The bloodied, shrapnel-punctured body of a little boy dangling from a makeshift stretcher on a rubble-strewn dusty road in Gaza. The sad, terrified look of a little boy in ragged clothes peering out from behind a wire mesh screen in an “immigration detention center” that looks all the world like a dog pound. Two scenes, thousands of miles apart. But they are, in some respects, connected. The events that led to those images are tangled in global politics, capitalist greed, ignorance and arrogance. And many suffer, particularly the children.
Two parallel stories, thousands of miles apart but both having certain elements in common. The ongoing conflict between the Palestinians of Gaza and the government and military of Israel and the recent influx of immigrant children from Central America to the United States southern border are rooted in issues of territorial occupation, oppression and violence. And the United States government’s policies and actions, over the course of many years, have contributed to the eruption of these tragic developments.
The United States government’s unquestioning fealty to Israel has allowed Israeli politicians and the military to smother the Palestinians in the occupied lands – the West Bank and, particularly, the Gaza Strip. Like clockwork, the United States annually doles out its three-billion-dollar aid check to Israel. And the Israeli government and military continue to keep doing what they’ve been doing to Palestinians within their universe for these many years: depriving them of their land and their human rights. You’d think the United States government would have some leverage over Israel, “urging” it to end this current violent conflict in Gaza. But the United States seems toothless in trying to rein-in the Israeli government and military. It is indisputable that Hamas is shelling cities in Israel. No matter how ineffective those attacks may be, Israel certainly has the right to security – there can be no doubt about that. But that right doesn’t extend to the license to carry out these kinds of attacks against civilians.
The people at Human Rights Watch have been on the ground, monitoring developments in Gaza. And let’s not forget that Gaza is essentially an occupied territory. Geographically, it’s about the size of Los Angeles County. The people have their backs to the sea and in front of them a nonpermeable border with Israel. When attacked, as they have been by the ground assault that accompanies the missile attacks, the Palestinians have nowhere to go.
The attacks by the Israeli military have caused tremendous human suffering. It is a grim scorecard kept by some: how many dead on this side, how many dead on the other. Ultimately, that’s a useless enterprise. One death on either side is too many. Watching the BBC’s coverage of the bombing of the Gaza schools where children’s bodies were ripped apart was heartbreaking to watch. Human Rights Watch reported that the vast majority of Palestinians being killed in Gaza are civilians, many of them children. “Israel’s rhetoric is all about precision attacks, but attacks with no military target and many civilian deaths can hardly be considered precise,” says Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch. But tactical precision isn’t really the issue. Legality, humanity – and dare we say it? – morality are the foundation of the bigger issue at stake here. Whitson says, “Recent documented cases in Gaza sadly fit Israel’s long record of unlawful airstrikes with high civilian casualties.”
If public opinion polls are to be believed, the great majority of Israeli citizens support the current Israeli military offensive in Gaza. But not all Israelis are in lockstep with Benjamin Netanyahu. For example, a group of reservists in the IDF(the Israeli Defense Force, as the military there is known) have refused to put their uniforms back on. They have vowed NOT to participate in the offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza. In a letter signed by many IDF reservists, including a young Israeli named Yael Even Or, they proclaimed: “To us, the current military operation and the way militarization affects Israeli society are inseparable. In Israel, war is not merely politics by other means – it replaces politics. Israel is no longer able to think about a solution to a political conflict in terms of physical might; no wonder it is prone to never-ending cycles of mortal violence. And when the cannons fire, no criticism can be heard.”
And the United States government is complicit in all of this, because of its unblinking, blanket support for Israel – or at least for the amorphous notion of what “Israel” represents, what it is “supposed” to be. In the foggy consciousness of the majority of the people of the U.S., Israel is some sort of shining city on the hill, a bastion of freedom and democracy in the midst of a turbulent Middle East where bad guys who talk funny own the oil. Ask the Palestinians of Gaza about that. The United States unfailingly supports Israel because it is perceived as a valuable strategic military asset/ally in the region. Like the U.S., Israel struggles to live up to its own ideals.
Israel is a fact of life. It should persist, of course. But Israel should become in reality what it professes to be, but which it is not. And the people of the United States are complicit in all of this, because they acquiesce to what the U.S. State Department is doing in their name. Let’s stand up to Israel and urge it/pressure it to do the right thing by the Palestinians. This broad conflictbetween the two sides has, essentially, gone on for centuries, taking it’s contemporary incarnation from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and accelerated from the events of 1967. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be ended – in a way that’s fair and reasonable for all parties involved, especially the children – the children of today and those of tomorrow.
Meanwhile the unfortunate developments regarding minor immigrants from Central American continue without a substantial solution in sight. Solutions are possible, but for anything meaningful to happen those pulling the strings of power in Washington have to own up to the fact that the United States contributed mightily to the problem of immigration in the first place. United States policies and practices helped lay the economic, political and strategic foundation for the kind of mass migration to the U.S. from Central America that we are seeing today. And any real solution has to start with an understanding and an acceptance of that. Otherwise, it’s all illusion and smoke and mirrors.
