Disaster myopia: On the non-universality of compassion in Haiti and Gaza

by Yaniv Reich on January 17, 2010

Dear Haitians, forgive me for using your current and historical suffering to make a political point about a distant land. Nothing I say is intended to diminish your real suffering and remarkable steadfastness in the face of often externally created adversity. Given your history, there is a strong comparison to be made with the currently besieged people of Gaza because you, like the Palestinians, have all-too-often found yourselves on the wrong side of global power.

As David Brooks so thoughtfully pointed out recently in the New York Times, Haitians themselves are largely to blame for the devastation with which they are struggling to cope because of their “progress-resistant cultural influences.” And their problems are not just with culture. From 1957–1986, normal everyday Haitians had the audacity to live under the dictatorial Duvalier family (which was propped up by the US). Then, in 1990, Haitians again erred in choosing in their first democratically run elections a former priest, Aristide, who was somewhat too independent-minded in his policy prescriptions, thereby sparking a US-backed coup attempt against him that resulted in his exile. Clearly, Haitians cannot be relied upon to decide political matters for themselves.

Haiti just suffered a tremendous earthquake, about which Nahum Barnea from Yediot Achronot writes: “We know these images from the wars: Homes whose roofs collapsed into the earth, refugees walking slowly, one family after another, carrying their belongings on theirs heads and the horror on their faces. We are also familiar with the odor – that sweet, sickly smell of bodies rotting under the ruins.” He has in mind the World Wars of the 20th century, but his comments bring other, more recent wars to my mind.

In this unfortunate context, the best policy that could be adopted in the aftermath of this disaster is a comprehensive siege of Haiti, including all air, sea, and land routes. It is imperative that none of Haiti’s potential despots or independent policy makers get their hands on the building materials and food supplies that can used to advance Haiti’s political goals.

Either Haiti or Gaza

Learning from Gaza

To implement this policy, we should allow the UN to calculate the bare minimum amount of aid the Haitians need to survive. Once this number is known, the international community should allow precisely one-third of the estimated amount to arrive. This will ensure that there is “no development, no prosperity, no humanitarian crisis” and unsavory political figures will not be empowered.

For more information about how such a policy can be implemented, we can study the surprisingly effective siege on Gaza. In this example, Israel has imposed a punishing siege on 1.5 million Palestinians after it destroyed the area in last year’s assault. Despite an almost complete cessation of rocket fire before and since the assault, Israel views its total embargo as a way of applying political pressure on Hamas, the current governing party there.

According to the IDF Spokesperson, the “best” day this month for aid deliveries to Gaza was January 13th, when Israel let in 171 aid trucks. As the Promised Land blog calculates, each truck must therefore carry food, clothing, and supplies for heating and power for an estimated 9,075 people. Obviously, a single truck of even the most gigantic proportions cannot carry enough supplies for so many people. And that’s a good day.

Either Haiti or Gaza

Humanitarian organizations estimate that an absolute minimum of 300 trucks are needed daily, but this number has not been reached on any given day since last winter’s war on Gaza. Of course, the desperate Gazans manage to make up for some of the balance by smuggling through the dangerous tunnels to Egypt. Israel deems this a serious problem and has worked with Egypt to either destroy the tunnels or build a fortified wall that would prevent their construction. Or it just bombs them directly. These are important lessons to apply to Haiti as well, particularly given the border with the Dominican Republic.

Moral unequivalence in the distribution of aid

The disaster in Haiti has resulted in an impressive philanthropic response from around the world. Social networking sites are abuzz with innovative ways to contribute money and prayers to the disaster-stricken people of Haiti. Even Israel has send an IDF search-and-rescue team to Haiti, which has already saved a couple lives and which, in addition to the obvious benefit of helping trapped human beings reach fresh air and light, happens to provide a public relations coup for the strained Israeli hasbara officials. “In supporting JDC and IsraAID, we are not only helping the Haitian people,” said Steve Nasatir, President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “We also are spotlighting the Jewish people and Israel in a part of the world that might not otherwise be positively exposed to the compassion of Jewish people and the Jewish State.”

True. You can give money not only to people who are right now crushed alive under concrete. You also give to the Jewish people and help to highlight the Jewish State’s compassion.

Netanyahu concurred, saying it was a “Jewish duty” to help the Haitians. “I think that this is in the best tradition of the Jewish People; this is the true covenant of the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” he added. “Despite being a small country, we have responded with a big heart,” continued the prime minister. “The fact is, I know, that this was an expression of our Jewish heritage and the Jewish ethic of helping one’s fellow man.”

