Haiti and Gaza

March 5, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Jamie Stern-Weiner

The contrast between the response of our political and intellectual classes to the devastation in Haiti on the one hand and the “humanitarian implosion” in Gaza on the other is striking. There was no star-studded ‘Hope for Gaza’ benefit gig last year when US-backed Israeli forces systematically pounded Gaza’s civilian infrastructure to rubble, killing some 1,400 people in the process. I have yet to witness Anderson Cooper descend upon the streets of Rafah, angelic choirs heralding his arrival, to carry injured Palestinian children to safety through the rubble, or Katie Couric movingly comfort a newly-orphaned Palestinian child. And while the BBC refused to air the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal for aid to Gaza on the spurious grounds that it was too “political”, it had no such qualms about Haiti. This disparity is particularly shameful given that, whereas what is needed in Haiti is a huge reconstruction effort (specifically one designed to empower Haitians rather than further subjugate them to external forces), all that is required in Gaza is that we stop actively participating in and facilitating the destruction. The British government, itself heavily complicit in Gaza’s suffering, refuses even to call for an end to the Israeli siege, condemned almost universally as illegal collective punishment [.pdf], instead issuing weasel-worded demands for “improve[d] access” while continuing to support Israeli repression in practice.

As dramatic as this contrast is, the similarities in the discourse surrounding both Gaza and Haiti are also revealing. Observe, for instance, the familiar pious (and occasionally even sincere) demands to avoid “politicising” a humanitarian crisis, as if questions about the causes and appropriate responses to major disasters are not inherently political. Following this logic much of the coverage of Haiti has restricted itself to purely ‘humanitarian’ concerns, with analysis of the political context generally absent or limited to vague gestures towards “poverty” or “poor governance”. In its most absurd form this has led to people (specifically the, er, “neo-Nazi hard right and the neo-Stalinist hard left”) being condemned for questioning the rapturous praise for Israeli relief work in Haiti, even as Israel prevents aid workers from operating in the West Bank. For Israeli columnist and archetypal ‘shoot-and-cry’ liberal Bradley Burston, to even suggest that Israel’s efforts in Haiti are part of a PR campaign to “buttress Israel’s standing in the eyes of world public opinion” and highlight the “compassion … [of] the Jewish State” is to reveal “a hatred – and a bigotry – that borders on the visceral”.

As Mark Fisher notes,

“One irony of this squeamishness about ‘bringing politics’ into situations of mass human suffering, of course, is that, as Naomi Klein consummately demonstrated in The Shock Doctrine, the neoliberal project has depended on its ability to rapidly helicopter into just these situations and exploit them.”

Thus, the Heritage Foundation was quick to identify in Haiti’s suffering “opportunities” for the US to “re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy” and impose “[l]ong-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy”, while the American Enterprise Institute called on the US military to “ensure that Haiti’s gangs—particularly those loyal to ousted President Jean‐Bertrand Aristide—are suppressed.” Currently, with thousands of US troops on the ground, calls for Haiti to become a “protectorate” are proliferating, accompanied by wistful nostalgia for the days of US occupation, during which thousands of people were killed, among other brutalities.

In Gaza the discourse of ‘humanitarianism’ – which is undoubtedly useful when employed carefully – has been deployed to similar effect. As Prof. Avi Shlaim observes, one of the objectives of the Gaza massacre was to “ensure that the Palestinians in Gaza are seen by the world simply as a humanitarian problem and thus to derail their struggle for independence and statehood”. Sara Roy similarly describes Israel’s efforts “to ensure that the Palestinians there are seen merely as a humanitarian problem, beggars who have no political identity and therefore can have no political claims”. As one Israeli border officer described his mission for Gaza: “no development, no prosperity, only humanitarian dependency” [.pdf]. While ‘Operation Cast Lead’ was still raging, the Palestine Monitor warned of the pitfalls of humanitarian rhetoric:

“Through an arduous process of Depoliticization, Israel has succeed in turning a political problem requiring a political solution, such as the Palestine-Israeli conflict, into a technical problem requiring logistical solutions”.

