Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy talks to journalist Max Blumenthal about how the Israeli occupation has poisoned not only the region but much of the world, and how BDS might be the last standing hope to dismantle it – March 22, 2016
Max Blumenthal, author of the 2015 book, “The 51 Day War”. Gaza, and the Future of Israeli Politics, Town Hall Seattle, June 29, 2015
MSNBC contributor Rula Jebreal’s on-air protest of the network’s slanted coverage of Israel’s ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip has brought media suppression of the Israel-Palestine debate into sharp focus. Punished for her act of dissent with the cancellation of all future appearances and the termination of her contract, Jebreal spoke to me about what prompted her to speak out and why MSNBC was presenting such a distorted view of the crisis.
“I couldn’t stay silent after seeing the amount of airtime given to Israeli politicians versus Palestinians,” Jebreal told me. “They say we are balanced but their idea of balance is 90 percent Israeli guests and 10 percent Palestinians. This kind of media is what leads to the failing policies that we see in Gaza.”
She continued, “We as journalists are there to afflict the comfortable and who is comfortable in this case? Who is really endangering both sides and harming American interests in the region? It’s those enforcing the status quo of the siege of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank.”
Jebreal said that in her two years as an MSNBC contributor, she had protested the network’s slanted coverage repeatedly in private conversations with producers. “I told them we have a serious issue here,” she explained. “But everybody’s intimidated by this pressure and if it’s not direct then it becomes self-censorship.”
With her criticism of her employer’s editorial line, she has become the latest casualty of the pro-Israel pressure. “I have been told to my face that I wasn’t invited on to shows because I was Palestinian,” Jebreal remarked. “I didn’t believe it at the time. Now I believe it.”
An NBC producer speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed Jebreal’s account, describing to me a top-down intimidation campaign aimed at presenting an Israeli-centric view of the attack on the Gaza Strip. The NBC producer told me that MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC executives are micromanaging coverage of the crisis, closely monitoring contributors’ social media accounts and engaging in a “witch hunt” against anyone who strays from the official line.
“Loyalties are now being openly questioned,” the producer commented.
The suppression campaign culminated after Jebreal’s on-air protest during a July 21 segment on Ronan Farrow Daily.
“We are disgustingly biased on this issue. Look at how much airtime Netanyahu and his folks have on air on a daily basis, Andrea Mitchell and others,” Jebreal complained to Farrow. “I never see one Palestinian being interviewed on these same issues.”
When Farrow claimed that the network had featured other voices, Jebreal shot back, “Maybe for thirty seconds, and then you have twenty-five minutes for Bibi Netanyahu.”
Within hours, all of Jebreal’s future bookings were cancelled and the renewal of her contract was off the table. The following day, Jebreal tweeted: “My forthcoming TV appearances have been cancelled. Is there a connection to my expose and the cancellation?”
Jebreal is the author of Miral, a memoir about her coming of age in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Her former partner, Jewish-American filmmaker and artist Julian Schnabel, adapted the book into full length film. A widely published journalist and former news presenter in Italy, Jebreal was a vocal supporter of the now-extinct peace process and a harsh critic of Islamist groups including Hamas. Her termination leaves NBC without any Palestinian contributors.
According to the NBC producer, MSNBC show teams were livid that they had been forced by management to cancel Jebreal as punishment for her act of dissent.
At the same time, social media erupted in protest of Jebreal’s cancellation, forcing the network into damage control mode. The role of clean-up man fell to Chris Hayes, the only MSNBC host with a reputation for attempting a balanced discussion of Israel-Palestine. On the July 22 episodeof his show, All In, he brought Jebreal on to discuss her on-air protest.
In introducing Jebreal, Hayes took on the role of the industry and network defender: “Let me take you behind the curtain of cable news business for a moment,” Hayes told his viewers. “If you appear on a cable news network, you trash that network and one of its hosts by name, on any issue — Gaza, infrastructure spending, sports coverage, funny internet cat videos — the folks at the network will not take kindly to it.”
“I did not think that i was stepping in a hornet’s nest,” Jebreal told me. “I saw Joe Scarborough criticizing the network. I thought we were liberal enough to stand self criticism.”
Yet when she appeared across from Hayes, Jebreal encountered a defensive host shielding his employers from her criticism. “We’re actually doing a pretty good job” of covering the Israel-Palestine crisis, Hayes claimed to her. “I think our network, and I think the New York Times and the media all around, have been doing a much better job on this conflict.”
