Leibniz himself had been buried two decades when the Lisbon earthquake struck, but it was he who had proposed the scheme of ‘the best of all possible worlds’ in order to reconcile all the apparent evils in the world – floods, starvations, wars, storms, tsunamis, epidemics, pandemics, earthquakes, fires and other phenomena we now like to refer to as ‘emergencies’ – with the idea of divine providence, which is necessarily omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent – all-powerful, knowing, and good.3 Leibniz’s attempt to solve this age-old theological aporia involved a conception of God as an economist that managed the world by solving a minimum problem in the calculus of variations.
If this description of the economy of divine government is already reminiscent of the logic of contemporary wars, with its own scales of risk and proportionality used to evaluate the desired and undesired consequences of military acts, it is hardly surprising to find in it an early reflection on the concept of ‘collateral damage
In both their theological and military contexts, as Giorgio Agamben observed, the collateral effects are structural rather than accidental.
technologies and techniques that might allow them to calculate the effects of violence and might harness its consequences. It is these techniques and technologies, apparatuses and spatial arrangements, that are at the heart of this book.
Here, in its secularized form, political rather than metaphysical, a similar structure of the argument sets up the sphere of morality as a set of calculations aimed to approximate the optimum proportion between common goods and necessary evils.
But as the general outlook of liberalism shifted from Voltaire’s and indeed Jeremy Bentham’s later focus on the ‘greater good’ and the responsibility of government to increase happiness to the greatest number of people, to the liberal canards of ‘just wars’, and their increasingly sophisticated technologies for minimizing the number of ‘necessary’ corpses, the search for ‘the best of all possible worlds’ started giving ground to the present neo-Panglossian pessimism of the ‘least of all possible evils’.
The fundamental point of this book is that the moderation of violence is part of the very logic of violence. Humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), when abused by state, supra-state and military action, have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed.
all political oppositions are replaced by the elasticity of degrees, negotiations, proportions and balances.
The ‘forensic analysis’ of their characteristics is an attempt to tease out the political forces, cultural habits, forms of knowledge, skills and expertise that were folded into their organization and form.
This study of ruins ends a process of transformation that is unfolded in the course of the book: it begins with a reflection on the role of testimony in the reinvention of humanitarianism in the early 1970s and ends with a reflection on its being superseded by forensic science. The shift is more than one which the misanthropic gaze of forensics, as exercised by scientists and former military personnel, replaces the ‘empathic’ attention to the testimony of the people who suffered; it also mirrors the transformation of the focus in the field of humanitarianism and human rights from a form of independent engagement with the pains of this world in the 1970s and 1980s to a political and military force in the 1990s, and finally into a legalistic strategy in the 2000s.
Gaza – where the system of humanitarian government is now most brutally exercised – is the proper noun for the horror of our humanitarian present.
Sometimes the principle is presented as the optimal result of a general field of calculations that seeks to compare, measure and evaluate different bad consequences in relation
lesser evils might be tolerated when they are deemed necessary and unavoidable, or when perpetrating an evil results in the reduction of the overall amount of evil in the world.
is often used by those in power as the primary justification for the very notion of ‘exception’.
Michel Foucault argued that, on the basis of this ‘economical theology’, the modern, secular form of governmental power has itself taken on the form of an economy.10
If governments need to violate rights in a terrorist emergency, this should be done, he thought, only as an exception and according to a process of adversarial scrutiny.
The lesser evil emerges here as a pragmatic compromise, a ‘tolerated sin’ that functions as the very justification for the notion of exception.
In this logic, the problem of contemporary state violence resembles indeed an all-too-human version of the mathematical minimum problem of the divine calculations previously mentioned, one tasked with determining the smallest level of violence necessary to avert the greatest harm.
Lesser evil arguments are now used to defend anything from targeted assassinations and mercy killings, house demolitions, deportation, torture,15 to the use of (sometimes) non-lethal chemical weapons, the use of human shields, and even ‘the intentional targeting of some civilians if it could save more innocent lives than they cost.’
the atomic bombings of Hiroshima might also be tolerated under the defence of the lesser evil.
Perhaps it is time for the differential accounting of the lesser evil to replace the mechanical bureaucy of the ‘banality of evil’ as the idiom to describe the most extreme manifestations of violence. Indeed, it is through this use of the lesser evil that societies that see themselves as democratic can maintain regimes of occupation and neo-colonization.
The lesser evil is the argument of the humanitarian agent that seeks military permission to provide medicines and aid in places where it is in fact the duty of the occupying military power to do so, thus saving the military limited resources.
Such observations amongst other paradoxes are unpacked in one of the most powerful challenges to ideas such as Ignatieff’s – Adi Ophir’s philosophical essay The Order of Evils. In this book Ophir developed an ethical system that is similarly not grounded in a search for the ‘good’ but rather in minimizing the harms that he refers to as ‘evils’. Ophir unpacks the systemic logic of an economy of violence – the possibility of a lesser means and the risk of more damage – but insists that questions of violence are forever unpredictable and will always escape the capacity to calculate them. Inherent in Ophir’s insistence on the necessity of calculating is, he posits, the impossibility of doing so. The demands of his ethics are grounded in this impossibility.17
Those protesting in the name of the law must remember, though, that IHL does not seek to end wars but rather to ‘regulate’ and ‘shape’ the way militaries wage them; and that western militaries, increasingly bogged down by a raft of urban insurgencies in various global arenas, are also keen to change the way they fight wars and to minimize civilian casualties.
Within the frame of international humanitarian law the clearest manifestation of the lesser evil principle is the principle of proportionality.
Proportionality thus demands the establishment of a ‘proper relation’ between ‘unavoidable means’ and ‘necessary ends’. While considering the choice of military means, the principle calls for a balance to be established between military objectives and anticipated damage to civilian life and property. Proportionality is thus not about clear lines of prohibition but rather about calculating and determining balances and degrees. In incessantly calculating for the least of all means possible, it embodies something of Pangloss’s principle.
Like the finance specialists who acknowledge the impossibility of prediction but do little else than calculate, the economists of violence are incessantly weighing their options and hedging their risks under the assumption of unpredictability and uncertainty. It is the very act of calculation – the very fact calculation took place – that justifies their action. Indeterminacy, the very principle that makes the economies of liberal capitalism generate profit, or burst after a sequence of failures, is also central to the conduct and potential outcomes of the contemporary wars. But along with the growing capacity of
It is the very act of calculation – the very fact calculation took place – that justifies their action. Indeterminacy, the very principle that makes the economies of liberal capitalism generate profit, or burst after a sequence of failures, is also central to the conduct and potential outcomes of the contemporary wars.
lawyers’ insistence on the fine details of a necro-economy, and the conversion rates between people of different genders and ages, is explained by the fact that proportionality has become a means to an end: measuring the public legitimacy of an act of violence. In this arena there is indeed a different meaning attached to the killing of children or women.
