Genocidal desistance in Gaza

An earlier version of this post was published by Open Democracy on August 12, 2014.

In response to the current outbreak of vicious siege warfare in Gaza, satirist John Oliver, on his weekly cable show, reviewed the past decade of Gaza war coverage by CNN’s Anderson Cooper beginning with his most recent Gaza reportage back to 2006.   Oliver noted the unfailing regurgitation of narrative that has rendered any of Cooper’s Gaza reports from one year interchangeable with that of another. From 2006 to 2014, Oliver concluded, “Cooper… looks and sounds exactly the same… Why is CNN wasting money having him report on this when they could rerun his reports from five years ago and no one would notice?”

Rerunning Gaza

Whatever this trenchant observation might say about Cooper’s lack of descriptive imagination, or the recycled formulas of mass media narrative, these tautological accounts repeatedly misrecognize the fluid normative abyss from which the Israeli’s have been testing new forms of counterinsurgent governance, state right and humanitarian indemnification in their conduct of the war during this period. Yotam Feldman and Eyal Weizman have systematically dissected many of these emerging political technologies, of counterinsurgent governmentality that are never discussed in the mainstream media, from “optical urbanism” to “wall-fare,” to “law-fare,” to the weaponization of West Bank settlement architecture and highways, and of life-support in Gaza.

The salient issue here though is a wider and collective misrecognition of the emerging political, technological and symbolic logics of war in Gaza as business as usual. This missed encounter with the real of Gaza is attributable to a culture-lag deriving from entrenched dogmas of war originating in the proxy conflicts of the cold-war and the axiological moralities of World War II as much as it derives from narrowed ideological blinders.

Since 9/11, if not earlier, aggressive technologies of image making and imposition, whether mobilized by ‘terrorists’ or the state apparatus, do not simply refract or record an event, but become the event by materially transcribing a political code onto the built environment, cultural memory and the politicized body.

The mediatization of war, through the advanced imaging of “full spectrum dominance,” has transferred its perceptual logic to the  ‘civilian’ graphosphere through the ballistics of sound bytes and real time reportage. This is what Ernst Bloch called “ the cult of the immediately ascertainable fact.” As the philosopher Avital Ronell declared at the start of Gulf War I, the major rationale of securitizing war is to “support our tropes.”[ref]Avital Ronell, “Support Our Tropes I: Reading Desert Storm.” in: Frederick M. Dolan and Thomas L. Dumm (Editor). Rhetorical Republic: Governing Representations in American Politics. University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst, 1993), pp. 13-37.[/ref] It is this tropological war that fuses word and images, missiles and missives, reportage and event into a zone of indistinction and a terrain of total war that is my concern. Even with the advent of uninterrupted horror at Gaza, it is still important to take a step back and step deeper to comprehend the internal logic of those new forms of imagery, discourse, war, security and state right being carved out of the bent backs of Palestinian civilians.

Understanding this means taking Israeli ideologues ‘at their word,’  which is also to reoccupy that ‘word,’ particularly when it refers to the “humanitarian agendas” of the IDF, a qualification that I take quite seriously as the promise of new modalities of force. Israeli humanitarian philology has made of Palestinians the surface of a Kafkaesque writing machine of war by which Zionist vocabularies and grammars have become:

“…(an) apparatus which engraves letters with curlicues on the backs of guilty men, multiplying the stabs and piling up the ornaments to the point where the back of the guilty man becomes clairvoyant and is able to decipher the writing from which he must derive the nature of his unknown guilt.”[ref]Walter Benjamin,  “ Franz Kafka, On The Tenth Anniversary Of His Death.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Hannah Arendt, ed. Harry Zohn trans., (New York: Shocken Books, 1968),” p 133.[/ref]

Desistance from genocide

The Israeli sieges of Gaza in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014 launched, in tandem with their missiles, an array of pacifying missives carrying humanitarian payloads armed with the moral authority of Holocaust victimage. As a self-characterized ‘post-genocidal state’, Israel is self-sacralized as a humanitarian specialist in victimage through its de jure moral monopolization of the Holocaust (formally institutionalized with the Eichmann trial). Each Israeli attack on Gaza is simultaneously and implicitly recast by state subtext as a desistance from genocide.

