Colonial Gaza

It’s commonly said that the Palestinians are a colonized people. Israel is the occupier-colonizer. Take this comment in a letter to the National Post protesting Israel’s military attack on educational institutions in Gaza (January 8, 2009, “CUPE has the right idea”): “The denial of educational resources to a colonized people is a longstanding practice of occupation forces or settler-colonial powers.” Colonizers are powerful; the colonized are victims. The formulation has become a “trope,” a way of thinking in the social sciences, a tool of analysis.

How far can we take the trope? I’m ready to say that the Palestinians in Gaza are a colonized people. They resemble victims. But who are the colonizers?

Colonizers can be defined as groups or countries that make rules for others by which the colonizers themselves are not bound. And as I explained a couple of days ago colonizers often enforce those rules by paying into the colony’s coffers. In the first decade of the nineteenth century according to one early estimate, the British contributed nearly one half of the costs of government in Lower Canada.  A colonizing regime may have other and nastier ways of enforcing its will. But for the purposes of the argument here let’s keep our eyes on the money.

In a free country, the citizens pay the shot. The whole thing. They pay their governors’ salaries and expenses and fund their policies, and they expect to be able to dismiss them from office if grossly unsatisfactory by choking off funding. So the prosperity of the people becomes something the governors have to take seriously. That’s Canada’s system today. It’s not a perfect one. (But who’s come up with a better?)

Now think about a situation in which the taxpayers of a foreign country could slip funds to Canadian legislators. A situation in which the government of a foreign country, or an international agency, could propose and bankroll ambitious schemes of “improvement” for this country. The sovereign power of the people of Canada to determine their nation’s affairs would be short-circuited. We’d be a colonized population again, our political agenda determined elsewhere, our legislators no longer working wholeheartedly for us because no longer dependent on us.

Turn to Gaza. Who’s paying Gaza’s rulers; who’s paying for programs and policies?

Noemi Gal-Or, who contributes to the Inroads Magazine chat line (Queen’s University) observes: “Gaza is flooded with money from Arab sources as Hamas’ military organisation and infrastructure evidences, while the humanitarian and economic funding is left to sponsorship by the rest of the world – the UN and mainly the West. From Arafat’s coffers to the Hamas’ – money was never a problem, nor should it be. Its allocation and distribution certainly always was and still is.” (Thanks, Noemi.)

So by Ajzenstat’s definition, Gaza is a colony. But is Israel the colonizer? Insofar as it is supplying humanitarian aid, yes. But so are the “Arab sources” mentioned by Gal-Or. Iran, the UN, and “the West” relieve Hamas of the necessity of improving the lives of its people.

I am not suggesting we cut off humanitarian aid. It’s surely one of the most extraordinary and admirable aspects of today’s world that governments, private groups and individuals in the wealthier countries ungrudgingly attempt to alleviate conditions in poorer ones. But the interference in other countries, while admirable and indeed necessary, has that unfortunate effect of –  even if only temporarily – demeaning the recipient’s independence, the precious self-sufficiency on which depends the population’s self-regard and ability to govern themselves and improve their economy. Think of the reaction of the Indian Government to the tsunami of 2004. Western countries and agencies geared up to send aid to the affected Indian provinces but India asked us to refrain. India was in a position to take care of itself and assist its unfortunate neighbours.

It’s in areas like Gaza that the full consequences come home. Gal-Or goes on: “Hamas could have shown that it was a government to be recognised in international law not only in words but also in deeds, and primarily – in deeds designed to protect their own ‘citizenry’. They still have this opportunity available – in theory and in practice.” She ardently wishes that Hamas or some other party had been able to “take control over the Palestinian economy in Gaza and develop it.”

But they didn’t. Hamas has absolutely no reason to alleviate Gaza’s suffering. And many reasons to exacerbate it. I don’t see a way out of this dilemma.

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