Dylan Saba: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast On the Nose, by Jewish Currents magazine. My name is Dylan Saba, I’m a fellow with Jewish Currents, and I’m here fortunate enough to be joined by two guests. One is Dana El Kurd, she’s the Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond, and Fadi Quran, who’s the campaign director with the activist network Avaaz, based in the West Bank.
Today, we’re discussing the killing of the beloved Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was gunned down in occupied Jenin on May 11. According to Al Jazeera and numerous Palestinian eyewitnesses at the scene, Abu Akleh was deliberately targeted by Israeli soldiers when she was covering a raid from the occupation forces. Then two days later, on May 13, Israeli police forces attacked Abu Akleh’s funeral procession, viciously beating [names] and other mourners, and almost causing the procession to drop her casket. This sparked mass international outrage. Footage from it flooded social media, calls for official investigation sparked in the United States, including from several members of Congress–while note that Shireen was an American citizen.
Despite this, recently, in the past several days, the Israeli military has announced that it will not be formally investigating itself for the wrongdoing of her killing. So I want to start by getting a general reaction from both of you, but Fadi, I’m interested in hearing from you in particular. For our viewers, who maybe are not familiar with Shireen and her work, can you speak to why this was such a devastating loss on the ground for Palestinians, many of whom have watched her, growing up, in her coverage with Al Jazeera.
Fadi Quran: I’ve never seen the amount of anguish and heartbreak, just on the streets across Palestine, that I saw with the passing of Shireen Abu Akleh. And there was a number of reasons for that. Number one, she was a kind of storyteller for a whole generation. And what I mean by that is, my generation–and those both younger and older than me, who lived through, particularly, the Second Intifada–basically watched Shireen Abu Akleh, every day, speak to what was happening, tell stories about the different individuals who had been killed or martyred by the Israeli forces. And so she literally was our storyteller for a big portion of our lives, and one of the only ones. And she did it–the second reason she was so loved and people connected to her–was she did it with so much integrity, so much professionalism, and just so much compassion and care. And she maintained that for over 25 years.
And so, it wasn’t just that she was in everyone’s home and well known as a celebrity is. She was also just a very good, empathetic person. And the third reason is that the people she engaged with, even as she was doing her news reporting, all have just beautiful stories about her. So whether it’s the mothers in the Jenin refugee camp, who, as their homes were being demolished, as their kids were, being shot at or, you know, killed in many cases, Shireen was there; not only reporting on it, but helping them look for their kids in the rubble, in the homes. For families in Jerusalem, it’s the same thing. Not only was Shireen covering what was happening in Jerusalem, she was also helping the people in need, whether that was through providing charity or helping them on many different fronts.
And so you just had this real, humane person that everyone in Palestine loved. And that’s why she had the longest funeral procession in the history of Palestine. And not only in Jenin, but also then in Nablus, in the hospital there, and then Ramallah, the official events there. And then also what happened in Jerusalem. And it was just a little heartbreaking, also a beautiful moment of unity, for Palestinians coming together to mourn and grieve her.
DS: Thank you Fadi. Yeah, the response was both overwhelming and heartbreaking. And really indicative, I think, of what she meant for the whole community for Palestinians who had seen her coverage growing up, and the voice that she was able to give to Palestinians through her platform. Dana, I’m curious in hearing from you. A lot of people in the United States were shocked that the Israelis would do something like this. We’re not sure exactly what happened, but in all indications, this was an intentional killing. She was wearing a press flak jacket, was wearing a helmet, and was shot by what people are reporting was a sniper, in the area between her jacket and her helmet.
Palestinian eyewitnesses on the scene report that there were no Palestinian militants around where she was. Recent video that was released showed, in the moments before her killing, people standing around and chatting casually. And then when the bullet started to rain down, it was immediate. And when people tried to move towards her to help, more bullets came. There was some misdirection from the Israeli media apparatus, immediately, to offer some video that turned out to be completely misleading, suggesting that there was some crossfire. But again, by all accounts, this appeared to be an intentional killing. So I’m curious to hear from you: What could possibly be the logic behind doing something like this?
Dana El Kurd:
As far as I’m aware, it was an intentional killing of press; like they saw press, they shot at press. I don’t think, necessarily, that they knew it was Shireen Abu Akleh. And as you said, it was very intentional. She was shot behind her ear, between the helmet and the rest of her neck and her chest with the press vest. And like you said, there was this attempt to obfuscate. But multiple investigations now–whether it’s the B’Tselem video, Al Jazeera’s own investigation, the eyewitness testimony, Bellingcat–like, this was clearly not the case that she had been in any kind of crossfire. But this is a common Israeli tactic, to muddy the waters about this issue.
