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The Limits of Humanitarianism

[Watchtower, Rafah, Gaza Strip border with Egypt, April 2009. Image by Marius Arnesen.] [Watchtower, Rafah, Gaza Strip border with Egypt, April 2009. Image by Marius Arnesen.]

The prose of collapse increasingly punctuates reports and communiques concerned with the well-being of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. As early as 2006, as the Israeli siege slowly settled into place, reports cautioned of the collapse of the health system. On 4 January 2009, the Israeli human rights organization Gisha warned, “Gaza’s water and sewage system is on the verge of collapse following bombardments that have destroyed electricity lines.” On 27 May 2009 the European Commission announced, “The banking system in Gaza is on the verge of collapse because there is not enough physical cash…Our projects cannot receive the necessary cash.” On 3 September 2014, the United Nations observed, “Even before the latest crisis in the Gaza Strip, the tiny enclave's local economy was in a state of total collapse.” And on May 21, 2015, the World Bank released a report with the headline, “Gaza Economy on the Verge of Collapse.”

As the weight of cumulative bombardments grows heavier, the solvent of Israeli siege accelerates the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure’s disintegration. It began with the gossamer structures of public health, and moved on to the tougher but vulnerable water and sewage systems, the basic infrastructure of urban civilization for millennia. As the siege advanced and grew more sophisticated, Israeli regulations targeted the banking system and prevented the flows of hard currency that are its lifeblood. In the last years, it has been the “collapse” of the economy.

I examine here the notion of “collapse” through a historical analysis of the escalating attack on the Gaza Strip since 2006, as well as a critical reading of the latest World Bank report. Increasingly, international and local institutions have used the idea of collapse to remove Israeli policies from a larger settler-colonial framework, one linked to the foreign policies of the Western powers. Their containment project has absorbed these proliferating notions of collapse. Such concepts are intimately linked to a humanitarian discourse which denies political claims and an economic history which conceals the dynamic interaction between Israeli accumulation and Palestinian destitution. Finally, I suggest that it is only when the institutions discuss solutions, or even political negotiators, that the veil slips, and the core colonial prerogative, the right to decide who can speak for the colonized, flashes into view.

Collapse or Colonial Containment?

Collapse is both analogy and policy. As analogy, it is a way of raising the volume. It is the sound of the international institutions’ agitating at their maneuvering limits. Any conversation with the staff of international NGOs in the Gaza Strip reveals considerable  sympathy for the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, if not the cause in general, along with sharp antipathy to the Israeli regime. But their mandate does not extend to dealing with the root cause of the siege. As the World Bank admits, Israel “tightened movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza in 2006 following the January 2006 victory of Hamas and the formation of the Hamas-led PA government in March 2006.” As it goes on to warn, “A status quo in Gaza is unsustainable and could have further incalculable socioeconomic and ultimately human consequences.” Nevertheless, such institutions are not – directly – political actors. Their task, or their capabilities, is at best to keep the situation frozen in time, to prevent “collapse,” and to keep the Palestinians of the Strip alive. But not much more. And so the desperate rhetoric of collapse can also be a paralyzing agent, meant to produce passivity on the readers’ part.

Oddly, the Israeli government itself is also keen to prevent collapse. As Wikileaks cables have demonstrated, “Israeli officials have confirmed to [US] Embassy officials on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.” Indeed, “Israeli officials have confirmed…on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.” This is a process through which, in the words of Sherene Seikaly discussing British colonial policy in Palestine, “The provision of welfare [becomes] inextricable from political containment.”

Such violent freezes, represented with words like stasis, verge, and brink, are long-standing Israeli tools. It has increasingly resorted to them as the older kind of colonial domination, mass expulsion, became impractical. In its place, Israel implements fixes intended to conceal and consolidate the colonial process, while also managing and containing resistance to it. One such fix was the “peace process,” a partial response to the first intifada. Another was the Israeli disengagement from the Strip, designed to place the peace process in “formaldehyde,” in the words of Dov Weisglass, then the senior adviser to Ariel Sharon. The aim was to keep Palestinians and especially the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – those, in the words of Darwish, “most capable, among us, of dis­turb­ing the enemy’s mood and his comfort” – locked in colonial control’s historical, political, and geographical limits. As those limits tighten, nested in one another like Russian dolls, the project advances.

