The Smells of Gaza and New Jersey

by James M. Wall24-Gaza-Getty-v3

Richard Ford’s latest novel, Let Me Be Frank With You, begins when Frank Bascombe drives into a suburb of Haddam, a New Jersey town recently destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. 

Frank had been a real estate salesman in the community. A former client wanted to meet him at the site of a house he had purchased from Frank.  

The novel opens with a description of what Frank experienced in the aftermath of Sandy’s destructive power:

“Strange fragrances ride the twitchy, wintry air at the shore this morning, two weeks before Christmas. Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.

It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and  re-hab.  Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean’s sulfurous weft. . .”

I could read no further. I was immediately thrown back into the memory of the cities and towns of Gaza, where this past summer a destructive military force pounded a narrow strip of Palestinian land, packed with Palestinian people.

“The strange fragrances” which Frank Bascombe smells in the fictional New Jersey coastal town, are the smells of rebuilding, with “fresh-cut lumber” and “the lye-sniff of Sarkese, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits”.  

There are no rebuilding smells of “fresh-cut lumber” in Gaza. There are only the continued smells of garbage, putrid water, death and destroyed structures, left behind by Israel’s unrelenting three-week bombardment of Gaza.

There is no rebuilding in Gaza. How can this be so when all those nations promised so much money for rebuilding?  The London Independent’s  Kim Sengupta, traveled to Gaza to find out:

“Four months after last summer’s bloody war, Gaza remains in ruins, with little or no reconstruction, a continuing blockade, unemployment rising towards 70 per cent and a desperate and angry population. . .

Just a fraction of the construction material required after such devastation has been delivered so far – only 1 per cent of the five million tonnes needed. Similarly, extremely little of the $5bn pledged from abroad – 1.2 per cent – has been sent so far. The number of homeless, meanwhile, stands at 50,000.”

The Independent’s Sengupta returned to Gaza in late December, his first visit since the summer’s conflict.  He heard two different reasons as to why the reconstruction smells have not replaced the smells of death and destruction. In his report for the Independent, Sengupta wrote:

“A Palestinian reason was that Israel has imposed draconian conditions for allowing in the material for rebuilding because it does not want Gaza to recover, but to be a crippled economy, a people dependent on aid.

The Israeli narrative was that the security measures were essential to stop Hamas from using the supplies to replace the destroyed network of tunnels under the border. Hamas, [the Israelis say] was happy to leave Gaza in its current devastated state for propaganda value.”

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen traveled to Gaza in late December.  Like the Independent’s Kim Sengupta, he found destruction and no smells of re-building.

Bonnie and ClydeCohen’s reading of what he found in Gaza is a display of liberal Zionism which always reminds me of that scene in Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie, Bonnie and Clydewhen Clyde is driving the getaway car from a small southern town.

The man he has just robbed has had the audacity to jump on Clyde’s running board. Clyde shoots him in the face. Later he laments to Bonnie, “Why did he make me do that?”

Why indeed.

Cohen begins his Gaza column, “Gaza is Nowhere”, with the unctuous self-righteousness of  a reporter who loves Israel so much that he can only see as grossly misinformed, those who do not yield to Israel’s wants and demands. 

“You trudge into Gaza from a high-tech Israeli facility through a caged walkway that brings you, after about 15 minutes, to a ramshackle Palestinian border post; and then, formalities completed, on you go, through dust and the reek of sewage, past the crumpled buildings and the donkey carts, to arrive at last in the middle of nowhere.”

Cohen smells “the reek of sewage” as he moves “past the crumpled buildings and the donkey carts, to arrive at last in the middle of nowhere.”

The smell remains in Gaza for what reason? He does not say. Why is that destruction not showing some signs of recovery with all that donor money pouring in?  He does not say.

What Cohen does say is that:

“Gaza is nowhere. Very few people go in or out of the 140-square-mile enclave. Most people want to forget about it. . . .”

Cohen knows wars are futile, so why does Hamas, from his perspective, always want to start wars?

The last one changed nothing. Hamas rockets are being test-fired. A Palestinian farmer has been shot dead near the border. Tensions simmer. The draft Security Council resolution at the United Nations, championed by the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, seeking a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank by 2017, amounts to an elaborate sideshow.

When Cohen states that “Nobody wants to talk about Gaza because it reeks of failure,” he locates that failure in a series of events filtered through his liberal Zionist perspective. 

He starts with “the failure of Israeli withdrawal [from Gaza]; the failure of a long-ago election that ushered Hamas to power; the failure to achieve the Palestinian unity necessary for serious peace talks”. 

That’s outrageous. Israel withdrew from Gaza to wrap it in a barbed wire prison and remove its scattered Israeli settlements that were too expensive  to protect and maintain.

The failure of a “long ago” election which was won by Hamas throughout all of Gaza and the West Bank, is a lie. The election was a failure only to Western and Israeli eyes.

