Sean Hannity (left) and Yousef Munayyer (right) on Hannity's Fox News show
On the 24th of July, an evil terrorist sympathiser appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox News show to try and justify the horror tactics perpetrated by the Palestinian people upon the state of Israel. At least, that seemed to be the perception Hannity was trying to push, sitting in front of a large screen bearing the words "sympathy for the terrorists", pointing fingers at interviewee Yousef Munayyer and not allowing him to get a word in.
Russell Brand picked up on this exchange in a segment of his Trews YouTube series, dissecting Hannity's "interview" technique as little more than shouting leading questions at Yousef, which he then didn't permit his guest to answer. Brand also alleged that Hannity uses this tactic to convey a preconceived narrative of the Israeli-Gaza conflict, as he'd like his viewers to believe it. This prompted a response from Hannity, then a counter-response from Brand; and the latest internet spat was born.
Stuck in the middle of all this, of course, is Yousef. A Palestinian-American political analyst, writer and executive director of The Jerusalem Fund's educational programme, The Palestine Centre, he seemed like a calm, fairly reasonable guy, and it was a shame we were prevented from hearing what he had to say. So in an effort to right that wrong, I decided to track him down and let him answer the questions Hannity wouldn't. Below is the full transcript of our interview.
VICE: Hi Yousef. So did Sean Hannity’s people reach out to you, or did you approach them to be on his show?
Yousef Munayyer: No, they reached out; they got in touch. I heard from the Fox News network and the Hannity producer the day of the segment. And the same day – I don’t know, maybe my name was circulating around their producers because I also heard from other Fox News producers to do appearances on other shows. One of them was the Geraldo Rivera show on Saturday evening, the 26th of July, at 10 o’clock. So I’d actually agreed to do that programme before going on to do the Hannity show, which was taped in the afternoon of Thursday the 24th.
So you ended up doing the Hannity show first, and the world saw how that ended. What happened after that?
After I did the Hannity show taping and it went the way it went, I got in touch with the other Fox producer [for The Geraldo Rivera Show] and I let them know that I felt that the network handled the situation quite unprofessionally. I was really taken aback by the degree of unprofessionalism, not just with the interview but with some other things related to the way the producer conveyed what would happen to me and the way that the segment was set up; how long I was in their studio before I ended up doing the segment; and so on.
So there were a lot of things that were done really poorly outside the conduct of the interview itself, and after the Hannity segment I told the producer from the Geraldo show that I was no longer interested in working with Fox News after that experience, and I would no longer be able to do the show.
How did Fox respond to that?
In fact, after that another producer called me on Sunday to appear on Fox News, and on Monday the producer for the Hannity show called me back and she said, “We’re extending an invitation to have you back on,” and I told her I’d have no problem discussing this issue on Hannity or with anybody else in an open forum where they can’t hide behind a microphone and a mute button, and I actually have an opportunity to present my point in the debate.
But [I told the producer that] I’m not interested in walking into another situation like the one that took place, and I let her know that the only way that I would consider coming back on Hannity’s show is if he apologised on air for the way he conducted himself, and that if they would guarantee that there would be an opportunity to actually allow me to speak in any sort of debate.
Sounds like a reasonable request. What did the producer say?
You know, the poor girl on the phone – who I don’t think is in charge of making any big decisions about how this goes – said, “Oh, is that what you want me to tell him?” And I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to tell them. Please let them know.”
I made it very clear to her that I’m not declining their invitation, but that my invitation was conditional on them apologising and making sure that I would have equal time to discuss an obviously contentious issue. What I did not want is for them to say I’d declined the opportunity to discuss this just because I didn’t want to return to their show. That’s not the case. I have no problems discussing it with anybody, but it has to be done in a professional way. So that was last week, and then, of course, the Russell Brand thing was totally unexpected. I mean, I’ll be totally honest with you – the last thing I was thinking about in the last three to four weeks, when there were bombs dropping all over Gaza, was Russell Brand.
