The Israel-Palestine conflict is at the heart of politics not only in the Middle East, but in the United States. As the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu moves further toward the hard right with the support of U.S. President Donald Trump, the plight of Palestinians is reaching a new level of urgency. Journalist and filmmaker Mariam Shahin, the daughter of Palestinians, has dedicated much of her life’s work to documenting Palestinians’ stories through film as well as in her book “Palestine: A Guide” (Interlink Books, 2006). Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer describes Shahin’s films as poignant portrayals of “the forgotten people of every intrusion, every war.”
“What I loved about your work,” Scheer tells Shahin in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” “is you capture … the ordinary person living in a place like Gaza. How they eat, how they survive. Male, female, children. These are not people who invented the situation. These are not people who have agency of any significance.”
While the situation in the Palestinian territories looks increasingly dire, Shahin has found reasons for hope. “I think as the world increasingly becomes more polarized, there’s more people willing to listen to Palestinians,” the journalist tells the Truthdig editor in chief.
“We have an enormous number of, for example, film festivals, which also show documentaries like the ones I make and many others across Europe, across Asia, across South America, in Africa and in the United States—in the land where some of the biggest opponents of a Palestinian identity and entity govern,” she continues.
Shahin believes that the future of the two peoples will depend on complex peace work, work in which, according to her, the onus should be placed on Israelis as they hold more power. The journalist, however, concedes that the only solution left going forward given current socio-political conditions is what’s known as the “One State Solution.” She insists that the work she carries out is in the interest of Israelis and Palestinians alike, given that establishing lasting peace between the two would solve the great majority of Israel’s current troubles.
“Because when the world around [Israel], those who are hostile to [them], recognize that [Israel is] actually a democracy and a state which treats citizens and neighbors as equals, then half [the] problem is over,” asserts Shahin.
Listen to the full discussion about Israelis’ and Palestinians’ potential future and how it affects American politics.
You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi. This is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Sheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, journalist and author Mariam Shahin, who is, I say, a Palestinian, yet you were born in Berlin, I guess. Your father, as with many Palestinians and many Jewish people, lived in the diaspora because of events in their home country. A highly educated man, a cancer researcher and so forth. Yet you visited Palestine and what you have managed to do in your work, I should say you’re a very famous journalist. Your work has appeared in everything from CBS to Al Jazeera. You’ve made, I don’t know what, some huge amount of documentaries, I think 80 or something. You’ve studied at Harvard and all sorts of places. But what I loved about your work in preparation for this and as I was familiar with some of it before, is you capture, dare I say it, the ordinary person living in a place like Gaza. How they eat, how they survive. Male, female, children. These are not people who invented the situation. These are not people who have agency of any significance.
These are the forgotten people of every intrusion, every war. The reason I find your work so powerful is that this is the third rail issue. It’s very difficult to have a rational discussion about Israel, Palestine and so forth. Stereotypes dominate. The group that is lost are the Palestinians and the people in Gaza. First of all, there are plenty of people denying they are even a people or if they’ve got problems, it’s the result of something else. It has nothing to do and somehow, particularly for people who are very sympathetic to Israel, they are an inconvenience. Right? This new state was going to be created, I’m not going to visit the whole history. Somehow … Oh, it wasn’t a vacant land. There were these people. They had a rich, long history and somehow that always gets in the way.
But one point I want to begin with because I had some experience, I actually was in Gaza at the end of the Six-Day War. What has always bothered me that the Palestinians are somehow the only group that are held accountable in the Six-Day War. Not the Egyptians, not the Jordanians, not really the Syrians; all of whom have had their separate peace, not only with Israel but in the eyes of the world powers and so forth. The Palestinians, who are actually even then an occupied people or had the Egyptians controlled Gaza, Syria controlled the Golan Heights, Jordan controlled the West Bank.
When I was there reporting on it, I kept thinking, “Wait a minute. The Palestinians didn’t have an air force, they didn’t have guns, they didn’t have anything. Why …”, and I’ve felt this to this day, “Why are they the ones who’ve paid the price?” Quite apart from anything else you think about the situation. So let me begin there with you.
You have captured the forgotten people, the people in Gaza, the people in the West Bank and so forth. Tell us about that and the difficulty of doing that kind of journalism, getting that out there.
