Gaza in perspective II: violence of the minimum

In my previous post, Gaza in Perspective, I asked why Israeli casualties in Operation Pillar of Cloud were so low. Now for a follow up question about Palestinian casualties. Rather than asking why Palestinian fatalities were so high relative to Israeli fatalities, I have been left wondering why –  paradoxically – Palestinian fatalities were so low relative to previous campaigns like Operation Cast Lead, where deaths were around ten times higher.

The reason why Palestinian deaths outnumber Israeli deaths is obvious: Israel has a much greater capacity to kill than does Hamas, and Israel sees fit to exercise this privilege as and when it wishes. Periodic spells of grand violence reminiscent of the ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Iraq, mix with the more mundane and everyday slow death of Occupation – and both registers of violence carry a strong message: Israel has the power to destroy Gaza and its people. Here is what Eyal Weizman has to say on the matter in his new book, The Least of All Possible Evils (2011: 19):

“The communicative dimension of military threats can function only if gaps are maintained between the possible destruction that an army is able to inflict and the actual destruction that it does inflict. It is through the constant demonstration of the existence and size of this gap that the military communicates with the people it fights and occupies. Sometimes the gap opens wide, such as when the military governs the territories it occupies – its violence in a state of potential, existing as a set of threats and possibilities that are not, for the time being, actualized. In a state of war the gap closes – but rarely does it do so completely.”

The Israeli Defence Force would like to have us think that the reason why casualties were so low this time was due to the fact that Israeli forces exercised honourable restraint. Where the IDF did use lethal (‘kinetic’) force,  it did so sparingly and with precision. This narrative is illustrated no clearer than in the song and dance that the IDF performs about the incredible lenghts they go to in order to save civilians. The IDF blog, for example, has been running a feature article entitled ‘How does the IDF Minimize Harm to Palestinian Civilians?‘ Among other measures, the IDF warns residents to leave their house by way of dropping leaflets and calling residents and asking them kindly to evacuate (see images below). Eyal Weizman deconstructs the manifold problems with these methods here and here, but what interests me is that these precautionary and warning systems operate to legitimize bombing tactics that would otherwise be considered illegal and illegitimate. As has been the case since the Second Intifada broke out, the IDF supplements such articles with carefully cropped, framed and edited videos and photographs – images which purport to show the pinpoint accuracy of Israeli air strikes. These are compassionate bombs; bombs which have a conscience and which only target terrorists. The rhetorical and legal force of such claims is immense, especially when read against the diabolical tactics of Hamas who fire rockets indiscriminately. As J. Marshall Beier argues, “concomitant rhetorical appeals to ‘costless’ war and meaningful discrimination between combatants and noncombatants are recasting the bases of legitimacy in warfare” and we know almost instinctively that Israel – “the only democracy in the Middle East” – belongs to the besieged while the terrorists belong to the barbaric.

IDF Warning leaflet dropped in Gaza during Operation Pillar Cloud.  Source: IDF
A photo taken from the southern Israeli town of Sderot shows warning leaflets falling on the Gaza Strip dropped by Israeli military planes on November 15, 2012. (AFP Photo / Mohammed Abed)

But I beg to differ. The IDF does not protect civilians, and certainly it does not protect all civilians because as we know the IDF also kills them, and does so on a grand scale (for a documentation of civilian destruction see Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem reports on the November hostilities, here). Precision weapons and surgical weapons are neither precise nor surgical. Human Rights Watch realised this after the last war on Gazain 2008-9 and in response to Israeli claims that the IDF had re-discovered what Col. Mackubin Owens once called the ‘immaculate conception to warfare’, published a report which is aptly titled, ‘Precisely Wrong’ (available for download here). Read historically, it is hardly surprising to find a story in the New Yorker last week reporting that Israel destroyed the wrong house in Gaza. Precision weapons, even assuming that they hit their target, are only as good as the intelligence that informs their deployment. In Gaza, allegedly precise weapons killed over 100 civilians. To claim that these were incidental, accidental or unintended “collateral damage” is to absolutely miss the point. When an Israeli rocket landed on a house on the 20th November 2012, it may well have hit its target (and it may well not have…), but it also killed ten members of the al-Dallu family.

Deadly ‘mistake’. Palestinians gather around a crater caused by an Israeli air strike on the al-Dallu family’s home in Gaza City on November 18, 2012. (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)

I do not doubt that the IDF have an impressive array of technologies which mitigate violence against innocents and civilians, but to focus on those who might have been sparred is to miss the crucial and devastatingly obvious point that many are not. The civilians from this war and the 300-400 civilians who lost their lives in Operation Cast Lead four years ago beg the question of how well these technologies of minimisation actually work (and in-turn what work they are made to do). Because it seems to me that the IDF wants it both ways: On the one hand, the IDF claims that – as one of the most technologically advanced militaries the world has ever seen – its weapons, arsenal and execution is near-perfect but at the same time it also makes serious and structural errors which lead to the mass ‘accidentisation’ of war. We should not be prepared to accept these deaths as mere aberrations in an otherwise benign landscape of war, and neither should we embrace the rhetorical move toward the minimization of violence as the deus ex machine of war. It is not enough to minimize violence because in the calculus of war and International Humanitarian Law (the laws of war) there is no such thing as a minimum or maximum threshold of violence: it all depends on the weight of what is called ‘military necessity’, and if it is necessary militarily then the rest is easily chalked up to “collateral damage”. Mass violence, in the name of minimal violence is perfectly legal but this does not make it moral or legitimate. Once again, Weizman is useful in making sense of this military-violence-as-minimal-violence discourse and I leave the last words to him: “the moderation of violence is part of the very logic of violence” (2011: 3).

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