“Civilian casualties” in Gaza and Israel, and before, and beyond
The injunction against killing civilians in war is now basic to international human rights and humanitarian law, along with the prohibitions against genocide and torture: so much so, it’s easy to forget it’s not even 70 years old. Like the latter standards, it’s been at least as much honored in the breach as affirmed in the observance. Even more than them, it carries a host of slippery justifications to support the breaches. Nobody argues that committing genocide is all right because it’s so hard not to, or because the victims obstreperously refuse to leave or keep getting in the way; whereas whenever civilians turn up dead in a place of conflict, this is just the susurrus of exculpation you hear. Yet the moral horror around the slaughter of civilians overpowers any legal vagueness. Soldiers may have been conscripted into an army against their will, with no idea what they were getting into, with no responsibility for the war; they may never have fired a shot; but photographs of their corpses, gone viral on our technologies, inspire no shock of indignation like the outrage that greets images of the innocent dead clad in everyday dress, unprepared for extremity, unarmed. Clothes make the man, and they make the meaning. The anger is an ethical absolute, a line in the sand, a call to action. Sometimes, it’s a rallying cry for further slaughter.
I’m not questioning the rightness of this anger, or the Fourth Geneva Convention, which gave it legal force in 1949. I’m wondering where the idea of “civilians” came from.
“Civilian” is not a very old category. The term itself, in the sense of “non-combatant,” is first attested from the early 19th century. It comes, though, from the Latin civilis, “civil” or “civic”: a word describing qualities that befit a “citizen” but also any dweller in a town or civis. It pitted the urbane against the uncultivated, the cosmopolitan against the pitiable provincial.
And for millennia the worst atrocities of war as we now assess them, the killing of people who were not soldiers, overwhelmingly meant murdering the inhabitants of cities.
A siege of a fortified town routinely ended with the slaughter of the inhabitants. When Genghis Khan took Samarkand in 1220, he ordered the population “to evacuate and assemble in a plain outside the city, where they were killed and pyramids of severed heads raised as the symbol of Mongol victory.” When the Mongols captured Urgench a year later, the chroniclers say that each of 50,000 victorious soldiers was commanded to detach 24 towndwellers’ heads. Do the math; no one today believes the figures, but they are a quick shorthand for an incalculable bloodbath. Acts like these were the barbarians’ revenge against the arrogantly urbane, a reaction from the edge of the known world against the soi-disant central and civilized. Yet they made a kind of sense. Citydwellers were parasites. They were symbols of useless indolence. They produced no necessities for themselves, living off the agriculture and sweat of others. Invaders would do better to eliminate the burden. By contrast, you could rape or rob rural populations, but massacring them made no sense. Those people could feed armies.
This wasn’t just a monstrous propensity of non-Europeans. After the Fourth Crusade’s soldiers of 1204 — the flower of Western Christendom — overran Constantinople, they killed thousands, down to the children and the nuns. Those Crusaders were exacting vengeance on an effete city of palaces and eunuchs, a place too beautiful and pointless for them to bear; they came from a plough-bound, manure-smelling fringe of Europe where Paris, the largest town, was no more than a village with attitude. I could go on forever; ask the dead of Drogheda, or Tenochtitlan. In 1209, when a papal army took the heresy-ridden Cathar town of Béziers in southern France, someone asked their commander, the Abbot of Citeaux, what to do with its ten or twenty thousand citizens. Not all were heretics, surely. “Kill them all,” the Abbot said. “The Lord will know his own.”
The link between the “civilian” as victim and the city lasted a long time. In the Second World War, the defining horror of the last hundred years, so many of the monstrosities – from Hitler’s eradication of Warsaw to Truman’s obliteration of Hiroshima – involved destroying cities and their peoples. The material justification, which the Allies were particularly good at laying out, was that urban areas sheltered industries and centers of command and control. There was a symbolic side too, though, a dreamlike logic, in which the war leaders melted into Genghis Khan contemplating the fleshpots of Samarkand. Hitler especially indulged fantasies of utterly annihilating cities that annoyed him. Rural populations could survive as dirt-digging helots; but the capitals had to go. “Moscow must disappear,” he said, as if he were a Roman ploughing Carthage under the ground with salt; or – in the words of his High Command:
The Führer has decided to wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth. We have no interest in the preservation of even a part of the population of that city.
