Reflections from the 11th day of what Israel calls this “Operation Protective Edge.”
Israel calls this “Operation Protective Edge”. On the 11th day of this operation, it took the lives of 230 Palestinians. Hamas’s attacks, which as far as I can tell have no formal name, have killed one Israeli. The number of Palestinians dead has now tripled by it’s 15th day. In the US, this conflict has taken on its usual pro-Israel form. Thus at a recent Iftar dinner hosted by President Obama at the White House, American Muslims were told that Israel has every right to defend itself from Hamas’s “inexcusable” attacks. The President, of course, is not alone. Most major news outlets are pushing the standard narrative that Israel’s war represents its legitimate effort to defend its citizens from unprovoked Hamas attacks. Or, as the pro-Israel pundit Charles Krauthammer recently argued, Israel left Gaza alone a long time ago but Hamas, ever so bloodthirsty, keeps attacking Israel leaving it with no other option but to wage war. And remember, Israel always wages war gracefully. That’s the story now, and it has been the story for a long time.
This is a critical storyline with few details that haven’t already been explored. Nonetheless, in this short but urgent essay, I want to examine this narrative through the practice of “defense” as employed in Gaza. In particular, I want to show how the “defense” approach reveals two things: first, it shows the asymmetrical value of life in the calculus of security and, second, it points to the growing concern that Israeli security means a more successful occupation.
The defense approach presents nothing new to the public. It represents a recent manifestation of a well-established position that explains Israeli attacks through the assumption of Palestinian aggression. With respect to the latest war in Gaza, the story runs as follows: Hamas has been firing rockets at Israel ever since it withdrew from the territory in 2005, therefore operations like “protective edge” are necessary for the security of Israel. But what is the logic of this approach and what are its long-term implications?
Despite its appeal, the Israeli approach to defense is troubled by its profound reliance on the normality of violence and the basic idea that only war makes peace. It also suggests an alarming pattern of acceptable Palestinian death in the relentless protection of Israeli life. Consider, for example, that between 2005 and 2008, the Israeli military killed at least 500 Palestinians in Gaza. During “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-2009, the Israeli military killed another 1,391 Palestinians (759 of which were civilians). Then in 2012, “Operation Pillar of Defense” left 167 Palestinians dead and, in the last ten days, Israel has killed another 274 Palestinians (and counting).
This simple numerical list can’t possibly account for the meaning of such killing nor does it capture the destruction of infrastructure, homes, schools, and other non-military urban spaces. Yet it does underscore an important method Israel has and continues to implement in its efforts to “defend” Israeli citizens: annihilation. In each and every attack on Gaza, the Israeli state has deployed the logic of war ends war against the Palestinian people and its cities. Specifically, it has deployed a war machine that has ruthlessly resulted both in the annihilation of Palestinian life and the conditions that sustain it. In this calculation, it is defense as annihilation that makes security possible.
And what has Israel said about this killing? According to Israel’s “defense” narrative, Palestinian death, injury, and suffering, is an unfortunate byproduct of war, but a tolerable one. I was tempted to say that it is “an unfortunate byproduct of Israel’s actions” but that would imply that Israel accepts responsibility for its actions. The truth is that it doesn’t. On the contrary, one of the more cynical aspects of the “defense” narrative is that it suggests Hamas bears the blame for Palestinian casualties. Israel is forced, so the argument goes, to attack civilian areas. Moreover, when Israel does attack civilian areas, it claimed that it does so with caution and care for Palestinian life. Thus the Israeli version of its wars of defense boils down to “killing is bad but the devil made me do it.”