In terms of logic, though, can we really assume it’s illogical? Like, this is an entity that has operated with impunity. These soldiers go into Jenin every other day killing people, many of them who are not well known because they’re on Al Jazeera, and nobody notes them even, in the mainstream media. So the fact that they thought that they could get away with shooting a journalist, I mean, it’s not that fantastical. They’ve been getting away with things. And they understand that like, okay, there might be a letter circulated in Congress amongst Democratic congressmen about a possible FBI investigation, but there’s not going to be an investigation.
This is, for all intents and purposes, a war crime. The International Criminal Court is not going to act on this. So from their perspective–the person who shot the gun, the general who okayed it, the legal team that said that they’re not going to lead an investigation on themselves–they understand that they’re not going to face any accountability, no accountability is forthcoming. So why not shoot at press? What makes press any more sanctified than children that they kill every day?
DS: I think that’s totally right. It’s a culture of impunity. And I think there’s also two things to pull out of what you said. One is this question of: Okay, what makes her different than anyone else? Because I think that, through the barrel of a sniper, a Palestinian is a Palestinian. It doesn’t matter if they hold the role of press. It doesn’t matter if they hold a blue passport, if they have American citizenship. And that seems to be part of the colonial logic of occupation. Occupation and colonization requires this sharp distinction between the occupier and the occupied. And that is a distinction based in part on racial identity, and being able to dehumanize someone regardless of their social position. I think that’s absolutely a factor in the logic here.
I think there’s another factor as well, which is that the press cause problems for the occupation. I think it is very much the case that one of the largest threats to the Zionist project is public opinion, in what some might call the colonial metropole of the United States and Western Europe. And the role of showcasing the horrors of occupation–what it looks like for the military to raid people’s homes in the occupied West Bank, in Jenin–that causes problems for the project of territorial expansion. And so while I agree, it’s not clear to me that this individual person was targeted for her individual role, the logic of suppressing the press and information, I think, is fundamental to the project as well.
DEK: It is important to note that, unlike the famous case of Muhammad al-Durrah where they obfuscated no matter what anybody said–they continue to obfuscate, that’s still something they repeat today, that Muhammad al-Durrah was killed by crossfire–this time, because there was so much attention and so much independent investigation around what happened with Shireen’s murder, they weren’t able to obfuscate to this degree, which is why they’re turning to really ludicrous, other excuses for what happened. So yeah, I think they are trying to control the free flow of information, but they’re not able to as much in today’s world as they once were.
DS: Yeah, I think that how these images proliferate has really changed over the course of the past decade, through the successive waves of colonial warfare, basically. That playbook–that response playbook–has had to adapt. Fadi, when this story broke, when these images started circulating on social media, you took to Twitter and you really, I think effectively, laid out what the Zionist media strategy is, in response to incidents like this. So I was wondering if you could talk us through what you said; how you see the playbook in general, and then how you’ve seen that play out over the past couple of weeks.
FQ: Definitely. But even before I jump into that, just to kind of continue on the thread of the conversation, I also think that the larger context here, even going back in history, is important. And that’s why I think we shouldn’t even assume that the soldier didn’t know that it was Shireen Abu Akleh of Al Jazeera. And the reason I say that is, if you look at Israel’s history, number one, you had the Swedish diplomat that worked with the United Nations, Count Bernadotte, we’re talking here 1948. He was leading the peace negotiations between Arabs and Jews. He was killed by one of the Jewish militias at the time. One of the individuals in that cell that killed this diplomat was Yitzhak Shamir, who later became an Israeli Prime Minister.
FQ: If you look at the murder, and what happened in Sabra and Shatila–again, something that caused worldwide condemnation, that everybody spoke up against–that Israel had an investigation into Ariel Sharon’s role at the time as Minister of Defense, and there were findings that indicated that, largely, he knew that there was a massacre of hundreds of people happening, and had encouraged that–he later became Prime Minister of Israel. The example of Rachel Corrie being bulldozed in Gaza over 20 years ago. And Nadeem Nawara, a child, 16 year old, killed live on CNN–the soldier who killed him only got nine months in prison, and is now out, living his best life.
What I’m arguing here is that these types of murders are, in fact–in many cases, those who commit them are later glorified. Those who commit them later become political leaders. Let’s remember the Israeli Prime Minister right now, Bennett, one of his most famous speeches he gave in the Knesset, he said, “I am proud to have killed Arabs.” This is Israel’s Prime Minister right now. And it’s very problematic to treat these types of actions by Israeli soldiers as any form of aberration. I would say that Israeli society today, and since its founding, has been based on the brutalization of the Palestinian people as a means of its colonial survival.