To put it simply, if you kill (or neutralize in other ways) 20–25 per cent of the members of an organization – any organization – there is an 85 per cent likelihood that the confusion and knowledge loss generated will lead to its collapse. If you kill 50 per cent, the formula has it, the result converges on a 100 per cent probability that it will collapse.21
For the military, risk is the means of determining the probability of destruction and injury to personnel and equipment and their potential severity.
One of the clearest examples for this ‘risk transfer war’ was NATO’s bombing of Kosovo and Belgrade in 1999. This was mainly due to the decision to conduct high altitude aerial attacks that reduced the danger to NATO air force, but dramatically increased it for the civilians on the ground. The result – no combat fatalities among NATO forces compared with five hundred civilians killed by the bombardment – was understood by many international law scholars as an indication of a breach of the proportionality principle.
Reisner emphasized two of the advantages that might come with the computation of proportionality.
First, thresholds could be numerically defined, and the ratio of acceptable civilian casualties to military deaths
Second, a computer system would be without ‘the tendency for cruelty that some individuals have
Furthermore, in situations such as Israel’s occupation of Gaza where an increased number of
robotic technologies are employed to police and control an increasingly famished population, the assumed higher ethical position of robotic and other high-technology killing emphasizes the growing distance between the post-human colonizer and the barely human colonized.
Because military action gradually becomes more systematic – in the sense that it is undertaken by a diffuse assemblage of sensors, automatic weapons, computers and optics together with human operators, overseers and regulators, it also becomes increasingly hard to isolate individual responsibility and liability in the traditional way.
‘within complex military systems, even when the most serious violations of IHL are committed, it is often not possible to identify individual war criminals.
But deviant behaviour, rather than the systemic organized violence of the state military, is what the military itself might prosecute. ‘Deviants who breach the military’s own rules and undermine its discipline are a problem to the military. But it is the systemic violence and not these “rotten apples” that is the main cause of suffering inflicted on civilians.’25
instead of arguing that he exhibited his humanity by doing less than he could have done or was ordered to do – the lesser evil justification – he might propose the opposite: that he actually did more or worse than what he was asked to. The breach of the techno-civilized logic of computation and calculations could thus be argued as madness itself.
The calculations of proportionality as a technique of management and government – the management of violence and the government of populations – is undertaken by the powerful side ‘on behalf’ of those it subjugates.
Field Manual FM 3-24,
The new kind of soldier he thought must be a social worker, an urban planner, anthropologist and psychologist. It was such comments that prompted a prominent military historian to describe contemporary war as ‘social work with guns’.30 These processes are applicable in so far as military violence is understood as intervention in, rather than a replacement of, politics.
Increasing the harm to civilians can then be undertaken and monitored using the same tools conceived to reduce it.
If protecting civilians is used as a way of convincing people to comply with military government, at other times inflicting pain on them might usefully achieve the same ends – such as in situations when militaries want to force civilians to exert political pressure on their governments or militants for example.
Fallujah in 2004, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008–9,
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.
Game theory, as applied by military think tanks since the early Cold War days of RAND, is conceived to simulate the enemy’s responses, and help manage the gap between actual and potential violence. This practical form of military restraint is now often presented as the adherence to the laws of war.
Colonial wars have often been total wars, because the people colonized were not perceived to share the same humanity as the colonizers, and were therefore not seen as a party capable of rational behaviour and discourse.
Disproportionality – the breaking of the elastic economy that balances goods and evils – is violence in excess of the law, and one that is directed at the law.
This violence is disproportional because it cannot be measured and because, ultimately, having its justice not reflected in existing law, comes to restructure its basis altogether.
The deliberation of a political thought-practice must indeed insist on uncovering the force-field within which each of the dilemmas of the lesser evil exists, seeking to identify more extended and intricate political connections; looking further into the future, it should insist on political goals and the means of their achievement.
Opting for the worst is, therefore, an attempt to undermine the field of alternatives of a pre-given choice and overcome its terms.
But are the horrific spectacles of greater evils preferable to the incremental damage of lesser ones?
the choice only between squabbling with power about the correct measure of its violence, helping to calibrate it and tend to its wounded, or on the other hand a call for its amplification in order to ‘expose its contradictions’ (contradictions seem only to sustain power’s march) to shock a complacent population into rising up?
The contemporary forms of power unpacked in this book are no longer so singular and unified. Rather than a bull, they may appear to take on the shape of a multiplicity, a diffuse field of forces simultaneously aggressive and benign.
Political activists must constantly invent new forms of struggle that are recognisant of this paradigm of power, but which also evade and subvert its embrace, attempt to rewire its webs in order to escape its calculation. The characters that inhabit the chapters of this book have stepped right into the thick of this web of forces: their movement through them offer valuable examples and lessons. Some paths must be avoided at all costs; others illuminate possible courses of action within the intricate workings of the humanitarian present.
Brauman used the Jewish councils as an analogy because they collaborated with the Nazis by assisting in policies of population transfer. He acknowledged the crucial difference with his predicament in that the humanitarians have had no ‘guns pointed to their heads’ while making these choices.7
the imaginary geography of humanitarianism seems to have taken a giant leap in mapping the horrors of European history onto the Cold War frontiers in Africa and the ethnic fissures that precipitated it, but this imaginary geography was also very present in the mind-set of many Europeans who in preceding years transformed the practice of humanitarian aid.
locations were determined by the Ethiopian government.
in Ethiopia we have realized that aid can kill. Through deportation financed by international aid. The more aid was coming into Ethiopia, the more people were dying. Although [the donors] believe they supported Ethiopia, in fact their money was used for purposes which were killing people – which were lethal.’
This was not, he stressed, a choice between ‘a political and a neutral position – as the neutral one was already inscribed in the political status quo – but between two political positions: one active, and the other by default.’
The Ethiopian government explained that its demographic policies – moving people into safer and more fertile lands in the south of the country – were sovereign acts in a state of emergency caused by the famine, and indeed the lesser evil option given the scale of the hunger and the threats of future famines.
In Arendt’s ethical philosophy, her argument against the ‘lesser evil’ was perhaps the most controversial. It came to define how well-meaning citizens might be made to collaborate with totalitarian regimes. Arendt’s account of the forced collaboration of the Jewish councils with the Nazis sought to frame the extreme limit of the problem, suggesting that by opting at each stage for the lesser evil of trying to mitigate Nazi horrors – delivering named lists to the occupiers, selecting people for deportation, and even rounding them up, acts undertaken ‘to avoid panic,’ ‘to minimize suffering’ or ‘for the larger good’ – the Judenräte were made to work for the destruction of their own people.
