Interview: Gideon Levy on Hamas, BDS and the Israeli occupation

Interview: Gideon Levy on Hamas, BDS and the Israeli occupation
There is no tool more powerful than BDS and there is a chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, veteran Israeli journalist Gideon Levy tells The New Arab.
7 min read
15 February, 2018
Israeli veteran journalist Gideon Levy speaks to The New Arab about the occupation [Wikimedia]
Gideon Levy is a veteran Israeli journalist and an ardent critic of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. He also is a supporter of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. 

Levy is a Haaretz columnist and a member of the newspaper's editorial board. He joined Haaretz in 1982 and spent four years as the newspaper's deputy editor. He is the author of the weekly Twilight Zone feature, which covers the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the writer of political editorials for the newspaper. 

He has received a number of awards including the Euro-Med Journalist prize for 2008; the Leipzig Freedom Prize in 2001; the Israel Journalists' Union Prize in 1997; and the Association of Human Rights in Israel Award in 1996. His new book, The Punishment of Gaza has been published by Verso Publishing House in London and New York.

Here he talks to The New Arab:

How much support is there on the secular and religious Left in Israel for a peace agreement that recognises the mutual rights of both Israelis and Palestinians? 

Most Israelis don't believe in the possibility of a peace agreement. Most Israelis don't believe there is a Palestinian partner and therefore it's hardly discussed.

How has Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gained so much popularity in Israel given that he supports a policy in Israel that is further to the Right than the country has historically practiced? 

It's not based on one factor, but it's mostly based on nationalism, spreading hatred toward the Palestinians and creating this image that Israel needs a strong leader to stop Palestinian terrorism.

The main tool Netanyahu uses is to spread fear and when you spread fear you can then present yourself as the person who can protect and guard people from it all.

The main tool Netanyahu uses is to spread fear and when you spread fear you can then present yourself as the person who can protect and guard people from it all

Can you talk about how your views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were transformed when you went into the Israeli-occupied territories, talked to Palestinian people and observed their living situation? 

It's not so much about meeting the people; it's more about realising the brutality and criminality of the occupation. I've been covering the Israel-occupied territories for more than 30 years and the more I've seen, the more radical I've become against it.   

Why do you think it's so easy for politicians to drum up support for nationalistic policies no matter what country this kind of politics is being practiced?

I guess it has to do with human characteristics, but it also has to do with the circumstances. I'm not sure if nationalism would work in every country. Using nationalist rhetoric has always been efficient for leaders throughout history, now it's the most efficient way to base your power in Israel. It's also easier to spread fears when there is some factual basis for those fears, and there is some factual basis for those fears in Israel. So you just multiply the fears and that is a good way to stay in power.

Do you worry the about the effect the BDS movement will have on Israelis who oppose Netanyahu's policies and may be hurt by a boycott in the same manner regular Iranians have been hurt by the US sanctions on Iran?

I don't know any better tool than the BDS to shake Israeli society. I opposed the BDS for many years, but when I see there is no hope within Israeli society, the BDS is the only effective tool. At least it isn't a violent tool. It has nothing to do with bloodshed. I truly believe this might have an influence like it had in apartheid South Africa. 

What would you say to those who argue it makes more since to boycott business being done in the occupied territories than boycotting the entire country?

It's impossible to separate Israel from its occupation.

What are your positions on groups like Hamas and the Lebanese Hizballah? Should there be a more nuanced take on these organisations as opposed to just calling them terrorist groups?

I would separate the Hamas and Hizballah because they are not exactly the same. Hamas operates under the Israeli occupation, which Hizballah doesn't. I think Hamas are more practical people than Hizballah. The fact is terror is being practiced by both sides. Israel is doing many actions that can be described as terror. I think Hamas could be a legitimate partner, but I'm not sure Hizballah could be a partner. Hamas was elected in democratic elections [in 2006]. I'm not supposed to like them, but this doesn't mean I shouldn't try to talk with them.

Is it hard to get Israeli citizens to discern between the genuine anti-Semitism that exists in the Middle East and the people that are strictly opposed to the Israeli occupation?

Yes, because the brainwashed system of Israel spreads the notion that any criticism of Israel comes from anti-Semitic emotions, which is obviously a lie. But the brainwashed system of Israel, which includes the media, is quite effective at spreading this notion. 

How much does Hamas use anti-Semitic propaganda to stoke anger against Israel?

Very little if at all. They don't need it because their struggle is against the occupier and not against the Jewish people. You don't need much to incite against the occupier because every Palestinian witnesses the occupation on a daily basis in Gaza and in the West Bank. And behind this occupation is the occupier and it's very easy to hate the occupier. It's almost impossible not to do so.

What role can the US play in helping create a more balanced peace agreement between Israel and Palestine?

The US could have brought the Israeli occupation to an end within months. If the United States would have used Israel's dependence on America to push Israel out of the occupied territories, Israel would have no choice but to obey. But the US had no intention to do so and I don't see any intention right now.

Why do you think this is the case?

I have no answer to this question. Why does the US support so blindly and automatically not only Netanyahu, but any Israeli government? The United States is spending too much money on Israel and I don't see how it is serving American interests. I don't understand why this doesn't become more of an issue in the United States.

What changes in the Israeli and US political culture need to happen to change the way the Palestinians are perceived by each government and its citizens?

They need to be perceived as equal human beings. Almost no one in Israel perceives them as such. People in the United States should ask themselves if military occupation, tyranny and an apartheid situation is something that is acceptable in the 21st century? And if not, is it okay to finance and support it, and to continue to do nothing to put an end to it?

Do you think Israel is singled out for human rights abuses compared to other human-rights abusing regimes, or do you think this is an unfair assessment? 

It's very clear Israel is violating international law in so many areas and articles that there has to be some accountability. The fact that there are worse regimes in the world doesn't make any difference. Israel claims to be part of the Western world, part of the free world, part of the liberal world and it's unacceptable that a country that claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East would continue to violate international law in such a brutal way for so many years. 

How did Israelis perceive the Iraq war and how do they perceive the US war on terror in general?

The almost spontaneous response to any situation when Arabs are being beaten by the West is always supportive because the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That is the way the Iraqi war was perceived. Beat them as much as you can as long as Israel isn't involved. 

Given the social democratic aspirations of some of the founders of Israel, how hard has it been to see what the Israeli occupation has done to Israeli society?

It's painful on almost a daily basis. It's getting worse and worse. It's not status quo. Things are deteriorating from day to day and week to week. 

Do you think the main reasons for the Israeli occupation are nationalism and a sense of insecurity?

I think there are a combination of factors. One of the factors is to have more territory for both security and for religious reasons as well. I think there also is the notion that we are the chosen people and we have a right to do these things.