Good War/Bad Terror: Morality, Violence, and the (De)Valuation of Palestinian Life

gaza_03212012Last Friday, the Israeli Air Force killed two members of the Palestinian Resistance Committee in Gaza, who were believed to be planning an attack on Israel from the Egyptian Sinai some time in the following days. This sparked an onslaught of rocket attacks from Gaza into Southern Israel, and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, with civilian and militant casualties on both sides. In the wake of the attacks, Israeli journalist Larry Derfner, in an article in +972 Magazine, chose to address a common justification for military violence by the state of Israel, that “Palestinians have no right to lift a finger against our control of their lives and land,” and called for a rejection of the idea that “we [Israel] will always be totally innocent, while they will always be totally guilty.”

Derfner’s article led me to think further about common discourses of morality, war, and terror. Anthropologist Talal Asad asks: “how is the difference between terrorism and war defined in contemporary public discourse?”1   It is commonly understood that war is “a legal activity when it fulfills certain conditions,” and that international law protects certain acts of war.2 Conversely, terrorist violence is considered morally worse because of its illegality. In other words, terrorism kills innocent civilians, whereas war kills “only those who are legitimately killable.”3 This means that states that legally wage war can determine who can and cannot be killed. This kind of power has serious implications particularly in the so-called War on Terror: take the common assumption that Muslims or Arabs are perpetrators of terrorism because of a culturally ingrained tendency towards violence – does that imply that Muslims or Arabs as a group are legitimately killable when the West decides to wage a “moral” war against terror?

This discourse is present in Israeli military rhetoric; the construction of the Separation Wall, military checkpoints, and house demolitions are all part of a collective punishment policy that operates under the conviction that all Palestinians are potential terrorists. The Palestinian suicide bomber has, particularly since the Second Intifada, become a powerful symbol of terrorism. No doubt a politically violent act that targets civilians, suicide bombings are exploited by the military and media as justifications for military aggression in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Media coverage of the violence, however, tends to downplay the violence of the Israeli occupation and focuses heavily on Palestinian “terror” in order to interpellate the Israeli public to support military action. In her 2009 book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Judith Butler asserts:

If we begin with the assumption that justified violence will be undertaken by certain kinds of states (those generally regarded as embodying principles of liberal democracy) or certain kinds of communities (those where the population’s cultural and material life is already valued and explicitly represented by liberal democracies) then we have already built a certain political demographics into the definition of what might qualify as justified violence.5

The valuation (or devaluation) of life is a key component to understanding how violence may be justified by the state. Butler is interested in interrogating normative conceptions of “whose life is a life,” and whose life can be justifiably threatened by state violence.4 The category of “women and children,” she claims, “has a certain salience, makes a certain emotional claim, since both categories designate presumptively innocent populations.”5 B’Tselem estimates the casualties of 2008’s Operation Cast Lead at 1,385 Palestinians – 318 who were under the age of 18 and 762 of whom were non-participants in the hostilities – and the injured at 5,300. Conversely, 9 Israeli casualties were reported, all IDF soldiers, and approximately 100 soldiers were wounded. To be sure, the point here is not to compare the weight of these losses, but to highlight the large number of innocent civilians and children that were killed during the invasion. How can Israeli actions be justified given the general indignation towards the killing of women and children? Butler suggests that justifying whose life is life also requires a distinction regarding “whose life is effectively transformed into an instrument” of war:6

Let us presume for the moment that there is something like a general disposition, broadly cultivated and operative in a wide range of cultural contexts, to regard the death of women and children as unjust and unacceptable forms of civilian casualties in war. I want to suggest that it may be possible to have this point of view, but to question whether the women or children ought really to be conceived as women and children, whether they operate in the same way that women and children do, or whether, in fact, they ought to be named and regarded in a fully different way. Once that happens, we can hold to the general view that the killing of women and children is an unacceptable part of war, but maintain, through a complicated form of disavowal and rationalization, that these deaths do not fall under that category.7

When the Palestinian civilian population is regarded as anything but, there are no casualties to account for. If civilians are used as human shields or if militants hide out in buildings populated with civilians, then civilians necessarily become targets. Without dismantling this logic, Palestinian civilian casualties of this conflict will continue to be ignored, devalued, or worse–justified. And as a result, as Derfner points out, they will always be totally guilty.

1 Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) 15.

2 Ibid., 16.

3 Ibid., 16.

4 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Brooklyn: Verso, 2010) xii.

5 Ibid., xxi.

6 Ibid., x.

7 Ibid., xxi.

6_1Marianna Reis is an MA student at Columbia University.  Her research interests include Palestinian identity, diaspora, and cinema.  She is currently conducting research on representations of identity in political cartoons featured in Palestinian newspapers during the First and Second Intifadas.

About Marianna Reis

Marianna Reis is a graduate of the MESAAS MA program at Columbia University.  Her research interests include Palestinian identity, diaspora, and cinema.  She is currently conducting research on representations of identity in political cartoons featured in Palestinian newspapers during the First and Second Intifadas.