Thursday, February 18, 2016

Gaza Flooding

We are coming up on the anniversary of a flood when the impoverished Gaza principality was hit with untreated sewage from war. I happen to sympathize with those making the claims of malicious punishment, though, perhaps because I was fortunate to have read up on the subject myself more critically than even the press has done. Journalism these days has run afoul not only of facts but of the character of the democratic and Jewish state.

As reviewed by Israel's respected paper Haaretz in February of 2015, the general tone covering  February's flooding in Gaza was one that was uncovering a lie. “Al Jazeera on Wednesday retracted its story, based on false claims by Palestinian sources, that Israel had opened dams and flooded the Gaza Strip. This invention was repeated by the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency, Britain's massively popular Daily Mail, Palestinian news agencies and countless other Internet and social media sites.” The article attempts to clarify that “current flooding in Gaza comes as a result of the heavy winter rains, which have been especially harsh on the masses of residents made homeless by Israeli air assaults in last summer's war.” The solution implied here is that Israel needs to recover its empathetic streak, and think of those least fortunate, made worse by the organic “heavy winter rains.”1
Generally the truth did move the reporters to describe the seriousness of the situation in Gaza but they still taunted readers with headlines. Buzzfeed's sassy pick was “No, Gaza Was Not Flooded By Israel Opening 'The Dams.'”2

It contrasted starkly with its own reporting: An anonymous Palestinian official told Buzzfeed that “[i]t is easy to say it is dams, easier than saying that the problem is infrastructure — not having infrastructure, having bad infrastructure, having what little infrastructure Gaza destroyed each time there is wa[r] — that is the truth. If we could rebuild Gaza, we could build a system that dealt with these horrible floods. But Gaza is in ruins, there is nowhere for the water to go, and each year it will be the same unless someone helps us.” 
Looking at the record, this doesn't go far enough. The AFP story was indeed retracted, citing a Belgian hydrology expert Julie Trottier who noted with clear tepidness that “[t]o my knowledge there is no dam on the Israeli side and terrain is not suited to the construction of a dam.” The whole story is that “the waters gathered naturally and it flooded.” 3 But this bears only on flood source not overall water flow. There seems rather to be an interplay of these forces.

A reservoir internal to Gaza indeed was overwhelmed in 2008.4 But Gaza floods have become beyond severe. Palestinian director-general of the Khan Younis municipality remarked on a recent flood that “the amount of water was massive and unexpected, making it impossible for water pumps or sewage canals to deal with it. Many are closed or blocked by garbage carried along by the rainwater.” 5

While it is technically true that the flood was “natural,” no mainstream outlet has tried to look at the effects of widening the several rivers in 2004 that indeed empty into the Wadi Gaza. This drew immediate protest from Israeli environmentalists, which was kept to the Israeli press.6 The Hebrew article notes Yisrael Katz, a close ally of today's Netanyahu administration7, was hired to run the Ministry of Agriculture by Tzachi Hanegbi. Hanegbi had noted in the previous month that Palestinian prisoners hunger-striking for being forcibly marched, transfered, and beaten8, might as well “starve to death.”9

Israel widening the Nahal Secher in 2004

This doctrine is somewhat necessary to understand why Prime Minster Ariel Sharon's peace deal that wound its way through the Israeli political system didn't reduce of settlement activity in the West Bank. 10 Pretty simply, a decent existence for Palestinians is not understood to be the occupier's problem much. Even still, according to a leaked State Department cable, the following year Israel “agreed to review [Palestinian Water Authority] concerns about Israeli wastewater running into the Wadi Gaza in either the [Israeli Joint Water Committee or Joint Technical Committee], and to address the impact on water supplies of the Israeli Kedumim garbage dump on the West Bank in the JTC” but noted the need to “maintain maximum pressure on the [Palestinian Authority].”11

Nothing of the sort made the 2015 press. It was enough to merely repeat the line supplied by lobbyist group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA)12

'Israel doesn’t have any dams in the Nahal Habesor/Wadi Gaza watershed that it could open to flood Gaza. “There is a diverting dam one meter high which directs water to reservoirs. This is a low dam which cannot be opened or closed,' Nechemia Shahaf, head of the Drainage Authority for the Shikma-Besor Region, told the CAMERA media watchdog.