And one of the challenges that we face is that every time something like this happens, that essentially shakes the world for a few moments, Israel has what we call the disinformation playbook, that essentially silences and diverts people’s attention. And that starts with, number one, lie and build out. So we saw that with Shireen Abu Alkeh case, where they came out and said that there was footage that indicated she could have been shot by a Palestinian gunman. And B’Tselem and Al Jazeera and others quickly reviewed that footage, and it showed that it was in a completely other location, and new footage indicated there wasn’t a gunfight. But they used the same tactic with the case of Nadeem Nawara, a 16-year-old kid, where they lied and said that their soldiers were only using rubber bullets. They use it again and again. They lie, they create doubt, and then, particularly the international media, just kind of takes their claims and it shifts the conversation.
Now, when that doesn’t work, when the outrage continues, as again happened with the case of Shireen Abu Akleh, they shift to step number two, which is, they change the frame. And what this means is that they try to impose their context. We saw this again and again in the war on Gaza, as an example, when the four children were killed on the beach. I think we all remember that traumatic moment. Israel came out and said that, “We were targeting terrorists. There were terrorists in the area. This is a war on terror.” And they completely changed the idea that they had committed a war crime against children, and reframed it to, “This is a war on terror.” Noa Tishby also recently came out again using this reframing tactic, where she said, “Oh, Shireen Abu Akleh was killed, but this is a warzone.” And then she changed the frame to it being antisemitic, that there was so much compassion and attention brought to Shireen Abu Akleh’s case. So that’s step number two, try to change the frame. And sadly, particularly US media, always fall for this tactic, and always ended up using the frame put forward by Israeli spokespersons.
Now, if that doesn’t work, they shift to step number three, which is to launch an investigation. And usually they say, “Okay, we need to figure out what happened,” and they tell the world that they’re going to investigate. This happened with the case of, again, Nadeem Nawara, and happened with the case of three-year-old Iman, a child who was murdered in Gaza by an Israeli soldier—which, the evidence indicated, had shot her in the head. And a few other cases, they said they’d do an investigation. Now usually, once they say that, particularly international actors like the US and others, begin to ignore what’s happened and just say, “Well, Israel has an investigation ongoing, we will trust that.” Now, we know from Israeli human rights organizations that Israeli investigations–Israeli government investigations–are white washing. They have never led to any form of real justice, on any front. People who have murdered children were let out of prison after months. And in the case of Shireen, we see now that they’re saying they don’t want to have an investigation.
Now, in the event that there’s still attention, the disinformation playbook says go to point number four, which is claim that it was a mistake. Here they will, again and again, say, “Yes, it turned out that we killed this child, but our soldier accidentally put a live bullet instead of a rubber bullet.” That’s an excuse they’ve used multiple times. Or they will claim that they thought that they were terrorists. This is the talking point they’re beginning to create with Shireen Abu Akleh, which is to say that the soldier acted professionally, and that they just assumed they were terrorists, and had to take precautions, and that it was a mistake.
Now, that takes us to step number five, which is never justice and always gaslighting. What we know, again and again, from Israeli war crimes that are committed is that they will never pursue actual justice for the victims of the crimes. But they will always continue to gaslight. We see this with the case of Muhammad al-Durrah even today, 20 years later, where they keep claiming that Muhammad al-Durrah was killed by Palestinians, that it’s all the Palestinians fault, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Just gaslighting, making it seem like they’re always the victim of some form of propaganda. Meantime, justice never happens. So those are the five steps. And sadly, it doesn’t look like Israel is going to stop its work crimes anytime soon. But I recommend to people listening to this podcast: Spot those steps and call them out the moment you see them. Because it’s time, I think, that we put an end to Israel’s propaganda, and to Israel’s framing of this conflict on the international stage.
DS: Do you think that this playbook, and these kinds of propaganda steps, are entirely aimed at an English-speaking or Western audience? What do Israelis think about this incident? Do you think that they buy the outward-facing government narrative here? Or are they simply embarrassed that these events get seen by the world at all?
DEK: Well, there was that op-ed, I think it was the Times of Israel that was like, “Yes, Shireen Abu Akleh was killed, but should we mourn an antisemitic reporter?” Like just her Palestinian identity made her antisemitic? So I’m not an expert on Israeli public opinion, necessarily, but I think that the overall understanding is, you know, so what? Like it was justified to kill because they’re armed with cameras, or a Palestinian is just a manifestation of a Nazi, or whatever, all the things that they say.
FQ: I mean, honestly, Dana’s point is exactly right. What was really astonishing to me–and it just shows what occupation and colonialism can do to people’s sense of empathy and compassion–is Israeli journalists, for the most part–at least where I’ve seen in Yedioth Ahronoth and some of the main Israeli news channels and outlets–this is a fellow journalist, and yet their first reaction was, “This looks so bad for us.” It wasn’t “Israel should not kill journalists.” It wasn’t, “This is wrong.” It wasn’t, “Our government should investigate and hold the soldier responsible, regardless of what happens.” The first response was, “This makes us look bad. So maybe next time, we make sure that the video for it doesn’t come out.”
