I can’t help noticing that the “siege of Gaza” has largely disappeared from the headlines. I’d like to think it’s because, having finally seen what a real siege looks like in Syria, many well-meaning folks who used to decry the “siege” of Gaza have realized that Gaza was never actually besieged at all. But for anyone who’s still confused about the difference between a real siege and a fictitious one, here are two simple tests: First, in real sieges, people die of starvation, because the besieger stops food from entering; in fake ones, the “besieger” sends in 2,500 tons of food and medicine per day even during the worst of the fighting. Second, real sieges get swept under the carpet by the UN; only the fake ones merit massive UN publicity. And if you think I’m joking, just compare the actual cases of Madaya and Gaza.
In the Syrian town of Madaya, which is besieged by the Assad regime’s forces, people were reduced to living on grass because no other food was available. Rice, a staple that costs $1.25 per kilogram in other war-ravaged Syrian towns, was so scarce in Madaya that it sold for 200 times that price – an astounding $256 per kilogram, according to a report by Roy Gutman in Foreign Policy. Women were so hungry their breast milk dried up, leaving them unable to feed their babies. At least 32 people have starved to death so far, and hundreds more are at risk of starvation. One man told Gutman everyone in his family had lost 45 pounds – and they are the lucky ones; they’re still alive.
In Gaza, in contrast, even when the “siege” was regularly making headlines, there were never any reports of people dying of hunger, living off grass or unable to feed their babies. That’s because in contrast to Syrian forces, which prevented food and other humanitarian goods from entering Madaya, Israel allowed thousands of tons of such goods into Gaza every day. Even during the 50-day war with Hamas in summer 2014, while Hamas was regularly firing rockets at the only border crossing between Israel and Gaza, Israel managed to get 122,757 tons of food, medicine and fuel into Gaza through that crossing; in normal times, the volume is much higher. Indeed, Gaza’s life expectancy exceeds the global median, surpassing that in 114 countries worldwide. In places that are really besieged, life expectancy tends to be low.
It’s true that Israel maintains a naval blockade to prevent arms smuggling, and it also restricts dual-use imports to Gaza. Cement, for instance, is in short supply there, because Hamas has a nasty habit of using it to build cross-border attack tunnels rather than schools and hospitals for its people. According to Israel Defense Forces estimates, the tunnels uncovered during the 2014 war contained enough cement to build 2,580 homes, 180 schools or 570 medical clinics; today, Hamas is working hard to rebuild those tunnels. Thus Israel allows cement into Gaza only if a reputable international partner takes responsibility for ensuring it is used for civilian rather than military purposes. But import restrictions are not, and never were, remotely comparable to a siege.
If your only source of information is the UN, however, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking Gaza’s situation was much worse than that of Madaya – because the UN deliberately concealed Madaya’s situation, despite having known for months that the town was starving.
Gutman’s Foreign Policy report revealed that UN officials knew of Madaya’s dire straits as early as October, but kept mum until their hand was forced by “shocking images of starving infants” that began circulating on social media this month and were picked up by mainstream media. As late as January 6, a “flash update” on Madaya’s situation issued by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was still marked “Internal, Not for Quotation.”
Moreover, even when the UN finally did go public, Gutman wrote, it insisted on downplaying Madaya’s situation by saying it was no worse than that of various towns besieged by rebel militias. Yet in contrast to Madaya, where regime forces were keeping all food out, food was entering the towns under rebel assault, making their situation far less dire.
One week after Gutman’s bombshell, BuzzFeed followed up with a report that OCHA had deliberately altered its humanitarian aid plan for Syria, including by “deleting references to ‘besieged’ areas such as Madaya where thousands of people are starving.” The plan also deleted any mention of removing landmines and unexploded ordnance and dropped all references to violations of international humanitarian law.
The changes in the aid plan, like the original decision to keep Madaya’s situation under wraps, were made at the Assad regime’s request. As BuzzFeed noted, “The UN’s Damascus office is reliant on the Assad regime for all their foreign staff visas, their security, and access to hard-to-reach areas,” which may be why it felt obligated to bow to the regime’s dictates. Nevertheless, the decision infuriated aid organizations, which accused OCHA of concealing the true scale of the horror to appease the regime.
Needless to say, no such considerations restrain OCHA when it comes to Gaza; UN agencies know they can say anything they please against Israel without risking their Gaza access. Thus, a Google search for “Gaza blockade” on OCHA’s website turns up 1,100 documents decrying it; searching for “Gaza siege” turns up another 310 (while OCHA itself generally uses the legally correct term “blockade,” many NGOs it partners with prefer “siege”). Nor is this coincidental: It’s only when a place is really besieged that access requires the besieger’s goodwill; when a “siege” exists only in media hype, legitimate aid agencies have free access.
