The wretched of Gaza: the law and political economy of dehumanisation

Over a week has passed since Israel commenced a deadly retaliatory operation against the population of Gaza, Palestine in response to the break-out and surprise attack on southern Israeli settlements, cities, and villages by Palestinian militant groups, led by Hamas. Since then, the Israeli Air Force have boasted of dropping 6,000 bombs on the Gaza Strip in just six days, as the death toll in the enclave surged to nearly 3,500 people with 12,000 wounded after ten days. All major Western powers have declared unconditional military, political, economic, and diplomatic support to Israel, while most media in the West have not only overtly reproduced Israeli narratives on the conflict, but have functioned to automatically repeat unverified — and often outright false — claims.

Most outlets have rightly noted that the targeting of civilians by Palestinian militant groups constitute breaches of international humanitarian law.  What has been ignored by much Western media and analysis, however, are the legitimating functions of pervasive dehumanising discourses in both furthering breaches of international law and in fuelling the political economy foundations of this long-standing war. These dynamics are not new, and the deployment of rhetoric that purposefully constructs a subaltern, dispensable Palestinian population have featured throughout decades of Israeli occupation to justify breaches of international, humanitarian law by the occupying power while obfuscating the real political economy drivers of the war — which have continued since the 1948 Nakba.

The framework of necropolitics can help understand how these discourses have fuelled breaches of international, humanitarian law by Israel since the 7 October Hamas attack, and how they continue to feed the political and economic drivers of war and occupation. The concept was first introduced by Achille Mbembe, Cameroon philosopher and political theorist, to describe the ultimate form of state sovereignty as ‘the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die’. It fuses Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower — the state control over life — with the theory of the state of exception, when the rule of law can be suspended. Put simply, necropolitics is the state’s manufacture of entire peoples who live at the edge of life below a spectral, menacing death that can be arbitrarily (ad arbitrium) applied when politically expedient.


Silent applause for the death of laws

The relevant international humanitarian law applying to Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories are contained within the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the broad body of customary law that binds all states. Importantly, Israel is regarded as an occupying power in Gaza, and across Palestinian territories, under this regime by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations, with its occupation constituting an ongoing war governed by these standards. This is because Israel completely controls land, sea, and air borders — as has been painfully illustrated in Gaza.

Under the Geneva Conventions, Israel must ensure the basic needs of Palestinians in Gaza are met, such as food, medical supplies and other basic goods. This has plainly not occurred as Israel has ordered a complete blockade on Gaza, demonstrating that the Israeli government is actively using famine as a weapon of war — another illegal act in international law. The ensuing humanitarian crisis has been made more desperate as Israel refuses to create any humanitarian corridor, attacking civilians it directs to flee, and bars access for humanitarian relief. Once again, these are clear breaches of international humanitarian law.

The indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks by the Israeli military on predominantly civilian targets, alongside medical units, personnel, and transports, are clearly prohibited in international law, which all states are bound by. All these violations, due to their serious and catastrophic nature, constitute war crimes.


The flagrant and continued violations of international humanitarian law by Israel, condoned by Western governments, has been legitimised by ubiquitous dehumanising discourses that both ostracises Palestinians as a people and excludes Gaza from legal remit.

The dehumanisation of Palestinians by the Israeli government and institutions, alongside Western media, has been a staple since 1948, though it has reached an apogee in 2023. Without rehearsing the litany of rhetoric that portray Palestinians as sub-human just in the last week here, Micaela Sahhar’s powerful piece explores the depraved framing of Palestinians as ‘human animals’ (a phrase used by  Israel’s defence minister). An entire people are framed as vipers, pigs, or terrorists that do not have a claim on humanity, who are not thought about as bodies of flesh and blood like ‘our own’ (in the West). The starting, baseline point for any singular Palestinian, then, is that they must, in a Fanonian sense, prove to us that they are sufficiently ‘like us’ to have any recognition as a human being — a chimera that still demands a Kafkaesque performance, such as when Palestinians at any public appearance are ordered to denounce terrorism with every breath, but will still never be enough.

Constructing Palestinians as sub-human and ‘not like us’ promotes the idea that there is no ‘human opposition’ to Israel, but rather an abstract notion of evil that mere bullets will not suffice to destroy — echoing the brutalising discourse of the War on Terror that left millions dead. This, in turn, justifies the abatement of international humanitarian law in the minds of those who agree, actively or passively, with this framing, as there are no humans for humanitarian law to find.

In the present moment, dehumanisation functions to help suspend international humanitarian law over Gaza, which is then left in a permanent state of exception from the normal rule of law. Israel’s leadership propose to turn Gaza into a ‘deserted island’ or a ‘city of tents’, while US Republicans have demanded that Israel ‘level[s] the place’. This rhetoric is based not only on the sub-human framing of Palestinians, but their perceived, seemingly contradictory, collective threat to Israel: Palestinians are denigrated as inherently violent in their nature and prone to ‘sanctifying death’, as the Israeli Police Commissioner has stated. It is deemed therefore that to protect the status quo, or ‘state of law’, ‘violence must be done to the law’ as Mbembe argues, to permit what was only yesterday seen as a horrific exception. Gaza must be placed in ‘conditio inhumana’ that is outside the normal juridical order, but equally an inherent display of Israel’s sovereign power, to permit the suspension of international humanitarian law.


