Introduction: The Israeli War on Gaza 2014
What, after all, is left to say and to write? Did we not say it all, last time, and the time before that, and yet “it” is happening again? Perhaps a numbed silence is the most appropriate response to Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza from 8 July until 26 August 2014. The war was raging when I first approached potential contributors to this special supplement, and some told me they had nothing to add. As Palestinian blogger Sam Bahour wrote on 4 August: “Since I have written for decades about how Israel’s prolonged military occupation and endless violations of international law—let alone their blatant disregard to their very own self-interests—would get us to this very point, fresh analysis and fresh vantage points are difficult to find.”1
The 2014 war began, I thought, as a repetition of the November 2012 war, and then when Israel launched a ground assault on 17 July turned into a repetition of the 2008–9 war. Why then, repeat what had been said and written when “it” happened before? The Israeli government repeated its empty justifications too, about self-defense and Palestinian use of “human shields.” So can this supplement do no more than repeat what was said with such insight when “it” happened before? On an earlier occasion Judith Butler wrote: “If we equate all life that is destroyed in war with the notion of the human shield, then ... we have a ready justification for murder, since all those who are in the way of bombs are there on purpose, are there tactically and purposively, and are not only part of the war effort but are conceived as shields, as instruments of war.”2 And indeed, the Israel government repeated its justifications of murder and war crimes.
There would, I believe, be value to a supplement that did no more than repeat the condemnations of murder and other war crimes during Israel’s latest war on Gaza. After all, “it” cannot go unremarked, without bearing witness, without calling on the Israeli state to assume its responsibility, and above all without using our words and thoughts as shields in the face of bombs and shells. The shields can’t stop the bombs but they can reflect that “it” doesn’t simply happen as fate, that somebody wages war, and that Israel’s war on Gaza is no mere repetition of senseless events in an unending conflict. By its end the 2014 war had set its own unprecedented measures of destruction, fatality and injury. It was a repetition that supplemented its predecessors’ violence with more violence. Some of the details of the war are contained in the essays that follow, but it is not the purpose of this collection to document the course of the Israel assault on Gaza. The war was as an event whose timing, viciousness and ramifications should be considered in themselves.
The purpose of these essays is also not to provide some spurious sense of “balance.” The collection of essays is titled deliberately “Israel’s war on Gaza” in order to reflect the immense imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, both generally and in the form of the armed factions in Gaza. Moreover, the current tendency among talking-heads and international relations “experts” to refer to the war as “asymmetrical war between a state and non-state actors” has Orwellian ramifications, according to which the powerful state becomes the victim of the oppressed who don’t fight fairly but by unconventional means. The obfuscating language of asymmetrical warfare constructs “an idiom that converts ostensibly technological or strategic differences between state and non-state actors into moral and civilizational hierarchies.”3
The essays in this supplement express some of the voices that added to public discourse at the time of war or soon afterwards.4 Rather than rounding up the usual theoretical subjects, I have turned to authors, not all of whom are academics writing in their professional field, who inhabit Israel/Palestine and its diasporas. The collection opens with an essay by Amir Nizar Zuabi, written and first published during the war, which eschews political analysis in favor of a poetic flare that illuminates the darkness of death. Zuabi imagines a subterranean Gaza in which its desperate people escape the war and the world: “Having despaired of the world, of the fear, of the blood, the only refuge left to us was the earth. We buried ourselves alive.” As Muhammad Ali Khalidi explains in his essay, the “terror tunnels” which have existed for years were no more than one excuse among others for Israel’s assault. Zuabi’s evocation of an underground Gaza is echoed in the essays by Lev Grinberg and Trude Strand, who explain how the tunnels have supported what remains of the economy of Gaza since the imposition of the blockade. The ghostliness of Gazan existence in Zuabi’s lines finds its deathly refuge in that which has been lost, the earth, the land “above [that] took its own life, was left behind and emptied out.”
One set of essays perform the necessary work of thinking through what Ariella Azoulay has called elsewhere a “regime-made disaster.”5 How did the Israeli state make it happen, and why now? What is the contextual framing of the disaster? Of which disaster is it a continuation, repetition and supplementation? Adel Manna locates the 2014 war in a “series of catastrophes which have befallen the Palestinians since 1948.” The Nakba was not a single catastrophic event in 1948, but a milestone in ongoing colonization which he experiences from within the eye of the storm of occupied East Jerusalem.6 Manna witnesses the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians in the Israeli state as part and parcel of the violent repression unleashed on the refugee population of Gaza. Characterizing Israeli rule over Palestinians as an apartheid regime, Manna echoes Palestinian Authority President Abbas’ accusation that the war on Gaza was an act of genocide. In previous work Lev Grinberg has questioned the adequacy of terms such as colonization for conceptualization of the unnamable “Thing” that is Jewish-Israeli rule over and war against the Palestinians.7 In his essay here he considers the war on Gaza in relation to the “dual military-democratic regime” through which Israel has ruled Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories. In this light, the war was a failed Israeli attempt to sustain a specific “model of control” for Gaza that had lasted since the 2005 Israeli unilateral withdrawal or “disengagement” from Gaza, a move designed to forestall progress in peace negotiations.
Mohammad Ali Khalidi similarly figures the “disengagement” as an Israeli gambit to prolong its occupation of Gaza by remote control, through the blockade. He regards the war as a cynical testing ground for military exports and another step in depopulating the land of Palestinians. Trude Strand offers the most detailed analysis of the blockade as an “elaborate control mechanism” implemented by Israel following the unilateral disengagement. Israel declared after the disengagement, in an equally unilateral manner, that it was no longer a “belligerent occupier” with responsibility for Gaza in accord with international law, but was in armed conflict with it. According to this analysis, “at the structural level the onslaught follows a predictable pattern” in which war is the regular companion of a policy of institutionalized impoverishment. But perhaps “policy” is too polite a term to use in this case. Manna, Grinberg, Khalidi and Strand concur that the Israeli war on Gaza is an episode in a continuous Israeli strategy to fragment the Palestinian people and preclude Palestinian unity – including the implementation of the Palestinian “agreement” government between the PA and Hamas, announced in May 2014. The 2014 Israeli war on Gaza was a particularly lethal step in the ongoing “politicide” of the Palestinians.8
The essays in the collection also ask how the repetition of destruction can be interrupted. Both Bethlehem and Simons write experientially about the way in which this war interrupted routine academic work and yet demanded that those privileged to engage in such work continue it in critical vein. Against the background of increasing hostility to civic dissent to the war on Israeli streets, Bethlehem and Simons articulate their intellectual labor with Israeli and Palestinian activism. Bethlehem draws on her familiarity with apartheid literary culture to explore the “split position” that enables the privileged in the oppressive society of Israel/Palestine to become “complicit” with the Palestinian solidarity that the Israeli regime consistently works to destroy. Simons invokes Walter Benjamin to suggest that in the efforts of Palestinian-Israeli peace activism, exemplified here by the Bereaved Families Forum, there is an everyday occurrence of “divine peace” that interrupts the flow of violence in public discourse. In a sobering account of the mediated experience of the war in Israeli public discourse, Ofer Cassif turns to Baudrillard to argue that the war and its atrocities did not happen for them. Engaged in a constant cycle of preparation for the execution of war – Virilio’s “pure war” - Israel will not hold itself accountable for its crimes, so the International Criminal Court must do so instead.
It is not only these last three essays that indicate the interruption of the violence of Israel’s repeated wars on Gaza. (As I draft his page, it is two years to the day since Israel launched its prior war in November 2012). According to Grinberg, the Israeli government faces a political crisis because it no longer has a model to control and to keep the Palestinians fragmented. As tensions mount in East Jerusalem and within Israel’s coalition government, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu’s government will survive and less likely that Israel can sustain its rule over the Palestinians “quietly,” as they like to put it. Manna also wonders whether the latest war could also be a turning point away from colonization and towards liberation, buoyed by the resilience of Gaza in the face of the military assault. And from the depths of subterranean Gaza, Zuabi envisions that after all the digging, the honeycombed land might “suddenly collapse in on itself … And we’ll know that we were saved from the living death in which we are trapped, and now we’ll join the life above, and with them build a new land.”
Jon Simons is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University, Bloomington. His current project, Picturing Peace, analyzes critically the images (visual, pictorial, conceptual, ideological) of peace that are performed by Israeli peace activists, and assesses their significance as acts of political imagination. Jon can be reached at email@example.com
2. Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Violence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 97.
3. See Yves Winter, “The asymmetric war discourse and its moral economies: a critique,” International Theory 3:3 (2011), p. 1.
4. For a compilation of some of the pieces written during the war, see activist Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s blog on August 7th, http://thelefternwall.com/2014/08/07/on-empathy-death-context-39-recommended-readings-about-israels-latest-attack-on-gaza/
6. Manna wrote his essay before the current escalation of violence in and around Jerusalem, in November 2014.
7. Lev Grinberg, “Speechlessness: In Search of Language to Resist the Israeli ‘Thing Without a Name’.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 22(1), 2009: 105–16.
8. See Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians (London: Verso, 2003).