Against all those who wanted to make things better from within (Arendt herself managed to leave), against all acts of collaboration, especially those undertaken for the sake of the moderation of harm, against the argument that the lesser evil of collaboration with brutal regimes is acceptable if it might mitigate, prevent or divert greater evils, she called for individual disobedience and collective disorder. When nothing else was possible, to do nothing was the last effective form of resistance, disorder was preferable to order, and the practical consequences of a refusal to cooperate were nearly always better than collaboration.17 This seems to have been Brauman’s motivation in pushing for withdrawal.
The militancy of the former radicals persisted, but changed orientation. Their anti-authoritarianism shifted easily to anti-totalitarianism.
Many of these young activists and writers replaced an abstract concept of political ‘justice’ with an emotive idea of ‘compassion’, a revolutionary politics with one whose finite and practical goals are the relief of suffering in those regions of the world where it is most visible. The culture of immediate and direct action was easily transferred to the humanitarian culture of emergency.
The politics of the lesser evil was concerned with identifying situations considered to be intolerable, and with organizing the technology and means for interventions to stop or alleviate suffering. The globalization of compassion meant a view of humanity based on the figure of the victim. This compassion found its infrastructure in humanitarian organizations.
Indeed, for anti-totalitarians, the looming spectre of totalitarianism led to the constant weighing of the injustices of liberal ‘disorder’ as ‘the best of all possible worlds’, when set against the worse evils of totalitarian tyranny.
On the other hand, the same people vigorously advocated a stance against lesser-evil compromise and collaboration with regimes defined as totalitarian. Totalitarianism gave liberals the opportunity to fashion themselves as militant and radical.
With its abstract designations of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, the Holocaust has become for humanitarians the crime against which all else is measured – the un-comparable, to which all else is compared. With its recording in history, its recurrence also became possible.23 Among other slogans, the demonstrators of 1968 shouted ‘We are all German Jews’, which for them meant the ultimate victims. The term ‘Jew’ seemed to have shifted from designating those who suffered a specific historical experience to indicating a universal position of victimhood.
The discourse of the Holocaust thereby functions similarly to the way that the idea of the ‘state of nature’ functions in the political philosophy of Hobbes and other modern political philosophers: an evil, the escape from which the entire political field must be dedicated.
Nothing validates human rights and humanitarian action more than the cry ‘never again.’24
The connection between humanitarianism and the anti-totalitarian perspective led MSF to embrace two struggles: the first for humanitarianism and the second against ‘third worldism’ – a particularly French way of designating (or denigrating) an anti-Western thought-practice that sees the decolonizing ‘third world’ as the site for the realization of Marxist struggle.
Legions of writers who had supported Algerian and Vietnamese resistance denounced their early befuddlement and romanticism. The coloured people hadn’t benefited enough from European enlightenment, they said; resistance to empire had bred a barbarous and xenophobic anti-Westernism; anti-democratic fanaticism and intolerance (of which ‘Islamo-fascism’ is an example) were homegrown products that had nothing to do with the white man.
These were independent organizations and new social movements as varied as the feminist, peace and green movements in the 1970s, religious groups, humanitarian organizations, new businesses and guerrilla groups, all of whom positioned themselves on the international stage conducting ‘private-sphere diplomacy’, which refused the homogenization of a vague political struggle and engaged in actions that were previously the preserve of states only.30
Testimony on behalf of victims was at the heart of a politically engaged humanitarianism that sought to extend its role, beyond the simple provision of medical relief, to publicly denouncing the forces which turned people into victims.35 The story of ‘humanitarian testimony’ is of course now as commonplace as its critique.
In contrast to the approach of organizations like MSF, the ICRC’s pact with militaries and regimes was based on trading access to victims across military lines for the organization’s discretion. It was an approach that led members of the ICRC to keep quiet about the gas chambers in Auschwitz, which they knew about as early as 1942.
More recently, but in the same vein, writers accused the ICRC of knowing – and keeping quiet about – the abuse of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, several months before these abuses became public knowledge.
Defenders of the ICRC claim that the only reason that it could get to know about these violations in the first place was that it was granted access based on guarantees of secrecy – access which would undoubtedly be withdrawn if these guarantees were betrayed.
‘Speaking on behalf of victims and insisting on political responsibility’ was framed as an anti-totalitarian act
This adoption of testimony by humanitarian organizations, alongside many human rights ones, started the blurring of the borders between activism and journalism that is now commonplace.
In its mediatization of suffering, humanitarian testimony – often presented alongside photographs of helpless children – also functions to compete for money in the charitable market, funds humanitarian agencies see as essential in providing the possibility for them to operate independently of government subsidy.
The relation between humanitarians and media is thus one of interdependency: journalists – dependent on aid workers for access, transport, accommodation, information, telecommunications, sound bites and medical care – tend to narrate the events of a crisis from their point of view.
This report was quoted in NATO’s justification to sanction air strikes in Kosovo seven years later. If testimony, in its different forms, was one of the means to politicize humanitarianism, it seems to have also played a role in its militarization. More recently, however, MSF also acted in the opposite direction – to refute inflated claims of
These reports often go against the mainstream political perceptions. Following the 1992 discovery of the camps in Bosnia, and before this became received knowledge, members of MSF conducted an
‘Being critical of forced relocation and being compassionate towards the people who are forcibly relocated is not enough, because nobody cares. Instead of focusing on the crimes committed by a Stalinist regime, we entered a new stage in our critical thinking: we began to reflect more seriously upon our role, upon the potential negative consequences of our activity – upon the fact that we could inadvertently play into the hands of agencies whose objectives had nothing to do with humanitarianism.’
The controversy over its involvement in Ethiopia initiated a shift from MSF’s obligation as a bystanding witness to the crimes of others to the consideration of its own responsibility as an actor.
It was based on the realization that aid participates in, perpetuates, transforms and manipulates crisis: that the very presence of humanitarian missions changes the dynamic of the conflict into which they are inserted.
The category of ‘similar to natural disaster’ was a politically useful way to include in the resolution the right to interfere in situations of war. Indeed, this very principle was invoked by the UN Security Council when opening a ‘humanitarian corridor’ for Kurds fleeing Iraq in 1990 and 1991. It was also the seed that would later grow into the responsibility to protect (R2P) – the right/duty to intervene in order to prevent and stop crimes against humanity and genocide, codified in a 2005 UN resolution with the support of the George W. Bush administration.48
With genocide being the trigger for all forms of intervention, Kouchner started to identify many instances of ‘crimes against humanity’ – not only retrospectively in Biafra, but also in Kosovo and Darfur. ‘Influenced
All you need to do is separate heroes and villains, good and evil, civilization and barbarism, and, finally, victims and perpetrators.’
the history of humanitarian intervention appears like a series of inversions and overcompensations: the failure in 1993 of the US humanitarian–military intervention in Somalia made the Clinton administration recoil from military action to halt the Rwanda genocide in 1994.
