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This interview with Walaa Alqaisiya, Research Postgraduate at the Department of Geography, Durham University and Lisa Bhungalia, SBS Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Geography, The Ohio State University, was conducted during the third week of August 2014 and thus does not reflect developments thereafter, including analysis of the ceasefire agreement, shifting dynamics between Palestinian political parties, and broader political trends across Palestinian society at large.
Mary Thomas: The recent bombing of UN schools in Gaza and Israel's response to them horrifyingly illustrates the eradication of civilian space. On the other hand, the Western media intensely insists on the ‘reality’ of the civilian in Gaza, often by representing a limited spectrum of Palestinian civilians to be that of children, women, and rarely, elderly men. In particular, the repeated use of a visual representation of the wounded or shocked Gazan child produces a representation of innocent bystanders. Relegating the civilian to childhood produces a sentimentality that potentially depoliticizes the reaction to the conflict in places like the US and the UK. It potentially sets asides the civilian adult male Palestinian, in other words, as a distinct impossibility, and Palestinian suffering to ‘a fog of war’. Is there a similar sentimentality – a limited application of the human face of war to a gendered and youthful civilian subjectivity of ‘innocents’ – operating in the West Bank and in the region more generally?
Walaa Alqaisiya and Lisa Bhungalia: On one hand we could argue, as you note here, that we have seen the elimination of a recognized civilian space in Gaza. Israel’s targeting of schools, hospitals, parks, residential buildings and urban infrastructure attests to the fact that Israel considers virtually any space in Gaza to be a legitimate military target. Yet even as we have seen the elimination of a recognized civilian space, the figure of the civilian, as you point out, remains. Israel recognizes that civilians have been killed (although it downplays these numbers considerably) even as it absolves itself of responsibility for these deaths, which it attributes to the ‘complexities’ of ‘irregular warfare’ or, as seen throughout this latest offensive, to Hamas, which it contends uses civilians as human shields. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated recently, ‘Every civilian casualty is a tragedy, a tragedy of Hamas’s own making’. This line, repeated ad nauseam by Israeli officials, has been uncritically reproduced in mainstream coverage of the Gaza assault. In the official Israeli narrative then, civilian deaths happen but they are not of Israel’s doing. They are instead the result of a ‘culture of martyrdom’ in which Hamas will sacrifice even its own. In other words, Israel does not bomb civilians and civilian spaces; rather Hamas, so the narrative goes, puts them in danger for its own political gain and even, at times, stages them as ‘telegenically dead’. It is the death and endangering of the Palestinian civilian that Israel cites as evidence of Hamas’ barbarity. This barbarity, then, requires more bombing and murder, and the cycle repeats. The civilian death in this instance is mobilized for political gains on the part of Israel. It is in this sense that we could argue that the death of the Palestinian, rather than her life, is subsumed into politics turning biopolitics on its head.
This photo was taken on July 4, 2014 in East Jerusalem in front of the house of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who had been kidnapped and killed by three Israelis days before. Photo credit: Dalal Amad.
Yet even as the figure of the civilian remains, not all Palestinians qualify for civilian status. It is oft-repeated that the vast majority of Palestinians killed and injured in Gaza are civilians. This statement is almost always followed by the rejoinder, ‘including women and children’. In the reiteration of these facts, as Maya Mikdashi notes, ‘there is something missing: the public mourning of Palestinian men killed by Israel’s war machine’. Women and children may be mourned because they register as innocent and passive subjects in need of protection – they are ‘undisputed civilians’. Palestinian men, on the other hand, are always ever suspect, dubiously civilian. This logic can be seen manifest in recent remarks by Jodi Ruorden of the New York Times whereby she contends that Palestinian men constitute the subset of the ‘population most likely to be militants’ (emphasis added). The status of the Palestinian man is by default non-civilian based on a prediction of future behaviour. A similar presumption of guilt has been extended to predominately male-gendered spaces. There is a marked difference in the way in which the bombings of UN schools versus mosques have been treated in public discourse. While the former are configured as innocent spaces and have thus received international condemnation, little mention has been made of the latter, which are viewed as spaces of violence.
