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. [This is an abridged version of the interview with Munayyer; to read the full transcript click here].
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. 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'll get to Brand in a bit, but first I wanted to ask you about something Brand actually pondered on his segment. You weren’t in the studio with Hannity, but did you have access to a monitor? Could you see him aggressively jabbing his finger at you?
No. You’re sitting in a room, staring at the black box where the camera is. The monitor wasn't available, so I couldn't 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.
So you couldn’t see the graphics behind 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.
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 American media coverage?
Yes, I do think 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, occupies Palestine, not the other way around. There is no Palestinian military occupation of Israeli territory.
A clip from Hannity's shouty interview
Yeah. I wanted to give you the chance to answer the question that Hannity put to you but wouldn't let you answer. I'm paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: If you're 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?
I began to answer his question and said, “There is a military occupation here.” On the programme, I said that if I were in Israel’s place I would end the military occupation of Palestinian territory, and that 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.
Okay. Another question, which he asked you 14 times but wouldn’t allow you to get a word in in response, is: “Is Hamas a terrorist organisation?”
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. It 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)
Hannity also said that you're “making a rationalisation for rockets and kidnapping and murder and blaming the victims”, in a way that implied Israel is the victim. Was he right?
There's 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 doesn't mean you’re morally condoning it. Unless you understand that people make decisions because of interests and choices and preferences, 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's a reason for that. 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’re no reasons why they happen.
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 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.
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.
How did you feel when you saw Russell Brand’s response to your appearance on Hannity?
I mean, I absolutely was not expecting this. [But once 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.
Russell Brand's Trews segment discussing the Hannity interview
Yeah, 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 [amount of ] hate mail I [received was] huge, and they were largely Islamophobic and racist in nature, and 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 negative I'd seen. 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 weren't regularly bombarded with the kind of racist Islamophobic rants you hear on Fox News all the time.
So the effect that Russell Brand had was a very, very significant one, and it’s one 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 wouldn't 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 aren't going to be interested in watching cable news, so I think that was great. That was appreciated.
Anything else you want to add?
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. 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.
This is an abridged version of the interview with Munayyer; to read the full transcript click here.
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