Israelis have long oriented their rhetoric towards the West through an intentional program of political propaganda referred to as “hasbara”. In contrast to this, Palestinians have had few comparable successes, and none that were ever as formalized.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Palestinians benefited from international leftist rhetoric in mobilizing public opinion. In addition, they were able to recruit volunteers of left-wing international movements. Edward Said’s rhetoric subsequently stood out, based on the principle of embarrassing the West, highlighting the contradiction between the broad human rights rhetoric versus how the the rights of Palestinians are diminished.
In the recent years, diverse movements and organizations, including boycott movements and other legal organizations, emerged to re-introduce the Palestinian cause to Western audiences. Their efforts concentrated on exposing the occupation’s violations of human rights, and its violations of international law. Despite their cautiousness, these movements are still always forced to stand up to Zionist pressure under the charges of antisemitism. These charges in turn have been responsible for the cautiousness of some of these movements, and the broader intimidation of public opinion.
However, it seems that the events in recent months in Palestine have strengthened the development of bolder rhetoric that dares to call the spade a spade, as activists are increasingly striving to state the the obvious rather than being cautious. One of those who stand today behind this bold rhetoric is Mohammed Nabil El-Kurd, a resident from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem who has been subjected to threats of being displaced from his home by the settlers movement for years.
As opposed to many Palestinian speakers, in his interviews with Western media Mohammed calls the Israeli presence in the lands occupied in 1948 “occupation”. He clearly states that Israel is a terrorist regime that Palestinians cannot coexist with, and that it practices policies of settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and forced displacement– in addition to practicing the policy of “apartheid”, which has come into vogue with pro-Palestine advocates.
The rhetoric engages the political intuition that every Palestinian knows, and shifts confrontations with the media from defensive to offensive — and puts the debate on Palestinian terms. It consequently avoids all rhetorical labyrinths that transform just causes into a cluster of incoherent legal and micro-detailed issues.
Mohammed El-Kurd was not the first to introduce such rhetoric. This truth telling reflects the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, and many other Palestinian national liberation writers. While several Palestinian advocacy institutions believed that diplomatic rhetoric, that focuses on red lines and agreed upon legal definitions, is more successful in addressing Western audiences and affecting their policies, others believe that the “new” rhetoric, given its clarity and boldness, is more efficient in speaking to the international public.
In this conversation, Mohammed El-Kurd discusses these shifting rhetorical strategies, its effectiveness, and how it has been developed.
The Palestinian cause has (re)gained widespread international solidarity beginning with the events in Sheikh Jarrah and then the Sword of Jerusalem battle of last May. Unprecedented great marches took place for the first time in capital cities in Europe, in which protestors condemned Israel’s violations in occupied Palestine. While voices opposing Israel have long existed throughout the history of the Palestinian cause, why and how, in your opinion, did these voices become more effective and prevalent?
I think there are too many reasons responsible for raising the ceiling of the new Palestinian rhetoric. The wave of advocacy in the recent months is only a continuation of an cumulative process that advocates and varied institutions have done for several decades.
This time, with insightful and politicized use of social media platforms, Palestinians were able to overcome all obstacles and attempts of silencing they had to face by Western media companies, forcing them to discuss and shed light on the viral news in social media. There were a lot of celebrities who used their influence on social media to stand by the Palestinian cause and condemn settler-colonialism. To give an example, regardless of the rhetoric, several voices in the American congress had the courage for the first time to criticize Israeli policies, in addition to the collapse we have witnessed of Israel’s status in American and European public opinion polls.
At the same time, I can not forget the protests over George Floyd’s murder in the Summer of 2020 — before it was hijacked by the American government and the elite of black capitalists — as they have prepared international audiences for the new Palestinian rhetoric. Instead of asking to fix the legal and security systems in the U.S, these protests asked for the abolition of these systems entirely; the abolishing of both police and prisons. While this radical rhetoric was not new, it was able for the first time to make headlines in the press. This, in turn, has paved the way for making demands such as liberating Palestine from the river to the sea.
When talking about the occupation state in English today, not to include everyone, we do not limit our speech to the inhuman treatment and the violations of Palestinians’ rights. But we also challenge and debunk the legitimacy of the state and its institutions, in addition to addressing the geography of the occupation state as a settler-colonial system. The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem is a case to consider. Not only have we said there were false pretenses of settlers and discriminating rules against Palestinians, but we also said that Israel’s juridical system is essentially colonialist. And that this system will never do justice for Palestinians because it was built by the settlers to serve their interests. We also recognize that the Israeli magistrates do not have any legitimate authority to decide on our fate as Palestinians who live in occupied Jerusalem.
I would say that the Palestinian today is able to overcome all bureaucratic obstacles imposed on him by the leading Western media, such as distorting apparent power relationships that make it harder to decide on the Palestinian cause for the international public. As a consequence, it became easier in Palestine, since it is not necessary anymore for the audience to be a specialist in politics or history in order to understand the essence of settler colonialism and its manifestations.