And illusion and misinformation are, of course, the stock-in-trade of the tapados of the Tea Party and their ilk who are fanning the jingoistic flames of this issue. They have manipulated the story of the minor immigrant children to suit their needs (and wants). The tea baggers claim that this is all President Obama’s fault (just as World War II was his fault, even though he wasn’t even born yet). They have gone after Obama for his moderate efforts on behalf of some immigrants. For example, his executive order that delays the deportation of some immigrant college students. But let’s be clear: Obama’s scorecard on immigration has as many strikeouts as hits. Meanwhile, the head-in-the-sand Republicans in Congress refuse to even consider significant legislation to constructively deal with the immigration issue. They just holler about “Beefin’ up duh border.”
Well, the border between the United States and Mexico has been beefed up significantly over the last few years. Billions of dollars have been spent building walls and fences that seem to rival the Great Wall of China. There are more armed Border Patrol agents than there are soldiers in the armies of several good-sized countries. Planes. Drones. Surveillance cameras. Motion detectors. Que más quieren. Believe me, the border is plenty “beefed up.”
But, interestingly enough, despite all the money that’s been spent on border security, there are not enough detention centers to adequately and humanely house the thousands of young immigrants who have recently been rounded up at the border. They are held until a hearing can be scheduled regarding their requests for a safe haven from threats of violence and even death in their home countries.
There are many reasons why there’s this apparent new influx of young migrants. There are many reasons why their treatment has been shoddy, abusive and perilously close to torture. And there are many reasons why the U.S. government and the U.S. public are partly responsible for these people leaving their homes and heading to a very uncertain future in el norte. The big issue is that actions by the U.S. government and corporations have laid the groundwork for the continuing exodus.
Immigration, of course, is a global phenomenon. We’re so myopic in the United States that when we hear the word “immigration” we
immediately think of Latinos scrambling to get into this country via California, Arizona or Texas. But, again, immigration is a global reality. There is a photo of a young Algerian boy standing in a back alley in Paris. He wears a tee shirt that reads: (as translated into English) “We are here because you were there.” That applies equally to the Central Americans who are in the United States and those who are trying to get here.
The chaos and dislocation caused by the civil wars in Central America in the 1980s pushed people to the north. They sought sanctuary in the United States. They are here because we were there. The United States government spent billions of dollars supporting despotic rulers who obliterated thousands of Salvadorans and Nicaraguans seeking to establish popularly elected democratic institutions. Has everyone forgotten about the death squads of that era? United States corporations, the big agribusiness firms that own the land and dominate the people, turned subsistence farmers into landless peasants with few options but to escape violence and starvation by heading north. And the U.S. government, by way of its clandestine henchmen of the Central Intelligence Agency and the death squads they supported, caused more upheaval and displacement. And during that period the CIA, with the acquiescence of Congress, used the country of Honduras as its launching pad for all manner of dark clandestine operations. That continued to destabilize Honduras. But that’s not all – as the irritating infomercials tell us. In 2009 democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya was thrown out of office in a coup d’état by the military. The United States supported that illegal action. Zelaya had supported programs to help the poor, redistribute land and make the country a genuine democracy. The oligarchs would have nothing of that. More chaos and more displacement, with the participation of the U.S. government.
And more recently, U.S. policies continue to exacerbate the situation and create more reasons for Central Americans, particularly young people, to head north. The U.S. carried out a strong-arm policy of sending hardened street gang members back to places such as San Salvador and Tegucigalpa. Violent gang culture, forged in the United States, was thus transplanted to Central America and allowed to germinate into something as ugly as the death squads of a previous generation.
“The fear of death is predominantly what is causing the exodus of these children,” says Victor Nieblas Pradis. He’s president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and he has studied the issue of migration from Central America to the United States carefully. He says, for example, “San Pedro Sula in Honduras is the world’s murder capital, with a homicide rate of 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012 driven by a surge in gang and drug trafficking violence.” Cities in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala are right behind Honduras on that grisly scorecard. And Pradis adds, “The U.S. has to take some of the blame for the culture of violence in Central America – a moral and legal responsibility exists. The U.S. has after all played a major role in the conditions of these Central American countries.” We are here because you were there.
Another unfortunate dynamic is at work in all of this. The tens of thousands of young migrants – some as young as 10 or 11 years old – find themselves hustled from cramped jails to “detention centers” that are grossly over-crowded and are really just prisons. Many people don’t know that these facilities are often run by for-profit companies. We’ve privatized prisons. The owners of these companies are in it to make money. Simple as that. That means that the health and safety of these children is not the driving force. The driving force for these privatized prisons is profit. Cut medical care, cut food rations, and you make a bigger profit. The children suffer. The migrants are supposed to get a hearing to determine what’s best for them. The Tea Party folks bang the drum for “sending them back where they came from.” Where they came from are places of violence and danger.
The president and Congress can’t agree on appropriating more money to make the process run more smoothly and to humanely protect the interests of these children. And the right wing in this country prevents any genuine effort at taking a long, comprehensive look at our “immigration problem” and coming up with reasonable solutions. And so the children suffer.
Just as the children in Gaza suffer from the very real violence that threatens their well being.
Solutions to these problems have to start with an understanding of history. Solutions to these problems require the authorities to step back and take a long look at comprehensive remedies that are sensible and humane. And it takes the U.S. public to wake up, understand what’s really going on – apart from the bumper-sticker slogans – and force their elected representatives to do the right thing. It starts with putting aside the partisanship and jingoism and dealing with the facts of these crises. Meanwhile, the children continue to suffer.
Luís Torres is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian.” He lives in Pasadena, California. All photos included in this blog are in the public domain.