The De-Civilization of Gaza

Jenan Moussa:

Horrible editorial that argues Palestinians who voted for Hamas & their families & kids deserve to die!!

Citing part of an offending sentence from the same piece, here’s Joshua Foust:

“you forfeit your right to be civilian when you freely elect a terrorist organization as statesmen” Astonishing

Foust’s and Moussa’s tweets are somewhat typical of reaction to the linked article, on twitter and beyond. Work this horrible and astonishing, published in a major American newspaper, deserves a closer look.

After several paragraphs describing the ways in which Hamas fighters blend with the non-combatant population of Gaza, and indulging in some unpersuasive speculation about what Gazans must have been thinking when a large majority of them voted for Hamas in the 2006 elections, author Thane Rosenbaum summarizes his argument as follows:

On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

What should be initially clear, at least as regards Foust’s partial and incidentally inaccurate quotation, is that Rosenbaum’s argument does not rest simply on some notion of an electorate’s responsibility for its leaders’ subsequent conduct, even though that notion may be finally indispensable to a coherent theory of representative democracy. Rosenbaum does, however, clearly rely on a collectivization of complicity, as underlined by use throughout the paragraph of the second person plural, a mode often colloquially employed in ethical speculation of this sort, but in this context a significant choice: Rosenbaum is addressing the Gazans in a mode of address that erases distinctions – for instance between an ardent Hamas supporter and a bystander (or her children) – in somewhat the same way that the policy he seeks to justify does.

It may not be too much to say that the logic of war is encapsulated within the workings of this simple rhetorical tool. At the same time, however, this defense of a war policy is not on its own terms a justification of punishment: Specifically, Rosenbaum does not say that all Gazans, as per Moussa’s rendering, “deserve to die”: He argues, in effect, that cumulative decisions to embrace or passively accept Hamas have removed from the moral equation any question or possibility of justice for civilians as civilians, since meaningful civilian status relies on the existence of an in this sense civilized order. In other words, that there would or could be no true civilians or possibly even non-combatants in Gaza would not justify killing the inhabitants, or punishing or harming them in any other way, but it would mean that any condemnation of Israeli conduct would have to be made on some other basis than the civilian/combatant distinction.

The problem for Israel as well as for its critics is precisely that Hamas – like Al Qaeda and many others – represents a negation of the principles that can produce and sustain practical distinctions between civilians and lawful combatants. The Israeli state, as a rule of law state under the current liberalist international law regime, seeks to operate from this and related distinctions, but remains as susceptible as all other states to the specific problem of an enemy that rejects them. The key precedent was set by the Allies (or “United Nations”) in World War II. From their point of view, wars of aggression prosecuted according to a totalized logic both required and justified a commensurate response, only more so: In short, enemies who would bombard Guernica, “rape” Nanking, and “blitz” London, “indiscriminately” where not aggressively and specifically targeting civilians, were seen to have brought Dresden and Hiroshima upon themselves. During the Cold War, the same logic was brought to an even further extreme: From the side of the American-led West, Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine included an open insistence that an attack by the Soviet Union on America’s land-based ICBM force would require and justify the retaliatory obliteration of targets amounting to the enemy’s collective being in its entirety: The most “illiberal” policy conceivable was taken as essential to defense of the liberal order or the liberal possibility.

“Terrorism” is a term not just for a set of tactics that instil fear, but for defiance of implicitly liberal “civil”-ized norms. That the logic of war is a collectivizing logic explains why liberalism-individualism seeks to criminalize it, why liberalist-individualist polities have such difficulty orienting themselves morally within it, and why they are, finally, prone to overcompensating in response to it.


