Mayhem On Gaza Ignites Debate In U.S.

The year comes to an explosive end in the Middle East. Israel is now in its fifth day of air attacks on Gaza, rejecting a recent ceasefire proposal. The conflict is among the deadliest in recent history. Radio hosts Ray Hanania and Thom Hartmann describe how the fighting has their listeners speaking out.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, tomorrow marks 50 years since the Cuban revolution ended in victory for Fidel Castro and his compatriots. We're going to talk about the legacy of the revolution and Cuba today. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, the Middle East. The fighting continues in the Middle East, where Israel has launched a full-scale airstrike in the Gaza Strip against Hamas. The airstrikes are in response to Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel. More than 350 people have been killed in Gaza in some of the deadliest and fiercest fighting in decades.

But here in the U.S., many Americans are heavily invested in the conflict, passionately embracing one side or the other. And in Arab and Jewish communities throughout the U.S., the conflict is prompting heated conversations.

Here to talk about the U.S. reaction to the violence are two radio hosts who are getting an earful from their listeners. Ray Hanania is of Palestinian decent. He has a radio program based in Chicago called Mornings with Ray Hanania. Also with us is Thom Hartmann. He's host of the syndicated radio program The Thom Hartmann Program originating from Portland, Oregon. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. RAY HANANIA (Radio Host, Columnist): Thank you.

Mr. THOM HARTMANN (Radio Host, Author): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, each of your programs this week have focused on the conflict in Gaza, and I wanted to ask, is that because you wanted to, or is it that your listeners just wouldn't let you not talk about it? Ray?

Mr. HANANIA: Well, in my case, I wanted to, and specifically because I don't think there are many Arab-Americans in the media who can add the perspective that I thought I could bring to the topic.

MARTIN: And, Thom, what about you?

Mr. HARTMANN: Well, certainly I wanted to. I have spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East over the last 30 years, and this is one of those issues where there is an awful lot of confusion. There's an awful lot of sloganeering. We need more light again.

MARTIN: And what you're - and that leads to my next question I wanted to ask, and, Thom, why don't you stay with me on this. What are people saying? Are you hearing a range of opinion, or is there a center of gravity that listeners are kind of organized around?

Mr. HARTMANN: Well, you know, I'm certainly getting a lot of calls from people who would probably characterize themselves as partisans on one side or the other, people who were saying, oh, this is all the Palestinians' fault. You know, how dare they throw rockets into Israel. People who are saying, oh, this is entirely Israel's fault. How dare they blockade Gaza and starve and, you know, basically try to strangle a state that, you know, was just democratically elected a few years ago. It is, in my opinion, not that black or white on either side.

MARTIN: Are you hearing, I guess, from people who are on either side but not very interested in meeting in the middle. Is that what I'm hearing from you, strong opinions on both sides, but nobody saying, OK, where is the compromise? Where is the middle ground? Is there anybody other than you saying gray area?

Mr. HARTMANN: Well, what I found really interesting is that I was generally able to bring people to a middle ground. For example, I had one caller yesterday who is an Israeli-American and was going off about how, you know, they've been attacked and all this kind of stuff.

And I made the point that Israel had this - the world, frankly, not just Israel - the United States has a huge role in this - that we all had this extraordinary opportunity when Hamas was elected in Gaza to bring them forward into the modern age - to help turn them into a moderate Palestinian voice and do that. And the guy says, well, how can you negotiate - how can you, you know, be moderate with somebody who says that you don't have a right to exist, and they're trying to kill your people.

And my point was, well, that was once Yasser Arafat's position. That was once the PLO's positions. That was once Fatah's position. There's a long history of people being brought to the middle, as it were - being brought to peace, and I think that we collectively - we, the world, blew it in this opportunity in 2005 - 2006, and we're paying - Palestinians in particular - paying the price for it now.

MARTIN: Ray, same question to you. First of all, what are your listeners calling to tell you. What do they want to talk about, and what's your take on this?

Mr. HANANIA: Well, like Thom, I think I'm hearing the same things from my listeners that he's hearing. Everybody is just mad at each other, and it's an anger that keeps growing. Callers who may identify themselves as Jewish are saying, you know, how can you negotiate with the Arabs who are terrorists? Hamas is a terrorist organization. And Palestinian - and because Chicago is predominantly a Palestinian Arab community, most of the callers are Palestinian. They are saying, well, Israel doesn't really want peace. I mean, really, it's been a little troubling because it's been very angry, and it's been very difficult to walk a middle road on this issue.

MARTIN: In fact, Ray, if you don't mind my pointing this out. I think you pointed out to one of our producers earlier when you were talking that there's - to this point there has been no real dialogue of compromise, that it's very angry. And frankly, since you've been covering this for quite a long time, this is as angry as you've ever heard people. Is that accurate?

