Extensive Interview with Gideon Levy

by | April 3, 2020

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Gideon Levy is an Israeli Author and Journalist, and a Columnist for Haaretz. He has earned several awards for human rights journalism focusing on the Israeli occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the OPT (or oPt). Language recognized in the work of the OHCHRAmnesty InternationalOxfam InternationalUnited NationsWorld Health OrganizationInternational Labor OrganizationUNRWAUNCTAD, and so on. Some see the Israeli-Palestinian issue as purely about religion. Thus, this matters to freethought. These ongoing interviews explore this issue in more depth.

Here we talk about coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)/COVID-19, Israeli elections, medical infrastructure or lack thereof, coronavirus on the ground, and a lot more.

*Interview conducted on March 28, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Last time we talked was May​ (2019)​​​​, there have been some general changes. Some have been game-changers with coronavirus giving symptoms of COVID-19. Perhaps, we can start with that as the most pressing thing based on its global scope and hitting the general territories (oPt) as well as Israel. With regards to the coronavirus with Israel, what is the situation on the ground? What has been some of the reaction of the authorities?

Gideon Levy: I think there has been confusion and some sense of fear. A lot is unknown, like any other place. With some more hysteria, which is typical to Israelis and going from one extreme to the other, we are really in the middle of it. So, no one can really judge. What is it? What will be the outcomes? What will be the consequences? It is too early to judge. The government and the politicians​ are using it for their own purposes. Obviously, for me, personally, it was a reminder for the Israelis to the conditions that we are enforcing on the Palestinians, because, now, we are in a kind of closure, which, in many cases, is the best that the Palestinians can dream about in many times in history. But maybe this, but this is just a sidekick. Maybe, this will make more Israelis understand how the Palestinians live under our occupation.

Jacobsen: Have you heard or read anything in terms of the reaction on the oPt side, whether through some of the work, brave work, of Amira Hass or others?

Levy: First of all, Amira Hass is not in the country now. I know very little, but I understand that everything is very similar there. They are also living under fear, in many ways. There is isolation. There is some kind of closure. The big issue is Gaza, not the West Bank. Because if God forbid, if it happens in Gaza, then it might develop into an unbelievable catastrophe, unbelievable disaster because, in Gaza, you cannot isolate anybody. You don’t have ventilators. You don’t have anything. You don’t have the infrastructure for fighting the coronavirus. Right now, things are on hold. I don’t think much is happening.

Jacobsen: Is one of the main reasons for the lack of infrastructure, medical infrastructure, in Gaza due to the blockade?

Levy: It’s not one of the reasons. It is the reason. Undoubtedly, it is almost 13 years of closure​.​ After 13 years of remarkable brave behaviour of the medical teams there, ​those ​who​,​ don’t forget, had to deal with bloodshed in certain periods and with very, very little means. For sure, anything that happens today in Gaza is due to the closure. Gaza is a cage. Life in a cage can be only like life in a cage.

Jacobsen: Last time we talked, also, you were very explicit about: the two-state solution is dead. And that the main orientation from your own professional opinion is that it should be a one-state perspective, and then a question as to what kind of state it will be. Have you had any developments in that opinion since May of 2019?

Levy: Unfortunately, not, because the issue is totally off the table, we had some time when there were some talks about the “deal of the century,” which just ​​enforced me. Because the “deal of the century” was the final funeral of the two-state solution. If anybody needed proof of the fact that there is no chance for a two-state solution, ​then ​came the American plan, it showed it clearly. This was a clear plan for annexation. But all this is now off the table because nobody talks about it. Nobody deals with it. Right now, everything is about the coronavirus.

Jacobsen: What about the numbers on the ground for the coronavirus? How is the testing? How are the cases in terms of critical/serious cases or mortalities?

Levy: It is growing like any other place. I think the coming days are very critical because, if it will not be stopped, they will have to take more serious measures. Namely, to tighten the closure even more than it is, it will, obviously, have a lot of economical and other effects. We have already within weeks. We are facing 21% [Ed. circa March 27, 2020] unemployment from a figure of 4% or 5%. We are having over 700,000 unemployed, declared unemployed, people. It all goes to very dangerous directions. The question is, “What will be in those days?” Right now, there are 11 death cases, which is rather low. But the figures of those who got the disease is tripling every 2 or 3 days.

