TERRA INCOGNITA: No neo-colonialism for Gaza Strip

The received wisdom about Gaza and Hamas is always a fascinating tour of illogic.

Gaza  (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘We left Gaza and didn’t give it to the Palestinian Authority, we gave the keys to Hamas, we didn’t let the PA move forces there. It was irresponsible.” These are the off-the-record words a few months ago of an Israeli security expert and IDF veteran who held key positions in the military. It reminds us there is a lot of mythmaking these days about Gaza, particularly in remembering the chain of events that led to today. Some of those myths have led to the resurrection of a neo-colonial “we must save Gaza” narrative that neglects the input of the local people.
The received wisdom about Gaza and Hamas is always a fascinating tour of illogic. In a 2009 article in The Palestine-Israel Journal Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal listed a number of reasons why the war in Gaza challenged his “hope” for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
According to the article Hamas was a victim of “continuous dehumanization of the Hamas organization and its supporters as one homogeneous terrorist entity.”
Oddly, several paragraphs later, he claims “most Israeli Jews do not know that Hamas was originally founded by the Israeli authorities to provide an alternative to the national Palestine Liberation Organization.”
And don’t forget, Hamas “provides welfare, health and educational services to the Palestinians people; most Israeli Jews have forgotten that Hamas was elected democratically.”
Author Alice Rothchild speaking at Hunter college was reported to have said that “Hamas is not monolithic. Hamas has produced horrific suicide bombers and incredible social service agencies building schools and hospitals and caring for the forgotten population. Hamas grew out of a response to Israeli oppression during the First Intifada and was originally supported by Israel.” The famed academic Judith Butler also said in 2010 that Hamas was a “social movement that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of the global left.”
Have you kept this all straight so far? Israel created Hamas. Hamas is a victim, having been portrayed as a terrorist organization (despite having killed hundreds of people in bombings and having targeting civilians with rockets for years). Hamas is actually a progressive leftist movement, basically a social services movement that helps the people, kind of more left-wing version of a European socialist party. You’d almost wonder why all these people who like Hamas so much don’t adopt its green headbands, religious slogans, chauvinist, militarist training camps and propose it be elected to run most of the countries in the West.
Moving on, what we are continuously presented with regarding the Gaza Strip is a fascinating series of “stories” about what is “best” for it.
In early February Ari Shavit, the Israeli author popular in US liberal Zionist circles, claimed that Israel must “rebuild the Gaza Strip big-time...we must use Israeli water technology, the best in the world, to build desalination plants on the shore...we must make use possible of Israel’s newfound offshore fields of natural gas to provide these neighbors with an unlimited supply of cheap energy.” That’s only the beginning.
He supports a Marshall plan for the Gaza Strip, the Egyptians building a seaport in Sinai for Gaza. “[L]eave no stone unturned,” he says, “fundamentally change the quality of life.”
It’s not entirely altruistic; he believes “lack of hope” in Gaza will lead to “desperate acts.” He’s critical of Hamas (“a hostile, fanatic, totalitarian organization”), so obviously this champion of neo-colonial civilizing mission for Gaza feels this is a new “white man’s burden.”
It’s not the first time he has proposed this. In July 2, 2015, he also proposed that “Israel and its moderate Sunni neighbors can save Gaza.” There would be “massive construction projects on the road to a realistic peace.”
Do people propose such nonsense simply because they know it will never happen and thus they can claim to have “tried” to do something? Perhaps. But the fact is that actually there is a very real strain of neo-colonialism that runs through the liberal Zionist worldview of the Middle East. “We can save them” is the mantra. “They” of course never have a say in the matter. They don’t get to vote on the location of the massive construction projects. Do they even get to work at the desalination plant? Probably not. They are objects. We are saviors. It has a kind of ring to it more fitting to the Spanish Conquistadors bringing light to the New World.
In 1988 Martin Gouterman wrote a letter to The New York Times arguing that “Gaza City could be Singapore of Middle East.” He argued that “the inhabitants of Gaza would find citizenship in an independent citystate a vast improvement over their present status.” As usual, no one asked Gazans. Gaza-based Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan borrowed the “Singapore” story on the eve of Israel’s disengagement. The key to creating Singapore in the Middle East (as if Dubai wasn’t already an embodiment of that term) came in the form of James Wolfensohn, the UN special envoy for Israel’s Gaza Disengagement. Haaretz noted that the “Australian- born American Jew... arrived in the region three months before the Israeli withdrawal.” According to the report he raised $9 billion for Palestine. The idea was to purchase some 1,000 greenhouses that had been the backbone of the 7,000-strong Jewish community of Gaza. The former World Bank president was said to have offered $500,000 of his own money. According to US official Elliot Abrams, most of the $14 million spent on the Gaza greenhouses came from American Jews.
The greenhouses fiasco is well known, even if the neo-colonizers of Gaza don’t want to mention it. They were looted by locals almost immediately.
Ali Waked wrote in 2007 that “seventy percent of the greenhouses left intact by Israel after the disengagement are almost completely destroyed. The plastic covers and steel arcs that once formed the greenhouses have been stolen and sold.” Wolfensohn told Haaretz in 2007 that “all the dreams we had are now gone.” In January of 2006 Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections and Wolfensohn left in April. He told interviewers later that the US administration and Hamas had frustrated his attempts to help Gaza. “He divides his time between Manhattan and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and tried to leave the failed mission behind him,” Haaretz claimed.
Failure means different things in the faculty lounges of Tel Aviv, the posh cafes of New York and the streets of Gaza. Recently a Gazan man climbed a radio tower and threatened suicide because of his lack of prospects.
He’s not the only one; others have committed suicide in the strip, which year after year is declared barely inhabitable by a host of international organizations.
Why do the people who want to “help” Gaza have so little interest in the input from the people there? In the old days they relied on the “strongman” Dahlan, even as they claimed Hamas benefited electorally from allegations that Fatah was corrupt. The one thing you will never hear from a Gaza “saver” is the concept that perhaps Gazans supported Hamas because of its religious and extremist chauvinist militarist appeal. It’s always because it was “progressive” and “built hospitals” and was part of the global Left, or even because it was supposedly founded and supported by Israel. If it was founded by Israel and it is part of the global Left, then isn’t Israel part of the global left too? No, of course not.
People want to rewrite history so that Israel “gave” Gaza to Hamas. No one wants to remember the war between Hamas and Fatah, the people thrown off buildings, or dragged to death behind motorcycles.
The answer to Gaza’s problems are always some sort of ill-conceived colonization of the place, as if Israel hasn’t done enough for the Strip in that regard.
The fact is Gaza cannot be saved. Its people cannot be turned into something they are not. Hamas is not a progressive movement, it is an extremist, right-wing fundamentalist religious movement. The Strip is caught in a brutal cycle of war with Israel, and Hamas’ relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has isolated it further. All of this is a tragedy for civilian life in Gaza.
Why aren’t Gaza’s friends in the Gulf suggesting the Strip look more like their societies? Because they want to use it against Israel? Good-natured “saving” of the Strip won’t help, it has to be confronted as an adult, not an object, and a way must be found to present it with alternatives for the future. Involving Turkey or the Gulf in that discussion would be good. But pretending it’s run by the socialist party and needs re-colonization is not a path forward. It’s not Singapore. It’s Gaza. Get used to it.