This warning is echoed in a thoughtful discussion of the issue by Ilana Feldman [.pdf], who notes that the cause of humanitarianism is the “redress of ‘suffering,’ not the crafting of political and military strategies to halt the actions and structures that produce this suffering”. A consequence of this is the transformation of what is fundamentally a question of justice into one of charity, rendering Gazans into people “whose suffering could evoke compassion, but not obligation”. This, as Feldman observes, is what underlies Israel’s position that while it has no obligations towards the population of Gaza, it will nonetheless provide Gazans with a minimum level of subsistence out of sheer benevolence. This is problematic since aid delivered out of “compassion” (particularly the ‘compassion’ of the Israeli state) rather than obligation is much more vulnerable to termination, particularly if its recipients fail to adhere to Avatar-like standards of ‘perfect victimhood’. This can be seen clearly in the case of Haiti, where rare calls for France to repay the $40 billion it extorted from Haiti in ‘compensation’ for the latter’s revolt against French colonialism are drowned out by pleas for “charity” and “giving”.


In both Haiti and Gaza the suffering is blamed on the victims, often in essentialist terms. In Gaza, Palestinians are held responsible for the extreme violence inflicted on them because they had the temerity to elect Hamas. Apologists for the occupation subject us to endless regurgitations of that classic colonial meme – that “[p]eace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us” – while incidents of Palestinian barbarism, often invented out of whole cloth, are endlessly hyped and Palestinian media intensely scrutinised for evidence of moral backwardness. Back in 1978 the director of USAID in Haiti described the country as a “moral void”, ascribing its underdevelopment to “a set of national values and attitudes dominated by voodoo religion”. Fast-forward to today and we discover, courtesy of David Brooks, that Haitian poverty is a consequence of “progress-resistant cultural influences”, including voodoo. Racism of a more subtle variety has characterised much of the coverage of Haiti since the earthquake, with ominous warnings of criminal “gangs” and “looters” rampaging across the country. In fact, as journalists and aid workers on the ground have consistently reported, violence was at most “localised and sporadic”, with one BBC journalist reporting that the people “are pulling together, not tearing themselves apart … I did not feel unsafe”.

In Gaza Palestinians are demonised to justify their violent repression and economic strangulation; in Haiti victims are portrayed as savages in order to justify the militarisation of aid at the expense of relief efforts (and, therefore, of untold numbers of Haitian lives).

This essentialism is necessarily accompanied by a profound ahistoricism. In Gaza Palestinian violence is rarely contextualised, certainly not beyond a vague ‘cycle-of-violence’ narrative that utterly fails to capture the fundamentally asymmetric character of the occupation, leaving people unable to understand phenomena like the Qassam rockets except in terms of an innate Palestinian moral degeneracy and commitment to violence. Similarly, as Seamus Milne reports,

“Haiti’s poverty is treated as some baffling quirk of history or culture, when in reality it is the direct consequence of a uniquely brutal relationship with the outside world — notably the US, France and Britain — stretching back centuries.”

To take one example, a New York Times editorial explained the extent of the destruction caused by the earthquake as a consequence of “generations of misrule, poverty and political strife”, thereby airbrushing from history centuries of imperial intervention (for a corrective, see Chomsky, Harman, Lindskoog and Hallward). It is this suppression of history that enabled Obama to establish a ‘Clinton Bush Haiti Fund’ without provoking a mass epidemic of projectile vomiting, and Clinton to stand alongside George Clooney, Rihanna and other celebrities posing as a great humanitarian despite his central role in creating Haiti’s current misery.

There are, however, grounds for hope. Immediately after the earthquake struck the IMF offered Haiti a $100 million loan conditioned on the implementation of the same neoliberal reforms that helped reduce it to aid dependency in the first place. Following a wave of public pressure, spearheaded by Naomi Klein, it subsequently dropped those conditions in what Klein describes as an “unprecedented” reversal. Similarly in the past two years public discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly in the US, has undergone a minor revolution, spurred on not simply by the brutality of the 2006 Lebanon war and last year’s Gaza massacre but by unprecedented public awareness of that brutality (hence Israel’s hysteria over the Goldstone report). In both cases it is clear that dedicated efforts to educate and inform people about the realities of our role in the world have real potential to make a difference.

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Jamie Stern-Weiner studies Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He is a member of the New Left Project editorial team and maintains a personal blog at