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Ultra-Orthodox Jews studying in seminaries have been exempt from national service since Israel's foundation. That changed in March 2014.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews studying in seminaries were  exempt from national service since Israel’s foundation until March 2014. Source: BBC

As most readers will already know, Israel has compulsory military service: three years for men and two years for women. In fact, it isn’t completely compulsory because it doesn’t apply to Arab Israelis (for obvious reasons) and until March 2014 it also didn’t apply to ultra-Orthodox Jews (around 10% of the Israeli population of 8 million). The latter was always difficult to defend and secular Israelis complained for a long time that the exemption was unfair, hence why the Knesset and the Israeli Supreme court now mandates that the ultra-Orthodox must serve. I say “must”, though I mean it only in a formal legal sense: one could always refuse – though not without consequence – as several brave men and women have, both in the recent war and in previous times (see the open letter in the Washington Post written by 50 soldiers who refused to serve in ‘Operation Destructive Edge‘ and analysis herehere and here). The video below shows Udi Segal, a 19 year old who refused to serve and was sentenced to 19 days in prison. The prison time, I suspect, is only the start of the punishment: Udi will be disadvantaged for years to come, not least because ‘deserter’ or ‘refusnik’ doesn’t exactly look good on the C.V.

There are other ways to get out of military service in Israel or rather there are alternatives to military service known as “national-civic” service.  This involves working for one of many non-military institutes in Israel, be it another arm of the Israeli government or for a civil organisation. It is easier for women to take this route: a medical certificate or proof of disability is usually required for men and their applications are reviewed by IDF military lawyers: those caught lying are called in for questioning and sometimes punished accordingly or made to do military service. 

Prompting this post is a recent controversy over the politics of what counts as legitimate national service and what does not. Last week the director of the Authority for National-Civic Service (ANCS), Sar-Shalom Jerbi, sent Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem a letter (or what B’Tselem called a ‘political pamphlet‘) stating that the ANCS would no longer permit national-civic service at B’Tselem. The letter and sentiment it expressed was clearly politically motivated: B’Tselem is one of Israel’s strongest and most vocal human rights organisation and over the past month or so they have issued several reports and press releases on the destruction and death caused by Israel in Gaza (see here). Their vital work has garnered vehement opposition in Israel. In 2012 Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermen accused the group – and several other human rights organisations – of encouraging terrorism and in the past have had their staff assaulted by both settlers and the police. More recently the B’Tselem website was hacked. This is what democracy looks like in the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ (and for a harrowing account of how some leftist journalists are treated read this).

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But today’s B’Tselem newsletter brings some good news:

With the kind help of our friends at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), we acted quickly. Yesterday (Sunday) we received notice from the Deputy Attorney General that she had written to the ANCS director general, stating that his decision “indeed raises tough legal questions, regarding both the mandate to make the decision as well as the way in which the matter was decided”. The ANCS was instructed to suspend the decision, “including suspension of any action taken to cancel the service of the volunteer currently with B’Tselem”.

In other words, the cancellation was suspended.

I heard there is an opening at B’Tselem for grant-proposal writing. Udi Segal?

Civilians in war

jonescraig:

I’m in rural France and barely able to read the news let alone comment on events in Gaza. The article below by Christiane Wilke, however, should not be missed. A slightly different version appeared on the Critical Legal Thinking blog last week. This powerful excerpt is from that piece (and the reference is to the important work of Helen Kinsella and her book ‘Image Before the Weapon’):

“The shadow side of international law’s interest in protecting civilians is that those to be protected are expected to be passive, innocent, and submissive. The civilian is a caricature of the helpless woman or child who does not take part in politics.3 This ideal civilian doesn’t exist in war zones. Where people live under military occupation figuring as liberation, they engage in political action against foreign rule instead of patiently waiting for deliverance. Yet in Gaza and elsewhere, those who politically support anti-​occupation politics are easily cast as un-​civilian.”

Originally posted on Ottawa Citizen:

In the media coverage of war, whether reports on individual incidents or the numbing tallies of casualties, the distinction between civilians and combatants is central and frequently contested.

