Jim Sleeper: Can There Be Politics in Tragedy? Or in Gaza?

Roundup: Historians' Take

I'm immersed in long-range writing and leave tomorrow for six months in Berlin, but the Gaza war provokes me to share a brilliant essay by Darry Li, a doctoral student in anthropology and Middle East Studies at Harvard and a student at Yale Law School who has worked in Gaza for Human Rights Watch, B'tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

The essay appeared last February in Middle East Report, but it's making the rounds again because its clarity and comprehensiveness outweigh its blind spots. Below I post half of it with my comments, but click the link and read it all.

Li writes that Israel's promises to avoid a "humanitarian crisis" reflect its long descent from treating Gaza as a bantustan to abandoning yet controlling it as a holding pen. He gets polemical at times, and some of his analysis is wrong. But he's right that Israel's "disengagement" from Gaza in 2005 is, not "a one-time abandonment of control" but "an ongoing process of controlled abandonment, by which Israel is severing the ties forged with Gaza over 40 years... without allowing any viable alternatives to emerge."
This strategy seeks "neither justice nor even stability, but rather survival -- as we are reminded by every guarantee that an undefined 'humanitarian crisis' will be avoided."

A chilling charge. Li doesn't mention Israel's donation of greenhouses and housing it left behind in 2005, but he notes coldly that "Since its beginnings over a century ago, the Zionist project of creating a state for the Jewish people in the eastern Mediterranean has faced an intractable challenge: how to deal with indigenous non-Jews -- who today comprise half of the population living under Israeli rule -- when practical realities dictate that [Palestinians] cannot be removed and ideology demands that they must not be granted political equality."

This produced, he says, "the general contours of Israeli policy from left to right over the generations...: First, maximize the number of Arabs on the minimal amount of land, and second, maximize control over the Arabs while minimizing any apparent responsibility for them.

"On the first score, Gaza is a resounding success: Although it covers only 1.5 percent of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, it warehouses one out of every four Palestinians living in the entire country. But on the second count, Gaza's density has made it very difficult to manage and its poverty makes it an eyesore before the world community." That has "forced Israel to revise its balance of responsibility and control several times. Each phase of this ongoing experiment can be understood through spatial metaphors of increasingly constricted scope: bantustan, internment camp, animal pen."

Yes, I know. But keep reading.

"From 1967 to the first intifada of 1987-1993, Israel used its military rule to incorporate Gaza's economy and infrastructure forcibly into its own, while treating the Palestinian population as a reserve of cheap migrant workers. It was during this stage of labor migration and territorial segregation that Gaza came closest to resembling the South African 'bantustans' -- the nominally independent black statelets set up by the apartheid regime to evade responsibility for the indigenous population whose labor it was exploiting.
"During the Oslo phase of the occupation (1993-2005), Israel delegated some administrative functions to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and welcomed migrant workers from Asia and Eastern Europe to replace the Gazans. ... Permits for travel to Israel and the West Bank, once commonly granted, became rare. Ordinary vehicular traffic ceased..... Israel erected a fence around the territory and commenced channeling non-Israeli people and goods through a handful of newly built permanent terminals like the ones that have recently come to the West Bank.

"It was during this period that Gaza under Israeli management most resembled a giant internment camp. The detainee population was, to a certain extent, self-organized and appointed representatives to act on its behalf (the PA) who nevertheless operated under the aegis of supreme Israeli military authority, within the framework of agreements concluded by Israel and a largely defunct Palestine Liberation Organization (which are now basically agreements between Israel and itself).

"The failure of the settlement enterprise and the ferocity of the armed resistance during the second intifada beginning in the fall of 2000 undoubtedly contributed to the decision to remove settlements and withdraw soldiers." But "[D]isengagement did not change Israel 's effective control over Gaza and hence its responsibility as an occupying power under international humanitarian law.... Israel continued to patrol Gaza's airspace and seacoast, and ground troops operated, built fortifications and enforced buffer zones inside the Strip.... The taxation system, currency and trade remained in Israel's hands; water, power and communications infrastructure continued to depend on Israel; and even the population registry was still kept by Israeli authorities.