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7 comments on “The De-Civilization of Gaza

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  1. they are clearly victims, like the ones subject to the crips and bloods, but it’s a little like what Russian propaganda has driven
    people into a fever pitch over,

  2. The problem there is that it is the very same logic that Hamas used to “justify” their suicide bombers during the late Oslo period and the second intifada: aren’t all Israeli citizens bound to serve in the IDF and therefore (sic!) aren’t they all really part of the Israeli military? (Leaving aside that the 2006 Palestinian elections were sponsored by the U.S., among others, and then deliberately overturned when the wanted results failed to materialize, and that Hamas took over in response to an attempted Fatah coup, sponsored by the U.S., Egypt, etc.) It also assumes that states, by virtue of their establishment within a “liberal international order”, are incapable of perpetrating terrorism, and that a people has no right to struggle for their independence within that established order, to claim sovereign power for themselves.

    Some recourse to simple facts, rather than abstruse and twisted arguments might be in order as well. The population density of Gaza: 13,000 per square mile. To put that into context, the population of the municipality of Shanghai in Red China: 9900 per square mile. To claim that Hamas is hiding behind civilians as a shield is a military absurdity; does the IDF really expect them to stand out in the few open spaces available to be machine-gunned down? Similarly, if the IDF chooses to launch airstrikes and artillery or tank fire into such a dense population, them must take responsibility for the “collateral” casualties that they inflict, as at least partly deliberate and intentional.

    It seems to me that the intransigence and bad faith are equally on the Israeli (and American and Egyptian) side as on the side of Hamas, (aside from the fact that Netanyahu deliberately manipulated this current conflict into existence, to destroy the Palestinians’ unity government deal.)

    • Sorry you found the discussion abstruse, but I’ll prefer to think you really just find the situation frustrating and horrifying. You seem to be taking my argument as one-sided in some way, when my emphasis was that the problem with the (non-)combatant distinction is a problem for both, for Israel to the extent it maintains liberal pretensions, but also for those who would criticize Israel or defend Hamas according to a typically liberal separation of public and private, here as fighter and bystander.

      I think it’s true that the Israeli position would make armed resistance of any kind impossible. From Israel’s perspective the alternative for the Palestinians to unjust or immoral armed resistance would be no armed resistance at all, not conventional armed resistance, but from Hamas’ perspective, the just alternative for Israel is not improved conduct of any type either, but for Israel to cease to exist.

      So, yes, it’s also true, as I stated, that the justification for Israel, or for Israel according to Rosenbaum, is at least similar to the self-justifications produced by Hamas, Al Qaeda, and every other movement that rejects the Great Separation(s) of liberal theory. A common response on twitter and in the blogs to Rosenbaum has been to compare his theory to Osama Bin Laden’s justifications for targeting American civilians. I think that the critics are right, but I don’t find the ad hominem interesting. That the logic was OBL’s doesn’t make the logic bad logic.

      I left some comments on OBL out of this post, and have in fact been struggling for the last few days to make sense out of my abstruse and frustrating thoughts on his position in relation to Rosenbaum’s. Strictly in relation to Israel, Israel’s adoption, the Israelis would say out of necessity, of a vastly illiberal praxis seems overdetermined, as well as its effects on Israel itself. But to whom exactly in the region are we going to turn for something better?

      I’d be curious about where you got the idea that I was declaring states incapable of perpetrating “terror.” The term “terrorism” was coined by proponents of liberal international law (and it originally applied especially to assassinations of leaders and diplomats as well as to acts against masses of civilians). Conceivably, the liberal international order may someday find itself without any members in good standing, but there would still likely be rules of international conduct, and otherwise somewhat predictable power relationships, producing an order of some type, just as there were before modern liberalism.

  3. No it is not, Hamas uses tunnels into the Territories, in preparation for a Mumbai or 9/11 type event, they use schools and homes for their mortar bases, the fact that most rockets fired, are deflected by the Iron Dome, is used as an excuse to condemn Israel,

2 Pings/Trackbacks for "The De-Civilization of Gaza"
  1. […] “vile” and “execrable” to Jenan Moussa’s “horrible” and Joshua Foust’s “astonishing,” James Downie joins other first responders to Thane Rosenbaum by focusing on a parallel between his […]

  2. […] I suggested in my initial notes on the response to Rosenbaum, the idea of a citizenry accountable for its government’s […]

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