Jebreal appeared on screen as a “Palestinian journalist” — her title as a MSNBC contributor had been removed. When she insisted that American broadcast media had not provided adequate context about the 8-year-long Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip or the roots of Palestinian violence, Hayes protested that he had wanted to host Hamas officials alongside the Israeli government spokespeople he routinely featured but that it was practically impossible.
“Not all Palestinians are Hamas,” Jebreal vehemently replied.
“Airtime always strikes me as a bad metric,” Hayes responded. “I mean there are interviews and then there are interviews. I had [Israeli government spokesman] Mark Regev on this program for 16 minutes, alright? That’s a very long interview but there was a lot to talk to him about.”
The NBC producer remarked to me that the network’s public relations strategy had backfired. Hayes’ performance was poorly received on social media while Jebreal appeared as another maverick journalist outcasted by corporate media for delivering uncomfortable truths.
For her part, Jebreal told me she was disturbed by Hayes’ comments. “I admire that Chris [Hayes] wanted to have me on but it seems like he was condoning what happened to me,” she said. “He was saying, ‘What do you expect? We rally around our stars.’ Well, I rally around reality, if that still matters in media.”
Jebreal continued: “I didn’t tell him this on air but I said, ‘I hope you don’t condone other things the network did, like what happened with Ayman.’”
Jebreal was referring to NBC correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin and his sudden removal by the network from the Gaza Strip. Mohyeldin, a rising star in the network and its only Arab-American reporter in the region, was an eyewitness to the Israeli killing of four young boys who had been playing soccer on a beach near Gaza City.
Moments after the killings, Mohyeldin relayed intimate accounts of the scene through Twitter, then released harrowing footage of the boys’ mother wailing as she learned of their deaths. Oddly, NBC correspondent Richard Engel was summoned to deliver Mohyeldin’s package that evening.
The NBC producer told me that the network was deluged with angry letters and phone calls from pro-Israel activists about Mohyeldin’s reporting.
Hours later, Mohyeldin’s summary of the US State Department’s statement defending Israel’s actions disappeared from his Facebook and Twitter accounts. He had apparently been forced to delete the postings. Next, NBC removed Mohyeldin from Gaza, sending him out of the area on the first plane available.
To replace Mohyeldin, NBC dispatched Engel, a veteran foreign correspondent well-liked by top brass and regarded as the network’s “star.” Engel was the keynote speaker at a 2013 event at the Newseum in Washington DC honoring journalists killed that year. Under Israel lobby pressure, the Newseum had removed the names of three Palestinian journalists killed in targeting Israeli strikes during the November 2012 assault on Gaza, accepting claims by anti-Palestinian groups like the Anti-Defamation League that their employment by Hamas-affiliated outlets rendered them enemy combatants. During his speech, Engel carefully avoided condemning the Newseum for its capitulation.
The removal of Mohyeldin sparked an international backlash, with tens of thousands from around the world protesting the decision through viral Twitter hashtags like, #LetAymanReport and #FreeAyman. Two days later, an apparently chastened NBC returned Mohyeldin to the Gaza Strip, but the damage had been done.
Unwilling to explain its unusual actions, NBC left it up to media critics to guess at its motives. CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter chalked up the removal of Mohyeldin to “infighting and bureaucracy,” claiming that NBC was concerned primarily with ratings. Glenn Greenwald, the editor-in-chief of the The Intercept, wrote that Mohyeldin was ordered out of Gaza by David Verdi, a top NBC executive, for political reasons — his reporting was deemed too sympathetic to Palestinians.
The NBC producer insisted that Greenwald’s account was the more accurate one. “Greenwald was right,” the producer told me. “And I hate to say that.”
For her part, Jebreal does not expect to be welcomed back on MSNBC again. “I’m done there,” she told me. “It’s not happening any more. My contract is over. I’m fine with it. I’m not complaining.”
She cited the distorted coverage of Israel-Palestine in American broadcast as the central reason behind the American public’s support for Israel’s assault on Gaza.
“I believe this is a shifting moment in history and we need to make a decison,” Jebreal said. “It’s easier when there’s Bridgegate but there is another gate: This is Mediagate and we need to begin to challenge our responsibilities.”
