Non-fiction review: Gaza – Morality, Law, Politics

'Gaza' coverGaza – Morality, Law, Politics
Raymond Gaita (ed)
UWA Press

Philosopher and author Raimond Gaita has assembled a collection of essays drawn from a lecture series on the subject of Gaza. The contributors are all academics; international law, anthropology, political science, history and ethics are among the disciplines represented. Gaita’s project is to subject the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza to moral, legal and political analysis.

In his introductory essay, Gaita foregoes the customary overview of contributors but pointedly criticises the anthropologist Ghassan Hage for suggesting that ‘even to discuss whether the invasion of Gaza was justified is to diminish one’s humanity’. Gaita accuses Hage of a failure of academic professionalism and goes on to establish the ‘modest, workaday conception’ of truth around which the collection coalesces: ‘It is a guiding assumption of this book,’ says Gaita, ‘as it was of the lectures series from which its essays … were developed, that some of the narratives are better than others because they are more truthful.’ Gaita privileges a notion of truth, ‘as it naturally associates with the belief that even in bitterly contested narratives there is such a thing – a robust thing – as trying to see things as they are rather than as they appear, often distorted, from this or that perspective.’

The UN commissioned Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead, as the Israeli invasion was so colourfully named, does not meet Gaita’s standard of truth because it failed to adequately consider the Israeli position and is, therefore, by Gaita’s measure, fatally flawed. However, it is a fact that Israel refused to cooperate with Goldstone on the grounds that his brief was confined to an interrogation of Israel’s actions alone in Gaza. In response, Goldstone accepted the commission on the condition that he be allowed to include Hamas’ role in the lead-up to the invasion. Still, as is so often the case, most recently in the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla incident, Israel refused independent enquiry into its behaviour.

In his essay ‘Gaza and Catastrophe Theory’, Geoffrey Brahm Levey argues that in response to Hamas’ rocket attacks in the final months of 2008, Israel had two clear options: 1) To legitimately (under international law) opt for a military attack to defend itself while respecting the legal conditions of ‘just conduct’ of the attack, or 2) To refrain from a military campaign and persist with political, diplomatic and economic pressure. Levey concludes that Israel chose a third option: a military response exercised less than justly. Using its enormous firepower, Israel effectively imprisoned the people of Gaza, turning a longstanding economic siege into a savage military one. As Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, remarked in a television interview on January 19, 2009:

Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.

Against the backdrop of a looming national election in which she was running as a candidate for the office of Prime Minister, Livni’s bellicose rhetoric was matched by her opponents, Barak and Olmert. All three were determined to reassert Israel’s dominance in the region after the humiliating bruising it had received from Hezbollah in the 2006 Summer War in Lebanon. Baal habayit hishtagea – ‘the landlord has gone berserk’ – was the idiomatic expression used to describe Israel’s actions in Gaza. Its arsenal included the illegal use of white phosphorous bombs, which it denied until documentary evidence to the contrary was produced.

In his exploration of notions of victimhood and violence, Mark Baker cites Jean-Francois Lyotard’s observation that ‘one side’s legitimacy does not imply the other side’s lack of legitimacy’. Baker adopts an ethnographic perspective to show how narratives around war expose the way Israel and Palestine have come to function ‘as cultural codes for a wider set of assumptions and attitudes whose roots lie in the structures of victim identities.’ Ghassan Hage takes this theme further in his essay ‘On Narcissistic Victimhood’. This is by far the most confronting essay in the collection and also the most self-consciously personal in its reflective, subjective tone. It is also the least referenced essay, with only one citation, a reference to Theodor Herzl’s suggestion that the best way to clear a country of wild beasts is to ‘organise a large and active hunting party, drive the animals together, and throw a melinite bomb in their midst.’ This from the visionary behind the establishment of the Israeli state.

Hage does not like to talk about Gaza, a place he describes as being in a ‘permanent state of criminality,’ primarily as a result of Israel’s many strategies of impoverishment, isolation and humiliation designed to bring about the ‘politicide’ of the Palestinian people – the killing of their political will. Hage argues that to differentiate Operation Cast Lead too much from this background is to be complicit in normalising this ‘permanent structural state of criminality’.