What does that say about, at least, the journalistic elite within Israel? That’s what setting the narrative for society. Let’s remember that if this narrative wasn’t set by the journalists, by the information ecosystem, people’s minds would be shifting. But what I’ve seen is, sadly, that it’s just shifting more and more to the right. And this is why I think particularly Jewish Americans, and Jews in Europe, and people who are outside of that bubble, really need to begin to take more action. Because not only are Palestinians paying the price; this level of dehumanization also means that Israelis themselves are paying the price, on multiple levels. And I think that that really needs to change. Because, number one, I’m terrified for what that means for us, as Palestinians, if this becomes normal. But I’m also terrified what this means for global society. Somebody like Putin sees this, or somebody like Bashar al-Assad sees this, and it’s like, “They got away with it, and look at how they got away with it, and we can do the same thing in Hungary, or in Brazil, or in Russia, or in Ukraine.”
DEK: I second everything you just said. I don’t think that we can under-‘emphasize how much Israel is a crucial node of authoritarianism, regionally and in the world.
DS: I think this point of the social reaction or media reaction in Israel is really critical for understanding what is the hasbara operation, and what is its purpose? Because it does seem that, for those who are Israeli, who are on the ground, I think that being proximate in that sense comes with a certain crass or frank understanding of what occupation is, and what it requires. There actually is a comfort with this dehumanization, I think, and the real obfuscation has to happen elsewhere. The average American is not conditioned to racialize Palestinians in the way that the average Israeli is. We have our own colonial-racial paradigms that we are comfortable with in the United States, but it has to be translated. And it seems to me that that is what the hasbara operation is; is to take a colonial relation and translate it into terms that the Western public can digest.
To me, what that strategy entails is centering someone that the average American is aware of and is part of their social fabric, which is Jewish Americans. And to say these are the people who are the victims of your outrage, which is illegitimate. And I’m wondering: hat do you think the strategy should be? How should activists who are based in the West–who are on the receiving end of this massive hasbara operation–how should we combat this? Especially when, if the argument is based around antisemitism, it’s very easy for people to say, “Wow, look, you’re coming up with some conspiracy of these well-funded Jews, who are controlling the media and feeding us lies.” What should the strategy be for counteracting that?
DEK: I think, again, going back to what Fadi said earlier, there needs to be more responsibility taken by American Jews to protect and provide cover for Palestinians who are naming what this is. Because it’s not just an issue of obfuscation. It’s not just an issue of changing the narrative for an American audience, or changing who the victim is. But it’s also penalizing Palestinians who name this unequivocally or who talk about it. And we’ve seen that for years, but I think that the ADL and a couple of other organizations have made very clear signals that this is the route they’re going to be taking from now on. And organizations like CAMERA and stuff like that are getting quite active in their attempts to silence people. So from my perspective: How do we resolve this problem? I think there needs to be more vocal discussions about this from American Jews themselves. Or people who, let’s say, code as white.
FQ: I think that’s definitely a crucial point that Dana speaks to. I would also think about, what are the pillars of the Israeli hasbara process? Especially here–we’re talking about how Israel speaks to a Western audience here. The first pillar is “We’re just like you.” We’re democratic, we’re the startup nation, we love peace, et cetera, et cetera. And we just need to make very clear that, largely speaking, Israel is not what it claims to be. It’s not a democratic state. It’s an apartheid state. And here it’s important, instead of trying to be reactive and responding, for us to set the frame we want to say. And just be loud about it, be proactive. And I think that starts with just making clear what is Israel is today, which is an apartheid state. And that’s based on facts. It’s not Fadi’s opinion. It’s based on the legal definition of apartheid, and the settler-colonial regime that’s in its maximum state of expansion. And that’s also, again, a legal and objective fact. I’m not here, claiming things. And just speaking to that.
The second pillar of the hasbara process is to claim that Israel is a victim. “We’re surrounded by all these evil nations, they want to destroy us. The Palestinians are blood-sucking, murderous children,” et cetera, et cetera, like all this stuff you hear. And this is, I think, the crucial point–to the point Dana is making–we really need to get, particularly, our Jewish allies to play a key role, which is to humanize the Palestinian people, and basically say that that type of language, that seeks to demonize Palestinians and make Israel seem the victim in this type of context, is largely false and disinformation.
Then the third piece is what I call putting Palestinians in the Iron Well. So I think we all know the Iron Wall that Jabotinsky spoke about, which is central to Israel’s leading strategic policy right now. But there’s also an Iron Well, and this is putting Palestinians in this kind of silenced, iron space, where our voices are not allowed to reach the international community. And whether that’s how they pressure social media platforms to shadowban Palestinians, whether that’s what CAMERA and others do–Canary Mission, et cetera–to delegitimize Palestinian voices.
