Lawrence Wright plays it safe on Gaza

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Two weeks ago on this site, Michael Ratner reviewed a play about Gaza called The Human Scale, by Lawrence Wright, a writer for the New Yorker. The show ran for four nights in NY. Well, here is another review, which must be anonymous, as the writer fears for his/her employment. We don’t usually jump on (well actually, we sometimes do!), but Wright is an important writer…

Last month, the Public Theater in Manhattan staged a new piece, entitled The Human Scale, written and performed by Lawrence Wright, of the New Yorker, on the recent history of Gaza since the capture of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. The production is based on his November 2009 article on his travels to Gaza and Israel, “Captives”, which refers to both Shalit and the population in siege-ridden Gaza. This play deserves a lot of credit for revealing under-reported conditions on life in Gaza in the three years following Shalit’s capture on June 26, 2006, including details on the destruction of the Gazan economy, casualty figures, findings of the Goldstone Report, and others.

Surely no one needs to remind readers of this site what an ideological profession the business of journalism is, but wow, I must say I was pretty surprised at some of incredible omissions of causality and fact in Wright’s performance that probably weren’t noticed in the slightest by the seemingly-sympathetic audience in attendance. Well, this site’s dedicated to dispelling vulgar propaganda, so let’s begin:

The entire premise of the play was built upon some apparent spiritual linkage of the captivity of Shalit and the 1.5 million subhumans locked inside Gaza. The show began with the October 2009 video of Shalit issued by his captors to the Israeli government and the press. Shalit appears gaunt, reciting his name and rank and health and other things. And according to Wright, his captivity is the reason for the ongoing siege of Gaza.

Nice place to start history, considering the “economic diplomacy” (to use the words of the Israel Project) imposed on Gaza began well before Shalit’s capture, and began to take form immediately following the September 2005 withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Strip under Ariel Sharon. Looking back at that period, an agreement on the degree of air-tightness of the closure of the strip was negotiated between Israel, the pathetic Palestinian Authority, and the European Union, ensuring Israeli supervision, and in effect, veto power, over all persons and goods entering the strip. At the time, James Wolfensohn, the Quartet’s Special Envoy in charge of coordinating the withdrawal and border policy, complained publicly about the lack of cooperation by the Israelis, backed by the US, in living up to the terms of the nominal “independence” gifted to Gaza, with only 10% of Gazan exports being allowed to leave the strip, and continued Israeli control of the borders, coastline, and airspace of Gaza, crippling any hopes for self-sustenance in the territory. This impasse eventually led to Wolfensohn’s resignation from the post in 2006, which he elaborated on in a number of public statements and interviews. Thus began the proto-siege, which has been repeatedly tightened in successively sadistic stages since.

The next major tightening of the blockade came with the election of Hamas to power in January 2006, which crippled the banking system by freezing the assets of banks doing business in Gaza, as well as further restricted the entry of food, medicine, fuel, and other crucial supplies. Wright’s play pretends that this state of affairs began in reaction to the capture of Shalit, which is either the result of journalistic incompetence, deliberate omission, or “dramatic license” for the sake of framing a theatrical narrative.

In fact, this second phase of the siege began on January 26, 2006, almost exactly six months before Shalit’s capture. Whatever the reason for this omission, it helped mischaracterize Israel’s actions as an overreaction borne of concern for the helpless captured son of Zion, rather than the form of collective punishment that has been the go-to practice in that country’s conduct for decades against the populations of the lands that have fallen under its occupation. I think Abba Eban’s impolite explanation for this in 1981 explaining Israel’s continual bombardment of Lebanon in 1981, “there was a rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that afflicted populations would exert pressure on governments for the cessation of hostilities…” makes for a good operating principle in describing the trend. Using the June 26, 2006 capture of Shalit to explain these actions obscenely suggests that the siege, along with the never-ceasing attacks on Gaza since the withdrawal, have somehow been the exceptions to the norm of conduct during the serial aggressions of the Jewish state.

Now that we’ve called into question the entire opening premise of “The Human Scale”, let’s take a look at other artistic approximations of history (maybe the work should have been publicized as historical fiction to avoid these criticisms), as well as the good points.

The piece moved on to warm discussions humanizing Jews, with their contributions to science, the arts, philanthropy, Nobel Prizes won, etc. This was followed by the same showering of cuddles about the various contributions of Muslims to modern societies. All very nice, though Wright ended that line by pointedly noting that Muslims have only achieved 8 Nobels, compared to the countless won by Jews. I thought that was a nice touch, lest anyone suspect Wright be a crypto-Muhammadite.