Desistance from violence can be to withdraw from a stance of violence through an act of violence, to leave off one form of violence by taking on another. In criminology an offender’s desistance from crime is analyzed as the absence of an event, which never-the-less conjugates this absence as a possible crime-to-come. Desistance from crime, civil or humanitarian, is the twofold positioning of the desisting agent as both inside and outside a continuum of criminality. Desisting from violence can be both the deferring representation and virtualizing repetition of certain forms of violence held in political amber and managed in absentia. Desistance also refers to the deliberate detachment of a subject from its productions such as the collateral damage, secrecy and outsourcing of the American war on terror.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera during the 2014 assault on Gaza, Paul Hirschon, of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, illustrated the structuring logic of Israeli desistance in war by noting “the hesitancy and care” with which attacks on Gaza were being carried out.[ref]Q&A: Paul Hirschon, Israel Foreign Ministry Spokesman www.livestation.com/…/aljazeera…/6f5b15f07cf9245a97dcdc[/ref] In 2008 Israeli government representatives frequently excused the casualties and deaths they inflicted as minimal or proportionate given the ratio of population density to the quantity of ordinance launched to secure public safety for Israel. These imputed discriminations in war are ideologically embedded into Israeli governmentality as the measurable moral structure of its genocidal impotentiality as sealed by the horrors of the Holocaust.

In 2008, Israeli governmental spokespersons described their missile assaults as a war between Hamas and “the rest of humanity” thereby casting these incursions as the culling of entities beyond or below the human. This formulation repeated the seventeenth century motif of the sovereign and the beast as respectively above and below the law.[ref]Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereigntrans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)[/ref]  In its humanitarian war against the unhuman, the IDF doled out humane corridors of intermittent cease-fire, as moments of military desistance, cast as “hesitancy and care,” or as “altruistic gestures” by which Gaza residents could “enjoy some quiet,” as one Israeli spokesperson put it. The Israeli “humanitarian window” in Gaza is just that, an aperture through which Palestinians can glimpse a world they can never enter.

In a recent interview with CNN, Benjamin Netanyahu declared the current Israeli assault on Gaza as seeking “sustainable quiet.”[ref]“Netanyahu: Israel seeks ‘sustainable quiet’ with Gaza.” By CNN Staff updated 1:04 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014[/ref] In its war against the unhuman, the state’s rationing of quietude decides when and where Palestinians can be treated as if human and when they cannot. Israeli ballistics are ratcheted up and down in order to give Palestinians brief respites under which they too could be delivered a virtual “humanity” that is the quiet of state-induced anesthesia as death (im)potentialized.

Jacques Derrida has stressed the desistance embedded in the relation of anesthesia to the death penalty; the “anesthesial compromise” has always been integral to the “humanization” of the death penalty while underwriting the state’s right to kill.[ref]Jacques Derrida, The Death Penalty, Volume I, The Seminars of Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Bennington, trans., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (2013), 50, 282.[/ref]  Contemporary asymmetrical war is pervaded by many such anesthesial logics traversing televisual smart bombs, Shock and Awe, clandestine extraordinary renditions, hidden black sites, the legal indeterminacy of torture and the presumed uncountability of Iraqi dead since the the 2003 American invasion.

Inflicted anesthesia in Gaza opens “humanitarian windows” to ration the pain and suffering of war-time and the quietude of a simulated peace-time as the scenic affirmation of the complete occupation of Palestinian time and space by Israeli anesthesiology. Political anesthesia as war-time annulled communicates with genocide as an eschatology of history that freezes time and space into the stasis and silence of the mass grave. The bestowal of quietude, in the midst of invasion and occupation, is a mode of genocidal desistance where the absence of a war event becomes a weapon and event of war.

Israeli truces and temporary no-fire zones dole out quietude as death desisted and thus as death anticipated.  A humanitarian window is only opened to be loudly and abruptly shut and shattered. Thousands of ethnic Tamils in northeast Sri Lanka discovered this bitter lesson in 2009, when the rationed humanitarian corridor, a strip of beach designated by state forces as a no-fire zone, was converted into a free fire zone death trap once refugee camps had been set up.