Last month, I went to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in West Jerusalem to interview Israelis, and spent half an hour sitting with three teenagers. After a few minutes, they allowed me to turn on my video camera. Max Blumenthal was with me, and I believe the exchange bears out the themes of Blumenthal’s new book, Goliath: that building and sustaining a Jewish state in defiance of most of the indigenous population has endowed young Israelis with fiercely militant, Jewish-supremacist ideas.
Specifically, the teenagers say that young Jews should not date Palestinians and that Palestinians should not have representation in the Knesset, because these inclusions undermine the Jewish character of the state. And the Jewish people need Israel to survive.
“We know that we can’t be Jewish anywhere else,” says one.
And all this as a guitarist picks out rock tunes in the background, including Tom Petty’s Free Falling.
The three teenagers are religious nationalists, but they say their attitudes are widely shared; and polls have indicated that 50 percent or more of Israelis have similar attitudes toward Palestinians.
The forceful young man on the right who is going into the army soon is named Matanya. He’s 19. The girl on the left in the Justin Bieber tshirt is Shiran, 18. The girl in the middle is 17, and named Shoham.
As the video is very long, I’m supplying a partial transcript below.
Matanya begins by explaining why it is necessary to act in Syria, and why the old are reluctant to do so. “Younger people have fire in their eyes” and are willing to die for their “ideals.” Matanya says he is willing to serve in Syria, whatever the risk.
“We have to do something. Something serious.”
The three agree that Arabs are not ready for democracy. “They don’t have the mentality for democracy like we do,” Matanya says. All humanity is moving toward democracy, but Arab political culture is particularly resistant to it.
Shiran says that she can relate to the uprisings of the Arab Spring. “The Jews always had pain in their history so you can understand being oppressed.”
I ask Matanya about the American belief that the occupation is the problem.
“I say that’s nonsense… I know they say that. It’s not true, because 40 years ago when we had the borders of ’67, still the Arabs want to kill us and want us not to be here anymore…They don’t want us here period.”
Is there an occupation? Max asks.
“In my opinion, No. because we were here before the Arabs.”
Shiran adds that Arabs and Jews could have coexisted but Arabs chose not to, beginning in 1948. “They could have a state right next to us. They didn’t want it from the start. Now the [Israeli] people don’t want it either because of the way they treated the Jews in the last few years.”
Matanya explains that Islam doesn’t permit a Jewish state. “If they want peace, of course we will give them peace. Our religion is all for it… [Judaism] says specifically that we should treat nicely the people who are not from our people. [i.e., the stranger]”
I ask the young people my favorite question of young Jews: Isn’t it better that Israel cease to be a Jewish state than that one more young person die for it to be such a thing? “Am I wrong to say that?”
Shiran says a binational state is a utopian idea. “It’s possible but it can’t be, because the Arab don’t want it.” And neither do the Jews. “The Jews need a place to be where they are not oppressed, a place where they can be Jewish.”
Matanya is more authoritative.
“This country has to stay Jewish for a few reasons. First of all, we saw what happens when there is no Jewish country. I am sure about it, if there’s not a Jewish country, there will be another Holocaust…. Our religion is true, I believe in all my heart that it’s true. This nation has been existing for the longest time in history. I think there’s something true about our religion. You see that something real is happening here.
“We know that we can’t be Jewish anywhere else. We know that Jewish people are forgetting their resource and wherever they come from in other countries, and we know there’s going to be another Holocaust if we’re not here.”
I ask if his attitude is representative. He says, “Most of the older people think exactly like me. That’s why they stay here and they want the country to stay Jewish.”
I say that during the civil rights movement, black and white people sometimes fell in love with one another, and in some parts of the country, that was considered bad. How do they look on love across religious/racial lines?
“We’re religious so religious people are not allowed to do it,” Shoham says.
Shiran says it’s not just religious people. “In girls’ schools, they tell you, teach you about how– I’m not saying that all the Palestinians are bad… they tell you how dangerous it can be.”
Shoham explains the danger. “It’s a different culture. They live in different places.” And sometimes when Israeli women marry Palestinians, they move to their villages. “It’s a different way of living And Israelis people are not used to it.”
“Oppressive,” Shiran says.
“Primitive,” Matanya says. “They treat women very primitively. I would not want… a girl I know to marry some Palestinian guy. Not because he’s bad. But because of the way they treat….”
I ask how much they would do to stop such a pairing.