Mariam Shahin: Well, I think Palestinians, specifically those living under occupation and those who live in the diaspora, have frequently been or mostly been objectified by the Western media. Not so much by the third world media, but certainly by the Western media and turned into either poor victims or terrorists. That’s very, very problematic because in my experience, granted that I’m a Palestinian, but my many, many visits to both the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinian communities within Israel, it’s very clear to me that they’re actually victims of war who have, over generations now, found survival mechanisms. Despite efforts to create conditions of de-development, meaning where there were roads in Gaza, today there are none. Where there were hospitals, they are largely dysfunctional because of the lack of electricity. Where there were schools, there are largely functioning on threads because of a lack of electricity, a lack of water and because of constant bombardment over the last 12 years at least.
We can see that the tenacity of both the individuals and the communities, led by very tenacious men and women, are not just surviving, they are even thriving because I think it is safe to say that before 1948, the Palestinians in historic Palestine were communities of merchants, of farmers, of traders, of a certain degree of intellectual class. But they were not fighters. They were not people who had to fight up to then for their own existence, either in existence of daily survival or their existence as a people, as an entity, as a nation. As people who have the same rights as everybody else.
I think war and pressure and prejudice came both from the state of Israel and frequently also from Arab states and from the west. Created a character which was very vibrant with the spirit of survival and resistance. Resistance to this enormous effort to negate them, both as individuals and as a people. That I find the most interesting.
Moving from that premise, what I do very often in my films is I try to profile people who are making a difference, who are acting on that instinctive survival. A communal instinctive survival, of a way to make things better for themselves and for others. Women have been certainly at the forefront of this, because at various times in the last 60 years, a large percentage of the male population has been incarcerated. This, again, inadvertently created strength within the community. Every time they take a blow, whether it’s a military blow or a political blow, something new is born. A new form of resistance to that eradication.
Now sometimes that eradication is a physical eradication and sometimes it’s a political, economic social one. It works on many levels. The characters I found, the people I found, as a storyteller, of course, they become characters to me. But the people I found are real and they’re really quite fabulous.
RS: People always object when you draw parallels between people. But what hit me about being a witness to a part of the Six-Day War and so forth, were what you just said about the Palestinians, of course, is what drove the idea of a Jewish state. There are people who denied that there was a Jewish people until they, so many of them were exterminated. At that time, in the Six-Day War, I recall this vividly. The people who represent, who led Israel, the dominant Labor party, were people that I felt very comfortable with. They were on the left, they were socialists. I remember Moshe Dayan. He actually knew Arabic. I remember being with him. He said, very clearly he told me when I interviewed him. He said, “If you come back and we’re still occupying here, it will destroy Israel.” Whether he believed that or not, I don’t know. But the Labor Party people claimed at that time that they were not occupiers. That they understood the risk of being an occupier. What it would do to your national character.
This has always been the fear of people who oppose imperial adventures. It’s going to turn you into a monster. Yet now, we are at a time when the whole Labor Party people are considered, what, traitors or irrelevant or something. You have an out and out jingoism, Netanyahu for example, and he’s not even the worst of the bunch, if he’s defeated in the current election, probably end up being replaced by somebody even more [inaudible 00:10:28]. They’re talking about annexation, they’re abandoning the idea of two states. Two states for two people was the slogan before. Now they’ve already announced an annexing the Golan Heights and Trump supports that. They’re talking about annexing the West Bank and so forth.
The question I want to put to that is, how did this get to be such a third rail issue that we can’t even discuss it logically. If you dare say something critical of Israel under Netanyahu’s, the big victor of Trump’s selection. Recognized shifting the embassy. He supports everything the right wingers do. He’s actually accused of anti-Semitism, you know. On the other hand, what I can’t understand about all this is, the demonization. What your journalism and I wonder what reception you find for your journalism, it goes against that narrative of the innocent Israelis, victims of the Holocaust who have tried only to have a home and they are threatened by these fanatical terrorist Arabs.
Your films [inaudible 00:11:43], which do get something of a hearing, but primarily, now on Al Jazeera which is challenged as whether its real news or not. So just tell me a little bit about your work as a journalist. Because clearly your intention of your journalism is to record accurately. Your product wreaks of a pursuit of truth, of accuracy. Yet, because it’s different than the commonly accepted narrative, it’s probably difficult to get a venue for it.