The killing of the four boys who had been playing soccer on a Gaza beach has become emblematic for Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians because the boys were clearly recognizable as children and therefore civilians. When news outlets report the death toll of the uneven conflict, they give details that bolster and yet complicate the distinction between civilians and combatants.

For example, the Washington Post reports that as of July 25, 34 Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed in the recent war, whereas 122 armed Palestinian militants, 77 Palestinians with unknown roles, and 645 Palestinian civilians, including 102 women and 122 children had been killed. The level of detailed information on the Palestinian deaths suggests an uncertainty about which Palestinians…

View original 700 more words

Under the ‘works in progress‘ tab I have uploaded a paper that is currently under peer review. It’s called ‘Frames of law: Targeting advice and operational law in the Israeli Defense Force‘ and it draws on my interviews with current and former IDF military lawyers about their role in targeting operations. Here is the abstract:

In this paper I draw on interviews conducted with former military lawyers from the International Law Department (ILD) of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) about the provision of legal advice in targeting operations. Using Derek Gregory’s work on the ‘kill chain’ and Eyal Weizman’s work on the ‘legislative violence’ of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), I argue that we are witnessing a juridification of the kill chain that is at the same time a juridification of war. I suggest that operational law and the figure of the military lawyer provide an opportunity to examine the ways that law has – in different but not entirely new ways – come to matter to the conduct of war. I conclude with a reflection on Judith Butler’s ‘frames of war’ to think through the ways in which frames of law have come to structure our apprehension of targeting and war.

The research for the paper was conducted over several trips to Israel over the past two years, most of it in early 2013. Those who participated in the study spoke openly and I think honestly about their work and I hope that the paper communicates something novel about the way in which war is being fought through recourse to the law, but also that it draws attention to the personality-dependant nature of legal advice in the ‘war room’. The best way for me to explain what I mean is to share the opening to the essay. The following draws on testimony of a senior former IDF lawyer who was present at the meeting described:

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The Kirya, the IDF compound located in Central Tel Aviv. Photo by author.

A military commander walks into a room in the Kirya, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) compound in central Tel Aviv. A highly sensitive operational meeting is underway; he is of high rank and it is clear to all present that he is the one in charge. Then he points to the military lawyer in the room and asks,

“Has he approved yet?”

The others around the table – the munitions expert, the senior intelligence officer, and the head of operations – this is a high rank meeting: General-level only – reply in the negative,

“Not yet”.

“Hurry up!” exclaims the commander “We don’t have time”. He leaves the room.

A “terrorist group” in Gaza has kidnapped a local individual that the IDF believes is one of their agents. The group is currently interrogating this man with “extreme prejudice” inside a building in Gaza. Those present at the meeting have reason to believe that the group are planning to kill him in about twenty minutes. This is the high-level “targeted killing team” and they must act fast, but they have come up against an operational problem. The mathematical analysis of the missile shows that no matter how the IDF fire, the next-door apartment will be 80% damaged as a result of the explosion. The military lawyer asks what intelligence they have on the apartment. The IDF have a drone feed as well as an agent on the ground but the problem is that there is zero intelligence on next door.

“We just know it’s there”, one of them added.

It is now clear to the military lawyer why he has been called into the targeted killing meeting; it involves a complex legal calculation that the targeted killing team cannot solve without the help of a lawyer.

“Can we fire the missile?” the team asks, now with only fifteen minutes to act. The lawyer pauses before responding…

“I am not the Chief of Staff, I am a lawyer and I don’t decide for you who you kill. I advise you on the risks of any decision you make and what you are doing right now is trying to throw the responsibility on me because you don’t know what to do. And that can’t happen. Not because I’m afraid of the responsibility, but because its not my job. Your job is to make the difficult decisions and I’ll tell you what are the legal risks you are going to take, and don’t get mixed up because I think you’ve lost command responsibility here.”

I won’t give any spoilers but also wouldn’t want to give the impression that IDF lawyers are there to say ‘no’ to IDF commanders because for the most part they’re simply not.  For those familiar with Eyal Weizman’s work, you’ll be able to see some parallels between his groundbreaking essays on this subject and my own small contribution but what I  have tried to do in this paper is to draw attention to a scale and space of law called ‘operational law’. The argument is that the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) that Weizman writes so wonderfully about is grounded and given life through the practice of operational law – operational law is in fact law in practice – and through specific military lawyers and instances of legal advice.