Shiran: “I would try very hard to stop it.… I’m not saying that they all live that way but still– you’re Jewish, you shouldn’t marry a non-Jew… even if [that person is] a very good person, you don’t know what their family would think, friends would think. Also because You should try and raise your kids Jewish. Not religious– Jewish.”
Max then asks if their schools warn them about these dangers.
Shiran: “Yeah they do. Because it’s very important… Not in a way that Arabs are bad. They don’t wash your brain.”
Shoham clarifies, “They’re talking about family and it’s like– they warn you about not marrying an abusive husband. So it’s like they’re also talking about not marrying a non-Jewish man.”
Matanya ties this into ideas of nationality. “We know that we’re not responsible only for ourselves, but for our whole country and also for the Jewish people. So any action you take you have to think about that.”
I say, I know lots of Jews in the U.S. and half of my friends are married to non-Jews. Is that what Matanya means when he sees Jews falling away?
“Yes. I think that’s the way that the Jewish vanish. If all the Jews will do that, there won’t be Jewish people anymore, and we want to keep the Jewish people running for a lot more generations.”
Near the end now, and I ask about tribal beliefs that Jews are smarter. The teenagers don’t buy this. But they do say that Israelis have more get-up-and-go.
Matanya says, “We push harder, we go further, we’re not afraid. You don’t see it in a lot of places in the world. In the US you live very calmly, you don’t have a lot of pressure. Not like here. Here you have life and death situations. In every area of living, from high tech to army…. We come to a place where no one ever succeeded in doing anything with those lands, and we made them great lands with a lot of crops.”
Shiran: “We work harder, we don’t give up.”
Max says, “How come the Jews aren’t smart enough to get out of this situation of endless war?”
I don’t think the answers make a lot of sense, though Matanya emphasizes, “We don’t come to kill. We come to save life, not to take life. We have no intention of taking anyone’s life.”
I say that these young people seem to want to renew the Zionist dream, and Matanya agrees.
Then I ask about strong leaders.
Matanya says, “I’m not sure we have a lot of them now. But I’m sure there’s going to come new blood.”
Shiran says that the leaders have been “letting us down.” She seems to mean in the economy.
Max asks if Ariel Sharon was strong.
Shiran says, “We don’t like him.”
Matanya: “He did a lot of very good things for the Israeli people. He gave his whole life for our security. But at the end of his life he made a big mistake, a very big mistake.” He refers to the removal of settlers from Gaza in 2005.
“So, no further pullouts of settlers?” Max asks.
“For sure. Ever,” Matanya says.
I then ask Matanya about visiting him in the Knesset 50 years from now, and will there be peace?
“I pray with all my heart that there will be peace, but anyway we’ll keep going.” He says that Arabs will be free to live here peacefully, with liberty and have the best life they can have, better than in neighboring Arab countries.
“But in my opinion they should not have political figures in our Knesset.
“In other words, they should not have Arab members in the Knesset?” Max says.
“Ideally, yeah. We will. For sure, the Jewish people will take care of the Arabs, they will get what they have to get, the food, the liberty, they can work wherever they want, but if we want to keep our country Jewish and Israeli and in peace, we have to take control of what is happening.”
Shiran: “The way they treat us is exactly the way their leaders treat them. Something has to be done.”
Max. “So Haneen Zoabi has to get out of the Knesset.”
Matanya: “No doubt. She has to get out. She is a representative of the Israeli nation, and she goes on the Marmara, that was completely against the country, it was a betrayal…. I think the only way there will be peace is if she won’t be there, and we’ll be there.”
But what rights will Palestinians have? I ask. And must they leave?
Matanya says, they can stay where they live. “We’re not going to take the lands.. but we’re not going to give any of our lands and we will expend what we can expend because it’s our country.” Arabs have the right to live here, but the refugees cannot return. “That won’t happen. But they can stay on the land, we will have control of the country, and they can live here peacefully, and happily, with all the rights.”
A Response to JJ Goldberg of the Forward
Picking up where Eric Alterman left off, and defending his thousands of words of error-laden invective, JJ Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward has turned out an indignant non-review (see the latest Alterman flubs here) of my book that reveals its chapter titles but fails to discuss their contents. Goldberg warps the responses of Alterman’s many critics, failing to provide links, and concludes with a distorted account of an exchange I had with Ian Lustick, mangling my quotes to falsely to suggest I had demanded the mass departure of Jewish Israelis from historic Palestine. Goldberg might have once been a sharpshooter in the Israeli Border Police, but in his attempt to reinforce Alterman’s attacks, he badly misses the mark.