So next time you hear people talking about the “siege of Gaza,” remember Madaya. And then tell them to stop wasting their breath on fake sieges when people are dying in real ones.
How to Spot a Fake Siege
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A noble end.
When I was a boy, maybe 10, I hauled an old four-inch refracting telescope that my great aunt kept on the veranda of her summer house out onto the lawn and began pointing it at various stars. Stars look pretty much the same through a telescope as they do to the naked eye, only brighter. But planets look very different. And suddenly, there it was, Saturn, floating majestically upon the inky seas of the universe, its rings fortuitously at full tilt, as they are only about every 15 years. I began shouting, “It’s Saturn! It’s Saturn!” and dancing with excitement. My aunt, greatly amused, thought I was becoming hysterical, as I suppose I was.
For the last 13 years, I and millions of others have been dancing through the Saturnian system itself, thanks to a remarkable space probe called Cassini.
The Cassini space mission ended this morning when, on orders from NASA, it plunged into Saturn’s dense atmosphere and burned up. It was sending data up until the very end and almost certainly broke up within seconds of its last transmission at 7:55:46 AM (EDT).
What a journey it has been. It was launched on October 15, 1997, flew by Venus twice and earth and Jupiter once each to gain momentum (the planets, therefore, slowing down infinitesimally and moving ever so slightly further from the sun to conserve the angular momentum). It reached Saturn, 950 million miles from the sun, on July 1, 2004, the first space probe to orbit the giant ringed planet.
For the next 13 years, Cassini explored the planet, its rings, and its fascinating astronomical zoo of satellites (Saturn has 62 moons at last count, Cassini having discovered seven of them.) The most interesting of these satellites is Titan, larger than the planet Mercury, and second in size among the solar system’s moons only to Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is the only moon in the solar system to have a dense atmosphere (like Earth’s, mostly nitrogen).
On January 14, 2005, a module, named for Christiaan Huygens who had been the first (in the 17th Century) to decipher Saturn’s rings and who discovered Titan, landed on that world and took 350 pictures before succumbing to the deep cold on the moon’s surface.
They revealed a world both wildly exotic and strangely familiar. Titan is the only body in the solar system besides earth to have liquids on its surface—rivers, lakes, and seas of liquid methane.
There are far too many things that were explored in this remarkable, nearly flawless mission, to go into here. NASA has a list of some of the major ones. But it will be years before the mountains of data sent home by Cassini will be fully analyzed.
A matter of sovereignty.
An insidious form of political correctness is creeping into the English language on little cat feet.
It probably started with the word Koran, which has been in the English language since 1725. Suddenly it began appearing as Quran, which is a transliteration of the Arabic, and even Qu’ran. What appears to English speakers as a meaningless apostrophe is actually a breath mark carried over from Arabic, which, like Hebrew, does not write out the vowels. In English we do, and so we don’t need breath marks.
What is wrong with Koran? Exactly nothing. The idea that we should use the transliterated Arabic word instead of our own word is pure political correctness deriving from the classic linguistic fallacy of conflating the word and the thing denoted by the word. The Koran is the holy book of Islam. Koran is a word in the English language.
This line of thinking gives Arabic speakers, not English speakers, control over many English words. Does that mean we have to use Arabic transliterations for such English words as sofa, admiral, and zero, which derive from Arabic? I’m pretty sure Arabic speakers would laugh at the opposite idea, that we English speakers get to determine how English-derived words in that language should be spelled in Arabic.
In this month’s issue of Discovery magazine, there is an interesting article on how the Incas, who lacked a written language, used knots on strings as a mnemonic device. The magazine spells the word Inca as Inka. Inca has been in the English language since 1592, borrowed from Spanish. Spanish got it from Quechuan, the language of the Inca people. Spanish priests wanted to use Quechuan as an evangelical tool, and so they wrote it down, using, of course, Spanish orthography; Quechuan having no orthography of its own.
Then in 1975, the Peruvian government promulgated a new orthography of Quechuan, which uses the letter K whereas in Spanish the letter C would be used. Does Discovery magazine think that Peru’s Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua should determine how English words are spelled instead of Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary? Apparently.
During the Winter Olympics of 2006, which were held in the lovely city of Turin, Italy, (where I’m happy to say I’ll be next week for a conference), the NBC announcers were instructed to call the city by its Italian name, Torino. Does that mean we have to say Milano, Roma, and Firenze instead of Milan, Rome, and Florence?
That way lies madness. Under that doctrine, foreign place names should be spelled and pronounced as they are in the local language. OK, but then what do we call the capital of Belgium, which in English is Brussels? Belgium is a painfully divided country linguistically. French-speaking Belgians call the capital Bruxelles while the Dutch speakers call it Brussel (I haven’t a clue how that’s pronounced in Dutch, a language notoriously difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly).
