Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Language, Death and Resistance

Like many cliches, the saying that the first victim of war is the truth contains a grain of accuracy and reality.  One of the most noticeable, yet apparently peripheral, effects of a crisis like the Gaza crisis is its effect on language.  Such effects get magnified in the echo chambers for influential political opinion that are the mainstream media.  Examples abound: the descriptions of 'terror tunnels' by Israeli officials (as if a tunnel could of itself be terrifying or could terrorise); the tropes of 'balance' and 'the two sides' which I've already discussed recently; the use of terms like 'war' or 'conflict' to refer to what is happening in Gaza, when it is really a matter of wholesale butchery of civilians; the use of certain terms in regard to the weaker party - 'the Islamic militant group Hamas' or 'the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas', as if the IDF and the Israeli state were not 'militant', or as if the Israeli right (and shockingly large swathes of the whole society) were not in thrall to a deeply conservative branch of Judaism or to a messianic yet secular ideology that sees Israel as (as the Israeli Embassy had it on its Facebook page a few days ago, alongside an image of Molly Malone swathed in a niqab) 'the last frontier of the free world'.

Thirty years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Said wrote a long and powerful review essay of a crop of books on the Lebanon War and the camp massacres, including books by Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Randal, and the report of the International Commission on Israel in Lebanon (which commission included Richard Falk and Kader Asmal) - 'Permission to Narrate' (still to be found on the LRB website, if you have access to it).   In this essay, he discusses the politico-rhetorical function of 'terrorism':

Terrorism is the vaguest and yet for that reason the most precise of concepts. This is not at all to say that terrorism does not exist, but rather to suggest that its existence has occasioned a whole new signifying system as well. Terrorism signifies first, in relation to ‘us’, the alien and gratuitously hostile force. It is destructive, systematic and controlled. It is a web, a network, a conspiracy run from Moscow, via Bulgaria, Beirut, Libya, Teheran and Cuba. It is capable of anything. 

Said was noting at this time the rise of the discourse on 'terrorism', which can be dated in American policy circles to the tenure of the Reagan Administration.  A whole think-tank industry had grown up around 'terrorism', apparently given to analyzing it, and advising the American government about it, while actually not really saying anything of true insight. Tellingly, Binyamin Netanyahu was himself part of this industry: he edited a volume entitled Terrorism: How the West Can Win in 1987.  But it was and still is heavily used in Israeli media and policy discussions.  Once it's established that Hamas is a 'terrorist' organisation (and it's agreed in Washington and Brussels that it is), then one does not need to bother thinking about it seriously, one certainly does not consider entering into talks with it, and one can treat anyone associated with it as one likes.  Most damagingly of all, perhaps, the term cloaks its referent in a de-historicizing, de-contextualizing cloud, creating a blindness entirely unrelated to insight:

The very indiscriminateness of terrorism, actual and described, its tautological and circular character, is anti-narrative. Sequence, the logic of cause and effect as between oppressors and victims, opposing pressures – all these vanish inside an enveloping cloud called ‘terrorism’. 

Again, once it can be lodged in public discussion that Hamas is a 'terrorist' organisation, no deeper or wider historical or political analysis is deemed necessary.  All we need to do is to stop the rockets, or destroy the tunnels - discussion of the occupation (in its 47th year), or the dispersion and dispossession of the Palestinians across the globe is both irrelevant and improper.

On the day-to-day scale of the present carnage, we must return to the proliferation of dead language, spawned by the Israeli government most of all, and generally repeated by all-too-frequently ignorant or pliant media.  'Terrorism', 'Israel's right to defend itself', 'Israel's moral army', and the whole panoply of 'humanitarian measures' the IDF takes when bombarding civilian areas - to cut through this verbiage with the right combination of mordancy and acuity requires a new George Orwell or a new Jonathan Swift.

Orwell wrote a famous essay in 1946, 'Politics and the English Language', which discusses, often brilliantly and hilariously, the dialectical relationship of unnecessary, often official, neologisms, on the one hand, and humane thought,  on the other.  Together, they move in a ever-murkier downward spiral into regions of disgrace and obscurity.  Orwell would have little sympathy for Hamas, I am sure, but he would recognize the dead hand of the Israeli government in its justifications for barbarism:

