The Most Miserable Place on Earth

It is both a cliche and a fallacy that Gaza is the most miserable place on earth. As a worn-out rhetorical device for conveying the situation in Israel-Palestine, it surely rivals another favorite of the punditocracy: "teetering on the edge of an abyss…"

To be sure, the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza, a thin sliver of sand-covered coastal terrain bordering Egypt and Israel, is dire. This has long been the case. Perhaps never more so than in the months since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in a unilateral effort to consolidate its defense lines and cede the territory to the sovereign control of the Palestinian Authority. This made sense from a strictly Israeli perspective, and we should be frank that the plan was not developed and carried out with the best interests of the Palestinians in mind. The idea of establishing Jewish settlements in Gaza was a breathtaking instance of hubris and folly on the part of the Israeli government. As for the settlers themselves, one should not doubt the sincerity of their perception that they stand in a long-line of pioneers in the grand Zionist tradition. This explains why many of them were utterly incapable of understanding why the government – their government – which had so long encouraged their efforts, was now determined to remove them be force if necessary. Pity them as pawns? Perhaps. But nothing more. "In Zichron Yaakov and Rishon L'Tzion and Tel Hai and Deganya and Hebron and elsewhere in the 1910s and 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, Jewish settlers were brave," writes Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic. "But in Gaza and the West Bank in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s? They lived dangerously , to be sure; but living dangerously is not the same thing as living heroically."

As important as the withdrawal was to Israel itself, independent of Palestinian considerations, the disengagement from Gaza also presented both an opportunity and a test for the long-fledgling Palestinian Authority to prove itself a viable, responsible governing body. On this measure it has failed miserably. Evidence of this failure has been apparent from the start, and is at the root of a multitude of mini-crises that have plagued the Palestinian polity since the withdrawal. To name but one is the fate of the greenhouses in Gaza. In an effort to provide the moribund Palestinian economy some vitality, a group of American philanthropists – mostly Jews – bought the greenhouses from the departing settlers for $14-million. They then donated the greenhouses and the 790 acres of sand dunes the settlers had turned into fertile farmland to the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza. As Rafael Frankel reported recently in The Boston Globe, the promise of this national rehabilitation project have been dashed by widespread looting, attacks from Palestinians militant groups seeking to claim the territory, and, of course, the on-going war with Israel. Frankel writes: "The fate of the greenhouses is unclear. With a first season revenue of less than $1 million, when at least $16 million was anticipated, the PEDC has no money to pay its workers for April and May and recently sent a letter to all the remaining farmers and engineers that the project will be terminated at the end of May."

This failure cannot be understood outside of the current context of intra-Palestinian politics. In January 2006, the radical Islamist group Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian legislative elections, which meant that Hamas would select the new Prime Minister from its ranks. Regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, the major Western powers immediately vowed to withhold financial support from the Hamas-led Palestinian authority. In addition, Israel ceased transferring the $55-million a month the PA received as its share of customs and tax revenues. As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out at the time, the Palestinians are the most aid-dependent people on the face of the earth. The US provided about one-third of the nearly $1.1-billion in aid disbursed to Palestine last year. That amounts to around $300 per man, woman, and child.

The Palestinian elections were deemed free and fair by every monitoring organization on the ground last January. They probably held the most free and fair elections in the Arab world. As the effects of the subsequent aid cut-off are becoming more acute, there is a growing chorus both on the far-right and in parts of the left, that we are in fact cultivating enemies by our tough-love approach towards the Palestinians. Writing in his rag The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan decries "The Persecution of the Palestinians."

Buchanan wonders who, "besides al-Qaeda and recruiters of suicide bombers, can conceivably benefit from persecuting the Palestinian people like this? Does President Bush or Condi Rice think the Palestinians will respect an America that did this to their children, after we urged this election, called for Hamas to participate, and preached our devotion to democracy?"

Matthew Yglesias, a staff writer for the liberal American Prospect, echoes much of Buchanan's argument in a posting to Tapped, the Prospect's blog.

Yglesias writes: "Palestine is being punished for having voted Hamas into power. But the election in which that took place was only organized because the American government took the line that Israel shouldn't negotiate with the Palestinian Authority until it implemented democratic reforms. Well, they did what we asked them to do, and the governing party lost to what everyone previously understood to be the main opposition party. In consequence, we shut down their hospitals. What kind of sense does this make? Palestine is supposed to have a democracy, but it was supposed to be a democracy where the voters only elected the party we preferred, which just happened to be the party that was already in power. It's a bit odd, is it not? What, exactly, has this series of initiatives been designed to accomplish? Has American security been improved in any way by this?"

These two complaints hint at a larger issue that is worth addressing as it is a long-standing critique of those who advocate placing democracy promotion at the center of American foreign policy: What happens when a free and fair election brings to power an anti-American – or immoral – leadership like Hamas? While the result is certainly unfortunate and disheartening, it is foolhardy (not to mention arrogant) to prefer that the Palestinians be denied the right to be wrong, a right without which there can be no genuine growth.

What the Palestinians do not have a right to – and what Buchanan and Yglesias hint at – is an indefinite claim to American support irrespective of their actions. Just as American interests will not be served by consenting ourselves to a stable authoritarian order, American principles should not permit the support of a terrorist regime, as the effect will be equally detrimental to American security. Both strategies make us complicit in bolstering immoral governments.

In his new novel, The Attack, the Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul (who writes under the pseudonym Yasmina Khadera) writes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "in reality just a slugfest at close quarters between the punching bags and the scapegoats of history." There is much truth to this statement. But being a victim does not excuse being stupid, and as long as Palestinians continue to focus more on destruction than construction, it is ridiculous to blame American policy for their dire predicament.

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