MS: Well, I think historically that’s correct. Palestinians had difficulty being heard and difficulty in the west being recognized as equal partners, or as people who deserve a fair hearing. But I think that’s actually changing. I think as the world increasingly becomes more polarized, there’s more people willing to listen to Palestinians. We have an enormous number of, for example, film festivals which also show documentaries like the ones I make and many others across Europe, across Asia, across South America. In Africa; and in the United States. In the land where some of the biggest opponents of a Palestinian identity and entity govern.
Only last week, you had what’s probably the second biggest film festival in Israel, in Haifa. It was a Palestinian film festival. I actually think things are changing. I think things are changing even from the time that I was younger and I began, because we were … and I continued to be, I think, relatively soft-spoken. My attempts also to really convince the other, and this case being the Israeli Zionist Jewish entity, that making real peace with the Palestinians, recognizing the Palestinians as equals and treating Palestinians as such, whether they’re citizens of the state of Israel, or whether they’re in the West Bank and Gaza is actually a good thing for the Jews. Frankly. I mean, this is … Because I’m always asked that by Israelis. “Is what you’re doing good for the Jews?” I always say, “I think it’s very good, because if you are able to make peace with Palestinians and live in harmony, 90% of your problems will be over. Because when the world around you, those who are hostile to you, recognize that you are actually a Democracy and a state which treats citizens and neighbors as equals, then half your problem is over.
That’s the premise from which we’re moving. In the past, you mentioned and I recognize that in my 25-year history with Israel. There wasn’t a call for annihilation. There was a call for sidelining, for maybe expelling. For killing, but not en masse. Today, there is a mentality, a right-wing mentality which has gripped many, many societies across the world or all shades and religions. That includes Israel. There are calls to kill an entire people. There’s no reprimand. There’s nothing. This is really scary.
One the one hand, you have a move to the right. On the other hand, you have a greater number of people who are saying, “Stop. This is not OK. We’re in the 21st century. We can’t go back. Going back is not an option.”
RS: Let me push this a little bit, because it seems the Labor Party, the peace movement in Israel, Peace Now and so forth, are quite weak.
MS: They’re persecuted. The Peace movement in Israel is persecuted.
RS: Yeah. I for instance, read [inaudible 00:16:51] in English regularly, but it represents a very small percentage. The voices of jingoism and so forth. You’re right about this right-wing Jingoisticmovement in the world. One perfect example is the one government that seems to have benefited from interference in the US election was Israel. By interference, I’m not talking about anything necessarily illegal, even surreptitious. I mean, Netanyahu came to the U.S. Congress and attacked a sitting American president over a major agreement with Iran to control nuclear weapons. He clearly supported Donald Trump. Donald Trump, as president, whatever you think of him, has been very supportive of a certain right-wing view of Israel. He has favored moving the embassy. He doesn’t talk about a two-state solution. He now talks about annexation of not only the Golan Heights, but the West Bank. I don’t know if he wants Gaza just somehow push that off into the sea.
So, you have a very odd circumstance where we have a lot of discussion about Russia’s influence here. They have got nothing. They have sanctions, nothing. As a journalist, I find it quite amazing that there’s no question raised with Pelosi, with Schumer, with any of the leading Democrats. What is going on? You attack Trump for everything. How come you don’t attack him for giving Netanyahu a blank check to do what he wants? It must be frustrating to an observer like yourself, no?
MS: Yes, it is. But I also, we follow American politics and we’re looking very closely at what the different Democrats who are running to lead the Democratic Party are saying about the conflict. The main conflict in the Arab world, which is between Israelis and Palestinians. But there are a few who are actually critical of Israel. Those include Bernie Sanders, certainly, I think even Beto, Beto O’Rourke has come out, criticizing Netanyahu, Netanyahu government. I mean, we’re taking note. Previously, I’m sorry, nobody was criticizing Israel at all and the fact that you have two candidates now running who are actually opening their mouth, one of them who happens to be Jewish, is very rewarding, in a sense that things have changed, perhaps because of Trump. Because perhaps he went too far to the right, that now some people, at least, are publicly pushing back.
RS: OK. First of all, let me take a break and then I’m going to push back on you on one thing.
RS: We’ll be right back with this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I’ve been talking to Mariam Shahin, a very well-known journalist, filmmaker, author, whose work for major news organizations and does a really powerful series for Al Jazeera. We’ll be right back.
RS: We’re back with Mariam Shahin, Palestinian journalist and we’re talking about the ordinary folks of Gaza. But before we lose the thread here, one thing that’s used to say, “You can’t have peace and justify a hard line,” is that the people of Gaza have been represented by hardliners, the Hamas movement, who attack even the Palestinian Liberation Organization for, as being too [inaudible]. They are an impediment. One of the contradictions while we’re doing this interview, right now this week, Egypt has moved into Gaza to help negotiations. Israel has made a deal with Hamas, one of the many they make over the years, has actually a historical record that Israel preferred Hamas originally and supported its creation of the PLO and so forth.
The irony is, that you can always find unattractive characters who are leaders on the other side in anything. In this case, the argument of some really even progressive Jewish organizations, we’d love to have peace, but we can’t find anybody to negotiate with. So really what has happened to these peace efforts?
MS: Well, I think it’s erroneous. I haven’t heard anybody from the Israeli peace movement actually say that, to be honest. I think there are still Israelis who are part of a peace effort. There were Israeli observers in downtown Hebron who basically documented settler violence against Palestinians. There’s an organization called Checkpoint Watch, which is manned predominantly by retirees, but they stand at checkpoints and they try to monitor and sometimes interfere in behavior of soldiers toward Palestinians.
Not everything has stopped and those who actually want to be involved are involved. There’s an association for bereaved parents, where both Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost children or loved ones bond together and they hold discussions and they organize events.
RS: People listening to this, they’re going to say, “Scheer. You didn’t ask the really difficult question.” Can … I know you have a group, Hamas. They control Gaza, OK. Now maybe, with Arafat, maybe you could make the argument that he could have accepted peace. You know, after all, he was the partner in [inaudible 00:23:15] and so forth. Could you have peace with Hamas? Is it possible? Who speaks for the Palestinians?
Now, the irony in that, is that Israel actually, from time to time seems more favorable. The hard line in Israel, which is the government, to Hamas, than it does to the PLO. But really, you’re somebody who goes back and forth, who covers this and so, give me the reality check, because I’m just blowing smoke here. I’m based on headlines or whatever. You’re there. You deal with these people.
Is Gaza run by religious fanatics? There seems to be seething discontent. Will there be a Palestinian leadership that people could negotiate with? To what degree is this all confused by Israeli actions? Let’s end this on your assessment of the prospect for peace and normalcy in this contentious region.
MS: That’s a big one. I think the first thing that has to happen, who represents the Palestinian people? The people in occupied Palestine have to vote. This is number one. Both in Gaza and in the West Bank. There hasn’t been an election since 2006. That’s 12 years. It’s time for a vote. That’s number one.
Certainly, Israel is a major interferent if that word exists, in internal affairs, by the sheer fact that there’s constant raiding, there’s constant bombing in Gaza and killing. There’s constant raiding, killing and incarceration in the West Bank on a daily basis. As long as this continues, no democracy among the Palestinians and the Israeli military assault almost on a daily basis to varying degrees, we can’t have peace.
Two things have to happen. The Palestinians have to hold elections. Hamas is a political organization. OK? They want power like all politician parties want power and they’ve proved in the past that they can very much hold discussions with Israel. And the Israelis know that. But it’s not convenient. It’s more convenient to say, “This is my enemy.” It’s more difficult to make peace than to make war. That’s what we’re seeing now.
I think at the end of the day, of course it’s possible for Palestinians and Israelis to live together, but a lot has to be done. Above everything, there was to be a will. That will can be expressed at the ballot box. You see? When you vote for the peacemakers, when somebody comes with a program and says, “This is what we have to do” and the people say, “OK. I’ll sign on for that,” then we have hope. I don’t think it’s a hopeless situation, but it’s an extremely hard situation. Especially for the Palestinians. Because they’re the ones being killed. There are a few Israelis being killed also, but it’s basically the Palestinians who are being killed and it is apartheid. That’s what it is.