The larger and more influential the humanitarian world has grown, the more incoherent it has become. As the humanitarian movement became more openly partisan and political, governments around the world began recasting their own political projects and military adventures as humanitarian ones.
Military intervention was justified in humanitarian terms. Humanitarian commands, a branch of the military dealing with issues of aid of all sorts, have been set up in most Western militaries with some advice from international NGOs. Finally, humanitarian organizations have become increasingly dependent on militaries in order to gain access to civilians in unsecured areas.
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, American NGOs funded via USAID were informed by the US administration that ‘their cooperation was inextricably linked to America’s strategic goals.’
This blurring of roles meant that in places such as Afghanistan, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and Sudan, belligerents started to construe aid workers as enemies, an integral part of the occupying force, a view that inevitably led to an increase in the kidnapping and murder of humanitarians.
Meles Zenawi, the rebel TPLF leader who overthrew Mengistu in 1991, is still the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, a nominally Christian country surrounded by largely Islamic Somalia, Sudan and Kenya, which has also become a key ally in the ‘war on terror’. Since Meles took power, his government has received about $26 billion in development aid, more than any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa.
Against what Brauman calls the ‘imperial policy of humanitarianism’, his meaning of ‘the lesser evil’ designates the project of humanitarianism at its most minimal – as one that ‘takes no political stand, makes no claim to transform society, and doesn’t come to make war or peace, promote economic development, help administer justice, or export democracy or human rights values.’
Such humanitarianism ‘won’t change the world’ – nor does it seek to.
The lesser-evil-humanitarianism argument makes no such claims. It is necessary for medical professionals to operate across the world, like it is necessary to have hospitals in towns and cities – but this does not mean that emergency medicine must be the ground for a cosmopolitan liberal political project.
Against the tendency of conflicts since the 1980s to generate integrated and entangled political–military–humanitarian spaces, mainly around refugee camps, this space is conceived in order to hold relief work at a distance from political and military practice.
Driving the humanitarian present is no longer a sense of naive but dangerous compassion, but rather a highly specialized and concerted international effort to manage populations that are seen as posing risk. In
In his work on the refugee camps of Africa, the anthropologist Michel Agier, refers to contemporary humanitarianism as nothing less than ‘a distant and delegated form of management, a government without citizens’.68 He describes the humanitarian zones as heavily guarded and tightly policed ‘waiting rooms on the margins of the world’, built and maintained for the purpose of the ‘total government of the planet’s populations who are most unwanted and undesirable’.
Refugee camps are part of an overall system of migration control, he says, intended to provide for displaced populations at a distance from western shores.
The fear of migration, crime and terrorism is concieved of as being in inverse relation to the well-being of populations. This tendency is best captured by the term ‘human security’ under which every dimension of human life – from food and shelter to education – is measured within a shifting calculus of risk.
Foremost among the criteria for such a zone is that it should remain at a distance from armies, militias and political officials, a principle that should equally apply to the ‘liberal armies of compassion’ and to ‘third world totalitarians’.
So the humanitarian space is a tool for measuring our distance from powers.’
Evading the political requires an understanding of the logic of politics as much as evading the military requires understanding the logic of military action.
A humanitarian space may sometimes grow and solidify, giving rise to camps: these then form a material link between humanitarianism and a massive and rapid process of migration, construction and quasi-urbanization.
Together with the Palestinian refugee camps, some 12 million people are currently living in about one thousand camps worldwide.75
these spaces are woven into the global network of commodity circulation through the products of aid and to the international networks of information flow through the media.
while aid and aid workers move in and out of the zone, the displaced and the refugees are often imprisoned in it, or stay in the camps because they have nowhere else to go, or haven’t the means to go there. Although in some of their features, such as density, scale, trade, services and social life, camps can approximate an urban environment, and sometimes might appear as a town, they do so without being proper political spaces: they are governed spaces, which lack the political capacity for self-government and cannot be considered a polis – a city.
the depoliticized nature of humanitarian zones inevitably excludes refugees from politics.
In fact, the more politically limited the aims of the humanitarian mission, the better the chance for politics to emerge independently. Thomas Keenan has shown how to understand the potential asymmetry between these forms of depoliticization and politicization.
Humanitarianism should indeed aim to provide no more than the bare minimum to support the revival of life after violence and destruction.
Only when humanitarianism seeks to offer temporary assistance rather than to govern or develop can the politics of humanitarianism really create a space for the politics of refugees themselves.
might be that only with the ultimate refusal of aid at a time of their choice – with the rejection of the very apparatus that sometimes keeps them in good health, and sometimes operates to manage their exclusion – with refugees constructing their own spaces, self governing, posing demands and acting upon them – that the potentiality of their political life will actualize. Then, where there were camps there could be cities.
by which the trial was conducted, the model was a proposition;
In this process the different material aspects of the apparatus were regulated and fine-tuned within the legal forum and according to the terms of proportionality. The process helped establish what the state later regarded as a ‘correct’ proportion between conflicting principles – security requirements for Israelis as argued by military lawyers, and issues of ‘livelihood’ to Palestinians as argued by humanitarian representatives. In other words, the trials were concerned with moderating the violations and violence perpetrated by the wall in the name of the principle of the ‘lesser evil’.
The case posed an age-old dilemma: was working with the Israeli legal system to alleviate the excesses of the occupation worth the price in legitimizing it?
Through Adalah and his private office, Dahla’s decision to work with the institutions of the Israeli state is based on a rational-instrumental decision. He selected his cases on the grounds that they constitute precedent-setting legal challenges that expose paradoxes between the state’s democratic pretence and its colonial realities.4
Whereas in The Hague the issue had been argued in relatively abstract terms, and the advisory process established the illegality of the wall tout court, in the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem the case had to engage with the physical details of planning and implementation. Dealing with the project segment by segment, the case examined such details as prefabricated concrete elements, barbed wire and wire meshes, the layout of villages, the slopes of hills and road works, irrigation basins, fields and orchards, lines of sight and ranges of different weapons.
Frustrated by not being able to comprehend the crucial details of the case, the judges suspended the trial for ten days, demanding – much as an architecture professor might do of her students – that the petitioners return with physical scale models.
‘having worked for the military we understood the logic of how they think . . . [The trial] was a war game, with the two sides, playing on the same terrain, each seeking to beat the other.’
‘I was taking a crash course in military and security terminology, learning terms like “controlling elevation”, which is a high place that poses a threat, “ballistic weapons” as opposed to “flat trajectory weapons” . . . it was very complicated but at the end I felt I could become a general in the Palestinian army!’9
‘the presence of the model introduced very dramatic changes to the courtroom. The usual structure and “order” was disrupted and there was an unordered conversation.’ People like models. Models are like toys – reduced worlds under control. Hartman also thought that the model caused the Israeli jurists ‘to recall their youth in military service.’