"Israel's response has been simple, if disingenuous: If responsibility for Gaza arises from Gaza's dependency on Israel, then it would be more than happy to cut those ties once and for all. And this is exactly what Israel started doing after Fatah's military defeat in Gaza at the hands of Hamas in June 2007.... In any event, in Gaza the Oslo experiment in indirect rule seems to be over. Israel now treats the territory less like an internment camp and more like an animal pen: a space of near total confinement whose wardens are concerned primarily with keeping those inside alive and tame, with some degree of mild concern as to the opinions of neighbors and other outsiders."

This is Li at his most polemical but also at his most factual: Read the complete essay to see his account of how the border crossings are run and what the consequences are.

Then he writes, "[T]he logic of "essential humanitarianism...." promises nothing more than turning Gazans one and all into beggars -- or rather, into well-fed animals -- dependent on international money and Israeli fiat. It allows Israel to keep Palestinians and the international community in perpetual fear of an entirely manufactured "humanitarian crisis" that Israel can induce at the flip of a switch (due to the embargo, Gaza's power plant only has enough fuel at any one time to operate for two days. And it distracts from, and even legitimizes, the destruction of Gaza's own economy, institutions and infrastructure.... The notion of 'essential humanitarianism' reduces the needs, aspirations and rights of 1.4 million human beings to an exercise in counting calories, megawatts and other abstract, one-dimensional units measuring distance from death.

"As Israel has experimented with various models for controlling Gaza over the decades, the fundamental refusal of political equality... has taken on different names.... During the Bantustan period, inequality was called coexistence; during the Oslo period, separation; and during disengagement, it is reframed as avoiding "humanitarian crises," or survival. These slogans were not outright lies, but they disregarded the unwelcome truth that coexistence is not freedom, separation is not independence and survival is not living."

Li argues that although "half of the people between the Mediterranean and the Jordan live under a state that excludes them from the community of political subjects, denies them true equality and thus discriminates against them in varying domains of rights. Israel has impressively managed to keep this half of the population divided against itself -- as well as against foreign workers and non-Ashkenazi Jews -- through careful distribution of differential privileges and punishments and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future."

Li concludes with a telling but "tacit reminder of the intimacy that persists through 40 years of domination. The people of the southern Israeli town of Sderot... were unpleasantly reminded of this intimacy when, one morning in 2005, they awoke to find hundreds of leaflets on their streets warning them in Arabic to leave their homes before they were attacked. The Israeli military had airdropped the fliers over neighboring parts of the northern Gaza Strip in an attempt to intimidate the Palestinians there, but strong winds blew them over the frontier instead."

Three things are rather obviously missing from Li's clear, cool assessment: The pre-1967 history of Israelis and Palestinians; the post-2009 future Li wants for the area; and the existence of Hamas, which, we are left to assume, is what it is because Israel's policies have been what they've been.

Well, Li can't cover everything in a 2800-word essay (and, if you've read this far, please do read all of what he wrote). But some contextual markers from him in these three areas would have advanced the discussion and perhaps his arguments. On the three areas I've mentioned, let me just note here that:

1.Li mentions Jewish history only with the words, "Since its beginnings over a century ago, the Zionist project of creating a state for the Jewish people in the eastern Mediterranean...." Correct, but, shall we say, minimalist, with a soupcon of a suggestion that they don't belong there. Perhaps Ashkenazi Jews who came to Palestine of the 1920s and '30 should have returned to the warm and welcoming bosom of Europe? Some of my Lithuanian-Jewish ancestors actually knew the geography of Palestine far better than they knew that of the Baltic provinces they finally fled.

Why was that? Does Li know why Immanuel Kant dismissed the Jews of his time as "These Palestinians who are living among us."? (On that, for the philosophically as well as historically inclined, I commend the Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel's Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews.) Does Li know that 40% of Israel's Jews grew up speaking Arabic, or hearing their parents speak it, because after Israel's founding they became refugees from centuries-old homes in Algiers and Cairo and Baghdad?

