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The devastation to which Gaza has been subjected in the last few weeks seems to be yet another repetition of Israeli settler-colonial apparatus’ habit of destruction. Gaza has become emblematic of this habit, because in recent years it has so frequently been subjected to bombing while under a state of siege, but like all settler-colonialisms, the violence of the state is rooted not in an episodic “cycle of violence” but in the very ideology and practice of the settler-colonial movement.
The zero-sum struggle over the control of the land –whether as nationalist symbol, state territory, or capitalist/agricultural resource– is not just the fundamental basis of Israeli settler-colonialism, but that of all settler-colonialisms, with exploitation of indigenous labour forces appearing as an additional feature at some times and in some places. Such an indigenous population has to be brought to heel or else expelled. An oscillation between policies of subjugation and moments of expulsion –and often both simultaneously, though in different locales– has characterised Israeli violence towards Palestinians since the state’s very inception. Both in implementing policies of subjugation and policies of expulsion, the Israeli political and military apparatus has deployed the whole range of means –from administrative to military.
Expulsion of the great majority of the Palestinian population in 1948 and again in 1967 has produced large populations of refugees and refugee camps in the neighbouring states as well as West Bank and Gaza, themselves targets of military violence by Israel, its local allies, and other reactionary forces in the region. The Palestinian population who remained behind in 1948 has also been subjected to curfews, administrative detentions, closures, and violence in varying intensities over the last 66 years. The policies that effectively entail the expulsion of Palestinians –especially through the revocation of Palestinians’ Jerusalem residency cards– continue apace even where there are no ongoing military operations.
In turn, Israeli politics of subjugation have always followed the “Iron Wall” edicts of the godfather of Likhud Party, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Already in 1923, Jabotinsky was delineating the demand for total Palestinian subjugation behind an “iron wall of bayonets”:
We hold that Zionism is moral and just. And since it is moral and just, justice must be done, no matter whether Joseph or Simon or Ivan or Achmet agree with it or not.There is no other morality.
All this does not mean that any kind of agreement is impossible, only a voluntary agreement is impossible. As long as there is a spark of hope that [the Palestinians] can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions. And only then will moderates offer suggestions for compromise on practical questions like a guarantee against expulsion, or equality and national autonomy.
In the most recent attacks on Gaza, the possibility of expulsion is bandied about by the extremists in the Israeli Knesset:
The IDF [Israeli army] shall designate certain open areas on the Sinai border, adjacent to the sea, in which the civilian population will be concentrated, far from the built-up areas that are used for launches and tunneling. […] The supply of electricity and water to the formerly populated areas will be disconnected. […] The formerly populated areas will be shelled with maximum fire power. […] Israel will start searching for emigration destinations and quotas for the refugees from Gaza.
Although this intent may well be a desiderata of the great majority of right-wing Israelis, a more immediate goal of the most recent attacks on Gaza has been to ensure that, as per Jabotinsky, “extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups.” Most apparently, the Israeli assault on Gaza has been intended to scupper the impending Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Given the extent to which Fatah, largely in charge of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, has acquiesced to Israeli settler-colonial policies and security demands, a reconciliation with Hamas could undermine the docility of Israel’s local security subcontractors. But such reconciliation would also expose the specious Israeli arguments that are intended to justify the rhetoric of security and the practice of violence. Such specious arguments equate all Palestinians with fanatical Islamists; portray legitimate Palestinian demands (of control over their territory and for lifting the siege) as existential threats to Israel; and absurdly claim genocidal intent on part of the Palestinians just as Palestinian lives and livelihoods are decimated by Israeli forces.
Photo by Rafahkid
Such decimation in Gaza has had three broad military intents: the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure; placing lethal pressure specifically on Palestinian civilians to force them to abdicate their support for Hamas; and to reinforce the carceral mechanisms that fundamentally underlie Israeli counterinsurgency practices.
