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Chomsky sloppy on Gaza —and timid on Palestine's future

Noam Chomksy is held in such God-like reverence by the leftoid legions we get a kick out of calling him out on the things he gets egregiously wrong. Now he has just visited the Gaza Strip, and his screed about it on In These Times, "Gaza, The World's Largest Open-Air Prison," is of course getting gobs of attention. And it would serve as a basic primer on Israel's official choking of Gaza—if it weren't for some sloppy corner-cutting where the facts are concerned. Chomsky sets the background for the discussion in his usual terms:

The Oslo Accords, celebrated with much pomp in 1993, determined that Gaza and the West Bank are a single territorial entity. By that time, the U.S. and Israel had already initiated their program to separate Gaza and the West Bank, so as to block a diplomatic settlement and punish the Araboushim [an Israeli pejorative for the Palestinians, used ironically] in both territories.

Punishment of Gazans became still more severe in January 2006, when they committed a major crime: They voted the "wrong way" in the first free election in the Arab world, electing Hamas.

Displaying their "yearning for democracy," the U.S. and Israel, backed by the timid European Union, immediately imposed a brutal siege, along with military attacks. The U.S. turned at once to its standard operating procedure when a disobedient population elects the wrong government: Prepare a military coup to restore order.

Gazans committed a still greater crime a year later by blocking the coup attempt, leading to a sharp escalation of the siege and attacks. These culminated in winter 2008-09, with Operation Cast Lead, one of the most cowardly and vicious exercises of military force in recent memory: A defenseless civilian population, trapped, was subjected to relentless attack by one of the world's most advanced military systems, reliant on U.S. arms and protected by U.S. diplomacy.

Of course, there were pretexts–there always are. The usual one, trotted out when needed, is "security": in this case, against homemade rockets from Gaza.

In 2008, a truce was established between Israel and Hamas. Not a single Hamas rocket was fired until Israel broke the truce under cover of the U.S. election on Nov. 4, invading Gaza for no good reason and killing half a dozen Hamas members.

The Israeli government was advised by its highest intelligence officials that the truce could be renewed by easing the criminal blockade and ending military attacks. But the government of Ehud Olmert–himself reputedly a dove–rejected these options, resorting to its huge advantage in violence: Operation Cast Lead.

OK, to start with a small point: it is true that that "not a single Hamas rocket" was fired during the 2008 truce, but other Gaza-based factions, like Islamic Jihad, did get off a few rockets in this period. Not that this in any way justifies the massive war crime of Cast Lead, but by failing to acknowledge it, Chomksy leaves himself vulnerable to easy counter-attack by Israel's apologists. It's just bad talking points tactics.

Noam commits numerous other such errors, which are called out by the Israelli human rights group Gisha, dedicated to closely monitoring the Gaza blockade. On their Gaza Gateway blog, they note numerous distortions in Chomsky's report. Note that Gisha have applied themsleves for years to intimately watching Gaza and advocating for the freedom and dignity of its inhabitants; Chomsky just parachuted in (metaphorically, of course) for a quick junket. Contrary to Chomsky's assertion, construction equipment in Gaza is not "lying idle" for lack of materials; "official" projects are stalled (those overseen by NGOs working with the Strip's administration), but the private sector is getting construction materials through the tunnels, actually resulting in a recent "building boom."

Chomksy cites the notorious "red lines" document (actually mentioning Gisha, which went to court to force the Israeli government to release it) delineating minimum caloric intake necessary for physical survival of the Strip's inhabitants, and quotes Dov Weisglass, adviser to ex-Prime Minister Olmert, who said: "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger." In our coverage of the "red lines" document we had to call out mainstream media acounts for inaccurately reporting that the Gaza blockade ended in 2010. It certainly didn't; that's only when the blockade was officially "eased." Now we have to call out Chomsky for the exact opposite distortion: he doesn't mention the "easing" and allows his readers to believe that nothing has changed since 2008, when the "red line" document was produced. Writes Gisha: "Widespread poverty in Gaza is the result of many factors, but restrictions on the entry of goods is currently not one of them."

Gisha similalry charges Chomsky with an oversimplified view of the roots of the squeeze on medical services in Gaza: "Israel does not limit the entry of medicine into the Gaza Strip. Shortages of medicine that have occurred in Gaza were and are the result of disputes between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Travel to Israel and the West Bank by patients in need of medical care is far from satisfactory, but here too, the responsibility has to be accorded correctly."

Gisha sums up:

We understand the grave impression Chomsky got from visiting Gaza. In our work, we come into daily contact with the painful stories of Gaza residents who are prevented from reuniting with a spouse or child, getting an education or pursuing their professional goals. When this happens as a result of Israeli restrictions, we do our best to help.