And so it was that the diffused system mediated by the proportionality principle performed the Panglossian function in creating for the Palestinians ‘the best of all possible walls’.
trial illustrates the way in which the High Court of Jerusalem uses the doctrine of proportionality to legitimize Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.15 Rather than simply acting as retroactive justification of action already perpetrated, the High Court has become an instrument in regulating the occupation by slightly alleviating the worst effects of military violence.
Material proportionality, then, must be the name of the process by which proportionality analysis helps configure structures and territorial organization. It is the process by which an ethical/legal economy intersects with the science of engineering and the making of things. Through it, the law is mobilized in material action, arranging the distribution of rights across architectural formations and technological systems.
Security is no longer understood as existing on one side of an equation, on the other side of which sits livelihood and humanitarian issues. Rather, it forms an integrated logic that includes issues like livelihood, human rights and humanitarian concerns within the logic of security. Rather than pitting itself against the agricultural needs of Palestinian farmers, this conception of security aims to embrace and assimilate their concerns over agricultural productivity.
In processes concerning proportionality, in which questions of normative moderation arise, the contradictory aims of different actors – military representatives, independent contractors, the media, human rights lawyers, NGOs, social movements and also the victims themselves, those exercising violence and those acting to contain it – add up to a diffused security system that shapes physical reality.
If the wall does ever come to designate the borders of a shrunken temporary Palestinian state, it will be the first such border to have been co-designed by humanitarian lawyers.
And so, case by case, segment by segment, concentrating on problem-solving, moderation and consultation, a major geopolitical question was dismantled and transformed into a humanitarian issue.
It is very difficult for me to say it but there are several places where I designed the actual route of the wall. It has become clear to me that in fact I am one of its architects.16
In a situation where the justice system seems to have been enlisted by the defence establishment, they felt it was time for Israeli lawyers to consider alternative forms of action to that of simply petitioning the High Court.
Their ideas included connecting local legal struggles to international legal action, boycotts of local courts and a complete shift from technical legalist activism to an overtly political one. These alternatives have yet to be enacted by the participants of the working group – largely because, as they themselves have observed, it would mean ‘sacrificing the individuals that seek their help’, and might also lead to closing down the organizations they run, which demonstrate the fact that the livelihoods of the Palestinian landowners in the seam area are inversely connected to the livelihoods of the lawyers representing them.
The ‘wall’ could not, of course, be reduced merely to its physical structure and its route. It is a heterogeneous and interwoven assemblage of interconnected systems of fortification, architectural constructions (the ‘terminals’), sensing technologies, automatic weapons, aerial and (in case of Gaza) marine systems that are operated by a multiplicity of institutions according to ever-changing administrative procedures, calculations, tactics, ethical, legal and humanitarian propositions (that capture something of the meaning of what Foucault referred to as ‘an apparatus’).17 The organizations that operate the wall participate in the monitoring, control and modulation of everything that passes through it – nutrition, fuel, electricity and medical aid.
The tightening of the siege of Gaza is the culmination of a process that saw Israel’s control of the enclave transformed from a physical ‘occupation’ – the territorial system of control grounded in a network of military bases, roads and settlements, which was dismantled in the 2005 evacuation – to ‘humanitarian management’, exercised as the calibration of life-sustaining flows of resources through the physical enclosure, one meant to keep the entire population close to the minimum limit of physical existence.
system to regulate and moderate these restrictions.
Israel has thus shifted its strategy from trying to hurt Gaza’s economy to destroying it altogether and replacing it with a system of humanitarian government.
The central task of the legal process was first to define the threshold of the humanitarian minimum, and then find the mechanism to keep to it. In court, military representatives promised that the task of reducing provisions will ‘be discharged with the utmost responsibility and seriousness’, gradually, and following weekly assessments by experts in security, international law and humanitarianism and electrical engineering.
Like the sanctions on Iraq, the siege of Gaza took months to create and perfect and similarly involved a vast network of military and civilian institutions; it was similarly presented as a way of exercising control in its most subtle and cheapest form; and was, most significantly, similarly argued to be an alternative to the far worse scenario of military invasion – we must remember that one of the peace camp’s most popular and misguided slogans in the lead-up to the Iraq war was ‘Give sanctions a chance’, and this regardless of the fact that sanctions led to the death of more than half a million Iraqi children.28
Using humanitarian standards, officials declared the requirement for adult males to be 2,100 daily calories, females 1,700, and children variable amounts, depending on gender and age.
The forum’s task was, of course, to solve the humanitarian problems created as a result of the inability to transfer even a minimum of humanitarian provisions under fire, to determine need and crisis and responses to them. Spiegel explained, ‘The model of a combined humanitarian centre reflected shared interest and understanding . . . It was very helpful for the IDF, Israel and the international agencies.’31
simple language: if you divide food in the Strip by the daily consumption needs of residents, you will get the number of days it will take before people run out of basic provisions and start dying.
‘disengagement’ – usually used to refer to the Sharon government’s 2005 withdrawal from the colonies in Gaza – should rather be used to refer to a new type of regime of controlled abandonment. ‘Disengagement’, writes Li, ‘is a form of rule that sets as its goal neither justice nor even stability, but rather survival – as we are reminded by every guarantee that an undefined “humanitarian crisis” will be avoided.’33
‘the ethic of red-lines’
Relative to other conflicts worldwide, the Israel–Palestine one does not produce a high number of direct or violent deaths, while those deaths that do take place are relatively visible.
This form of killing – almost Malthusian in its conception – deliberately sought to control the living conditions, and is part of current Israeli policy in relation to Gaza. Figures of ‘excess mortality’ – those related to avoidable death that have not been avoided or intentionally allowed – are difficult to establish; they are buried in comparative statistical calculations of trends in mortality rates. This might also account for the reason that indirect mortality rates have rarely been used, not even by those mobilizing world opinion against all forms of Israeli domination.37
Nearly all of Gaza’s energy is supplied by Israel, both directly, from its electric grid, paid for by tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and indirectly, through fuel supplies paid for by the European Union and supplied by the Israeli company Dor Alon to Gaza’s only electrical power plant.
In June 2008 Israel increased the flow of diesel close to the level of the ‘humanitarian minimum’, allowing the power station to reach 60 MW again and for the sewage farms to be repaired and restarted.
Although there were small demonstrations against Hamas’ rule during times of drastic reduction, Hamas’ control of Gaza was generally strengthened during this period due to the fact that it was the only supplier of emergency services.
Just as it seemed things could not get any worse, on 27 December the first bombs started falling. But considering Israel’s more invisible and lesser-known humanitarian attack – exercised across the wall of Gaza – the war of 2008–9 was all over before it had even begun.
