Gaza on the Brink

When the fear is gone.

If you ask Palestinians in either Gaza or the West Bank who’s responsible for their suffering, most would probably say Israel. But what would they say if they were safely overseas and no longer needed to fear their own governments? That’s not a question reporters, diplomats, or nongovernmental organizations usually bother asking. We now have an answer to it, at least with regard to Palestinians who fled Gaza. They left not because of anything Israel did, but because of persecution by Gaza’s Hamas-run government

Their testimony was brought by Haaretz reporter Zvi Bar’el, who went to Greece in search of Syrian refugees but accidentally stumbled instead on Palestinians from Gaza–thousands of them, by their own count. One Gazan refugee estimated there were about 6,000 Palestinians from Gaza in Athens alone. The Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights says the real figure is probably higher.

And that’s just those who have been able to leave. Many would like to but are stuck in Gaza because the border crossing to Egypt is open only a few days per month. Even when it’s open, only a few hundred people per day can leave. Osama, one of the Palestinians Bar’el interviewed, said that when he left Gaza (via a cross-border smuggling tunnel) over 25,000 people were on the waiting list to leave via the official border crossing.

And why have so many Gazans fled or tried to flee? The Palestinians Bar’el met had a uniform answer: Hamas. Not a single one of them even mentioned Israel in their responses.

“There’s a Palestinian doctor here who came with his wife and three children,” Osama told Bar’el. “Imagine, a doctor, a respectable person with a profession, has to flee Gaza only because he was suspected of disloyalty to Hamas.”

Ayman, who has been listening to the conversation in silence, joins in. “I’m a cartoonist, an artist, and I’ve had exhibitions in Gaza. Hamas didn’t like my cartoons and they forbade me to draw, and they also arrested me. After I spent time in a Hamas prison I decided to escape,” he says.

“They tied my hands and feet, they beat me, and after I was injured from the blows they transferred me to a hospital where I was for more than a month. In the meantime they also arrested my brother to get information out of him about me.”

Naji, another Gazan, showed Bar’el a deep scar on his leg that he said came from being tortured in a Hamas prison.

“One day I even tried to commit suicide. I slammed my head hard against a windowpane and put my neck up against the broken glass. But they pulled me back and I wasn’t successful,” he says, pointing to an ugly scar on his neck. “I’m telling you, Gaza is on the brink of civil war and no one knows what’s happening there. No one is interested.”

There are numerous UN agencies ostensibly devoted exclusively to helping the Palestinians, while human rights groups allocate disproportionate attention to this issue. In both cases, their only real interest in Palestinian suffering is finding some way to blame Israel for it. They couldn’t care less about protecting Palestinians from the abuses of their own government. That’s why they keep issuing reports accusing Israel of being the “key cause” of Palestinian suffering, as one UN agency put it this week, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Yet their blatant bias often obscures a larger problem that affects even well-meaning journalists, NGOs, diplomats and almost everyone else involved in telling the world about what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza–a failure to understand the way fear affects what people say in nondemocratic societies. For Palestinians, blaming anyone other than Israel for their problems risks serious repercussions from either their own governments or vigilante groups affiliated with both governments. And that’s true not just in Hamas-run Gaza, as people like Ayman and Naji discovered to their sorrow, but also in the Fatah-run West Bank, where journalists, businessmen, and Palestinian security officers have all suffered arrest and financial sanctions for daring to criticize the Palestinian Authority or its president, Mahmoud Abbas. Blaming Israel is always the safest solution, even in cases where it’s patently untrue.

Responsible journalists, NGOs, and diplomats would take this fear factor into account and try to dig a little deeper to try to get at the truth. They would also recognize that the very fact that Israel is the one party no Palestinian fears to criticize is in itself a potent refutation of Palestinian claims that Israel is an oppressive regime. People who truly live under an oppressive regime are generally afraid to go on record criticizing it.

Instead, these opinion shapers take everything they hear from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza at face value and parrot it uncritically. That does nothing to better the Palestinians’ lot, but a great deal to bolster the Palestinians’ own repressive governments by absolving them of all scrutiny and pressure to reform.

The testimony of these Gazan refugees in Greece provides a rare opportunity to hear what Palestinians say when they’re out of reach of their own repressive governments and can speak freely. It thereby offers a glimpse at the true source of much Palestinian suffering – and a rebuke to all the journalists, diplomats, and NGOs who have collaborated with both Palestinian governments to hide this truth from the world.