Jacobsen: You mentioned the known “unemployed.” What about those who are not registered as unemployed? They are not necessarily on the books – so to speak. Would things be worse if they were taken into account – if there are such numbers on that?

Levy: No, they ​are not taken into account. They will not be compensated. Here, again, we fail the weakest parts of society. Namely, the asylum seekers, African asylum seekers, who have no rights. Obviously, tens of thousands of Palestinians who came to work here every day. Most of them are prevented now. No one will compensate them. Over the long run, this could become a catastrophe.

Jacobsen: You have been reporting on the African asylum seekers for some time now. From their perspective, what is their attitude about the institutional treatment around compensation before the coronavirus became an issue, and leading up to it?

Levy: First of all, the figures, Israel has really minimized their numbers to something around 30,000 asylum seekers. It’s much less than ever before. We had 60,000, 70,000, and 100,000. They succeeded to deport, to convince, anything possible to get rid of them. Really, it is only about 30,000 people who are really nothing. It is a tiny minority. For those people, even for those people, Israel is not ready to be generous and human enough to take some minimal measures like giving them possibilities to make their living. They deposit some of their income. They are obliged to deposit some of their income at the government until they’re leaving. Now, when they are unemployed, the most natural things are to freeze some of those. It’s their money. They should get it. Until now, the government didn’t do anything about it.

Jacobsen: Any issue following from the economics is the issue around businesses. The United Nations Human Rights Council, as you know, released its report on 112 businesses around the world who are doing business on illegal settlements. 94 of which or of whom have been listed as Israeli. Others including places like Luxembourg, United Kingdom, United States, and so on, have companies doing business on that list. How is this impacting, in a positive manner, moving the dial towards justice and respecting international law rather than not?

Levy: It is still a very, very long way to go, but it is the first step. It is very hard, first of all, to separate companies making business in the occupied territories and companies making business with Israel​​ because occupied territories are part and parcel of Israel. You never know. Who doesn’t do business in the occupied territories? I can think only about McDonald’s, which decided not to have any branch in the occupied territories. But they are almost the only big company that I can think about; that wouldn’t work in the occupied territories directly or indirectly. This separation is very at issue. Finally, Israel is invested in the occupation project. All Israel, all Israelis, all Israeli companies, in one way or another, indirectly or directly, even my newspaper Haaretz (which is fighting the occupation like no other) sells the newspapers for the settlers. Even us, we are not completely clean because we have to survive somehow. It is a good beginning, though. I don’t want to underestimate it. It is a good beginning, but it is one way. Above all, it is not enough to have a list. It is enough to take measures.

Jacobsen: Has Amos Schocken given any statement on this?

Levy: No, not that I know, but Amos also has other troubles because if this situation goes on. Then we are all afraid about the future of the newspaper. This coronavirus will kill many institutions. I don’t know exactly the situation. I do not see any advertisement whatsoever. I don’t know how long it can survive in those conditions. I can just tell you. Amos Schocken, in the past, wrote an article favouring international pressure on Israel and international economical pressure on Israel, which are responsive. I am not sure if he is supporting BDS.

Jacobsen: I think this leads naturally to, not only social and political commentary but also, politics and governance. Israel had the election, recently, with the Blue and White Party and the Likud, basically, having an alliance set up with the front person, now, going to be Benny Gantz. What seems to have been the reasoning around this? What are the consequences for ways​ ​in which governance will be running forward through 2020 and some of 2021?

Levy: Gantz declared that he will join the Netanyahu government. This was very surprising for many people. Not least surprising, that I am supporting it, because I don’t see, now, any alternative except for more elections, which is really unbelievable. I mean, we cannot go for fourth elections. We have to pass this period of coronavirus with some kind of government. Therefore, I think he did the right step joining the Netanyahu government, because he had no option to create a government by himself. Above all, I am not sure if I see many, many dramatic differences between Netanyahu and Gantz when it comes to the major issues, like the occupation. Both are equally supporting the occupation. For me, the rest is much less important.   

Jacobsen: Is there any political party, whether they have a chance or not, that has any policy or platform piece that is favourable to the human rights and dignity of the Palestinian peoples in the occupied Palestinian territories?

Levy: Yes, there is one. This is the Joint List, which is mainly Palestinian, Israeli-Palestinians, Israeli citizens who are Palestinians. I must tell you. They are the third party in the Parliament. They had great success in the last elections. They have 15 seats out of 120. The only problem is, until now, that they were quite excluded from the political game. The influence is, therefore, very limited.

