The Political Ecology of Disaster


On Monday, March 26, 2007 in Northern Gaza a river of raw sewage and debris overflowed from a collapsed earth embankment into a refugee camp driving 3,000 Palestinians from their homes. Five residents drowned, 25 were injured and scores of houses were destroyed.

The New York Times, Washington Post and the television media blamed shoddy infrastructure. The Daily Alert (the house organ of the Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations) blamed the Palestinians who they claimed were removing sand to sell to construction contractors thus undermining the earth embankment. The disaster at Umm Naser (the village in question) is emblematic of everything that is wrong with US-Israeli politics in the Middle East. The disaster in this isolated village has its roots first and foremost in Washington where AIPAC and its political allies have successfully secured US backing for Israel’s financial and economic boycott of the Palestinian government subsequent to the democratic electoral victory of Hamas. AIPAC’s victory in Washington reverberated throughout Europe and beyond – as the European Union also applied sanctions shutting off financing of all new infrastructure projects and the maintenance of existing facilities. At the AIPAC conventions of 2005 through 2007, the leaders of both major American parties, congressional leaders and the White House pledged to re-enforce AIPAC’s boycott and sanctions strategy. AIPAC celebrated its victory for Israeli policy and claimed authorship of the legislation. In addition to malnutrition, the policy undermined all public maintenance projects.

Equally central to the disaster, Israel’s massive sustained bombing attack on Gaza in the summer of 2006, demolished roads, bridges, sewage treatment facilities, water purification and electrical power plants. Northern Gaza was one of its many targets, putting severe strain on already precarious infrastructure and government budgets – including the maintenance of sewage treatment plants and cesspools.

The Israeli economic blockade of Gaza increased unemployment, poverty and hunger to unprecedented levels. Out of work Gazans reached over 60% of the population – large families with young children were reduced to one meal a day. Family heads desperately looked for any way to earn funds to buy a pound of chickpeas, oil, rice and flour for bread. It is possible that forced by the AIPAC-induced US-EU boycott and Israeli bombing and blockade, that some desperate workers removed some sand around the cesspool. The pretext cited by the Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations (PMAJO) for blaming the Palestinian victims for their own suffering, and exonerating the Israelis, AIPAC and their congressional clients.

The PMAJO has justified thirty-nine years of Israeli occupation and criminal neglect of Gaza’s basic sewage treatment facilities. Israel spends less than 2% on a per capita basis for basic services in the Occupied Territories that it is obligated under international law to provide responsibly than it spends in Israel. The United Nations and Israeli human rights groups have documented Israel’s callous lack of responsibility toward the Palestinian civilians under its brutal occupation. It is not surprising that the Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations can think of nothing better than to blame the destitute Palestinians for the collapse of a primitive earth embankment and the horrific deaths.

To the extent that any Palestinian leader can be held responsible, the finger points to the US and Israeli-backed PLO and its titular head Abbas who receives whatever ‘humanitarian’ aid flows into Palestine. The tens of millions of dollars of Palestinian import taxes held by Israeli banks were handed over to Mahmoud Abbas and his CIA-Mossad liaison, Mohammed Dahlen, to arm their anti-Hamas vigilantes. Over the past two decades the US-backed ‘moderate’ PLO leaders and crony ‘capitalists’ have diverted tens of millions of dollars and euros to their private overseas bank accounts, with the acquiescence of their European, US and Israeli patrons. What is a bit of Palestinian corruption if it means propping up an incompetent group of pliant ‘leaders’?

The plight of the Umm Naser villagers deluged by their own sewage was neither an act of fate nor a result of local negligence or theft: It was a direct consequence of all that is wrong in US-Middle East politics, the taking sides with a brutal colonial power and its powerful voices and organizations in Washington. Umm Naser is written large throughout Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon: Millions of Arab villagers suffer the consequences of pre-emptive wars to secure Greater Israel as both President Bush and Vice President have publicly stated in justifying their aggression. Their commitments follow the Lobby’s script, which ‘coincidentally’ is exactly what pleases the Israeli Foreign Office.

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