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language

I am not sure how David Lloyd might take to being placed in the company of Orwell, but the pairing is, if only in this instance, apposite.  Lloyd is maybe the most brilliant Irish critic of his generation.  Professor of English at the University of California at Riverside, and the author of many books on culture, Irish literature, literary pedagogy, aesthetics and colonial politics, Lloyd contributed to a revolution in Irish Studies in the 1980s and 1990s.  I can still remember the sheer excitement of finding his collection of essays Anomalous States in Fred Hanna's bookstore on Nassau Street in Dublin, in the summer of 1993.  I was a doctoral student in England, but home for the summer, and I knew very quickly that the book I was carrying would turn my sense of the politics of Irish culture upside-down.   More recently, Lloyd has been a central figure in promoting the academic boycott of Israeli university institutions, in the United States.   His intellectual energy and constructive anger are an example to us all.  Here is an essay on language and colonial conflict in Gaza which Lloyd published just today, on Mondoweiss:

Slaughter is not self-defense: The assault on Gaza and the corruption of language



Israel, Jewishness and Ethics

The RTE radio news today is dominated by news of the shelling last night of an UNRWA school at Jebalya, in the Strip.  19 civilians were killed.  Chris Gunness of UNRWA has declared that the world should hang its head in shame at this butchery.  He's right.

So should some of Israel's supporters.  Mondoweiss has a distressing report on a demonstration in support of Israel and its Gaza campaign in New York City.  10,000 people assembled on 47th Street, very close to the UN Building.  They were addressed by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, of the New York Board of Rabbis.  He suggested in his speech that Palestinians who voted for Hamas should be understood as combatants, and deserved to be treated thus by the IDF.  Rabbi Kirshner also declared that the IDF is the 'most moral army in the history of civilization'.  Here is Philip Weiss's report, and a video:

Video: If you voted for Hamas, Israel has a right to kill you, says president of NY Board of Rabbis


Amira Hass is one of Israel's most courageous and radical journalists.  I've drawn attention to her work on this blog before (see 'For the Boy with a Stone facing the Tank' below).  She is one of the very few non-Palestinian, non-Arab journalists who've actually lived in the Gaza Strip in recent times.  She's been reflecting on Israel's frequently-trumpeted claim to be a moral, or ethical, state.  Not unlike her colleague Gideon Levy, another brave and gifted Ha'aretz correspondent (apparently now needing a bodyguard, because of his critique of the Gaza offensive), she seeks a return to an idea of Israeli, and Jewish, ethical principle.  Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University Marc Ellis concludes that she is mistaken in her argument, that it constitutes a false nostalgia, and that such a return is no longer possible.  Here is his article: 


Amira Hass and the end of Jewish ethical history






Tuesday, 29 July 2014

When Is A War Crime Not A War Crime?

Here is Nadia Abu Al Haj, professor of anthropology at Barnard College in Manhattan, on the London Review of Books blog:

Nadia Abu El Haj

Nothing Unintentional



'Destroying the terrorist infrastructure'

Some YouTube videos of attacks on Gaza, doubtless showing how carefully the IDF is avoiding civilian casualties and collective punishment:

Timelapse appears to show destruction of Gaza neighbourhood in an hour

No, it's not anti-Semitic

As Israel seeks to browbeat European countries into restrictions on protests against its massacres of Palestinians in Gaza, on the grounds that these protests are 'anti-Semitic', it's worth revisiting Judith Butler's brilliant essay on this topic, originally published in the London Review of Books in 2004, and then collected in her essay collection Precarious Life (2006).  Here's an excerpt from this essay, put up today on the LRB blog:

No it's not anti-semitic


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Debunking Hasbara

Here's a handy brief article from The Nation, the famous American left-liberal newspaper, which eviscerates five standard tropes of Israeli propaganda in regard to Gaza, and to Palestine more broadly:

Five Israeli Talking Points on Gaza—Debunked

And here is the great Patrick Cockburn, brother of Alexander and Middle East Correspondent of the London Independent, exposing an Israeli propaganda handbook:
Israel-Gaza conflict: The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts 


Friday, 25 July 2014

In Denial

The violence in Gaza grinds on.   John Kerry tries to negotiate a ceasefire agreement, but it's rejected today by Israel's 'security cabinet'.  Protests erupt in the West Bank, and Palestinian marchers are shot dead by the IDF at the Qalandia checkpoint, near Ramallah.   Protests take place all over the world: for the third successive weekend, marchers will take to the streets of Dublin tomorrow, walking from O'Connell Street (and the site of Ireland's most famous insurrection against colonial rule, the Rising of Easter 1916) to the Israeli Embassy in Ballsbridge.  The death toll this evening stands at around 850 Palestinians and 30 Israelis.   Over 100,000 Palestinians have been displaced by the bombardment of the Strip.  And the world watches and makes feeble noises: Ban Ki Moon pathetically tells the 'two sides' to 'stop fighting', and the Western members of the UN Human Rights Council either vote against (the US) or abstain (Ireland, among other EU states) from supporting a resolution setting up a commission of inquiry into possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza.  In the ludicrous and morally bankrupt public political discourse on Gaza, the Atlantic powers must always recognise that there are 'two sides', as if the struggle were one between equals - as if the Palestinians of Gaza were citizens of a sovereign state with an army, a full apparatus of government, and international recognition; as if the Palestinians too possessed the F-16s, and the Merkavas, and the M109 howitzers just as the Israelis do and were not merely firing home made unguided rockets with warheads made from sugar and fertilizer in a desperate and largely ineffective show of resistance.

