A natural right of ‘mere life’

While discussing Israel's Gaza Massacre and the credible reasons for this illegal action, Norman Finkelstein wrote the following:

The record is fairly clear. You can find it on the Israeli website, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Israel broke the ceasefire by going into the Gaza and killing six or seven Palestinian militants. At that point — and now I'm quoting the official Israeli website — Hamas retaliated or, in retaliation for the Israeli attack, then launched the missiles.

Now, as to the reason why, the record is fairly clear as well. According to Ha'aretz, Defense Minister Barak began plans for this invasion before the ceasefire even began. In fact, according to yesterday's Ha'aretz, the plans for the invasion began in March. And the main reasons for the invasion, I think, are twofold. Number one; to enhance what Israel calls its deterrence capacity, which in layman's language basically means Israel's capacity to terrorize the region into submission. After their defeat in July 2006 in Lebanon, they felt it important to transmit the message that Israel is still a fighting force, still capable of terrorizing those who dare defy its word.

And the second main reason for the attack is because Hamas was signaling that it wanted a diplomatic settlement of the conflict along the June 1967 border. That is to say, Hamas was signaling they had joined the international consensus, they had joined most of the international community, overwhelmingly the international community, in seeking a diplomatic settlement. And at that point, Israel was faced with what Israelis call a Palestinian peace offensive. And in order to defeat the peace offensive, they sought to dismantle Hamas.

In sum, then, Finkelstein argues that the Israeli state attacked Gaza in order to reassert the efficacy of its military power and to reaffirm its willingness to engage in terroristic attacks in order to achieve its political goals; moreover, he argues that Israel wished to eliminate as a political option the conclusion of these hostilities by means of an agreement between the contending parties. In effect, Finkelstein's analysis depicts an Israeli state committed to maintaining a state of terror without end.

Michael Neumann, while also addressing the Gaza Massacre and, for that matter, the Israel-Palestine question as such, wrote the following:

The Palestinians in the occupied territories are in a state equivalent to slavery. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza are not sovereigns. Israel has supreme authority in both areas. That means it can do literally whatever it likes to their inhabitants. This population has no political input whatever into their sovereign's decisions; the Palestinians in the occupied territories can't vote in Israeli elections. So the Israeli government has absolute power over these people, and they have no say at all in how they are treated. This is slavery without the muss and fuss of ownership. Slave revolts frequently involved the murder of innocent civilians, but I haven't seen much hand-wringing about the terrible morals of the rebels. Slaves and occupied peoples are accorded very generous rights of resistance. I doubt anyone today would condemn antebellum slaves on a plantation outside Charleston if they had used indiscriminate standoff weapons against that city. Allegedly freedom-loving Americans should therefore be particularly sympathetic to Palestinian resistance.

But what of Israel's right of self-defense? It exists, but it doesn't apply.

How, one might ask, could the right to self defense fail to apply to Israel with respect to its current conflict with the Gaza Palestinians? Hamas, after all, fires rockets into Israel. They knowingly and thus intentionally threaten Israeli civilians — noncombatants — with their acts. Some of these noncombatants are injured or killed by these attacks. Legally considered, the attacks are crimes. Yet Neumann is undeterred by this point. He continues:

Israel, when it conquered the occupied territories in 1967, could have established a sovereign Palestinian state. This would have made the Palestinians, not a subject people at the mercy of their conqueror, but an independent people, responsible for their own acts and for keeping the peace with other sovereign states. Had the Palestinians then attacked Israel, Israel would have had the right to respond in self-defense.

But Israel didn't do that. Instead, it kept the Palestinians at its mercy, and its mercy didn't materialize. Israel embarked on a settlement policy that amounted to a declaration of war on a helpless population. The settlements were part of a project to take the Palestinians' land, all of it, for the use and enjoyment of the Jewish people. Of course Israel did not explicitly say it was going to take from the Palestinians the very ground on which they stood. But the settlements kept spreading, mopping up an increasing share of vital resources, and behind them was a settler movement, hugely powerful not only in the occupied territories but in Israel itself. This bunch of coddled fanatics, many of them American, quite openly proclaimed their determination to secure the whole of Biblical Israel for exclusively Jewish use. The Israeli government backed these racial warriors with unlimited military protection and extensive financial support.