Cities to him stood for the mongrel blending of races he hated; they bred Jews like lice. For the Allies, meanwhile, cities embodied the fundamental reasoning behind the carpet-bombing and, finally, the atomic bomb. They were complex economic and social mechanisms in which everyone was connected, every inhabitant’s labor furthering a mutual goal. Given those links, if the state was guilty, everyone was guilty. A five-year old girl in Nagasaki whose father worked in a shipyard was fully accountable for the horrors of Bataan. If Hitler looked on the urban world like a savage mythologist, the Western powers analyzed it like sophisticated sociologists. In each civic community they saw an intricate interdependence that translated into shared complicity. The end was the same on both sides, the sociology fading back into the myth: collective punishment, common death.
After the war, the victor nations rejected that, at least on paper. A renewed campaign against torture, the prohibition of the new crime of genocide, both came about in the new world order. So did a code of safeguards for civilians in war, in the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949. The protections were imperfect, but at least just living in a belligerent state should no longer be reason enough to kill you. On the other hand, the victorious Allies had an ambiguous relationship to civilian protection standards. Unlike the Germans, they hadn’t committed genocide in the war (never mind those old colonial problems), or systematic torture (well, not much), but they had taken the German technique of incinerating civilians with carpet bombing and perfected it, in Tokyo and Dresden. Thus the new Geneva Convention had a bit of guilty secret as well as promise about it. This may explain the why it remained broad and relatively elastic. (An additional protocol in 1977 more specifically prohibited direct attacks on civilian targets, as well as attacks “of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.” It has not been ratified by a number of states that ratified the Convention itself, Israel and the US among them.)
If this is all a prelude to speaking of Israel and Palestine, perhaps it reflects my reluctance to come to the point, because there is no point that can help anyone at all. Yet history matters. Both sides there believe in collective punishment (a war crime under the Geneva Convention) yet both dispute that they are doing wrong. Each – like the Allies explaining the carpet bombs — has its story about the other to justify the sweep of what they do. Universal guilt abides in the opposing population. Either Israel is a militarized settler society in which every citizen is a real or potential soldier, a participant in repression. Or all Palestine is a partisan movement hidden in a general population, where lines between warrior and non-combatant melt
An insecure state that can’t afford to excuse any of its members from the task of violence; a popular movement that by definition does not even have a state to enforce distinctions. Neither side can make out individual features in the other; they see each other in totalizing terms, inhospitable to differences. This leaves you where a lot of commenters on the situation, particularly in the human rights world, like to be: with Balance, the equable belief that everybody’s wrong.
Most observers — most organizations in the international human rights world, most of the international community — focus on condemning civilian casualties as if they’re determined to defeat this totalizing logic, and to extract the thread of distinctions from its tangle. But they end up with Balance again, that place where everybody is the same: both sides endanger civilians, both are in the wrong. Does this focus have its limitations? What do you get from emphasizing the “innocent” civilians, instead of other categories of innocence, involvement, blame? Does it blind us to the causes and motives of the violence, restricting us to asking how well the violence is performed?
My old home, Human Rights Watch, insisted for years –from Sri Lanka to Iraq– that it takes no sides in conflicts. “Human Rights Watch does not ordinarily take positions on whether a party to a conflict is justified in taking up arms,” in order to preserve its own objectivity in evaluating abuses. “Rather, once armed conflict breaks out, we generally confine ourselves to monitoring how both sides to the conflict fight the war, with the aim of enforcing international standards protecting noncombatants.” This is no longer entirely true; the organization increasingly advocates and promotes certain wars under the rubric of “humanitarian intervention,” idealistic incursions to prevent abuses. (But when these wars then cause further abuses, is Human Rights Watch’s objectivity in documenting them compromised?) Even if you take the statement at face value, though, applying it to Israel and Palestine reveals certain limits.