This spurious rhetoric of 'two sides' has various ramifications and outriders - the felt need for the liberal press, such as the Irish Times and RTE in Ireland, to offer 'balance' in discussions on the issue; the allegedly tremendous importance of accusing Hamas as well as the IDF of war crimes - as if their respective capacities for violence were commensurate; the apparent need for the United States and the EU to position themselves as if neutral between two prizefighters.  But, as Fanon pointed out 60 years ago, neutrality in a struggle of this kind is a neutrality in hock to colonial domination: 'for the native, objectivity is always directed against him'.  The balance of power between Gaza and Israel is so dramatically skewed that neutrality itself is a kind of disgrace, a moral blindness.

Blindness is all too common in this situation.  The European powers are blinded by Holocaust guilt from recognising the simple reality here - a regional nuclear-equipped superpower, armed with the most formidable modern weapons provided for it by one of the largest arms industries in the world, and deployed by one of the largest armies in the world, is stamping (as it has been doing for the last 66 years) on a population of impoverished stateless refugees, largely unarmed and nearly half of them under 15 years of age, herded into a tiny ghetto, in the sight of the whole global community, and is getting away with it, again.  This regional hegemon, which narcissistically hugs to itself and manipulates in the most cynical manner the darkest shame of European history, is afflicted by a blind denial of its involvement in its own crimes.

So, as Yonatan Mendel points out in his LRB blog piece, Israel believes it has been 'forced' to undertake the slaughter it is carrying out in Gaza.  Even - perhaps most of all - Israeli 'liberals' believe this, as we are reminded by Donald Clarke's hero-worshipping interview with Ari Folman, director of Waltz with Bashir, in today's Irish Times.  This film, lauded at festivals all over the world, concludes with its narrator being told that his psychological suffering since his service in Lebanon in 1982 is due to his having been 'cast in the role of the Nazis against' his will i.e. that it was the shadow of the Holocaust that really 'caused' the IDF to watch over and facilitate the Sabra and Chattila massacres.  Back in the 1960s, Golda Meir announced that all the wars that Israel was involved in actually had nothing to do with it, and so now we see Netanyahu, and his creepy spokesman Mark Regev, and other quasi-fascists in the Israeli government such as Bennett and Lieberman, declaring that the deaths are all due to the actions of Hamas.  It's a wonderful ideological manoeuvre - you beat the living shit out of your enemy, and proclaim to all those watching that he did it to himself.  It's not going to stop for a while, either.

Here is Yonatan Mendel's blogpiece:

Yonatan Mendel
Forced to ... 


And here is an excellent Mondoweiss piece by Sami Kishawi on the IDF's military techniques in Gaza:


 Controversial, illegal, and documented: Israeli military strategies in Gaza




Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Cutting the Grass in Gaza

The current Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip recalls earlier interventions over the last several years, going back to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.  As this blog has noted before, amidst the welter of reportage and high-octane verbiage brought forth in the media about these events, perhaps the most important thing for us observing, and protesting, from afar is to maintain a sense of the 'bigger picture'.

As this blog has noted previously, Gaza is a place where violence - the hidden violence embodied and crystalised in the historical and present structures of states and interstate relations, as well as the obvious violence of war and counter-terrorism - over-determines the situation as we witness it now in complex and ramified ways.  Let's repeat a few simple facts:

1) Gaza is the most densely populated region on the planet, with 1.7 million inhabitants. The overwhelming majority of these people are either refugees or the children or grandchildren of refugees - the human detritus of phases of Israeli ethnic cleansing both in 1947-49 and in 1967.  The great majority of the population is poor, and unemployment is extremely high, with approximately 60% of the population directly dependent on UNRWA for assistance and food;

2) Gaza has never been a sovereign political entity or part of one - it has no army, no formal state apparatus, and it is technically, in spite of Israel's pull-out of its settlers in 2005, under Israeli occupation.  This means that Israel has a duty of care to the Strip and its inhabitants;

3) Gaza has historically been the locus of various kinds of Israeli violence: not merely ethnic cleansing, but also land confiscation, illegal colonial settlement, and population transfer; punitive raids into the Strip are not new - the Israeli raid of 1955 stands out for its brutality and its high body count.  And so amidst our horror at the current savagery meted out to the Strip, we must remember that it is routinely subjected to Israeli interventions, air-raids and killings;

4) Gaza has been subject to an Israeli blockade since 2007, which seeks to control all movement not only of alleged Iranian or Syrian weapons supplies to Hamas, but also of food, fuel, medical supplies, and other essentials of even the most basic civil life, and it is surrounded on its Israeli borders by a 'fence', which has served as the prototype for the much better-known West Bank 'security' wall.  All of this amounts to what Rob Nixon has called 'slow violence'.

