Does Peter Beinart actually care about the rights of women in Gaza? A response.

Last week, Peter Beinart published a widely circulated article entitled “The Pro-Palestinian Left’s Hamas Blindspot.” In the piece, Beinart complains of the Palestinian solidarity community’s silence over Hamas’s refusal to allow women to participate in the Gaza marathon, a decision that led to UNRWA to cancel event:

This tolerance for certain brands of thuggery is an old story on the left. At its core is the belief that anyone who battles “imperialism” can’t be that bad. Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, are both repressive. So why does Electronic Intifada direct so much more bile toward the former than the latter? Because Hamas is unequivocally hostile to Israel, the “imperialist” power, while Abbas and Israel are—from Electronic Intifada’s perspective—in cahoots. The yardstick, in other words, is not how a Palestinian group treats its own people but how it treats Israel. If it exhibits sufficient hatred of the Jewish state, Electronic Intifada overlooks its flaws. But if a Palestinian leader cooperates with Israel,Electronic Intifada amplifies his misdeeds because it sees the ultimate author of those misdeeds as Israel itself, the one and only true enemy of Palestinian human rights between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Beinart goes on to accuse Palestinian solidarity activists of repeating the sins of their forbearers, who allegedly gave a pass to the fascist and authoritarian tendencies of communist leaders like Joseph Stalin.

The Pro-Palestinian Twitterverse quickly pointed out that UNRWA had already canceled the event and it was unclear what more Beinart wanted from them. Fair enough. There is also a very long history of people justifying colonial interventions on the basis of saving colonized women from colonized men, or, to use Spivak’s famous dictum, “white men saving brown women from brown men.” Again, fair enough. But neither of these seem to get to the heart of Beinart’s criticism: that the pro-Palestinian left allegedly overlooks the sins of Palestinian leaders while concentrating disproportionately on the sins of Israel.

The real problem with Beinart’s line of argumentation is that it tries to frame the debate as though it were a conflict between two sovereign states. The reason he seeks to hold accountable the Hamas authorities in Gaza is because they ostensibly have sovereignty. But, of course, they do not. Gaza’s borders, airspace, economy, and (lack of) infrastructure continue to be controlled exclusively by Israel.

Gaza is not a state. It is a prison.

The strategy of trying to hold Palestinians accountable to the responsibilities of the state in the absence of granting them power to participate in the powers of a state can likewise be seen in the following Al-Jazeera debate on the recent decision of Israel to expand (not introduce, pace most reporting on the issue) segregated buses to the West Bank:

Most of the points introduced by Gregg Roman, current director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Pittsburgh and former colonial officer in the West Bank, are easily refuted by Mustafa Barghouti and Ben White. But Roman continues hammering on one point which the other two seem to have trouble responding to: how can one complain about Israeli racism in housing policy when under the Palestinian Authority selling houses to Jews is punishable by death?

The law against selling property to Jews has its obvious logic: Jewish settlers have used both renting and buying homes in Palestinian territories as steps towards the successful colonization of Palestinian land. Nonetheless, the law seems heavy handed and racist.

What neither White nor Barghouti will say is that it is a bad law. And it is exactly the sort of bad law that thrives under conditions of military occupation and apartheid. If such a law were to be passed by a state with the power to rule over its populations, it would be incredibly worrisome. And if this were a conflict between two sovereign powers, it would likewise be particularly worrisome.

But this is not a conflict between two sovereign powers. It is a conflict between a colonial occupier and the occupied. As such, the law against selling property to Jews, like Hamas’s decision to bar women from participating in the marathon, represent administrations with only the smallest trappings of power, able to act only when its colonial overlords permit it.

Why does all of this matter? When you lack the structures of a state, you also lack important structures of accountability. Some of these structures – like elections, laws, and patron-client networks – are internal to the country. Others – like international accords, treaties, and courts – are external to the country. But all apply best when there is a functional nation-state to speak of. 

These bad laws and policies are precisely the sort of thing that happens when the structures of a state and the concomitant institutions of accountability are not in place. States, for all of their many problems, are important entities. And it you don’t believe me, just look at the places where there is not a functioning state: places like most of Somalia, Yemen, or a Guatemalan prison. Because of Israel’s policies, Palestinians in many parts of the West Bank and certainly in Gaza resemble the situation in the latter far more than they resemble a functioning nation-state. The responsibility for this state of affairs lies exclusively with Israel. Israel maintains both the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza outside of the systems of accountability that are present in states.

Does this excuse the bad laws and policies of Hamas or Fatah? Of course not. But for as long as that is the case, bad laws will continue to be passed by both “governments.” And for as long as that is the case, Israel will bare some of the responsibility.

If Peter Beinart genuinely cares about the women of the Gaza Strip, he should push for their inclusion in a functioning political community. Then and only then will a discussion on Hamas’s policies be meaningful.

  1. David R. said:

    You say, “Gaza is not a state. It is a prison.” How would you distinguish Gaza today with the European institution of the “ghetto”?

    • This is a very good question, and I’d want to do some more historical reading on the European ghetto before saying anything definitive on the matter. My impressions are that European ghettos were somewhat less concerned with geographic separation and isolation in the way that the Gaza prison has been set up and more concerned with managing populations within cities. But again, I am not well-read enough on the topic to say with certainty. Any recommended readings for pointing out the parallels and/or contrasts?

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