If, therefore, conclusions can be drawn from military violence, as being primordial and paradigmatic of all violence used for natural ends, there is inherent in all such violence a lawmaking character.
The laws of war pose a paradox to those protesting in their name: while they prohibit some things, they authorize others. And thus another borderline is established between the ‘allowed’ and the ‘forbidden’. This line is not stable and static, rather it is dynamic and elastic and its path is ever changing.
International law can thus not be thought of as a static body of rules but rather an arena in which the law is shaped by an endless series of diffused border conflicts.
‘the architecture of international humanitarian law is typified by “rigid lines of absolute prohibition” and “elastic zones of discretion.”’
Today, he fears, ‘states and their advocates are using arguments based on the logic of the “lesser evil” to subvert the law’s absolute provisions and to subject them to malleable cost-benefit calculations.’
New frontiers of military practice are being explored via a combination of legal technologies and complex institutional practices that are now often referred to as ‘lawfare’, the use of law as a weapon of war. Lawfare is a compounded practice: with the introduction and popularization of international law in contemporary battlefields, all parties to a conflict might seek to use it for their tactical and strategic advantage.
litigation they have to hand. In a similar vein, Israel now often
Israel now often claims that it is facing an unprecedented campaign of lawfare, which threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of the state. Lawfare
international law develops through its violation. In modern war violence legislates: ‘If the same process occurred in criminal law, the legal speed limit would be 115 kilometres an hour and income tax would be 4 per cent.’45
The more often Western states apply principles that originated in Israel to their own non-traditional conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, then the greater the chance these principles have of becoming a valuable part of international law. What we do becomes the law.’
Working on the margins of the law is one way to expand them.
‘We cannot change the law but we can help develop it.’
This use of the law has much in common with that of the George W. Bush administration’s misappropriation of the Office of Special Counsel in the Justice Department, in order to figure out a way to legalize the use of torture.
Gaza is a laboratory in more than one sense. It is a hermetically sealed zone, with all access controlled by Israel (except the Egypt border, now controlled by a still yet-to-be-defined post-Mubarak regime).
Within this enclosed space, all sorts of new control technologies, munitions, legal and humanitarian tools, and warfare techniques are tried out on its million and a half inhabitants. The ability to remotely control large populations is also tested, before these technologies are marketed internationally.
When the legislative violence directed at Gaza unlocks the chaotic powers of destruction that lie dormant within the law, the consequence will be felt by oppressed people everywhere.
Most significantly of all, it is the thresholds that are tested and pushed: the limits of the law, and the limits of violence that can be inflicted by a state and be internationally tolerated. This limit, newly defined with every attack, will become the new threshold of what can be done to people in the name of ‘war on terror’.
The Roman orators referred to speech on behalf of inanimate objects as prosopopoeia: a rhetorical technique that artificially endows inanimate objects with a voice. In discussing ‘giving a voice to things to which nature has not given a voice’, the rhetorician Quintilian writes of the power of prosopopoeia to ‘bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give voices to cities and states.’
War crimes, like many other wartime events, are produced by a multiplicity of military agents using a network of different technologies and apparatuses, run by political, institutional and administrative logics. The forensics of war crime starts with a material remnant to build up a chain of evidence in reconstructing complex and multi-participant events, the military networks, and the organization and structures in which it is embedded.
But a destroyed building points to more than the fact of its destruction; it contains information about the means thereof. Ruins are a form of media. They store and, with some help from their ‘interpreters’, also transmit information about the effects of historical processes. Forensic architecture aspires to transform the built environment from an illustration of alleged violations to a source of knowledge, however incomplete – to enable elucidation from the form and disposition of ruins something of the events that led to a building’s destruction.
Forensic architects must assume that historical events can be reconstructed through structural calculations, blast analysis and a determination of the failure point of structures.
Objects are hieroglyphs in whose dark prism social relations lay congealed and in fragments. They are nodes, in which the tensions of a historical moment materialize in a flash of awareness or twist grotesquely into the commodity fetish. In this perspective, a thing is never just an object, but a fossil in which a constellation of forces are petrified. Things are never just inert objects, passive items, or lifeless shucks, but consist of tensions, forces, hidden powers, all being constantly exchanged.26
Forensics employs techniques that make objects reveal information by subjecting them to additional force. To be analysed, structures often have to be cut apart, broken or dissolved in acid. The forensics might here be reminiscent of the principles of torture, the art of object-interrogation, the inquisition of things and buildings. This is true even if objects and structures, built or destroyed, do not of course contain all the relations that have produced them – processes and forces do not get mechanically materialized – and are never fully transparent and legible.
Holocaust, trauma and memory studies have made testimony into a significant force in postmodern culture. Engagement with testimony has left its mark in literature, documentary and the visual arts. Politically, testimony has acquired a visible presence in such varied contexts as truth commissions, human rights theories and humanitarian work.
This function of witness testimony was most strongly identified with anti-totalitarian politics: with the survivor and the dissident, the oppressed and the subaltern, the voice of the individual against the arbitrariness of repressive states.
Bernstein urged HRW to return to this tradition of anti-totalitarian politics, and strongly opposed investigating Israel’s actions in Gaza.
ethical function exceeds its epistemic one.
Testimony, says Givoni, is significant not only for the knowledge it generates, but as an act of identification and compassion – and therefore it manifests an ethical stand that was adopted by human rights organizations. It is not only tasked with revealing and authenticating claims of historical injustice, but furthermore, the validity of testimony in the context of war crimes stems from the capacity to speak at all in face of the horrors of totalitarianism. Ethical rather than only epistemic, the function of testimony in situations of exposing state crimes is primarily in its delivery.
The psychological framework of trauma and the call for compassion rather than for political action tends to depoliticize historical processes and to portray people as passive and pathetic individual victims, and not as members of a collective with its own political claims.
The difference between a witness and a piece of evidence is that evidence is presented while a witness is interrogated. However, the legal process already tends to blur this distinction in its demand that the witness approximate objectivity, while the presentation of evidence for cross-examination and interrogation have invested some objects with traits of subjectivity.33 The person designated with the task of speaking for objects must strip off all layers of subjective interpretation and beliefs, and approximate the position of a neutral conduit for the ascertaining of events, turning, in fact, into something of an object herself.
Diagnosis is now an algorithmic process, relying on the use of interactive computer programs that allow physicians to ‘experience’ a visual representation of what is going on inside the patient’s body.
Part of what characterizes this ‘era of forensics’ is a reaction to and perhaps an overcompensation for the indeterminate and fragile voice of the victim – until recently the sign of a traumatized experience that became a potential liability in the intense legal battles taking place in the new international tribunals. Since testimony thus conceived was imbued with so much ethical and cultural significance, the tilt from it towards the interpreted ‘material witness’ must open up a new and different cultural dimension. But this is not one in which the misanthropic object emerges as a stable and fixed alternative to humane uncertainties, ambiguities and anxieties. Rather, in contemporary forensics, and through the thick field of interpretation and cross-investigation, the problems associated with human testimony – those of the subject – seem to be somewhat reproduced as the problems of the object.