I want to get Russell Brand in a bit. But first I want to ask you about something Brand actually pondered on his segment. When you were on the Hannity show you obviously weren’t in the studio with him, but did you have access to a monitor? Could you see him aggressively jabbing his finger at you? Or did you not know any of that at the time?
No. You’re sitting in a room, staring at the black box where the camera is. The monitor was not available, so I could not see anything that was going on. But I could hear, obviously. His tone was quite aggressive on the earpiece. I didn’t see him jabbing his finger at me, but it was very clear that he was acting in an aggressive way; I didn’t need to see it to understand that. Another thing I couldn’t see until afterwards was that the other guest referred to the occupation in air quotes as if it didn’t exist, so that visual component was not there, so I couldn’t really respond to some of that.
So you obviously couldn’t see the graphics behind Sean Hannity that read “Sympathy for the Terrorists” and showed two men in balaclavas – one holding a bazooka and the other an AK-47?
No [laughs]. No, I couldn’t see that, and I have to say I’m not surprised because it’s Fox News, and they’re not interested in any serious journalism. And to be honest with you, the entire segment was an ambush. When they called me they said, “We want to have a debate about what’s going on between Israel and Palestine and we’d like to have you on,” and so on.
And so I was fine with that. But the way they introduced the segment was with a statement that another organisation [called CAIR] made, and then they presented me as being some sort of representative of that perspective when I was not. They like to attack CAIR all the time, but I was not invited there to talk about that. I was invited there to talk about the issue [of the conflict between Israel and Palestine], and obviously I didn’t get a chance to do that.
Sadly, many think America lacks “serious journalism” compared to other countries. Case in point: I live in London now, but I’m an American, and growing up in America I generally thought that Israel were the “good guys” and the Palestinian people were the “bad guys”, because that was the primary narrative. It wasn’t until I moved overseas and started seeing more objective reports through international media that I learned things weren’t so black and white. Do you think, generally speaking, Americans are misinformed about what’s going on between the Israelis and Palestinians, and, if so, do you think that’s because of the media coverage in America?
Well, yes, I do think that Americans in general are misinformed about this issue. But I think it’s about a couple of things. On a lot of foreign affairs issues, Americans are misinformed. You know, we were at war with Iraq for almost a decade, and if you asked Americans to find Iraq on a map, they probably could not. So that’s part of it.
But the other part of it is that the media coverage of this [Palestinian-Israeli] issue – when it is in fact covered – is covered in a fairly unfair and biased way. It has created this perception that the Israelis are somehow the underdogs and the Palestinians are somehow the aggressors, when really the entire world recognises that Israel, in fact, occupy Palestine – not the other way around. There is no Palestinian military occupation of Israeli territory. But people don’t really get that. In fact, I’ve even had people ask in the past, “Why is Palestine occupying Israel?” People really don’t understand this issue – and a lot of it, of course, has to do with the media coverage, definitely. There are a lot of misinformed people in the audience.
A clip from Hannity's shouty interview
Speaking of media coverage, I wanted to give you the chance to answer the questions Hannity put to you but wouldn’t let you answer. The first – and I’m paraphrasing – was: “If you are Israel and thousands of rockets are fired into your neighbourhood and kids are kidnapped and a student is killed… what do you think the proper proportionate response should be?”
The way he asked me the question was, “If I’D fired 2,000 rockets at YOU. And if I kidnapped three kids in YOUR neighbourhood, what are you going to do?” And I thought that was interesting, because I’d never met Sean Hannity, so I would find it odd if he was firing rockets at me. And I’d probably ask him what in the world is wrong with him and what led him to fire rockets at me if I’d never occupied his land or kicked him out of his house or done anything to spite him in any way?
But of course I realise he was talking about the situation not on a personal level, even though that’s how he presented the question. And I began to answer his question and said, “There is a military occupation here.” And on the programme I said that if I were in Israel’s place I would end the military occupation of Palestinian territory, and if you deal with legitimate grievances of Palestinians on the ground then they’re not likely to continue fighting against you.
