On Contact: Gaza with Abby Martin and Mike Prysner
Chris Hedges talks to journalist Abby Martin and producer Mike Prysner about their new film Gaza Fights for Freedom which focuses on the Palestinian Great March of Return protests during which nearly 200 people were injured and 10,000 men, women and children were wounded. The film Gaza Fights for Freedom is available on Vimeo.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the new film, "Gaza Fights for Freedom," with journalist Abby Martin and producer Mike Prysner.
AM: The malicious doctoring of this video just shows really just how far the length that the Israeli government will go to malign these people in their deaths. I mean--and we hear from other medics who have been gunned down also that say for the first six weeks they weren't targeted. So there is actually a direct targeting order I think from higher-ups saying, "Okay, medics are open season now. Just start killing them."
CH: In response to the Israeli government's 11-year land, sea, and air blockade of Gaza, Palestinians organized a massive and largely non-violent movement called The Great March of Return in March of this year. Day after day, thousands of Palestinians protested at the security barriers separating Gaza from Israel. The Israeli Government responded with brutal and lethal force, gunning down men, women, and children with live rounds. Some 200 Palestinians were killed and 10,000 injured, including 1,849 children, 424 women, a hundred and fifteen paramedics and a hundred and fifteen journalists, an estimated 5,814 people were wounded with live ammunition including exploding or butterfly bullets which pulverize tissue arteries and bone, causing severe internal injuries and often amputation. Israel regularly fired canisters of a yellow green gas into the crowds that led to severe convulsions and unconsciousness. The protest culminated on March 14th, the same day the US Embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On that day alone, Israeli Forces shot dead 60 Palestinians. During all of these protests, four soldiers were lightly injured by rocks. Daily butchery of unarmed protesters trapped behind a security barrier in the world's largest open air prison is the subject of a new film by Abby Martin called "Gaza Fights for Freedom," available on Vimeo. Joining me in the studio to discuss the film is Abby Martin and the film's producer, Mike Prysner. Great work. Gaza's dear to my heart. I spent off and on for seven years months of my life there covering it for the Middle East. So let's talk about the--it was an amazing moment, the organization of the march, what it was meant to do, and the Israeli response. So, let's just begin with the whole idea behind the march, Abby.
AM: Sure, so the march organizer, Ahmed Abu Rteima, a 34-year old activist and poet, really, kind of, was the brainchild of this mass mobilization, as you mentioned, non-violent. And he wanted to basically call attention to their struggles as refugees, Chris, 70 years later, to the fact that they're still refugees, and basically staged a non-violent action in this perimeter area in this open, empty land to pitch tents.
CH: So let me just interrupt.
CH: Seventy percent of the people of Gaza are descended from refugees, number one. Number two, the Israeli's have created a kind of no man's land, a buffer zone, where Palestinians are prohibited from entering. And so, the idea was to enter this buffer zone?
AM: Exactly, and it's a no-go zone. So this is a shoot-to-kill--you know, first they shot to kill infiltrators which they're called now, of course, they're designated as terrorists because after Hamas took over after they retreated. So, Ahmed's whole vision was just to call attention to the international community, mount pressure from the international community to show that they're still refugees and it was a completely peaceful action to pitch tents, and that's what makes the Israeli Hasbara operation just kind of slick.
CH: Explain Hasbara. Explain Hasbara.
AM: Yeah, so it's basically a multimillion-dollar propaganda apparatus on behalf of the Israeli government that corrects the record that controls the narrative online, Chris. We have war rooms in Tel Aviv, they're doing this every day. So, their whole narrative that they're all human shields, that this is all staged by Hamas, is just--falls flat on its face when you realize that this was actually originated from activist poets, non-affiliated, you know, government organizations, I mean people who had nothing to do with political parties there. Hamas has nothing to do with the march. It was basically all stripes of Palestinian society.
CH: And tens of thousands.
AM: Tens of thousands, and this is still going on every single Friday.
CH: Right. Let's talk--we'll talk about the Israeli propaganda, which I've been a victim of. But let's talk a little bit about Gaza itself, which I have not been there for a few years and it was bad enough when I was there. But there are many ways in which the Palestinians in Gaza are being, kind of, slowly exterminated. Let's talk about water.