Wright alluded to a line of Jewish law referring to hostages, stating that some Mishna verse “forbids ransom of hostages for more than their value for it disrupts the balance of the universe”– when comparing the ransom demanded by Shalit’s Palestinian captors, of around 1000 prisoners, in exchange for the Israeli soldier, thereby posing a bunch of theological questions about the worth of Jews to Arabs. He then went on to beatify the corporal with cosmic musings on “What is the value of this single Jewish life?”

The second section of the play was filled with these sappy posits. Perhaps it moved some “we need dialogue” types in the audience, but didn’t really do much for miserable cynics like myself.

The next section laid out the immediate background to the capture of Shalit, the June 9, 2006 Israeli attack that killed two Hamas commanders, as well as a number of civilians. A video was played showing a screaming Palestinian girl next to the corpse of a slain relative following this strike. I’d give Wright a point for acknowledging the suffering of Palestinians in a pretty gross video that dragged on long for dramatic effect. I’m sure he forgot (again) to mention the unilateral ceasefire undertaken and upheld for the prior sixteen months by Hamas preceding this Israeli attack. Nice for presenting the Tom-and-Jerry conflict as one of tit-for-tat retaliation between intractable foes.

Wright then continues to mention, retroactively, the election of Hamas to power earlier in 2006. He states that Fatah refused to accept the result of this election, and in response to this, Mahmoud Abbas called for a referendum amongst Palestinians accepting or rejecting a two-state solution to the conflict. This referendum, did indeed happen, but Wright claims at this point that the reason the path to peace was averted at this chance was the intransigence of Hamas. What he failed to mention was the American role in forcing the following events to unfold, leading to the takeover of Gaza by Hamas forces. Up to this point, the collaborationist Fatah government was economically supported by millions of dollars in aid by the Umited States and the European Union. Once Hamas won the elections, the US, along with the EU, withdrew direct economic support for the Palestinian Authority, to “encourage” a regime change within the territories that would exclude Hamas from participation.

Wright repeatedly insisted on Hamas’ perpetual rejection of the common two-state solution as a leading cause of, if not the primary cause of the impasse in reaching a peace agreement. He does not mention, however, Hamas’ position of acceptance of the 1967 borders as the basis for a long-term truce as of 2005, and, as of 2007, a permanent peace. These positions have, indeed, been reported, including within American media, repeatedly since then, in the Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and others. They remain unmentionable, inconvenient facts to this day, however, but I expected more from Wright.

And of course, the subsequent US military aid and training of Fatah death squads to overthrow the Hamas government after economic sanctions failed to displace Hamas from power also went unmentioned. The ruckus in the summer of 2007 that led to the complete takeover of Gaza by Hamas was characterized by Wright as a civil war amongst Palestinians, which is true to a degree, as could be said about conflict between the Sandinistas and Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. I would imagine the US role in enabling all this bloodshed might be of interest to a responsible investigative American journalist, as well as the New York crowd, but sadly, Wright helped to shatter my faith in the courage of mainstream reporters in our country.

He proceeded to quote Ari Shavit, a columnist for Ha’aretz whom he takes very seriously (as New Yorker editor David Remnick did before him), giving the standard Israeli propaganda line against further territorial withdrawals: “We dismantled the settlements, and then we sat back and said, ‘Let’s have a new beginning.’ What we got was rockets and Gilad Shalit.” I guess that sounds pretty reasonable, if one forgets the fact that Israeli attacks on Gaza never ended following withdrawal, as illustrated by the June 9 attack and the many more preceding it. No surprise, Wright didn’t challenge this line, though he was certainly aware that the violence during the period following withdrawal was not one-sided.

The siege that supposedly began with the capture of Shalit should be considered the third stage of suffocation of Gaza, the fourth coming after the Hamas ouster of US-backed Fatah death squads. To his credit, Wright does compare the death tolls of Israelis and Palestinians between 2005 and 2007, with Palestinians coming out way ahead, by an order of magnitude or two. Puzzlingly, he doesn’t continue this line of reasoning when he moves on later to the events precipitating the massacre of December 2008-January 2009. No, Wright goes on to read from the Hamas charter, quoting its dedication to the liberation of all Palestine, its rejection of the right to exist of the state of Israel, and its quoting of Islamic scripture justifying the murder of Jews.

Sick stuff, indeed. For a second I was beginning to feel some sympathy for the leadership of the Morlocks living under military occupation for the past 43 years, but those quotes helped avert that crisis. My faith in atheism was in question before this, but Wright helped reaffirm it with these quotes. The clash of civilizations, indeed. I hoped he had more for the audience. It would have been helpful then, if Wright continued on to paint a more comprehensive picture of the attitudes of the antagonists in the clash by quoting the founding documents of the Likud Party, which have never renounced their claims to the land that encompasses the state of Jordan today, or David Ben-Gurion, or Ehud Olmert, affirming the “right” within even the left and centrist parties in Israel to the whole of the territory between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. He could have quoted the comparisons of Palestinians and Iranians to the Amaleks, in the Old Testament by Benjamin Netanyahu and mainstream Israeli religious figures, or the notion of collective punishment that makes up the fable of Noah’s Ark, if he were seeking to persuade the audience of the lunacy of these mutual religious rejectionists.