Wall graffiti in Shujaiyah depicts dicontent with Egyptian policy.
The application of a gendered and youthful civilian subjectivity is of course not limited to Gaza or to the present moment exclusively; it has deeper roots in the legal classification of the term itself. As Helen Kinsella has shown, the term, first codified in the Additional Protocols of 1977, defines the civilian as anyone who is not part of the armed forces. The civilian emerges in contradistinction to the combatant. It is by definition a figure that does not engage in hostilities; it is thus derived from a ‘negative character’ (ibid). Yet this ‘ideal civilian’, as Christiane Wilke argues, ‘does not exist in war zones’. For sure, how can one in an occupied zone be ‘outside’ of politics? As Wilkes further elaborates, ‘Where people live under military occupation they engage in political action against foreign rule instead of patiently waiting for deliverance. Yet in Gaza and elsewhere, those who politically support anti-occupation politics are easily cast as un-civilian’ – and their lives are all too easily dismissed as ‘fair game’ in war. Sympathy and outrage, where it does exist, is reserved for those that those that ‘we’ can identify as ‘undisputed civilians’. A division is created between deaths considered tragic and unacceptable and those rendered ‘justifiable’ under conditions of ‘war’. It is indeed telling that much of the mainstream western coverage of Gaza has been a preoccupation with the question: who is a civilian and who is not? How might insisting on this division itself make us complicit in the oppression that continues to dehumanize Palestinians? Needless to say the discourse operating from inside the West Bank is a different one.
There is of course outrage and grief expressed over the deaths of the 2,030 Palestinians killed and thousands of others injured in the latest assault. Yet the preoccupation with who is or who is not a civilian does not figure centrally in conversation; the distinction is in fact largely irrelevant. As one person put it, 'Who in Gaza is not a civilian?’ There is a general consensus, irrespective of one’s political position vis-à-vis Hamas (a position that also does not monopolize conversation the way it does in Western discourse) that Palestinians are a subjugated population living under an occupying power that views the very life of the Palestinian as a demographic problem to be contained and controlled. It is on this very basis that it makes little sense to speak of a distinction between the civilian and combatant. It is Palestinian life that is the target.
Mat Coleman: Noam Chomsky recently wrote in The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/issue/july-21-28-2014) that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) campaign is compromised by virtue of U.S. support for Israel. As Chomsky writes: ‘… the United States should also be condemned and punished for providing the decisive military, economic, diplomatic and even ideological support for these crimes. So long as it continues to do so, there is little reason to expect Israel to relent in its brutal policies’. Chomsky’s article was hotly debated in the pages of the magazine, in part because he criticized the analogy to apartheid in South Africa (he called Israeli policies in the OT worse). But for me the more important part of Chomsky’s argument was his geographical broadening of Israeli policy in the OT to include U.S. foreign policy – which of course raises the question of whether, or not, the U.S. should also be subject to BDS. Has the BDS campaign figured at all in the recent protests in the West Bank? Is BDS being rethought in light of the current Israeli offensive in Gaza?
Photo from the 48 March in the West Bank on July 24, 2014 in which thousands of Palestinians marched against Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip.
WA and LB: Analytically, one could argue, Chomsky is being consistent with the principles of the BDS movement in his expansion of the scope of targets. In 2005 Palestinian civil society called on people all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives and sanctions on Israel in order to pressure it to adhere to international law, which is not without its own limitations. Chomsky is asking a question we would do well to entertain: should BDS also target the broader material, diplomatic, and political support that sustains Israel’s settler-colonial project? The very question itself foregrounds the international links that sustain the status quo in Israel/Palestine. Yet at same time we should also remain attentive to the nature of the BDS call itself. The call made by over 170 Palestinian civil society groups is for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel – the language of the call made in 2005 itself does not necessarily include other targets, as crucial as they are to sustaining processes of settler-colonialism ongoing in Palestine/Israel. While such a consideration may be on the table in the future, BDS does not currently call for a broadening of targets to include the US. This does not mean however that such actions cannot or should not be taken up by others. In fact despite the omission of this specific language in the BDS call, we have nevertheless seen growing opposition to the US role in Palestine/Israel both within the United Sates and beyond. This underscores the importance of BDS as a tactic.
