“You Cannot Unsee This Image”

Rashid Khalidi on the colonial logic that devalues eyewitness accounts of the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh

Dylan Saba
May 17, 2022

Israeli police attack mourners carrying the casket of Shireen Abu Akleh in East Jerusalem on May 13th.

AP Photo/Maya Levin

Last week, Shireen Abu Akleh, the beloved Palestinian Al Jazeera television reporter who had fearlessly covered Israel’s occupation since the Second Intifada, was gunned down during an IDF raid on occupied Jenin in the West Bank, despite wearing a flak jacket that clearly identified her as a member of the press. Palestinian eyewitnesses at the scene, including a colleague of Shireen’s who was himself shot, reported that the shots came from IDF soldiers. Gruesome images flooded social media, sparking outrage and horror. Despite the eyewitness testimony and Al Jazeera’s statement that their reporter was shot by Israeli military forces, much of the Western mainstream media coverage echoed official statements from the Israeli government and its communications apparatus claiming that Abu Akleh was killed in crossfire between the IDF and Palestinian militants.

This incident is but the latest in a long history of devaluing Palestinian testimony and the denial of Palestinian subjectivity. For some larger context on this incident and the erasure of Palestinian testimony in general, I spoke with the eminent historian of the modern Middle East Rashid Khalidi, currently the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. Our conversation took place last Friday morning, May 13th, just as disturbing footage of Israeli police attacking Abu Akleh’s funeral procession once again shocked the world. We discussed the colonial logic motivating Abu Akleh’s assassination, comparisons with the British colonization of Ireland and India, the shifting academic terrain of Palestinian history, and Zionist media strategy in the United States. Khalidi argues that the suppression of Palestinian testimony is a practice as central to the Zionist project as the conquest of land. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DS: The footage of Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral seems too horrific not to address. We saw Israeli occupation forces breaking into the hospital where her coffin was being carried as part of her funeral procession. We saw them attacking mourners, beating them with batons, ripping away flags, using tear gas and stun grenades, and almost knocking over her coffin itself. Why attack a funeral in front of the world? What’s the point of such an open display of fascism?

RK: Every colonial army believes that only force can maintain control. And it’s true. A British general in India who ordered his forces to fire into a crowd, killing nearly 400 people [in the 1919 Amritsar massacre], said he had to establish the “moral effect” of force. Why do Israelis shoot down Palestinians; why do they go into people’s homes and smash everything? The “moral effect” of force. Soldiers are trained to do that kind of thing, according to testimony from Breaking the Silence. So they kill her, then they attack her home, and then they assault the funeral. That’s three attacks on this person and on her family. It has to be understood as part of a policy of systematically humiliating, brutalizing, and degrading an entire people, which is what a colonial power has to do if it is to maintain control.

DS: With this assassination, we’ve seen outlets like The New York Times minimizing eyewitness accounts from Palestinian journalists who saw this killing firsthand. Why are Palestinians prevented from telling their own story?

RK: It’s part of a general mindset that Israel and other colonial powers dating back to the 19th century have had about the inferior subject peoples they rule. Their testimony is not valid, so it is to be ignored, prevented, and blocked. Only Englishmen in Ireland, only Frenchmen in Algeria can appear before a court. That unfortunately pervades US media, partly because Israel polices the media to make sure that its own mendacious narrative is prominently included, but also because reporters themselves are biased. If a white person or a Westerner is on the scene, that’s testimony, that’s a witness. But any number of Arab, even Arab American, witnesses are not accorded the same respect.

This is a particularly egregious case, because if you follow Al Jazeera and other Arab coverage of Shireen’s murder, all of those outlets cite testimony from her fellow victims, from people who the Israelis were also shooting at, and who were there when she was murdered. Those testimonies were eloquent and clear that there were no Palestinian resistance fighters in the area, and that the Israelis knew who they were shooting at. Several of them also spoke English, so language wasn’t a barrier.

DS: In the 19th century, many states in the US had laws against Black people being able to testify in courts, so this is part of our own colonial legacy too.

RK: Yes, and Native Americans too. All of this has common roots in Western European colonialism. An English person would not be prosecuted for killing an Irish person. That in practice is the situation in Israel and the occupied territories: Palestinians can be shot down and murdered in cold blood with impunity.

