From boycotts to Bilin: An interview with Jonathan Cook

9 October 2009

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Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook is a British journalist based in Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel, whose work is regularly published by The Electronic Intifada. His latest book, Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair, was published by Zed Books last October. He recently sat with Jeff Gore to discuss his work and his analysis of the current situation on the ground.

Jeff Gore: How and when did you first become interested in the Middle East, specifically the issue of Israel/Palestine?

Jonathan Cook: It was a gradual process that took over a decade. I became interested in Arab culture during a backpacking trip to Morocco in my early 20s. Later I got my first, faint taste of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the Oslo years when I crossed over from Jordan for a three-day visit to Jerusalem. While I was walking along the Old City walls, I was surprised to see a group of Israeli soldiers beating two young Palestinian boys, maybe 12 years old, for no apparent reason. It certainly disturbed me, although I can’t say it greatly politicized me at the time — like most tourists, I suppose, I put it to the back of my mind.

A vague interest in the Middle East solidified into a more obvious concern while I was working in the foreign department of the Guardian. I started to sense that the paper’s coverage didn’t seem to be giving the whole picture of what I was seeing on my travels. Assuming the fault lay with me, I then did a two-year, part-time MA in Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. By the end I felt even more strongly that the media were failing. I chose as the topic of my MA dissertation land problems faced by Israel’s Palestinian citizens in the Galilee. It was during the research that I began to conclude that much could be understood about the regional conflict from Israel’s approach towards its Palestinian minority. I was surprised no one else appeared to be reaching such a conclusion, at least not at that time. Eventually, in 2001, I decided to leave my job in London and move to Nazareth to write a book about Israel’s treatment of the minority at the start of the second intifada. I expected to complete it in a year. It took five — and I am still in Nazareth eight years after my arrival.

JG: On your website you state that “There are striking, and disturbing, similarities between the experiences of Palestinians inside Israel and those inside the West Bank and Gaza.” This is definitely true, but the occupation has persisted for long enough that it seems there would also be some noticeable differences. How does the outlook of a Palestinian citizen of Israel differ from that of a Palestinian living in the occupied territories?

JC: The “striking similarity” is in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians inside the areas it controls. It has sought to apply a very sophisticated form of divide and rule. From the outset inside Israel, Palestinian citizens were referred to not only as Arabs, to undermine their identity as Palestinians, but also as “the minorities.” Israel’s primary goal was to accentuate a series of subgroup identities — Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, and Druze. The [Druze] were officially awarded the status of a separate nationality, with its own education system and requirement to serve in the army alongside Jews.

But even within these main categories there were further separations: between those in recognized communities and those in unrecognized communities; between those who were internal refugees, and had therefore lost all rights to their property, and those who weren’t; between those who lived in the “mixed cities” and those in self-contained Arab communities; and between the main geographical areas: the Galilee, the Triangle and the Negev. On top of that, Israel has accentuated political differences, cultivating a series of splits between the main Arab parties to the point where even the Islamic party has two hostile wings.

The Palestinian minority inside Israel started to wake up belatedly to this game in the late 1990s, during the Oslo process, for a variety of complicated reasons set out in my book Blood and Religion. The result is a recent unprecedented reassertion of Palestinian identity as a way to circumvent these other crippling sub-identities. Nonetheless, it is an uphill struggle and far from won.

Interestingly, just as the Palestinians inside Israel realized they needed to create unity, the Palestinians in the occupied territories succumbed to Israel’s divide-and-rule game. Israel used the Oslo process in particular to foster similar kinds of division, using the carve-up of the West Bank into a series of zones — Areas A, B and C — to interfere in Palestinian life in different ways. That process was taken a step further with the split both between the already-heavily divided West Bank and Gaza Strip and between Fatah and Hamas.

JG: Compared to the West Bank and Gaza, the occupied Golan Heights gets scant media attention. My guess is because there is far less “action” there. When I visited the Syrian village of Majd al-Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan, I encountered no checkpoints, saw street signs in Hebrew, and found that the Syrians enjoyed substantially more liberties there than the Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. The last substantial flare-up of Syrian anger in the occupied Golan was more than a quarter-century ago (the general strike of 1981) and the intifada still remains a distinctly Palestinian struggle. What do you think are the reasons for this relative quiet in the Golan?

JC: The main reason is that the Druze in the Golan, unlike the Palestinians in the occupied territories, are not struggling for national liberation — they are waiting for the Syrians to negotiate their return. A Druze intifada would be pointless because the small Druze community in the Golan does not want to run its own affairs. In a way, the Golan Druze are in a very similar position to the Palestinians inside Israel. Both are in a sort of political limbo, awaiting direction from the larger national group to which they belong.

Also, it should be noted that the settlement drive has been a relative failure in the Golan, most of which is empty. The settlers are hardly visible and certainly not encroaching on the Golan Druze in the way settlers are in the West Bank.

JG: I was involved in a debate about the effectiveness of the weekly protests at Israel’s barrier in the West Bank villages of Nilin and Bilin, which often result in airborne stones and teargas canisters. Supporters of the protests say that it is a symbol of the indomitable resistance of the Palestinians, a sign that they will not be quieted and that Israel will never be able to rest easy as long as it remains an illegal occupier. Yet its detractors say that it gives trigger-happy Israel soldiers the perfect excuse to shoot and kill, that they look forward to it every week as some sort of military game or target practice. What’s your take on these protests?

