Sunday, July 11, 2010

There Are No Innocents in Gaza

above: the author, PhD candidate and blogger Dubi Kanengisser

In this thought-provoking analysis, Israeli social commentator and PhD candidate Dubi Kanengisser considers the human rights of Gazan Palestinian citizens, challenging arguments that conflict with Israel somehow 'negates' these basic rights.

By Dubi Kanengisser;  originally published June 24th, 2010

taken from the 'Pogg' blog; for more info see:

I’ve recently read Lene Hansen’s Security As Practice. The book offers a methodological framework for post-structuralist discourse analysis.1 I must admit the book got me quite excited, in as much as one may use terms like “excitement” when discussing methodology, and I’m now considering revising (slightly) the goals of my thesis so that I may base it on a variation on her method.

At any rate, for the methodology not to be completely disconnected from practicality, the second half of the book is an application of the research design she described to the case of Western discourse surrounding the war in Bosnia in the 90′s. In the concluding chapter, which also reviews the benefits and limitations of the methodology, there was one sentence that I copied down as of particular interest, not because it is relevant to my research, but because I felt it says something substantial about the current situation in Gaza, the flotilla, and the whole discourse and counterdiscourse surrounding the siege.

The Discourse of ‘humanitarian responsibility’ “constituted a ‘civilian victim’ to whom humanitarian responsibility was extended, but this subject was only ethically privileged insofar as it maintained a separation from the realm of political and military agency. ‘Innocence’ in turn was depoliticized and dehistoricized”.2

I think one may see a parallel between the situation described by Hansen and the situation in Gaza today, at least with regard to the rejection on the side of Israeli discourse of the idea of humanitarian aid to Gaza. For example, many argued against the flotilla that they don’t really want to bring humanitarian aid, but rather that this is a political act. Again, as in Bosnia, humanitarianism is perceived as relevant only if it is disconnected from politics, and the two cannot co-exist. There cannot be a political act of humanitarian aid, since these are polar opposites.

Similarly, when they addressed the question of the justification of providing humanitarian aid to Gaza’s residents, the objectors raised the argument that the Palestinians in Gaza voted for Hamas (and therefore lost their right for minimal living conditions, if this is what Israel decides is the most expedient way to preserve its interests). The very fact that Palestinians have become political agents denies them the right for basic living conditions. One might see here an almost Hobbesian view of the act of voting – by electing the Hamas, the people of Gaza not only gave their vote to this party in a geographically and temporally bounded elections, but they actually invested their very selves in the hands of Hamas so that every action by their government is for all practical purposes their own action.

It is interesting to remember, of course, that Israelis, even those who support the government, don’t attribute such mystical characteristics to their own act of voting — one need only think, in this regard, of the responses to the cancellations of concerts by Elvis Costello, the Pixies and others recently, responses that may sometimes be read as a sort of farce on the criticism against the siege.

(An interesting example of this sort of thinking was recently published (Hebrew) in the right-wing Channel 7 radio station. A rabbi heading a pre-military academy, Rabbi Zeev Sharon, was interviewed saying that a soldier who killed a civilian during war time should not be put on trial, because the civilians of the enemy are themselves the enemy. A similar example was revealed by human rights organization Shovrim Shtika – see the discussion and video on one soldier’s account of getting orders to this effect here.)

My argument here, I should emphasize, is not similar to claims against collective punishment, or those that state the siege makes no distinction between Hamas supporters and their opposition (and one might add that it strengthens the former and weakens the latter) – although I do use such arguments myself often. In this current context, it should be clear that such arguments fall right within the boundaries of this “humanitarian aid” discourse Hansen identified: they deserve humanitarian aid, because they are not all political agents, because they are innocent victims, not part of the political, violent factor.

I have a feeling, which isn’t substantiated in any way in the book so I will leave it with this definition, that there is a link between this discourse of depoliticized humanitarian aid, and the notion of “terror”. The Geneva conventions dealt, primarily, with the question of how one should treat one’s enemy’s soldiers in a humanitarian way. The whole concept of humanitarianism arose from the crazy idea that even soldiers on the battle-field have a right to medical treatment, regardless of the proximity of their own side’s medics. The humanitarian discourse, then, did not start out with this distinction between humanitarianism and politics — who else but the soldier represents the state on the battle-field? But even he deserves medical attention and basic rights once the need arises. If we apply this to Gaza, Israel is fully within its rights to lay a siege on Gaza if it perceives all who are in it as enemy soldiers (and I will beg the question if this perception is justified or not), but it must then supply those “enemy soldiers” with all their basic needs.

The new humanitarian discourse that Hansen identified in Bosnia and I claim exists also in the case of Gaza, rejects the possibility of the two co-existing – a person who is a political agent cannot be eligible for humanitarian aid.

I can hypothesize two non-exclusive tracks that led to this change.

One, again, is terror. The shift to a-symmetrical war in recent decades has taken the sting from the Geneva conventions – and if one side is not committed to them, naturally the other side cannot be held to them either. If Hamas doesn’t see a need to provide the Red Cross with access to captured soldier Gilad Shalit, then Israel shouldn’t have to provide the Red Cross, or any other humanitarian organization – let alone political ones! – access to Gaza. Any agreement by Israel to transfer humanitarian aid into Gaza, then, is beyond the strict requirements of law, and therefore Israel may set whatever restrictions it damn well pleases on this aid without harming the humanitarian discourse in its new form.

If, however, we reject the stipulated contradiction between eligibility for humanitarian aid and political agency, then the actions of Gazans have no bearing on their ethical privilege to receive humanitarian aid.

The second track has to do with extending the humanitarian ideal far beyond aiding soldiers in the battle-field. Ironically, extending the humanitarian idea to larger and larger parts of the needy population (as opposed to developing other ideas of aid, for example, such as charity), eventually caused the exclusion of combatants from that very ideal. How, after all, can you include starving children in the same group with fighters armed to the teeth, and demand the same treatment for both?

What conclusions can we draw from this? One of the inherent limitations of Hansen’s framework, which she readily acknowledges (and actually argues that it is derived from the very view of post-structuralism, which, as I noted, I have no idea what that is), is that one cannot derive practical conclusions from discourse analysis. It allows us to understand situations, but not to analyze causal chains. Therefore, we cannot develop policy based on such an analysis.

I see myself as less committed to Hansen’s view, and therefore think one can derive policy prescriptions from this analysis – about the best means for challenging this discourse, the best ways to oppose the policies derived from it, and the best alternative policy given the current conditions. I believe such conclusions can be drawn. I just don’t know what they are.

(Originally posted on my ie: Dubi's - Hebrew blog on June 17, 2010. cross-posted on IsraLeft.)


I’m not big on theory, and if you ask me what’s post-structuralism I probably won’t be able to answer. In fact, I wouldn’t have known her approach is post-structuralism had she not said so herself. The book itself avoids jargon most of the time and hardly ever refers to all sorts of French people like Derrida and Foucault and other people who wrote books I can’t read. Even when she does reference them, she explains exactly what she means, so even morons like me can understand. [↩]

Lene Hansen, Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War (New-York: Routledge, 2006), 212. [↩]

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