Jacobsen: You used the phrase “political game.” How, or in what ways, was this third party kept out of this political game?

Levy: They were treated as non-legitimate partners by almost ​all ​of the other parties. Netanyahu incited against them and called them “terrorist supporters.” Also, the other parties did anything possible to delegitimize them.

Jacobsen: What was the reference for “terrorist supporters” of Benjamin Netanyahu, when making that charge against them?

Levy: First of all, it doesn’t need any references. When you incite, you incite. You don’t need any facts for it. They have one section because it is a combination of 3 or 4 parties. One section is more nationalistic. Among them, there was one new member of Parliament who once posted or ​tweeted​​ some sentences that might be construed as supporting terror. It is all ridiculous, but it is incitement where facts are not relevant.

Jacobsen: Also taking another pivot into the international rights realm and the advocacy for rights realm, there are a few cases in, maybe, 2007/08 to present with either deportation​s​, travel bans, or restricted entries. Some individuals coming to mind would be Noam Chomsky, Norm Finkelstein, Laith Abu Zeyad, and Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. They’ve had, at least, one of those applied to them, in that period of time. Since our last conversation, in November, the Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine Director, Omar Shakir, had his work permit revoked, what was the media conversation outside of Haaretz regarding this particular event? Basically, it resulted, at present, ​in ​Shakir working from Amman, Jordan.

Levy: It was mainly hardly covered, which is ​in ​many cases more criminal than being covered in a biased way. Because ignoring it is saying, “It is not important,” “not interesting,” or both​. It is the same, like with many other things concerning the occupation. The Israeli media just prevent any coverage by self-censorship, not that anyone pushes us to do so. But those issues, if not Haaretz, it is hardly discussed. When it comes to more famous figures like congresswomen who were banned here so obviously, it was also in the other media. But when it comes to the activists, even a Human Rights Watch representative, the coverage was poor. And it was a non-issue.

Jacobsen: Will this kind of action be extended into the future if there are no consequences for restriction on those who are either reporting on human rights violations or advocating for human rights?

Levy: Like many other things, it depends on one thing. Will the world let Israel go like this? If the American, the Canadian, or other governments don’t take measures, because this is the right of their citizens, if they don’t treat Israelis in the same way, then Israel will continue to do so. The day that it will change will be the day that Israelis will be treated the same and banned by entering the United States, Canada, or elsewhere. Until now, the governments in the West couldn’t care less about those cases. None were really protested or took any kind of measures. As long as this will continue, Israel will continue. Why not?

Jacobsen: If we look at a self-critical examination of the North American case, even, in particular, in the Canadian case, what is Canadian society, at least as you are aware, have read, have heard, doing right and doing wrong in regards to the human rights and international law norms in Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories?

Levy: I think there’s no argument about the fact that Israel is ignoring international law, maybe like ​no ​other country​ in the world: systemically, over a long, long period of time, just ignores international law. This really is the world’s fault, not less than Israel’s fault. Because by the end of the day, the world knew very well how to treat violations of human rights in other places on Earth. If the population of the West ​did not go ​against the apartheid system in South Africa, then the apartheid system in South Africa would last until this very moment. The question is, “Why, what was so evident in South Africa, is not existing when it comes to Israel?” Almost, the same kind of violation of human rights; the same kind of regime; the same kind of thinking. That there are two kinds of peoples. One has all the rights. The other should not get any rights. You see the world either apathetic, indifferent, or even continues to hug Israel, to see Israel ​as an ​outpost of the West, of Western values, in the Middle East. As long as this continues, as long as Israel is not punished, as long as Israel will not pay for the occupation, the occupation will last.

Jacobsen: If we look at American history, as we both know, it started – or recent pre-American history started – with a near-genocide of Native Americans, annexation of territorial lands, annexation of Mexican land, enslavement of different tribes of Africans forced to come from Africa to North America. In addition, in the Canadian case, with our first colony in New France, we had slaves. 2/3rds were Indigenous. There’s a long history of both the state sanction and church carrying out of things like Residential Schools as an extension of colonization. Is part of the national reluctance, of several countries to criticize the very obvious parallels in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, a reluctance based on the fact that a country or a nation has that history itself is applying the rights standards externally in the particular case that is ongoing, live, for more than half of a century then imply having to apply the same standards to their own situation and rights record that runs back farther?