I wanted to hold off before sharing this but the ongoing assault on Gaza implores me. Why? Because since the Israeli onslaught began one week ago 1682 ‘targets’ (and counting) have been hit, 132 of them just last night (July 14) . The vast majority of these are pre-planned strikes against known and designated targets, both individuals and infrastructure which are already in a ‘target bank’. The IDF target bank is where all the targets are kept, each with their own special folder, electronic and hard copy, housed in the Kirya in central Tel Aviv, the central command of the current operation. Each target has its own file or folder containing information about the specifics of the target, its location, its ‘value’, its behaviour and patterns, its mode of transport, its contents (if known), its imagery, its proximity to civilian buildings etc.

The UN OCHA reports 194 dead (including at least 138 civilians, 36 of whom are children), 1390 injured1370 homes destroyed or severely damaged and 600,000 people at risk of losing access to water supply (as of July 15th 1500 local time).

Fewer of these strikes (we don’t yet know how many) have been ‘time sensitive’ or ‘dynamic’ meaning that they were attacked on the fly and in response to events on the ground as they unfolded (for example, the assembly of a rocket launcher by Hamas). There are several reasons why, at the moment at least, most of the bombing is pre-planned rather than time sensitive. Foremost is the fact that the IDF do not (yet) have soldiers on the ground in Gaza (though they certainly have undercover elements and a network of informers inside Gaza) meaning that IDF troops are in no immediate danger and do not therefore require urgent aerial assistance or what is known as close air support or CAS (see the prolific Derek Gregory on CAS in Afghanistan here and here). Also factoring into the equation is the fact that around 90% of rockets fired from Gaza are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome (see commentaries here and here) and so contrary to the IDF’s claim that 3.5 million Israelis (around half the population) are in imminent danger, the IDF can be relatively relaxed about striking specific buildings or sites even when they are being used to fire rockets at Israel. (Sadly, Israel sustained it’s first casualty of the war yesterday and this will likely be used as justification for further escalation. Yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman spoke of a “full takeover of the Gaza Strip”, adding that “Israel must go all the way”.)

The IDF do not therefore need to rush decision making and target approval because their troops and most Israeli civilians are in no real imminent danger. I do realise it is scary and inconvenient for Israeli’s who have their days interrupted by sirens and warnings. Then again,  at least they have an effective warning system and a safe place to run to: Gazan’s don’t, as John Stuart pointed out rather bluntly yesterday. While all this affords the IDF the luxury of time it does beg the question of why so many ‘mistakes‘ are being made or, if they’re not mistakes, why the proportionality calculations (the legal ratio of combatants to civilians killed) are so skewed in favour of Israeli military ‘necessity’ (the legal lynchpin for any military attack, and one that requires military goals to be weighed against civilian losses on the side of the enemy). Thus the putative paradox of legal advice: more military lawyers are involved than ever before and yet 80% of casualties are civilians. The military lawyers may be watching over the targets but nobody, it seems, is watching over them.

But why do I dwell on the difference between pre-planned and time-sensitive targeting, and why now?

Because each and every pre-planned target is vetted and approved by IDF military lawyers. Because the lawyers I interviewed in bustling cafe’s in and around Tel Aviv last year signed their name on a single page in a target folder that hours or days later secured its eventual destruction. Because ‘targets’ are homes and people, not scientific or legal abstractions. Because the targeted have no means of redress. Because targets that have been through juridical review are every bit as deadly as those that haven’t.  And because a new round of military lawyers are vetting and approving the next round of targets, and are working around the clock so that the kill-chain never stops. Prosecuting the war, they call it.

If the ground troops do go in, worse will come and the military lawyers will allow the IDF a much greater degree of flexibility knowing that their troops lives are on the line. Only then will this war reach the proportions of Operation Cast Lead and we can only hope that it doesn’t.

As I say, it’s a work in progress and I’d welcome any and feedback and comments.

