Curtain Raiser

As Gaza Burns, Africa Pays a Visit, Colltalers

For the second consecutive week, we’ll try to duck the beast in the room, and avoid expressing our disgust with what’s happening in Gaza. Not only the reality on the ground shows no sign of letting up anytime soon, but that, even if it did, it would no longer make much of a difference.
So it happens that a record 50 African leaders are coming to the U.S. this week just as some dramatic news – a deadly Ebola outbreak and a partial victory for gay rights – are calling attention yet again to the continent, that is, as if the usual menu of miseries was not enough.
More about that below, but first let’s update the bloodbath in the Middle East with a surprising new element coming to the fore: the almost unanimous condemnation of Israel’s actions by Latin American leaders, in sync with growing street rallies in support of the Palestinians.
A region that’s been experiencing sustained economic stability, despite growing pains and setbacks, is now also affirming its new found political clout, and the manifestations in several of its cities this past week have set a new front opposing the Israeli position halfway across the globe.
That front widens the gap between the U.S. and its allies, and isolates even more its unquestioning support to PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s military offensive against Hamas, which does seem willing to sacrifice as many lives as it deems necessary in order to hold its grip over Gaza.
The irony is that support for Hamas, before the conflict, was already faltering, both among the Palestinian people and by Iranian hardliners, and it wouldn’t have gained the upper hand if Israel’s own hardliners hadn’t opposed the agreement it signed in April to share power with Fatah.
The point is that, although an organization such as Hamas should’ve never come to dominate the fate of almost two million Palestinians, given its hatred policies and terrorist tactics, responsibility for the current bloody escalation must be placed also with Bibi and his Likud Party, for making concessions to extremists, encouraging settlements on Palestinian land, and for relentlessly campaigning to demoralize Fatah.
Finally, an additional reason for many Latin American, and European, nations to now withhold unqualified support to Israel’s position, may have to do with an old suspicion that haunted the U.S.’s own invasion of Iraq: the drive to control Gaza’s rich natural reserves.
In this case, that may be more than a suspicion: in the previous conflict in Gaza, in 2007, Israel’s then Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff, and now current Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, had expressed concerns that newly discovered gas fields could fall under Hamas control, despite being located in territorial waters off the coast of Israel and Gaza, and disputed by the two, plus Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus.
Ya’lon – who’s a ‘distant relative’ of Hadar Goldin, a soldier reportedly kidnapped by Hamas Friday, or killed in action, according to the IDF – has not said that the gas fields are a war priority this time around. And neither has any other authority. But it’s a fact that growing demand for energy has been used as a justification for war by many a nation, U.S. included, and there’s no reason to believe Israel wouldn’t do the same.
Even if some troops have already been pulled out from Gaza, something seems to have broken for good old assumptions about war etiquette, held on since the Geneva Convention: the undiscriminated bombing of hospitals and schools full of innocent children and civilians.
Despite months of preparation, and superior weaponry (provided by the U.S. defense industry, of course), the increasingly desperate military has failed to hinder Hamas’s ability to hurt, guerrilla style, Israeli citizens, through its intricate, and still largely undetected, underground maze of tunnels. Perhaps unprecedented support from other Arab states has clouded Israel’s usual concerns about public opinion in the West.
With the revelation that its intel agencies have kept tabs on Secretary of State John Kerry’s communications, time is ripe for the U.S. to take stock and leverage its position as weapons provider, by forcing an unrepentant Netanyahu to consider other options. For soon enough, he may find that waging war on Hamas as proxies for old enemies won’t prevent Israel from being perceived as the bad guy in the eyes of the world.
Back to Africa (so much for ducking the gorilla, but if you’re anything but deeply frustrated by the apparently inexorability of the events in the Middle East, we haven’t done our job): the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit’s stated goal is to boost economic ties with and within the continent.
But even for a region usually rife with seemingly intractable developmental ills for the 15% of the world’s population that it holds, the past few months have been particularly emblematic, with two major issues offering a summary of sorts for the extremes that usually call it home.
One is the fight for gay rights, which has suffered tremendous setbacks in several countries, from Uganda to Ivory Coast, Rwanda to
Senegal. In fact, in 38 of its 55 nations, homosexuality is illegal and may be punished by death, either by the state or by vigilante groups.
So it was a rare, and major, victory for the LBGT community in Uganda, when an American Evangelicals-inspired anti-gay law was stricken down, even if on a technicality and with not much of a repercussion on the country’s sex-restrictive colonial legislation.
Even as there have been calls for President Obama to disinvite Ugandan dictator president, Yoweri Museveni, it makes more sense to let him, and the many others just like him, to come and be forced to explain themselves before the American public and a world audience. Many African leaders of vicious regimes also form the bulk of the list of political thugs being sought by international criminal courts such as The Hague.
There are many other important items in the agenda of discussions, including protection to wild life, social investments, and government accountability, but to start demanding more respect to gay rights in exchange for aid is as good a way as any to set the summit’s tone.
The other major issue, equally scarier even if more restricted in scope, is the troubling outbreak of the Ebola virus in the West of Africa. The latest crisis has already killed over 600 people in just three weeks, and cost the life of a leading virologist, Liberia-born Dr. Samuel Brisbane. An American doctor, who was conducting research on the virus, Kent Brantly, has also been infected and was brought to the U.S. for treatment.
Now, viruses have preceded mankind on this planet and most likely will outlive our civilization, so that’s not the news about the most recent outbreak. Neither is the fact that they can’t be prevented from appearing or that, once they reach a certain stage of infection, most are fatal.
We can, however, control and minimize the chances for them to pop up and take hundreds of lives before any global coordinated effort has been put into place. In that sense, this is, by all means, an issue that deserves to occupy a central role in the summit’s panels. And despite all, so far unfounded, fears of contamination on a global scale, the U.S. and Europe, where most drug corporations are based, are crucial for the solution.
That’s where the Obama administration has to be a capable mediator to bridge the financial and political gaps between an impoverished populace in need of medical solutions, and the pharmaceutical industry, which left to their own devices, will invest only on therapies with proven profitability potential. It may not be easy, of course, as many African leaders are also fully invested in raising their own personal wealth.
The world seems in a hurry to go to hell in a basket, if one believes that sort of thing, and may feel tempted to kick the bucket and embrace the cliches for good: we’re all going to die anyway. But don’t buy it and please don’t give up, not yet, anyway. If you’re spending your morning reading this, it means that you still have a choice to make a difference, a choice that’s been denied as we speak to billions of people.
We’re not about to go Pollyanna all over you this late in the game, but there’s still a big, glaring difference being doing what you can to make it better and being, well, indifferent one way or another. For those falling amid the rubble of Gaza, or who are being chased down by a ravenous mob for their sexual orientation, or bleeding to death under some infected tent in a desert somewhere, no such luxury has been given.
Either we do it in their honor, or for any other what-the-hell reason, most of us can hardly have a chance to do anything more important with our lives, rather than to be sentient to the needs of those we don’t even know. Have a great August. WC


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