I think we all realize that. And the Israelis know that.
RS: So, let me conclude this with a notion about the swing of history.
You have a region here basically dominated by two forces in history that seem to be played out in most of the world. One is religion. Which for much of the world, seems to be increasingly irrelevant, or interpreted in benign, non-threatening ways. Even very large Muslim populations and Indonesia generally, manage to … I shouldn’t say even and certainly the Catholic Church which used to fight the Protestant church. A lot of that is played out and so forth. Yet here in this relatively small geographical area, religion is like it was described in the Biblical era and so forth.
One question is this hold of religion in this region. The other is the hold of nationalism. Increasingly, we live in a one world economy and people travel freely and nationalism seems to be on the decline. Well, people can evoke it when they want to go to war, but you yourself are very cosmopolitan, sophisticated person who has lived a lot of … I’m not putting you down for that. This is true of many people who go from the United States and live in Israel and come back and so forth. I guess that’s what I would like to conclude.
Here we have a part of the world that seems to be in the grip of these two forces that have lost their power, their energy and much of the rest of the world, nationalism and religion. Makes the region the most threatening, unstable, unsatisfying, destructive area in the world right now. Is that not the sad conclusion?
MS: I think a return to religion is actually almost a global movement in fundamentalisms. I mean, we look at Brazil. We look at India. We look at Eastern Europe, where national identity using religion, because I think nationalisms use religion to enforce whatever agenda they have. I think it’s on the rise everywhere. I think what has happened over the last 15 years, outside Palestine and the rest of the Arab world is an attempt to shed the forces of dictators. These efforts have, in many cases, not in all … Tunisia being a wonderful exception, have … Religious movements have hijacked these attempts. I think we need to differentiate between those who use religion as a means to gain power and use nationalisms and those who want genuine change and better living conditions for the people in their country, which was the case in, certainly again I say Tunisia, which is the only successful attempt to bring about that change.
Unfortunately, everybody had a role to play in that, including the Israelis. But the entire west, all of Europe, the Russians, the Americans, the Iranians, the Turks; everybody joined the Kabal. It’s been horrific.
RS: All right. Well that’s a depressing note to end on, but I will remind you, you did say earlier in this interview, you thought that we would get peace in the middle east, right?
MS: It has to play itself out, yes.
RS: Yeah. But as a filmmaker, when you photographed these children, when you describe … that’s the great strength. We haven’t talked enough about your art and your journalism, but when you capture these people … Like Sandy Tolan, who’s your friend who did in his book, “Children of the Stone” and “The Lemon Tree,” the humanity. That’s what drives me crazy about this issue. The Gaza Strip that I visited a half century ago and Israel I visited a half century ago, I did not see the big distinction between Arab and Jew, between Israeli and Palestinian on a human level. I felt comfortable with both. OK?
Again, there was so much in common of a culture, of a location, of a desert community, what have you. I mean, so much. And in fact, the original hope of the Kibbutz movement in Israel was normalcy. Tilling the land and so forth.
Do you think we could get to a one-state solution? Not a two-state, a one-state solution where it would be two different people living peacefully under the same roof?
MS: I think a one-state solution in Palestine and Israel is now the only realistic solution. I think the two people will have to work very hard at making it work. The more powerful of the two, ultimately has the greater responsibility. I think the future lies in mature, political action.
RS: Well, OK. I got it back to some optimism, so we can end it there. I want to thank you again, Mariam Shahin. You can Google her name and you can get her terrific work, just to mention a few. I mean, well first of all, she’s the author of “Palestine: A Guide, Unheard Voices, Women on Sanctions and War in Iraq.” She’s written for everyone, from the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, The Global Male of Canada, The Guardian, et cetera. Check out her work. Go to Al Jazeera. She’s produced nearly 80 documentaries. We haven’t done her great journalistic work justice on this podcast. I wanted to tap into your deep insight on the region, so I’ll thank you again for taking this time.
Our engineers have been Kat Yore and Mario Diaz at KCRW. Our producer is Josh Scheer and here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the wizard engineer Sebastian Grubar has held it all together once again and we want to thank him and thank the University of Southern California for helping us here.
We’ll see you next week.