What happens when a human rights organization begins evaluating wars? In the late 1990s Human Rights Watch pioneered methodologies for interpreting physical evidence to determine whether the warmakers were trying hard enough not to kill civilians: beginning with NATO’s assault on Serbia in 1998, continuing through the US air war against Iraq, through Israel’s attacks on Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2009. These studies were excellent, groundbreaking, a vast advance in human rights advocacy from moral exhortation to highly specialized judgment. But these reports are a also guide to minimizing civilian casualties to suit the Geneva Conventions, adjusting impact through a range of algorithms. In this way, human rights organizations have actually begun offering militaries informal advice, not on how to stop violence – that would mean not having a war – but on how to cap its consequences at a legally acceptable level. Too far down that road, and they become micromanagers of death.
The Israeli architect and philosopher Eyal Weizman has analyzed how groups like Human Rights Watch participate, inadvertently and from admirable aspirations, in the science of war: their “collusion … with military and political powers.” Their methods involve a shift “from a focus on the victims of war to an analysis of the mechanism of the violations of law.” Law itself, once broken, is treated as the chief victim; the individuals whose lives were at stake fade away in the descriptions of the offense almost as they did in the choosing of targets. This elision, however unwanted, is built into the methods. “Today’s forensic investigators of violence move alongside its perpetrators, morphing into them,” according to Weizman. “Humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law,” he writes, “have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed.”
He looks particularly at the story of Marc Garlasco, my old friend who joined HRW as its investigator of military methods, its lead critic of how bomb-droppers selected targets — after a career in the US military machine, as a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who selected targets. He was effective because he knew exactly what the targeters were trying to do and how, when they killed: because he’d done it. Marc was an earnest and brilliant fellow who, in his relentless interrogation of the Israeli Defense Forces’ strategic decisions, got more flak than he deserved. He had a keener intuitive apprehension of his position’s moral contradictions than did, on the whole, the people who hired him. The moral contradictions did not go away, though. Marc could say, without much irony, that he stayed at the Pentagon through the Iraq war out of an ethical obligation: “I wanted to do it in the best way I could,” adding, “I had responsibilities to the pilots and the civilians” (emphasis added).
You cannot reconcile the contradictions of killing people in the best way possible unless you translate “responsibility” into the most bloodless terms: make it a duty you owe to abstract principles and not specific people. Legalism triumphs. This arcane realm is where the logic of this work leads the committed human rights activist, away from the actual experiences of victims. Weizman quotes Garlasco: “After being in Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Burma, I can no longer say if this destruction was wrong or right. I can only say whether it was legal or illegal.”
The focus on civilian casualties generates a strict, technical approach to the question of responsibility. The individual story is subordinated not just to the lawbooks, but to the slide rule. No side can ensure absolutely that it will prevent civilian casualties, as long as it’s at war and killing people. So no side is completely devoid of guilt. But since the Geneva Conventions give a certain latitude for trying but failing, even killers can make a claim to innocence as well. The authority to evaluate such shades of inculpation gives enormous power to the human rights investigator and his organization, power over fine mathematical gradations of right and wrong: much greater power than simpler, starker, less technologically advanced modes of assessing morality could endow.
But this focus buries other questions, broader ones, about responsibility for the conflict as a whole. These are exactly the questions that Human Rights Watch long said it wouldn’t answer. Now that it is more and more involved in advocating – in effect, helping to cause – conflicts in the name of humanitarian intervention, it’s hard not to feel that the technical assessment of purely localized responsibility is, in some degree, a sophisticated and scientifically unimpeachable way of shouting: “Look over there!” Technical evaluation of a technological responsibility toward civilians is necessary work. Pursued in isolation from other ways of defining responsibility, though, it becomes a darker thing: a distraction.