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Gaza on the Brink

Must-Reads from Magazine

Trump Is Losing the Benefit of the Doubt on Russia

This isn't about politics.

On June 23, the Washington Post ran a comprehensive article reviewing the Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, which involved stealing emails from Democratic Party accounts and releasing them via Wikileaks. The outstanding work of reporters Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous shows that there was a bipartisan, cascading failure to respond adequately to this attack on our democracy. That attack began under President Obama and is continuing under President Trump.

The Post revealed that the CIA had “sourcing deep inside the Russian government” showing that Vladimir Putin had personally tasked his intelligence agencies with “audacious objectives—defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”

Obama was informed of this while the election was underway, but he did little.

… the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could ‘crater’ the Russian economy.

But in the end, in late December, Obama approved a modest package combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues — expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds — with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.

The article went on to quote “a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia” who said: “It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked.”

In fairness to Obama, he tried to seek bipartisan support to expose Russia’s machinations and found no interest among the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, who were plainly more worried about losing an election than about this Russian attack on our democracy. Obama knew that if he had spoken out more forcefully, Trump and his Republican supporters would have hammered him for allegedly trying to “rig” the election for “Crooked Hillary.”

That doesn’t excuse Obama’s failure of leadership. He was the commander-in-chief; it was his responsibility. It does make clear, however,  that he was worried not just about the possibility of worsening relations with Russia but also about being charged with a partisan interference in the election.

The failure to react more strongly to the Russian hack extends now into the Trump administration. Trump’s reaction to the Post story is indicative of his troubling mindset. The day before the Post story came out, Trump claimed on Twitter that reports of Russian interference—as unanimously attested to by his own intelligence agencies—are “all a big Dem HOAX!” Following the publication of the Post’s story, he tweeted: “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?”

Given that the Obama administration had publicly called out Russian interference in October, it’s hard to imagine why this would be news to Trump now.

The benefit of the doubt ends there. Trump’s next reaction was purely cynical. “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!” So when Trump is accused of collusion with the Russians or other wrong-doing, he claims that the entire Russian operation is a “hoax.” But when he wants to accuse Obama of wrongdoing, then he stipulates that the hacking was real.

For Trump, this is a purely partisan issue. The Democrats are out to get to him, to de-legitimize his election victory, and he will say or do anything to stop them—even if that means denying the reality of the Russian operation one moment and admitting it the next. There is no indication that he has treated this attack with the gravity it deserves, which makes it more likely that the Russians will be up to their old tricks in future elections, just as they have been doing recently in Europe.

Trump is right to castigate Obama for not doing more, but the same criticism now applies to him.

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200 Years on the Erie Canal

How the West was dug.

Next Tuesday marks the beginning of the 242nd year of the independence of the United States, and the day will be justly celebrated with parades, picnics, and fireworks from Hawaii to Maine.

But next Tuesday will also mark another anniversary of surpassing historical importance to this country. For it was on July 4th, 1817, 200 years ago, that the first shovelful of dirt was dug and the construction of the Erie Canal began. Finished eight years later (ahead of schedule and under budget) it united the east coast with the fast-growing trans-Appalachian west.

It was a monumental undertaking. At 363 miles, the canal was more than twice as long as any earlier canal. (The Canal du Midi in southern France was 140 miles in length.) Thomas Jefferson thought the project “little short of madness.” But Governor Dewitt Clinton saw the possibilities and went ahead, artfully handling the very considerable political opposition and arranged the financing (much of the money was raised in London).

Clinton was quickly proved right and the Erie Canal can claim to be the most consequential public works project in American history. Before the canal, bulk goods such as grain could reach the east coast population centers only by going down the Mississippi River and out through the port of New Orleans. With the canal, it could travel via the Great Lakes and the canal to the port of New York. Before the canal, it had taken six weeks to move a barrel of flour from Buffalo to New York City, at the cost of $100. With the canal, it took six days and cost $6.00. The result was an economic revolution.

Within a few years, New York City had become, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes (the doctor and poet, not his son the Supreme Court justice), “that tongue that is licking up the cream of commerce of a continent.” The city exploded in size, expanding northwards at the rate of about two blocks a year. That may not seem like much, but Manhattan is about two miles wide, and thus the city was adding about ten miles of street front every year, a pace that continued for decades.

The cost of the canal was paid off in only eight years and thereafter became a cash cow for the state. This allowed it to weather the crash of 1837 and the following depression, which bankrupted the state of Pennsylvania and crippled Philadelphia’s banks. New York quickly became the country’s undisputed financial center, which it has been ever since.