Gideon Levy has written a searing piece at Haaretz that takes aim at Israeli Air Force Pilots for wielding incredible power against a defenceless people. His point is an obvious one and has been made a million times over but the asymmetry of air-power is particularly pronounced for the Israeli Air Force pilots flying their present missions over Gaza, he argues:

They have never seen an enemy plane coming toward them – the last aerial battle of the Israel Air Force took place before most of them were born. They never saw the whites of the eyes and the red blood of their victims from up close. They are heroes who are battling the weakest, most helpless people who have no air force and no aerial defense, barely even a kite.

It has become de rigueur to say that drones are the ultimate manifestation of asymmetrical war but Levy’s point is that piloted planes produce much the same relationship between bomber and bombed, targeteer and targeted as do ‘unmanned’ planes and their victims. But perhaps more interesting is his treatment of the revered social standing of pilots in Israel juxtaposed against the destruction that they help produce:

They are the most articulate, polished, brilliant and educated of soldiers. They study at the best universities during the course of their military service, come from the best homes, the most highly regarded high schools. For years they are trained for their job, in electronics and avionics, strategy and tactics, and of course flying. They are the very finest of Israeli youth, destined for greatness. They really are the very best, ‘bro: They are the ones who become pilots, the best pilots, and they are now perpetrating the worst, the cruelest, the most despicable deeds.

Inter-service and inter-unit rivalry means that almost every service or unit looks down on the others (in much the same way as anyone in the chain-of-command always think their own perspective is the best and most important). But in Israel, partly because it has compulsory military service (two years for women, three for men), the social hierarchy of some services and units is understood by the society at large. Fighter pilots, those who work in secret intelligence units, and the military lawyers unit (the Military Advocate General), for example, are some of the most revered units while artillery and infantry attract respect because of the danger that these brigades face. Those who do “non-combat” service in the IDF are colloquially referred to as ‘jobnicks’. I mention this as background to Levy’s broader point about the lofty heights of low deeds. While many Gazans are mourning the loss of their family members, some Israeli’s will be lauding the ‘precision’ and ‘ethics’ of the Israeli Air Force’s ‘most moral’ bombers. When Israeli’s stood and sat watching flashes of lights over Gaza at the weekend they were simultaneously applauding Israel’s naked power as well as  the handiwork of those pilots above. But for each mission those pilots fly, as Derek Gregory has pointed out in relation to U.S. targeted killing and drone warfare (see here  and here among many other posts and the full essay here) there are several others involved in planning and operationalising the ‘kill-chain’, so much so that focusing on pilots seems to miss the point that a whole apparatus of people and objects are needed to get pilots into the air and their bombs onto the ground.

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Israeli's watching the bombing of Gaza on Saturday 12 July 2014. Menahem Kahana/Getty

Israeli’s watching the bombing of Gaza on Saturday 12 July 2014. Menahem Kahana/Getty

Levy bemoans the lack of what Israeli’s call ‘refusniks’ in the current war:

There isn’t a single person like Yonatan Shapira or Iftach Spector [former 'refusniks'] who will get up and ask: Is this the way? There isn’t a single person who will salvage their honor. Not a single one who will refuse to take part in this death squadron. Not a single one.

The reference is to a letter written and signed by 27 Israeli Air Force Pilots who refused to serve in the IAF bombing of Lebanon in 2002. But what Levy doesn’t call upon is the longer history of refusal to serve in the IDF (and IAF). Derek Gregory has explored this in fascinating detail over at geographicalimaginations and because of what is happening today I’d like to quote the letter of those courageous pilots in full. The translation is provided by Seruv which means ‘courage to refuse’, an organisation of Israeli’s who refuse to serve:

We, Air Force pilots who were raised on the values of Zionism, sacrifice, and contributing to the state of Israel, have always served on the front lines, and were always willing to carry out any mission to defend and strengthen the state of Israel.

We, veteran and active pilots alike, who have served and still serve the state of Israel for long weeks every year, are opposed to carrying out attack orders that are illegal and immoral of the type the state of Israel has been conducting in the territories.

We, who were raised to love the state of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers. We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians.

These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting the Israeli society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength.

We who serve as active pilots – fighters, leaders, and instructors of the next generation of pilots — hereby declare that we shall continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force on every mission in defense of the State of Israel.”