That BDS is a tactic is a point Chomsky seems to miss in his broader critique of boycott, divestment and sanctions made in the aforementioned article. Chomsky contends that BDS should actually be BD – sanctions, he contends, should be dropped from the call, or at least seriously reconsidered in light of the fact that sanctions against Israel seem to be a distinct impossibility given alignment of forces on the global landscape at present (i.e., US military and diplomatic support for Israel, and to a lesser degree Europe, as well as the current configuration of power within the UN Security Council, which affords the US veto power). While indeed correct in his analysis of the current state of global politics, Chomsky’s critique nevertheless seems to miss the point that BDS is a tactic; it is not the overall strategy. It is not the Palestinian movement. And as a tactic, one could argue, BDS has had notable successes. In the nine years since the call was made, there has been growing support for the Palestinian plight and struggle internationally. Increasingly those outside of Palestine view the Palestinian struggle as a just and legitimate one. While we are too weary (as is Chomsky) of collapsing Palestine into South Africa, the shifting of public consciousness around South Africa played a significant role in mobilizing support for the legitimate struggle of black South Africans against apartheid. BDS in the Palestinian context functions much the same way. If indeed, as Chomsky argues, Israeli settler colonialism continues unabated because of the international links that sustain and enable it, then the global stage, it would seem, is an important site of struggle – and thus BDS an important tactic precisely because the ‘global’ is its primary target.
BDS and other acts of resistance are also gaining momentum within Palestine. BDS has become increasingly more visible in the West Bank in light of the latest Gaza offensive. Greater efforts are being made to reduce Israeli goods in the Palestinian market; local shops and businesses, and supermarket chains are emptying their shelves of Israel products to be replaced with Palestinian and imported ones. Beyond BDS, which many have argued may be a tactic better used outside of Palestine given the level of control that Israel exercises over the Palestinian economy and resources, we are seeing increasingly unity among a population fragmented across disparate spaces. Just under a month ago, the West Bank saw the largest protests in years, and some have argued in decades, against Israel’s assault of the Gaza Strip with demonstrations also taking place in Haifa, Yaffa, and Nazareth. Chants and symbols asserting the unity of Palestinians despite their geographical fragmentation – both inside Palestine/Israel and beyond – were seen and heard. Over the course of the last month smaller-scale actions have continued to take place across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem which has seen weekly protests and mass arrests of Palestinian Jerusalem residents and Palestinian citizens of Israel. That Palestinians continue to assert their unity despite systematic and calculated efforts to fragment and divide them along geographic, political and religious lines, is itself a testament to the limitations, and indeed failures, of the settler-colonial project itself.
MC: In Parting Ways Butler develops a Jewish ethics of ‘cohabitation’ which she argues might help pave the way for a democratic politics of binationalism. Do you see this mode of cohabitation as being manifest in the current moment? Are Israeli and/or Jewish groups active in the current protests? For example, you note that political inequality and the colonial relation between Israel and the Palestine are major stumbling blocks to a simple ‘coming together’ of Jews and Palestinians. Does this reflect protest movement dynamics in the West Bank today?