What is also worth mentioning is that the Palestinian rhetoric was aimed historically at addressing a specific audience of decision makers in Western and Israeli governments. However, it differs today as the rhetoric today is a mere interpretation of the voices and prospects of Palestine’s street. The rhetoric does not seek anymore to gain the sympathy and respect of Western audiences.
What do you think about those who believe that addressing the West through its media is inefficient and that there is no need to convince its public with anything? Would it be possible to differentiate between Western media channels? Put differently, what is the difference between European and American media? Are there any distinctions when looking at them separately?
It is widely thought that the West consists of white people only. However, the West is much complex and includes varied racial groups that stand against fascism, slavery, and colonialism in their diverse contexts, which sometimes identify with the Palestinian struggle for liberation. We have to be aware that when talking to the West we are speaking to groups of oppressed people who also struggle against injustice. We speak to people, not to governments, to fight against their fascist states that are complicit with the Israeli occupation.
It is noteworthy that addressing does not necessarily mean begging. It is sometimes a struggle against diplomats and decision makers and others who are steeped in our blood. It is also crucial to explicitly confront and hold them accountable for being responsible for our displacement and the continuation and sustainability of the occupation. The struggle does not necessitate refinement and diplomacy. On the contrary, it is important to “name and shame”. We can not be complicit with liars and defer to them anymore, as this strategy has proven its ineffectiveness throughout time.
We can only assume that most known news channels, either American or European, support the Zionist narrative and even oppose the truth under the name of “neutrality”. An interview with a Palestinian in CNN will not free Palestine or change the channel’s agenda. However, what we aim for is a Palestinian intrusion of ordinary citizens’ screens.
Regardless of the questions asked, we need to be aware of what to say and enforce our agendas instead of being subjected to maneuvers that force us to explain ourselves and our resistance. Despite the fact that the majority of these interviews seek to put the Palestinian in a defensive position, it is important to emphasize here, first and foremost to ourselves, that facts are not disputable, and that we cannot allow to let these conversations address us as debatable.
In regard to differences between European and American channels, I would rather say that it is more about the audience we address and the role it can lead. It means that when we speak to the American audience, we discuss its government’s role in sustaining colonialism and supporting the colonial entity. And in turn, we encourage those who wish to, to move against their government. The American government provides the occupation with an annual amount of four billion dollars under the name of “military assistance”, which should be invested instead for the benefit of the American people themselves who, for example, suffer from an expensive and inaccessible health system.
On the other hand, there are other roles and demands that might be required from the German citizen. In short, these people will not be able to support the Palestinian cause, unless they stand up for themselves. The money that goes to finance Israel’s persecution is better used to finance the least fortunate and oppressed groups in their countries.
Looking at your interviews across news outlets it is clear that you do not use the typical diplomatic discourse, and that you do not use what we know as “political correctness”. To give an example, while international law recognizes the existence of the Israeli state in Palestinian lands occupied in 1948, and deems it legitimate, you call it “occupation”. Is this an intentional strategy? Or do you simply call things as they are?
Lately we are witnessing a people’s reclamation of politics in Palestine. The people, who fight in the streets are now the game-changers and the decision makers after we have broken from what is called “formal representation” from the Palestinian elite and the formal leaders.
Today the Palestinian youth is able to dictate its Palestinianity along all of historic Palestine, despite the colonial geographic and political fragmentations forced upon us by Palestinian elites. At the same time, we reclaimed our expressions — the real and explicit designations and names of things. There are some today who reclaimed the calling of every settler in all of the Palestinian lands, either ’48 or ’67, by calling all of them “settlers”.
Simply put, yes I call things as they are.
Regarding international law, Israel uses it as a silencing tool without a real commitment to any of its rules. On the contrary, it would even violate these rules without any regard. We should be aware that international law as a tool is very restrictive and does not serve our aspirations as colonized people. Our counting on it should consequently be limited, because despite it proving, theoretically, of some of the Palestinian rights, it was rare when the decisions of international institutions are ever enforced.
Palestinians have long been seen in the media as the victims of Israeli violations. How do you see the difference between this rhetoric and the one you have been employing during recent events in Palestine?
Yes, we are victims. However, the assumption that victims lack agency and political will is incorrect. On the contrary, victims might resist and they are even responsible for leading revolutionary changes. I believe that the heritage of black resistance in the U.S has paved the way for western audiences to understand the character of the Palestinian as an ‘implicit victim, but actual fighter’.
We have long seen Black teens executed in the streets by the American police. Discriminatory questions like “what were they doing?”, “were they suspicious?”, or “were they armed?” used to be raised to legitimize the teens’ killing. Regardless, the police are not allowed to kill them under any conditions, even with the teens being armed or hostile.
In my view, the Black community in the U.S today completely rejects these kind of questions that serve to divert attention from the original crime and the original criminal. In the wake of this rising rhetoric in Palestine, Palestinians today do not aim to present the image of the “perfect” victim, who is known for its patience and tolerance. On the contrary, they aim at introducing the image of an outraged and resisting victim to the world’s attention.