The only reason Shireen is getting any positive mainstream coverage is that many of these Western reporters, including people who are parroting Israeli lies day in and day out, were touched by her. Every journalist in Palestine knew her. She was a familiar face to everybody because she was always on television, because there’s always some brutality that the Western media doesn’t cover and Al Jazeera does, and she was the most iconic face. None of the Western coverage has mentioned that Israel bombed the Al Jazeera offices in Gaza. Al Jazeera is the most widely viewed outlet in the Arab world for news on Palestine, because the Arab governments that are hand in glove with Israel—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates—do not want their state-controlled media to report on Palestine. It embarrasses these regimes. For Israel, it’s essential that Al Jazeera be cut off at the root. They don’t want this coverage. That’s why they shoot and beat reporters and bomb or raid offices or confiscate their equipment.

This is the oldest colonial strategy. During the Irish war of independence a century ago, there was a whole section in Dublin Castle, where the British ran their counterinsurgency operation, devoted to propaganda and censoring the Irish Press and feeding stuff to British-friendly journalists. They did the same thing in India, and in Palestine during the Great Revolt of the 1930s. The French did the same thing in Algeria. Every colonial power has to do this, because if the truth gets back to the metropole, there will be a problem. Israel is an independent, nuclear-armed regional power, but it is also dependent on a metropole, which is the US and Western Europe. If the population of the metropole knows in granular detail what Israel is doing, its support will wither.

By 1921, the British public had seen British soldiers burn the city of Cork, in retaliation for an attack on British auxiliaries, and over time British public opinion turned and the British withdrew from most of Ireland. The Vietnamese understood this; they might or might not win on the ground, but their resistance would cause public opinion to turn in the US.

Israelis are not going to keep winning this war as time goes on. If one compares the situation 40 or 50 years ago with the situation over the last couple of decades, it has changed. One reason is that you can shut voices up, but there’s nothing you can do about images. The image of Israeli soldiers wading into a crowd of mourners carrying the coffin and beating people and almost knocking the coffin down—there’s nothing you can do to contravene that. Even if the mainstream media and the Israeli press attachés and AIPAC and the paid hacks completely black it out, it’s on alternative and social media. You can say anything you want about bullets and Palestinian gunmen and the supposedly murky circumstances under which this woman was murdered, and they’re doing an incredibly effective job at that, but you cannot unsee this image. And that’s why they shot this woman: She was a TV journalist about to broadcast images of their systematic attacks on refugee camps.

DS: This speaks to the power of Palestinian testimony, either through verbal accounts or through the direct publishing of images. How do you see this struggle over narration occurring in the field of history? I’m thinking in particular of cases like that of Israeli historians like Benny Morris, who didn’t use Palestinian testimony in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, his famous 1988 account of the Nakba.

RK: He rigorously excluded Palestinian testimony. He explains it in the preface to the book.

DS: Yeah. How has that history of exclusion impacted how you think about your work as a historian and about the field?

RK: I don’t want to sound complacent, but I think that the Israelis have lost the battle on the academic front. I don’t think there are many respectable historians who repeat any of the major myths that were believed, cherished, polished, and enshrined over the decades after 1948. Many of the best Israeli academics have fled Israel. I have half a dozen Israeli colleagues at Columbia. I’m sure they all go back, but they prefer to be here rather than there. Fifty years ago, you almost couldn’t find books on Palestine. The word “Palestine” was taboo. If you said “Palestine,” you were an antisemite, and you were somehow challenging the existence of Israel or wanting to destroy it. But the flood of scholarship on Palestine in the last couple of decades has been unstoppable—including a lot of critical, objective, scholarly work by Israelis.

Popular history is different; generations that grew up with a variety of lies and myths came to believe that Israel was a tiny, embattled outpost of democracy in a sea of hostile Arabs probably haven’t changed their views. They believe that the movie Exodus is factual. That’s what people over 50 or 60 believe; when I speak to older audiences, typically half of them have seen that film. It played a defining role in establishing those myths, but younger people don’t believe any of that. The younger they get, even if they’re sympathetic to Israel, they don’t believe the old claptrap.

DS: It seems like the new discursive move is to move away from allegations of bias—which, at least in my experience, used to be the dominant mode for dismissing Palestinians—toward new allegations of antisemitism. In some ways, this is a tacit acknowledgement that the academic battle has been lost. So the move now is to decenter Palestinians and recenter American Jews as victims. It’s a concession to more contemporary ways of thinking about testimony—that victims should be able to speak to the nature of their oppression. So they have to change who the victim is.

