A shortened version of this interview was published in The Varsity on January 23, 2007, and I didn’t manage to get it ready for publicaton in the newspaper.
Asâ€™ad AbuKhalil is professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and University of California, Berkeley. He is widely known as the Angry Arab, after his blog of the same name where he comments on politics in the Middle East and beyond. He was in Toronto Tuesday, January 16, to speak at Ryerson University about the causes and consequences of Israelâ€™s war on Lebanon in July 2006. He spoke at the University of Toronto on the question of Palestine in February 2006 as part of the Arab Student Collectiveâ€™s â€œIsraeli Apartheid Weekâ€.
N: Hizbullah walked into Israel and kidnapped two soliders and killed several soldiers â€“ is this not a clear cause and provocation for a just war?
AA: If it is then the Lebanese have 11,782 pretexts because Israel, since 2000, has crossed the Blue Line [the border between Israel and Lebanon] 11,782 times. So if we want to use that logic, those who support Israelâ€™s right to launch a war on Lebanon based on that pretext, should, logically speaking, follow the conclusion â€¦ that Lebanon should have fought 11,782 wars on Israel.
N: But do the Israelis kill and kidnap?
AA: Absolutely, they do. Not only, worse â€¦ Iâ€™m from the city of Tyre in South Lebanon â€“ last year alone they kidnapped a fisherman from the city of Tyre, he still hasnâ€™t been returned, and they also killed a shepherd. And these things are very regular. Not to mention all the children who are regularly killed or maimed from the land mines and recently from the cluster bombs â€“ 1,200,000 dropped on Lebanon in 33 days of war alone.
N: So what is the cause of the war?
AA: There is a very long history, and it is very clear that the Israelis have been wanting to take a large-scale operation in Lebanon at their own behest, and at the behest of the Americans in order to hopefully achieve for Bush a victory that has long eluded him in Iraq. There is also a long history of violence by Israel on Lebanon â€“ this is not the first time.
N: Then why did Hizbullah give them a provocation?
AA: Lebanon is in state of war with Israel and Israel still occupies Lebanese territory, and under international law the Lebanese are entitled, Hizbullah and othersâ€”
N: According to international law the Shebaa Farms are not part of Lebanon.
AA: Thatâ€™s not true. International law doesnâ€™t take a stand as much as the US State Department and Western press and the Secretary-General of the United Nations try to claim otherwise. Countries come to bilateral agreements to borders and then deposit them at the United Nations. It does not take a stand and has absolutely no valid juridical opinion on where borders should reside. Now letâ€™s say it is not Lebanese [and that] it is Syrian, it is still occupied by the same state that is Israel.
N: Hizbullah is a non-state actorâ€”
AA: Hizbullah is a non-state actor; however, it has the legitimacy of state because the Lebanese Council of Ministers, the highest executive power of the government of Lebanon, included in its official cabinet statement endorsement and support for what is called the Resistance Movement in Lebanon, in reference to Hizbullah.
N: But Israel has to defend itself, it is surrounded by Arab states that want to â€œdrive the Jews into the sea.â€
AA: That phrase, one has to point out, has never been uttered by Arabs. It was invented by Israeli propaganda, then widely circulated until it became believed and attributed to Arabs who never said it â€“ it doesnâ€™t even exist in Arabic!
In Arab political and popular discourse there are manifestations of anti-Jewish statements, I would never deny that â€“ as much as I also oppose them, fiercely, condemn them and so on. However, it has to be pointed out that, as a very militant Zionist, Bernard Lewis, said in his book Semites and anti-Semites, there is a very big difference between manifestations of anti-Semitism among Arabs and that of Europeans. He said that in Europe itâ€™s cultural, racialist anti-Semitism, [whereas] in the Arab world itâ€™s political. You can trace it to 1948 and 1967. I was circumcised by a Jewish rabbi. By 1967 people became aware of whoâ€™s Jewish and whoâ€™s not.
Those [kinds of] things are said by the Israelis. If you read the official statement that was issued on the eve of the Six Day War by the Israeli chief of the air force, he said drive [the Palestinians] into the desert, push them into the desert. These words have been poisonously uttered by the Israelis repeatedly. Drive them away, kick them out, the comparison of Palestinians to cockroaches, two-legged animals, have been uttered by prime ministers â€“ not some non-existent Arab to whom is attributed the statement, â€œwe want to throw the Jews into the sea.â€
N: Hizbullah hides among civilians, whereas Israel warns the population before it bombs them.
AA: I lived through various stages of Israeli wars on Lebanon, and I absolutely never once in my life have heard warnings by Israeli forces before they bombed us. In 1982, for example, when they invaded Lebanon, they destroyed through concussion bombs â€“ leveled to the ground â€“ a building next to where we lived. There were no warnings whatsoever, and the civilians inside that building were squeezed beyond recognition. Sometimes they send symbolic leaflets, but the leaflets say basically, â€œyou have to leave within two hours an area where half a million people live.â€ This is not supposed to in any way adhere to the rules of war. This is only intended [for] propaganda purposes. In reality the Israelis adhere to absolutely no rules of war, and they have a very long pattern of targeting civilians deliberately in order to terrorize the population.