It is useful to know that in the Israeli mind, and in the policy of the so-called Jewish State, Haitians constitute “fellow men”, but the imprisoned Gazans, who are living an identical reality to what Port-au-Prince will be in one year’s time, if we implement the full blockade, are excluded from the “Jewish ethic” that is the “true covenant of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.” Are we to conclude that Palestinians do not constitute “fellow man”?

The cynicism inherent in the Israeli response is not the exclusive domain of Israel. The same moral segregation that allows Israel to so hypocritically send aid thousands of miles away to remedy a situation that mirrors a local disaster it creates every single day exists in the minds of the US, Obama, Clinton, Bush, Brangelina, and every American that pulled out a check for Haiti while supporting Israel’s continued imprisonment and slow-motion starvation of 1.5 million human beings.

Once the dust settles in Haiti and the dead are counted, reconstruction will begin, likely bolstered by inflated aid budgets. If only the Palestinians could be so “lucky.”

Nahum Barnea ends his Ynet report on the Haiti earthquake with the following words:

“The residents of Port-au-Prince woke up to another earthquake Friday. This time it ended without any damage, yet the trauma was back. “I was standing at home for minutes while my body was shaking,” the driver who took me to the center of town said. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing when the next quake comes.”

Gaza’s brutalized citizens feel the same way.

Update: Akiva Eldar is on the case too, and writes the article I wish I had.

The remarkable identification with the victims of the terrible tragedy in distant Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza. Only a little more than an hour’s drive from the offices of Israel’s major newspapers, 1.5 million people have been besieged on a desert island for two and a half years. Who cares that 80 percent of the men, women and children living in such proximity to us have fallen under the poverty line? How many Israelis know that half of all Gazans are dependent on charity, that Operation Cast Lead created hundreds of amputees, that raw sewage flows from the streets into the sea?

The Israeli newspaper reader knows about the baby pulled from the wreckage in Port-au-Prince. Few have heard about the infants who sleep in the ruins of their families’ homes in Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces prohibition of reporters entering the Gaza Strip is an excellent excuse for burying our heads in the sand of Tel Aviv’s beaches; on a good day, the sobering reports compiled by human rights organizations such as B’Tselem, Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel on the situation in Gaza are pushed to the newspapers’ back pages. To get an idea of what life is like in the world’s largest prison, one must forgo “Big Brother” and switch to one of the foreign networks.

The disaster in Haiti is a natural one; the one in Gaza is the unproud handiwork of man. Our handiwork. The IDF does not send cargo planes stuffed with medicines and medical equipment to Gaza. The missiles that Israel Air Force combat aircraft fired there a year ago hit nearly 60,000 homes and factories, turning 3,500 of them into rubble. Since then, 10,000 people have been living without running water, 40,000 without electricity. Ninety-seven percent of Gaza’s factories are idle due to Israeli government restrictions on the import of raw materials for industry. Soon it will be one year since the international community pledged, at the emergency conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, to donate $4.5 billion for Gaza’s reconstruction. Israel’s ban on bringing in building materials is causing that money to lose its value.

A few days before Israeli physicians rushed to save the lives of injured Haitians, the authorities at the Erez checkpoint prevented 17 people from passing through in order to get to a Ramallah hospital for urgent corneal transplant surgery. Perhaps they voted for Hamas. At the same time that Israeli psychologists are treating Haiti’s orphans with devotion, Israeli inspectors are making sure no one is attempting to plant a doll, a notebook or a bar of chocolate in a container bringing essential goods into Gaza.
The prohibition of cilantro, vinegar and ginger being brought into the Strip since June 2007 was intended to expedite the release of Gilad Shalit and facilitate the fall of the Hamas regime. As everyone knows, even though neither mission has been particularly successful, and despite international criticism, Israel continues to keep the gates of Gaza locked. Even the images of our excellent doctors in Haiti cannot blur our ugly face in the Strip.

Update 2: Gazans have collected donations for Haitians. “”We are here today supporting the victims of Haiti; we feel for them the most because we were exposed to our own earthquake during Israel’s war on Gaza,” remarked Jamal Al-Khudary, Head of the Committee to Break the Siege.

Update 3: I missed this post when it appeared, but it Phil Weiss identified the Haiti/Gaza hypocrisy two days ago.

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