And while goods were moving eastwards, people were moving westward through the canal as farmers deserted the thin, stony soils of New England for the rich, deep loams of Ohio and Indiana. This “New England diaspora” moved the political center of the country westwards.

The canal era in this country was a brief one as railroads, beginning in the 1830’s, began to spread. But the Erie Canal continued to function as an artery of commerce until the 1970’s and is still used today for things that, usually for reasons of size, cannot be moved by highway or railroad. And it remains a popular avenue for recreational boating.

So Americans should remember Dewitt Clinton next week just as we remember Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. For New Yorkers, that goes double. For it was the Erie Canal that put the “empire” in the Empire State.

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David French: The Threat To Free Speech

From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.

The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:

We’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.

The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.

The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.

But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.

The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.

The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.

Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.

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A Victory for Symbolism

The travel ban is saved, for now.

President Trump got a much-needed win today when the Supreme Court allowed part of his executive order on immigration to take effect, vacating stays issued by lower courts. The justices will decide the fate of the executive order in the fall. Judging by today’s ruling, it’s possible that Trump will triumph, at least in part, if only because the president has broad authority to restrict entry into the United States by anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident. But even if Trump’s executive order proves to be legal, that doesn’t mean that it’s wise or necessary from a security standpoint.

The Department of Homeland Security can now keep out nationals of six Muslim countries—Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen—as long as those nationals cannot “credibly claim a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” Prepare for more litigation to figure out what constitutes a “bona fide relationship,” a new, arbitrary standard invented by the justices to modify the arbitrary standard invented by President Trump. What does any of this have to do with the dictates of counter-terrorism—the ostensible justification for the travel ban? Not much.

There is no history in the United States of terrorist acts committed by nationals of the six countries in question. As a Cato analyst noted, back when the ban still applied to Iraq as well as the six other countries: “Nationals of the seven countries singled out by Trump have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015.”

In justifying the travel ban, Trump’s original executive order on January 27 made its main argument the 9/11 attacks, “when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 American.” But the 9/11 attacks were committed by 15 Saudis, 2 Emiratis, 1 Egyptian, and 1 Lebanese—none of whom would be covered under the Trump travel ban. That’s not an argument for enlarging the ban but merely a commentary on the fact that the executive order as crafted is utterly disconnected from any actual security threat.

This reality is further underlined by the fact that when the original executive order was issued on January 27, the Trump administration claimed that it had to suspend all entry for nationals of seven Muslim countries for 90 days—and of all refugees from all over the world for 120 days. The stated intent of that order was to “ensure the proper review and maximum utilization of available resources for the screening of foreign nationals, and to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals.”

Well, it’s now been 150 days since that executive order was issued—and we have not experienced any attacks by the hordes of terrorists that Trump claimed were waiting to rush into the United States when his executive order was suspended. And yet the administration is now arguing that it needs at least 90 more days to come up with vetting procedures for the entry of nationals of the six Muslim countries in question. Why haven’t the previous 150 days sufficed to make entry requirements as stringent as they need to be? In reality, there is no evidence that Homeland Security has had to strengthen already rigorous admission standards significantly.

President Trump gave away his real motives for pursuing the travel ban, in spite of the original justification lapsing, when he tweeted in favor of it on June 3 just minutes after a terrorist attack in London. “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” he wrote. “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” When Trump sent that tweet, the nationality of the attackers was not known. (They would subsequently be identified as a British citizen born in Pakistan, an Italian citizen born in Morocco, and a Moroccan who had been granted residency in the European Union because of his marriage to an Irish woman.)

All that anyone knew at that point is that the attackers were Muslims. So Trump was clearly signaling that his real worry is not about the six countries in question—none of which had anything to do with the London attack—but with Muslims in general. In keeping with his campaign rhetoric, which catered to anti-Muslim bigotry, Trump evidently wants to keep as many Muslims out of the country as possible.

It will be up to the Supreme Court to rule on whether Trump can do so under the Constitution. From a security standpoint, this blanket animus against Muslims is highly counterproductive. It would make no sense, even if it were legally possible, to keep out all Muslims—including citizens of American allies from Britain to Saudi Arabia. It’s not even clear that this is possible to do: How would immigration agents know that someone is a Muslim or not? Passports don’t ordinarily list religion.