RK: There’s an interesting piece by Isaac Chotiner in The New Yorker, in which he interviews Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and it’s very clear from that interview that this is exactly what the ADL and similar, well-funded organizations are doing. A good general understands when a line has been breached and you have to withdraw to another one. It’s a very shrewd move on their part, even if it’s an admission of bankruptcy. If you can’t argue the facts, argue lies. You cannot deny legitimacy to the testimony of victims in the Palestinian case, but in a Zionist interpretation of history, Jews are always, inevitably victims, and their victimhood is worse than anyone else’s, including Palestinians’. That works with a certain generation, but it doesn’t work with young people. When they see a picture of Israeli police in body armor and helmets beating the living bejesus out of mourners, who is the victim?

If you read the Greenblatt piece carefully, he in effect concedes that Palestinians are indigenous and that there are problems in Israel. But he says that these American students on campuses are antisemitic. It’s a remarkable strategic move.

DS: Given how important the US is as part of the colonial metropole for Israel, and this concerted shift in hasbara (Israeli propaganda) strategy away from the events on the ground and toward advocacy itself, what can Palestinians do to reassert their subjectivity, both as an oppressed people in Palestine, and as a marginalized people in the US as a part of the diaspora?

RK: If there were a coherent, democratic, unified Palestinian national movement, it would be involved in effective messaging that lays out a strategy for liberation and decolonization that appeals to Israelis, American Jews, Europeans, American conservatives, everyone. Somebody would be standing up in Ramallah, or even in exile, and saying, “Israel is not sovereign here, Israel has no right to investigate. The criminal doesn’t have the right to investigate his crime.” They would say, “We are the indigenous people. We are the real sovereign.” But the Palestinian leaders who might say that don’t represent anybody except their own narrow, partisan, and personal interests, whether in Gaza or in Ramallah.

What’s left is Palestinian civil society, which is doing a reasonable job of messaging given the limitations it faces. But it’s incoherent and amorphous, and there’s nobody really leading it, which is one reason you have all of these acts of spontaneous resistance. On the other hand, there’s a huge opportunity today, when you have the American media glorifying women putting together Molotov cocktails to be used against Russian occupation forces. Somebody should be yelling from the top of their lungs, from the United Nations and from every Palestinian embassy, that our resistance against occupation, armed or otherwise, is no different than Ukrainian resistance. Occupation is occupation, the only difference is 88 days versus 55 years. Occupation is illegitimate. Occupation doesn’t have the right to call resistance “terrorists.” That’s what you need a unified national movement to say; obviously, the Palestinian Authority, which is a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation, is not going to do it.

I don’t want to say we have to emulate the media genius of the Zionist project. I’m not saying we have to emulate the Algerians or the Vietnamese or the Irish or the Indians—although the Indians were geniuses, and the way they defeated the British discursively is textbook. Israel is completely different. You never had a separate colonial project which wasn’t an extension of the sovereignty and the population of the mother country. English people were sent to North America, French people were sent to Algeria, but Zionism was an embryonic national movement of people who were not British: The British supported somebody else’s project for their own narrow, selfish strategic purposes. Nevertheless, there are lessons from each of these cases that the Palestinians should be learning and that are there in the scholarship. But there has to be some kind of chain of transmission down to the level of activists and politics. Read what the Irish did, in terms of creating an alternative sovereignty; the Indians and the Egyptians did the same thing. You create an alternative—not one controlled by your occupier, like the Palestinian Authority—but one that is completely altered, and then they arrest you. The Irish proclaimed their own parliament, and the British arrested them. Some of them died in hunger strikes. They created their own courts, all of it subterranean. The Indians did the same thing. They refused to participate in the machinery of colonial government. The fact that the Irish and the Indians understood that they had to get through to the British, and the Algerians understood they had to get through to the French—that’s why they won. Ultimately, what turned the tide was the metropole turning against the colonial crimes.

DS: I take your point about how critical this discursive fight is, and it seems like we need to find a way to assert Palestinian subjectivity on a discursive level in a way that is accessible to people who may have no reason to be involved in this fight.

RK: You know, Native Americans speak for themselves in this country. Black people speak for themselves. There’s a pushback against it, but that victory has been won. Palestinians don’t have that yet.

Dylan Saba is a civil rights attorney and writer based in New York City, and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.