Steve Goose, director of the organization’s revealingly termed Arms Division, explained that HRW ‘more or less invented the methodology of doing “humanitarian battle damage assessment” . . . the military does its own battle assessment damage, looking at how weapons worked. We do an assessment of how the weapons impacted on civilians. We try to figure out why they were killed.’
The distance between the work of human rights organizations and the military was closing.
During the Clinton administration, Human Rights Watch became one of the most influential pro-intervention lobbies.
In order to maintain their relevance and influence, HRW and other groups started to shift their attention from attempts to influence political decision-makers to calls for intervention – they increasingly sought to remain neutral with regard to the causes or justification of wars – and concentrated on the way militaries actually fought them, seeking to influence the conduct of war on the tactical level.37 The attention thus shifted from the international law frame of jus ad bellum (the ‘right to wage war’) to jus in bello (the laws of war) – a legal frame that includes analysis of weapons capabilities and their proportional application, and the legal problems of bombing, counterinsurgency, occupation and military government, as these could be read in the forensics of bodies and ruins.
Militaries grew to regard human rights groups not as enemies, but as constructive and enabling critics.
Garlasco’s hiring and his later work for HRW are part of a larger transformation by which the expression of care for victims was replaced by attempts to uncover the mechanisms of violations as they were reflected in both the objects doing the violation (weapons) and the violated objects (ruins). The cultural transformation that crested with ‘the Garlasco affair’ was of course bigger than Garlasco. Having had a significant effect on the human rights world, though, it was more than simply another symptom.
In it the Israeli military fires low-explosive ‘teaser’ bombs or missiles onto houses designated for destruction, with the intention of making an impact strong enough to scare the inhabitants into escaping their home before it is destroyed completely with bulldozers or explosives a minute or two later.
‘The people who go into a house despite a warning do not have to be taken into account in terms of injury to civilians, because they are voluntary human shields. From the legal point of view, [once warned] I do not have to show consideration for them.’ The ability to communicate a warning during a battle is indeed technologically complicated. Battle spaces are messy and confusing environments.
Garlasco’s reconstruction of events from the rubble left behind was complicated by the presence of ruins dating to different periods. The Gaza Strip was continuously attacked by the Israeli military
Starting from these general types, Garlasco looked for ‘irregularities in the pattern of destruction’: secondary explosions, which might designate an ammunition cache; or a fire fight, which registered in bullet holes around windows. These windows sometimes had to be salvaged from under ruins. Identifying a particular incident within the rubble, Garlasco then tried to weave together a series of connections and combine them within a larger narrative.
‘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,’ he says. It seems as if legal categories have completely taken the place of political and ethical ones.
‘While bulldozer destruction might have occurred during battle, controlled destruction must have occurred after battle in preparation for the “day after” – usually to “design the battlefield” in a way that would favour future operations. This is a war crime of wanton destruction not necessitated by the war.’ Most destruction has indeed taken place in order to shape the battle space for a future engagement. Homes along main roads, or along the Gaza perimeter fence, were destroyed to allow safer movement for military vehicles along them. It was a textbook case of design by destruction – the shaping of the battle space to suit operational needs.
To the people that knew him, the implication that Garlasco had an anti-military or anti-Israeli bias was ironic: among HRW personnel he was considered to be one of the closest to the US military and to the Israeli military, the one who could – and did – speak their professional language.
In our story, the fetish marks a certain attraction to the objects of violence and the intensity of delving into their investigation – forensic fetishism as the return to the object, to the non-human in human rights work. This conjunction of forensics and fetish is also a rather astoundingly comical demonstration of what Bruno Latour called the ‘factish’, a term he coined to merge the objectivity of facts with the mysterious attraction and autonomous power of fetishes.
Objects, Latour explains, must be regarded as existing between the scientific and the totemic, ‘a combination of facts and fetishes that makes it obvious that the two have a common element of fabrication.’
an object holding in itself a diagram of relations – ‘hieroglyphs in whose dark prism social relations lie congealed and in fragments . . . fossils in which a constellation of forces are petrified.’
‘When hiring me in 2003 HRW knew of much worse: that I had been involved in the killing of about 250 civilians in Iraq.’
The projection was based on specialized software first introduced during the air campaign over Serbia and originally called ‘Bug Splat’; later – when the connotation of civilian death with disinfection was seen as ‘politically unhelpful’ – it was renamed ‘fast collateral damage’, or Fast CD.51 The software included algorithms resembling those employed in architecture, structural engineering and urban planning. It synthesized environmental factors such as the size of a building, its construction materials and techniques, the amount of steel in the structure and glass in its envelope, and the population density within and around it (which varied at different times of day). All these were calculated against other factors: the size and type of bomb, its fuse and the direction of the attack. In general, the software was used to estimate the number of civilian casualties in relation to the interaction between types of buildings and different munitions. Pentagon briefers thought of this as a ‘mitigation technique‘ – a means of reducing the damage and devastation of war – and explained that international law can be complied with through a correct use of the appropriate algorithm, and a proportionate number of civilian deaths.
The magic number in designing the attacks in Iraq, Garlasco recalled, was thirty. ‘If the computer came up with thirty anticipated civilians killed, the air-strike had to go to Rumsfeld or Bush personally to sign off. Anything less than thirty could simply go ahead.’53
The abstract and fuzzy ethics of the lesser evil is here translated into objective choices. ‘The minimum-size bomb to generate the required effect, the type of explosives within it, the angle of attack, the time of day.
The need to keep to the given threshold of civilian deaths, however, necessitated the targeted destruction of building parts – a surgical form of destruction which might involve the destruction of top floors within a tower block, or of single wings in a sprawling building where the target is thought to be hiding and when no more than twenty-nine people would be killed.
The practice of the design of ruins combines the calculation of life and death with those of structural stability.
‘Whether you agree with the aim of war or not, it is going to happen. I stayed on because I wanted to do it in the best way I could. I had responsibility to the pilots and the civilians.’ That he understood his responsibility towards civilians (to upwards of the twenty-ninth civilian one must add) demonstrates the logic of this new form of proportional violence: a violence that both kills and saves, a violence that calculates and determines the threshold between life and death. ‘I didn’t try to kill civilians . . . I focused on military targets and tried my very best every day to minimize civilian casualties’. This is a startling testimony for the way the economy of violence structures the humanitarian present.