The “failure”, as liberal Zionists and right-wing Zionists alike, do not want to admit, was that the Hamas government defeated an Israel/U.S.-trained and financed Fatah army 

Unable to gain the control the Palestinian voters in 2006 refused to give them, Israel sealed off its Gaza barbed wire prison and jailed most of the legislators chosen to run a unified government in Gaza and the West Bank.  

Cohen does not pause to reflect on the distortions of the Israeli narrative which he continually spreads in the U.S. through his New York Times columns.

Instead, he continues with his list of failures, all of which are the responsibility of the “other”, Hamas.

He concludes with the undeniable, even to followers of the liberal Zionist narrative, that the final failure is “the failure to offer decency to 1.8 million trapped human beings.”

That is liberal Zionism at its most pious. Cohen, like Clyde Barrow, does not like it when Hamas does not let Israel offer “decency to 1.8 million trapped human beings”.  Who is responsible for keeping Gaza Palestinians imprisoned within their own land?

Hamas keeps jumping on the running board of Israel’s car, so naturally, and reluctantly, like Clyde Barrow, Israel has to shoot them. Hamas makes them do it. 

The picture above of a destroyed Gaza block is by Getty, from the Independent.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in -Movies and politics, Gaza, Israel, Media, Middle East, Middle East Politics, Movies, USA, War. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Smells of Gaza and New Jersey

  1. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Your article is right on the mark. It is ironic to note that the town in New Jersey that you referred to, called “Haddam”, means “Destroyed”, in Arabic.

    You are so right about the angle that some Zionist journalists take, as they “justify” Israeli mass murder and destruction, and even have the audacity to make it sound as though Israel just feels “obliged” to murder and maim and destroy.

    Also, I noticed when I first read Roger Cohen’s article, as he repeats the word, “Failure” and attributes it to the Palestinians, as though they brought it upon themselves. I wonder if it is part of a larger Zionist propaganda to paint Palestinians with “failure”, in order to justify their “fate”?

    The truth of the matter is that much of Gaza may have been destroyed, but it is Israel that has failed – big time.
    Israel failed to defeat the spirit of Palestinian freedom and resistance against occupation.
    Israel failed to prevent the world from recognizing Israel’s genocide and murder of more than 2,100 mainly civilians, including a few hundred children.
    Israel failed to prevent the “upgraded” recognition of the State of Palestine.
    Israel failed to prevent Palestine from joining the International Criminal Court.
    Israel failed to gain anything, by planting more super-seeds of hatred for its occupation in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, as well as in the entire Arab and Islamic Worlds.
    From a moral point of view, Israel is a “Failed State”, par excellence.

  2. Frustration abounds–in Gaza, in the West Bank, in the Golan Heights and elsewhere including in whatever pockets of sanity remain in the former land of the free and home of the brave. There is neither a free nor a brave politician-prostitute in Zionist-Occupied Washington, D.C. And Cohen surely provides ample evidence that the Fourth Estate in America is no longer a proper foil to the machinations of expediency, greed, and indifference.

  3. Samia Khoury says:

    Thank you for this amazing analogy. Israel and its supporters continue to be in denial. But one day they will all need to face the reality and the truth will set us all free. Inshallah

  4. J. Martin Bailey says:

    There are so many truths and so many ironies in this essay of Jim Wall’s that it is not only frightening–scary–but deeply foreboding. (The first irony I saw was the masthead of Jim’s blog page, the elegant Chicago lakeside marina with the sailboats waiting for the city’s rich and famous to get away from the urban hurly burly by an escape to the cool waters of Lake Michigan, in contrast to the tragic, terrible, smelly rubble left in the wake of Israel’s America\-sponsored fire storm in Gaza.)

    The Gaza that I remember was ironic and tragic enough. On one of my many visits I accompanied a group of some 20 Presbyterian women come from the United States to seek an understanding of an awe-ful occupation of what was even then the world’s largest prison. In addition to seeing refugee camps, UN schools, and church-sponsored hospitals, we had an unusual opportunity: We spoke not only with Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian President, but with his wife, Suha. What a nice treat for the American church women! While we sat in the comfortable living room of the Arafat home, we were told that the baby daughter was sleeping; otherwise we would see her, too. Our group was thrilled at this example of the human side of very serious state-craft. Later, when we had our audience with President Arafat, someone spoke to him of the sleeping child. He brightened and his puffy, stern face turned warm and friendly. He revealed himself as a very proud and loving father.

    At lunch time, in a popular fish-restaurant on the edge of the Mediterranean, our meal was interrupted and a nanny arrived carrying the child. There was get-up-close time for the American women, and many smiles. The excellent meal was forgotten in the midst of a very human gesture.

    I tell this story to echo Jim Wall’s urgent reflection on the current agony that is Gaza. It may be the ultimate irony that Israeli Jews, who want–no. insist–that we “understand” their historic plight, seemingly refuse to seek an understanding of what they have done to another people, and that the consequences of their actions continue to inflame the Middle East. In this, American politicians are culpable, as well.

  5. fred says:

    That the New York Time would have a reporter in Gaza and leave out the most important facts of the nine year old blockade of Gaza, and the slaughter of over 500 children in it;s latest blitzkrieg of Gaza, bombing so many civilian targets, is so typical of the Zionist NYTimes, which has always seen protecting Israel’s image and barbaric policies from its readers..

    It is not the paper of record, as it boldly declares itself to be. It is the lead Zionist paper in the US. It is a disgrace to reporting and to the Fourth Estate. Israel Firsters and warmongers are all over the newspapers writing and staff, so this should be no surprise.


  6. Peace with Justice says:

    It is important to point out that the 2006 elections were attended by Former President Jimmy Carter and many foreign
    Representatives. Liberal Zionism is not liberal. If they are liberal then they
    Should be called Liberal Jews. Zionism stands for the creation of a Zionist state on the land of the indigenous people of Palestine. This is why Mr. Cohen will not be a fair journalist.

    As for rebuilding Gaza, Israel destroyed it so the funding and building will be done by
    Israeli contractors. This is a well known practice.

    Israel asked for the ceasefire and the halt of its bombardment was not in sight.
    Nonetheless, the so called financiers of the world, being Arab governments, European or American, have a history of reneging on
    Their promises to rebuild Gaza or even to bail out the Palestinian Authority. .
    This new/old “World Order” is not to save humanity from destruction, but to keep the war machinery and “weapons of mass destruction” free at work. Its experimentation is on the weaker human beings. But, the people of Gaza. had the upper hand because of their will to survive and protect their land . Moreover, the government of this mighty country, America, does not and will not see right from wrong, because they have the Israeli Eyes.

    The rich Arab governments that were financing “the Arab Spring”, have no more memory of yesterday’s slogans, for a democracy in the ” Arab Spring” Oasis or mirage. They too turned their face the opposite direction. The Palestinian people have the will and determination to rely on themselves and on those who understand their plight and support it.

  7. Robert says:

    I just returned before Christmas from a visit to Gaza. There was a definitive smell apparent driving at the speed of a donkey cart through block after block of rubble still populated with desperate families, which used to be neighborhoods of Shajaiya. And seeing the results of the targeting of water, sewage and electrical infrastructure resulting in the previous week’s rains, having Gazans in refugee camps waking up soaked in sewage.

    Ironically this reek could only be sensed by the eye and discerned by the mind: it was the undeniable odour of sadistic viciousness targeting a people whose crime is being of the wrong religio-ethnic tribe who continue their millenia-long existence on a recently coveted land.

    Apartheid is a polite understatement.

  8. I can hardly contain myself over the Dennis Ross op-ed in the NY Times today. Your next project Jim. JRK

  9. Tim Meagher says:

    Recalling the scripture, “Where there is no vision, the people’s hope perish,” the reality of rebuilding Gaza is one that requires hope and purpose. Also looking at the masthead photo of the web page it makes me wonder, could Gaza look like this? Could it become an ocean front commerce center with proud ethnic shoppes and restaurants – a hub for sight-seeing? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see children playing, Palestinian hosts selling their wares, talking of the blessing of a community taken under the wings of an economic development plan that rewards hard work with success, ownership and purpose? Isn’t it a time of beginnings for the lion to lay with the lamb?

    Certainly there are wounds to heal and scars of remembrance that must learn to forgive to be able to rise out of the dust and ashes. To sow opportunity is to create purpose and to restore hope.

  10. Samia Khoury says:

    Jim I have already entered a comment, but with the snow storm hitting our region it was the people of Gaza and other refugees who I was basically thinking of when I wrote my reflection on the snow. “The Orthodox Christians are celebrating a White Christmas. There was an alert about the snow storm, so people are prepared with food provisions and alternative lighting and heating in case of power failure. But our thoughts are with those people who can never be prepared because they have no homes in the first place. How much can a refugee in a tent be prepared should the storm blow the tent away?

    It is at times like these that one cannot help but be very grateful for the many blessings, but at the same time one cannot help but be very angry at the powers who are allowing so much wars and destruction to take place and create communities of refugees and homeless people. Where is justice, where is the United Nations? Where is the international law? It seems we are living under the law of the Jungle where Might is Right. At such times even our faith is shattered when we are unable to comprehend why so much suffering is taking place under different pretexts when the reality is the greed for power, and money. It is understandable when natural disasters hit an area, but it is unacceptable to bring about so much suffering because of human-made disasters. Even when people want to free themselves from such powers of domination, they are punished further and are left helpless. Ironic that the world wonders why those people become so desperate. We pray that the New Year will see us through a new era of humanity where justice and peace will prevail.

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