When genocide is permissible

Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family -- Ahmed, 11; Walaa, 14; and Mohammed, 16 – killed by an Israeli shell in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press.

Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family — Ahmed, 11; Walaa, 14; and Mohammed, 16 – killed by an Israeli shell in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press.

Today a blog post under that title appeared on the Times of Israel’s website. Not long after, it came down, replaced by this dour tombstone:

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But the Internet lives by “Never Forget.” You can find the entire post, mummfied, here; and here is the text:

When Genocide is Permissible
YOCHANAN GORDON
AUGUST 1, 2014, 5:36 PM

Judging by the numbers of casualties on both sides in this almost one-month old war one would be led to the conclusion that Israel has resorted to disproportionate means in fighting a far less- capable enemy. That is as far as what meets the eye. But, it’s now obvious that the US and the UN are completely out of touch with the nature of this foe and are therefore not qualified to dictate or enforce the rules of this war – because when it comes to terror there is much more than meets the eye.

I wasn’t aware of this, but it seems that the nature of warfare has undergone a major shift over the years. Where wars were usually waged to defeat the opposing side, today it seems – and judging by the number of foul calls it would indicate – that today’s wars are fought to a draw. I mean, whoever heard of a timeout in war? An NBA Basketball game allows six timeouts for each team during the course of a game, but last I checked this is a war! We are at war with an enemy whose charter calls for the annihilation of our people. Nothing, then, can be considered disproportionate when we are fighting for our very right to live.

The sad reality is that Israel gets it, but its hands are being tied by world leaders who over the past six years have insisted they are such good friends with the Jewish state, that they know more regarding its interests than even they do. But there’s going to have to come a time where Israel feels threatened enough where it has no other choice but to defy international warnings – because this is life or death.

Most of the reports coming from Gazan officials and leaders since the start of this operation have been either largely exaggerated or patently false. The truth is, it’s not their fault, falsehood and deceit is part of the very fabric of who they are and that will never change. Still however, despite their propensity to lie, when your enemy tells you that they are bent on your destruction you believe them. Similarly, when Khaled Meshal declares that no physical damage to Gaza will dampen their morale or weaken their resolve – they have to be believed.

Palestinians inspect a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike in central Gaza City, July 8, 2014. Photo: Ali Jadallah / APA images.

Palestinians inspect a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike in central Gaza City, July 8, 2014. Photo: Ali Jadallah / APA images.

Our sage Gedalia the son of Achikam was given intelligence that Yishmael Ben Nesanyah was plotting to kill him. However, in his piety or rather naiveté Gedalia dismissed the report as a random act of gossip and paid no attention to it. To this day, the day following Rosh Hashana is commemorated as a fast day in the memory of Gedalia who was killed in cold blood on the second day of Rosh Hashana during the meal. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over. History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you – you take him seriously.

Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?

News anchors such as those from CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera have not missed an opportunity to point out the majority of innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of this war. But anyone who lives with rocket launchers installed or terror tunnels burrowed in or around the vicinity of their home cannot be considered an innocent civilian. If you’ll counter, that Hamas has been seen abusing civilians who have attempted to leave their homes in response to Israeli warnings to leave – well then, your beginning to come to terms with the nature of this enemy which should automatically cause the rules of standard warfare to be suspended.

Everyone agrees that Israel has the right to defend itself as well as the right to exercise that right. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has declared it, Obama and Kerry have clearly stated that no one could be expected to sit idle as thousands of rockets rain down on the heads of its citizens, placing them in clear and present danger. It seems then that the only point of contention is regarding the measure of punishment meted out in this situation.

I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?

This is all over the Internet today; the Times of Israel might as well never have bothered to hide it. The ToI hasn’t actually ventured to explain why it posted the thing. Its Twitter feed is phlegmatically full of the usual stuff, praise of the Israel Defense Forces, excoriations of the UN, but it did add at end of day:

toi copy

No doubt we’ll hear, in time, that there was a mistake, someone pressed the wrong button, an intern will be fired. There’s always an intern.

Except that the Times of Israel also featured today a bloodthirsty op-ed by Irwin E. Blank, formerly of New York City, and “Formation Committee Chairman of the NY Salute to Israel Parade from 1978-1982”:

G-d had demanded that Saul (or the “prime minister”)  enter into battle with the Amalekites (Hamas and its savage partners) and destroy them utterly even if that means to the last child, cow and goat. As cruel as this appears, it is a lesson that teaches a nation in terrible danger that it has a legitimate obligation to put a definite end to a substantial threat.   The end of such a conflict must make it impossible for that enemy to rebuild and continue to vex one’s nation forever.

And another piece by one Zev Berger, “PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan,” which meanders through various ways of deciding how much killing is enough, and decides that indifference justifies everything: “What’s a reasonable death toll? I imagine people don’t really care.”