It is hard, on the face of it at least, to know what Israel's policy is vis-a-vis Gaza.  It's likely enough that if it could be assured of a 'suitable' government (like the Mubarak dictatorship or like the present one, but unlike that of Mohammed Morsi), Israel would turn responsibility for the Strip over to the Egyptians.   However, it seems highly unlikely that Egypt would take this task on, most especially while it is experiencing its own instabilities, fighting Islamist insurrection in the Sinai peninsula.

In the context of the current status quo, Israel is unlikely to adopt a radical solution to the Gaza problem.  It will resist a Palestinian government in which Hamas takes part - the current offensive must be seen in part as an attempt to break the Hamas/Fatah coalition.  The Netanyahu government is set firmly against allowing further Palestinian political development, and, in spite of occasional statements to mollify Western governments or the Obama administration, it has no intention of running with the 'two-state solution' - apart from anything else, its relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank put paid to that.

Equally, it must be said that while 'transfer' (ethnic cleansing) is openly discussed in Israeli public political and policy circles (and has been for some time), it is unlikely that Israel would execute such a drastic action, unless in the context of some wider Middle East crisis.  But the possibility cannot be ruled out.  If the Syrian/Iraqi crisis were to widen into Jordan, for example, with Israel intervening in that war, a much more violent incursion into Gaza (and also the West Bank) might be launched.  We must realise that the firepower being deployed in Gaza at the moment, frightful as it may be, is nothing in comparison to what the IDF could do if it wished.  If Israel really wanted to 'destroy the terrorist infrastructure', and if the political conditions were correct, the IDF could decapitate Hamas in a few hours.

So one is left with the impression that Israel is content, most of the time, to maintain the Gaza Strip and its denizens in the condition, as I wrote back in 2012, of what Giorgio Agamben has called 'bare life': a space wide open to Israeli incursion and modification (the present Israeli operation to clear a strip within the border of the Strip of all tunnels and Hamas installations, at very likely huge cost of house destruction and considerable loss of life, is an example), and inhabited by an generally inert, legally and discursively 'semi-human' population, without internationally recognised rights, deprived of many of the most basic human needs, and which it is possible to maim and persecute freely.  The Gaza situation exemplifies a point made years ago by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism - the stripping of German Jews of their citizenship was the crucial step to their dehumanisation and eventual genocide.  Stateless people, like the Palestinians, can be herded around, racially abused, injured and butchered by a recognised state with impunity.

Some materials posted on this blog back in 2012 remain useful or illuminating.  I will re-post them here, and also add some new materials.

John Mearsheimer's talk on Gaza seems as fresh as it did in 2012:

John Mearsheimer: The War on Gaza

Here is my own review, for the Irish Left Review, of Gideon Levy's excellent little book The Punishment of Gaza, which gives some background on the Strip, and a powerful sense of the everyday brutality of the occupation:

 The Punishment of Gaza

Here is Mouin Rabbani, writing in the current London Review of Books:
Israel mows the lawn

Left-wing Israeli 'New Historian' Ilan Pappe on the crisis:  

Israel's incremental genocide in the Gaza ghetto

I have not previously mentioned the Journal of Palestine Studies on this blog.  The JPS is the official organ of the Institute of Palestine Studies, probably the leading Anglophone institute of research on Palestine and the Palestine question, and is an extraordinarily rich and useful journal.   The Institute itself, founded in Beirut in 1963, is affiliated to the Institute of Palestine Studies in Washington DC, and the Institute of Jerusalem Studies in Ramallah.  The journal, edited by Rashid Khalidi, the inaugural Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, contains scholarly essays, copious book reviews, photographic archives of Palestine and its history, sections which monitor the Arabic and Hebrew press, and also which monitor settlement construction and development.   In the current context, the journal is offering a 'Special Focus', which contains numerous useful articles on Gaza, its politics, the history of recent struggle there, Israeli policy regarding the Strip, and so on.  I'll post links to a couple of these articles; the rest are available for free on the Journal's website:

Digital Occupation: Gaza's High-Tech Enclosure

The Israeli Arsenal Deployed against Gaza during Operation Cast Lead

The Gaza Strip as Laboratory: Notes in the Wake of Disengagement

Israeli Military Operations against Gaza, 2000–2008