Indeed, each effort at political containment reflects an advance of the colonial project, visible as if through a glass, darkly. For with each one, the situation in the Strip worsens. The World Bank report warning of “collapse” hides the nature of the US-Israeli project, even as its prescription to avert such a fall follows imperial surrender terms to the letter.

Collapse and the Denial of Politics

Equally insidious is the entire technocratic-developmentalist framework. This framework does not fragment politics; it denies it altogether. A brief glimpse at the “economy” the World Bank crafts and its construction methods reveals the prior colonial epistemology.

This epistemology is evident in the quantitative material that the World Bank mobilizes to craft the Gaza Strip’s economy. The report speaks of “an analysis of Gaza’s stark economic decline over the past 20 years and its human impact. It also presents a mix of policies that should ensure sustainable development of the Gaza strip and put an end to human suffering therein.” The report goes on to note that “Real per capita income is 31 percent lower in Gaza than it was 20 years ago,” and that “Its manufacturing sector—once significant—has shrunk by as much as 60 percent in real terms,” far more per-capita. Industry is now at some five percent as industrial establishments are starved of traded inputs, their export channels blocked. Indeed, Israel has simply destroyed many of them.

The starting point for this analysis is the 1993 Oslo Accords. But why start there? Why not start in 1967, as the occupation began to prevent any possibility of industrial development? Why not start in 1948, when Israeli colonialism created the Strip as a political-geographical unit? Why not start in 1917 as the Strip came under British mandatory rule, devoted more to minimalist welfare than any meaningful development? Indeed, to speak at all of the “Gazan economy” is a novelty, and to set 1993 as an economic baseline is a political choice. It reinforces the Israeli project of fragmenting the Palestinian people, turning them into Gazans, West Bankers, 1948 Palestinians or “Israeli Arabs,” and various diaspora communities. The discursive fragmentation is a mirror of a fragmented politics and people. This discourse is also a way, as with all colonial projects, to violently deny history. Gaza City’s history is that of a trading entrepôt, at the crossroads of three continents. It used to be a port-city on par with Haifa. Gaza City is Gaza City as it is and not as it could have been because of Israeli violence. The colonial denial of history is most visible in the absurd comment of 2010 that “Gaza was a golden opportunity tragically missed. Instead of building a Mediterranean Dubai, Hamas diverted every resource to enslaving its people while attacking” Israelis. But this present always-already “collapse” is not due to a twenty-year occupation but well over a century of what Riyad Mousa calls “settler capitalist” predation. Three empires, the British, French, and US, have underwritten and benefited from this predation.

The report notes that it is flows of goods and money that are increasingly constricted, with the majority of the tunnels destroyed, hammering its “constrained economy.” During the war itself:

963 enterprises in the manufacturing sector were hit during the war reducing its output by 28 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year.  Agriculture also suffered as a large part of Gaza’s farms and arable land were ruined by military activity or eaten up by the enlarged security buffer zone that was established near the border during the war, and hence its 2014 output declined by 31 percent.

Youth unemployment consequently reached over sixty percent. The part of the population that is aid-dependent reached eighty percent, and the percentage of poor reached thirty-nine percent.

Electricity supply only meets forty-six percent of needs, while water quality remains poor, and there is a lack of access to sanitation services. Even in 2008, the aquifer was overdrawn by 200 per cent, accelerating the infusion of seawater and making the water supply unfit for human consumption. Sewage is pumped untreated into the Mediterranean, where some of it percolates back into the aquifers. As a result, water-borne illness is rising.

As the report goes on to note, “donor aid and remittances have been the most significant drivers of Gaza’s economy,” and although the degree of dependence is not clear, “it is certain that aid and remittances are almost the only source of foreign exchange inflows that fuels consumption in Gaza—which stands at 118 percent of its depressed GDP.” Aid comes from the United Nations Relief and Workers Agency (UNRWA), non-PA donor projects, and the PA. The PA spends about 1.6 billion US dollars a year in the Strip. That is fifty-eight percent of its revenue, while it only collects about thirteen percent of its revenues there.