Echoing Alterman, Goldberg expresses outrage with the titles of the chapters in Goliath but makes no attempt to present what I actually wrote in them or why they are titled as they are. For instance, he bemoans the name of my chapter, “This Belongs To The White Man,” but does not mention that the title was merely a reference to the notorious statement by former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said the following about non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel: “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims, who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.”
Ignoring the hard facts presented in Goliath, Goldberg has spent the years since Israel elected the most right-wing government in its history projecting his political wishful thinking onto the country’s pro-settler leadership, imagining everyone from Benjamin Netanyahu to Shaul Mofaz (check out this howler) as potential peacemakers, which is not unlike describing Rob Ford as the political future of Canada.
Goldberg has labored to sustain his trance-like optimism in the face of the reality of record settlement construction as well as other harsh realities. After the Egyptian military staged its coup, an act that has led the U.S. to cut military aid, Goldberg warned that any reduction in military aid to Egypt would “kill Mideast peace hopes,” writing that “America’s billion-dollar-plus annual aid package to Egypt does not exist for Egypt’s benefit, but for Israel’s.” Apart from this strange formulation, as though Egypt only exists for the U.S. as a function of his notion of what its policy should be toward Israel, he completely neglected to mention the U.S. at all, as though the U.S. has no independent interests or principles of our own at stake.
To clarify Goldberg’s distortions for readers of The Forward: Goldberg claims I did not “tell of the thousands of rockets bombarding Negev towns for years” before Operation Cast Lead. However, I wrote on the first page of my book that “Hamas’s armed wing…fired dozens of rockets” in November 2008.
Similarly, Goldberg claims I did not “mention the hundreds of Israelis killed by…suicide bombers.” In fact, I devoted an entire chapter of the book to Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a remarkable Israeli academic whose daughter, Smadar, was killed by a suicide bomber. I discuss at length her and her husband’s experience after their daughter’s murder and how they became two of their society’s more outspoken opponents of the Israeli occupation. I go on to detail Israeli society’s response to suicide bombings during the Second Intifada in my chapter, “The Big Quiet,” explaining how it influenced the rise of hafrada, or Israel’s policy of demographic separation.
Goldberg further takes issue with an exchange between Ian Lustick and me during an October 17 discussion of Goliath at the University of Pennsylvania. But, not providing the link to the video, he produced a badly mangled version of my remarks.
Here is the context to the exchange in question: Lustick had remarked that Israeli society could increasingly be described as “fascistic,” suggesting that Israel had possibly crossed a moral Rubicon, then asked me to take on the role of God and decide whether to destroy “Gomorrah,” even though there were some “good” people living inside it – people like the Israeli dissidents, critics and reformers I profile extensively in Goliath.
My response proposed a direction for preserving the presence of Jewish Israelis in a future Israel-Palestine while stripping away the violent, inhumane mechanisms of demographic engineering, endless dispossession and the walls that have pitted Israeli Jews against the Arab world. My prescription was essentially a rejection of Ehud Barak’s explicitly colonial view of Israel as a Europeanized “villa in the jungle.”
Philip Weiss of the Mondoweiss.com website transcribed parts of my answer and summarized the rest. Here is the relevant part of transcript, which Goldberg omitted. (The full exchange arrives around 38:00 in the video):
My meaning is plain: That the walls must come down — the separation wall, the legal walls of ethnic discrimination, and the psychological walls — as a basis for true peace.
Goldberg claimed without evidence that “Lustick appear[ed] stunned,” when Lustick nodded in acknowledgement of my answer and did not express any perceptible displeasure; nor did he state any to me. In fact, what I said was intended to support what Lustick wrote in his recent essay on the “Two State Illusion” for the New York Times, Lustick offered a remarkably similar vision of an alternative future allowing Israeli Jews to live in peace in the Middle East; in which ultra-Orthodox Jews and Mizrahi Jews of Arab descent – groups routinely derided by liberal Zionists like Goldberg as retrograde and politically burdensome — could emerge as their society’s bridge builders, forging practical alliances with Palestinians:
I mentioned in my reply to Lustick that his question related to a debate that was raging among many of my leftist friends and acquaintances in Tel Aviv. As I detail in the final chapter of Goliath, “The Exodus Party,” a number of my human rights-minded Israel friends have chosen to exercise the secondary, “emergency” passports that provide multitudes of Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis with EU citizenship, and they have moved to places like Berlin and London. Then there are others, like the Israeli journalist Haggai Matar, who are seeking means of assimilating themselves into the wider culture of the Middle East.