What do we do with the English Channel? Half the coastline is in France, after all. Should it be the Anglo-French Channel? The French couldn’t care less what we call it in English, by the way. They call it la Manche, which means “the sleeve,” after its shape.
The only solution to this idiocy is to let native speakers of each language have full sovereignty over the vocabulary of their own language.
The United Nations thinks the rest of the world needs a “21st Century makeover.” To accomplish that, the international body is turning toward some of the most outmoded ideas of the 19th Century.
Far from wringing his hands over the global trend toward populism and the nationalist extravagances that typify it, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi is wrapping himself in populist economic anxieties like a familiar old blanket.
“A combination of too much debt and too little demand at the global level has hampered sustained expansion of the world economy,” he said in a statement on Thursday, despite the fact that global economic growth has shown no signs of slowing. For this lamentable state of affairs, Kituyi’s agency didn’t blame governments that spend beyond their means and borrow when they should be investing. He didn’t even blame a pronounced global recession from which the world began to emerge only recently. Instead, the United Nations lays the blame on “neo-liberalism.”
“The whole neo-liberal mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ has begun to fall apart,” said UNCTAD’s globalization director, Richard Kozul-Wright. “There are plenty of alternatives out there, and they are urgently needed given the kind of economic and social imbalances that we are currently facing.”
What is “neo-liberalism?” It’s a lot like paleo-liberalism. You might better know it by its more popular moniker, which Kozul-Wright was careful to avoid: classical liberalism. In the context of a national economy, it is the belief in reduced or non-existent trade barriers, the free movement of capital, and the privatization of industry. It’s Adam Smith and David Ricardo. And it’s the bane of Keynesians’ existence.
Kozul-Wright speaks so contemptuously of the phrase “there is no alternative” because, like so many of his fellow travelers at Turtle Bay, he came of age at a time when the pejorative “TINA” was a dirty word. It was Margaret Thatcher’s battle cry when she successfully privatized the utilities and industries that Clement Atlee nationalized. It was the slogan that marshaled support in a newly united Germany for the transition in the East toward a market economy. It was a phrase coined by the philosopher and early conservative thinker Herbert Spencer whose Darwinian maxims are still resented by, well, people who use the word “neoliberalism” like it were a slur.
Kozul-Wright has a point about tackling government debt and inflation, which is nearing the point of crisis in the United States and the United Kingdom respectively. His prescriptions—the end of austerity and a massive drunken government spending spree—would seem to miss the mark. More important, though, Kozul-Wright is right about something else. There absolutely is an alternative to the classically liberal economic ethos that conquered the world when the Berlin Wall fell. For the historically literate, however, it’s not a desirable alternative.
As COMMENTARY’s Sohrab Ahmari has chronicled for over a year, classical liberal economics are opposed not merely by Keynesians but by a more reactionary sort. Advanced economies transitioning away from heavy industry have produced armies of the dispossessed and disillusioned. These legions span the traditional right-left political spectrum. They are united by protectionism, economic nationalism, and a robust social safety net (one extended only to the right kind of people).
These movements, like Kozul-Wright, are backward looking. And while he would no doubt consider himself hostile toward the forces of reaction that have assumed power over the course of this decade, the policies he advocates are both populist and nationalist. They are the products of despair and hopelessness, and it is no accident that illiberal economies are so often stewarded by illiberal governments.
There is no shortage of irony in the fact that UNCTAD’s “globalism director” shares a set of economic prescriptions with millions of Westerners who reject globalization. “Prosperity for all cannot be delivered by austerity-minded politicians, rent-seeking corporations, and speculative bankers,” Kozul-Wright wrote for The Guardian on Thursday. “Unlike the textbook concept of pure competition, our hyper-globalized world has been accompanied by a considerable concentration of economic power and wealth in the hands of a remarkably small number of people.” This is the perfect synthesis of the Occupy Wall Street creed with Steve Bannon-style economic chauvinism—two ideologies that share more in common than either would prefer to admit. Neither is especially friendly toward the kind of enlightened republicanism that has made the West a beacon of freedom and prosperity unmatched in human history.
Many have set out to prove that there is, in fact, an alternative to economic liberalism. They lead prison states that subject their people to authoritarianism and privation. While Venezuela’s Bolivarians lecture the West on the folly of TINA, their ministers are advising the public how to avoid starvation by raising rabbits. Meanwhile, in the heart of a city where the bounty of unfettered capitalism overflows, men like Richard Kozul-Wright and Mukhisa Kituyi lead comfortable lives lecturing the public on the excesses of Adam Smith. The very lives they lead stand as an irrefutable testament to the hollowness of their ideas.
An awful new normal.
At least 22 people were injured after an improvised explosive device detonated aboard a London Underground train on Friday. The crude bomb–apparently contained in a white bucket wrapped in a plastic bag–went off as the train was leaving toward central London from Parsons Green station, 15 minutes from where I live. Several victims suffered flash burns while others were crushed in the stampede that ensued.
