Bassem Youssef’s Darkest Act

A TV interview with the Egyptian satirist highlights the absurdity of the media’s coverage of the Israel-Gaza war

Bassem Youssef’s Darkest Act
Screenshot from Piers Morgan’s interview with Bassem Youssef on Piers Morgan Uncensored.

“Let’s for a minute imagine a world without Hamas. And let’s name this world ‘the West Bank.’”

The Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef gave an interview on “Piers Morgan Uncensored,” shortly after news emerged of the explosion at Al-Ahli Al-Arabi Baptist Hospital in Gaza, in which possibly hundreds of Palestinians, including many women and children, were killed. The horror of this moment is self-evident, the conflagration in its aftermath yet to be determined.

Hamas blamed an Israeli airstrike for the hospital attack. Israel blamed a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) militants that fell back and landed in the hospital and blew up. Open source intelligence experts who have proven their reliability before while investigating crimes in Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan are hard at work unpacking the evidence in the light of day. As of the morning after, they had not yet made a definitive determination on who was responsible for the attack but appeared to be leaning toward the theory that a smaller payload, rather than an airstrike, was to blame.

As world leaders, and others whose words matter less, were figuring out the verbal gymnastics necessary to issue condemnations that studiously avoid blame and don’t appear to hew too far in the direction of expressing sympathy for the Palestinians, and as competing narratives over just who had killed yet more Palestinians emerged on social media, Youssef was doing what he and other satirists do best — deploy the darkest humor amid this collective suicide of human empathy.

“Let’s for a minute imagine a world without Hamas. What will this world look like? Let’s give this world a name, and let’s name this world ‘the West Bank,’” he told Morgan. In the terror group’s absence, subjugation of Palestinians remained the modus operandi. “Hamas has no control over the West Bank, and since the beginning of the year only through August, 37 Palestinian kids were killed. No music festival, no paragliding, no Hamas.”

Contrary to the public pronouncements, the horror that unfolded in the hospital in Gaza was neither unimaginable nor unthinkable.

There was, in fact, little left to the imagination as photographs and videos emerged from the scene showing piles of dead bodies, and doctors there held a press conference literally in the middle of charred and bloodied corpses, including those of children.

It was also hardly unthinkable because hospitals have been attacked routinely in the past decade in multiple conflicts, including Afghanistan, Ukraine and Gaza itself but also in Syria, where the frequency of the attacks there has essentially made bombing hospitals a routine part of war. Since 2011, the NGO Physicians for Human Rights recorded over 600 separate attacks on healthcare facilities in the country, the vast majority of them carried out by either the Syrian government or its Russian allies (both of whom strongly condemned the attack in Gaza).

I had the misfortune of visiting a bombed Syrian hospital in 2017 (after years of covering those bombings from afar) and there is a uniqueness to the evil of it. This particular bombing came in the aftermath of the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun in April of that year and appeared primarily aimed at killing survivors who had been taken to the nearby hospital. There was a storage facility in the courtyard that had been flattened — one of the first responders told me it was used to store the corpses of those who had died in the initial chemical attack, so in a sense they died twice. But the plight of the dead was nothing compared with that of the wounded survivors, who were lying down, still frothing at the mouth from the chemical attack, while the place they had hoped would provide refuge and succor was pounded from the air.

Then, as now, the shameful nature of the crime prompted competing narratives and handwringing about what we knew. But often with these cases of collective human psychosis, the outcome was all the same for the families of the dead.

Youssef’s satirical masterpiece on the Piers Morgan show is brilliant precisely because it captures the absurdity of these moments of psychosis, while rooting it in the actual experiences of the innocent people suffering in the aftermath of Hamas’ bloodthirsty attack and Israel’s rampaging fury, as they have in years past. Some of the legendary comedic routines of the television age are rooted in this unpeeling of these moments of collective hysteria or illogic. Take George Carlin’s famous set on the seven dirty words that you weren’t allowed to say on television, and the gradual parsing of the individual words and why they were so uniquely bad as to be banned from the airwaves. Its genius lies in demystifying and zooming in on their individual subtleties, such that the arbitrariness of what we choose to be outraged by is laid bare.

Youssef’s interview belongs in the annals of those performances, although in one way it is also a piece of quintessentially Arab satire, dark humor being a tool to deal with the wars and preoccupations of recent Middle Eastern history.

At the beginning of the show, Youssef, whose wife is Palestinian, noted that her family had fled their home in Gaza after it was bombed (he showed a photo of its bombed-out facade later on in the segment).

After joking about her “loser” cousin who had “failed all the interviews to be a human shield” and who denied that Hamas was forcing Gazans to remain in their homes — despite the claims of American voices from thousands of miles away — he said: “We are used to that. It’s just very repetitive. We are used to them being bombed every time and moving from one place to the other. Those Palestinians are very dramatic, like aah, Israel is killing us. But they never die; they always come back. They’re a very difficult people to kill. I know because I’m married to one.”