Goldberg has claimed, “Outside the far-left and anti-Israel blogosphere, ‘Goliath’ has been ignored.” But it is Goldberg who has ignored reviews by figures like Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s military and political correspondent, and Akiva Eldar, the Israeli journalist and author who served as chief political columnist for Haaretz for 35 years — writers who could hardly be described as “anti-Israel.” Eldar wrote that, “a significant part of [Goliath’s] strength lies in the effect that is naturally created when a foreign correspondent describes the reality of your life and surroundings. Thus, as if from a bas relief, details are raised to which the local eye has become so accustomed that it no longer notices their existence.”
I hoped to engage Goldberg in a discussion about his critiques of my book and about the future of Israel-Palestine. Unfortunately, that debate will apparently not take place. When Atlantic editor Robert Wright invited Goldberg to engage with me on the online political debating forum Bloggingheads, Goldberg declined, as Alterman did before him.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is continuing a public campaign to cast doubt on U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, we speak to journalist Max Blumenthal, author of the new book, “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.” Blumenthal looks at life inside Netanyahu’s Israel and the Occupied Territories. “I was most surprised at the banality of the racism and violence that I witnessed and how it’s so widely tolerated because it’s so common,” says Blumenthal about his four years of reporting in Israel. “And I’m most surprised that it hasn’t made its way to the American public … that’s why I set out to do this endeavor, this journalistic endeavor, to paint this intimate portrait of Israeli society for Americans who don’t see what it really is.” Click here to watch Part 2 of his interview.
For Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, arguments about international law ring hollow.
A family from Dara’a, now living in a caravan in Zaatari. “Even the children have forgotten how to smile,” the woman remarked to me. (All photos: Max Blumenthal)
I sat inside a dimly lit, ramshackle trailer functioning as a general store for the residents of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, while a wiry, sad-eyed man named Adbel told me about the massacres that drove him from his hometown. Dragging deeply on a cigarette, Abdel described how army forces rained shells down on his neighborhood in Deir Ba’alba, a district in Homs, over five months ago, pounding the town over and over. Then he told me how government thugs barged into homes at 6 am, methodically slashing his neighbors to death with long knives, leaving fields irrigated with the blood of corpses, a nightmarish scene that looked much like this. Like nearly everyone I interviewed in the camp, he described his experience in clinical detail, with a flat tone and a blank expression, masking continuous trauma behind stoicism.
As Abdel mashed his cigarette into a tin ashtray and reached to light another, a woman appeared at the shop window with three young children. She said she had no money and had not been able to purchase baby formula for three days. She had trudged to hospitals across the camp seeking help and was turned away at each stop. Without hesitation, the shop owner, a burly middle-aged man also from Homs, pulled a can of formula off a shelf and handed it over to the woman. She made no promise to pay him back, and he did not ask for one. Like so many in the camp, she left Syria with nothing and now depends on the charity of others for her survival. In a human warehouse of 120,000, the fourth-largest population center in Jordan and the second-largest refugee camp in the world, where few can leave and even fewer are able to enter, the woman’s desperate existence was not an exception but the rule.
“We’re in a prison right now,” Abdel told me. “We can’t do anything. And the minute we try to have a small demonstration, even peacefully, [Jordanian soldiers] throw tear gas at us.”
“Guantánamo!” the shop owner bellows.
Water is available to camp residents primarily through these tanks, provided by international aid agencies.
None of the dozens of adults I interviewed in the camp would allow me to report their full names or photograph their faces. If they return to Syria with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still intact, they fear brutal recriminations. Many have already survived torture, escaped from prisons or defected from Assad’s army. “With all the bloodshed, the killing of people who did not even join the resistance, Bashar only wanted to teach us one lesson: That we are completely weak and he is our god,” a woman from Dara’a in her early 60s told me. “His goal is to demolish our spirit so we will never rise up again.” The woman’s sons had spent four months under sustained torture for defecting to the Free Syrian Army. She does not know where they are now, only that they are back in the field, battling Assad’s forces in a grinding stalemate that has taken somewhere around 100,000 lives.
