many circles within the U.S. And something that I said earlier is, I really urge non-Palestinians and particularly white folks to sort of come to the lens of something that Palestinian people are saying with an understanding or asking themselves the question, if a Palestinian says something that you think you disagree with, think about … really sit down and think about if you had endured 73 years of brutal colonization, brutal racial oppression and ongoing ethnic cleansing, could you see yourself or someone you love saying that thing you think you disagree with? And I think that context and like basic kind of mental exercise, if we keep doing it, then I think maybe there’ll be like a more nuanced understanding of how, like you said, social change happens and how a diversity of tactics and a range of resistance is really how any decolonization that’s ever happened has happened. Any move towards liberation, towards legitimate justice and resistance, it’s always taken many forms. So again, I’m cautiously optimistic that we can begin having those difficult conversations more and more in the U.S., but cautious being the operative word.
KH: I hear that. So one question I have heard a lot from people is why there can’t be a two state solution to this crisis. The whole idea to me about how do we accommodate people who are insisting on an ethnostate is kind of troubling, but the idea of a two state solution really is sort of a liberal PR dodge at this point, isn’t it?
LK: Totally. I mean, this makes me think about when I got back from Palestine a few years ago, the absurdity of this conversation about two state solution for me was so stark, particularly having just come from the situation on the ground in Palestine, because it felt so removed from any Palestinian that I had talked to, their understanding or my understanding as a Palestinian American of what liberation looks like. It didn’t fit into that two state solution mold. As I mentioned earlier, like this ascendance of statehood, being the goal is really something that, at least in narratives about Palestinian resistance, came out of the Oslo Accords. To me, it’s so laughable, because what’s the point of a state without freedom?
Why are we ever okay with the existence of a society predicated on maintaining the supremacy of one religious or ethnic group over all others, that’s unacceptable in any context. That’s not what liberation is and this discourse is really part of a multi billion dollar theater of Academia, of diplomacy, of political figure heads talking about the nonsense of sketching out what Palestinian statehood would look like in the future, because like I said, this multi-billion dollar theater really aims to obfuscate what’s actually happening in Palestine. So to me, I mean, I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s a PR Dodge. It’s not a genuine consideration of what’s actually happening and what liberation means for Palestinians.
KH: And with Israel, over a period of years, forcibly evicting and stealing massive tracts of homes and land, to create as much incongruity between Palestinian communities as possible, I think it’s important for people to understand that two states has never been the goal, from the Israeli government’s perspective. Making that impossible, by way of mass dispossession, has been a key part of their strategy for decades. So while liberals in the U.S. have talked about a two state solution for years, Israel has gone about the work of making that totally unfeasible, even if it were being discussed in good faith, or what anyone actually wanted.
So, all of that said, what should people in the U.S., who are outraged about these bombings and about the apartheid conditions Palestinians are faced with, do if they want to help?
LK: So, there’s a couple things that I would encourage folks to do if they’re feeling inspired to act in solidarity with Palestinians. The first perhaps obviously is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. So that’s a movement that came out of a grouping of Palestinian civil society in 2005 and it calls upon folks in the international community to, as the name suggests, boycott companies and goods that profit off of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, to divest from companies that are again profiting off of ethnic cleansing, and then, finally at the government level, for states to sanction Israel for their war crimes. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement, I think is a really good place, it’s a good foray into the Palestinian Liberation and Palestinian Solidarity Movement for folks. I think their website is bdsmovement.net.
I do think that’s a good place to start, it’s a good place to begin having conversations that can confront Israeli mythology and confront Zionism in our own communities. I think BDS is a great way to begin doing that and obviously, it takes from the legacy of Black liberation fighters in South Africa and also here in the U.S.. We can think of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the U.S., the Polaroid Boycott in South Africa. So, it’s coming from that legacy and again, I think it’s a really great place to start. I would also say that, for me, as a Palestinian, particularly thinking about everything we’ve been talking about today, what I really urge people to do is to struggle with their, perhaps friends and family members to deprogram these Zionist narratives.
To make an intervention the next time they hear someone talk about how complicated the conflict is, how you just commit and take a stand because it’s all too complex. The next time someone regurgitates these myths about Palestinian terrorism, or any of these things that we’ve sort of talked about today, I think it’s really important, and it can often be the harder work to talk to someone you love or admire and do this deprogramming with them and make that intervention. It’s really hard but I think it’s perhaps the most urgent piece of moving the conversation on Palestine forward here in the U.S..
The last thing I would just say, I guess is if there’s any Palestinians who listen to this, I would say like, take care of yourself. I just actually got off the phone with my grandmother before we had this conversation and we were talking about Nakba Day and she very sweetly said, “Don’t be too sad. Look to the future. Try to find the good in things like. Right now for example, I’m making Fattet al-hummus and taking it to your uncle’s house.” So that was the real grounding moment for me and I wanted to share in case there are folks who are Palestinian and listening in.
KH: Well, thank you so much for sharing that. I think my heart needed to hear that too. If folks want to learn more from you and connect with your work, where can they find you?
LK: Sure. I think you can find me on Twitter at @LeaKayali and you can also follow BDS Boston, which is one of the groups I’m a part of, and also the Palestinian youth movement, which is another group I organize with and I would highly recommend folks to follow the BDS movement, particularly if you live in Boston to follow BDS Boston and to follow the Palestinian Youth Movement, which is a nationwide movement of the younger generation of Palestinians who are hoping to push our liberation movement forward.
KH: Well, I can’t thank you enough for joining us today, Lea. This has been a great conversation.
LK: Thank you so much, Kelly. This has been incredible.
KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Resources and action items:
Decolonize Palestine is a collection of resources for organizers and anyone who wants to learn more about Palestine.
The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) calls for a boycott of Israeli and international companies that are complicit in violations of Palestinian rights. You can learn more about the movement and how to get involved here.
The U.S. Palestinian Community Network (U.S.PCN) is a Palestinian community-based organization, founded in 2006 to revitalize grass-roots organizing in the Palestinian community in the U.S., as part of the broader Palestinian nation in exile and the homeland. You can learn more about their work here.
The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) is a transnational, independent, grassroots movement of young Palestinians in Palestine and in exile worldwide. You can follow PYM on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and check out their current asks here.
You can help defend Sheikh Jarrah by calling on the U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to demand an end to Israel illegal evictions of Palestinians and demolitions of their homes by signing this petition.
IfNotNow is a Jewish organization working “to expose the occupation as a moral crisis to American Jews, end the weaponization of antisemitism in our political debate over Israel, and create political space for leaders to stand up for the freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians.
Jewish Voice for Peace is an organization that opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression. You can learn more about their work, and look for Palestinian-led and coalition actions near you, on their website.
The White Supremacist Agenda of the War on Terror by Aly Panjwani and Lea Kayali
Sheikh Jarrah highlights the violent brazenness of Israel’s colonialist project by Noura Erakat and Mariam Barghouti
Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar
This isn’t a civil war, it is settler-colonial brutality by Lana Tatour
A love letter to our people struggling in Palestine by The Palestinian Feminist Collective
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