AM: Sure. I mean, this is a crisis that even the UN reports that by 2020--I mean, what is that, a couple months away, Chris--completely uninhabitable due to lack of water alone. We're talking about…
CH: Well, already 98% of the freshwater in Gaza is considered toxic.
AM: Toxic. Toxic. Twenty-five percent of all illnesses are directly caused by contaminated water. I mean, imagine that. And that's just one crisis. I mean, lack of electricity, you can't pump water to the routes, you can't store food.
CH: Well--and there's a lack of electricity because the Israelis have bombed the power source.
AM: Exactly and the desalination plants.
CH: And the desalination plants, right.
AM: They cannot rebuild these plants.
CH: Right. And they can--I'll let you talk a little bit about the "sanctions" that they have imposed, which, as Abby said, essentially makes--they--Israeli war planes will destroy or artillery will destroy vital infrastructure, but then, perhaps you can explain how they limit, how they put the Palestinians on a diet. I wasn't quoting an Israeli general, but just, like, explain a little bit about--and it's exactly--you know, going back to what the Germans did in World War II with ghettos so that people are reduced to--the struggle for a subsistence level.
MP: That's right. I mean, honestly it's quite similar to what The United States did to Iraq throughout the '90s where they strategically bombed food production and water treatment and then used sanctions to prevent the things that were needed to repair them or treat things, you know, from water-borne diseases from unfiltered water and things like that to cause a kind of mass punishment to the entire population.
CH: Well, in Southern Iraq, how many children, was it 200,000?
MP: Yeah, it was close to--yeah, it was--it was quite more, I think. It was about half a million under the age of--under the age of two, actually. And so, you know, these are--this is designed for mass punishment of an entire population which actually disproportionately affects babies and small children. So these things are calculated, right? And so I think when you're referring to putting Gaza on a diet, means that, of course, you know, that Israel controls everything that comes in and out of Gaza, and so when they say "We're going to let so much tons of food in," they'll calculate well how much do people need to not starve to death and that's the minimum that they'll let in.
CH: But barely?
MP: Yes, exactly.
CH: I mean, they count the caloric intake.
MP: They actually count it, right. Which is a, kind of, [INDISTINCT] sinister kind of type of administration, you know what I mean, to actually put that much thought into how much can we actually deny people without them, like, dying?
CH: One of the things you do in a film is talk about unemployment. I mean, just run through what life, especially for young--which, what, most Gazans over 50% are under the age of 18. Talk a little bit about what daily life is like, especially for the young.
MP: So I think that if you talk to most people in Gaza, especially youth, they would say that they don't see--they don't see a future in their--in the immediate years coming. So, like, you know, the unemployment rate is quite staggering, the rate of poverty is quite staggering, the lack of opportunities, and so…
CH: Isn't it, like, 70% or something?
MP: Yeah, 70% for youth and of 52% is actually the highest unemployment rate in the world, according to the World Bank. And so--but, you know, at the same time you have an extremely high number of youth in Gaza who are graduating college, going to graduate school. So they have hope for a future someday, but that hope doesn't exist in the current moment. I think that's kind of the--a big part of the motivation for the Great March of Return being this mass non-violent action, as it's not an action of desperation saying, "We have no future, there's no hope, our lives are over," they're saying, "We believe we can have a future if we fight for it and, kind of, win international support." And so I think that's what was driving, it wasn't desperation but a great deal of optimism under the most adverse circumstances.
CH: Well, I thought, Abby, the film, I mean, it illustrated what I think many of us would cover Gaza feel as this heroic aspect of the Palestinian people who just keep resisting anyway and we have to be clear, and you do in the film, with very graphic and disturbing footage show how wanton the murder of unarmed protesters are by the Israeli. Just explain and we'll try and put a little footage up, but just explain what it looks like on the ground because it's a shooting--there's no way the Palestinians can reach the soldiers who--most of whom are in armored vehicles or tower--bulletproof towers. Explain what it looked like.