The assault on Palestinian infrastructure is nothing new. It is partially intended to cripple the Palestinian economy, so as to force Palestinians into acquiescence through a policy of impoverishment and abjection. But it is also a clear and historically continuous mode of bringing military pressure to bear. Control or devastation of electricity grids, the destruction of water or sewerage infrastructure, and control over roads and crossing points are all weapons deployed by more powerful forces in asymmetric warfare. Shortly after the occupation of the West Bank, then Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan was quoted as saying, “if Hebron’s electricity grid comes from our [Israeli] central grid and we are able to pull the plug and thus cut them off, this is clearly better than a thousand curfews and riot-dispersals.” Now, Gaza’s electricity, sewage and water plants are bombed to smithereens, where the West Bank is ever so tightly wound in the web of Israeli infrastructural administration.
The aim of such control over infrastructure is not only the zero-sum control over resources of living and statehood, but also the hugely significant control of civilian populations. The habit of attacking civilians so as to force them to abandon their support for militants or fighters among them is a longstanding tactic of counterinsurgency not only in Palestine, but elsewhere. Here, again Moshe Dayan, speaking in 1967, is instructive: “Let the individual know that he has something to lose. His home can be blown up, his bus licence can be taken away, he can be deported from the region; or the contrary: he can exist with dignity, make money, exploit other Arabs, and travel in [his] bus.” More recently, Amos Guiora –a former judge advocate general in and legal advisor on Gaza for the Israeli military– and his co-author have vastly broadened the category of non-innocent civilians to include legitimate targets (for example a farmer whose land is used by the Taliban to fire missiles at US forces), transitory targets (someone on their way to an act of bombing), recurrent target (someone who engages in such acts repeatedly), and permanent targets (those who are the masterminds of such acts). The politics of militarily assaulting civilians in order to pressure Israel’s military enemies even has a name: The Dahiya Doctrine. The Dahiya is the large neighbourhood in southern Beirut where Hizbullah political and media offices were located. The utter and indiscriminate “flattening” of not only Hizbullah offices but vast tracts of civilian buildings and residences was part of the Israeli military’s “already approved plans,” and was intended to act “as a constraint” on Israel’s adversaries, according to the commander of the Israeli Northern Command (quoted in diplomatic documents released by Wikileaks).
Perhaps among the most frequently used set of practices intended to “manage” civilians have been the policies of population control put into place through a whole series of different carceral tactics and technologies. We are now familiar with the image of the separation walls in Palestine that eats up Palestinian land and acts as method of impoverishment, land expropriation, and military control. In addition to the separation barriers, buffer zones, seam zones, or security zones similarly expand the geographic space in which the Israeli military transforms contact with Palestinians into a deadly encounter in a free-fire zone. As Brigadier General Zvika Fogel, the former head of Israeli Southern Command in charge of Gaza explained to Haaretz journalist Yotam Feldman, “one of the means Southern Command adopted in order to avert attacks on Israelis was to declare death zones in the Gaza Strip - areas in which IDF soldiers were authorized to open fire at anyone who entered them. ‘Their use of women, children, infants and innocent farmers increased,’ Fogel explain[ed]. ‘We understood that in order to reduce the margin of error, we had to create areas in which anyone who entered was considered a terrorist.’” There is no doubt that one intention of the Israeli military has been to expand this free-fire zone to such an extent that it not only concentrates the population into ever smaller areas, it also limits Gazan access to the sea and importantly to the maritime gas deposits, by shrinking Palestinian maritime access from 20 to 3 nautical miles, shortly after gas deposits were discovered at 18 nautical miles offshore. Again, Israeli military and economic agendas seem to converge.
Beyond free-fire zones, population control has also entailed the scandalous curtailment of access to food for Gazans. Here, the Israeli state created lists of food items banned from entry into Gaza (for example, coriander was banned), but it also controlled the precise volume and caloric contribution of food required to prevent Gazans from starving and allowed just under this amount in – and no more. Ehud Barak’s advisor Dov Weisglass was quoted as saying “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Here again, civilians were targeted in order to force them to abandon support for Hamas.
The lesson of the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza, as in all previous assaults, is that civilians are not “collateral” or accidental casualties of war between combatants, but the very object of a settler-colonial counterinsurgency. The ultimate desire of such asymmetric warfare is to transform the intransigent population into a malleable mass, a docile subject, and a yielding terrain of domination. Such a population will not have an independent national economy, will not have spokespersons or artists or writers or students or football players, will not have a politics. That ever so frequently the Israeli military plunges Palestinians into conflagrations of lead and steel and concrete dust and destruction is the clearest sign that it has failed at making Palestinians into such a docile population.