 

Seruv, Courage to Refuse

Seruv, Courage to Refuse

The politics of refusal is a fascinating topic – PhD anyone? –  and in the context of Israel it is important to remember that those who do refuse are shunned by society and often by their own families. I have several friends (whose names I won’t mention) who did prison service to avoid military service or who moved abroad and vowed never to return. Whatever effect these acts have on the broader militarism of Israeli society, they carry a huge symbolic weight and whenever one is accused of treachery and treason in Israel it is a sure sign that pacific politics hurts war politics. This, presumably, is why former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz deferred to the law in response to the above letter:

“A soldier has no right to refuse a legal order, and the IDF issues only legal orders,”

Deference to the law is an appeal to legitimacy while ignoring the political nature of their opposition. Their refusal may not have been legal under Israeli and IDF law, but this does not render it morally wrong.

I wouldn’t want to overplay the size and significance of those Israelis who are critical of Israeli militarism and Occupation, but it is important to acknowledge that they do exist – indeed, they may one day be our greatest hope, especially given Netenyahu’s resolve that  ‘no international pressure will prevent us from acting with all power‘. Until the attitude of Israeli society changes in a radical way there will be no end to the bombing in sight.

In 2003 former IAF pilot Dan Halutz was asked what it felt like to drop bombs that had killed children in Gaza the year before. His response quickly became (in)famous in Israel and partly inspired the 27 ‘refusniks’ to write their letter of refusal:

How do I feel? Nothing. Just a light buffet on the wing, that’s all. I sleep well at night.

The quote is from Iftach Spector’s memoir ‘Loud and Clear‘ and is well worth the read.  Perhaps the pilots over the skies of Gaza might look to figures like Spector, who refused to serve an air force he once cherished. It’s not only pilots who might refuse but also those 40,000 troops amassed on Gaza’s border. They too have a source of inspiration and I highly recommend the work being done by the Israeli group, Breaking the Silence. As it says on their website BtS is:

 an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada [2000] and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

Breaking the Silence, Our Harsh Logic

Breaking the Silence, Our Harsh Logic

It’s important to note that these are former soldiers, many of whom have committed potential crimes and have come to regret their actions only when it is, in many ways, too late. Israeli’s (and I suspect others) have a name for this too: they call it ‘shooting and crying‘ and a number of recent films, including Waltz with Bashir (Valz im Bashir, Ari Folman) and Lebanon (Samuel Maoz) explore the theme of trauma and regret among Israeli troops (both focus on the Lebanon war of 1982). Still, these retrospective works and the current work being done by groups like Breaking the Silence and Seruv, are a far cry from Israeli teen’s taking ‘selfies’ with the caption “Arabs are not human, they’re beasts” (as documented recently by David Sheen at Storify and another PhD on gender, sexuality and war as Laleh Khalili pointed out), or Israeli’s who wear t-shirts of pregnant Palestinian women with  text reading ‘one shot, two kills‘.

I simply don’t know what else to say…

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Blue: Pregnant Palestinian woman with a sniper crosshair on her belly, under it: 1 shoot 2 kills White: Palestinian child and slogan: "The smaller, the harder" (harder to hit

Blue: Pregnant Palestinian woman with a sniper crosshair on her belly, under it: 1 shoot 2 kills
White: Palestinian child and slogan: “The smaller, the harder” (harder to hit

knock, knock…bomb

Airstrike in Rafah, Southern Gaza yesterday. Photograph: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

Airstrike in Rafah, Southern Gaza yesterday. Photograph: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

 

“Hi, my name is Danny. I’m an officer in Israeli military intelligence. In one hour we will blow up your house.

Thus began the phone call to Mohammed Deeb, resident of Gaza City in 2006. According to the Guardian report from which the quote comes, an hour later and as promised an IDF helicopter fired three missiles at the four-storey building, destroying the ground floor and damaging the upper storeys.

