‘I’m terrified of what might come next’: an interview with Middle East academic and ‘the fire these times’ host, Joey Ayoub

‘I’m terrified of what might come next’: an interview with Middle East academic and ‘the fire these times’ host, Joey Ayoub

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CN: this article contains detailed discussion of physical violence, murder, maiming, and warfare


As scenes of Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians continues to fill our newsfeeds, long-time Palestinian rights activists are pushing for the latest wave of media attention to produce humanitarian results. Politika News (virtually) sat down with Palestinian-Lebanese PhD student and published writer, Joey Ayoub, to find out more about the historical, political and humanitarian realities behind the violent images on our screens. Ayoub is an assistant doctorate researcher on the University of Zurich’s ‘Dissonant Narratives’ team, contributing to research on temporality in postwar Lebanese cinema. His PhD focuses on memory in postwar Lebanese society and film. Ayoub hosts and produces the current affairs podcast, ‘the fire these times’. Ayoub’s recent publications include ‘The revolutionizing nature of the Lebanese uprising’ (Transnational Institute & Daraja Press, 2020), and ‘Black-Palestinian Solidarity: Towards an Intersectionality of Struggles’ (University of Toronto Press, 2019).

Over the past few days, we’ve all seen a lot more footage of violence in Israel and Palestine on our newsfeeds than we usually would. Is violence increasing, and if so, why?

That’s a difficult one simply because we need to define what violence is in the context of a military occupation and a blockade. These are inherently violent enterprises that cannot be sustained without sustained violence. Of course, there are more recent triggers, such as the (as of now) still planned forced evictions of Palestinian families from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah. The neighbourhood has been under constant attack by Israeli settlers, under the protection of the Israeli police, and its residents are quite literally being told that they don’t deserve to live there due to their identity as Palestinians. There’s also of course the Israeli government’s attack on worshippers inside Al Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, an act so provocative it doesn’t need expanding upon. It followed two entire weeks of Israeli police aggressing worshippers in the Old City of Jerusalem.

This in itself comes just weeks after Human Rights Watch declared that Israel’s policies over the entirety of Israel-Palestine – officially, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) – constitute the crimes of Persecution and Apartheid, a conclusion already reached a long time ago by many other observers. I can even go further and cite the Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz who wrote an essay in 1968 warning that Israel, as a military occupier, “would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions.”

I can of course go back to 1948 when part of my family was expelled from Haifa and never allowed to return. I understand that many don’t want to go ‘that far back’, but many Israelis – and, obviously, even more Palestinians – understand the importance of what we call the Nakba (exodus of Palestinians in 1948) in the Palestinian story because “recognizing the Nakba shifts the responsibility for the Palestinian plight to Israel.” 

There is also the ongoing drama of the Israeli elections and the possibility of a fifth election if Netanyahu’s opponents don’t form a government. It doesn’t require that much analysis to figure out why it would benefit Netanyahu in this situation to use force, demonise the Palestinians, claim some kind of victory and portray himself as the defender of Israel. It’s worked so far, hasn’t it? At the same time, and this may surprise other outsiders, the occupation is not a matter of serious debate in the Israeli elections. The status quo is largely accepted by Israeli citizens. There are many who are on board with a two state solution of course, but not enough to influence actual elections as we’ve seen time and time again. The more recent elections have basically been about Netanyahu himself and very little else.

Now, of course, if you speak to any supporter of the Israeli government they would deny everything I have just written. They will tell you ‘Jerusalem Day’ was simply a celebration of East Jerusalem’s unification with West Jerusalem, the former previously held by Jordan. That in itself means denying any Palestinian claim to Jerusalem, denying the existence of Palestinian Jerusalemites and only recognising Jewish Jerusalemites. It means denying the Israeli government’s active policy of judaisation of Palestinian neighbourhoods.

They will deny the significance of the young Israeli extremists chanting ‘death to Arabs’ or the Israeli state brutalising peaceful worshippers during Ramadan in a clearly sensitive and holy site. They will of course say that the bombing of Gaza is ipso facto justified because there is Hamas in Gaza and Hamas is a terrorist group. The possibility that the Israeli government’s actions are both barbaric and reckless won’t cross their mind. The possibility that the Israeli government fits the definition of a state terrorist actor is also out of the question. 

This isn’t to say that the fear expressed by Israeli citizens running to their shelters isn’t real, please don’t get me wrong. But the difference in power, the fact that Israel can easily bomb any ‘shelter’ in Gaza and kill considerably more people has been normalised, regardless of how many Palestinians Israel murders and terrorises. Leibowitz warned about that as well. He said Israeli soldiers would be turned into moral monsters (a term I’m borrowing from James Baldwin) because you can’t brutalise an entire people for that long and not let it also affect you. The status quo is intolerable to Palestinians, but it has largely been accepted by too many Israelis. Some Israelis whose voices I sometimes try to highlight acknowledge that the status quo is intolerable and unbelievably cruel to Palestinians. They are still in the minority however, and that’s a big part of the problem today.

