Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

December 15, 2009

Mass incarceration, Gaza, Kenya: Why Obama should care

Filed under: American attitudes,Human rights,Palestinian politics — Helena Cobban @ 11:08 am

In the long history of colonialism there is nothing new in the practice of a colonial regime imposing conditions of very brutal mass incarceration on whole segments of the indigenous population and then manipulating those conditions to try to squeeze compliance or acquiescence from the indigenes. See, for example, the very imperfect– but nonetheless revealing– account of two Palestinian brothers now living apart, in the West Bank and Gaza, that won front-page billing in today’s WaPo.

Undertaking the mass incarceration of whole communities and then manipulating its conditions is, basically, what the Israeli government has been doing in the occupied territories for many years now.  It’s been doing it with both the brutal siege it has maintained on the whole population of Gaza, and the system of movement controls it maintains in the West Bank, that’s dominated by gates and checkpoints between Palestinian areas that are opened and closed at the whim only of the quite unaccountable occupying power.

Small wonder that so many people have judged that those areas of the occupied territories that have not already been land-grabbed by the settlers constitute a “series of open-air prisons” for the Palestinians.

Pres. Barack Obama should be well aware of this situation. He should care deeply about it. (And he should, of course, be using all the instruments of U.S. national power to bring Israel’s very lengthy occupation of these territories to a complete end.)

But here’s why Pres. Obama, of all people, should care about this situation: Because his own paternal grandfather was, according to news reports out of London last year, one of the hundreds of thousands of anti-colonial activists in Kenya who in the late 1940s and 1950s were shut up by the British colonial authorities in a series of very brutal mass-incarceration encampments called “The Pipeline.”

Reporters for the London Times wrote about Hussein Onyango Obama’s experiences in the British-ruled Kenya of those years that,

He was arrested in 1949 and jailed for two years in a high-security prison where, according to his family, he was subjected to horrific violence to extract information about the growing insurgency.

“The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” said Sarah Onyango, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, the woman Mr [president-elect] Obama refers to as “Granny Sarah”.

Mrs Onyango, 87, described how “white soldiers” visited the prison every two or three days to carry out “disciplinary action” on the inmates suspected of subversive activities.

“He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with parallel metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down,” she said The alleged torture was said to have left Mr Onyango permanently scarred, and bitterly antiBritish. “That was the time we realised that the British were actually not friends but, instead, enemies,” Mrs Onyango said.

As I noted when I wrote about this back in January,

Harvard historian Caroline Elkins has exhaustively documented the mass incarceration and intimidation campaign the British ran against suspected Kenyan independence activists in her recent book Imperial Reckoning. What she documented there tracked very closely with what Sarah Onyango told the Times reporters about her late husband’s treatment (except that according to Elkins’s documentation, around 150,000 of the Kenyan incarcerees may have ended up dead.)

Elkins also noted that life had become particularly difficult for the Kenyan indigenes, and their anti-British fervor had increased, when the British decided to plant many more white settlers into Kenya after the war, displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous African farmers from their land and resources and confining them to “reserves” that had pitifully few natural resources that rapidly became depleted as the additional displaced Africans were all trucked in.

Sounds familiar?

* I think the WaPo account is imperfect and ideological because the writer, Howard Schneider, tries to make it appear as though all of the West Bank population is secular and anti-Hamas, and is experiencing a degree of comfort and relative prosperity, and all or most of the Gazans are pro-Hamas to some degree and are experiencing horrible socioeconomic conditions. He then tries to essentialize these differences, arguing that, “The notion of a single ‘Palestine’ seems to be receding, for the Barakat brothers and all Palestinians.”

Now, it is possible that the life-situations and outlooks of the two brothers whose lives he describes are as he describes them. (What a pity, though, that while he has quotes from the two men and from their adult sons, he has nothing at all that represents the views of the women of these families. Were they invisible?)

But the move he then makes to “globalize” from the situations and outlooks of these two men is a quite unjustifiable leap!

As I know from my time in Ramallah in recent months, that glitzy, foreign-aid-driven city is not at all representative of the rest of the West Bank.  And I dare say that the life of Tayseer Barakat, a Gaza-born artist and restaurant owner, is not even representative of the lives of most of the residents of Ramallah.

Indeed, recent opinion polls have shown that Hamas has significant popularity in the West Bank– and indeed, it may be more popular there than it is in Gaza.

Another point. Though the text of Schneider’s article made it seem as though Sami Barakat, the brother who stayed in Gaza, had a life marked by great hardships, the photos that accompany the online version of the article, which are not reproduced in the print version, indicate that Sami Barakat’s family lives in a pleasant, well-painted house with carpets, some nice furniture and other nice fixtures.  So probably, the life-situations of neither brother actually “represent” those of all members of the community Schneider judges them to be a part of. But hey, that didn’t stop him from generalizing…

One final, very important point. Though Schneider does indicate that the life-condititions of each group of Palestinians, in the West Bank and in Gaza, are heavily manipulated by Israel for political reasons, nowhere does he spell out that all these restrictions are in gross violation of Israel’s obligations under international law, as the occupying power, which include an obligation to protect the welfare of all civilian residents of the territories occupied.