Distraction from what?
Well, first, the balance that abstract principles impose – everybody is in the wrong – fails. In Israel and Gaza, the death tolls are out of balance. Israel has killed at least 100 people, probably more than 120, an unknown number of civilians among them (two reportedly died this morning in a strike that hit a charitable association for the disabled). Meanwhile, Gaza’s rockets have killed no Israelis. (Nine “have been treated for injuries, dozens more for shock.”)
This reflects an immense disparity in technological power. Israel is armed with one of the largest, most advanced military capacities in the world. It could defend most of its citizens without firing a retaliatory shot. (Israel developed the Iron Dome missile interception system with a $205 million gift from the US government; now European countries, India, Singapore, and even the US itself may be lining up to buy back the finished product, making it not only protective but profitable.) When it does shoot, the impulse is political and the damage is overwhelming. Israel’s defenders talk a great deal about the its pinpoint attempts to target specific “terrorist” sites, while Hamas just fires rockets into the air. But the random rockets haven’t killed so far, while the precision aiming has:
A Israeli raid flattened the Fun Time Beach cafe in the southern Gaza Strip in the early hours of Thursday, killing nine people and wounding 15.
All that is left of the popular seaside cafe — where dozens broke their Ramadan fast on Wednesday night before settling down to watch Argentina play the Netherlands — is a large crater and a few mounds of sand.
These disasters are not really about the indistinguishability of civilian targets amid a militarized population (an Israeli claim Abby Okrent dismantles here). They are built into Israel’s vast technological superiority itself. Better machines don’t make for more precision. Precision is a quality of judgment, and judgment is a quality of human beings. The aim of Israel’s various “operations” in Gaza is not just to take out specific people, but to cow a population. (Even the famous text messages that supposedly warn residents a bomb is about to blast their home have, as Gazans can tell you, at least as much to do with showing off the invisible, terrifying omniscience of a military surveillance system. We know where you are.) Unleashed with that intent behind them, weapons – however “smart” – will terrorize, not just target; the very targeting is an aspect of terror, a reminder of superior knowledge as well as superior means, but spillover is equally intrinsic to the effect. The message inevitably exceeds the “purely” military purpose, and the collateral damage itself becomes the point: a sign of exultant excess, the means drowning the end. You can’t go on talking about equivalence without acknowledging Israel’s military domination, its unmeasurable ability to destroy. And to cap its technological triumph, it is (and has been for forty years) the only state in a thousand-mile radius with nuclear bombs.
Second, that technological dominance is part of the disparity in political power. The occupation has gone on for 47 years. (Gaza, ostensibly freed by fiat nine years ago, remains encircled and controlled). Everyone knows this (even those who deny it) so there’s no point expanding on it. The confrontation between popular rebellion and a rapacious settler society isn’t just an old, cowboys-and-Indians story that we can look on with disinterest or restrained amusement. It’s here and now. It demands choosing, and not just in a childhood game.
Moreover, demanding (as Israel does) that stateless people protect civilians, or clearly mark civilians in their own midst, carries a certain irony. “Civilian,” as I’ve said, is deeply connected to the idea of citizenship. Citizenship comes from states. It’s exactly what the stateless are denied. States ratify identities, assign them to combatants or non-combatants, stratify and sort society. Absence of agency to do this is precisely the situation to which Israel consigns the Palestinians. The demand itself reveals the gulf between those with power and those without.
Third, insisting on equivalence ignores how this specific crisis came about. Israel’s government was the main actor. Mouin Rabbani notes that while, in the Western media, “the latest round of escalation is dated from the moment three Israeli youths went missing on 12 June,” this ignores the incendiary effect of earlier IDF violence against Nakba protesters:
the shooting death of two Palestinian boys in Ramallah on 15 May—like any number of incidents in the intervening month where Israel exercised its right to colonize and dispossess—is considered wholly insignificant.