AM: Right. I mean, you have a militarized perimeter fence as you've mentioned and then you have basically mounds where snipers are hiding behind where they have a wide view of the demonstrations. One international war correspondent described the scene, they said they've covered wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, there is nothing like this because there's just complete silence, I mean people are dancing, celebrating, just standing there, Chris, holding a flag and then every 10 minutes they'd have a sniper shoot them down and kill them.
CH: This, by the…
AM: I mean, these are head and torso shots.
CH: This, by the way, is what Sarajevo was like.
CH: I covered Sarajevo.
CH: So, you had people walking on a street and the Serbs had surrounded the city and we were losing four to five dead a day from sniper fire, two dozen dead a day often because we're being shelled. But it reminded me very much of Sarajevo, which I think for those of us who first got to Sarajevo was just we could hardly believe our eyes. The same thing is happening in Gaza.
AM: Right, right, exactly. And you mentioned the heroism and this is really important, too, because, you know, looking through this footage, we looked through about a dozen hours off footage, we didn't see one militant, one weapon, anything that can be construed as a weapon--a rock is not a weapon, let's get that straight--and the heroism, and women were leading contingents of this march. You know, women, these voices that are just completely never amplified on the corporate media and the heroism of people who go and do this symbolic action of touching the fence, putting a flag on the fence, throwing a rock as a rite of passage and knowing that they could get gunned down mercilessly by an Israeli sniper for doing that action, Chris, that is courage. It's being scared in knowing that you could die and still doing it. It's what cowards in this country have no concept of.
MP: And that's what we tried to show as a--as a journalistic project, to kind of prove without a doubt that war crimes are committed. I mean even if the Israelites would create the impression that these masses of Hamas militants trying to take through the barrier to then go commit a massacre in Israeli communities. Well, you know, if people did break through the fence, there's nothing much on the other side, there's a bunch of empty land and then a row of tanks somewhere. And so people unarmed going in, obviously they weren't going to do anything like that. But I think that what we proved without a doubt is that while Israel tries to create that narrative that they are just defending themselves of these marches, the vast majority of people who were killed, who were investigated by the UN commission, you know, this isn't just us and victim testimony. The UN Commission found that the vast majority of people killed weren't even anywhere near the fence. They were doing things like smoking cigarette talking [INDISTINCT]
CH: Well, you document that in the film. They were often hundreds of feet away.
CH: And the fact which you do, quite a good job of explaining the film, the fact that they were targeting journalists and paramedics who were clearly marked. Paramedics often in white coats approaching somebody who was wounded with their hands up, and the journalists had very clearly marked flak jackets with press. You talked about subsequent investigations and I'm just going to quote from this UN report in March, which found that "Israeli soldiers committed violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Laws. Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity," and the report goes on to detail specific fatalities including the--these exploding bullets, which you do a very good job of portraying in the film, showing the bullets and the wounds, which are just catastrophic. I mean it's not just lethal force. It's the use of banned ammunition. This is ammunition is illegal, which is designed to cause maximum injury and death.
AM: And amputations, of course. I mean there's countless amputations of children, a lot of paramedics, journalists as well and they can't get medical help. You know, because anyone who participates in the march is automatically construed as Hamas militant.
CH: That support but because they can't get--because the medical facilities are so depleted and they can't get out. So you have very fine medical facilities inside Israel but they can't get there and one of the statistics you pull up is breast cancer just to explain how, again, the denial of healthcare facilities is taking a toll on Palestinians. What is it--what's the…
AM: Sure, 83% and then look--just look at these neighboring countries. If you're diagnosed with breast cancer in Israel you have an 83% chance of surviving it. In Gaza, your chances can drop as low as 30%, Chris, and I think that really shows the reality of what people are dealing with. I mean we cut out some of this footage because it was too, kind of, gruesome but, I mean, people who said that there were worms crawling in their wounds. They couldn't even get dressings to dress their wounds. I mean, ligaments can be seen. That's what they're dealing with, with these open amputations that they cannot get treatment for.
CH: And that's just--that's [INDISTINCT] large across [INDISTINCT] they're basically denied adequate healthcare.