Mr. HANANIA: I would say this is about the angriest, and the closest period to this would have been back in April 2002, when - after the peace process collapsed. That was probably the ugliest moment, and this moment actually is a reflection of that. It's very discouraging.

You know, years ago in Chicago, the Palestinian, the Jewish-American community would get together. We'd actually sit down and discuss things that we didn't agree with, and I'd say that, over the years, that contact has completely disappeared.

And I do comedy with the Israeli-Palestinian comedy tour, and we have a very hard time getting bookings in the Arab community. All my bookings have been canceled. In the Jewish community, it's - we get them, but they're not often. And so the entire environment, I think, is just terrible.

MARTIN: Now, the media is a convenient foil always. But I did want to ask each of you whether your callers want to talk about the coverage and if they have an opinion about the coverage? Ray, I know that in the blogosphere see a lot of discussion, like people who feel that the casualties are being minimized, and they feel that the Palestinian perspective is being disappeared somehow, and I just wondered, what are you hearing about the coverage, if people, in fact, want to talk about that?

Mr. HANANIA: I've tried to reach out to a lot of guests to bring them on my radio show to talk specifically about the coverage, and because, basically, I believe it's not balanced. I'm not saying that the Palestinians aren't exploiting the media.

It's just, when you look at the mainstream coverage, I know a lot about the Israeli who was killed. I've read things about the Israeli who's killed in the first rocket attack a few days ago. I don't know anything about any of the Arab families or people who are being killed in the Gaza Strip. Every Arab that I talk in Chicago points to the media after pointing to Israel, and they say that the media is driving this conflict more than anybody.

MARTIN: All right. Thom, what's your take?

Mr. HARTMANN: I'm concerned that there isn't a good media presence in Gaza, you know, on the Gaza Strip. We have not seen the lives of these folks. This has been for several years. There has been no significant media coverage, at least American media coverage there.

And so, for most Americans, I think Gazans are an abstraction. You know, what's their life like? They're some stereotype, and it's probably, when people bring it up in their brain, probably is in black and white and doesn't have sound attached to it. Whereas there is so much coverage of the Israeli situation, that those pictures are in color, and there is sound, you know, in people's memory - you know, this is more real and this is less real kind of thing.

MARTIN: I certainly do not mean to belittle the magnitude of this conflict, but the fighting in this area has been going on for decades now, and I'm wondering if, you know, we sometimes talk about compassion fatigue.

Do you get any sense that the public at large - I know this is very hard to judge because, by definition, the people who call your programs are motivated to talk to you about it. They want to talk about it. But do you get any sense that there's a fatigue around this issue?

Mr. HARTMANN: Outrage fatigue perhaps.

MARTIN: Yeah, outrage fatigue, yeah. Thom, what do you think?

Mr. HARTMANN: I think so, yeah. I think that there are a lot of Americans who are saying these days, oh, you know, that they've been fighting each other for thousands of years. In fact, I hear that phrase frequently on the radio. People will say, you know, they've been fighting forever in that area. Yeah, you know, why don't we just get out of there and let them all kill each - you know, that kind of stuff.

It is simplistic. It is, frankly, stupid. You know, it would be very destructive to the interest of the United States as well as world peace, not to mention the people in the region. But yeah, I think that there is some outrage fatigue going on.

MARTIN: Ray?

Mr. HANANIA: Yeah, I agree with Thom. I think there is a fatigue, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we've been unable to resolve this, and our hopes have been brought up so many times. And, you know, right when we're ready to do things, you know, someone - I'm not a big supporter of Hamas either. I think they've been, you know, part and parcel of the problem. I was encouraged like Thom that they might come into the center.

But I don't think the average mainstream American who's outside of the Jewish community or the Arab community really is concerned that much about the Middle East except when it impacts their daily life. And I'll tell you, if this goes on further, and we see a drive up the price of oil, then I think you're going to start seeing Americans, you know, responding when it really hits the pocketbook that's already been hurt by the economy.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask each of you, and you may not want to answer this, and so, if you don't, I completely accept it, but is there any silver lining here?

Mr. HANANIA: I think that only just for my standpoint, the more tragedy there is, you find people who find the courage to finally stand up and say, look, enough is enough. And unfortunately, it takes a lot of death because of maybe the fatigue and the years that this has been going on to get people stand up and say, OK, you know, this is really bad. We have to do something about it. The level of acceptance of what's been going on there, the bar has been raised so high that it really takes a lot to move people who want to do something.

MARTIN: Thom?

