Mae Cannon’s Distorted Ethic of Care

Mae Cannon, an inveterate anti-Israel propagandist, is still at it.

In a recent article appearing in Sojourners, a publication with a long history of assailing Israel and the United States while giving a pass to the practitioners of jihad, Cannon uses a number of techniques to place all the blame for the suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Israel. She fails to acknowledge, much less highlight, the role Hamas has played in bringing about this suffering.

Such behavior contradicts her previous call to address the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a “holistic” manner and hinders the ability of her readers to confront the problems in Palestinian society that contribute to the continued existence of the conflict between Jew and Arab in the Middle East.

By promoting a Judeo-centric view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Cannon is laying the groundwork for a Judeo-phobic interpretation of the suffering the conflict causes. Cannon does not explicitly blame the Jewish state and those who support it for Palestinian suffering in the article, but the unavoidable implication of her story is that Palestinian suffering is the fault of Israel and its supporters and no one else — not the Palestinians themselves and not the advocates like Cannon who fail to hold them accountable.

Cannon’s narrative is not as explicitly hostile as other anti-Israel propagandists such as Gary Burge, Linda Sarsour, Don Wagner or James M. Wall, but her ability to cloak a dishonest and demonizing narrative in the ethic of care, compassion and concern for the Palestinians represents a particularly insidious method of anti-Israel de-legitimization.

Expressions of compassion and empathy can set the stage for further suffering if they are not linked with an honest assessment of the causes of suffering.

Undeniable Suffering

This is a fair description of a recent article that Cannon wrote with the help of CMEP intern Jessica Hill. The article is titled “You Are Not Forgotten,” and appeared in the July 2017 issue of Sojourners. (The online version of the article, with a different title, is available here.) In the article, Cannon laments the humanitarian crisis brought about by the lack of functional sewage treatment plants, limited electricity and “other broken infrastructure’ in the Gaza Strip.

Cannon details the suffering endured by the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Sonic booms from Israeli military jets remind Gazans “that war is always on the horizon” as does Egypt’s bombing of ISIS in the nearby Sinai Peninsula. Gazans also suffer from intermittent supplies of electricity, a problem that undermines the ability of hospitals to treat their patients. They also suffer from the effects of inadequately treated sewage being dumped into the Mediterranean Sea, which in turn pollutes the freshwater supply: “Unsanitary conditions can produce dangerous medical conditions including diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.”

Cannon also recounts how the lack of medicine in Gazan hospitals undermines the quality of medical treatment in the area. She quotes Marie Dennis from Pax Christi International, a Catholic charity, who states that because of a lack of chemotherapy drugs, “Mastectomy is often the only option, even if in other parts of the world such radical surgery would not be necessary.”

As a result of these and other problems, Cannon reports, infant mortality has increased substantially and that “Palestinians live 10 years less than do Israelis.” On this score, the numbers check out. According to the CIA Factbook, the life expectancy at birth in the Gaza Strip is about 74 years, while in Israel it is about 83 years. There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy. Israel is a wealthier nation, for example and has devoted a substantial amount of its resources to improving its medical infrastructure over the years. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has pirated fuel, medicine, and construction materials away from its hospitals.

But what Cannon does not report, however, is that life expectancy in the Gaza Strip has steadily increased over the past decade despite the problems she describes. In 2000, the life expectancy in the Gaza Strip was just under 71 years and has increased to approximately 74 years since. This raises a question: If Israel is to blame for the relatively low life expectancy in the Gaza Strip, then can it take credit for the increase in this area?

Still, Cannon’s assessment about the suffering of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is unassailable — they are suffering.

But the challenge remains: “Why are they suffering and what can and should be done about it?”

In sum, Cannon treats the blockade as an independent variable — the source or cause of all the suffering she laments — without considering the possibility that the blockade is in fact a dependent variable or a consequence of other factors or actions taken by Hamas. Real peacemaking and humanitarian work requires honest, good-faith analysis that Cannon has failed to do throughout her career as a writer and as a Christian development official.

People who rely on Cannon’s historical narrative to formulate a response to this challenge will be led astray because she assiduously omits facts that readers need to know before coming up with reasonable and effective policy prescriptions to respond to the suffering in the Gaza Strip. Given Cannon’s training as a historian, this is not an innocent mistake, but the result of a conscious decision on her part.

She knows what she’s doing. She’s been at it a long time.

The Historical Narrative

The omissions become apparent in her summary of events surrounding Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Cannon reports that Israel withdrew 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip that year, adding that in the withdrawal “21 settlements were destroyed (rather than turned over to Gazans).”

The implication is that the Israelis destroyed the homes out of spite when they should have let the poor downtrodden Palestinians move into them.

