In the first chapter of his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens begins, perhaps fittingly, by rejecting the title, lamenting that “our language and culture contain no proper word” for the term, and warning his imaginary correspondent that “the cynics have a point, of a sort, when they speak of the “professional nay-sayer””. It’s a charge that has sometimes been levelled at Hitchens, though I for one do not happen to think his pugilistic polemics the stuff of a mere crank or curmudgeon. One reason for his lasting effectiveness and readability (and indeed watchability) as a commentator is his consummate contempt for borrowed or otherwise unoriginal thinking. You see it all the time in his televised debates – throw him a hackneyed argument or a clumsy metaphor and he doesn’t just dislike it; he’s personally insulted. He takes it to heart. (Debating Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in New York last September, after being made yet again to refute the foolish and ignorant claim that Hitler was an atheist, the visibly irritated Hitchens growled, “Don’t you dare bring this up again”.) Yet very occasionally, in his eagerness to meet Salman Rushdie’s criterion of the poet as the one who “points at frauds”, he’s capable of broaching the slender but absolute barrier between the fertile terrain of scepticism and the rather less nourishing deserts of cynicism.
One such example was to be found in this week’s Slate column, in which Hitchens elected to make disobliging and, I think, slanderous remarks about the brave members of the Free Gaza Movement who are quite literally risking their lives this week to deliver aid to and express solidarity with the hopelessly impoverished citizens of Israel’s most tightly throttled bantustan. Granted, he makes a number of very pertinent if not exactly new points about Hamas and Hizbullah that fully ought to be made. Business, you might say, as usual. What he absolutely does not do, however, is demonstrate that these thugs and theocrats have anything at all to do with the fleet of vessels currently headed for the Gaza Port. Indeed, he does not even try to demonstrate it, preferring instead to simply state point-blank: “It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas”. Does it now? I seem to recall Hitchens phrasing something once about assertions made without evidence...
It’s the sort of line one more usually gets from the Dershowitz-Phillips brand of Likudnik. Yet according to the same New York Times article to which Hitchens links in his article, the Free Gaza Movement has its origins not in Hamas but in the International Solidarity Movement, an unarmed outfit calling for civil resistance to the Israeli occupation co-founded by both Palestinians and Israelis with a spotless record of nonviolence and no confessional leaning of any kind (for what it’s worth, at least two of the Palestinian co-founders, Ghassan Andoni and Huwaida Arraf, are nominal Christians). Previous members have included Rachel Corrie, an American college student killed in 2003 for putting herself between an IDF bulldozer and the home of a Palestinian pharmacist illegally designated for demolition, and Thomas Hurndall, a British photography student picked off by an IDF sniper round fired – in the words of the killer’s own testimony – “as a deterrent”. Not that all ISM casualties have been by Israeli hands: in 2007, ISM member Akram Ibrahim Abu Sba was shot dead by Islamic Jihad gunmen in Jenin whilst trying to mollify a dispute between the Islamists and some Palestinian Authority security forces. And in April of this year, the Italian writer Vittorio Arrigoni was kidnapped and strangled to death by an al-Qaeda-linked group called ‘At-Tawheed wal-Jihad fi Filasteen’ (‘Monotheism and Jihad in Palestine’) for the crime of coming from an “infidel state”. That by itself would seem problematic enough for Hitchens’ premise that the ISM are all in bed with the Islamists*, but we also have the following words of Arrigoni directly addressing the question of Hamas in an interview with Peace Reporter:
Personally, as an activist for human rights, I do not like Hamas at all. So I have something to say to them too: they have greatly restricted human rights since they won the elections. [Translated from Italian.]
So much for “volunteer[ing] time to make [Hamas] look more presentable”. It’s sad to see the man who spoke so movingly at the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture sullying the memory of his fellow journalist Arrigoni with such callous sangfroid. On a better day, Arrigoni and Akram Abu Sba are the sort of people Hitchens – the co-editor with Edward Said of Blaming the Victims – might have been found defending.
His article is also notable for what it doesn’t say. At no point would the reader have any idea, for instance, that the blockade of Gaza Port is illegal – that it is, in the words of Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, “in direct contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law”. Not that it’s quite that simple – few, I think, would go as far as the UN jurist Desmond da Silva, who said that Israel would have had no right to board the Mavi Marmara “even if Bin Laden himself was on board”. I for one am neither able nor willing to ignore the fact that the regime in charge of operating the port at Gaza has explicitly stated its intention to wage jihad** against Israeli civilians, and has amply and multiply acted on this intention in the past. For Israel to grant Hamas totally unfiltered access to the high seas would be to recklessly endanger its own citizens, for whose human rights the ISM also states its support. But to starve Gazans of things like fresh meat, canned fruit, fishing rods, textiles and wood – all of which were banned before the Israeli government eased the blockade in embarrassment after the previous flotilla fiasco – is plainly a form of collective punishment with no security benefit of any kind. So Hitchens is punching air when he says the “intended beneficiary” of the campaign is Hamas. The intended beneficiaries, who were also to an extent the actual beneficiaries of last year’s effort, are quite obviously the people of Gaza, along with anybody else who minds about the enforcement of international law.
* The ISM posts its own response to the charge that it collaborates with terrorists on its website
** From Article 13 of the 1988 Hamas Charter: "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad."