Snappy Responses to Israeli Hasbara

Debunking Bret Stephens’ ridiculous talking points…

There is an effective debating trick called the Gish gallop, in which you bury your opponent in an avalanche of arguments. The point is to overwhelm them with sheer quantity of claims—disregarding the veracity or strength of the arguments advanced—so that they are unable to respond to everything, and the audience is left thinking that something in that onslaught must be accurate. In last week’s New York Times Sunday Review, Bret Stephens runs through a litany of Israeli talking points and propaganda. None of them are particularly original, convincing, or true.

Given just how frequently the arguments Stephens advances are trotted out, it’s worthwhile to try and dispel the most prominent ones. To avoid producing a narcolepsy-inducing exegesis, let me focus on the broad strokes of Stephens’ arguments and not things like who violated the November 2008 ceasefire (It was Israel). I’ve also decided to leave alone many of the spurious remarks Stephens makes about anti-Semitism, which merit an article of their own, because they derail the discussion and take the focus off of Israel’s record. This is not meant to trivialize anti-Semitism or suggest that when it rears its ugly head it’s not a serious problem. That conversation can and should be had, preferably with someone who, unlike Stephens, possesses an iota of honesty and a shred of integrity. But Stephens, like so many others who seek to defend Israel, would rather talk about the problem of anti-Semitism than Israel’s record. And I don’t blame him. If I were in his position, I would dread that conversation, too, and do everything in my power to distract from, obfuscate, and distort the facts about what Israel has done.

First, Stephens summarizes what he claims to be the progressive narrative:

More than a half-century of occupation of Palestinian territories is a massive injustice that fair-minded people can no longer ignore, especially given America’s financial support for Israel. Continued settlement expansion in the West Bank proves Israel has no interest in making peace on equitable terms. And endless occupation makes Israel’s vaunted democracy less about Jewish self-determination than it is about ethnic subjugation.

“[This indictment] would be damning if it were true, or even half-true,” Stephens concedes. “It’s not.” He then proceeds to lay out a welter of “facts” that supposedly undermine this progressive narrative. In reality, very little of what follows even approaches relevance to the progressive narrative, let alone disproves it. This is because the “narrative” is actually true, and almost impossible to escape if one looks at the facts honestly. There is unanimity among the most respected human rights organizations and international legal bodies—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice, and United Nations all agree that Israel maintains an occupation and that the settlements are illegal. One need only look at maps of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory to conclude that “peace on equitable terms” is not going to be offered willingly by a power engaged in a decades-long land theft:

Stephens does not actually refute, or even address, the “progressive narrative’s” claim about settlement expansion. An honest presentation of the facts would make it clear that the progressives are right. He does, however, run through a laundry list of other ostensibly exculpatory talking points. Stephens writes that:

“Israel’s enemies were committed to its destruction long before it occupied a single inch of Gaza or the West Bank.”

Let’s remember what actually happened, and why there is a state of Israel in the first place. Like ICE, Israel is less eternal than it seems and was created within the lifetimes of still-living people. In 1948, approximately 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted, ethnically cleansed, and displaced from their homes. In the process, Israeli military forces perpetrated mass atrocities. Palestinians and neighboring Arabs fought back against the project to seize and encroach upon their lands. To frame Palestinian resistance as motivated by an irrational seething anti-Semitism—as Stephens does—and not by opposition to land theft is wildly disingenuous. Even Israeli Zionist historian Benny Morris (whom Stephens cites) writes in his sprawling work Righteous Victims: “The fear of territorial displacement and dispossession was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism.” It’s perfectly obvious why Palestinians would be resistant to the creation of a Jewish state on land they already inhabited.

Despite the initial injustice of Israel’s founding, much of mainstream Palestinian leadership has, for decades, backed a two-state solution, with the pre-June 1967 war borders as the basis for the states, meaning that the Palestinian state would consist of the West Bank and Gaza (East Jerusalem as the capital), only 22 percent of historic Palestine. Since then, Israelis have never accepted this immense compromise—with Palestinians giving up 78 percent of their land—because they have consistently hungered for even more land. And Israel has disregarded the international consensus which has coalesced around a solution, grounded in international law. Which brings us to Stephens’ next context-free fact:

“Israeli prime ministers offered a Palestinian state in 2000 and 2008; they were refused both times.”

Palestinian rejectionism is a theme in Israeli hasbara, and Stephens’ rendition is no exception. The recitation tends to go something like: Israelis have time and again bent over backwards to offer Palestinians a state of their own, but they are consistently unwilling to accept peace. Notably absent from Stephens’ assertion is any kind of objective assessment of the so-called “Palestinian states” offered in 2000 and 2008, and that’s for very good reason. Of the 2000 negotiations (Camp David), former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami states that “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David, as well.” What followed were the Taba negotiations—probably the closest a peace agreement has ever gotten to what international law and consensus dictate—which ended when Prime Minister Barak withdrew his negotiators.

Stephens continues to thrash wildly about in the hopes of landing one good punch:

“In proportion to its size, Israel has voluntarily relinquished more territory taken in war than any state in the world.”

This point sounds convincing, until one realizes it’s utterly irrelevant and bizarre. U.N. Resolution 242 stresses “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” This means that the territory Israel has taken in war must be returned. To frame Israel’s withdrawals as a magnanimous or benevolent gesture is to fundamentally distort what international law entails, and the nature of the conflict. You’re not supposed to seize territory, so relinquishing seized territory just means “ceasing to commit an ongoing crime.” If Mr. Stephens’ claim is true (he provides no link or citation), consider what it also means: In order for Israel to claim that it “has voluntarily relinquished more territory taken in war than any state in the world,” it would also be necessary for Israel to steal more land than many (any?) other countries/y, relative to its size. Stephens and his ilk would no doubt reply that this is because the ever-victimized Israel faces an unceasing onslaught—besieged on all sides—from its hostile, Jew-hating neighbors. Without running through the full record here (though if Stephens likes, I will), Israeli political scientist Zeev Maoz reached the conclusion in his doorstop of a book that none of the wars Israel has fought were “wars of necessity,” with the possible exception of ’48. “They were all wars of choice or wars of folly,” he adds.

Consider, also, this brief review of recent Israeli wartime history: Israel cheered on the Iraq war in 2003; in 2006 Israel invaded Lebanon; in 2008-9 it attacked Gaza, then again in 2012, then again in 2014, and, then, during the overwhelmingly nonviolent Great March of Return, from March 2018-present, Israel has massacred well over 100 protesters and injured more than 10,000 others; Israel routinely threatens Iran with an attack (to cite one recent example); and Israel has fired airstrikes in Syria (not to mention given medical treatment to members of an al Qaeda affiliate group). It is striking to compare Iran (the wellspring of evil, if you were to believe the Israeli government) and Israel’s record of military aggression. Iran fares relatively well, though not perfectly.

Many defenders of Israel will tell you that the country can’t possibly give up control over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. They’ve tried that already, and it didn’t turn out well. Building on the theme of Israeli magnanimity, Stephens notes that:

The government of Ariel Sharon removed every Israeli settlement and soldier from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The result of Israel’s withdrawal allowed Hamas to seize power two years later and spark three wars, causing ordinary Israelis to think twice about the wisdom of duplicating the experience in the West Bank.

It’s tough to know where to start here, because there’s so much to unpack. Let’s begin with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s own justification for the withdrawal. He said that the disengagement from Gaza was done, in part, in an effort to strengthen Israel’s grip on the far more valuable primary settlement blocs in the West Bank. In other words, Sharon was admitting that he decided to end the illegal land grab in Gaza to focus on the illegal land grab in the West Bank. (Some Israeli settler families, handsomely compensated, moved from illegal settlements in Gaza to illegal settlements in the West Bank.) Indeed, in 2003, Sharon explained that the “occupation…is bad for Israel and bad for Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy. Controlling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on forever.”

But this is not to say, as blind supporters of Israel often do, that Israel had ended its occupation of Gaza. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later clarified the nature of Israel’s relationship to Gaza: “We will operate, enter and pull out as needed.” Despite protestations to the contrary, Gaza remains occupied territory because Israel continues to control the land borders, airspace, and sea in the Strip, according to the U.N. and ICRC. The extent of Israeli control over the small strip of land is tough to overstate, even though they have “left.”

As for the election of Hamas, in 2006 the militant Islamist party won a majority of seats in parliament, a victory deemed fair and free by the Carter Center for Election Observation. In the wake of the election, senior leaders of Hamas were making moderating overtures towards peace. But Gazans had made the wrong decision, so the United States and Israel responded by backing an attempted coup. In response to Hamas’ subsequent consolidation of power, Israel imposed an illegal and inhumane blockade.

“Nearly 1,300 Israeli civilians have been killed in Palestinian terrorist attacks in this century: That’s the proportional equivalent of about 16 Sept. 11’s in the United States.”

This is remarkable: To Stephens, the Palestinian dead are negligible. Not even worth noting. Stephens portrays it as a one-sided conflict in which the only deaths are peace-loving Israelis killed by bloodthirsty Palestinians, when in reality the number of Palestinian deaths outnumbers the number of Israeli deaths by 7-1. In Operation Protective Edge alone, which took place during the summer of 2014, the Israeli Defense Forces killed over 1,400 civilians in Gaza, of those about 550 were children, according to the United Nations. Six civilians in Israel were killed. Why the discrepancy? Israel has the most powerful military in the Middle East. The chief Palestinian resistance weapon is a rock, though in Gaza sometimes they fire rockets (which are more like glorified fireworks than sophisticated pieces of military hardware) or set fire to kites. The death ratio is precisely what you get when you have a resource-poor, desperate occupied group up against one of the world’s most powerful militaries.

“Also: If the Jewish state is really so villainous, why doesn’t it behave more like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or Russia’s Vladimir Putin — both of whom, curiously, continue to have prominent sympathizers and apologists on the anti-Israel left?”

It does! As someone of Russian- and Syrian-Jewish descent, I’m struck by the similarities: All of them are butchers who murder babies; all of them are led by authoritarian strongmen with a commitment to remain in power above nearly all else; and all of them have engaged in chemical warfare.

“Next is the belief that anti-Zionism is a legitimate political position, and not another form of prejudice.”

Discussions about Zionism tend to take us away from Israel’s egregious record, but I have tried to remain focused on how Zionism in practice in Israel leads to a Jewish supremacist state. I shouldn’t be surprised, but the flagrancy of Stephens’ disingenuousness is truly shocking. Mr. Stephens can scream, gnash his teeth, throw a tantrum, and loudly assert this point until he is blue in the face, but it doesn’t make it true. Stephens is ignoring the long history of anti-Zionist Jews, secular and religious, who opposed the creation of the state of Israel and now oppose a Jewish supremacist state that affords special privileges to Jews and discriminates against non-Jews. To dismiss them as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews is not just intellectually lazy, but it actually puts him at odds with a significant swath of the Jewish community. His colleague Michelle Goldberg writes that “Anti-Zionism isn’t the same as anti-Semitism.” Peter Beinart, yet another Jew, writing in Haaretz observes that “No, anti-Zionism isn’t anti-semitism.” Without offering any evidence, Stephens’ promulgation can be easily dismissed. In fact, Jewish Voice for Peace, an American anti-occupation organization comprised of thousands of Jews, recently formally declared itself anti-Zionist. Even President Jeremy Ben-Ami of the liberal centrist J-Street, a pro-Israel lobbying organization, parted ways with Stephens, explaining:We do not accept the contention that all anti-Zionism should be automatically defined as anti-Semitism.”

Later, Stephens makes clear that he is fundamentally ignorant of what anti-Zionism actually is. He writes:

Anti-Zionism proposes nothing less than the elimination of that identity and the political dispossession of those who cherish it, with no real thought of what would likely happen to the dispossessed. Do progressives expect the rights of Jews to be protected should Hamas someday assume the leadership of a reconstituted “Palestine”?

To believe that a state shouldn’t be explicitly Jewish is only “political dispossession” in the sense that having a democratic government deprives one ethnic group of the right to enshrine its identity in the state itself. Dispossessed of what? The notion that if Israel were to become a binational state with equal rights for all Jews would be thrown into the sea is pandering nonsense. What Stephens really seems to fear is that Jews might be treated like Palestinians already are. When he asks if progressives expect “the rights of Jews to be protected,” it’s unclear what kinds of rights he’s referring to. If he means ethnic supremacist rights like the right to demolish Palestinian homes, steal land with impunity, claim citizenship and all the exclusive privileges that go along with it, solely on the basis of your Jewish identity (i.e., the Law of Return), then, no, those rights should not be protected. As for basic civil rights, afforded to all citizens, I see no reason to believe that Palestinians would be unable to live alongside Jews in amity. Unlike Bret Stephens, I don’t happen to believe Arabs are uniquely barbaric. As in South Africa and Northern Ireland, peace is possible. (Importantly, too, progressive leftists must always be just as willing to fight for the equal rights of Jews when they are under threat as to fight for the rights of Palestinians in present-day Israel. A state in which the present situation was reversed, and a Jewish minority was oppressed, would be just as abhorrent to left sensibilities. Having a democratic state means a state without ethnic supremacy, period.)

Stephens shuffles on:

Of course it’s theoretically possible to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, just as it’s theoretically possible to distinguish segregationism from racism. But the striking feature of anti-Zionist rhetoric is how broadly it overlaps with traditionally anti-Semitic tropes.

This confused (and confusing) analogy scrambles the brain. Stephens has managed to turn reality on its head. It is Zionism in practice that has led to Jewish-only towns, segregated roads, and schools. Anti-Zionists are opposed to this kind of segregation and racism prevalent in Israeli society. They are the ones calling for integration and equal rights for all, not fighting against it like Stephens is.

“To say, as progressives sometimes do, that Jews are ‘colonizers’ in Israel is anti-Semitic because it advances the lie that there is no ancestral or historic Jewish tie to the land.”

It is no contradiction to acknowledge Jewish historical, religious, and cultural ties to Israel and simultaneously acknowledge that the country has engaged in ethnic cleansing and has seized and colonized Palestinian land. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe points out in his important book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine:

When the Zionist movement started its ethnic cleansing operations in Palestine, in early December 1947, the country had a ’mixed’ population of Palestinians and Jews. The indigenous Palestinians made up the two-third majority, down from ninety per cent at the start of the Mandate. One third were Jewish newcomers, i.e., Zionist settlers and refugees from war torn Europe, most of whom had arrived in Palestine since the 1920s.

Imagine a white South African saying that it was anti-white to criticize white colonization of Africa, on the grounds that white people had ancestral ties to the land (Africa was, after all, the birthplace of humanity!) This would be childish: The question is “What actually happened?” Colonization here is the description of a process by which people came to a place and displaced those living there already. This happened—it was explicitly the point of the Zionist project. It doesn’t mean that Jews in Israel have no legitimate claims, it is simply an attempt to accurately describe the historical process that created the present-day demographic reality of Israel.

Stephens continues with another reckless accusation of anti-Semitism:

“To claim that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, when manifestly it is not, is anti-Semitic because it’s an attempt to Nazify the Jewish state.”

It remains unclear here whether Stephens believes that it is anti-Semitic to accuse Israel of committing genocide if it is committing genocide, or whether it’s only anti-Semitic because it’s false. The arguments in favor of applicability of the g-word are straightforward enough. Gaza has been described by conservative Prime Minister David Cameron as a “prison camp,” Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling said in 2003 it was “the largest concentration camp ever to exist,” and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz used the phrase the “Gaza ghetto.” One Israeli government official said that they intended to “put the Palestinians on a diet”. Infrastructure is crumbling. Borders are strictly controlled by Israel and Egypt, and a harsh blockade has been imposed so things like fruits, vegetables, and construction materials have historically been prevented from entering. Every two years or so, Israel “mows the lawn,” killing hundreds, injuring thousands, destroying sewage and power plants, mosques, schools, houses, and chicken farms. With only 2-4 hours a day of electricity, Gaza is unlivable. 97 percent of the water is undrinkable. What do you call an open air prison in which the population is being poisoned? (For an excellent book on Gaza, check out Norman Finkelstein’s Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom.)

One needs to be able to use accurate language. If use of phrases like “concentration camp” would “Nazify” Israel and therefore definitionally be anti-Semitic, then Israel cannot, no matter what the actual facts are, ever be accused of creating a concentration camp. This gives an extraordinary license for abusive behavior: If Israel cannot be accused of anything that was also done by Nazi Germany, because to do so would be to compare it to Nazi Germany, then it will be impossible to speak honestly when the Israeli government commits particular crimes with historical precedents. Walling off particular allegations as impermissible—regardless of the facts—offers a dangerous kind of immunity from scrutiny.

To insist that the only state in the world that has forfeited the moral right to exist just happens to be the Jewish state is anti-Semitic, too: Are Israel’s purported crimes really worse than those of, say, Zimbabwe or China, whose rights to exist are never called into question?

The phrase “right to exist” should be critically examined, because it’s used constantly in these discussions, but it’s not quite clear what it means. It is designed to sound unobjectionable: Who could possibly deny the Right To Exist?—as if denial of this right would mean the endorsement of genocide. But when we think clearly about it, it’s a peculiar expression: What does it mean for a state to have a “right to exist?” When supporters of Israel use the phrase, they want to imply that they are simply asking for something basic—the right not to be killed, the right to simple existence. But they are actually proposing something far more controversial: the right for Israel to exist as an ethnostate. If you deny that there is a “right” for states to have ethnic supremacy enshrined in their laws, then in a sense you are denying Israel’s right to exist. But you are not thereby denying that Jews should get to live peacefully and democratically in the territory currently governed by the state of Israel.  (There is also an element of “retroactive approval” in the phrase. The “right to exist” implies a “right to come into existence”—i.e., if there were no Israel it would be permissible to create it, with the accompanying mass displacement. It is obvious why Palestinians cannot endorse a “right to exist” in this sense, because it requests legitimization of the original crime upon which the state was founded.)

Ultimately, no state has “a right to exist.” It either does or it doesn’t. The United States does not have the “right” to exist , though its people have the right to live under a democratic government. What Stephens is calling for is a special privilege afforded only to Israel.

“But the most toxic assumption is that Jews, whether in Israel or the U.S., can never really be thought of as victims or even as a minority because they are white, wealthy, powerful and ‘privileged.’”

If someone did think Jews could “never really be thought of as victims,” they would have a simplistic conception of power. But of course Jews can be victims, a belief shared by every mainstream progressive. That’s why, after the synagogue in Pittsburgh was shot up, Linda Sarsour helped fundraise for funeral expenses!

“Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolent resistance; Yasir Arafat practiced terrorism. The civil rights movement was about getting America to live up its founding ideals; anti-Zionism is about destroying Israel’s founding ideals.”

Yes, that’s what the Palestinians and their supporters should practice: good old fashioned nonviolent resistance, like Martin Luther King. Tactics like boycotts, right? If Stephens cared even a whit about nonviolent resistance, he would be praising the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a welcome alternative to violent resistance. But, no, to supporters of nonviolent resistance, actual nonviolent resistance is off the table too. When asked what the BDS movement was all about, he answered simply: “It’s anti-Semitism.” Bret Stephens doesn’t want Palestinians to switch their tactics. He wants them to curl up and die.

Whatever your feelings about the goals of the BDS movement, their tactics are unimpeachable. There were plenty of white Southerners who decried Martin Luther King Jr., SNCC, and others in the civil rights movement as seeking to destroy America’s founding ideals. King was a law-breaker, and many worried that his actions encouraged others to engage in delinquent behaviors. If one of America’s founding ideals is white supremacy, then it should be rooted out. So too with Israel: If one of its founding ideals is Jewish supremacy, then it needs to change.

As for the oft-cited apartheid analogy, black South Africans did not have a place in the old regime’s Parliament, as Israeli Arabs have in the Knesset; nor were they admitted to white universities, as Israeli Arabs are to Israeli universities. Israel can do more to advance the rights of its Arab citizens (just as the United States, France, Britain and other countries can for their own minorities). And Israel can also do more to ease the lives of Palestinians who are not citizens. But the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa is unfair to the former and an insult to the victims of the latter.

Stephens should hold off on ventriloquizing the victims of South African apartheid. Many of the most prominent figures of the anti-Apartheid movement have compared the Palestinian struggle to their own and even used the a-word themselves. For those that will quickly dismiss such pronouncements as motivated by seething Jew Hatred, consider that former Prime Ministers David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Olmert, and Ehud Barak have warned that if Israel didn’t end its control over the Palestinians it would become an apartheid state. Other Israeli politicians have been more forthright, insisting that Israel is already an apartheid state. There are unquestionably differences between apartheid as practiced in South Africa and in the occupied territories. But the notion that the analogy is beyond the pale demonstrates a serious lack of familiarity with Israeli politics. The center-left Israeli newspaper Haaretz, for instance, routinely runs articles that use the term.

So what’s the basis for its usage? Palestinians who live, in essence, under Israeli rule are unable to vote in Israeli elections. Stephens pointing to “Israeli Arabs” who are able to vote doesn’t negate the fact that very many are unable, because it doesn’t disprove discrimination. Consider grandfather clauses and voting tests under Jim Crow. All men are allowed to vote, provided they can pass a literacy test or constitutional quiz or pay this poll tax, and if they cannot meet those requirements, that is ok—they’re still allowed to vote, as long as their ancestors could vote! And the defenders of such a policy could note: We’re not discriminating against African Americans, because, look, some African Americans are able to vote! Palestinians living in the West Bank, under Israeli rule, are still not allowed to vote in Israeli elections even though Jewish Israeli settlers living in the same territory are. That’s not fair.

There are also all sorts of discriminatory land ownership and leasing policies, which favor Jewish Israelis. I’ve already mentioned the segregated housing and settlements above. And any Jew is able to immigrate, from anywhere in the world, to Israel and be granted citizenship, on the basis of the Law of Return. The same is not true for Palestinians.

Like the United States, Israel has a shockingly discriminatory criminal justice system. A teenage Palestinian girl was sentenced to eight months in prison for slapping an Israeli soldier who was trespassing on her property (shortly after her cousin had been shot). An Israeli soldier that shot a disarmed Palestinian in the head got a slap on the wrist and was celebrated as a hero. A Palestinian woman faced up to eight years in prison for her poetry, which she posted to Facebook, and ultimately served five months, while the Israeli military perpetrates war crimes with impunity. Palestinians are tried in Israeli military courts which have a 99.7 conviction rate. If this two-tiered legal system isn’t enough to convince you, there’s an actual (illegal) separation wall dividing the two peoples, one of which has a state and one of which does not.

Social discrimination is rampant. Take incidents like this: Hundreds of Israelis turned out to demonstrate against the sale of a home to a Palestinian family. The former mayor, who joined the protests in support, explained “The residents of Afula don’t want a mixed city, but rather a Jewish city, and it’s their right. That’s not racism.” In July the country passed a law which declares that “the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people” and contained other parts that favored Jewish Israelis. (Then there are all these other discriminatory laws.) It is helpful, in clarifying our thinking, to imagine how we would feel about every defense of Israel if it substituted the terms “white” and “black” for Jewish or Israeli and Arab or Palestinian. The reason the apartheid analogy is useful is because it allows us to see why things that have been normalized are actually so repugnant and absurd—the argument that destroying Israel as a Jewish state would destroy it altogether is like arguing that destroying South Africa as a white state would destroy it—only true if the nation’s identity is bound up entirely with ethnic supremacy.

Hasbara is easy to refute but also easy to produce, and people like Bret Stephens deploy it in such endless barrages that it can feel futile to even begin to engage. The same thing happens with every ongoing human rights abuse—defenders of the powerful will expend every effort to prove that the victims brought it upon themselves, that the perpetrators are the real victims, that what looks like an obvious crime is actually either justice or an unavoidable tragedy with nobody to blame. It’s important that we be prepared with the facts, and understand the various ways in which they are evaded, massaged, and manipulated in order to add the illusion of complexity to morally straightforward issues.

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