MP: Because of blockaded equipment and medical supplies. Just [INDISTINCT]
CH: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about Gaza with Abby Martin and Mike Prysner. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about Gaza with Abby Martin and Mike Prysner. So in the film, you run a small segment which is filmed by Israeli soldiers, Israeli snipers. As they are gunning down, you see them gunning down unarmed Palestinians as if it's a kind of video game or…
CH: Explain what that--you know, what that moment is in itself.
AM: Right. So I think a lot of films about Gaza and Palestine kind of show both sides of the story, right, convolutes the argument and tries to show the Israeli propaganda machine a little bit too much. I mean, we showed both sides, Chris. We showed what the Israeli side is. I mean, this is--this is the roots of a violent settler colonial state that's committing an ongoing ethnic cleansing. And in order to do that, in order to be a society that's okay with that, and to have 83% of Israelis approve of the Open-Fire Policy at the border, 95% approve of the bombing atrocities in 2014, you have to kind of be inundated and indoctrinated with this kind of violent settler colonialism. And that's what these soldiers kind of demonstrated. They posted this video on a Facebook group chat, and it got leaked. The Israeli government, of course, distanced itself. Said, "This doesn't represent us." But we know that this is actually what's going on on a daily basis. I mean, wanton, indiscriminant, targeted assassinations. And so these Israeli soldiers are basically just picking randomly. He said, "Should I get the kid in the pink?" And the other guy says, "No, get the kid in the blue." And he just shoots him in the head, and he goes down. And they're actually gleefully screaming, "Oh, my God. Did you see that video? This is an amazing video. We love it." And they're laughing hysterically. I mean, it's a disturbing watch, but I think it really reflects the sentiment of Israeli society and kind of this increasing fascism that we're seeing get worse and worse, Chris.
CH: Well, it's an apartheid state.
CH: And it's a perfect example of the celebration of the apartheid system.
CH: And the dehumanization of those they kill.
CH: Let's, Mike, talk about Razan al-Najjar who you profile in the film.
MP: Sure. Razan al-Najjar was a young female medic volunteer at the Great March of Return. She was actually the first female medic to go volunteer to provide lifesaving medical aid to the protesters being gunned down by Israeli snipers. And in fact was a feminist who spoke out about the right for women to do what was considered to be only a man's job. The New York Times did a profile of her a week before she ended up losing her life. And then, you know, a week after that glowing profile by the New York Times, she was targeted directly by Israeli snipers.
CH: She was near the fence when she was shot?
MP: She was not near the fence. Right. She was threatened. I mean, they were trying to go rescue two people that were…
CH: But they backed off.
MP: They backed off after the Israeli forces shot at them to warn them. And then--so they backed off from the fence. And then after they backed off…
CH: And they--let me just interrupt.
CH: They approached the fence with their hands up…
CH: …in their white medic jackets.
MP: In clearly identified medics. And, you know, the snipers are, through sniper scope binoculars, they obviously knew they were medics. And they had threatened her in the past by shooting at her and things like that. So they shot at them when they approached to try to rescue these two people who were unconscious by the fence. And then after they retreated, were unconscious, rescued from teargas, things like that, then the Israeli forces just shot her anyway. And then she was killed on the spot. And this kind of led to an international outcry over the violation of human rights at the protest. And so she became a symbol in many ways for the demonstrators and for people around the world who are saying, "This is undeniable war crime being committed here."
CH: But also became a casebook study of Israeli propaganda. Let me just…
CH: You were in Iraq, right?
CH: In the military? In the army?
CH: And one of the things that I just want to make clear, as you well know, is that when you look through a sniper scope, you can see someone's face.
MP: Right. Uh-hmm.
CH: You know exactly who it is you are taking out. So--then the Israeli, you talked about it earlier, Abby, the Israeli propaganda machine went into overdrive. And I just want to quote before I get you to respond--maybe get you to respond, Abby, because the propaganda is nothing new.