When news of the August 21 chemical attacks that left hundreds dead in the Ghouta region east of Damascus reached Zaatari, terror and dread spiked to unprecedented levels. Many residents repeated to me the rumors spreading through the camp that Bashar would douse them in sarin gas as soon as he crushed the last vestiges of internal resistance—a kind of genocidal victory celebration. When President Barack Obama announced his intention to launch punitive missile strikes on Syria, however, a momentary sense of hope began to surge through the camp. Indeed, there was not one person I spoke to in Zaatari who did not demand US military intervention at the earliest possible moment.
“We follow the news minute by minute,” Abdel told me. “The whole camp’s opinion is in favor of a strike. Nobody wants the country to be hit. I swear we don’t like it. But with the kind of injustice we have seen, we just wish for the hit to put an end to the massacres. We feel strange because we’re wishing for something that we have never wished for before. But it’s the lesser of two evils.”
“Just do it, Obama! What are you waiting for?” an elderly woman in a tent on the other side of the camp remarked to me. “Hit him today and bring down the whole country—we have no problem with that. We just want to go back. Besides, the country is so destroyed, even if Obama’s strike destroys houses, we can rebuild them again.”
Mansour, a 7-year-old, was held at gunpoint by regime forces when his father was arrested. They were reunited in Zaatari, where Mansour is desperate to receive a caravan for his family.
Inside every canvas tent and corrugated tin caravan I visited across the gravelly wasteland of Zaatari, this is what residents told me: We have no future if Bashar is allowed to remain in power, and he is not going anywhere unless the United States intervenes. Like most Americans, I am staunchly against US strikes, mainly because I believe they could exacerbate an already horrific situation without altering the political reality in any meaningful way. The Obama administration has made clear that its “unbelievably small” strikes would not be not aimed at toppling Assad but only, as Obama said, to send a “shot across the bow.” However, I believe that the refugees trapped in Zaatari deserve to be heard. In the geopolitical chess match outside powers are waging over their country, their voices have been virtually ignored. Yet it is they who will have to face the direct consequences of any outcome of outside intervention.
When I asked the refugees of Zaatari about alternatives to US intervention like a massive international aid effort, or the Russian-brokered deal to confiscate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons supply, I was immediately dismissed. “Just hit Assad and leave us to take care of ourselves!” a 65-year-old man from Dara’a snapped at me.
The only criticisms I heard about US intervention were directed at Obama for dithering and telegraphing his punches. The camp’s residents are in constant contact with friends and family from back home, and have been hearing reports of a mass movement of military equipment. A mother of three from the rural town of Salamieh who fled after a massacre in April told me a Syrian army commander recently promised her hometown aid and improved services if residents allowed him to stash a division of tanks inside its residential areas. “The [US] hit was so delayed that now all Bashar’s tanks have been moved into civilian areas and if they do hit the targets they’re all empty,” she complained.
All the cheerleading for intervention was not merely a product of practical interests; it was the reflection of fresh wounds, and not only the psychological kind. Besides the traumatic stress disorder that afflicted the entire camp, shrapnel scars pockmarked the bodies of many of residents, including children. Perhaps the only thing guarding Zaatari from slipping into an abyss of nihilism was the promise of return.
“When Bashar falls,” a rail-thin 12-year-old girl told me beside a row of tattered tents, “I am going to walk from here all the way back home to Syria.”
“In those sandals?” I asked, pointing to her flip-flops.
“No,” she replied emphatically. “I am going to return in my bare feet.”
In place of toilets, Zaatari residents are forced to dig ditches in the ground.
I was able to enter Zaatari thanks to a friend who, like the refugees inside the camp, asked not to be identified out of fear of imperiling family back in Syria. After a forty-five-minute drive northeast from Amman on a barren stretch of desert highway, we were near the Syrian border, and just south of Dara’a, the working-class city that gave birth to the Syrian revolution. By the road outside the camp, a line of refugees hawked third-hand merchandise; among them was a small boy in a tank top saturated in dirt trying to sell a single rusty hammer. I had not been able to secure permission from the government press office in time to enter the camp today and would have to slip through the military cordon. At a checkpoint, as processions of families squeezed beside our car, I kept my gaze straight ahead, hoping none of the soldiers would notice me. We rolled by slowly without stopping. At a second checkpoint, we passed through undetected.