That’s not rocket science. If you deny people their rights, they are going to resist. The form that resistance takes is not something you can always control; it’s not something that’s going to be agreed upon by everybody. But it’s only human nature to resist oppression. And, obviously, the highly decontextualised question that he was presenting was a question that was not presented to actually get information or educate his viewers, but to try to put me in a defensive position and then follow it up with more attacks.
That sounds like a reasonable answer.
Well, I got, what, two sentences out before he started cutting me off?
So here’s the big one. It’s one he asked you 14 times, yet wouldn’t allow you to get a word in. “Is Hamas a terrorist organisation?”
Again, I answered that question on his show. I said that the United States considers Hamas a terrorist organisation. In fact, it’s the State Department that is the arm of the government that designates what they call FTOs – Foreign Terrorist Organisations. I think that Hamas is a resistance movement that has used tactics that we all agree are terror tactics. But they’re not only a terrorist organisation; they’re a resistance movement, they’re a political organisation, they’re a social services organisation, and I don’t agree with the use of the word “terrorism” to just hijack conversations, because that’s the way it’s been used.
If you talk about the legitimate grievances of people that have nothing to do with terrorism, and then you’re asked to defend people who are also speaking about the legitimate grievances of these people – but who may be using illegitimate tactics in their aims – then somehow if you do that it’s as if the grievances themselves are not legitimate, and that’s where I feel like the conversation does not move forward and becomes really unhelpful at that point. It’s used as a smear tactic. It’s used to silence discussion, not advance discussion about what we should be talking about. So again, on his show I gave him an answer and he didn’t like the answer that I gave him.
Sean Hannity sitting in front of some pretty neutral graphics (Screen grab via)
And Hannity alleged that Hamas are using children as human shields.
This has been part of the conversation around this war. It really shows how misinformed people are about the issues for a couple of reasons.
First, people really don’t understand what a human shield is and how using a human shield works. Fighting a guerrilla war in urban areas is not using human shields. Using human shields is compelling people to stay in certain places within the line of fire, which is completely different than what we’re seeing on the ground. As far as I know, that has not happened.
Are there militants operating within civilian areas? Yeah, most likely there are. But where are they supposed to operate from? It’s not like they’re going to run up to tanks and fighter jets in the open field. That won’t work. That’s not what they’re equipped for. But that does not mean that they’re forcing civilians to stay in certain areas. If anything, it’s the Israelis that are causing these problems by preventing civilians from leaving. If the Israelis allowed for a humanitarian corridor for civilians to exit the Gaza strip and have a safe place to stay instead of bombing everywhere, then we wouldn’t have this problem. But what we’ve seen over the past several weeks is that there’s no place safe. Even the designated safe spaces are not safe.
And on multiple occasions, the Israelis have told Palestinians…you know, a third of the population of the Gaza strip is displaced. So it’s not like people aren’t moving around. They are moving around. Many people are following the Israeli military instructions to leave certain areas. But we’ve seen time and again they leave these areas and they go to areas that are supposed to be safe, and then they get bombed over there. So, you know, what’s going on on the ground belies these accusations. That’s number one.
Number two, the accusation is just that – an accusation. There’s no independence corroboration going on right now, because obviously it’s a war zone and it’s very difficult to do that in a war zone. However, after previous wars like this, similar allegations to this have been investigated by independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. And Amnesty, after the Israeli operation in 2008-2009 did an extensive 100-plus page report on violations of international law and the laws of war in the Gaza strip during that time. And what they found is that there was no evidence of Palestinian militants using human shields, but rather it was Israeli soldiers who, in their ground operations, were using Palestinian civilians as human shields.
So, from a journalistic point of view, it is irresponsible to levy accusations at people and try to force them to defend those accusations when they have not been independently corroborated, and what we’ve seen from the past several weeks in the media coverage of all this is not just that people don’t understand what human shields are and how they work, but they’ve also swallowed this Israelite narrative, hook, line and sinker, and taken it to be a fact, when they themselves are unable to corroborate these kinds of things.