The tactic, known as ‘knock on door’, was first used by the IDF in Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 but I first heard about it in 2009 when it was used extensively in ‘Operation Cast Lead’. It was Eyal Weizman writing at Open Democracy who first brought my attention to what he called the IDF’s ‘technologies of warning’ (see his longer paper here). These technologies involved warning the residents of Gaza to evacuate their homes and they took various forms. A cousin of the ‘knock on door’ tactic is the controversial ‘knock on roof’ method whereby a warning missile is fired at a house to indicate the seriousness of an impending ‘real’ missile. The IDF also dropped leaflets over large areas warning residents to evacuate the area (they never told them where they should go).

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The standard Israeli narrative is that these warnings represent an unprecedented moral and humanitarian effort to spare the lives of the innocent. I have lost count of the times that an Israeli has told me “we could do so much worse” or “we don’t have to warn them: we could just bomb them without warning”. The former is a weak moral argument that Weizman has taken direct aim at and, pace Hannah Arendt, he has argued that those who elect the path of the ‘lesser evil‘ tend to easily forget that they still chose evil:

The communicative dimension of military threats can function only if gaps are maintained between the possible destruction that an army is able to inflict and the actual destruction that it does inflict. It is through the constant demonstration of the existence and size of this gap that the military communicates with the people it fights and occupies. Sometimes the gap opens wide, such as when the military governs the territories it occupies – its violence in a state of potential, existing as a set of threats and possibilities that are not, for the time being, actualized. In a state of war the gap closes – but rarely does it do so completely.

The latter is simply factually incorrect. Taking precaution not to injure and kill civilians is not a moral bonus but a legal requirement. As Article 57 (iii) of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 states, all parties to a conflict must:

take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects

So while the IDF would have us believe that it is the ‘most moral army in the world’ there are quite different ways to read these warning technologies. In a 2009 letter to former IDF Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, Human Rights Watch:

found that the flyers dropped from Israeli fighter jets – addressed to “Inhabitants of the Area” from IDF Command, stating “For the sake of your safety you are asked to evacuate the area immediately” – were too vague to be effective and gave no sense either of the timing of a pending attack or where the attack would take place.  Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous Gaza residents who said they received IDF warning leaflets during the hostilities but did not evacuate because the fliers were spread over very wide areas, leaving them unsure if their area would be attacked or where it would be safe to go.  Gaza residents also told Human Rights Watch that they received warning phone calls to leave their homes because of “terrorist activity” in the area, but that these calls did not inform them of safe routes by which to evacuate.  Gazans also said they received Israeli warnings, in some cases delivered by radio or television broadcasts, to “go to city centers,” but that Israeli forces subsequently attacked those areas.

Weizman, over at London Review of Books and commenting on the 2012 operation, goes even further:

Of course, many inhabitants of Gaza don’t have a landline or a mobile phone. In these cases, an IDF spokesperson recently explained, the military’s legal experts recommend the use of leaflets to encourage people to leave their houses before they are destroyed. Teaser bombs are just another means of sending a warning. In 2009, an IDF lawyer said: ‘People who go into a house despite a warning do not have to be taken into account in terms of injury to civilians … From the legal point of view, I do not have to show consideration for them.’ To communicate a warning can indeed save a life. But the strategy is also aimed at changing the legal designation of anyone who is killed. According to this interpretation of the law, if a warning has been issued, and not heeded, the victim is no longer a ‘non-combatant’ but a voluntary ‘human shield’.

There is little new here and I’m likely telling readers what they already know but what prompted me to write about this are the following two videos. This is the first footage I have ever seen of the controversial knock on roof tactic in practice (the IDF aerial videos show far less even though they can see a far larger space). There are many things to say about the videos but I’d like to draw attention to just one: the time lapse between the first ‘empty’ rocket and the massive blast that follows it. In the first video I counted 34 seconds; little over half a minute. Now suppose you’re sitting on the toilet, or down in the basement fixing the car – or even asleep (it is summer in Gaza and it is not impossible that residents could be taking an afternoon nap or work night shifts and so sleep during the daytime). The first rocket comes. How quick are you? How able are you? Which children are you going to take with you? And once you’ve fled – if you were able and quick enough – where will you go? When – and to what – will you return?