Mr. HARTMAN: I absolutely agree with what Ray said and echo that. And my concern is that that level of acceptance that Ray talked about has been raised so high that it's not inconceivable that this could jump out of the Middle East.

I would hate, for example, to see that this so inflamed the Muslim world that it spreads to Pakistan, for example, which is a nuclear power, or Indonesia, for example. I mean, you know, this is the kind of thing that has tremendous downside potential - disasterous potential. And I think a tremendous upside potential that a lot of people might say, OK, enough already. Let's fix this finally.

MARTIN: Thom Hartman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program The Thom Hartman Program. It originates in Portland, Oregon. Ray Hanania is the host of Mornings with Ray Hanania. His program originates from Chicago. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us, and if it's appropriate, happy New Year to you both.

Mr. HANANIA: Thank you very much.

Mr. HARTMAN: Thank you, Michel, and happy New Year to you, too.

Mr. HANANIA: You, too.

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As Air Assault Continues, Israel Rejects Truce Deal

An Israeli looks at the damage from a Palestinian rocket that hit a classroom in Beersheba. i i

An Israeli looks at the damage from a Palestinian rocket that hit a classroom at a high school in Beersheba, Israel, on Wednesday. David P. Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David P. Gilkey/NPR
An Israeli looks at the damage from a Palestinian rocket that hit a classroom in Beersheba.

An Israeli looks at the damage from a Palestinian rocket that hit a classroom at a high school in Beersheba, Israel, on Wednesday.

David P. Gilkey/NPR
Map of Israel and Palestinian territories
Alyson Hurt/NPR
A Palestinian youth stands near a burning pile of debris in the road at a rally near Ramallah. i i

Palestinian youths pushed debris into the roadway to block traffic during a rally Tuesday at the Qalandiya Israeli manned checkpoint, located between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem. David P. Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David P. Gilkey/NPR
A Palestinian youth stands near a burning pile of debris in the road at a rally near Ramallah.

Palestinian youths pushed debris into the roadway to block traffic during a rally Tuesday at the Qalandiya Israeli manned checkpoint, located between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem.

David P. Gilkey/NPR

Israel continued air and naval bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday after rejecting a French proposal for a two-day cease-fire to allow food and medical supplies to reach the besieged region.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, also continued rocket attacks on Israel.

With basic food supplies running low in Gaza and hospitals struggling to handle the casualties, France's foreign minister proposed a 48-hour lull to allow vital aid to enter the territory and be delivered to its 1.5 million residents.

Senior Israeli leaders discussed the idea and rejected it.

One who asked not to be named told NPR that "giving Hamas a break now to regroup and rearm is a mistake."

"It's important to keep the military pressure on Hamas; that's the whole point of this operation," he said.

Hamas has also previously rejected talk of a truce that does not include Israel reopening all of the border crossings to allow goods to flow into the territory.

Meanwhile, at an emergency meeting in Cairo of the 22-member Arab League, foreign ministers blamed Palestinian divisions for opening the door to Israel's punishing attacks.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said divisions between the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank territory, and rival Hamas militants were also hindering any effective Arab response to what he called "this terrible massacre."

Arab League chief Amr Moussa called on the Palestinian rivals to hold an immediate reconciliation meeting and urged Arab states to present a united front. The Israeli bombardment has pitted moderate Arab governments against Syria and Iran.

Along the heavily fortified Gaza border fence, Israeli tank crews prepared for battle while Islamist militants, hiding as little as a few hundred yards away, laid land mines and other booby traps in case a ground war breaks out.

About 100 trucks of supplies were scheduled to enter Gaza on Wednesday. U.N. officials said, however, that the shipment falls far short of what is needed and that without a cease-fire, it is too dangerous to deliver much of the food and medical relief.

Nearly 400 people, mostly Palestinians, have been killed in five days of cross-border fighting, making the current conflict the deadliest in the Gaza Strip in four decades.

At his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"They both discussed their mutual desire" for peace, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters.

Bush voiced concern about the strikes in Gaza and the attacks in Israel and also raised again his worries about civilian casualties in Gaza, Johndroe said.

Asked specifically what concern the administration voiced about the violence of recent days, Johndroe said: "President Bush is disappointed that Hamas continues to fire rockets on the innocent people of Israel."

He said as far as a new cease-fire is concerned, "The onus is on Hamas."

European powers have also increased pressure on both sides to halt hostilities, but public anger in Israel over the widening of the rocket attacks to include Beersheba, 24 miles from the Gaza Strip, could move the government to hit Hamas even harder.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner repeated his call for an immediate end to the fighting and said a cease-fire allowing humanitarian access "has to be permanent and it has to be respected" because previous truces had failed.

From staff and wire reports

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