Clearly that’s an answer that does not fit in a 20 second sound bite, let alone in a five second sound bite, which is how much time they would’ve let me answer.
Hannity said you are “making a rationalisation for rockets and kidnapping and murder and blaming the victims”, in which he was implying Israel is the victim. Is that true?
There is a difference between explaining why things happen and saying that they’re morally justified, and I think people really don’t understand the difference between these things. You can say, “Well, this is why a murder happened”. But that does not mean you’re morally condoning it. Unless you understand that people make decisions because of interests and choices and preferences, then you’re never going to be able to understand how to affect their behaviour.
And the reason that people in the Gaza strip are using rockets: there is a reason for that, and I’m not justifying it on a moral level – I think there are plenty of things that, on a moral level, are abhorrent on all sides – but that doesn’t mean that there are no reasons why they happen. I think people are incapable of divorcing the reasons why these things happen from moral acceptance of them, and obviously Hannity was interested in conflating the two precisely to label me as a terrorist sympathiser, or whatever else, and put me on the little witch trial that he had there.
Russell Brand's Trews segment discussing the Hannity interview
That was the next question he had: “Are you showing sympathy to terrorists?”
I don’t think I was showing sympathy to terrorists, no. I think that what I was trying to make clear from the very beginning – and in fact what I was trying to explain on his show – was that this is not just about Hamas. There are 1.8 million people that live in the Gaza strip. The siege that affects the people there does not discriminate between members who are carrying out acts of terrorism or children.
There was a child whose mother was nine months pregnant who was killed in these bombings, OK? That child was delivered in an emergency operation and ended up dying four days later. They were not even born yet to have an opportunity to come into the world before they were condemned to death. This is not about terrorism. This is about people getting blown to pieces, who have nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever. And if you cannot find sympathy or empathy in your heart for that, then I don’t think you’re a human being. And to try to make it all about terrorism when it’s clear that children who have never even seen weapons in their life – let alone carried one or used one – are being killed here; if you can’t see that there’s something wrong with that, if you can’t have sympathy for these people, if you can’t understand that having sympathy for these people is different than having sympathy for acts of terrorism, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.
Russell Brand actually suggested that Hannity should get in touch with his humanity. But before we talk about Brand I wanted to ask you one more question that Hannity put to you, yet wouldn't let you answer: “What would a proportionate response from Israel be” for the attacks by Hamas?
First of all, the presumption in that question is that a response is justified. But for a response to be justified, the actions could not have been provoked. The reality of this situation is that Israel have provoked this situation. So there’s no basis in talking about a “justified” response. What should be done – the right thing that should be done – is that the underlying causes which are provoking the resistance should be ended. That is the just thing to do here; the moral thing to do.
Palestinians have a right to defend themselves against military occupation. We should not be asking, “What’s the just way for Israel to respond to Palestinian self-defence?” That doesn’t make sense. What they should be doing is ending the occupation, ending the siege, because that is the root of this problem.
How did you feel when you saw Russell Brand’s response to your appearance on Hannity, and did you know who Brand was before this?
I knew who Russell Brand was because I’d seen him in a movie or two in the past. I’m not a frequent moviegoer, but I was familiar with him. I really didn’t know too much about him, but I knew he was a comedic actor and I’d seen him in the past and so on. But yeah, I mean, absolutely I was not expecting this. I was actually not aware that he did this type of media criticism on YouTube. I had seen him once appear on a news programme – I think it was MSNBC – where he did a similar sort of very political response that did not pull any punches, that was very blunt and really made the rest of the anchors and interviewers visibly uncomfortable. But I was not aware that he had done this YouTube thing, nor did I follow him on Twitter or know, let alone, that he had seven or eight million followers, because most of my time on social media is dedicated to focusing on the Palestinian issue and not the celebrity world.
But yeah, once he did this I obviously found out about all this. I found out about his YouTube channel, I found out about his Twitter account, I saw the clip that he put together. You know, I think that him doing that had made people who had, first of all, not seen the Fox News interview, see that interview, but also expose the issue to a much wider audience.