The U.S. needs the cooperation of moderate Muslims, both at home and abroad, to fight the scourge of terrorism, which has claimed far more Muslim lives than those of Christians or Jews. That means we shouldn’t alienate Muslims by trying to ban them from the United States. The U.S. should be trying to gather as much intelligence as possible on terrorist designs from within Muslim communities, both domestically and abroad, while at the same time carefully screening anyone, Muslim or not, who seeks entry to the United States.

But that’s not very sexy. It’s, in fact, the status quo. Trump seems intent on some big, showy, symbolic act, no matter how counterproductive, to demonstrate that he is doing more to combat terrorism than Obama. The Supreme Court may just let him get away with it.

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No Way to Run a Railroad

The cult of the businessman implodes.

If there is one salutary development that should come from the Trump administration, it is to explode for all time the conceit that business leaders with no experience in politics are best qualified to run the government.

It’s not just the overall struggles of President Trump himself, coping with record-low approval ratings. For further confirmation that business experience does not necessarily translate into government success, look no further than the State Department, which is being run by ExxonMobil’s longtime CEO, Rex Tillerson.

By all accounts, Tillerson was very successful as an oil-company executive. He is proving less successful as secretary of state, a job he gives no signs of having mastered.

He ignores the press—one of the most potent instruments that any secretary of state has to spread his message, shape public perceptions, and enhance his own standing with the administration and Congress.

He acquiesces in a White House budget that calls for cutting State Department funding and foreign aid by almost 30 percent—a budget that Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Trump supporter, called so Draconian that it would be a “total waste of time” to even review it.

He does little to motivate his own personnel or explain his vision to them and, when he did, he gave a talk widely seen as denigrating the importance of “values” in U.S. foreign policy.

He seems to be losing out in a battle for influence over Middle Eastern policy with White House aides such as Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. He often seems tripped up by the president’s own tweets and pronouncements. For example, in the current crisis in Qatar, Tillerson is trying to play the role of honest broker while the president appears to be offering 110 percent backing to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states blockading Qatar.

Granted, not all of these snafus are entirely Tillerson’s fault. Like many administration officials, he is struggling to keep up with the policy being set, willy-nilly, by Trump’s Twitter feed. He did try to appoint a well-qualified deputy—my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams—but had that request rejected by the president, apparently at Steve Bannon’s instigation, because Abrams wrote one mildly critical article about Trump last year. But Tillerson can’t blame the White House for his failure to fill most of the critical policy jobs at the State Department. That’s on him.

Tillerson is treating the State Department as if it were a poorly run conglomerate that is in need of an urgent overhaul by a new CEO who is waiting for the management consultants to tell him which lines of business to keep and which to sell. According to the Washington Post, Tillerson has “sketched a lengthy timeline for his internal review that would include a period of study and planning through 2017 and changes to the department’s structure and staffing next year. In some cases, senior jobs will remain vacant until then, if they are filled at all.”

This is bonkers. By refusing to fill senior State Department jobs for a year or more, Tillerson is not just hindering the process of policy formation. He is also reducing his own influence in both the administration and the world as a whole.

The New York Times reported: “Three foreign ambassadors — one from Asia and two from Europe — said they had taken to contacting the National Security Council because the State Department does not return their calls or does not offer substantive answers when it does.”

The Times offered some examples of just how dangerous this policy vacuum can be:

Mr. Tillerson, for example, recently shut down the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan — whose role had been diminished since Richard Holbrooke had the job during President Barack Obama’s first term — and has yet to appoint an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, at a time when the Taliban’s return and Pakistan’s instability are major concerns.

When he attended a series of recent meetings on Afghanistan, Mr. Tillerson was accompanied by only his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, who is a former United States Patent and Trademark official and technology executive with no diplomatic experience.

There is also no one in line for the Asia policy job, just when there is talk about whether the North Korea crisis will be defused by negotiation or steam toward conflict.

This is, quite simply, no way to run a foreign policy. Tillerson’s struggles stand in stark contrast to the surer hand at the Defense Department—Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Mattis has no business background, but he does have a lifetime of military service that has exposed him to the ins and outs of government and how it operates. That is something Tillerson utterly lacks—and it shows.

Business experience can be valuable if combined with government experience. A good example is George Shultz, one of the most respected secretaries of state, who ran the engineering giant Bechtel in between service in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. But Tillerson, along with Trump, is proving that it’s a lot harder to translate private-sector experience into the government than it may appear from a distance. That is something that voters should keep in mind when, inevitably, the next crop of business leaders seek high office.

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