2. If it is correct to reduce the Jewish historical context to a few words, as Li did in his essay, wouldn't it have been just as correct to note that Palestinian demands for liberal rights and for self-determination in a nation-state arose only as the Zionist demands did? Were there any such Palestinian demands under Ottoman rule? Doesn't Palestinian liberalism come from the 20th-century West, if not, indeed, from the Jews? Isn't that what makes this such a tragedy? If not, would Li tell us which Arab state wants a Palestinian state to exist even now?

True, the answers are more complicated than my questions imply, for most nations in the Middle East are post-colonial fictions, anyway, and that opens a door to a long and, for the left, a fraught debate about whether there should be nation-states at all, and, if not, what "national liberation movements" are for. Li quite rightly poses the broader, more urgent problem of political equality for Palestinians, both as individuals and as a community. Israel speaks with a forked tongue on the subject, and Li is justified and effective in spotlighting the "right" fork.

But what solution does he seek? What kind of Israeli responsibility, or Israeli-Palestinian interdependency, does he envision? This matters if we really want to end Israel's depredations in the occupied territories and, to a lesser but very real extent, among its own 1.5-million Arab citizens within the 1967 borders. Does Li seek Israel's dissolution in a bi-national, democratic state whose majority would be Palestinian? So I infer, but can he say with a straight face that, under Arab rule, justice would finally displace revenge, as it has not under Israeli occupation?

Li knows that Israelis, who've actually worked rather hard and suffered to build their hybrid Jewish/democratic state, insist they see no signs of any similar inclination among Palestinians. To what extent are they right? To what extent are they just racist? To what extent are they rationalizing their own cruel, bone-headed obsession with their own security at the expense of everyone else's?

3. To sort out this question about Israeli perceptions -- and it always helps to read the scorching reportage and columns in Haaretz, israel's New York Times -- we'd have to open a door to the third black hole in Li's essay: Hamas.

Suffice it to say here that, revolted though I am by young American-Jewish fanatics who move to Judea and Samaria because they think God promised it to them, I am no less weary of watching young American writers displace a certain cold rage at suburban America, however well-justified that rage may be, onto Israel as an implantation of that way of life into the Muslim ummah but who never get around to imagining how the human rights and personal freedoms they champion would fare under Hamas or Hezbollah even if every Jew returned to the warm and welcoming bosom of Europe.

This is a tragedy, in every sense, and Israel's latest attempt to escape it is doomed, no matter the military outcome. Li is right to challenge Americans, and perhaps especially Jews, to take off the blinkers and see what Israel has been doing. But if he thinks that Israel can dissolve itself, or be dissolved by others, into a greater liberalism or humanism the he and a few noble advocates want to herald in the Middle East, let him sketch out for us how that might happen.

Let him show Israel and its enemies how to climb back up the ladder, from animal pen to internment camp to Bantustan, to....? It's not as if, just because Hamas and Hezbollah have been providing social services and a certain kind of schooling, they are showing us liberals the way. There are other ways, described best in Johathan Schell's The Unconquerable World, which acknowledges, however, that for every movement led by a Ghandi, King, Mandela, Havel, or Michnick, there are people's liberation movements that are as destructive and as doomed as their oppressors.

Read entire article at TPM (Liberal blog)

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 1/10/2009

according to well-known and unequivocally supported by Mr. Sleeper and others in his camp (when they are and have been being applied to non-friendly to the West and Israel countries) standards accepted by the overwhelming world majority and dictated by numerous UN declarations and resolutions.
In regard to possible fair, though hardly practical, resolution of the Palestinian-Isreali conflict, I (too) have one.
Immediate INTERNATIONALLY ENFORCED cease-fire through dislocation of a large UN peacekeeping force (with the
explicit order to open fire at the violators from both sides) the borders aka-1967, fast elimination of ALL Isreali settlements on those territories, complete disarmament of
military branch of Hamas, large economic and financial aid and stimulus package to Palestinians with immediate (without any preconditions, except keeping it peaceful), recognition of the state of Israel and peaceful coexistence with it by all countries of Arab league, immediate start of creating governmental, economic, and social instutions of the future Palestinian state. The issue of refugees, financial compensation, and of Jerusalem can be left for the second stage of resolution efforts.
I mentioned that this possible to implement plan is harldy feasible on one particular reason: its forseeable rejection by Israel and the US/UK "coalition".