Indeed. His Trews segment dissecting your Hannity appearance has been viewed 2.6 million times now. Do you feel the attention he’s brought to it has changed anything?
The Fox News audience is largely right wing, and in the aftermath of that interview with Sean Hannity, the hate mail – the hate messages that I got – were huge, and they were largely Islamophobic in nature and racist in nature that had nothing to do with my argument or my perspective at all. But once the Russell Brand thing happened I got a deluge of positive comments and emails that far outweighed anything that I had seen that was negative after the interview, and what that told me was that this clip that Brand had put together – it went much further than the Fox News audience. It reached people who were not already convinced on this issue – as many people in the Fox News audience might be – who were not regularly bombarded with the kind of racist Islamophobic rants that you hear on Fox News all the time. Those neutral observers focused on the fact that Hannity was unprofessional, did not let me speak and was in fact silencing a perspective that they would have liked to have heard. Many people were very supportive of the way that I conducted myself and expressed interest in learning much more about the Palestinian perspective, and learning more about the work that we do, and want to learn more about the issue itself.
So the effect that Russell Brand had was a very, very significant one, and it’s one that I appreciate. And, you know, he obviously brings a unique and entertaining spin to this entire issue, and I think that a lot of the points he makes are very accurate. I probably would not have made them the same way or with the same language, but because of who he is and what he does, he was able to convey some important points to audiences that maybe are not going to be interested in watching cable news. So I think that was great. That was appreciated. I know he is continuing his back and forth with Sean Hannity and so on.
It sounds like you haven’t actually talked to him, but if you could, is there anything you’d say to him?
I would simply say thanks for exposing the segment to a much broader range of people; the unfair way that that interview was conducted; and thanks for providing an opportunity for people to learn more about this very important issue. And I would encourage him to keep doing so.
Brand kept pointing out that Hannity should work towards seeking a resolution, not creating more conflict. Many say this is a complicated question, but how do you end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How do you resolve something like this?
I really don't think that’s a very complicated question; I think that’s a very simple question. The way that this conflict is resolved is when all the stakeholders have their legitimate rights afforded to them – and most primarily this means the Palestinian people who are having their basic human rights denied to them. That has to come to an end.
That means that they have to have a right to self-determination. That means that they have to have freedom of movement. That means they have to have the right to live in dignity and in peace and free from military occupation. That means that Palestinian refugees have to have a right of return to the towns and villages in which they are from. It’s very clear what needs to happen here. The question to me is not how it should be resolved, but how we create the kind of pressure necessary to get Israel to change its policy visa vie the Palestinians.
So what it takes to resolve it, to me, is very clear.
When we started talking you mentioned that Fox had contacted you to see if you wanted to appear on their show again. You told them the basic requirements it would take to appear, which was pretty much that you required a bit of common decency from the hosts. Have you heard back from Fox since making that request?
No, not since then. The last producer I spoke to was the Hannity producer that called me a week ago Monday. That was the last time that I heard from Fox News, and, like I said, I told them that I’d consider coming on if he apologises on air and that I was given some sort of guarantee for having equal time to make my points in this debate.
Anything else you want to say?
I would just add one last point, if I could, on this issue. Fox News: I think they have their slant – it’s very clear to everyone where they come from editorially – but not everybody on Fox News is Sean Hannity, and even within Fox News there are journalists who are trying to do a far more professional job in covering this issue, and they even have journalists on the ground in the Gaza strip who are risking their lives to bring the scenes and images and the reporting of what’s going on there to American viewers. And I think Hannity's conduct was really disrespectful, even to his own colleagues, if he thinks what he is doing is journalism. Because there are people who are actually trying to do journalism and they’re not hiding behind their microphones, they’re not hiding behind their mute buttons, they’re actually trying to get this information – the same information that he’s trying to prevent his viewers from seeing – they’re actually trying to get this information out to those viewers. I think that what he did was very disrespectful to all people who are trying to do journalism in a decent way.
I have reached out to Sean Hannity’s producers for comment, but they are yet to respond.
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