One family miscalculated the answer to that last question earlier this week according to the IDF. The Kaware family evacuated their house as instructed by the IDF but unfortunately for them they returned “prematurely” (to use the words of a Haaretz report) and were all killed:

“There was nothing to be done, the munition was in the air and could not be diverted,” a senior air force officer said. “Although you see [the family members] running back into the house, there was no way to divert the missile”

For the best reconstruction and deconstruction of the attack available so far see Sixteen Minutes to Palestine, which I’ve just discovered. A ‘preliminary investigation’ carried out by the IDF – not yet published – admitted that the strike was a mistake. Though if the rest of the testimony from the unnamed source in the above quote is anything to go by, there may well be more mistakes around the corner:

“If these people, like those yesterday, try to confront a plane in the air, and the pilot signals [that he plans to blow up the house] – get out, because that house will fall,”

UPDATE July 14 2014: The FunambalistSixteen Minutes to Palestine and Eyal Weizman at al-Jazeera have also written about events described here and add important perspectives to this discussion.

Operation Exposure

I always wonder how militaries come up with names for their operations. Names are never innocent, of course, and the latest IDF creation – Operation Protective Edge – scripts the current operation as another war of self-defence: protection is the goal here. Its suitably ambiguous too and helps justify the operation’s open-ended nature: it will stop when Israel’s protective edge is sharp enough. Still, we don’t have to parrot these ideologically-laden labels, hence my title here.

More in the days to follow but in the meantime here are some crucial resources for keeping up with the day-to-day:

The best Palestinian news available in English is at Ma’an New Agency, who have an office and several reporters in Gaza, as do al-JazeeraAlakhbar is counting and naming the dead and has good live coverage. The electronicintifada has brilliant editorials that put daily events in context, together with the necessary – and necessarily difficult-to-confront – images and accounts of Palestinian suffering.

Haaretz, Israel’s leading Left newspaper – and in my opinion the only Israeli paper worth reading – has some critical commentaries and stays on top of the breaking news. Unfortunately most full articles in the English Haaretz are now behind paywall, but it’s $1 for the first month and you can cancel your subscription immediately. Look out for the indefatigable Amira Hass whose most recent piece is full of truths that will be hard to face for many Israelis, as is most of Gideon Levy’s reporting. Amos Harel knows more about the IDF than anybody I know, and although a staunch defender of Israel’s ‘right to self-defence’ remains an outspoken critic of much of what the IDF does. Anshel Pfeffer has a moving piece here. +972 magazine is about as good as it gets in terms of radical Left Israeli coverage.

Mondoweiss remains an important resource. If Owen Jones at the Guardian is right we should be avoiding the BBC coverage though I think he overstates the case and I find the BBC useful even if it does get caught up – and confused – in telling ‘both sides of the story’.

Finally, if you want to follow what we might call the ‘war at home in Israel’, the IDF Spokesperson Unit and their twitter page (which I won’t link to) are indispensable for understanding how important social media has become for advanced militaries like the IDF (on which see Derek Gregory here and here).

Gaza, again

It was November 2012 when missiles last rained down over Gaza to the extent that they do, once again, today. It was those bombings that prompted me to start this blog and looking back to my first post makes me shiver now, not because I focused on the present destruction before my eyes but because my first though then was to reflect on the preceding assault on Gaza that came in 2008:

It was in 2008, when Israel was last attacking Gaza, that I first began to think seriously and write about Israeli violence. I began with so called ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (the Palestinians and the overwhelming majority of the international community had many alternative names for it) and worked back through the histories to – inevitably – 1948. And so history repeats itself today, albeit with crucial differences. The parallels between 2008 and now are instructive: Israel has launched a multi-faceted war that includes not only the deadly air strikes but a carefully orchestrated PR campaign (proving itself fully literate in social media), a calculated psychological war (designed to terrify Gazans into submission) and a legal offensive (calibrated to provide the illusion of legality to win legitimacy). All of this will likely be followed by a devastating ground offensive. It is important to remember, therefore, that when we see Israeli violence what we are witnessing is not just an extreme form of technologically-advanced aggressive militarism, it is also the ‘cutting-edge’ of a series of other much more subtle technologies of war. 