Hizbullah is part of the population. The people are Hizbullah, they are part of the village. When they say â€œhide behind civiliansâ€, what do they mean by that? These are their houses. These are their streets, their alleys, their villages, their towns, their cities.
N: How is Israel supposed to conduct a fair war if Hizbullah is interspersed throughout civilians?
AA: At some point during the war most of the civilians were driven out of south Lebanon and yet the Israelis were not fighting the fighters. They, in fact, went all the way to North Lebanon and they were bombing civilians. This is a state that bombed a convoy of evacuees under international supervision. For that reason I think the Israeli conduct of war has been way too clear.
Human rights organizations have talked about [Hizbullahâ€™s conduct]. But letâ€™s measure it by the effect: something like 70% of people killed in Israel [by Hizbullah] were Israeli soldiers. [Israel] killed something like 1300 people in Lebanon, those that were Hizbullah fighters were something like 145. The ratio of civilians killed at the hand of Israel is far higher than at the hand of Hizbullah. So if terrorism is harm to civilians and if Hizbullah is a terrorist organization â€“ and even if you want to agree that it is â€“ then Israel is, what, four, five-fold more terrorist than Hizbullah.
N: Is Hizbullah a terrorist organization?
AA: I donâ€™t want to become like Arab-American or Arab-Canadian organizations having to answer to the terminology and the parameters of debate set by the American government and media. But I have no problem saying that, to the same extent that American warfare uses methods to target civilians, yes, Hizbullah have used methods of warfare in the 1980s that resulted in the harm and death of civilians â€“ and this in my dictionary can amount to terrorism â€“ just as Americaâ€™s warfare in Iraq has been terroristic. But if you want to measure terrorism in terms of the amount of damage done to civilians â€“ life, as we all as infrastructure â€“ if Hizbullah is a terrorist organization, then Israel must be ten times more terrorist than Hizbullah.
N: What are the consequences of the war on Lebanon?
AA: The consequences are very significant. The Lebanese political system has been shattered to its foundations, the government has all but collapsed. We can also expect in the long term of the Arab-Israel question some significant consequences. The vulnerability of Israel has been exposed to all. I think many Arabs are now going to be much more firm believers of the righteousness of resistance against Israel â€“ not in the form of the bombast of Arab regimes and Yasser Arafat â€“ but in the form of a very sustained, well-calculated, calibrated resistance the way Hizbullah has fought in south Lebanon. A large measure of the admiration for Hizbullah is not based on admiration of its ideology â€“ you have many leftists and secularists who have good things to say about Hizbullah â€“ but because of the way they have managed their resistance against Israeli occupation.
N: You point out that Israelis stole Arab land, and are now stealing Arab culture.
AA: I was making a crack. When I first came to this country, I used to be horrified by the extent to which Israeli embassy festivals and Zionist organizations claimed some food of the Middle East as their own. In reality, to speak seriously without any irony, none of us in the Middle East can claim that this food is purely Arab or purely Lebanese or purely this or that. There is such a mÃ©lange of culture and civilizations that what we today think is purely Lebanese or purely Arab is basically a mixture from Arab culture, Armenian culture, ancient Jewish culture, Assyrian culture, Turkish culture, Iranian-Persian, Mediterranean. So let us go beyond these claims of ethnic purity.
With every claim of nationalism, there are bogus claims of racial ethnic purity. In reality, genetically the Arabs and the Israelis are quite similar. Iâ€™m not saying that in order to do one of those new-agey-peace-letâ€™s-all-hold-hands kinds of message. But Iâ€™m saying that this doesnâ€™t matter, this issue is not about whose blood is more pure. It is about a fight over a piece of land and the depopulation of Palestine by force at the hand of Israel.
N: Certain people say that the Palestinians were never a nation, never a people.
AA: Tell that to the people who were living there for hundreds of years. I think the best refutation of that claim is substantiated by the existence over centuries of people, entire families who can trace their genealogy all the way back before Theodor Herzl [founder of Zionism] was eating his baby food. The Zionist project had to claim there were no Palestinians because they wanted to justify the depopulation.
N: Many organizations in Canada are boycotting Israel or are condemning Israelâ€™s conduct. Is Israel a racist, apartheid state?
AA: Without a doubt. I say that without any equivocation. Absolutely. Of course, unlike Jimmy Carter, I donâ€™t make any distinction between the West Bank and Gaza and what is inside Israel. The apartheid nature of the state of Israel was clear, not even before there was a state of Israel, but with the very conception of Zionism which is based on Jewish supremacy â€“ the idea that there is one sort of people who are superior in their genetic make up to the inferior native population of Palestine. And I think this has been translated into the laws and practices of the state of Israel and certainly the occupation in West Bank and Gaza.