The great challenge we and others face is convincing more and more people in Israel and abroad that despite the fact that the Netanyahu government "eased" the closure, it continues to impose restrictions on movement which can and should be removed. International law requires it. Common sense requires it. The interest of Israelis and Palestinians to create a better future requires it.

A description that can be easily refuted with facts is a weak tool in any public debate. For those who are hard to convince, one small inaccuracy is enough to make all the rest of the information suspect. In the same way, inaccuracies in one critique lead to suspicion about all other critiques on the same topic. This is why we ask Chomsky, and anyone else who, like us, works to promote the human rights of Palestinian residents of Gaza, to continue to sharply criticize anyone who violates these rights, but without making compromises on factual accuracy.

OK, now moving on to a more conceptual and ultimately more important critique... It is something of an irony that Chomsky accuses the European Union of "timidity" with Israel. On the occassion of his visit to Gaza, the Jerusalem Post reported his endorsement (in a lecture at Gaza's Islamic University) of a two-state solution:

In his first visit to the Gaza Strip, prominent Jewish-American academic, author and linguist Noam Chomsky advocated a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that any other formula is "not sensible," speaking on Saturday.

Chomsky explained that "in spite of continued settlement expansion," a two-state solution is more realistic because of the near unanimous support it enjoys in the international community.

To push for a solution that nobody supports, he said, is not sensible.

It is rather disappointing to have someone who considers himself to be an "anarcho-syndicalist" (as Chomsky apparently does) lecturing us about how nothing outside mainstream Consensus Reality is "sensible." Hopefully, Chomsky is aware that even within the Israeli left, there is a vigorous debate on whether to advocate for a two-state solution or a single secular state covering all of historic Palestine. Advocates of the latter consider the former to be acquiescence in a raw deal for the Palestinians (consigning them to a divided and reduced territory at best) and a betrayal of Arabs on the Israeli side of the Green Line (consigning them to permanent second-class citizenship). One would hope (in vain, it seems) that someone with Chomsky's radical creds would at least acknowledge this critique—or, better, actually loan some encouragement to efforts like the One Democratic State Group.

Even this falls short of an anarchist position, of course. If anyone were to ask Bill Weinberg's opinion (which nobody ever does, of course), it is this: If there has to be a two-state settlement as an interim solution in the name of pragmatism, it must be without equivocation on the three taboo questions: future of the Israeli settlers, right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. If there isn't a forthright facing of this taboo trio, a two-state solution will never work anyway. Obviously the refugees cannot return to villages that were destroyed generations ago, yet there has to be some kind of justice for them, arrived at with their participation and informed consent. The Israeli settlers are by and large a deeply reactionary lot that it is impossible to sympathize with, but it must be recognized that they were encouraged by successive Israeli governments to colonize the West Bank, and arrangements made for their re-integration west of the Green Line. If any remain after usurped Palestinian lands have been returned to their rightful owners (none of this tweaking-the-border business, and the Apartheid Wall has got to go), they must accept Palestinian rule, with guarantees for their religious and cultural rights. And finally, Jerusalem: Everyone forgets that under the 1948 UN division plan, it was to be a unified city under international administration. This idea should be restored, and Jerusalem looked to as a model for equalitarian co-existence between Jews and Palestinians—which could eventually be replicated elsewhere, and exported to the rest of historic Palestine.

Once Jews and Palestinians have some experience in getting along with each other, they can hopefully move towards a single state—and then, joining with other peoples of the region, unify against the captains of industry and lords of property regardless of ethnicity or religion,and struggle for the No State Solution: a decentralized Middle East federation of autonomous communities and worker assemblies bound by principles of voluntary association.

Utopian? Sure. But no more so than the "sensible" discourse of Consensus Reality that dodges all the sticky quesitons. And by advocating such ideas, we at least begin to move the debate in the right direction.

Since the world's foremost anarchist intellectual has abdicated this task, it is up to you and me.


Chomsky on Palestine: Furthermore...

In over 40 years of prolific work, Chomsky has been making the same point over and over. Yes, it is a vital point, but he never gets to anything else. All he has to say about Hamas' victory in the 2006 elections is the obvious reality that the US and Israel refused to accept it, exposing all their prattle about "democracy" as illegitimate. OK, a lot of people need to hear that. But most of them probably aren't reading Chomsky anyway. Where is an analysis of how the co-optation of Fatah into Israel's de facto gendarme force has been exploited by reactionary political Islam in the form of Hamas, how the void left by the capitulaiton of secular oppositional forces has turned the conflict into a clash of conservatisms? This critique is left to the Middle East's Worker-Communist movement, which takes a far more principled and sophisticated view than most stateside voices on the left. See, e.g. this interview with leaders of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran on Maryam Namazie's refreshingly entitled Nothing is Sacred blog...

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