But, disappointingly, he didn’t find the time for anyone but Hamas. Bernard Lewis would have been proud.

At last we arrived at Operation Cast Lead. He began by mentioning the ceasefire that was in place for the six months preceding the event. He didn’t shy away from describing the Israeli attack on November 4, 2008 that precipitated the end of that agreement. Hamas responded to this attack by resuming firing retaliatory rockets into Israel. He (truly laughably) lamented why Hamas could not just agree to renew the ceasefire afterward to avert the destruction that soon came. His memory failed him again, as there was no mention of the substance of the ceasefire agreement, ie, a termination of firing of stone-age rockets in exchange for lifting the siege, which never happened. I suppose that, in Wright’s mind, Hamas and the Gazan population would have entered the world of the civilized if they simply agreed to starve to death silently. That makes sense, considering that Wright framed his piece to tie the execution of the siege to the captivity of Gilad Shalit.

He then went into the details of the Gaza massacre. Numerous pictures of destruction were displayed on the video screens. Excerpts from the Goldstone Report were read, describing the destruction of what remained of the Gazan infrastructure and economy, including its farmland, power plants, sewage system, factories, and more. He gave conflicting figures about the death toll of the massacre between Israeli and Palestinian and human rights organizations, and their differing proportions in sorting out combatants and civilians. Several thick stacks of papers of reports from Human Rights Watch, Goldstone, Breaking The Silence, and B’tselem were held up and compared to a thin Israeli probe on its conduct during the war, obviously to illustrate the comparison between the consensus of humanity on the onslaught and Israel’s downplaying of the violence.

And Wright deserves credit for that. But then he went on again to cover his ass from any suspicions of excessive sympathy for the Palestinians by oddly stating, in light of all the facts and pictures he had offered, that “Israel of course went to extraordinary measures to protect civilian life. [It] dropped over 2.5 million leaflets warning people to flee.” Very strange indeed, considering the facts and pictures of death and destruction he had just spent several minutes on that seemed to prove the opposite. There was very little discrimination in the bombing in Gaza; everything got it– houses, the “civilian infrastructure”, UN facilities, international schools, hospitals, the coastline, the country, the cities. My eyebrow was raised for a second at this seeming contradiction. He followed this by saying “but of course, Gaza was totally encircled, and there was nowhere to flee.” Oh, okay, never mind.

Wright concluded the performance by blaming Hamas for its refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist and or renounce violence. Unfortunately for me, a few more questions arose in my mind here. Has Israel ever accepted the right of a Palestinian state’s existence? Has Israel ever agreed to renounce violence? What exactly is “the right to exist” of a state? In fact, Israel has done neither of the first two, and “the right to exist” is not a concept that exists anywhere in international law, in the UN Charter, any of the Geneva Conventions, anywhere. The idea has more or less been invented by supporters of Israeli aggression as an excuse to avoid the long-standing international consensus on a two-state solution, based on the pre-1967 borders between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. That settlement is reaffirmed every year by the UN General Assembly in its Peaceful Settlement Of The Question of Palestine vote by literally the entire world, with the United States, Israel, and more recently, Australia, playing the roles of the rejectionists of peace. These guidelines basically restate the guidelines of UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, and are duplicated, literally word-for-word, in the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002, and is accepted even by every Arab state, as well as the PLO, as well as (surprise, surprise) Hamas.

Wright is correct in reminding us that Hamas does not accept the “right to exist” of Israel. Hamas has repeatedly recognized its political existence, as has the entire Islamic world, Fatah, Hezbollah, and Iran, but not the “right” of Israel to have displaced them from their ancestral land.

Such details don’t matter much when playing it safe for American liberals in a theater crowd.

The play ended with one last plaintive mourning for the two parties of victims, the children who just can’t stop fighting no matter the toll to their respective societies, and Wright pondered why Hamas would be so willing to persist in its thirst for death no matter the cost to the Gazan population. I suppose asking why Israel can’t end its siege of Gaza and occupation of the territories considering the (much smaller) death toll it’s experienced over decades would be impolite though.

And last was the final prayer for peace, remembering what life was like in the region 23 years ago, at the time of Gilad Shalit’s birth. According to Wright, it was a hopeful time when over 100,000 Gazan laborers worked within Israel, there were tensions, but still a sense of optimism between the sides of a common future together, or some similar cartoonish pleasantries. Why couldn’t we go back to that? That nice period of occupation when soldiers were human enough to only break the bones of protesters. But that’s literally the question the play ended with.

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