Thursday, December 04, 2008

Theatre of the Absurd: The Many "Blockades" of Gaza

Much has been made of blockades in recent years. Sometimes they are viewed as valuable efforts in the service of some worthy cause that brings about change--the isolation of apartheid South Africa is a case in point. Sometimes, and especially in highly contested political battles, where there is no consensus, blockades are viewed as less positive. Two blockades have been particularly valuable for mobilizing the masses--in the service of all sides of the disputes from which they arise. The oldest of these is the now ancient blockade of Cuba by the United States. The other is the blockade of the Gaza strip by Israel.

But blockades are funny things. Like marriages, and other intimate relationships, it takes at least two parties to make blockades effective. But the ordinary understanding of blockades--of one party with superior force preventing something of value form entering or leaving the territory of the other party with inferior force--hides rather than reveals the complex realities of modern blockades. That complexity may suggest insights that might be somewhat counter intuitive. For example, a blockade may be as useful for the blockaded state as it is for the blockading state. The American blockade of Cuba may be a good example. On the one hand, the blockade has served as a great rallying point for the Cuban revolution. It has served to divert attention from internal conditions and shifted blame for all sorts of internal conditions on the Island to the blockade and the machinations of the blockading party. At the same time, the blockade has served internal American politics well, appeasing an important element of the polity (though not all segments by any means) and serving to focus Americans on an "enemy" powerless enough not to be a mortal threat to the United State while appearing menacing enough to require that it be made an example. Neither the Americans nor the Cubans have, for a long time, found the blockade worth the effort to dismantle.

The Israeli blockade of Gaza has served similar purposes recently. It has helped portray the Israeli's as cruel hegemons intent on wrecking the lives of the innocent to gain an advantage against those who would see the Israeli state destroyed. For some, and increasingly those in positions of substantial global authority, it is also a mark of Israeli apartheid with respect to the Palestinians--an allegation more useful as powerful incantation than as a description of fact. See, UNGA head accuses Israel of apartheid, The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 25, 2008. Yet, those distinctions do not matter much in the battles being fought in this war, in the way that the "reality" of the Cuban blockade" has virtually nothing to do with the rhetorical realities on which the issues are sustained.

Interestingly, it seems that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is proving to be as useful for front line Arab States, and the internal political conflicts within Palestine, as it purportedly is for the Israelis. So reveals a recent report in Al Ahram that provides a seldom seen window on the management of the blockage of Gaza. Reem Leila, The Pilgrims' Progress, Al Ahram Weekly, 3-9 Dec. 2008 (Issue 925).
More than 1,000 students from Cairo, Ain Shams, Al-Azhar and Helwan universities protested last week against the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip and called on the government and the international community to intervene. The demonstrations on 26 November, which continued into Monday, culminated in a statement demanding the full opening of Rafah crossing for Palestinian pilgrims who have been prevented from going to Mecca for hajj because Hamas has refused to allow them to cross the border since Egypt opened the crossing on Saturday. Id.
Now here is a pretty picture. It seems that under cover of the Israeli "blockade", all of the other actors in this drama are taking full advantage to the detriment of the people. This is not apartheid, but exploitation--cynical, manipulative, calculating--and possible because all of these actors are able to free ride on global opinion that has been convinced that all bad things that happen to the Palestinian people are the fault of the Jews, who it appears, have not lost their taste for crucifixion, this time apparently, of the Palestinian people. This unfortunate turn of phrase, so laden with the millennia old fixations of certain Christians, including, it appears, a priest who is now serving as the President of the United Nations General Assembly. "Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, a Nicaraguan diplomat who is presiding over the assembly’s 2008-2009 session, on Monday labeled Israel an “apartheid state,” and called for a campaign of “boycott, sanctions and divestment” against it. He also accused Israel of “crucifying our Palestinian brothers and sisters.” The language is deeply provocative: Perpetrators of persecution and pogroms against Jews over the centuries have frequently cited Jesus’ crucifixion as “justification” for their acts." Julie Stahl and Patrick Goodenough, U.N. Assembly President Should be Sacked for Slamming Israel, Critics Say, CNS, Nov. 26, 2008.

Yet it seems that virtually all of the major Arab participants have been participating in the exploitation and suffering of the Palestinian people. All are playing politics on the bodies of the Palestinian people. Egypt is happy enough to block passage into Gaza for reasons of its own internal politics. To open the borders appears to increase the possibility that the great enemies of the current government--the Muslim Brotherhood--will take advantage for its own political advancement. . .in Egypt.

Egypt occasionally opens the crossing to allow Palestinians, usually seeking medical treatment, students or pilgrims, to enter and leave the impoverished coastal strip. "There is a consensus among the different national parties that it is our responsibility to lift this siege on Gaza. The government has barred several attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] and opposition activists to send medical supplies through Rafah," said MB MP Hamdi Hussein. The Pilgrims' Progress, supra.

The Saudis are using the blockade to indirectly intervene in the bitter civil war between Hamas and Fatah. That intervention produced a counter thrust by Hamas--which used the intervention to prevent people form leaving the territory (and remaining silent while the West might be led to conclude that the fault lay with the Israelis).

The reason behind Hamas's refusal to allow the pilgrims passage centres on disputes over how Saudi visas were allocated in the territories. Saudi Arabia issued visas for pilgrims who applied through the Palestinian Authority but did not accept the list submitted by Hamas. In Gaza 1,200 pilgrims received visas after having applied through Fatah in the West Bank while some 2,200 Gazans who applied for visas through Hamas had their applications rejected. Hamas is appealing to Saudi Arabia to reverse the decision, and some of the movement's leaders have threatened to prevent anyone leaving Gaza for the pilgrimage to Mecca if its own members cannot travel. Id.

This, in turn, has produced some unrest among budding intellectuals and their allies within Egypt.

On 24 November an even larger crowd, estimated at 6,000 students, gathered at Al-Azhar campus to demand solidarity with Gaza and the crossing to be opened. In cooperation with trade unions and political parties, the MB [Muslim Brotherhood]organised 46 sit-ins and a conference on 28 November. Protests were led by MB MPs, with some of the largest taking place in Kafr Al-Sheikh and Qena governorates. Participants condemned the "suspicious silence" of Arab leaders.Id.

Those protests have now moved beyond Egypt and into the heart of the West, where, of course, the Israeli cover was again invoked. "A protest was also staged in front of the Egyptian Embassy in London on Saturday. Participants in the demonstration, organised by the Islamic Human Right Commission, chanting slogans that included "Stop Starving the Palestinians, Stop the Holocaust in Gaza", called on Israel to end the siege and the Egyptian government to re-open the Rafah crossing." Id.

The point, of course, is not that any of the current combatants are either innocent or guilty of this or that action. Indeed, it is not to suggest that there are any innocent parties in the mess that is the history of that region since the British started meddling at the beginning of the 20th century. But that is a momentous suggestion in a region in which the parties have tended to be painted in heavy handed categorical terms as either bad, innocent or aggrieved. Instead, the story suggests that simplicity, especially in the management of the conflict in the Middle East, is always suspicious. Even the blockade of Gaza evidences a complexity beyond the simpleminded calls, heard from the far off and deluded self absorbed (from a socio-legal perspective) people of the West (and from Catholic priests in public office who should know better, or be better controlled by their spiritual superiors) for the end of blockades--directed solely to Israel. It seems that all of the parties to that conflict have a stake in that blockade. And, as always, the pawns --and the players--remain the people. A better understanding of these complexities might serve well those who are trying to manage the affairs of the parties in that region to some sort of temporary and mildly satisfying conclusion.

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