What this means is that defense, in the Israeli perspective, necessarily entails violence. What it also means is that it prefers violence as a means of defense. Violence has become the modus operandi of the Israeli state for dealing with the Palestinians. To see this, consider the alternative. Israel could engage in negotiations with Hamas in order to establish a meaningful agreement capable of ending attacks or, at the very least, ensuring that Hamas will do more to curb them (Hamas isn’t responsible for all the rocket fire). The idea isn’t as fanciful as you might imagine. On several occasions, Hamas has made clear its willingness to negotiate a ten-year truce (hudna) in an exchange for end to the embargo. The most recent Hamas proposal was put forth days ago and even called for an international presence in Gaza. Yet for almost ten years since Israel ended its occupation of Gaza, it’s done everything but seek a more peaceful arrangement. Indeed, until today, it refuses to negotiate with Hamas and it refuses to relinquish its control over Gaza maintaining its blockade with little to no opposition (indeed, there’s talk about re-occupying it).
One can imagine that if Israel wanted to end the violence perpetrated by Hamas, it would “give peace a chance.” But instead Israel has remained firm that it will not deal with Hamas or lift its blockade off Gaza. The US has also signed on to this position and is currently seeking to make it law. Of course, someone will say, “but Hamas is a terrorist organization and you can’t negotiate with terrorists. They want to destroy Israel.” That may be the case, but it may not be the case. And the fact is that nine years of Israeli policy vis-à-vis Gaza hasn’t resulted in any meaningful cessation of hostility. Thus one is left wondering why a state that seeks the security of its citizens seems so committed to the very practices that make them insecure. Why, in other words, maintain a policy of war for dealing with Gaza if that approach has not failed to end the rockets? More importantly, why are Israeli citizens concerned about their security so unwilling to challenge their government on the insecurities it imposes on others?
Perhaps an answer to these questions requires that we rethink the scenario. Looking at the casualties in Gaza and Israel over the last decade, it becomes quite clear that Israel has suffered less, significantly less, in its war with Gaza and overall approach to the Palestinians. This is not to diminish what suffering it has experienced. To be clear, the indiscriminate use of rockets by Hamas is a source of legitimate fear for Israelis and represents an illegitimate form of resistance. But with each application of its defense-as-annihilation approach, Israel has grown increasingly less vulnerable while the inverse has occurred for the Palestinians. Simply put, despite the hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza, Israel is quite safe. And it seems that there is a simple reason for this: each war with Gaza has allowed its defense capabilities to increase dramatically. The logic and method of defense-as-annihilation, in other words, has made possible the elaboration of a military infrastructure that has made Israel less vulnerable to Palestinian resistance. One could even extend this beyond Gaza and see how “defense” practices like the separation wall, which is a violation of international law, and other surveillance technologies in the Occupied West Bank, have enabled a matrix of control and power that has allowed for the more successful management of the occupation. Specifically, it has allowed Israel to more successfully manage Palestinian resistance while expanding its occupation and protecting Israeli life in the process.
Seen from this perspective, the “defense” narrative points to the deep relationship between Israeli security and Israeli occupation. Whether intentional or not, each war of defense moves Israel closer to the realization of security without (and this is key) having to do anything to change the realities of Palestinian insecurity and suffering. Rockets, stones, or rallies, it makes no difference. Israel’s response is the same: a new “defense” tactic is developed that ensures Israeli security while ignoring Palestinian rights. In other words, “defense” means that every form of Palestinian resistance (justified or not) facilitates the rationalization and development of a more effective system for managing instead of resolving it.
While the long-term effects of this approach are unclear (though some have suggested exactly where it’s going), there are at least two conceivable possibilities. In the first, Israel’s defense strategies will continue according to the logic of annihilation. Disconnected from, and disinterested in, the realities of Palestinian suffering and insecurity, this trajectory will result in a more controlled Palestinian resistance and, consequently, a more effective occupation. The second scenario, which is the one I hope for, is that Israel realizes that mutual security is the more effective strategy. In this approach, Israel could abandon its war logic and embrace the idea that Palestinian security enhances Israeli security and vice-versa. Although the probability of this happening is slim, it’s certainly not impossible. Indeed, this was the original idea behind the peace process: peace grounded in mutual security (economic, political, and social). Or was it? Only time will tell.