Simone Weil effectively describes the promissory structure of desistance from immediate violence as the virtualization of death:

It will surely kill, or it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs over the being it can kill at any and every moment; anyway, it turns man into stone. From the power of transforming a man into a thing precedes another power, otherwise prodigious, the power of turning a man into a thing while he is still alive. He is alive, he has a soul; and yet, he is a thing.… still breathing, he is nothing but matter, still thinking he can think nothing.[ref]Simone Weill, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” Chicago Review 18:2 (1965), 5.[/ref]

The rationality of the ration lies at the core of genocidal desistance when applied to quietude, to restricted corridors of humanity, and to the proportions and measures ruling life, death, and population density and launched ordinance. Humanitarian ration-ality in Gaza has been institutionalized by the Israeli blockade which regulates the trickle of food calories (calculated at 2,000 calories per diem per person), diesel oil for electrical power and water pumps, medical supplies and technology, and other essential services into the strip. This exercise defines and redefines minimal thresholds of viable humanity which administer toxic dosages of humanity to the Palestinians.

Sociocide and the state’s monopoly of violence

The rationing of life support to Gaza is greeted by critics of the blockade with the term “sociocide,” which registers the limited possibilities of sustaining core forms of social life and societal structure under a regime of enforced human minimality. The appellation raises the comprehension of sociocide as desistance from genocide—as the will not to will genocide that has little to do with the annulment of privation, terror or violence.  In the blockade of Gaza, “sociocide” is a logic of desistance that marks Weil’s “hanging over” as a latency and plasticity of the genocidal promise echoed in computational human minimality.  In the blockade the consummate administrative rationing of life-sustaining things is explicitly the administration of Palestinians as Weil’s living things as forms of death in life.

Sociocide desists from genocide through surrogate and sublimating acts of damage.  Sociocide is the rationing of privation as either “proportionate” or “disproportionate” and reciprocally calculates and seeks the slippage of the former into the latter through a contaminating political logic. Rationing proportionality and disproportionality and their indifference is an economic monopoly that extends the state’s monopoly of violence.  

The institution of acceptable levels of violence indexes the contingent potentiality of the unacceptable level, which invariably signals the capacity and competency to actualize the latter—both postures of force, the desistance and the stance, are meant to demonstrate consummate technical control. Blockades, sieges and humanitarian rationing  are political technologies for measuring maximal and minimal humanity. This ration-ality is a persistent exercise in shifting the thresholds between the acceptable/the unacceptable, the proportionate/disproportionate, ballistics/hesitancy and care. Sociocide as desistance is the third space of genocidal suspension, preemption, and promise mediating genocidal potentiality at one pole, and the ever-fluid rationality of denuding blockade at the other; thus when truces are called, missiles halted and demands negotiated, the sociocide of Gaza still remains as the desert that is called peace.

Telegenic suicides

Symbolic desistance from genocide through the latter’s surrogation, mimesis and virtualization extends to depictions of Palestinians magnetizing Israeli ordinance. In the same interview where Netanyahu spoke of seeking “sustainable quiet,” he declared to CNN:

“…all civilian casualties are unintended by us but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use, I mean it’s gruesome, they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the dead, the more the better.”[ref]“Netanyahu: Israel seeks ‘sustainable quiet’ with Gaza.”[/ref]

The Israeli first person shooter, historically inoculated from any genocidal trajectory, subsists in a state of technocratic unintentionality that is personified in the hesitancy of the launched missile—a ballistics of innocence.  Israeli ordinance is simply the automata and prosthetic of the Palestinian will to telegenic death. The ‘true violence’ of Gaza, is cast in lead by Netanyahu as the self-enclosure of the agent and patient of force exclusively within the Palestinian body politic.   As Frank Wilderson writes on racialist police violence in America:

…this Manichean delirium manifests itself by way of the U.S. paradigm of policing that (re)produces, repetitively, the inside/outside, the civil society/Black world, by virtue of the difference between those bodies that do not magnetize bullets and those that do.[ref]Frank B. Wilderson. The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal, Social Justice, Vol. 30, No. 2 (92), War, Dissent, and Justice: A Dialogue (2003), pp. 18-27: p. 20 (emphasis mine).[/ref]

In Netanyahu’s phantasmagoria, each launched Israeli missile teleports genocidal potentiality to a Hamas imputedly committed to the mass production of teleprompting death. This accusation transforms visual recoil into the voyeurism of a war tourism that is transposed from, but profoundly  differs with the Holocaust tourism promoted by the Israeli Holocaust anamnesis.  Netanyahu empties this alleged Palestinian war tourism of the moral and historical privilege accorded to the Holocaust. Palestinian “war tourism” is the opportunistic dissembling of inhuman shields who have the bad taste and brass to be caught on camera suffering and dying — a scenography foreclosed to the vast majority of  WW2 death camp victims. For Netanyahu, the Palestinians commodify, and therefore, profane the principle of exemplary victimage whereas the Israelis sacralize an iconoclastic victimage which is at the root of the fabulated post-genocidal, humanitarian hesitancy of their warfare.