CH: Golda Meir's lament, this is a quote. "We can never forgive the Arabs for forcing us to kill their children." That has basically been the line. And what do they do? How--talk about that--the propaganda, and, of course, the echo chamber in the New York Times and other mainstream media. Thomas Friedman and others calling it the politics of human sacrifice. Matt Friedman on a New York Times op-ed talking about the terror--there's a quote. "The terrorist group that controls Gazans' lives to get people killed on camera, BBnet, and Yahu's,"--what was that? Tele…
AM: Telegenically dead. That's what they want.
CH: Telegenically dead. Right. Right.
AM: To pile up dead Palestinians for their cause on TV.
CH: Right. So let's talk about the Israeli propaganda, which I have certainly felt the heat of myself.
CH: How does it work?
AM: Yeah. I mean, well, we've seen the human shield term to be used all the way back from old military incursions. Yeah.
CH: Well, let me just interject, Abby.
CH: The people who used human shields are the Israelis.
AM: Yes. Yes.
CH: And this has been documented by numerous human rights groups. So, for instance, when they raid a house on the West Bank, they force the neighbors to go in before them. And we have innumerable cases of--and this has happened in Gaza and other places where they take Palestinians. They're firing through a window, but they put a Palestinian, often a child, in front of them and then fire over them.
CH: This is--these are…
CH: Many documented cases of the Israeli military systematically using human shield. So let me just make that clear.
CH: I mean, they make the accusation, unfounded. But let's talk about how they essentially mounted this propaganda campaign to discredit Razan al-Najjar. And maybe you can talk a little bit about the New York Times and the film that they made about her.
AM: Sure. So what happened after Razan al-Najjar was gunned down--of course, after international outcry, instead of atoning for this, instead of apologizing on behalf of the Israeli military, they actually released a Hasbara propaganda video, again, designed for American audiences. All of these are in English. You know, they're all kind of Israeli officials that look like me and Mike speaking very perfect English. But this video just said Razan was incited by Hamas to give up her own life. Medics are used as human shields. And it showed Razan maliciously doctored in an interview she had given to another Turkish media outlet where she says, "I'm Razan al-Najjar. I'm a human shield." And they cut it off right there. In the video that's not maliciously doctored…
CH: Which you have in the film.
AM: …which I have in the film, she says, "I'm a human shield protecting the wounded and injured from the frontlines," like any combat medic would say. So the malicious doctoring of this video just shows really just how far the length that the Israeli government will go to malign these people on their deaths. I mean--and we hear from other medics who have been gunned down also that, say, for the first six weeks, they weren't targeted. So there is actually a direct targeting order I think from higher-ups saying, "Okay. Medics are open season now. Just start killing them."
CH: Well, let me just--there was--this is an ID, a tweet that was pretty quickly deleted. But it--this is a quote about the attacks, the shooting of the demonstrators in the Great March of Return. Quote, "Nothing was carried out uncontrolled." This is the Israeli Defense Forces. "Everything was accurate and measured. And we know where every bullet landed."
AM: Yeah. And, I mean, the New York Times piece that followed up with Razan.
MP: Yeah. Right.
CH: Well, maybe you can talk a little bit about what they did because this is appalling.
MP: Yeah. Right. I mean, well, it's really based on--you know, the New York--the New York Times did a propaganda piece where they, you know, interviewed some of the same people we interview in our film for about 20 seconds and the rest of the--this true crime documentary about Razan's death was an Israeli general explaining away her death. And then you--and this general uses the same talking points that all of the Israeli spokesmen--everything they use to justify the deaths of the Great March are two things, is, number one, that they are intentionally dying. That they are going out with the explicit intention of getting themselves shot, so then they could create pressure on Israel which is of course…
CH: But the other thing was just--like, just sickening is the way the Israelis decry the inhumanity of the, you know, Hamas sacrifice.
MP: Human sacrifice. Yeah.
CH: They just--they have these…
AM: And it's just sick.
CH: They have these kind of bleeding heart interviews.
MP: Right. Of course. Yeah. And--but then the other thing is that they're all human shields. All the people that have died are human shields, even though the UN has found them to be medics, innocent civilians, disabled people in wheelchairs, and things like. But, yes, we--they justified this by their human shield.
CH: But let me just interrupt, because it's in the film. There's a guy in a wheelchair who has already had his legs…
CH: Explain that moment.