So to go back to your question. Is violence increasing? Yes, of course, and it’s horrible to witness. I’m genuinely terrified of what might come next if a ceasefire isn’t imposed. But if we exclude the structural and daily violence of the military occupation itself we don’t get a clear picture. It is in the interest of the military occupier to describe this as a ‘conflict’ rather than a military occupation. Recognising the latter would imply recognising international law because Israel, as the occupying power, actually has legal responsibilities towards the Palestinians it occupies. As long as Israel isn’t pressured to stop this barbaric business as usual, Palestinians will continue to suffer from it.

This isn’t to deny or downplay the role of the PA and Hamas’ authoritarianism either. They are both horrible. The PA is actively complicit in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Hamas is also a thuggish group that has brutalised multiple friends already struggling under the Israeli-Egyptian blockade in Gaza. But again, there remains the issue of the occupation itself regardless of which party claims to represent the Palestinians. This is why I’m not spending more than a few lines on Hamas and the PA. Israel is vastly superior militarily speaking, and it is the occupying power. I must insist on remembering that.

Joey Ayoub’s PhD (University of Zurich) focuses on memory in post-war Lebanese film and society

One of many pieces of footage that has gone viral is that of a heated exchange between a Palestinian citizen in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah (Jerusalem), and an Israeli settler moving into the property they (Palestinian) were being evicted from. Why are these evictions taking place, and what is their broader context?

You’re referring to a settler telling Muna El-Kurd “if I don’t steal it, someone else will”, in Sheikh Jarrah. Try and keep that in mind whenever you hear ‘debates’ about Israel-Palestine. I think it’s quite useful as a reminder that these debates are not happening between those with power and those without. Those with power are invested in taking more of what those without power have, including their homes. They are invested because they have the full support of a state, Israel, and the de facto support of what’s usually called the international community. 

As for why these evictions are taking place, I go back to the judaisation policies of the Israeli state. Under apartheid, Palestinians belong to the wrong group. They are therefore not entitled to the same rights and considerations by the Israeli state. As for the broader context, I’ll refer you to a piece by Yara Hawari entitled ‘Destroying Palestinian Jerusalem, One Institution at a Time.’

Do Israelis and Palestinians have the same legal rights when it comes to claiming land? 

They should, but they do not. That’s why we’re calling this Apartheid. Everyone living in Israel-Palestine has a legal and moral right to safety. The problem, again, is the grotesque inequalities with regards to who actually gets that right. That’s a very straightforward problem; so simple it’s cruel. The tragedy of the story of this land is how simple it should be and yet how complicated it actually is. Without tackling this question of power, we should stop pretending to care about equality.

In late April, hundreds of extremists marched down city streets chanting “death to Arabs”. How has Israel’s far right become so emboldened?

There is also terrifying footage of young extremists chanting while Al Aqsa burned. While many apologists of the Israeli government have been keen to point out that they didn’t start the fire, what they are less keen to do is tell us what these youth were so joyfully chanting about. They were chanting a Kahanist revenge song, from the biblical story of Samsoms –  “O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes” (‘Yimach Shemam’, ‘may their name be erased’, the youths chant) – to the tune of a 1990s rock song (I am not joking).

Meir Kahane’s ideological followers not only chant ‘death to Arabs’ as you said, but they also actively oppose miscegenation, which usually involves inter-religious marriages, between Jews and non-Jews (is miscegenation ringing any bells to American and European audiences?) and actively support the colonisation of Palestinian lands. They do not believe that any territory in Israel-Palestine belongs to non-Jews. At best, following Meir Kahane himself, they might tolerate the notion of second-class citizens. In other words, the more optimistic side of their politics is apartheid. And the Kahanists are now in the Knesset, thanks to Benjamin Netanyahu. If there was any justice in this world, Netanyahu would have become an international pariah several years ago. 

As for your question regarding Israel’s far right, I can simply go back to that Yeshayahu Leibowitz essay from 1968. I can cite the countless intellectuals, rebels and writers from across the world who have, throughout history, pointed out how crucial standing one’s ground against fascism is. I can jump from Hannah Arendt to the antifascist creed ‘no pasarán’, and pass by Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X all the way to Bosnia and Syria and Rwanda and elsewhere. Horrors rarely happen overnight. We’ve been here before, multiple times. We know exactly where this is leading, and we are seeing it live-streamed on social media.  