“Telegenic” in American parlance means a person or thing shown to advantage on television; providing an interesting or attractive subject.[ref]http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198683?redirectedFrom=telegenic#eid[/ref]  Thus the alleged manufacture of telegenic death by the Palestinians implies their subjugated knowledge of genocidal truth that both attracts and threatens Netanyahu–for in a Euro-American public sphere acculturated to the Holocaust, Palestinians become more attractive and rhetorically persuasive when dead than when alive, when televisually spiritualized rather than when protesting or resisting or simply enduring intractable prison-house materialities.  Netanyahu attacks telegenic death because he fears the population bomb of Palestinian dead and wounded, wherein they become symbolic Jews. Mahmoud Darwish recognized the possibility of this transference, this telegenic substitution fantasy, that haunts Netanyahu, who only sees Palestinians as dematerialized extensions of his body politic. In an interview in a Godard film with an Israeli journalist Darwish declared:

I want to speak in the name of the absentee…  (Palestinians)… who are only recognized because of the Jews. Do you know why we Palestinians, are well known? Because you are our enemies, interest in us is as a result of interest in the Jewish issue. You have caused us defeat but given us fame.[ref]From a scene  in Jean Luc Goddard’s Notre Musique (Avventura Films. 2004)[/ref]

Netanyahu’s teleportation of “telegenic death” can be seamlessly montaged with the mythomania of Radovan Karadzic who alleged that Bosnian Muslims were themselves shelling Sarajevo and staged their telegenic dead.  In Sarajevo on 5 February 1994, Bosnian Serbs fired a 120mm shell that landed in an open-air market, called Markale, killing sixty-eight Muslims and Serbs and injuring more than two hundred others. The market was littered with heads and limbs when the American reporter Mark Danner arrived at the scene of carnage. He had a subsequent appointment to interview Radovan Karadzic, head of the Bosnian Serb Republic who is currently being tried as a war criminal. At their lunch Karadzic was queried by Danner about what the reporter had witnessed in the aftermath of the shelling. Karadzic responded to Danner’s account:

“Many had ice in their ears.”

“What? Excuse me?”

“Ice. They had ice in their ears,” said Dr. Radovan Karadzic, psychiatrist, poet, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, as he prepared to take another bite of stew. “You know, the Muslims-they took bodies from the morgue and they put them there, in the market. Even when they shell themselves like this, no one shell kills that many. So they went to the morgue…”[ref]Mark Danner, “Bosnia: The Turning Point,” The New York Review of Books, 2/5/98. Ice in the ears http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/karadzic/radovan/marketplace.html[/ref]

Danner realized that Karadzic was insinuating that the dismembered bodies and the massacre itself were a theatrical fabrication in which frozen corpses and body parts had supposedly been removed from Sarajevo’s refrigerated city morgues and telegenically scattered by Bosnian Muslims in the marketplace for the world press to photograph. This accusation was in much the same vein as the current Israeli self-indemnifying claim that Hamas missiles are falling short and killing Palestinian civilians, made in the same breath as bemoaning the fact that Hamas can now strike Israel’s northern reaches.

Like Netanyahu today, Karadzic was and still is a practitioner of the dissembling discourse of genocidal desistance.[ref]Karadzic repeated this charge at the Hague war crimes tribunal on March 2, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/02/radovan-karadzic-siege-sarajevo-myth and “Karadzic Markale Staging Claims Challenged.” by iwprhague | December 13, 2010 at 01:24 am, (accessed 6/7/10).[/ref] The silenced sovereignties of the Palestinians and the Bosnians are respectively reread, by both hegemons, as the political autonomy of the autodestruct, by which their adversary and target undermines the intended “hestitancy and care” of the desisting aggressor through self-inflicted violence.  Charges of collective suicide, of self-inflicted mass murder, are also a displaced genocidal fantasy for Netanyahu, whereby the Palestinian victims of violence underwrite Israeli humane war by becoming their own executioners.