I think that the response to those kinds of different pillars of hasbara, on our side, needs to be, number one, let’s define exactly what we’re fighting for. Which, this is not a battle between Jews and Muslims, this is not a conflict between two people about land. This has become, as it is today, essentially, a group of people who believe that all people should have freedom, justice, and dignity, and another group of people that believe in the concept of Jewish supremacy, and deep tribalism, and the suppression and oppression of a group of people. And we should just name it within that frame. And then after we set that frame, what we need to do is, we need to just began mobilizing, and struggling, and resisting, to create the consistent moral high ground on our side. And to be loud about it.
And oftentimes–this is the key final point I want to make–is too often, we fall into the reactive space, where you have the Hasbarists essentially setting the frame. And we’re responding to them, and trying to convince the world that that’s not the frame. But by doing that, we’re actually strengthening the frame that they’re placing. And I think our energy is better placed not in responding to them, but in becoming more impactful and louder than them, and maintaining our moral high ground. And if we do that, and focus on that for long enough, I think we will succeed,
DEK: I just want to add one thing, which is I think the the average American’s understanding of what racism is and things like that has shifted and developed, especially in the last couple of years. And the fact that we’re dealing with two countries that are similar, at least in one sense–they’re settler-colonial societies–that is something to capitalize on. To make stark these realities. And I don’t mean erasing specificities, but still, being able to speak to an American audience that has Black Lives Matter in their mind, or increased understanding of issues with Native American communities in this country, that’s where we need to create the parallel. This is the same; these are both settler-colonial societies, and one just is very, in-your-face aggressive, and still engaging in the logic of domination in a way that we’re not seeing as overtly in this country.
DS: Yeah, that’s really helpful. I kind of want to synthesize what you two have been saying, because there’s a sense in which it could be contradictory. Saying that our Jewish allies need to step in and be advocates here and support the Palestinian narrative, that may run in tension with Palestinians’ need to be supporting or asserting their own narrative, and asserting their subjectivity in the face of this onslaught of hasbara press coverage. So I think that the trend we’re seeing from Israel is to move away from having substantive debates of the facts on the ground. As you walk through the media playbook, we move away from litigating what has actually transpired towards a broader framework of “This as a long standing religious conflict. There are racial and religious biases that are motivating how people are reacting to this. And that is the true frame for how to understand this.” And Fadi, as you say, like sometimes we get caught in reacting.
DEK: Or even like to say, “Let’s argue about how you’re allowed to talk about this.”
DEK: You know, what words you use.
DS: Yeah. So I mean, I think that we should be taking advantage of the fact that we have, largely, won the substantive debate on: is the colonization of Palestine wrong? We’ve won in the academy, basically. This is something I was talking about in an interview I did for the magazine, recently, with Rashid Khalidi; there’s not so much academic debate anymore, of the facts on the ground, of the history of ’48, of ’67, of the ongoing colonization of Palestine. And that’s why the hasbara narrative has shifted towards reframing this as antisemitism.
And I think that the way to bring things back to the issue of substance is to actually uplift Palestinians, who are able to speak to the nature of the violence inflicted upon them. To say, “We need to hear from Palestinians on the ground, people who are experiencing this firsthand,” because that subjective testimony is very hard to negate. It’s very hard to obfuscate, which is why it’s targeted so effectively. And so I think our Jewish allies are better positioned to say, “These allegations of antisemitism are bullshit. This is a political strategy aimed at repressing Palestinian subjectivity and Palestinian testimony.” It is our Jewish allies who are better positioned to react to that framing, and hopefully clear space and uplift Palestinians who are able, then, to speak through their own subjectivity and speak to the substance of the matter, without having to combat these unfair allegations, and these reframing things that decenter them as victims and supplant the abstract position of the Western, Jewish victim of antisemitic bigotry.
DEK: Yeah, like American Jews–or Jewish allies, not just in the United States–can be resource liberators. Like provide the space, engage in that conversation separately, within the community, and things like this, this kind of podcast, or other sources of media, whatever. That’s how I’m also framing it, so I don’t see it as mutually exclusive, the fact that American Jewish allies need to step up, but also Palestinian voices need to be centered.
DS: Yeah, totally. And I think that can be the strategy. I think that a lot of times, Palestinians get tripped up in having to prove that they themselves are not antisemitic. Which is a ridiculous, in the vast majority of cases, a ridiculous accusation to have to defend against. When you yourself or your family have been colonized by a particular political group, to suggest that your opposition to that is based on their religious identity and not the fact that they are colonizing you is completely absurd.
DEK: Yeah, it’s a state that claims, rightly or wrongly, it claims to be a representative of the Jewish people. So when Palestinians name who is oppressing them–it’s quite absurd, but obviously, the absurdity is the point.