Levy:  I am not sure. Because if this would be the case, how did the world react against South Africa? Why this didn’t appear then, emerge then? I think it has to do with history, but more with Jewish history. I think that guilt feelings of the world and, mainly, of Europe, obviously, toward the Jewish people have a bigger role, and the way Israel is manipulating those guilt feelings; together with the belief that Israel is a special case. Together with the unbelievable strategy of Israel. Namely, to convince the world – that is a normal success in recent years, to convince the world that any critique of Israel is anti-Semitism, and once you identify or label any criticism of Israel on the occupation as anti-Semitism, you paralyze almost ​any ​criticism of Israel. This was really successfully implemented in recent years. So, altogether, it has more to do with more than what you mentioned. Also, we cannot ignore Islamophobia, which is growing in the last decade playing into Israel’s hands. Because Israel says, “You see. We are facing those Islamists in our backyards.” Altogether, there are many, many factors because the question still stands, “How come the world continues to let the last colonial country continue?” How the world does so little? If you ask civil society, there is a clear majority all over the world resisting or being against the Israeli occupation. But when it comes to governments outside of lip service, you get nothing.

Jacobsen: Also, internationally, external to Israel, there was the issue around charges of rampant anti-Semitism within the Labour Party within the United Kingdom under Corbyn. That’s quite past some of our previous interview. However, just as a retrospective, what do you think can be learned in terms of how the public was told about this particular case and the reality of the case?

Levy: Look, I don’t live in the UK. I really don’t know how far anti-Semitism is in Labour. But I have no doubt knowing the actors. I have no doubt Israel, and the Jewish establishment and the Jewish lobby, did manipulate even this to the service of the Israeli propaganda. Corbyn, who had really a chance of changing the international discourse about Israel or, at least, to be the first important Western leader who would change the discourse throughout Israel, had no chance once Israel, the Zionists, the Jewish establishment, labelled him and his party as anti-Semitic, as an anti-Semitic party. Unfortunately, it was very, very effective. By this, I don’t mean to say that there is no anti-Semitism in The UK or in Labour. I guess​,​ there is. The first question is, “How deep, and how spread, is it?” The second question is, “Are you really convinced that what you call anti-Semitism is not just pure criticism about the Israeli occupation?” Those questions are not very clear.

Jacobsen: In your own opinion, what is a proper definition of anti-Semitism? What might be improper ones, where, for example, there’s an extension, as you were noting, to any criticism of Israeli policy then becomes tied to a charge of anti-Semitism, which would ignore the fact that there are Arab-Israelis?

Levy: So, first of all, it is very clear anti-Semitism should be fought and should be condemned. There is anti-Semitism. There was anti-Semitism. It brought, maybe, the ugliest phenomena in human history. No doubt about this. No doubt about the role of anti-Semitism in World War II, in the Holocaust. Even after, having said this, this does not mean that any criticism of Israel or even on Jews is not legitimate. When it gets to generalization or prejudice, like any racism, then it is unacceptable, like any other kind of racism, like Islamophobia, but when it comes to criticism about Israel, about Zionism, what is more legitimate than criticizing Zionists? What does this have to do with anti-Semitism if someone thinks that Zionism is a form of colonialism? What is legitimate? What is illegitimate in fighting against the Israeli occupation in any way, which is a non-violent way, like calling for boycotting Israel? What is not legitimate in this? What does this have to do with anti-Semitism? You have the right to boycott sweatshops in far East Asia because of their morality, or lack of morality. You have the full right to boycott the meat industry because you believe animal rights are violated. Why don’t you have the full legitimacy, right, and, in my view, duty​,​ to fight against the Israeli occupation?

Jacobsen: Also, on another note, we were talking before, in May, I think, about 12 or 11 months out of some of the therapies, which you had for​ another instance of cancer. How is your health now?

Levy: I am okay. As far as I know, there are no checkups. But I hope I am okay.

Jacobsen: Good, I’m glad. Have there been any individuals or books that have shed an interesting and unique, or simply a novel, light on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or on Israeli society that have come out since 2019 to now?

Levy: Not that I know. Not enough is written. Not enough is published, for sure not in Israel. Even Ilan Pappé’s classical book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, it was never published in Israel. So, not that I know.

