Down the Agricultural Memory Hole in Ethan Bronner’s Gaza Reporting

Posted on June 29, 2011

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In 1984, Orwell’s memory hole was a quick way of disposing of inconvenient ideas, personages and historical events. The distasteful material would go into the hole, disappear, and the text left behind would be clumsily sutured. In Orwell’s totalitarian cautionary reality,  it wasn’t necessary to explain the disappearance of a person or thing that people yesterday had been discussing at the lunch counter. When things disappeared or were altered in 1984-media, the polity understood the message: the issues were no longer to be discussed, at the risk of torture and jail.

Such autocracies still exist, though they are being reshaped by the uncomfortable eye of globalization into less superficially obvious repugnance. In the American context, the memory hole dynamic relies less on the threat of punishment to erase ideas and information, but on the torrential deluge of information that most American news-consumers must daily deal with. Events, paradigms, positions and historical moments are not only quickly forgotten in the pico-second Google News-cycle, they face the real danger of being erased from the historical record by the onslaught of “memory-hole” reporting that excludes them from context.

Enter Ethan Bronner, the NYT Jerusalem Bureau Desk Editor, and guardian of the Palestine-Israel Memory Hole crevasse. In reporting today on the success of agricultural projects in the former Israeli colonial farms and greenhouses of Gaza, Bronner successfully relegates some important issues to the memory hole, leaving behind a pastiche that is, to anyone familiar with the conflict, odd and moth-bitten.

Bronner ignores the reality that the settlements in Gaza were illegal according to international law, for example, making the story another one to one, two peoples, two lands mythology:

 Most striking is that the project sits in the center of the coastal strip on the sites of the former Israeli settlements whose looted greenhouses and ruined fields became a symbol of all that had turned sour in the Israeli withdrawal six years ago.

Israel pulled out its 9,000 settlers and all of its soldiers from Gaza in 2005. The settlers’ high-tech greenhouses, which were bought for the Palestinians with $14 million in donations, were left unguarded and within days were stripped of computer equipment, irrigation pipes, water pumps and plastic sheeting.

But as Human Rights Watch reports:

Removing the settlements is mandated by the laws of the Geneva Convention, which state that military occupations are to be a temporary state of affairs and prohibit occupying powers from moving their populations into conquered territory. The intent is to foreclose an occupying power from later citing its population as “facts on the ground” to claim the territory […]

The legal principles were reaffirmed in 2004 by the International Court of Justice, which cited a U.N. Security Council statement that the settlements were “a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” The International Committee of the Red Cross and an overwhelming number of institutions concerned with the enforcement of international humanitarian law have concurred in that view.

Of course, Palestinians owed Israel nothing for the settlements. It’s absurd to argue that there would be anything “sour” about Israel’s complying with international law, after years of flouting it for financial and political gain for precisely the reasons that it is outlawed–to prevent facts on the ground. Such facts on the ground remain the basis of the “territorial swaps”, now being discussed as the final status for the West Bank, where Israeli infrastructure and Israeli people placed illegally in occupied areas, now serve as legitimate claims for annexation.

But what’s more incredible, is that in an article about food security and self-sufficiency in Gaza, Bronner completely ignores the deliberate destruction of agricultural property by IDF forces during the Cast Lead operation, a little over two years ago. That destruction was well documented by the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups. According to an Amnesty International Report:

According to OCHA, the estimated losses to the agriculture sector caused by Operation “Cast Lead” total US$268 million.103 According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 35 and 60 per cent of the agriculture sector was wrecked, with almost all the 13,000 families who depend directly on farming, herding and fishing suffering significant damage to their livelihoods.

Moreover, Israel’s blockade of Gaza continues to prevent agricultural and infrastructure inputs for agriculture from entering, and prevents free exports of Gazan agricultural goods. The limitations on agriculture due to Israeli imposed restrictions on water and power use are obvious. In this light, any agricultural success story must take a back seat to the poorly reported continued agricultural onslaught by Israel.  Ironically, although the article is headlined “Gaza Establishes Food Independence in Former Israeli Settlements”, OCHA reports that as late as 2010, 46% of Gazan agricultural land was still unusable as a result of Cast Lead and subsequent security actions by Israel. The report further notes that a staggering 61% of Gazans are food insecure.

Ethan Bronner, however, has other fields to hoe. After an interview with former colonists, who seem refreshingly at peace with the loss of their ill-gotten apartheid farms, Bronner dilutes the devastation  that Israel has deliberately visited on Gazan agriculture by pinning it on an assortment of bad actors:

…between the looting, security delays and corruption of border guards — both Israeli and Palestinian, he noted — and then after Israel’s three-week offensive in 2008-9 and the naval blockade, the economy fell apart.

In this new history, a devastating war; deliberate targeting of agricultural infrastructure; and an ongoing blockade, are only minor factors in Gaza’s ongoing economic woes. Thanks to Ethan Bronner’s memory hole, we needn’t worry too much about our support for Israel’s illegal attack on Gaza. Gazans have that wonderful agricultural bounty, a reluctant but kindly treat from a peace-minded Israel that would give so much more, if it weren’t for pesky Hamas. With the reality thus produced, I suppose it is really difficult to figure out why the rest of the world keeps volunteering to man flotillas to Gaza. They must not read the New York Times.