The report then notes that in 2014 PA and UNRWA expenditures came to 1.8 billion US dollars, fifty-eight percent of the Gaza Strip’s estimated GDP, while World Bank staff estimate that remittances, some other donor projects, and flows to the Hamas government came to another 900 million US dollars, totaling roughly ninety percent of the Strip’s GDP.  Much of PA spending is on staff salaries and social assistance benefits. The report does not note that, as in the West Bank, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on the PA payroll are perhaps less likely to move sharply against it as the occupation’s subcontractor. It is by design that the needs of the Palestinians in the Strip are dependent on capital flows intended for a specific purpose. Even UNRWA is now facing a Western-imposed “austerity budget” whose only plausible goal can be to break the political will of the Palestinian people through collective punishment. Moreover, the inability to accumulate capital locally, the reliance on external flows, is not novel. It has been a structural feature of the Gaza Strip since at least 1967, when Israel turned the Strip into an appendage to its own accumulation process.

The Colonialism of the World Bank  

The World Bank’s analysis sidesteps the colonial genealogy of the siege. It quietly admits that Israel imposed the blockade in response to the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections. The report also concedes the origins of the premeditated ruin of field and factory in the Gaza Strip in “war and the blockade.” But it then implies that the siege was a response to subsequent “violence” and genuine security concerns, as opposed to Israel’s inability to deal with the Hamas movement’s “peace offensive” – its refusal to compromise on minimal Palestinian national demands.

Since the World Bank misdiagnoses the problem, it is predictable that its prescriptions are removed from any meaningful reference points: “The potential shown above and quick rebounds of Gaza’s economy that followed cycles of violence when conditions improved provide sufficient comfort that Gaza’s economy can be removed from life support quickly if the blockade is lifted and the right economic and governance policies are put in place.” Here the vital metaphors re-emerge, but the economy ceases being an ecological system. It becomes something like a hospital patient. The blockade becomes a disease, which causes certain “symptoms,” like ongoing de-development. A stronger and healthier economy might do well without “life support,” in other words, donor aid. But donor aid is not “life support.” It comes with conditions. USAID’s notorious demand for their grantees to disassociate from the parties supporting the liberation project, known colloquially in Washington, DC as “terrorist groups,” is one example.

“Governance” is, of course, the antiseptic lie under which the World Bank constantly smuggles entire suites of undemocratic directives. As it notes, what is needed is “institutional strengthening under PA’s leadership…Building legitimate institutions in Gaza that enjoy the support of the international community.”  It “requires a unified Palestinian government in both West Bank and Gaza that can be a partner to multilateral and bilateral donors and substantial donor support to rebuild  Gaza’s infrastructure and homes, and it requires the lifting of the blockade.” Then, “Once the Palestinian Authority is fully in charge of Gaza’s public sector, it will have to take prompt actions to ensure sustainability of its governance arrangements in Gaza” through tax arrangements, and only then will Israel lift the blockade, But such “solutions” are historical, too, the outcome of setbacks in the struggle for self-determination. It is “improved governance,” not liberation, which is the goal. But who made such a determination, and why? When did the “international community” become the reference point?

Meanwhile, the World Bank only goes so far as to distantly rue the events in the run-up to the war, noting “that the effort to create these institutions with the appointment of the consensus government in 2014 has not made much progress.” What such oblique formulations sidestep is that it is Hamas’s refusal to surrender which led to the massacre which disrupted the “progress” of a unity government in 2014. The emphasis on the PA, the darling of those governments, is not a surprise. Indeed, it is a violation of US law for anyone to support the “public sector” in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas governs. It is in this manner that the World Bank follows colonial orders, accepting only “legitimate” or legitimized interlocutors from the colonized society. What makes them legitimate is that they no longer hold up the national banner.