FQ: I think also, what we have seen is that the false accusations of antisemitism against anyone who seeks to criticize Israel, including Jewish people and Jewish allies who seek to criticize Israel, is kind of the key tool right now, of the hasbara narrative. And what I would argue–oftentimes, when you go down the path of saying, “It’s absurd, and we are not anti semitic, and this is a false accusation”–I would actually go a level further. And I would say that the future that we, as Palestinians, are seeking to build and create, will actually make the Jewish people safer around the world, and even in Israel, than the kind of Jewish-supremacist view that’s being pushed by the Israeli leadership right now.
And the reason I say that is, look who the allies of this kind of ideological movement are in Israel. You have Orbán in Hungary, who came to power, basically, using misinformation about Soros running the world and antisemitic tropes. You have people like Trump, who empowered the Proud Boys and other antisemitic actors within the US. And where we’ve seen the rise in antisemitic attacks–not just in the US, but across Europe–from these fascist actors that actually look at Israel as a model of what they want to create in their own nations. So my argument here is that we shouldn’t just kind of say, “No, your claims about us as Palestinians being antisemitic are false,” we should actually say, “We are the people that are pushing the view that will create not only a safer and more secure world for us as Palestinians, who are oppressed, but also for the Jewish people.” And it’s actually Israel, and the Israeli government, and those who are supported, that are really playing a key role through their allyships, and spreading antisemitism around the world. So people who truly want to fight antisemitism should be allied with the Palestinian people. And that’s the level I think we need to be speaking at.
I also think it’s important for us to note that, although the Hasbarists are good, it’s not just about the rhetoric they use; it’s about the pressure tactics. And here, there are important network effects. So if you can influence the frame that CNN uses–if you can influence reporter X or influencer Y, and how they talk about this–then you have massive network effects that maintain your dominant narrative. And one of the pieces of work I think we have to do better, as people pursuing freedom and justice for the Palestinian people, is to find out ways to put pressure on those key network nodes and the current global ecosystem. Because I think we’ve all seen the cracks in the armor of that, with like Bella Hadid, Gigi Hadid, people who have honestly, because of their celebrity and because of their huge networks, have managed to help shift that. But I think we need to do more work there. Because if we managed to do work at that higher level, all the kinds of hasbara work will become just noise, and we wouldn’t even have to respond to it.
DS: Yeah, I’m wondering if you see a change to that calculus, as social media has affected some decentralization of media networks. Subjectively, from my point of view, the response to the events of 2014 and onward, basically_with the emergence of Twitter and the proliferation of images and videos_has been markedly different. Do you see that in practice? And do you think that changes the calculus of impacting that kind of media pressure?
FQ: I would say yes, and no. One of the great things about social media, initially, is that because of how the algorithms work, when you had the narrative change, it spread throughout society, and you had that large influence on a broad spectrum of people. And now, the way the algorithms work, is largely that they put you in bubbles. So you know, we can see a post by, let’s say, myself, or somebody who’s like pro-Palestinian, and see it get millions of likes and seem like it’s going viral. And it is going viral, but only within the subset of people who are already pro-Palestinian. And so, although it’s important that we now have a place to share our voice–and there are impacts of that–it’s still not reaching all people and not changing the broader narrative.
Where I think, still, if I go to Wisconsin, for example, right now, or even like Stuttgart, in Germany, I doubt the average person has heard about the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh. And even if they’ve heard about it, I doubt they heard about it in an accurate frame and narrative. And that’s why I think, like social media is important, but we shouldn’t assume that it’s really changing hearts and minds. Except for–and this is why I said yes or no–the exception is the younger generation of people who follow key celebrities, again, like Bella, and Gigi, and Mark Ruffalo, who are being reached through these celebrities, and these different networks, with this voice. I definitely see that changing in the younger generation, but I wouldn’t overemphasize that.
DEK: Yeah, I was gonna say the same thing. You might be right, Fadi, like I’m not young enough to know how young people are engaging on the internet. But I also worry, sometimes, about who are the accounts that bridge the conversation between different bubbles. It seems to me, just anecdotally, like those who are bridging the different conversations are not our best spokespeople. I’m thinking like, the Max Blumenthals, the Rania Khaleks–we don’t want those to be the accounts that are bridging.
DS: Yeah, it seems like what both of you are speaking to is that social media itself is a somewhat blunt tool. That we should be aware of how its dynamics are affecting the media ecosystem, but it can’t be some kind of perceived savior in terms of the opportunity for us to recapture the narrative. And that we need to be principled, and we need to think about how it affects our discourses, but not rely on it to be the vehicle for carrying our message. It seems like, in large part, the more organized strategies of affecting public opinion and building coalitional power in the United States–and I’m thinking of the BDS movement–take that seriously, and are focusing on institutions as sources of pressure and of power. I’m curious if either of you have thoughts on the interplay between discourse on the surface level, or how people are talking about public events, and then how that translates to taking action in the institutions that people participate in whether it be their place of worship, perhaps their union, or their academic institution, or what have you.