The reason why this is laughable to those who identify with the state requires understanding state culture. In mainstream thought, violence – as bombing and flooding polluted areas clearly are – tends to be understood as an exception to state doctrine. Perhaps the leading theorist on violence, Steven Pinker, summarized in his 2011 tome that to “cultivate faculties of empathy and self-control” requires “state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals” which “all fit into an organic whole.” Indeed, another State Department cable argues that the “most compelling argument for restarting the water projects is to show publicly visible support for a successful post-disengagement Gaza economy.13 According to prevailing wisdom then, being severely punished is a symptom that Gaza is backward, and not corruption and criminality, which, misogyny and its own prisoner tactics aside, is actually not a very big problem for Gaza when it comes to Hamas services.14
Violence as committed by states exhibiting civilized traits cannot be said to be done out of lack of empathy, but empathy that hasn't found its proper form. Civilized states might be forced to use violence at some point, but generally do not seek it out. As the pro-Israel group J Street put it in 2013, “We should take heart that the centrist heart of Israeli politics is alive and well, and the seemingly inexorable rise of the ultra-right has been halted.” 15

But like most states practicing conscious displacement of the indigenous population by settlers, this cannot be done with an honest reading of history. In a letter rebuking Mark Twain's resistance to the colonization of the Philippines, a reader gave flak that “[t]here is no people in the Philippines. There are a number of distinct tribes... none really civilized.” 16 This is exactly the sentiment argued again in 1970 by the Prime Minister of Israel, there never really was any displacement. “I’m not saying that there are no Palestinians, but there is no such thing that can be entitled Palestinian people.”17

Another illustrative example, reviewing the history of the violent colonization of the Philippines, historian John Morgan Gates wrote, “On the surface, most of the changes taking place in the American pacification campaign appeared to increase its severity and to abandon the policy of benevolent pacification, but this was not the case.” 18 He noted dryly:

Unfortunately, some Americans did not have as good an understanding of the new policy as General Bell, and for them it represented the inauguration of a campaign of severity. Consequently, some enlisted men could interpret the new policy as one of 'taking no prisoners' with MacArthur "sweeping everything as he goes," and officers could write of substituting "the effective noose for the futile school-book.” The cruelties and abuses that appeared in increasing numbers during 1900 continued, and those men who so desired could interpret the new pacification policy as a sanction for such action.

Simply put: we meant well.

1. Feb 25, 2015. Al Jazeera, Britain's Daily Mail Retract False Reports That Israel Opened Dams to Flood Gaza
2. Buzzfeed February 24, 2015. No, Gaza Was Not Flooded By Israel Opening “The Dams”
3. AFP wire via Daily Mail, February 27, 2015; Gaza floods: dispelling the myth about Israeli 'dams' ;
5. Middle East Eye 10 November 2015. Torrential rains pound Gaza, causing heavy flooding
6. שיקום" נחל סכר הפך אותו ל"כביש מהיר" October, 3, 2004; and mirrored*/; Hebrew; accessed 9/4/2015 See also: for Habesor Stream. "the Beersheba River flows into the Besor River, which ... spills into the Mediterranean Sea within the area of the Gaza Strip, creating a lake where waterfowl can be observed amid the lakeside vegetation" 

7. Washington Post July 28, 2015 Israelis scold Huckabee for saying Iran deal sends them to ‘door of the oven’; ret 2/2/2016
8. Haaretz Sep 19, 2004. Security Prisoners Charge Guards With Humiliating Them;
10. Znet. Sharon’s Gaza Pullout November 16, 2004 ret 2/2/2016
12. Times of Israel; February 25, 2015; False ‘Israel drowns Gaza’ claims sweep internet
15.. J Street website. January 25th, 2013. Window of Opportunity ret 2/2/2016
18. 1937; Schoolbooks and Krags; the United States Army in the Philippines, 1898-1902;view=fulltext) ret 2/2/2016

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