An Israeli-born scholar discusses war hysteria and peace activism

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Raya Fidel, born and raised in Israel, is a retired professor of Information Science at the University of Washington. She was interviewed by Tamara Turner in August 2014.

Tamara Turner — What is the situation in Gaza?

Raya Fidel — It is gut-wrenching. The UN calls the level of destruction in Gaza “without precedent.” The Israel military calls the carnage “mowing the lawn.”

The latest Israeli military onslaught began on July 8, attacking Gaza from the air, sea, and land. It’s easier to imagine the scope if you compare Gaza to familiar places: the entire Gaza Strip of 1.8 million people is the size of Detroit. Gaza City itself is densely populated but small — the size of Napa, the town in California’s wine country.

By mid-August, whole neighborhoods in Gaza City — including more than 12,000 homes — were erased from the face of the earth. Despite repeated notices to the Israeli military of where schools, hospitals, and shelters were located, these sites were bombed anyway.

The staggering human toll is now over 2,200 dead (80 percent civilians including 700 women and children); 10,000 wounded; over 520,000 displaced. Nearly 1.5 million people are without water, food, or electricity. The UN Relief Works Agency is trying to provide for over a quarter-million people — about half of whom are children under the age of 18. An estimated 400,000 children are severely traumatized. Since Gaza’s only power station was destroyed, sanitation and disease are a growing problem because most electric sewage pumps aren’t working.

Israel’s repeated indiscriminate and unjust collective punishment measures violate international law. Many international humanitarian organizations and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators worldwide accuse Israel of war crimes.

TT — How have Israelis reacted to this war?

RF — My friends tell me that most Israelis are in a state of war hysteria — encouraged and abetted by intense government incitement for revenge. Today, 85 percent of Israelis support the war. After three Israeli settlement teens hitchhiking in the West Bank were kidnapped and murdered, a group of Israeli Jews abducted a Palestinian teenager and burned him alive. Protests erupted, and Hamas authorized firing rockets at major cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israelis feared for their lives, though the U.S.-supplied missile defense “Iron Dome” is highly efficient. The civilian death toll in Israel is five.

Inside Israel, right-wing mobs attack Israeli Palestinians — who are citizens! — and there have been several lynching attempts. Calls of “Death to Arabs” and “Death to leftists” are heard everywhere, goons attack people who “look Arab” and throw rocks at their cars. Palestinian shops are vandalized, and social media channels are filled with extreme hate messages. Police do nothing to protect those under attack and have arrested few of the hooligans.

Another shocking aspect of the hysteria is the rapid deterioration of democracy. Israel as a country is not fascist but it is extremely racist, and the corrosion of human rights goes deep. In general, it’s dangerous to express even the slightest sympathy with the Palestinian situation or to criticize Israeli policy. Groups search Facebook sites for “extreme” expressions and report them to the account owner’s work place. Many employers are so afraid of retaliation that they reprimand — or even fire — such “traitors.”

This fear extends to the press and the academic world. I read the Israeli press online every day. Despite world opinion against the butchery, nearly all Israeli journalists joined the crowd to support the war. The few who dare to express criticism get death threats; one brave journalist has hired bodyguards.

It angers and sickens me that some Israeli universities also are fomenting the hysteria. Instead of being centers for enlightenment and protectors of academic freedom, two universities have warned faculty, students, and employees that if “extreme” contents are found in their private Facebook accounts, they will be disciplined. At another university, a professor emailed students about a procedural matter and, at the end, added a sentence lamenting the loss of life on both sides in the current conflict. Students complained and the dean threatened the professor with sanctions. At this same university, however, another professor asserted in a public lecture that the only way to deter Hamas is by raping their wives and sisters. When world criticism poured in, the university defended his right to free speech!

TT — Is there resistance among progressive and leftist Arabs/Jews?

RF — Yes! I’m very encouraged that 43 Israeli intelligence unit soldiers have refused to serve over the persecution of Palestinians. Jewish and Israeli Palestinian organizations have united to protest the war. They call for peace on every communication channel available to them.

These protesters always face a mob of extreme right-wing thugs. At first, the police will separate the two groups, but once the thugs start attacking, the police move aside, arrest peace demonstrators, and order them to disperse. In the last month, 1,500 demonstrators were arrested, mostly Israeli Palestinians.

The police actively work to crush peace demonstrations. In one nationwide event, police prevented buses filled with demonstrators from the northern parts of Israel — where most of the Israeli Palestinians live among a larger Jewish population — from entering Tel Aviv. But peace demonstrators are not yielding to the pressure, and many more events are planned.

TT — How is the U.S. involved?

RF — Let’s be clear: the U.S. government supports the attacks on Gaza.

The Middle East is strategic to the U.S., both economically and militarily. Our government’s goal is to keep the area quiet and totally dependent on the United States. Israel serves the purpose handily since it depends on the $3.1 billion of our tax dollars it receives annually. And Congress just approved another $225 million to replenish ammunitions depleted by Israel’s recent bombing.

Decades of brutal occupation by Israel make Palestinians among the world’s most revolutionary people. They stand in the way of U.S. dominance and Israel’s territorial expansion. Ethnic cleansing — that is, getting rid of the Palestinians — is a mutual objective.

I remember an interview that Vice President Joe Biden gave a few years ago. He explained that, “People should understand by now that Israel is the single greatest strength America has in the Middle East.” He asked how many battleships and U.S. troops would have to be stationed there “if there were no Israel.”

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