We parked inside, in a fenced off section reserved for the array of NGOs and foreign aid agencies stationed in the camp. It was the only place in Zaatari where I could find toilets or running water. From there, we walked along a dirt road beside the perimeter, past a Jordanian intelligence station on our right and a long row of trenches to our left, freshly dug by the military to prevent smuggling. The ditch offered a rare recreation space for a group of young boys, who took turns tumbling into it from atop a dirt mound. My friend recognized three of them from a visit to the camp a week ago, telling me how they lifted their shirts to show her the shrapnel scars decorating their torsos.
Finally, we were on the main road in the western section of the camp, a dust-choked pedestrian thoroughfare lined with makeshift shops. Behind a barbed wire fence surrounding a French military field hospital, a sign marked the road as AVENUE DES CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES. An arrow on the sign pointed west and read, “Paris—3305 KM.” This is where the Zaatari’s first wave of residents set up camp over a year ago. Though the aid agencies have kept them in decent health, as I walked down narrow lanes flanked with UNHCR tents, residents emerged to show me the holes they have had to dig in place of toilets, and to complain about the food. “Everything is terrible here,” a man from Dara’a named Ayoub told me. “The grain they give us is the kind we used to throw out back in Syria.”
The Champs Élysées.
During the early days of Zaatari, coming and going was far easier for the refugees. But in recent months, the Jordanian military has established a virtual cordon sanitaire around the the camp, taking strict measures to keep residents inside and harrying those who attempted to escape into Jordan. Inside a caravan off the “Champs Élysées,” a group of women who fled Dara’a over eleven months ago told me their IDs had been seized by the military, effectively trapping them in the camp. Almost all of those I spoke to in Zaatari said they had not left their sunbaked confines since they arrived. And many told me that thanks to the military’s heavy hand, the flow of refugees into the camp had been reduced to a trickle, with thousands stuck on the border, including family members in dire health.
On the other side of the camp, where the newer arrivals live, conditions were perceptibly worse. “All of the people here are thieves,” a widow from Dara’a named Jamila complained to me. “It is the world of the most powerful, where all the weak get weeded out.”
Jamila fled five months ago from her town after regime forces killed four of her cousins. “They burned my house and I left with nothing but the clothes I’m wearing right now—with this same scarf on,” she told me. We sat on mats inside a cramped tent with two of her friends and six of their children. While Jamila poured me rounds of coffee into a small cup, she heaped curses on the self-appointed “street leaders” who took the caravans supplied by UNHCR and sold them back to residents for 200 dinars (around $280). When a snake attacked her inside her tent, she said she was forced to move in with her friends. “I’ve been dying from the heat here and they won’t give us a caravan,” she exclaimed. “I’m terrified here, I’m all alone. Why can’t I have a caravan?”
Walking east through Zaatari. The camp is vast—“a really big prison,” as one resident put it to me.
A 7-year-old boy with spiky, sandy blond hair named Mansour interrupted the interview several times to ask me for 200 dinars so his family could buy a caravan. The tin structure was the only thing that could provide them with a semblance of protection them from the ravages of their environment. Mansour’s mother complained that wild dogs had been attacking their family every night for the past two weeks, forcing her husband to forgo sleep to keep watch over the tent. Even with a Who’s Who of international aid groups encamped a few hundred yards away, adequate shelter has proven elusive for residents of Zaatari.
When I began to photograph the children in the tent, the women reflexively covered their faces with headscarves. “Look how afraid we are,” one of the women’s husbands grumbled to me.
The man had practiced law for twenty-five years in Dara’a, working with the government and supporting both Assads, Hafez and Bashar. But after the regime’s harvest of death visited his town, he was forced to switch sides. “For you,” he said to me in an eerily calm tone, “this is an adventure. You will hear our stories and then you’ll go back to your world. As for me, my whole future is destroyed. I left a good income and a good life to come here, and now I can’t even protect my own son from wild dogs.”
Winter was edging closer, and many in Zaatari were not sure how they would make it through. As the cruelty of camp life persisted and the United States hesitated, frustration mounted. “I give Obama and Kerry two options,” Abdel from Deir Ba’alba remarked to me. “Either bomb the regime or you can bomb Zaatari and get it over with for us. Just get it over with for us. We are dying slowly here.”