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The Land of Broken Promises


ISSUE:  Summer 2009

I don’t envy Barack Obama. It’s not enough that he inherited two wars and the worst unemployment rate in a generation, but now he has to make good on campaign promises to end those wars honorably and fix the economy from the ground up. Then there are resurgent threats from Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Somalia; an all-out drug war in neighboring Mexico; looming threats of public health crises, like a pandemic flu. It’s enough to make you forget that while Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol and swore his oath to the Constitution, Israeli ground troops were still in the process of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, the ruins left by American-built F-16s still smoldering. The brief offensive, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, was one of the deadliest in recent memory—but, worse still, it seemed to close another lethal chapter of ethnic division in the Promised Land, just as we were finally opening a new era of racial hope in the Land of Plenty.

For the briefest moment in 2005, it looked like the region might go down another path. The thirty-year Syrian occupation of Lebanon ended in late April, when thousands took to the streets to protest the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri—in what became known as the Cedar Revolution. And, after nearly three decades of control followed by a decade of occupation of the Gaza Strip, Israel approved a plan to disengage, and just after midnight on September 12, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew. There was talk of a golden age of self-rule in the Promised Land, whispers that we might be on the brink of something big, but such dreams would be short-lived.

In January 2006, Hamas—the Islamic Resistance Movement, officially designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union—won a plurality in the Gaza parliamentary elections, leading to the general halt of aid from outside the territory. On June 25, armed Palestinians entered Israel through a smuggling tunnel from the Gaza Strip and attacked an IDF post near the Kerem Shalom border crossing. The militants kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit and spirited him back to Gaza. Within days, IDF troops had entered Gaza to arrest scores of Hamas leaders and soon after began bombing.

Perhaps sensing an opening, on July 12, Hezbollah, the Shia extremist group based in Lebanon, launched its own cross-border attack against Israel, killing five IDF soldiers and kidnapping two more. Israel responded immediately with airstrikes and artillery bombardment. Hezbollah and Hamas traded blows with Israel throughout that summer and did not reach official cease-fire agreements until winter was approaching. No sooner had a tentative peace been achieved along the borders than fighting broke out within Gaza between Hamas and Fatah, the PLO-affiliated political wing that had been recently ousted from the regional parliament. When Hamas emerged militarily victorious, Egypt sealed its border at Rafah, and Israel shut down every one of its border crossings—including the seaports—effectively turning all of the Gaza Strip into an enormous containment camp.

The remarkable contributions to this issue explore what has happened in the two years since this headlong plunge into violence—and its apparent escalation with Operation Cast Lead. Elliott D. Woods explores the effects of the blockade on the young people of Gaza. Through months of on-the-ground reporting, he attains a rare intimacy with his subjects, showing through their eyes how the fact of confinement impinges on their daily lives and colors their views about the future. Asim Rafiqui, who traveled with Woods for this assignment, captures stark, simple portraits of the people who lost their homes and loved ones in the bombings, choosing not to document the familiar scenes of destruction and grief but to glimpse something of the resolve and resilience of people caught between their government and their former occupier. Both reporters go beyond the immediate impact of the shellfire to make us question the larger implications of indefinite division and confinement.

This very issue is taken up by Peter Lagerquist, who examines the legacy of British methods of detention and barricading, and Tom Bissell, who discovers that even the place just outside Jerusalem where Judas is said to have hanged himself after betraying Jesus is soon to be walled off. If we share Bissell’s surprise that there seems no way to rationalize this desire to arbitrarily divide, then Lagerquist shows that such artificial borders are often intentionally devised to cleave a populace—to contain them, to deprive them, to punish them. And soon it becomes difficult to discern who is most truly imprisoned by suspicion and the barricades built on that doubt. “Everyone thinks everyone is a spy,” says one of Michelle Orange’s hosts in Beirut. “And they might as well line the whole city with razor wire.” Indeed, she finds herself zigzagging through a maze of checkpoints so dizzying in their reconfiguration of streets that the old city is no longer recognizably itself. This sense of disorientation nearly costs Christopher Merrill his life, when he inadvertently crosses a checkpoint in Lebanon and finds himself stripped and forced to kneel in the dirt while a group of soldiers train their rifles on him.

The ways in which physical divisions lead to ever widening social divisions are especially troubling to consider as our military erects walls to surround the Baghdad enclave of Sadr City—so named for the family of Shia strongman Moqtada al-Sadr. It is difficult to believe that the hard-won stasis in Iraq will continue after an American withdrawal, if it is predicated only on eighteen-foot-high slabs of concrete and rebar. We must not content ourselves with creating smaller and smaller confines; we must seek lasting solutions that can only be achieved by living shoulder to shoulder with those who do not share our religious or cultural values. That is our only true chance of liberalizing the Middle East, the only way of achieving a durable peace. That is the only way to end the mistrust that has turned the Promised Land into a land of broken promises.

The Lebanese officer who ordered Christopher Merrill to his knees ultimately decided not to have him shot. But what saved him was not his kindness as a man or skill as a writer but a simple answer he gave to the officer’s question about his family. Merrill confessed that he had two daughters he hoped to see again. Perhaps the officer had daughters of his own. Perhaps in that moment of shared experience, he was able to see more than a suspected suicide bomber. Perhaps he could imagine how it would feel to be stripped and left in the dirt, apologizing for your ignorance, praying that your children will not be left fatherless, your wife a widow. Perhaps there, for just a moment, face to face, the officer could picture situations reversed, could imagine himself in this stranger’s place.

Perhaps that is why, in the end, he not only bid Chris go, but go in peace.

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