 The Ends of Collapse

This tableau, which resembles a hostage negotiation, is the “collapse” that the WB authorities perpetually peer on to, as they peek over the precipice, in the Strip. The use of the word in relation to that other nebulous creation of early twentieth century political economy, “the economy,” here is both curious and instructive. Such rhetoric summons the economy as an architecture, a physical system, an organic entity, which without the prescribed life support will collapse. 

But in the tightly engineered pressure and torture chamber that is the Gaza Strip, no sudden collapse seems to occur. Flows are cut, infrastructure is destroyed, lives ended, children traumatized, hopes snapped, futures denied, generations lost. No GDP indicator can tell us when an economy has collapsed or if it is merely on the verge. The World Bank admits as much, noting, “numbers…fail to portray the degree of suffering of Gaza’s citizens due to poor electricity and water/sewerage availability, war-related psychological trauma, limited movement, and other adverse effects of wars and the blockade.” Indeed, “collapse” works much as notions of “crisis” in so-called advanced capitalist economies. It is a way of avoiding the reality that crises are not of the system, but in the system. They always benefit some and hurt others. “Collapse” sidesteps that it is Israeli colonial capitalism above all that stunts the Strip.

If “collapse” means civilizations cascading to a lesser social complexity, what could collapse mean in the context of the Gaza Strip? What is happening is so much crueler. For it is deliberately inflicted. First Israel concentrates of people into an impossibly packed coastal salient. Then it builds walls and strings barbed wire around it. Then, when the trapped people resist, Israel uses the very modern tools, copying US sanctions policy in Iraq, of cutting off the Strip’s infrastructure from the world.

There is No Collapse. There is Demolition.

What the World Bank’s rhetoric helps hide is that near-collapse has been conscious policy. The recurrence of the word “collapse” is not an accident, not a literary quirk or tic. The brutal suspension of near-collapse is the result of economic and social sabotage. It intends to keep the population of the Gaza Strip in a state of chaos and enfeeblement. But intentions do not always translate into facts on the ground. Despite over a century of relentless efforts, despite the current advance of the Israeli-US-Saudi regional project, Israeli means still have not matched Israeli ends: a terminal defeat of Palestinian nationalism.

And so we must criticize the World Bank reports, their narratives, their gaps and their prescriptions. For the World Bank’s reactiveness is a product of colonialism – but also helps reinforce it. Because colonialism, like any relationship of oppression, seeks to normalize itself. It has an amnesiac quality. It seeks to present the present as without history. As a result, we swim in a sea of technical problems awaiting quick “fixes,” political crises awaiting “governance” reforms.

But ultimately, the World Bank’s governance-oriented framework quietly demands that the Palestinian movement surrender. It does so in part, as I have argued, by starting Palestinian economic history with Oslo. The settler-colonial framework has suggested one resolution: that history matters. And not just that it matters in general. But that a much longer arc of history matters, and that it sets the limits within which any political project, whether in Palestine or elsewhere, may proceed. Lately, many use that framework to suggest a quick fix – decolonize! – or reduce it to sentiment. Neither perspective helps in seeing history as having brought all of us to where we are. Over a century of Palestinian and broader Arab resistance to Zionism, with all of that resistance’s lights and shadows, has molded the shape of Zionism in important ways, sometimes opening important spaces and fissures in the Zionist project. Furthermore, any intervention in historical processes starts from existing strengths. In this case, those are the resistance movements as they actually exist in Palestine and in the region. Settler-colonialism, as a story that begins with imperialism and a settlement movement, is a story we tell about Israel – one we tell for a purpose. Or perhaps there are many purposes vying with one another, with the stories varying alongside the purposes. But none of the histories we tell are politically innocent.  

Once committed to telling a tale of continuous colonial settlement, we ought to understand that it should mean telling another story, too: of the force, in the words of Darwish, which will in Gaza “continue to explode,” as “it wants to expel the enemy out of its clothes.” It is “Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live.” If settler colonialism becomes a purely academic analysis, a history which excludes the story of the resistance, which is not only the current project of defying Zionism but also has constituted the underside of settler-colonialism, then it becomes a very problematic history indeed.

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