MP: Yeah, no. For sure. I mean, many people may know him from a famous image of a man with two--double amputee at the 2014 war in Gaza, throw it with a slingshot. You know, he was targeted…
CH: In a wheelchair?
MP: In a wheelchair. And he was targeted specifically. The Israelis knew who he was. I mean, he was considered this heroic figure for him going out in his wheelchair to the protest. And they killed him also.
CH: They shot him in the stomach and killed him in his wheelchair.
MP: Yes. Exactly.
MP: Of course. And they did many other documented cases of people who are in wheelchairs or on crutches were killed also. And then--so the way that they justify such an egregious undeniable war crime is, well, they're a human shield. Well, what's the legal definition of a human shield is that you have someone engaging you with a weapon hiding behind a civilian so that you can't return fire without killing that civilian. But Razan al-Najjar, they say was a human shield. This man in a wheelchair, they say was a human shield. Every single one of these over two hundred deaths, unarmed people, they say were human shields. But human shields for what? There was no militants at the march. Not one weapon at the march. And so their entire framework logic justification for these war crimes exposes the real bankruptcy of their morality and excuses for these things [INDISTINCT]
CH: Well, but the problem is they'll need to watch a film like yours to get it, because the images that are disseminated and the propaganda that is effectively put out by the Israel lobby in the United States does a very good job of masking that reality.
AM: Uh-hmm. And they've released a lot of cartoon Hasbara, a little cartoon saying, "This is what Hamas brings to a protest." And then it shows Americans protesting in New York saying, "This is what you should bring through a protest." So, again, geared to an American audience specifically. But I think it's embarrassingly bad, and it's not sticking anymore, Chris. I think people are waking up to the reality because we see these atrocities firsthand filmed on cellphone cameras, filmed by Palestinians themselves. And so the cartoons that then Yahu's government releases, and when they say you're committing self-genocide, I don't think these talking points are sticking as well as they used to.
CH: Let's just end because you end the film with this, and that's the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement which all three of us support strongly. Why?
AM: Palestinians have asked us to do so. They've not only set forward this legal case for justice and incontrovertible proof of war crimes. And that's why we collaborated with the teams--team of journalists in Gaza to do just that, to show the reality on the ground, but also Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is the only thing that will really isolate Israel culturally, academically, politically.
CH: And it terrifies the Israelis.
MP: That right.
AM: It terrifies them, that's why they've passed 26 anti-BDS measures across the country already, because they know it's working. We have Ireland passing unanimous BDS resolution, trade unions, and Britain passing it. I mean, this is happening in NYU even. They are terrified of this, because this is what brought down apartheid in South Africa. This is the only thing that can bring down Israeli apartheid, Chris.
CH: Explain what it is, Mike, the BDS moment.
MP: It's just a global movement to boycott Israel through economic means, academic means, scientific, artistic, cultural, things like that. And, you know, to kind of isolate in this kind of global scene, to kind of put pressure on them to stop committing these war crimes like they're committing at the Great March and to--you know, and it's based on this idea. And then there's been a lot of distortion of the BDS movement as well. It's based on an idea that if you can agree--if we can all agree that there is universally recognized human rights and laws of war and laws that protesters have the right to protest and things like that, if you agree with these kind of universally accepted human rights then you can't deny, and this is what we try to show in the film, that Israel is violating them, and the Palestinians are justified in all the ways that they are resisting. And so if you believe in this kind of universal code of human rights, which everyone should, the world supposedly has agreed on them, then Israel must be held accountable for these and forced to stop doing them. And, of course, the international community, because of the power of the US Empire, it's veto power at the UN Security Council, they've been able to get away with it. But if there can be this kind of organically fostered grassroots global movement to make that untenable for the US Empire at Israel to continue to do, then maybe we can get some justice in that--in that--yeah.
CH: And that's our job.
MP: That's right.
CH: Thank you very much. That was Abby Martin and Mike Prysner speaking about their new film, Gaza Fights for Freedom.
AM: Thank you so much.
CH: Thank you.
MP: Thank you, Chris.