These trends continue to the present day.


This means that Israel is the aggressor in this conflict, and the Palestinians fight in self-defense. Under these circumstances, Israel's right of self-defense cannot justify Israeli violence. Israel is certainly entitled to protect its citizens by evacuation and other non-violent measures, but it is not entitled to harm a hair on the head of a Palestinian firing rockets into Israeli cities, whether or not these rockets kill innocent civilians.

When one reads the two articles together, it looks as though Neumann's analysis enhances Finkelstein's by completely undermining the position of Israel's apologists. Neumann's critique accomplishes this by starting with the historical fact that the Palestinians lack sovereignty. There is no Palestinian nation-state. They are a homeless and stateless people — strangers (Simmel, pp. 402-408) in Palestine and de facto "slaves" of the Israeli state. With them Israel can act with impunity; they are "bare life" as this term is analyzed by Agamben. As such, the Palestinians in Gaza lack the legal rights, political resources and material capacities they need to defend themselves with any real success against Israel's plans, resources and actions. Although the Palestinians are effectively powerless when compared to the powers held by the Israeli state, they can defend themselves against their antagonist, but only by engaging in putatively terrorist acts. That is, they are not wholly defenseless if by defense-able one includes engaging in these ineffective reprisals.

The Palestinians are thus alive and willful. And they clearly wish to will their survival. This comprises the political significance of the Palestinian counter-terror. usicnWhen considered as a nation, they have proven themselves unwilling to submit to Israel. We should not be surprised "…that those who are isolated are the first to revolt," as Ernst Bloch once put it (p. 7).

But international institutions typically judge their defensive efforts as beyond the pale, worthy of sanctions because targeting Israeli citizens is also wrong. Worse still is the fact that their attacks on Israel have long proven themselves ineffective in practice. They fail because they do little to deter the Israeli state even when they produce Israeli casualties. Nor do they motivate other countries or international entities to take steps meant to deter Israeli aggression. Indeed, Palestinian terror attacks often provide the pretext for another Israeli assault on a fraction of the Palestinian people. Given the history of this conflict and the logic that seems to govern it, I find it difficult to avoid concluding that a part of Israel elite accepts the strong possibility that the country will suffer these Palestinian attacks and the Israeli casualties they cause. Indeed, Israel's imperialists and militarists can consider the defensive efforts of the Palestinians to be an unavoidable cost the country must absorb when pursuing its political objectives in the region.

These objectives, unfortunately, point to the eventual removal of the Palestinians from Israel. How could one conclude otherwise when, on the one hand, the Palestinians cannot win the war on the ground and, on the other hand, as Neumann suggests, the political situation in Israel is such that Israel's local violence will end only with the local cleansing or genocide of the Palestinians. This political situation reflects the indisputable fact that Israeli expansion has been both ruthless and relentless in its methods. There is no reason to believe that Israel will embrace peace and diplomacy anytime soon. Therefore, the Palestinians may not only claim a right to defend themselves against Israel's thantopolitical (Agamben) project, they can also expect reasonable individuals — that is, individuals who recognize the validity of a Palestinian right to self-defense — to consider their claim just.

What is required of those who wish to put an end to this catastrophe? Finkelstein's concludes his article by pointing to the first steps any likely and feasible solution must have. He suggests, first, that Israel and the United States must be forced to observe the letter of international law and respect the sentiments of the 'international community.' To be sure, the attitude of the international community now mostly favors the Palestinian cause. Israel and the United States are nearly isolated in this matter and the Gaza massacre has only isolated further the two countries. Second, he suggests that the United States as a nation must correctly identify the de facto aggressor in this conflict: Israel. His recommendations implicitly and correctly express the belief that Israel can implement the illicit policies which mark its relationship with the Palestinians only because it enjoys America's material and political support.

For American citizens, therefore, the political task with respect to the Israel-Palestine question is both obvious and compelling. They must seek to terminate their country's material and political support for Israeli imperialism and state terrorism if they wish to avoid living and acting in tacit compliance with Israel's crimes.

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