Pres. Obama, of all people, should be well aware of the importance of international law in such circumstances…



  1. I greatly appreciate the information about Obama’s paternal grandfather and his anti-British sentiment caused by the hideous torture he endured.
    Seemingly, as a result of these ghastly occurences, Obama’s moral indignation should be proportionately high vis a vis British Imperialism.
    If indeed, he is outraged by this Imperial behaviour, which is what we all think he should be feeling, then how can he be acting in such diametric opposition? Are his hands tied? Does he fear for his life if he acted against his masters?
    These are truly strange times.

    Comment by peter12345678 — December 15, 2009 @ 1:24 pm | Reply

  2. Gaza, Kenya, and homelands of South Africa, which were a flash point of the black community as Obama was coming of age.

    Unfortunately, Obama is behaving more and more like John Kerry, who internalized the lessons of Vietnam before he discarded them on the altar of political expedience…

    Comment by JohnH — December 15, 2009 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

  3. The Wapo article seems of a piece with today”s NYT article about Netanyahu, the converted peacemaker. Israel is pulling out all the stops in a massive PR effort to recover from the internationally disastrous Gaza invasion. Unfortunately, I think Helena is too optimistic again to think that Obama is influenced by anything other than the Washington establishment – witness the farce of banker bailouts and health insurance company welfare – including the Zionist Lobby. Under Obama we have lost any chance of health care reform or financial regulation or mideast peace.As an Obama supporter in the last election, I have no one to blame but myself.

    Comment by Jack — December 15, 2009 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

    • Your statement “Under Obama we have lost any chance of health care reform or financial regulation or mideast peace.”

      You mean if we had elected John McCain we could have had these things?

      Comment by David — December 16, 2009 @ 6:23 am | Reply

  4. David –
    On these issues, McCain could not have done worse. Some kind of health insurance bill and some kind of financial regulation was inevitable given the tenor of the times. Under Obama we have just about the weakest and worst of each. At least under McCain, no one would have been deluded into thinking that mideast peace was now possible, so again a net loss. Losses don’t seem as great when hope has not arisen.

    Comment by Jack — December 16, 2009 @ 3:07 pm | Reply

  5. If indeed, he is outraged by this Imperial behaviour, which is what we all think he should be feeling, then how can he be acting in such diametric opposition?

    Obama is behaving like bush but in different style… what’s troubling when westerns like the writer of this post and commentators talking about history of colonialism and the practice of a colonial regimes, they all indulging the colonialism regimes lifestyle they have had nothing suffer from their regime as such comparing to those indigenous population who surfed and suffering from imposing conditions of very brutal mass incarceration on whole segments of those societies who are under a brutal colonial regime.

    Comment by Salah — December 16, 2009 @ 9:55 pm | Reply

    • Saleh-
      **Obama is behaving like bush but in different style** I disagree, respectfully. Read here

      I agree with the rest of your comment. Brutal colonial rule is very very different for indigenes when compared to detached observers like me. The difference is profound.

      Comment by peter12345678 — December 17, 2009 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

  6. No Jack, McCain would have been much worse. (Not to mention the worry that he might drop dead and we would then get Sarah Palin, who would be so bad we would all start wishing for the good old days of George W. Bush.) Obama always said he would work with Republicans to achieve his legislative goals. Those who thought Republicans would reciprocate are the ones disappointed. I held out no illusions that Republicans would work with him, so my expectations of what Obama could achieve were never high. Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do.

    As for Middle East peace I don’t know why Obama thought he should impose on Israel a precondition without any corresponding precondition on Palestinians, especially one (settlement building) that never prevented negotiations in the past. Unfortunately all Obama succeeded in doing was to allow Abbas to make his hard line bona fides by saying Israel needs to meet this precondition.

    The best chance for Palestinians have for a state of their own is to start working now with Obama. It’s very possible Democrats are going to lose seats in the mid-term elections making Obama even weaker. Can Palestinians think that a Palin in 2012 will be better?

    Comment by David — December 17, 2009 @ 7:05 am | Reply

  7. The best chance for Palestinians have for a state of their own is to start working now with Obama.

    David, as far as we see Palestinians already agree with Obama ME project what trying Obasm project is Israel as far as we know, Isn’t David? Please give us you thoughts..

    Can Palestinians think that a Palin in 2012 will be better?

    Ohhh she will initiates a Holy War Just like Iraq one as she stated before and here grage addicted Son sent to Iraq part of his rehab therapy when she shown she sending her Son to Holy War!

    Comment by Salah — December 17, 2009 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  8. U.S. democracy promotion, the very fact of accepting grants or other support from the U.S. government “a colonial regime”.

    CALCUTTA — A speaking tour by the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University has exposed a conundrum for the State Department’s public diplomacy program: The mere fact that the visit was sponsored by the Bush administration left many Indian Muslims unreceptive to the message.

    The chaplain, Imam Yahya Hendi, was in India for three days late last week to debunk myths about the status and treatment of Muslims in America, much as he has done in State Department-sponsored trips to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

    The visit, arranged by Karen Hughes’ two-year-old public diplomacy office at the State Department, did produce successes. Imam Hendi was welcomed at a few schools and mosques, and led a mass prayer attended by 15,000 worshippers at a Calcutta mosque.

    Comment by Salah — December 17, 2009 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: