- Israel’s War on the Palestinians:Banalization of Occupation or Routinization of Settler Colonialism?
In June 2015, a group of thirty-seven Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers climbed to the roof of Muhammad Abu Haya’s house near Hebron, in occupied Palestine, brushing aside Abu Haya’s protests and his dismayed children, in order to get a group photograph, in the best tradition of what Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein term “digital militarism” (2015). The recent proliferation of Israeli social media accounts of the occupation, according to Kuntsman and Stein,
render the occupation at once palpable and out of reach. . . . On the one hand, mobile technologies have made a spectacle of state violence instantly available, often in real time in the palm of the hand on smartphone screens . . . [extending] Israel’s occupation into the most private Israeli spaces and times. . . . At the same time, the patina of the digital everyday can minimize and banalize this violence, obscuring its visibility and mitigating its impact.(Kuntsman and Stein 2015, 8)
Reporting the Abu Haya incident, Israeli political activist Hagai Matar (2015) argues that although far worse things happen in the context of Israeli settler-colonialism, there is something in “the banality, the casual day-to-day aspect” of the video recording of this incident that captures an essential component of the occupation, and the apparent oblivion by [End Page 245] the fully armed soldiers heading to the roof of Abu Haya’s home, simply because they felt like posing for a “groupie” against the background of colonized Palestine.
One is tempted to theorize this and similar incidents as epitomizing “the banality of the occupation,” commensurate with Michael Billig’s “banal nationalism” concept, which, he argues, enables the everyday reproduction of the nation. As Billig writes, “daily, the nation is ‘flagged’ in the lives of its citizenry” (1995, 6). In Israel-Palestine, the nation increasingly manifests itself through everyday militarized hashtags, “selfies,” and “shares,” absorbed into the most banal acts of digital militarism. However, starting from a critique of Hannah Arendt’s by now somewhat hackneyed concept of the “banality of evil” (1977), this article argues that Israel’s war against the Palestinians performs more than banalization: rather, it amounts to the routinized racialization of millions of Palestinians by the settler-colonial Israeli state.
The temptation to theorize war and genocidal atrocities as “banal” owes to Arendt’s report on the 1960 Jerusalem trial of the mastermind of the Nazi deportations, Adolf Eichmann, whom she immortalized as epitomizing “the banality of evil.” The lasting influence of Arendt’s journalistic depiction of Eichmann as a technocratic bureaucrat who presented himself at the trial as a self-effacing servant of the German state dutifully following orders has endured, even though this misrepresents the fullness of her understanding of both totalitarianism and of Eichmann’s role as a faithful “joiner” of the Nazi cause (Berkowitz 2013).
Eichmann’s more than banal motivation became a topic for public debate with the 2014 publication of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which reproduces a series of interviews the Nazi journalist and Holocaust denier William Sassen conducted with him in 1965 in Argentina, exposing Eichmann’s full cynicism and zealous commitment to the Nazi cause. Based on a pretrial report by Israeli psychiatrists that demonstrated that Eichmann’s motives were contradictory and calculated rather than banal (Kulcsar and Kulcsar 1966), and on a memoir Eichmann wrote while in jail, Jose Brunner writes that the banality thesis negates the possibility that perpetrators of atrocities (including occupation, siege, and ethnic cleansing) are complex human beings performing intentional acts, rather than obedient or banal creatures (Brunner 2004, 104).
My argument here is that theorizing the Israeli occupation in terms of banalization posits a circular truism that masks the realities of settler colonial wars, which can more persuasively be understood as a routinized resort to what Giorgio Agamben calls the “state of exception” (2005), and what David Theo Goldberg depicts in the specific Palestinian context as [End Page 246] the “racial state” (2009). The laws applying to Israel’s Palestinian citizens and occupied and besieged subjects—but not to the state and its Jewish citizens—epitomize the declaration of...