FQ: That’s a good question. And I think it connects a lot to with what Dana was saying as well. I think the point Dana makes is right, in the sense that a lot of the conversations we have, we’re assuming we’re speaking to others and the people seeing it are already the people who know. And that you actually, in the discourse for this group of people who already know what’s happening in Palestine, that’s not just about informing, but that’s about creating proactive action. And yet, we don’t have a very succinct, strong, action-oriented narrative for this beautiful movement of Palestinians that is on social media, and people who are in solidarity with Palestine who want to act. And I think this is one thing that we really need to start building and thinking about.
The BDS has done some great work and I think will continue to do great work on this front. But you know, BDS is not enough to liberate Palestine. And we shouldn’t assume that we can’t create other forms of struggle and resistance, and we should be pushing those into social media networks. Now, again, to answer the point; even outside this bubble–so speaking to people who don’t know Palestine that much–I noticed some great work happening right now by the IMEU. I know a number of organizations in the UK, and in Europe as well, who are deeply thinking about this question. So I don’t want to make it seem like there’s nobody doing this work. There are a lot of people who are thinking about, how do we communicate to different audiences and get them to engage better on Palestine? And they have some fascinating findings. But we need to take those findings and turn them into actions, moving forward into the next five years. And what I’m hopeful about is, it’s becoming super clear how you can change people’s minds on Palestine. It’s become super clear that, just like there’s an Israeli propaganda playbook, there’s also a kind of support Palestine playbook. Just to say that it’s not an impossible task to do this. It’s actually very possible.
DEK: Yeah, I just want to add to the earlier point about BDS. I completely agree, I think we sometimes conflate or think of it as an endpoint, but it’s just a tool. And I actually don’t think it was a perfect tool, necessarily, like BDS was very Western-oriented, and had different issues in the region, and all of that/ But it’s because we’re missing, like you said, a succinct political program. I think that is something that we need to resolve, too. Like, what is it we’re asking for? Not to say that every Palestinian has to be unified, or like there shouldn’t be diverse opinions. But I think that’s the problem as well, is we’re not able to give a clear answer, sometimes, to people who are interested in this topic.
DS: Yeah. When you’re saying a unified political program, do you mean unity in terms of a theory of change?
DEK: No, I don’t mean a theory of change. Because I think that is relative to where you are, like a Palestinian in the diaspora has a certain positionality, will pursue something different from–you know, whatever. But I don’t even mean like a manifesto. I mean, a set of general objectives for the end game here. If we’re going to talk about, for example, decolonization–like, what does that mean, practically? And again, I’m not trying to like erase diverse opinions, but it’s not difficult to explain Palestine to people. People get really upset when they understand what’s happening. But that’s not enough to be like, “Okay, this is now what we want you to support.” Because we’re still, I think, not clear about what what it is.
DS: I think part of that, though, may be just the fact that there is ideological diversity across the Palestine body politic. And I guess I’m skeptical, maybe, that that is something that could be resolved. I mean, I think that there are competing ideological frameworks for how to think about what liberation looks like. Broadly, you have an equality-based framework and you have a decolonial framework, that will have a lot of overlap in terms of concrete demands, but are fundamentally different ways of thinking through where we are and where we should be going.
DEK: I guess my issue thus far is the fact that people don’t see it as an ideologically-diverse situation. And like, there’s a lot of overlap, but people are really at odds with each other around these kinds of frameworks. And that weakens, internally, how we speak to people outside the movement. I guess I want at least enough unity around the fact that the immediate or medium-term objectives are the same. And we don’t need to tear down a Carnegie Report to make our point about decolonization, or whatever it is.
FQ: I actually don’t think it’s as hard as you speak to Dylan. Which is, I think, we need to focus on the least-common denominator. And honestly, one of the challenges we face as Palestinians is the focus on the tyranny of small differences. I actually think it will be super easy to come together and create the kind of least-common denominators that all Palestinians want to achieve, and even including Jewish allies. And I think you can get people from Hamas all the way to the Palestinian left and the Communist Parties to agree to that. And I’ve actually had conversations with actors from across the Palestinian spectrum, in this vein, and I was actually surprised at how easy it was to move towards that frame.
I think the biggest challenge in getting to that kind of common vision–and this is also what the ANC did and other liberation movements, so I don’t want to make it seem as just the Palestinian cause. But you say, “Okay, we all agree on these minimum, viable goals right now. We’re going to pursue them until liberation. And then, after that, we’ll agree and we’ll have elections, once we have a liberated Palestine. And you want to create an egalitarian, socialist state, or X person wins and they want to create a conservative, Muslim state; we’ll create a system to have that type of democratic process.” The obstacle is the Palestinian Authority, because the Palestinian Authority is preventing any type of political discussion, and conversation, and unity to happen within Palestinian society, because they want to maintain the status quo. And so, I think what we need to talk about is how do we get rid of, to be frank, the current leadership of the PLO and replaced them with a body that creates place for this democratic conversation, so we achieve that minimum, viable goal, and go from there.