JC: The media often represent this as a battle between young hot-headed Palestinian stone-throwers and over-excited Israeli soldiers. That’s largely a fiction. On the Palestinian side are to be found a cross-section of the resisting community, including its leaders and many middle-aged villagers who have families to support. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand off regularly against heavily armed Israeli teenagers, a significant number of them Jewish religious fanatics raised to believe they are fighting a holy war and many of the others raised to believe that the “Arabs” are a primitive, barbaric people. It may be true that some of the soldiers enjoy getting the chance to use their weapons (isn’t it always true of some soldiers?) but again I cannot see why that should determine whether it is a good idea for the Palestinians to stage the protests.

As for the question of effectiveness, the answer is that the protests have undoubtedly been successful. The naked violence that Israel is forced to unleash against the protesters, and the subsequent raids to arrest the protest organizers, indicate just how much of a concern they are to Israel. In the case of Bilin and elsewhere the protests have successfully led to a change in the route of the wall that has restored to the villages some of their desperately needed farm land. The protests are also an important way for ordinary Palestinians to feel they have some agency in the conflict, both against Israel and in forcing a different agenda on to their corrupt national leadership. In the tearing down of the wall between Gaza and Egypt, for example, ordinary Palestinians showed what a much more concerted campaign of civil disobedience could achieve. If Israel deepens its apartheid rule in the West Bank, such campaigns of civil resistance are almost certainly the face of the future.

JG: How important do you think the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is at this stage in the conflict?

JC: It is a hugely important development in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. Certainly I think its moment has arrived.

This is a Palestinian grassroots initiative that cannot be bought off by Israel in the way the Fatah leadership was bought off by Oslo. It empowers Palestinians by allowing them to set the scope and agenda of their struggle, such as by demanding that artists respect their call not to perform in Israel. It offers a practical way for people outside the region to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle by heeding that call and thinking creatively about how to implement BDS in their own countries. In the controversy and debate it generates it offers a chance to engage and educate those who are at the moment only vaguely aware that there might be problem here. And if BDS gains more momentum, it could really harm the Israeli economy. In fact, in my view there is no way to end the occupation unless Israelis are made to see that they will pay a heavy price for its continuance. The US could do that overnight by withdrawing its huge subsidies to Israel. I’m not holding my breath. Instead BDS gives all of us the power to show Israel that the occupation does not pay.

As for the issue of wider Palestinian support, it is still early days for BDS. In my experience, many ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside Israel are not yet sufficiently aware of the campaign or its potential importance. Some may also take some persuading that the outside world, which has aided and abetted their persecutors for so long, is capable of providing a solution. But my impression is that interest in and support for BDS among Palestinians is growing all the time.

JG: Since you live in Nazareth, you’re in a rather unique position as a journalist sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. Considering that the Israeli government is not reluctant to arrest, censor, or deny entry to those fundamentally opposed to its policies, how have you survived professionally in Israel for so long?

JC: There are two reasons. First, I really am no threat to Israel, so why would it risk drawing attention to my work by making an example of me? Like other journalists whose reporting challenges the official consensus on Israel, I am excluded from the mainstream media. I write either on the Internet for Western readers who already know things are bad here (hopefully I can fill in some of the details they don’t fully grasp) or for the Arab media, which most Westerners regard as unreliable. Early on it looked briefly as if I might break out of this ghetto. I started writing commentaries for The International Herald Tribune, a sort of globally syndicated version of The New York Times. Israel’s lobby groups in the US moved into action very quickly, getting their foot soldiers to write complaints to the newspaper on a scale the paper had apparently never seen before (nor probably since). I was soon dropped. Israel really doesn’t need to exert that kind of pressure itself: there are lots of organizations doing this stuff very successfully on its behalf.

The second reason is that I am married to an Israeli citizen, even if one from the Palestinian minority, and I therefore have Israeli residency. If Israel tried to bar me from the country, I would have a right of appeal to the courts. The law would almost certainly be on my side, mainly because I am a Westerner (it would be different were I a Palestinian or Arab) and because it would be difficult to show I posed any sort of security threat.

JG: Given that you’ve been covering this issue for nearly a decade and have written three books regarding Israel’s policies, what advice can you give to freelance journalists interested in writing about this area of the world?

JC: Well, first of all you have to make a choice: are you going to report according to a ready-made script for the mainstream, or are you going to write it as you see it but struggle to get noticed or earn a living wage? Neither option is easy.

For those choosing the first path, the problem is that this is possibly the most reported conflict in the world. There are lots of journalists out here and most are very experienced, at least at writing the same safe reports designed not to offend either Israel or their news desks back home. Just getting your foot in the door is hard.

Anyone wishing to follow the second path better be resigned to staying on the margins of the media. There is rarely money in reporting critically about Israel. At least I was lucky that I could draw on savings I had accumulated while working at the Guardian. That’s a luxury most aspiring young journalists don’t have.

The third way is to abandon this traditional model of journalism and blog. There are still possibilities, though rapidly diminishing ones, to locate oneself in a West Bank community (though not in Gaza, because Israel controls all access) and send back eyewitness reports. You’re not going to become Seymour Hersh or Robert Fisk, but you can still make a difference as a rare witness to what is going on.

Jeff Gore is a freelance journalist based in Athens, GA. He is a frequent contributor to the Athens weekly Flagpole Magazine and has also written articles for Dissident Voice and The Comment Factory. His journal of his summer spent in Palestine can be read at holylanddispatches.blogspot.com.