The experience of witnessing a tragedy unfold in the Middle East, specifically in a conflict like Israel-Palestine, is maddening. This is made worse by the fact that it does in fact mimic the experience of Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” where the same debates, the same dehumanization, the same outsize and disproportionate suffering meted out to Palestinian civilians, the same malaise and impotence across the Arab world, the same debates by armchair experts and keyboard warriors and the same gradual erosion of civilizational norms are repeated ad nauseam. It is also one of the few public events or conflicts in which the traditional David and Goliath script is reversed, and sympathy for the embattled underdog (specifically Palestinian civilians, not Hamas) is a harder sell and requires some finessing.

Youssef alludes to this when he likens the relationship between the United States and Israel to that of an abusive partner who convinces you that you are at fault in the wake of abuse.

“Israel wants you to believe that they are the victim,” he said. “You look at Israel as Superman, but they’re really Homelander. They are shooting fish in a barrel and they’re annoyed with the splashes.”

This last point is bolstered by the chart he brandished during the interview that showed side-by-side comparisons of Israeli and Palestinian casualties, with the latter obviously dwarfing the former, in the conflicts and violent flare-ups over the past couple of decades.

“The question is what is a proportionate response because it’s been different from one year to another,” he said, holding up the chart. “This is the deaths of Israelis to Palestinians, and it changes from year to year; it’s fluctuating like crypto.”

“So my question is today, what is the going rate today for human lives?” he asked, noting that, during the 2014 assault on Gaza, there were roughly 27 Palestinians killed for every Israeli. “That is a very good exchange rate.”

“I can’t remember what happened in 2014, and there was no music festival,” he added. “It has to be something. It’s their fault.”

The example is a powerful illustration of the broader point he makes about the value, or lack thereof, of Palestinian lives, and is particularly powerful because it makes one uncomfortable contemplating the question in stark and crass terms. The Onion weighed in on the issue in a Q&A on Israel-Palestine, in which the answer to the question of how many people had died so far was that it depends on whether you want to count Palestinians. One of the most memorable breaking news headlines by the Arab satirical website AlHudood, which emulates the Onion’s macabre and dry humor, is one about the Syrian war, which blared: “Syrian man dies of natural causes.” It’s powerful because it makes you laugh and you immediately feel like you are going to hell for laughing.

But Youssef also truncates one of the familiar talking points so beloved by Western pundits and media analysts, which is the question of proportionality.

Morgan presses Youssef multiple times during the interview on the question of proportionality and what Israel’s response ought to be to the civilian massacres. The question is beside the point, Youssef notes, because Israel will kill as many “sons of bitches” as it wants to, since it can, and because the conflict has never been proportionate or equal. But the broader issue is that the disproportionate response is illogical because it has never yielded results before and is unlikely to do so this time either.

“If we agree that for the 14,000 casualties, I mean who’s counting, does that mean that every single one of those civilians was standing obscuring a military target behind them? Because that’s a lot of weapons. I mean, Hamas is packing,” he said.

Youssef reserves some of the most colorful language in the interview in describing Hamas. When asked about the terror group’s goals and their crimes, as a prelude to the expected condemnation, he declares, using a common Arab swear word: “Why do you keep asking me about Hamas? I fucking hate them. Fuck Hamas. ‘Kossom’ Hamas.”

At one point, Youssef asks what the goal of Israel’s campaign is and whether part of the aim is to scare the population of Gaza into overthrowing Hamas. When Morgan says that is likely one of the reasons, Youssef points out that such campaigns meant to instill fear in the populace with the aim of enacting political change are identical to the modus operandi of terrorist groups like the Islamic State group.

“These are years of disproportionate responses by Israel,” he added. “Did it solve the problem? Did it work before? What will be the surprise this time? What will be the twist? What will be different?”

Yet for all these moments of deja vu, and for all the outrages constantly promoted on the toxic platforms of social media, it never gets easier to witness the latest snapshot of collective international psychosis. This applies of course to the constant stream of images of death and destruction. Everything is and will be televised or TikToked. This includes the burned bodies of Israeli civilians and an inconsolable family grieving the death of their little girl as Hamas invades a kibbutz. It includes the videos of Gazan fathers and mothers in hysterics while carrying the body of their dead infant after an Israeli airstrike or young children playing in the courtyard of the hospital that was attacked 24 hours later.

But it also applies to the extraordinary dehumanization of ordinary people, which has become routine and is perhaps the most disturbing and grueling aspect of the conflict every time it happens, besides the actual violence.

During the interview, Youssef discusses Morgan’s opposition to the Iraq war and argues that claims such as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were marketed to the public with the aim of dehumanizing Iraqis and instilling the idea that their deaths were a necessary price to pay for peace.

It is maddening to witness a repeat of that narrative because you know for a fact that when the Israeli defense minister uses a term like “human animals” to refer to Hamas, even as he orders a full crippling siege of all of Gaza, or when antisemitic hate speech and abuse of Jews spreads like wildfire, you know that it is a prelude to crimes of immense gravity, like the collective starving and bombing of a civilian population, hate crimes against Jews or the murder of a Palestinian child by the landlord because he is Arab.

You know that it is a path we should not go down.

“Long before the Holocaust, before Jewish people were thrown in the gas chambers, Nazi propaganda called them rats,” Youssef said. “Now as a human being I will never accept that another human being is thrown into a gas chamber. But a rat? Kill 10. Kill a thousand, or 3,500. They are sons of bitches, human animals who live in open sewage and decapitate babies.”

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