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Israeli author considers land claims at the center of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Much of the news this week is focused on Israel's attack in Gaza and civilians' desperate efforts to get out. The Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi is still thinking of the attack by Hamas on the war's first day.

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: You know, the world has moved on, right? October 7, all right, get over it. Get over it, Jews. I'm still processing what happened on October 7. I still can't believe that a thousand Jews were dismembered and burned alive within the state of Israel.

INSKEEP: In fact, Israel says attackers killed some 1,400 people. Halevi talked about this in his home office here in Jerusalem. The back wall of his apartment is glass, and when we arrived, we could just see the landscape in the last of the light.

We're looking at a rocky valley with very little in it. And then on the other side is Palestinian areas.

HALEVI: Exactly, two Palestinian villages. And you've got the separation barrier between this neighborhood, French Hill, and the next hill. That's the beginning of the West Bank across the valley.

INSKEEP: And where we are now is Jerusalem.

HALEVI: Is Jerusalem. This is literally the last row of houses in Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: We were in a part of Jerusalem that Israel captured in the 1967 war and later annexed, though other nations have never recognized that change. Halevi once wrote a book called "Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor." He literally has some - Palestinians live in the apartment next door and upstairs. He says they all get along, mostly by avoiding conversations about the news.

HALEVI: I've been working on coexistence issues for many years, and so it's very moving for me to actually be living day to day in that kind of environment and to see that it's possible.

INSKEEP: I wonder, though, if that gets at a challenge, though. There's the matter of day-to-day cooperation, which it sounds like you're working on and doing OK. But then there is the fundamental question of...

HALEVI: Of the conflict. That takes us back to the, how did we get to this moment? That's one essential question. And the other essential question is, how do we get out of this?

INSKEEP: In considering both questions, Halevi thinks about narratives, the Palestinian story and the Jewish one. He believes in the story of Jews returning to their ancient homeland. And he moved here himself from Brooklyn, where he had grown up in a family of Holocaust survivors. Halevi also believes in the Palestinian story of people in their native land.

HALEVI: The Palestinian story is powerful. They were here. And it's true that Palestinian national identity emerged in the last century, but every people has its own trajectory of how it defines itself. And, yes, it's true that the Jews came here, but there's one word that's left out - we came back.

INSKEEP: The writer still believes in a two-state solution, an independent homeland for Palestinians. He's a vocal critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who does not. Halevi spent much of this year protesting the right-wing government's plan to weaken the judiciary, yet he supports the government's determination to destroy Hamas now.

HALEVI: Look, it's true Hamas is not an ideology, it's a theology. It's a theology of extermination. We cannot live with a genocidal regime on our borders.

INSKEEP: As you know very well, a lot of people on the other side of this argument are using the word genocide...

HALEVI: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...To talk about Israeli attacks in Gaza, which Israel says are targeted at Hamas but, as Israel acknowledges, civilians are in the way. And Palestinian authorities have marked thousands of civilian deaths, hundreds of thousands of people relocated.

HALEVI: Yes.

INSKEEP: What is the moral calculation there as you see it?

HALEVI: First of all, there is no moral calculus in terms of numbers and suffering. And the suffering that we are inflicting on Gaza is a historic tragedy. The question is, is it a crime? It would be a crime if it was deliberate. The difference between intentional murder and unintentional murder in war is the difference between war as tragedy and war as barbarism.

INSKEEP: Critics of Israel will, of course, say, you know, if you drop a bomb on a refugee camp - you intended to get somebody in a tunnel underneath who's a Hamas leader, but you knew there was an apartment building in the way. Does that count as an intentional killing?

HALEVI: What should Israel do? We've told the civilians leave. Should we allow Hamas to hide behind its human shields? Hamas can cross the border and massacre us and then go back because the international community is going to protect them, and their civilian shields are going to protect them. There is no good way to fight this war. If we are going to have any future, if the Jewish people around the world is going to trust Israel as a safe refuge, we need to reestablish our ability to deal with genocidal enemies. And so anyone telling me right now you have to understand civilian casualties, my response is, I'm heartbroken. And I understand that I am inflicting terrible misery, and I take responsibility for that. And I believe we have no choice but to continue pushing on until we destroy the Hamas regime.

INSKEEP: You put that in the first person - I am inflicting.

HALEVI: Yes, of course, of course. Look, Israel - this is a very intimate society. When we speak about Israel, there's no emotional distance. Also, there's also no practical distance. What happens politically happens personally.

INSKEEP: Also, it's a democratic society.

HALEVI: It's (laughter) - I'm responsible for what happens here. You know, the essence of Zionism was to make Jews responsible for their fate, so that Jewish history wasn't just what others do to us but what we do to ourselves, for ourselves, for good and for bad. We're going to reassume power, our ability to defend ourselves, and we'll take the moral consequences. Power always has moral consequences.

INSKEEP: Yossi Klein Halevi is a writer and a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He spoke with us at his home on the far eastern edge of Jerusalem. We are hosting MORNING EDITION from different cities around the Mideast this week to get different perspectives on the conflict here. And you can find more coverage and differing views at npr.org/mideastupdates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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