The Israeli far right are confident. They feel safe, even comfortable. They don’t have to deal with any consequence for their actions. Europe, having learned very few lessons from its own past and present struggles with the far right, is unable to understand the dangers of this. The US has had a different trajectory, and I especially want to highlight the role of Jewish-Americans pushing for Palestinian rights (here I’m referring to Israel’s own narrative. Of course, Jewish-Americans do not have to condemn Israeli oppression anymore than non-Jewish Americans do, and we should be careful with the slippery slope that can lead to the antisemitic ‘dual loyalties’ accusations).

The impact of black liberation activism, I think, may go on to influence US calculations (I wrote about this in 2016) if grassroots pressure continues as well. But as of now, the US has chosen to continue being complicit.  As for the Arab world, I have very little hope that anything will change anytime soon due to the ongoing counter-revolutions by authoritarian regimes throughout the region since the Arab Spring. 

This has all been taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Israel is considered to have had an efficient vaccination programme and as a result, restrictions in the country are being lifted. Do you agree with those who accuse the Israeli government of implementing a vaccination apartheid between Israelis and Palestinians? 

It’s not even whether I agree or not. Israel is the military occupier and under international law it has a legal responsibility to protect the people it occupies. The medical evidence regarding vaccines is pretty clear, and the risks of not being vaccinated during a pandemic are also very clear. The Israeli government prides itself in its efficient vaccination programme, so we can safely conclude that not vaccinating Palestinians is a choice. Both Israelis and Palestinians are at risk if not enough Palestinians are vaccinated. That’s just a fact. 

Finally, is there any hope for justice and peace in Palestine and Israel? 

There is always hope. No ‘conflict’ has ever lasted for ever and, by definition, a peace deal is made between enemies. But you framed this well, because the question is justice and peace. As your website has some focus on Europe, I can of course point to Northern Ireland or Bosnia, or Cyprus for that matter. Europeans – as with most Westerners, in my experience – often have difficulties viewing conflicts ‘over there’ as being similar to ‘over here’, but what’s so dissimilar? Wouldn’t many Irish consider ‘the Troubles’ to be an extension of colonial wars on Ireland? Even if you disagree with that, didn’t that belief have to be reckoned with to make the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) even a theoretical possibility?

The GFA allowed everyone living in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish and/or as British with no restrictions on freedom of movement (which is now being endangered by the folies of Brexit). Palestinians in Gaza – most of whom are refugees – quite literally live a stone’s throw away from the lands that used to belong to them. They can actually see them from the other side of the fence. And both Israel and Egypt make sure that Gaza remains under a violence blockade. I struggle to find another word for this other than a ghetto, one that is routinely bombed, its people regularly maimed and continuously dispossessed. 

In discussing any peace deal, there is the issue of power that is so obvious it barely needs pointing out. In Israel-Palestine, there is no Palestinian army, nor is there a Palestinian navy, airforce, nor even an airport (Israel bombed the only airport in Gaza in 2001 and buldozed its runway in 2002). Palestinians have no US-funded Iron Dome. They have no shelters like Israelis do, and even if they did they would not be able to stand a chance against Israeli airstrikes. Palestinians do not have control over their own borders. Palestinians cannot even decide on whether they are allowed to go back to their own homes. Palestinians in East Jerusalem have to worry that they may lose their residency if they leave for too long, and Palestinians in Gaza can’t even know when they will ever be able to go back. I can go on and on and on.

Israel has the unconditional support of world powers and the de-facto support of most other relevant powers (including those pretending to be outraged at the moment, such as the Arab regimes and Turkey). Palestine only has international law on its side, and we are all witnessing first hand how little that means without any real power, any real say in one’s own present, let alone future. 

The Palestinian lawyer and writer Noura Erakat said it best on CNN: “So much of what’s at stake is our dehumanisation and the expendability of our lives, livelihoods, that our deaths become numbers rather than vanished dreams and mourning families.” That’s it, in a nutshell. Other people can be in denial of Palestinians’ right to live in Palestine in peace and security all they want, but until they start recognising that reality, they cannot be seriously considered to be interested in ‘peace’. Graveyards may seem peaceful, but I would hope that’s not the peace observers are seriously interested in.

Let me end with Erakat’s own words again. One of the first victims of Israeli violence during the Second Intifada was her neighbour. Her cousin, Ahmed Erakat, was killed at an Israeli checkpoint between two Palestinians cities last summer, and his corpse remains in a fridge at Tel Aviv University. Forget the headlines for a moment. What does this story say? Erakat told us: “Palestinian deaths have become an index of Israeli vulnerability because of the thorough dehumanisation of our lives.” When Palestinians can’t even mourn their dead, what does that reveal about who really controls their lives? Palestinian deaths are only valued in relation to the state of Israel. With this reality in mind, the notion that this is a conflict would be laughable if it wasn’t so deadly. 

Politika News would like to thank Joey Ayoub for his time. Readers can access Ayoub’s publications here.

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Article Image Source: Stop The War Coalition

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