Even if you take the Israeli teenagers’ kidnapping and brutal killing as the starting point, though, Netanyahu’s government provoked and worsened the situation, raising palpably false hopes so that disappointment would incite rage. In the Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg writes:
The initial evidence was the recording of victim Gilad Shaer’s desperate cellphone call to Moked 100, Israel’s 911. When the tape reached the security services the next morning — neglected for hours by Moked 100 staff — the teen was heard whispering “They’ve kidnapped me” (“hatfu oti”) followed by shouts of “Heads down,” then gunfire, two groans, more shots, then singing in Arabic. That evening searchers found the kidnappers’ abandoned, torched Hyundai, with eight bullet holes and the boys’ DNA. There was no doubt.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately placed a gag order on the deaths. … For public consumption, the official word was that Israel was “acting on the assumption that they’re alive.” It was, simply put, a lie. …
Nor was that the only fib. It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus. Hamas’ Hebron branch — more a crime family than a clandestine organization — had a history of acting without the leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests. Yet Netanyahu repeatedly insisted Hamas was responsible for the crime and would pay for it. … His rhetoric raised expectations that after demolishing Hamas in the West Bank he would proceed to Gaza. … The Israeli right — settler leaders, hardliners in his own party — began demanding it.
And in Gaza, it wasn’t Hamas that struck first.
On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire [informally in effect since 2012) was over. Israel was forced to retaliate for the rockets with air raids. Hamas retaliated for the raids with more rockets. And so on. Finally Israel began calling up reserves on July 8 ...
Later that morning, Israel’s internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told reporters that the “political echelon has given the army a free hand.” Almoz returned to Army Radio that afternoon and confirmed that the army had “received an absolutely free hand” to act.
And how far, the interviewer asked, will the army go? “To the extent that it’s up to the army,” Almoz said, “the army is determined to restore quiet.” Will simply restoring quiet be enough? “That’s not up to us,” he said.
You can tell what happened. The killing of the three boys was monstrous, as was the revenge killing of an Arab youth. But these were not “civilian casualities,” because they weren’t murdered by soldiers in a war, but by individuals. A different government of a different state might have confined the response to arresting and prosecuting. But not Israel, not Netanyahu, not the military occupation. The story of the American “war on terror” repeated itself: a crime became a casus belli, guilt rested with whole societies, the response was not justice but retribution. Two interlocking logics took over: the primitive one of collective punishment, and the sophisticated one of advanced technologies of killing, the tools of military technocracy. Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.
I started by maintaining: before the term “civilian” ever assumed its present meaning, killing non-combatants largely meant slaughtering the dwellers in cities. That was a rebellion by brute force against the abodes of civility, against the comfortable, empowered, but arrogant idea of civilization.
No more. Every value is transvalued. When we speak of “civilian casualties” in most places now, we mean the war of advanced technology against raw human flesh. Today, the killers aren’t the ones combating the immense technological sophistication of civilization; it is entirely on their side. This ease of murdering is our modernity; our highest achievements aren’t buildings but the bombs that destroy them. Our phones and drones are smarter than we are. Against that overwhelming power of civilized slaughter, people dwindle; their lives shrink to what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life, helpless nakedness in the face of amoral machinery. David Jones, a Welsh poet, in a long poem about the First World War, described in lines of beautiful stoicism a British private blown apart by a shell:
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.
That’s the “proportionality” that matters now.
Our laws and activists keep drawing finer distinctions between civilian victims and combatants. Perhaps that isn’t the real distinction that needs to be drawn. What’s urgent now is the divide between our technological civilization on the one hand, and all its victims on the other. Those victims are so impotent before its crushing power that it can exterminate soldiers as casually as the unarmed. They are insignificant as the Iraqi recruits whom American bombs roasted alive in their tanks in 1991. Those with weapons, like the Palestinians in Gaza, are nonetheless effaceable by the remote control of a technology beyond control. The imperative to contest this power transcends identities and uniforms. Human rights, if they mean anything, are not the rights of humans to be killed efficiently. Human rights are their rights to live.