Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The War on Gaza's Children

The war on Gaza's children

Israel's sanctions are leaving a generation of Palestinian children poorly educated and hungry.

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 22 September 2007]

An entire generation of Palestinians in Gaza is growing up stunted: physically and nutritionally stunted because they are not getting enough to eat; emotionally stunted because of the pressures of living in a virtual prison and facing the constant threat of destruction and displacement; intellectually and academically stunted because they cannot concentrate -- or, even if they can, because they are trying to study and learn in circumstances that no child should have to endure.

Even before Israel this week declared Gaza "hostile territory" -- apparently in preparation for cutting off the last remaining supplies of fuel and electricity to 1.5 million men, women and children -- the situation was dire.

As a result of Israel's blockade on most imports and exports and other policies designed to punish the populace, about 70% of Gaza's workforce is now unemployed or without pay, according to the United Nations, and about 80% of its residents live in grinding poverty. About 1.2 million of them are now dependent for their day-to-day survival on food handouts from U.N. or international agencies, without which, as the World Food Program's Kirstie Campbell put it, "they are liable to starve."

An increasing number of Palestinian families in Gaza are unable to offer their children more than one meager meal a day, often little more than rice and boiled lentils. Fresh fruit and vegetables are beyond the reach of many families. Meat and chicken are impossibly expensive. Gaza faces the rich waters of the Mediterranean, but fish is unavailable in its markets because the Israeli navy has curtailed the movements of Gaza's fishermen.

Los Angeles parents who have spent the last few weeks running from one back-to-school sale to another could do worse than to spare a few minutes to think about their counterparts in the Gaza Strip. As a result of the siege, Gaza is not only short of raw textiles and other key goods but also paper, ink and vital school supplies. One-third of Gaza's children started the school year missing necessary textbooks. John Ging, the Gaza director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, whose schools take care of 200,000 children in Gaza, has warned that children come to school "hungry and unable to concentrate."

Israel says that its policies in Gaza are designed to put pressure on the Palestinian population to in turn put pressure on those who fire crude home-made rockets from Gaza into the Israeli town of Sderot. Those rocket attacks are wrong. But it is also wrong to punish an entire population for the actions of a few -- actions that the schoolchildren of Gaza and their beleaguered parents are in any case powerless to stop.

It is a violation of international law to collectively punish more than a million people for something they did not do. According to the Geneva Convention, to which it is a signatory, Israel actually has the obligation to ensure the well-being of the people on whom it has chosen to impose a military occupation for more than four decades.

Instead, it has shrugged off the law. It has ignored the repeated demands of the U.N. Security Council. It has dismissed the International Court of Justice in the Hague. What John Dugard, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, refers to as the "carefully managed" strangulation of Gaza -- in full view of an uncaring world -- is explicitly part of its strategy. "The idea," said Dov Weisglass, an Israeli government advisor," is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not make them die of hunger."


Academic Freedom is at Risk

Academic Freedom is at Risk

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 17 October 2007]

"Academic colleagues, get used to it," warned the pro-Israel activist Martin Kramer in March 2004. "Yes, you are being watched. Those obscure articles in campus newspapers are now available on the Internet, and they will be harvested. Your syllabi, which you've also posted, will be scrutinized. Your Web sites will be visited late at night."

Kramer's warning inaugurated an attack on intellectual freedom in the U.S. that has grown more aggressive in recent months.

This attack, intended to shield Israel from criticism, not only threatens academic privileges on college campuses, it jeopardizes our capacity to evaluate our foreign policy. With a potentially catastrophic clash with Iran on the horizon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spiraling out of control, Americans urgently need to be able to think clearly about our commitments and intentions in the Middle East. And yet we are being prevented from doing so by a longstanding campaign of intimidation that has terminated careers, stymied debate and shut down dialogue.

Over the past few years, Israel's U.S. defenders have stepped up their campaign by establishing a network of institutions (such as Campus Watch, Stand With Us, the David Project, the Israel on Campus Coalition, and the disingenuously named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East) dedicated to the task of monitoring our campuses and bringing pressure to bear on those critical of Israeli policies. By orchestrating letter-writing and petitioning campaigns, falsely raising fears of anti-Semitism, mobilizing often grossly distorted media coverage and recruiting local and national politicians to their cause, they have severely disrupted academic processes, the free function of which once made American universities the envy of the world.

Outside interference by Israel's supporters has plunged one U.S. campus after another into crisis. They have introduced crudely political -- rather than strictly academic or scholarly -- criteria into hiring, promotion and other decisions at a number of universities, including Columbia, Yale, Wayne State, Barnard and DePaul, which recently denied tenure to the Jewish American scholar Norman Finkelstein following an especially ugly campaign spearheaded by Alan Dershowitz, one of Israel's most ardent American defenders.

Our campuses are being poisoned by an atmosphere of surveillance and harassment. However, the disruption of academic freedom has grave implications beyond campus walls.

When professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer drafted an essay critical of the effect of Israel's lobbying organizations on U.S. foreign policy, they had to publish it in the London Review of Books because their original American publisher declined to take it on. With the original article expanded into a book that has now been released, their invitation to speak at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was retracted because of outside pressure. "This one is so hot," they were told. So although Michael Oren, an officer in the Israeli army, was recently allowed to lecture the council about U.S. policy in the Middle East, two distinguished American academics were denied the same privilege.

When President Carter published "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid" last year, he was attacked for having dared to use the word "apartheid" to describe Israel's manifestly discriminatory policies in the West Bank.

As that case made especially clear, the point of most of these attacks is to personally discredit anyone who would criticize Israel -- and to taint them with the smear of "controversy" -- rather than to engage them in a genuine debate. None of Carter's critics provided a convincing refutation of his main argument based on facts and evidence. Presumably that's because, for all the venom directed against the former president, he was right. For example, Israel maintains two different road networks, and even two entirely different legal systems, in the West Bank, one for Jewish settlers and the other for indigenous Palestinians. Those basic facts were studiously ignored by those who denounced Carter and angrily accused him of a "blood libel" against the Jewish people.

That Israel's American supporters so often resort to angry outbursts rather than principled arguments -- and seem to find emotional blackmail more effective than genuine debate -- is ultimately a sign of their weakness rather than their strength. For all the damage it can do in the short term, in the long run such a position is untenable, too dependent on emotion and cliché rather than hard facts. The phenomenal success of Carter's book suggests that more and more Americans are learning to ignore the scare tactics that are the only tools available to Israel's supporters.

But we need to be able to have an open debate about our Middle East policy now -- before we needlessly shed more blood and further erode our reputation among people who used to regard us as the champions of freedom, and now worry that we have come to stand for its very opposite.