Across the English Channel, meanwhile, a hammer-wielding assailant struck two women in the eastern French town of Chalon-sur-Saone. The women survived. The attacker had shouted Allahu Akbar.
This is the West’s new normal.
Some officials wish we would put up with terrorism much as we accept other urban nuisances such as traffic, vermin, and pickpocketing. Recall former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s words following the Nice truck attack in July 2016 that killed 86: “Times have changed, and we should learn to live with terrorism.” According to the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, former President Obama liked to remind his staff that Americans are more likely to die from slipping in their bathtubs than from terror attacks.
But these glib assertions can never calm people frightened of taking the Tube or boarding a plane, knowing there is always chance, however slight, of something going boom or gunshots ringing out to cries of Allahu Akbar! Bathtub slips may be more deadly, statistically speaking, but they are by definition accidental. They don’t possess that malign, war-like aspect that defines modern Islamic terrorism.
Nowadays when you step into a Tube train, you are aware that you are entering a battleground. Even the most enlightened, progressive commuter can’t help but notice the woman in the burka or that young man with the long beard scowling in one corner of the carriage. The sight raises a dozen anxious questions and emotions. Now, statistically speaking, that woman or that young man is just “trying to get on with life.” But as the French philosopher Pierre Manent wrote in his book Beyond Radical Secularism:
The immense majority of our Muslim citizens have nothing to do with terrorism, but terrorism would not be what it is, it would not have the same reach nor the same significance, if the terrorists did not belong to this population and were not our fellow citizens. These terrorist acts would simply be odious crimes subject to ordinary justice if they were not guided by an aim of war and by the intent to ruin the very possibility of a common life.
So long as a small but significant minority of Muslims takes a war footing against the West, terror will persist, and no amount of statistical sophistry and empty rhetoric from leaders will assuage legitimate fear.
The best opponent Democrats could hope for.
Mere days ago, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon told “60 Minutes” that “our purpose is to support Donald Trump.” Then, on Wednesday, Trump decided to make an immigration deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over Chinese food. Within minutes, Breitbart was dubbing the president it had pledged to support “Amnesty Don.”
For Breitbart, accusing someone of supporting “Amnesty” is tantamount to calling him a child molester, so negative is its understanding of the word. That is why a White House spokesman declared afterward that Trump “will not be discussing amnesty.” But in the next sentence, the spokesman said Trump would consider “legal citizenship over a period of time.”
That, my friends, is the very definition of amnesty, pure and simple. Forget his Orwellian newspeak: The Trump spokesman was acknowledging his boss had agreed to follow the provisions of the so-called DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for 800,000 people.
Yes, follow this. Donald Trump, the most anti-immigration president in a century, and maybe of all time, is going to oversee the first wide-scale amnesty since the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act led to the legalization of 3 million illegals.
I like this plan, by the way. But let’s face it. With this deal, Trump has betrayed his core followers and a significant campaign promise—the most startling such turnabout since the first President Bush went back on his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge.
What gives? When it comes to the DREAMers, Trump surely knows that polls show a near-majority of Republicans (46 percent in the latest Morning Consult survey) support citizenship for those brought to America by their illegal-alien parents as children and who know no other home.
But he didn’t stage his takeover of the Republican Party by gaining the support of those Republicans. No, Trump came to power in the GOP by consolidating the party’s extremes and then moving on the center, which was split among a dozen other candidates. And he did so in large measure by talking about immigration and immigrants in a startlingly hostile manner.
This gave him a reputation for politically correct plain speaking and a willingness to consider wild policy options—a deportation force and the construction of a 1,900-mile wall even through deep river beds—no conventional politician had or would.
And he gained the passionate support of all those who claimed the GOP had become a party of wimps mired in the Washington swamp, unwilling to bring the fight to the Democrats, unable to crush liberals. And what has he done over the past two weeks? He has struck deals with Schumer and Pelosi and gave those two signature Democrats almost everything they could have hoped for.
This is a potentially significant moment on the American Right, which is a far more complex agglomeration than either its leaders or its most hostile critics tend to acknowledge. Trump is abandoning his true believers in favor of an explicitly anti-ideological, anti-partisan approach—only a month after it appeared he was retreating into their loving arms.
He is not a systematic man. He is an improviser. It would be a mistake to see any kind of deliberate long-term strategy here. Last week Trump knew he wanted the debt-limit fight to go away and he made it go away with no fuss for three months. This week he knew he wanted to dispose of the DREAMer issue before it became a total pain and he made that happen, too.
Trump once said his followers would stand behind him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Becoming “Amnesty Don” is as close to firing that shot as anything any politician in recent times has ever done.