Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How About Some Informed Comment for a Change?

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Juan Cole writes about the current and ongoing violence in Gaza with his usual deep understanding of the political and historical context ignored by most commentators in the U.S.:

I have been traveling and not able to spend as much time as usual scanning the news, but of course have followed the events in Palestine with dismay.

It is to be expected that a lot of comment in the United States on these events will be rife with racist attitudes and polemical dismissals. The Palestinians have long been demonized by the Western media, apparently for not going along quietly with their expulsion from their homes, the large scale theft of their land, and their reduction to an almost slave-like status of statelessness. Palestinians are not intrinsically more violent than anyone else, not essentially less able to administer or govern than anyone else. Few countries have not had civil wars or at least major civil conflicts. The question should be not "Why are Palestinians like that?"-- which is a racist question-- but what social and economic factors are driving the present conflict?

Why is it that so little analysis is offered of why things have developed as they have? Isn't anyone interested in the important differences between Gaza's economy and that of the West Bank? Gaza is much poorer and much more isolated from the world. Is it any big surprise that its population is more radicalized and might be drawn into supporting Hamas?

The Gazan population is being thrown into more misery by an Israeli blockade of electricity, fuel and even food. (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that it will be a humanitarian blockade; if you believe that, I have a bridge over the River Jordan you can purchase inexpensively from me). UNRWA is warning against the blockade. With an unemployment rate of 50% and widespread malnutrition, caused by the ordinary everyday Israeli pressure on Gaza, the territory's population can't take much more extra deprivation without an immense human toll being exacted.

It seems obvious that Hamas will be overthrown in Gaza, jointly by Mahmud Abbas, Israel and the United States. But it seems unlikely that Mahmud Abbas will gain any genuine authority there if that is how he comes to power. And, the events of the past few days have driven a nail into the coffin of Bush's "democratization" program for the "Greater Middle East." The Haniyah Hamas government had come to power in free and fair elections, but was immediately boycotted, starved of resources, and actually often simply kidnapped by the Israelis; and is now being put out of office in a kind of coup. The people of the Arab world are not blind or stupid. If this is what the "Greater Middle East" looks like, it will too closely resemble, for their taste, the colonial 19th century, When Europeans dictated government to Middle Easterners.

If Bush and the Israelis couldn't live with a Hamas electoral victory, they should have exluded Hamas from running a year and a half ago. The Egyptians don't let explicitly religious parties contest elections, and a similar rule could have been made in Palestine. Holding an election, having people win it with whom you won't deal, and then overturning the election with militias, is a recipe for violence and instability. That's what happened in Algeria in the early 1990s, and it caused untold suffering.

The Israelis may be sighing a sigh of relief that the Palestinians are busy fighting one another for the moment. But what has happened is not good for Israel in the medium to long term, since I suspect it signals the end of the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. And, if you don't have a two-state solution, ultimately the likelihood is that Israel will be stuck with the Palestinians as citizens. The world is not going to look the other way forever as they are kept stateless, poor, landless and hungry.

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