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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Recalibrating the "humanitarian crisis in Gaza" meme

For literally decades, we have been hearing about how Gaza was suffering from a "humanitarian crisis." Back in December 2007, a full year before the Gaza war, I enumerated how this "crisis" had been spoken about since at least 1993! 

No one is saying that Gaza is a paradise. However, it not nearly as bad as it has been portrayed, and years of skewed and misleading coverage from NGOs and reporters with an agenda have succeeded in giving the world a very inaccurate picture of Gaza. As a result, Gaza has gotten much more attention, and much more money, than the tens of millions of people who really need it and who really are ignored.

In the wake of bloggers noticing Gaza's gourmet restaurants, spas, luxury hotels, the new mall, water parks and other resorts, the media has finally started to give a more nuanced view of Gaza. In this unintentionally funny piece in Slate, a clueless reporter is shocked that Gaza really isn't like sub-Saharan Africa:

GAZA CITY—Aid officials in Gaza all recite the same statistics: "44 percent unemployment [actually, 34%, we cannot expect a Slate reporter to actually check the facts, can we? -EoZ], 80 percent food-aid dependent, and 60 percent living on less than $2 a day." It sounds like a script they've grown tired of delivering to passing journalists.

After multiple rounds of similar briefings, I'm staring at Kamla Joudah's parlor in Nuseirat refugee camp, in the middle of the Gaza Strip. The warm beige tones of the furniture reflect the heat, and the walls gleam. The frequently cut power is on today, so the fan whirls. Tea and coffee are brought out on a small tray.

Kamla catches me appraising her home. "What are you looking at?" she asks, with some pique.
"Your house," I reply, "It's very nice."

She looks at me quizzically, "This is not Darfur," she snaps. The family members in the room burst out laughing as I blush.

The oft-recited statistics paint a bleak picture of life in the territory. But Gaza is a lot more complicated than the numbers suggest.

Comments like Kamla's are common here; everyone I speak to insists the coastal enclave is nothing like Somalia, Bangladesh, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. And people are indignant that I suggested it might be in the same league as those places.
Notice that the reporter went to what should be the worst place in Gaza - a refugee camp. Many Gazans live in their own houses, outside the camps. Her astonishment was at how good the worst part of Gaza was.

Yet journalists do not want to admit their part in this massive deception. Instead, they move the goalposts so that the "humanitarian crisis" is redefined to be a lot less crisis-like:
"There is food in Gaza. It's not a humanitarian crisis. There is no hunger, there is no starvation, but there is a crisis of another nature," says Mahmoud Daher, a World Health Organization official in Gaza, who was expressing his personal views, not those of his organization.

As Daher explains, the blockade has dramatically altered the standard of living for Palestinians in the territory. In three years, he assesses, Gazans have lost 20 years of economic development. And in that decline lies the root of the crisis in Gaza as he sees it.

"Inability to access quality care is a crisis, inability for people to produce and have access to jobs is a crisis, inability of people to get the quality of education that they are used to is a crisis, and above all [it is] a crisis of dignity—a crisis of humanity," Daher tells me.
Um, not exactly the same as starvation, is it? No flies buzzing around kids with distended stomachs and vacant stares. Instead, Gaza has to worry about the next 20,000 laptops that UNRWA is distributing to their kids.

The reporter doesn't ask about how Hamas is getting its money, or what restrictions on movement are from the Gaza de facto government. She doesn't ask about the flotillas bringing expired medicines to garner headlines. She doesn't ask about why the blockade exists to begin with. No, for her, Gaza seems to have sprung into existence in January 2009, and while she is shocked that her journalist colleagues have misled her since then, she needs to write an article about how bad things are, and that's what she'll do.

But she will not ask the basic questions: if Gaza is not so bad off, then shouldn't the billions it is receiving be better spent elsewhere? Shouldn't more of the burden for Gaza fall to their fellow oil-rich Arabs, rather than Westerners who should be putting their money in places like Bangladesh and the Congo? Why are the "human rights" activists so fixated on a territory whose poorest citizens are the envy not only of many Africans but even of poor Arabs in other countries?

(h/t Silke, who gave me a very nice compliment over at CiFWatch. Thanks!)