Following the last question, you have flipped the defensive position that is imposed on you by interviewers several times into a proactive position. While Palestinians are typically the “accused”, that needs to prove his/her good intentions and condemn any action affiliated to the Palestinian militarized resistance, you restate the questions to focus on Israeli policies. Was the “strong” Palestinian rhetoric more powerful and effective than the Palestinian “victim”?
When receiving such a question, you should uncover its implicit intentions instead of starting to answer by condemning or un-condemning. Our mission in the coming period should not only be legitimizing the Palestinian right to resist, but also legitimizing his or her right to feel anger when their land and rights are violated.
It is untrue and irrational to expect from a Palestinian — especially those who were directly subjected to colonial crimes — to come and say that they “do not detest Israel” on international platforms in order to gain the Western audiences’ sympathy. There is not a need for such rhetoric!
It is dehumanizing to expect such declarations from Palestinians. Palestinian humanity does not only mean having childhood memories or future aspirations, but also having reactions of anger and resistance. When saying the Palestinian is a human, we do not only mean that he or she goes to school like anyone, but also that they slap their attacker like normal people.
Any critic of Israel’s policies is charged with being antisemitic. How do you deal with common responses from interviewers on Western news channels, including responses related to antisemitism?
It is important to understand why we are always questioned about antisemitism. It is not to determine our thoughts regarding it, but to force us into a defensive corner that would essentially criminalize any opinion we adopt. No matter what we say, even if sharing a non-radical position, we are always charged with being antisemitic.
In debate, this is called a “red herring” (literally: a fish with a strong scent is put in front of hunting dogs to distract them from hunting rabbits), namely diverting the attention from the main issue and focusing on marginal ones. This, in turn, will not contribute to the discussion, but cover up the facts and distract from the main topic.
While it is possible to engage in a debate to prove you are not antisemitic, this would lead us to walk into a trap that the Zionist lobby has been working on for years. It aims at charging any critic of Israel, or any doubter of the occupation’s legitimacy, to be antisemitic. We have unfortunately seen a lot of people get ambushed in these trials. Instead of investing the time in delivering their message, they had to behave as perpetrators defending themselves in court.
Paradoxically, these questions are never directed to the oppressor. Say, you will never see a Zionist accused by hating Muslims, and this is an indication that the balance of world power is always aligned with the oppressor and condemns the oppressed, even in televised dialogues.
Israelis’ have developed a program that specializes in political propaganda called “Hasbara”, which aims at formulating defensive strategies of Israel and its policies. What would be the crucial points that the advocates of the Palestinian cause must be aware of when speaking to the Western media? In other words, how should repeated questions asked by the West be responded to? Like for instance, how would questions on the Palestinian resistance in Gaza and its responsibility for “killing Israeli civilians” be answered? Accusing Hamas of the degrading situation in Gaza, claiming that the governments of PA and Hamas oppress people in the West Bank and Gaza district, and such other examples.
Similar to any other propaganda, all of these claims share one fact; that they are all shallow and repetitive. As I have mentioned earlier, these claims do not aim at learning the opinion of the Palestinian being interviewed, but forcing him or her into a defensive corner. In my opinion, disclosing the intentions behind these kinds of questions in a five-minute interview is much more effective and beneficial to the viewer than fighting ideological battles that will definitely need more time.
Zionists frequently speak about “two sides” of the story, their “grief”, the “lives of Palestinian innocent civilians”, and ask the Western viewer “ what would you do if you were in our place?”. They also claim that Hamas uses its civilians as “human shields”, while the truth is that Israel is responsible for civilians deaths irregardless of any other information.
Yes, we admit that the PA oppresses its people. However, it is definite that the Zionist entity is the only one responsible for this reality, as PA suppression would not exist without the presence of Zionist settler colonialism. I would rather say that we need to formulate new strategies that aim at countering the Israeli “hasbara”. We should aspire for strategies that can be easily understood and repeated by any average citizen that does not relate to current power relations. In addition to that, there is a need for raising consciousness regarding Israeli allegations and recognize them as examples of “hasbara” that are not necessarily legitimate. On the contrary, they should be recognized as products of governmental strategic plans and huge funding that target the consciousness of Western audiences while without caring to answer its questions.
For instance, I was recently engaged in a virtual dialogue where I was asked about my input on the claim that “Gaza and the West Bank were both under the Jordanian rule and that they were empty and uninhabited”. While some of my colleagues fell into the trap and started responding and justifying by quoting historians, I had to stop them. I said that despite our full readiness to answer such questions and refute claims on “empty lands”, and how Palestinians “were created in the 1960’s”, and the “human shields” myth, questioning us about these claims is simply surprising and unacceptable. It merely condemns the questioner rather than the one who can not respond to it.
It should be called as it is: a deceitful question that does not require an answer. We should make clear that these questions are only meant as a distraction from our core issue which is our displacement from our homes and land. When naming these questions for what they are, and even mock them, the viewer would be able to recognize that these questions are not worth answering from the beginning.
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