Jacobsen: For those reading this when it eventually comes out, Gideon did correct me, last time. That the Israeli press is free, and so it’s private interest when beginning to have a bias. There’s no complicated situation there, in terms of the influence on media. Are there any topics that I’m not quite covering today?

Levy: Same as one year ago, and even worse. The occupation is not covered. The asylum seekers, their struggle is hardly covered. Anything which might bother the readers or the viewers will not be covered because of economical considerations, not because of any ideology. The Israeli media is very courageous when it comes to fighting corruption, when it comes to fighting the Israeli politicians, very independent, very powerful. When it comes to certain topics and above all the occupation, Israel is living in denial. This denial has a lot to do with the way that the occupation is covered by the Israeli media.

Jacobsen: Another thing, on the 28th of January, there was a press conference with ​(Israeli) ​Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and​ (U.S.)​ President Donald J. Trump without any Palestinian representatives at the time. There is an optics matter there, as well as simply how things play ​out ​matter as well. The Trump peace plan, the mid-east plan, or the “Deal of the Century,” what is its status within the Israeli political scene? What will be the outcome of this? As far as I know, I think, one The Associated Press article reported 94% of Palestinians based on a survey rejected the plan, which is overwhelming.

Levy: I don’t know about the 6% who is supporting it. I am sure there is some error. Because there is not one single Palestinian who can support this plan. It is not a peace plan. As I said before, it is an annexation plan. But in any case, it is off the table right now. If Donald Trump will not be re-elected, then it will be totally forgotten. If he will be re-elected, then it will be back on the table, but not before the upcoming elections in the United States. Anyhow, this would not lead to anything but annexation.

Jacobsen: Something I hear and read a lot of in some of the secular communities are the influence of the fundamentalist Evangelical Christians – some – within the United States of America, and different factions of those with somewhat similar ties in Canadian society. What is the real influence of, broadly speaking, some sectors of fundamentalist Christianity with political aims on Israeli society?

Levy: You mean Christian religious movements.

Jacobsen: Yes, fundamentalist in particular.

Levy: They have very little ties with Israel. In Israel, they are quite involved in the settlement project. They are even sending all kinds of lunatic volunteers to help the settlements, even in settlement work and in the fields. Their main influence is within the United States and, maybe, even Canada. Their main influence is there, not here. They are one of the main powers, which shape the American policy toward Israel.

Jacobsen: Who are the other ones?

Levy: I guess, the evangelists, the military establishment, the weapons industry, and, obviously, the Jewish community.

Jacobsen: In some prior commentary, if I recall correctly, you were making some mentions in an interview in late 2019 about Benjamin Netanyahu evading justice in various ways, but, inevitably, this would not be an indefinite evasion. What – if I am completely misrepresenting, please just tell me, but if I am remembering this right – was meant by those just general sentiments? And what would be the timeline in non-indefinite evasion?

Levy: For Netanyahu, look, for me, this is a minor issue. But he has to go to court. No doubt about it, like any other citizen. He does anything possible, and even more so, to avoid it. He did so much until now. Right now, I am not sure if he will get to court at all. He is really a magician, super-magician – manipulations, of political maneuvers. Until now, he was very successful in postponing his trial, including this coronavirus, which, by all means, he has nothing to do with it. But he is using it so well for his own personal interests. Until now, very successfully.

Jacobsen: There have been some cases of coronavirus, I believe, in Palestinian territories. Have these​ raised hairs for you?

Levy: Look, there are no borders to the coronavirus. There is even one dead person already in the West Bank. I didn’t get into it because I can’t go there, ever since it started with isolation and closure. Also, I have to take of myself. But by the end of the day, there are no borders here. The only difference is that the conditions there are much, much poorer. My main, main, main concern is Gaza. I do not want to think about Gaza under epidemic. This will be a catastrophe. I really cross my fingers that the 2, maybe 3, cases found in Gaza are the last ones. Because if it is there, then we will see something that we didn’t see anywhere else. Because there isn’t any other cage anywhere else in the world.

Jacobsen: If I recall ​some commentary on a report on Gaza, for the 2,000,000 people there, they have only 60 intensive care beds. That’s nothing.

Levy: Right, and, therefore, the concern is so great.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Levy: No, except for being interesting, nothing more.

Jacobsen: Sir, thank you so much, I’m glad you’re doing well.

Levy: I’m very happy. And we’ll do it again if you wish.

Jacobsen: I’d be pleased and honoured.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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