Land and accumulation: the political economy of dehumanisation

Discourses of dehumanisation targeting Indigenous populations have been central to the political economy of historical European colonial occupation. The English regularly depicted the Irish in the seventeenth century as culturally inferior, irrational and prone to violence, while Indigenous peoples in what is now Australia, the United States, and Canada were portrayed as infantile savages. This not only created the ‘White Man’s Burden’ and the necessity for what the French called mission civilisatrice, but also justified and fuelled the jurisdictional basis for colonial land accumulation — the primary political economy basis of Western occupation of indigenous lands.

The dehumanisation of Palestinians is similarly produced along these lines, which also have overt connections to the political economy of occupation, centred around the Israeli control of land and resources. Israeli wars and attacks against Palestinians, especially in Gaza in 2008, 2014 and 2021, have been euphemistically called ‘mowing the grass’, dehumanising Palestinians as weeds on land that must be removed. This rhetoric speaks starkly of the necropolitics of ‘managing the multitudes’, where the ‘walking dead’ of Palestine are immobilised, cut down, or scattered by the occupying power, together with attempts to extract and loot resources. Indeed, land is central to not only the economic survival and cultural heritage of Palestinians, but the political potentiality for a future Palestinian state. The expropriation of land thus has not only political economy dimensions but is also a form of epistemicide: an erasure of peoples, their knowledges, and ways of being through expropriative, and direct, violence. The separation of Palestinians from their land and natural resources, both discursively and in material reality, is a violent form of de-subjectivisation

The removal of Palestinians from their land has been a primary goal of Israeli state policy and associated discourses of dehumanization, which has become more naked and explicit under Israel’s current right-wing government. Palestinian territory, encompassing the Gaza Strip and West Bank (including East Jerusalem) has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. This is an opinion shared by international law and the Israeli Supreme Court, where a two-tiered legal and political system exists to bestow benefits to Israeli settlers while constraining the rights of Palestinians through military rule. Israel has recently, and explicitly, furthered settlements in the West Bank and plans greater expansions still. The state has an intricate regime of walled separation encasing Palestinians in heavily regulated zones that creates a fait accompli on the ground of annexation, while the Israeli government and institutions have aimed to replace Palestinian families in Jerusalem with settlers to ‘change the facts on the ground’ and de facto annex territory.

The UN recently released a major report — which has barely received any coverage — documenting Israel’s expropriation and exploitation of land, water, and natural resources (illegal pillaging), where Palestinian land is often confiscated for ‘military purposes’ to then be used for settler construction. This is a naked violation of international humanitarian law, which prohibits the transfer of populations to occupied territory. Cumulatively, international as well as Israeli human rights organisations have classified this system as one of apartheid, a war crime in international law.


Born anywhere, anyhow. Die anywhere, from anything.

The discourses of dehumanisation that spread from Israeli narratives and are championed by Western media justify breaches of international humanitarian law in order to further the political economy of occupation. Constructing Palestinians as a sub-human enemy that is freely disposable by the Israeli occupying power, preferably in a spectacular fashion, has been called the symbolic order of our times by Mbembe. The deplorable Israeli bombing of Ahli Arabi Hospital in Gaza on 17 October is a symptom of what is written here, as is the depraved passive framing of the hospital ‘exploding‘ by Western media or Western leaders incredulously placing blame on the anonymised inhumanity of the ‘[O]ther team‘. Israel thrives on the continued insecurity claimed by it and championed by Western states worldwide, where the only solution is to ‘open the gates of hell’ onto Gaza.

For Mbembe, Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the most trenchant example of necropolitics — the power of death upon an entire, captive population, which modern technologies of destruction that makes the violence more anatomical and sensorial to create ‘death-worlds’, as we are seeing in Gaza. The Gaza Strip has been marked as a site for indigenous elimination through the portrayal of all Palestinians as sub-human as the Western world cheers Israel’s use of ritualistic violence against the enclave. With the arcs of Palestinian dehumanisation so ingrained in Western media, institutions, and government, resistance to this discourse must come from people everywhere, all the time.


Image: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Elliot Dolan-Evans

Elliot Dolan-Evans is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law and an Assistant Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine. He has previously worked as a lawyer and medical doctor, and as a conflict analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His post-PhD research focuses on the political economy of peacebuilding.

More by Elliot Dolan-Evans ›

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  1. Six thousand bombs in six days.
    Who builds those bombs?
    Who buys those bombs?
    Who commissions the construction of those bombs?
    Who designs those bombs?
    Who pays for those bombs?
    Who issues the orders to drop those bombs?
    Who loads those bombs?
    Who drops those bombs?
    ‘Who’ is complicit, in murder.

  2. I agree entirely with the statement that the Palestinian people have been dehumanised by the Israeli government. I wonder why they are so inhuman themselves and can only imagine that they are reliving their own misery and trauma in the next generation. My greatest concern is the stance taken by Western governments including our own in supporting Israel. I don’t know anyone who agrees with our government position. I am heartened somewhat by Penny Wong’s recent remarks about Israeli war crimes and hope that her power in the party will challenge Albanese on this issue. Good luck with your campaign.

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