One thing you notice about all these opinions is: They come, ultimately, from the United States. (Yochanan Gordan is a certified public accountant in New York City, and part of the Lubavitcher community.) As imports, they parallel the Times of Israel itself. The ToI‘s founder and chief investor is Seth Klarman, a Boston billionaire hedge-fund manager. Klarman’s “political giving favors Republicans,” according to the Jewish Daily Forward, though — in a telling sign of how social liberalism and international neanderthalism can cohabit — he has partnered with vulture capitalist Paul Singer on a super-PAC meant to push the GOP toward accepting same-sex marriage. But the bulk of his philanthropy promotes right-wing and settler interests in Israel:

Klarman gives money to settler groups: the Central Fund of Israel,which pays for settlers’ “security needs” in the occupied West Bank, and Ir David, which is digging up East Jerusalem and displacing Palestinians. He gives $1 million in a year to Birthright, the program to send young American Jews to Israel to fall in love with the Jewish state. He supports the rightwing propaganda organization, the Israel Project (he’s on their board), gives big money to the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, and to top it off, Klarman is chairman of the board of the David Project, the group that has targeted Arab and Muslim intellectuals on college campuses.

But not for Gaza: Seth Klarman's investment advice

But not for Gaza: Seth Klarman’s investment advice

In other words, Klarman exemplifies the increasing confluence between the Israeli right wing and militaristic American neoconservatism, increasingly obsessed by the same Arab and Muslim enemies, increasingly promoting the same extreme solutions: colonization, killing. Klarman told the Forward:

My own interest in Israel has become even stronger post-9/11, when the threat of terrorism and the danger of radical Islam collided with a global campaign on many fronts to delegitimize the Jewish State.

With all the Times of Israel‘s professions of political neutrality (belied by its ruling passion for the IDF), Klarman as media mogul seems to represent a respectable ego as against the rampant id of Sheldon Adelson, the American casino owner whose ferociously Likudnik rag Israel HaYom is the most popular newspaper in the country. (Adelson, whose cash kept Newt Gingrich‘s abortive presidential campaign going long beyond its expiration date, has trafficked in the ids of several countries.) But the id keeps peeping through in Klarman’s publication too, as witness Gordon’s short-lived screed, or Blank’s, or Berger’s. It’s as if all these Americans project onto Israel their own fantasies of a country freed from the restraints of normal politics or morals, indifferent to scrutiny, infinitely willing to kill, pseudo-democratic but with all its parties united around a common lust for death: Israel as the United States of Id.

Israeli missiles strike Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Photo: AP.

Israeli missiles strike Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Photo: AP.

As Lady Bracknell said: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” To publish one op-ed approving genocide in a day may be an intern’s mistake; to publish three looks like you mean it. The three pieces run a strange but comprehensive gamut of justifications for mass killing. Blank offers familiar fundamentalist ravings, only meaningful if you know and care who the Amalekites were (but many do, many do). Berger gives us a woozy bureaucratic relativism, precise figures making precise judgments impossible, ethics suffocated by an avalanche of statistics. Gordon alone takes genocide fully seriously, understands that it is a moral choice. It means giving absolute moral priority to your own people, recognizing that this is a death sentence upon other peoples who get in the way. Or as Gordon seems to have tweeted today (if this is him):

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In another blog post for the Times of Israel, back in May, Gordon wrote about the tension “we experience regularly as Jews in a modern world. We are faced with the perpetual question of are we meant to bend and conform to the morals of suburbia or fight and remain steadfast on the age-old values as our grandparents did in Siberia?” Plenty of Jews have felt such tensions, and plenty of others as well, without wanting to kill people. But you can see where the kid is coming from: growing up amid the split-levels of Nassau County, where no sublime calling ever vindicates the daily void, he longs for some higher morality of struggle to transcend mere neighborliness. Some other child might play video games, or shoot up the local middle school; but for him, there’s Gaza. Of course, he can disguise his personal dilemma in a bastardization of Hasidic language, but it meanwhile finds its imaginary fulfilment in a frontier Israel where the battle, he believes, is real. This voice is familiar. It’s the voice of that suburban nonentity, the nebbish Himmler, dressed up in an imposing uniform and speaking to the Gauleiter in Poznan in 1943. It’s stripped of authority and the drag, but the timbre is there. About the extermination of the Jews: “To have seen this through, and — with the exception of human weaknesses — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.” Decency and morality inhere in those with courage to kill for us. The dealers in death stand vindicated because they stood up against their natural, debilitating qualms. Virtue lies in resistance to the blandishments of morality as it is commonly, suburbanly, merely understood. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “Although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people,”

Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom  they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.

To resist temptation is a … well, a tempting stance, luring us to emulation, to imitate the Lone Ranger, the stoic hero. No wonder, of these three pieces, it was Gordon’s that the Times of Israel deemed dangerous enough to take down.