He goes further.

‘I also think,’ writes Hage, ‘that discussing whether it is morally justifiable or not, is itself a Western form of self-indulgence that has a long colonial history: Only the powerful who can afford the leisurely space of self-reflexivity over their nasty deed can engage in such a form of questioning.’ Hage sees the Israelis and Palestinians as being mutually caught in a narcissistic victimhood, which blinds them to the possibility of thinking relationally. ‘How can we make a bad relation a good relation?’ he asks. ‘Thinking relationally, not thinking in terms of the narcissistic self-affirmation of entities, is the way to go.’

Hage makes it clear that he is no supporter of Hamas. Indeed, several of the contributors in Gaza: Morality, Law, Politics quite rightly point to the corruption and violence that characterises the Hamas movement. It is true that the Hamas Charter calls for the destruction of Israel but it is also true that the Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Meshal, has put some distance between the goals of the current regime and the rhetoric of the Charter, which was drawn up during the first Intifada. It is also a fact that the Palestinian people, for better or worse, democratically elected Hamas after years of stalled progress under the Arafat and, latterly, Abbas regimes. The Hamas rocket attacks which immediately preceded Israel’s 2008 invasion were launched in retaliation to Israel’s failure to lift the crippling blockade imposed after the election of Hamas. That blockade is still in place and is the focus of the current aid flotilla campaign.

In an interview with Guernica magazine, American intellectual Norman Finkelstein talks of a mounting disillusionment among Israel’s Jewish-American support base (some 80% of whom voted for Obama, according to polls cited by Finkelstein), especially those under thirty years of age, who believe Israel has gone too far in its Gaza campaign. More broadly, Finkelstein mentions a mobilisation of forces calling for the imposition of sanctions against Israel, as well as what he calls ‘universal jurisdiction’ initiatives in which Israeli military personnel can be detained in foreign countries they visit for past violations of international law. Finkelstein is no friend of the Israeli regime and has been widely vilified by the pro-Israel lobby. In his mention of the Goldstone Report, Finkelstein, along with several of the contributors in the Gaita book, makes the point that Goldstone did not investigate the legality of Operation Cast Lead. The legal point on which such an investigation rests is the distinction between justice of war and justice in war. As Finkelstein puts it:

The justice of a war basically refers to the question whether there is a right to attack in the first place. Justice in a war is concerned with whether the fighting happens in accordance with the international laws of war. In Goldstone’s report, he did not discuss the question of whether Israel’s attack was legitimate. He discussed the question of how Israel fought the war. I think his conclusions were pretty much as damning as they could get. He says that Israel launched a deliberately disproportionate attack ‘designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.’ I don’t know how much further he could go; he’s very clear in stating that all the evidence points to one conclusion – that Israel’s attack was designed, premeditated, orchestrated by the highest levels of Israeli society, that the senior-most officials of the Israeli military were involved in state terrorism, designed to terrorize the civilian population. That’s a pretty tough assessment.

Finkelstein, following Goldstone, insists that Operation Cast Lead was not a war. ‘How do you describe a situation where the attacker is using “insane amounts of firepower,” but there’s no military enemy?’ he asks. ‘That’s not a war. That’s a massacre.’

I am not qualified to judge the excellence or otherwise of the scholarly contributions in Raimond Gaita’s collection. But as a lay person living in a nation which adopts a softly, softly approach to its bilateral relations with Israel (even when the passports of our citizens are forged to advance the task of an assassination squad), I was left wondering, after reading this book. How much longer can we, the people of Australia if not our representatives, continue to turn a blind eye to the wretched circumstances in which the people of Gaza and the West Bank live under the whip hand of the landlord?

Boris Kelly

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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  1. As the editor of a book, I would never, in my introduction, criticise a contributor, especially not for a lack of professionalism. The view about Ghassan Hage attibuted to me, is a view I feared that others might hold. I preface it by saying, “Many people will believe . . .” I then devote three pages defending Hage against such a view.

  2. argh – justice of war, justice in war … tell it to the children. I agree, Boris, that Australia’s capacity for non-opinion when it comes to the State of Israel’s increasing cruelty and madness is surely stretched to its limit. Thanks for the review.

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