Garlasco’s trip to Iraq is important because it marks the moment when techniques and technologies used to ‘design the ruins’ were employed in the diagnosis of the actual damage inflicted. The moment when Garlasco stood in front of and looked at the ruins could be interpreted as the hinge around which the making of ruins turns into the reading of ruins. Garlasco told me that this moment – standing in the centre of Baghdad and in Basra before the ruins that he himself had caused – ‘made me shiver’.
Developments in precision bombing brought about the possibility of aerial targeted assassination. Developments in these techniques also enabled the prediction of material damage, and the number of civilian deaths. These in turn allowed for proportionality analysis to be articulated around precise numbers. Finally, now in different hands, they have also enabled ruins to be studied and interpreted as to the details of the attack. It is in this context of technological continuum, and its political and tactical implementation, that the practice of ‘forensic architecture’ relies on the very technologies of bombing whose results it aims to monitor and reconstruct.
To put it another way, a public that was so shocked about the revelations over Garlasco’s collection of Nazi-era paraphernalia saw nothing strange about a man who had presided over several attacks that killed civilians working for a human rights organization. In 2008, the Washington Post painted a glowing portrait of Garlasco, ‘the man on both sides of the air war debate’,60 while elsewhere, he was often asked about ‘crossing the lines’.
While his move from the Pentagon to Human Rights Watch was widely depicted as a kind of redemption story – like the saint whose virtues could only ever be as great as his previous sins – such a reading misses the extent to which human rights groups and militaries have become intertwined in their methods and aims, and the process by which, in ‘forensic architecture’, destruction and diagnostics have become interchangeable. As the forensics of past atrocities takes such prominent place in present political analysis, another narrative model must be considered. This one belongs to the detective fiction genre: the reading of history from the structures it violates is not a benign process of tuning in or learning to listen; it offers no redemption; rather, it belongs to the same order of violence that it comes to investigate. Today’s forensic investigators of violence move alongside its perpetrators, morphing into them just as the detective becomes one with the criminal.
‘A Verification of Building-Destruction Resulting from Attacks by the Israeli Occupation’.
The archive tries to clear up the chaos and confusion of the after-attack by organizing the rubble into clear categories. But the reading of these images overspills the classifications under which they were filed. In her reading of photographs of violence and destruction, Ariella Azoulay commented upon the way in which details, accidentally recorded in photographs, could challenge the classification logic intended by the archive makers.
Indeed, the ‘book of destruction’ offers glimpses onto daily realities in Gaza, and the consequences of its domination by Israel.
The logic of the ‘book of destruction’, according to its makers – Dr Ibrahim Radwan, the Minister for Public Works, and his director of urban planning, Mohammed al-Ostaz – is that of a property-damage survey, a practical way to account for the necessary work of reconstruction and its cost. But the archive testifies, rather, to a different reality: the impossibility of undertaking any major programme of rebuilding.
Two years prior to the attack, the importing of cement and other vital construction materials into Gaza had been banned. These materials were classified by Israel as ‘dual-use construction materials’ suspected of being used equally to build bunkers and reinforce tunnels.
Charges of ‘fetishism’ seem to haunt the practice of forensics.
By invoking the term, Beaumont might have meant to underline the way in which the focus on structures and ruins might mask the story of the war’s human casualties. His empathy, responding to a similar instinct of many in the human rights world, is understandable. He went on to find some of the people affected and to retell their stories. But shattered concrete and cinderblocks can reveal something different from the human testimony he gathered. In its impersonal bureaucratic logic, with its surveyors’ maps, diagrams, photographs, and captions, and the patterns, repetitions and differences in destruction they reveal, the archive helps capture the relentless magnitude of Gaza’s destruction in a different way.
The Natural History of Destruction,
‘the first modern mass media events in which subjects throughout Europe became spectators to a distant catastrophe . . . helping inaugurate a secular notion of human suffering as well as thoughts about its prevention.’
‘The House Murdered’,
‘all scatter in fragments like beings’: they are the prism through which both private life and common history can be interrogated.
The ‘book of destruction’ can also be read as an archive of materials and construction techniques, which themselves reveal something of the history and economy of the area. The images in the archive reveal the fast and rudimentary building technique typical of refugee homes; the relatively low quantity of cement in mortar composition.
only the refugees have a moral and historical claim against the Israeli state that was established in 1948 on the ruins of their society. The war on refugees is an ongoing form of violence that seeks not only to destroy refugee life and property but also to restructure ‘refugeeness’ – that feature of Palestinian political identity. This kind of war is undertaken both by destruction and reconstruction – and attempts to make the refugee problem disappear by architectural means. Israeli military destruction in refugee camps is often followed by attempts at development, programmes for ‘proper housing’ and urbanization.
This is the reason that refugees sometimes refer to the destruction of camps as ‘the destruction of destruction’. The camp is not a home, it is a temporary arrangement, and its destruction is but the last iteration in an ongoing process of destruction.13 This rhetoric of double negation – the negation of negation – tallies well with what Saree Makdisi, talking about the Israeli refusal to acknowledge the Nakba, has termed ‘the denial of denial,’ which is, he says, ‘a form of foreclosure that produces the inability – the absolutely honest, sincere incapacity – to acknowledge that a denial and erasure have taken place because that denial and erasure have themselves been erased in turn and purged from consciousness.’14 What has been denied is continuously repeated: Israel keeps on inflicting destruction on refugees and keeps on denying that a wrong has been done – as testified by its denial of the findings of international reports on the Gaza war and its inability to accept responsibility for the destruction it causes. The destroyed village of 1948 and the destroyed camp of 2009 stand thus on a historical continuum of ongoing destruction and denial.
This rhetoric of double negation – the negation of negation – tallies well with what Saree Makdisi, talking about the Israeli refusal to acknowledge the Nakba, has termed ‘the denial of denial,’ which is, he says, ‘a form of foreclosure that produces the inability – the absolutely honest, sincere incapacity – to acknowledge that a denial and erasure have taken place because that denial and erasure have themselves been erased in turn and purged from consciousness
What form of practice is called upon by the ‘destruction of destruction’? Does it designate salvation and the beginning of return? Or is it simply a call for the removal of the dust and rubble, for cleaning up and starting all over again?
But a new generation of Palestinian scholars and architects – Ismael Sheikh Hassan and Sari Hanafi in Lebanon, and Nasser Abourahme and Sandi Hillal in Palestine prominent among them – have attempted to challenge the conceptualization of refugee habitats as mere repositories of national memory.
Such a camp could provide a platform for political mobilization.
The reconstruction of Gaza, when and if made possible, might mean the arrival of some international organizations and state donors with a multiplicity of agendas and the means to pursue them. Facing this well-meaning aid, refugees will have to adopt a delicate process of navigating between poles. Homes must be rebuilt, infrastructure laid out, camps and life improved, not instead of but rather in order to support political rights and the continuous struggle to achieve them. This will surely still be much less than perfect but it is certainly not the choice of the lesser evil.