Mark Twain once wrote that “History never repeats itself, but the kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends”. Or, in short: “History never repeats itself, but it sometimes rhymes.”* The terms ‘asymmetry’ and ‘disproportionality’ do not rhyme but if I had to summarise my response to the events of the past few weeks in one or two words, these are what I would choose. In fact, these terms have much broader resonance and capture what I think are some of the most essential structuring principles of the ongoing Occupation and conflict between Palestine and Israel.

In the 2008-2009 operation, which lasted 21 days, Israel killed 1398 Palestinians, at least 764 of these were civilians. These are slightly conservative statistics – from Israeli human rights group B’Tselem – and likely under-represent the percentage of victims who were civilians. The same group put the total Israeli casualties at 9.

In the 2012 operation, which lasted a week, Palestinians suffered 160 fatalities, including 105 civilians, 34 of whom were children. These statistics are according to PCHR but Gaza Under Attack put the total figure higher at 170. In a previous post at the time I reported that the number of Israeli deaths shocked me because they were so low relative to Palestinian losses. Today, I can’t honestly think why it surprised me that 5 Israelis died, 3 of whom were civilians. One death is too many on either side of course, but the numbers are suggestive of a wider asymmetry of death that has become the hallmark not only of the Palestine-Israel conflict, but of what Martin Shaw has called ‘risk transfer war’.

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip on July 10, 2014 at a beach cafe hit the previous night by an Israeli air strike while people were watching the World Cup (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip on July 10, 2014 at a beach cafe hit the previous night by an Israeli air strike while people were watching the World Cup
(AFP/Thomas Coex)

It is too early to count the dead because hourly the death-toll continues to rise. The Guardian is reporting that the death toll has reached 80; Al Jazeera puts it at 88. (Isn’t it telling that I don’t need to write on which side these casualties fall?). Earlier this week Germany demolished Brazil 7-1 in the World Cup but as the other semi-final was taking place, an Israeli missile exploded at Fun Time Beach cafe in the southern Gaza Strip and as Ma’an news reported:

The cafe’s multicolored sign is still standing, somewhat crookedly, as colorful bunting and canvas windbreakers lay strewn on the floor, torn down by the force of the blast. The Israeli missile scattered the dead and wounded across the beach, and made a hole so deep that seawater filled it up from underground after impact. “It was a normal social occasion,” said Wael Soboh, a local policeman who is employed by the Palestinian Authority.”The boys ate their Ramadan iftar meal here, and then began watching the match. It is not a military area.”

Most of the dead were in their early 20s. Ahmed al-Aqad, who survived the blast captures some of what I am trying to get here: “And the result from this match here? The Jews won 9-0″**

One commentator couldn’t tell which side were which on ABC news last night. In a surreal video sequence reporter Diane Sawyer confused a scene from destroyed Gaza and a second scene of a Palestinian woman in a landscape of fallen buildings for Israel and Israeli’s. For a few seconds, as Zizek would surely argue, the Real was rendered visible, and the phantasmagoric suddenly hit home: what if downtown Tel Aviv looked like that? What if whole city blocks of West Jerusalem had been reduced to rubble?  Today ABC published an apology for the mis-hap.

Screenshot 2014-07-10 15.41.42

 

But there are many more important asymmetries at play here and in the coming days I’ll be drawing attention to some of them. In the next post I will return to the questions I just posed and also the question of ‘balanced reporting’ and the current state of affairs in Israel and in Israeli cities. Following that I’ll turn to Israeli ‘mistakes’ and the killing of whole families that seems to have become a trademark of Israeli Air Force bombing (for a tragic foretaste of which see here)

*The quote is from Gerry Kearns (2011) ‘Echoes of Carl Schmitt among the idologists of the new American Empire’ in Steven Legg’s indispensible ‘Spatiality, sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the nomos’, London: Routledge.

**As an outsider to the conflict I try to avoid using the pronouns ‘Jew’ and ‘Arab’ in this context and prefer to talk about Israeli (or Palestinian) violence because it more accurately captures who is doing what. After all, not all Jewish people support Israel and the ‘Arab’ label reduces several peoples into one homogenous category. These are, however, terms that many Palestinians and Israeli’s use about one another and frequently also about themselves.  

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