I don’t believe these editorials represent the majority of Israeli opinion, or even a substantial minority. If anything, as I say, they are a sort of palimpsest: American fantasies of power, innocence, and freedom projected onto an abject territory, another episode in Israel’s strange colonial history.

Nor am I one of those who believes that genocide is taking place in Gaza now. The legal definition of genocide (enshrined in the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and indeed in Israel’s “Crime of Genocide Acf” of 1950, which carried the Convention’s terms into national law) requires the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” I don’t think that comprehensively destructive intent lies behind the crimes against humanity being committed in Gaza. But reading Gordon compels me to add: Yet. The two-state solution is dead; everybody sees that, on right and left. What remains, in the immediate future, is one state on Israel’s terms, from the river to the sea. A state in which much of the population is stateless, deprived of the basic rights of citizenship, subjected to continuous surveillance and control, condemned to bare existence as subalterns, even the freedom of movement suppressed, cannot sustain itself without a steadily expanding machinery of violence. Such a state will give up any shred or semblance of the rule of law, of the distinction between young and old, civilian and combatant, guilty or innocent; the only difference that will matter is them and us. A state like that is a killer state, pure, untrammeled. It’s good that Gordon’s words haven’t entirely disappeared. They carry, as he undoubtedly intended, the undertone of prophecy.

Note: In an “apology” posted today on the website of his father’s suburban New York newspaper, Yochanan Gordon writes: “I never intended to call to harm any people although my words may have conveyed that message.” You decide.

Meeting of signatories  to the UN Genocide Convention, 1950. Seated, L-R: representatives of Korea; Haiti; Iran; France; Costa Rica. Standing, L-R:  Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs; Secretary General Trygve Lie; representative from Costa Rica; and Raphael Lemkin, the Convention's chief proponent.

Meeting of signatories to the UN Genocide Convention, 1950. Seated, L-R: representatives of Korea; Haiti; Iran; France; Costa Rica. Standing, L-R: Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs; Secretary General Trygve Lie; representative from Costa Rica; and Raphael Lemkin, the Convention’s chief proponent.

On the slaughter of innocents

“Civilian casualties” in Gaza and Israel, and before, and beyond

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses in Gaza City. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images).  ABC News in the US later misidentified this picture as showing Israeli victims.

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses in Gaza City, 2014. (Photo: Mahmud Hams /AFP /Getty Images). ABC News in the US later misidentified this picture as showing Israeli victims.

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.

Battle with the Mongol army at Liegnitz, Poland, in 1241: by Matthäus Merian (1593 – 1650)

Fall of  Liegnitz, Poland, to a Mongol army  in 1241: by Matthäus Merian (1593 – 1650)

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.

The Capture of Constantinople: Tintoretto (1518-1594), Ducal Palace, Venice

The capture of Constantinople: by Tintoretto (1518-1594), Ducal Palace, Venice

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.”

Cortés attacks Tenochtitlan: Anonymous, Second half of the seventeenth century, Library of Congress

Cortés attacks Tenochtitlan: Anonymous, Second half of the seventeenth century, Library of Congress

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.

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945

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.

Part of central Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse air raid of March 9-10, 1945 later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history

Part of central Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse air raid of March 9-10, 1945 later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history

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

Settler society and its discontents: British propaganda poster against the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya, 1950s (from http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html)

Settler society and its discontents: British propaganda poster against the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya, 1950s

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.

Limits: Meme from the International Committee of the Red Cross

Limits: Meme from the International Committee of the Red Cross

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.”

Shock and awe: Smoke covers central Baghdad during a massive U.S.-led air raid, March 21, 2003. Photo by AFP.

Shock and awe: Smoke covers central Baghdad during a massive U.S.-led air raid, March 21, 2003. Photo by AFP.

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.

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip, at a beach cafe hit the night before by an Israeli air strike: July 10, 2014

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip, at a beach cafe hit the night before by an Israeli air strike: July 10, 2014

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.

Cigarette Cards, "Heroic Deeds," UK, 1890s. on Decmeber 4, 1893, rebel Ndebele soldiers near Bulawayo  in present-day Zimbabwe wiped out an entire British detachment under   Major Allan Wilson. From http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html

Cigarette Cards, “Heroic Deeds,” UK, 1890s. On December 4, 1893, rebel Ndebele soldiers near Bulawayo in present-day Zimbabwe wiped out an entire British detachment under Major Allan Wilson. From http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html

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.

Untitled, by Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009),. Woodcut, 1980.

Untitled, by Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009),. Woodcut, 1980.

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.

Iraqi armored personnel carrieres, tanks, and trucks destroyed on the Highway of Death from Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm , 1991: Photo by US Department of Defense

Iraqi armored personnel carrieres, tanks, and trucks destroyed on the Highway of Death from Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm , 1991: Photo by US Department of Defense

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.

"Massacre of the innocents," from Codes Gertrude, 10th  century AD  (Poland)

“Massacre of the innocents,” from Codex Gertrudianus, 10th century AD (Poland)