While it is true that Palestinians might have benefited from the Israeli-built homes, there was a strategic reason to destroy the homes as part of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan: Allowing Hamas to take possession of the homes would give the terrorist organization a powerful symbolic victory which could be used to justify and incite further acts of violence after Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. In March 2004, The Sunday Times (London) quoted an advisor to Ariel Sharon as saying, “The idea of Hamas flags flying over the villas of Gaza’s settlements on CNN and Al-Jazeera (the Arabic television news channel) is intolerable.”

This is a polemical statement, but it
is rooted in a legitimate concern. Given that the withdrawal took place toward the end of the Second Intifada which cost more than 1,000 Israelis their lives, many of them as a result of Hamas suicide bombings, people responsible for the safety of Israeli citizens had good reason to consider how Hamas would try to use events in the Gaza Strip for propaganda purposes.

As it turned out, in the 2006 elections in which Hamas defeated candidates from Fatah, Hamas politicians regularly invoked Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as proof of the organization’s effectiveness and superiority over the Fatah. (Another factor of Hamas’s popularity in the 2006 election was that it was perceived to be less corrupt than Fatah, a perception that has proven to be false.)

The decision to destroy the Israel-built homes was not without some discussion in the Israeli government. At one point, Israel officials declared that they might be willing to allow the homes to remain standing, but only on the condition that they be used to house Palestinian refugees and not handed over to members of Hamas or already affluent elites in Palestinian society. This is what The Jerusalem Post reported on April 18, 2004:

Israel will consider destroying housing in Gaza settlements it intends on evacuating if it deems the houses will not be used to house Palestinian refugees, a senior official said on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s flight back from Washington on Friday.
The official said that if the homes will be handed over to Hamas, or if they will be used to house Gaza’s affluent and not residents of refugee camps, Israel would consider destroying them before pulling out.
The officials said Israel wants to ensure that after Israel pulls out of Gaza, efforts will finally be made to start permanently resettling refugees.

Other Omissions

In her effort to portray Israel’s mean-spiritedness, Cannon omits some other important parts of the story.

For example, she writes, “In the past decade, the people of Gaza have experienced three wars—in 2008, 2012, and 2014—between militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces.” Cannon continues: “Children in Gaza pay the greatest price, with these explosions of violence leading to post-traumatic stress, limited access to basic humanitarian needs such as potable water and electricity and unstable civic infrastructure.”

Cannon makes no mention of the civil war between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in 2007. During this war, gunmen from Fatah and Hamas threw their opponents off rooftops and engaged in public executions of their adversaries, in some instances killing men in front of their wives and children. Why does Cannon omit this civil war in a summary about the violence that has made the Gaza Strip such a difficult place to live?

One likely explanation for this omission is that by mentioning the civil war between Hamas and Fatah, Cannon would highlight problems in the Gaza Strip that indicate that the Palestinians are struggling with peaceful self-governance.

Rockets? What Rockets?

Another material omission in Cannon’s article is that she makes no reference whatsoever to the thousands of rockets fired into Israel by Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip over the past decade.

The IDF reports that since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, more than 11,000 rockets have been fired into Israel from the territory and that 5 million Israelis live under the threat of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. This goes a long way toward explaining why Israel has imposed a blockade in the Gaza Strip. (It should also be noted that rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip increased after the Israeli withdrawal from the area in 2005, raising further concerns about the extremism of the organization.)

And in her description of the blockade, Cannon fails to report that Israel is not the only country that has restricted movement in and out of the Gaza Strip. Egypt has also imposed a blockade on its border and has restricted the flow of goods into the territory because of Hamas involvement in terror attacks in the Sinai. According to the Times of Israel, Egypt has recently relaxed some of the restrictions, which have been placed since the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. Despite the relaxation, Egypt’s blockade has played a role in devastating the economy of the territory.

This omission does two things. First it places all the blame for the restriction of goods into Gaza on Israel, and prevents readers from asking why Egypt would impose a blockade of its own on the area.

It should also be noted that the Palestinian Authority has worked to further restrict the movement of goods and services into the Gaza Strip, for example, recently refusing to pay the cost of providing electricity into the Gaza Strip. This refusal took place on April 27, 2017, which was probably after Cannon’s article in Sojourners went to press, but the conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has been going on for quite some time, as has Hamas’s theft of food and fuel intended to help maintain the health infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.

Predictably, Cannon omits any reference to these events and their impact on the availability of goods and services in the Gaza Strip.

And in reference to the overall safety and wellbeing of the Palestinians in Gaza, Cannon makes no mention of Hamas’s theft of construction materials (given by international donors) to build attack tunnels into Israel. In sum, Hamas’s tactic has been to impoverish and oppress the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and use the materials it is able to steal to enrich its members and to terrorize Israeli citizens. And yet, Cannon lays the blame for the suffering of the Palestinians on the Israeli blockade.

Broadcasting such an oversimplified narrative that plays on the emotions of Christians in the U.S. might be useful in generating support for Churches for Middle East Peace in the short term, but in the long run it will undermine the credibility of the organization and its member churches.

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