This Israeli fantasy mirrors back what Edward Said described as the mentality of the Israeli ‘survivor state,” defined as a political ark in which citizenship is identical with universal catastrophe past, present and future; a state that conceives of its existence in the zero-sum game of minimal survival as a political ultimate. A survivor state that monopolizes the violence of victimage to inflict victimage is committed, not to the biopolitics of qualified life, but to the reproduction of bare life that is centered on absolute victimage both internalized or exported. One of the more insidious dimensions of the Nazi death camp was the manner in which it procedurally orchestrated the complicity of the inmates with their own extermination.  The transplantation of this closed system onto a besieged Gaza profoundly deepens the punishing impunity of Israeli warfare as genocide rationed and genocide deferred.

Two sacrifices

However for Netanyahu the profanations of the Palestinians go much deeper than this and inadvertently expose a theological archeology of the current forms of Israeli war-making as a clash of cultures of sacrifice. In discussing the emerging electronic interfaces between religion and media, Jacques Derrida counterpoises two scenes of child sacrifice in the Abrahamic religions that communicate today with the sacrifice of the children of Gaza; Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac and the sacrifice of Jesus, the son of God, through crucifixion.

In the first scene Derrida infers that Abraham’s ensuing silence around the entire incident reveals that he has been commanded by his god to keep the incident secret, to foreclose its dissemination. Derrida connects this inhibition against repetition and representation to the ban on graven images. The second sacrifice, that of Jesus, becomes the occasion for the global spread of the news of sacrifice and resurrection– the latter is irrevocably tied to the newsworthy repetition and resurrection of the act of sacrifice itself as event and information that creates a public sphere of reception:

The supreme betrayal would have been to transform a secret of this kind into a public affair, in other words, to introduce a third party, that transforms it into an item of news in public space, information that could be archived and seen from afar, televisualizable. “Above all no journalist…. no mediator between us…No third. The ordeal that binds us must not be newsworthy.”[ref]Jacques Derrida, “Above All No Journalists,” In  Religion and Media, Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber eds. (Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 2001), 57.[/ref]

In contrast, Derrida marks the essential  test of  the “sceneless scene” of Abraham’s sacrifice as the test of silence, as the keeping secret which institutes the exemplarity of a commanding iconoclasm pitted against public mediatization. This injunction against repetition and mimesis, links the Abrahamic sacrifice to the Holocaust, as a sacrifice that desists from telegenic teleportation—that cannot be dislodged  from its anachronic historical site through an act of  mimesis.

Derrida connects iconoclasm to the secrecy or withdrawal which links the sacrifices of the Holocaust to the silence of Abraham and which can also be linked to the silenced oppression of the Palestinians by the Israelis in a binding ordeal that is rarely rendered newsworthy until its damage reaches the grotesque:

“This is where the experience of the secret is bound up with the experience of the infinite gloss. There where the Thing does not reveal itself, does not manifest itself directly, does not show its face, there where the Cause remains secret, one has to gloss. This is why I began with Abraham and Isaac. We will never know what happened on Mount Moriah; we never saw anything and will never see it.”[ref]Ibid., 84.  For an intersecting discussion about the Holocaust and iconoclasm see Georges Didi-Hubermann,  Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, Shane B. Lillis, trans. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).[/ref]

Many archival gatekeepers of the Holocaust are like Kafka’s doorman standing before the house of the law who affirms and guards its essential unpresentifiability. For Netanyahu, due to their telegenic sacrifice, the Palestinians fail the Abrahamic test, their mass iconography of ordeal is essentially ‘Christian’ and profaning in requiring a mediating third. In Netanyahu’s discourse on the telegenic this condemns the Palestinians to inauthenticity. As such they cannot lay claim through their suffering to genocide, nor lay claim to the land that has been preemptively sanctified by the Abrahamic pact with god, and more recently renewed and re-sanctifed by the Holocaust. Lacking this sacral relation to blood and soil, the Palestinians for Netanyahu can only exist televisually, because for him they can exist nowhere else.

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Allen Feldman

Allen Feldman, a pioneer in the ethnography of violence, the body, and the senses, is the author of Archives of the Insensible: Of War, Photopolitics and Dead Memory (University of Chicago, 2015) and Formations of Violence: the Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland (1991).