DS: Yeah, that’s a really helpful framing. I didn’t mean to come off as as pessimistic about the possibility of unity. My question is about finding a coherent and unified strategy among what is a pluralistic grouping of people, basically, and finding enough of a common program to unseat the status quo and the convergence of interests that hold the whole the status quo in place. And, obviously, easier said than done.
In that vein, Dana, you’ve written about the sociology of violent resistance. And I’m curious, one, if you’re expecting any reprisals from the killing of Shireen, and how you see the divergent strategies of resistance. The more violent strategies seem to be, largely, responding in a defensive posture–or a remote position of seeking deterrence–in a way that is very constrained to the reality on the ground, and the experiences of people under occupation. And the broader, media-based, or rhetorical, or nonviolence strategies that seem to be, discursively, targeting an audience outside of Palestine; how do you see these either running up against each other, or being part of a more pluralistic strategic program?
DEK: Yeah, I think that historical evidence shows that liberation movements–it’s not necessarily mutually exclusive. I think Western media–and I think even within the academy–I think this is a threshold that we haven’t crossed yet. I don’t think that’s fully accepted or understood. Like, what the role of armed resistance is, or what is the logic of it, because it’s not insanity. That, I think, is still not well translated in Western circles, even amongst advocates or allies, in terms of like, what we can see. I think armed resistance will continue, because nonviolent resistance is so severely repressed. I mean, something like a funeral procession, just for collective mourning, is repressed. So why would any actor, who is active on the issue of Palestine on the ground, think that nonviolent strategies are the only way forward?
But of course, there is a power imbalance. Armed resistance, or any of those kinds of strategies, are not without cost. And so I think they will still continue, because it’s seem as the most effective, but there is a large cost to bear. And because, you know–sorry to harp on this point–because there isn’t a political program, necessarily, that’s being put forward, that kind of armed resistance may not accomplish what armed resistance in previous liberation movements has accomplished. So in terms of Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing, like it was a very unifying moment. We saw, especially in the funeral in Jerusalem, and the protests in backlash against that, we saw people joining from all over, also like within the green line. And that kind of galvanizing moment will entail that people will organize more and take it a step further. And we might see armed armed attacks, like I’m not discounting that. But I just wanted to bring it back to the fact that the reason we’re seeing this is not illogical. And how effective it might be, whether paired with nonviolent resistance or not, has to do with being able to put forward a unified political program, where armed resistance can be one of the strategies.
DS: Fadi, did you did you want to comment?
FQ: I will just say, quickly, that what we’re seeing in Jenin right now actually shows that there is a form of resurrection of armed resistance, at least in a few closed areas. Jenin is actually an interesting case, because there’s also now a unified–they call themselves a unified Jenin battalion, which is people from all the different political parties working together, trying to push back any Israeli reprisals or attacks on the camp. I think what’s also becoming clear to many Palestinians–and I think it’s worth naming here, and especially with the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, and then let’s remember also, many Palestinians have been killed, including children in the last few weeks, including settlers coming down from villages and burning homes–is that there is a move within Palestinian society to say, “We need to arm ourselves as a form of self defense.”
And when people saw here, on the ground in Palestine, the response to Ukraine–tens of thousands of Javelin missiles, and M16s, and weapons being sent to Ukraine, and the kind of legitimacy given to Ukraine in terms of pushing off Russian occupation–I want to say that that kind of created a level of resonance within Palestinian society, that was like, “Okay. There has been huge hypocrisy, and this is a path that we may be able to open up again. And if anyone tries to say Palestinians shouldn’t be using those tactics, we’ll just spit in their face, because look at what they’ve done in Ukraine.”
But I think what Dana speaks to is, if you studied armed resistance–just study it from an objective, strategic standpoint–Palestine isn’t like, you know, Cuba, where you have these kinds of forests where guerrilla fighters can go and stay. Palestine isn’t like Afghanistan, with these porous borders with Pakistan, and so forth. Palestinians are largely besieged. And the idea that Palestinians will be able to build any type of form of armed resistance, alone, that’s capable of disempowering the Israeli occupation’s military is, I think, out of the picture. And so, you need an orchestra of tactics, and this one alone is not going to be the one that leads to liberation.
DS: Well, I want to thank both of you so much for joining me, and thank all of our listeners for joining us as well. This has been a really enlightening and sobering conversation. Really appreciate your time. Thank you both so much.
FQ: Thank you.
DEK: Thank you.
DS: If you’re listening and you’ve enjoyed this podcast–which has been another episode of On the Nose, the podcast of Jewish Currents magazine, please subscribe, share it with friends and family, anyone you think might be interested, and we’ll see you next time.