WA and LB: Butler was indeed careful to point out that cohabitation, as she understands it, is not simply about a ‘coming together’ of Jews and Palestinians. For Butler, any ‘coming together’ must entail, as a precondition, the elimination of conditions of colonial subjugation that structure relations between Jews and Palestinians in Palestine/Israel. To be sure, most ‘coexistence’ projects fail to address this existing political and ideological context. As Butler herself points out, projects that seek to cultivate ‘goodwill’ on both sides install an artificial equality between two highly unequal groups, and in failing to acknowledge and challenge the status quo, end up reproducing it. Butler’s preliminary condition thus remains unaddressed, and the ‘stumbling blocks’ to coming together are too often attributed not to a colonial relation that quite literally precludes, in a literal sense any ‘coming together’ of Jews and Palestinians (Palestinian refugees are barred from returning) but instead to depoliticized and decontextualized notions of ‘hate’, ‘religious conflict’ and ‘ethnic war’. Indeed the political condition that Butler insists must be ratified remains intact.
This raises a larger set of issues regarding what the role of anti-Zionist Jewish-Israelis can and should be. If we in fact take Butler’s vision seriously, might this mean that those in structural positions of power should invest their efforts not in ‘coming together’ with Palestinians, which most often serves to validate those already in a position of power while doing little to disrupt it, but instead direct their efforts towards transforming the political and ideological structures that reproduce the exclusive rights and privileges at the expense of the non-Jewish population? Even more crucially we should also ask what dangers might inhere in using ‘cohabitation’ as a structuring analytic? The conversation too often privileges the idea of ‘coming together’ over the arguably more important conversation of how we might develop a politics and praxis aimed at transforming the structures and conditions through which reoccurring practices of dispossession take place. To return to the original question then, the mode of cohabitation Butler proposes is arguably an impossibility in the current moment and could only thus come to fruition in the absence of political and ideological structures that maintain exclusive rights and privileges for one group over another.
MC: Lisa, you argue elsewhere (Bhungalia 2012) for scholarly attention to biopolitics as ‘the modulation of crucial life-sustaining and life-eliminating flows into and out of … territory’. The Gaza example demonstrates that biopolitics cannot be only about the ‘optimization of life’. Can you both connect the dots for us between Israel’s imposed caloric ‘red line’ in the Gaza after 2007, and the military engagement that is going on now?
Photo from the 48 March in the West Bank.
WA and LB: Israel’s closure policy, it could be argued, constitutes a form of life management, albeit at a biological minimum. As seen in 2007 with the implementation of the closure policy on Gaza, Israel began taking a sustained interest in the minimal caloric and nutritional requirements necessary to sustain Gaza’s population. This detailed interest in Palestinian nutrition however had little do with concern for a balanced Palestinian diet. It derived instead from a more sophisticated policy aimed at tightly modulating crucial life-sustaining and life-eliminating flows into and out of the territory. Death is not absent from this equation; it is instead actively produced. Israel’s periodic intensive bombardment of this territory as seen in 2008-9, 2012, and today demonstrates that at times Israel takes a vested interest in the mass production of death. This periodic production of mass death and destruction of civilian infrastructure and residential spaces, alongside the continuation of an ongoing siege that restricts life-sustaining flows into the territory demonstrates how the population in Gaza, as an aggregate sum, is being managed on a threshold between life and death. Palestinian life in Gaza is permitted to exist only within tightly regulated parameters, a condition many Palestinians in Gaza have been quick to point out. A recent statement released by Palestinian academics, public figures, and activists in Gaza described life therein as ‘a living death’. Any return to the status quo, they note, is unacceptable.
As many Palestinians in Gaza and beyond contend, the struggle in Gaza is one of the struggle for dignity, a struggle for the ability to determine the very conditions of one’s existence. It is in this sense, we could argue, that even as Gaza constitutes what many have called a ‘death world’, it is also a site of struggle over the conditions of life and its very possibility. As seen over the last month, this struggle does not come without significant costs. As short-term ceasefires are negotiated in the midst of horrors befallen on Gaza, one major victory, many Palestinians contend, may be claimed: ‘The siege,’ as one person in the West Bank noted, ‘is on the negotiating table. People are finally talking about the siege’.
Bhungalia L (2012) Im/Mobilities in a ‘Hostile Territory’: Managing the Red Line, Geopolitics 17: 256-275.