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The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza

Groundbreaking exploration of the philosophy underpinning Western humanitarian intervention.
The principle of the “lesser evil”—the acceptability of pursuing one exceptional course of action in order to prevent a greater injustice—has long been a cornerstone of Western ethical philosophy. From its roots in classical ethics and Christian theology, to Hannah Arendt’s exploration of the work of the Jewish Councils during the Nazi regime, Weizman explores its development in three key transformations of the problem: the defining intervention of Médecins Sans Frontières in mid-1980s Ethiopia; the separation wall in Israel-Palestine; and international and human rights law in Bosnia, Gaza and Iraq. Drawing on a wealth of new research, Weizman charts the latest manifestation of this age-old idea. In doing so he shows how military and political intervention acquired a new “humanitarian” acceptability and legality in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Reviews

  • “Eyal Weizman’s work has become an indispensable source of both insight and guidance in these difficult times. He understands the evolving dynamics of war and sovereignty better than anyone.”
  • “This is a wonderful book, written with clarity, precision, and passion. It takes the reader into the heart of contemporary necro-politics and calculations of “lesser evils” by powerful states and their humanitarian accomplices. Deeply learned and informative on every page, this is essential reading for anyone who cares about contemporary conditions of warfare and state-controlled violence; about the spatial practices that reinforce and regulate systemic forms of violence, such as the calculation of minimal requirements for human survival. In the spirit of Doctors Without Borders, Weizman is an architect without borders, at home in political philosophy, military history, just war theory, and the spatial systems of controlled, calculated violence that constitute Israel–Palestine, and much of the world today.”
  • “Originality, ingenuity, and brilliance do not even begin to do justice to this amazing study, this architectural forensics of battle and human rights as pieced together from the study of the ruin and the terrifying logic of “the lesser evil”. How astonishing to see our new world this new way.”
  • “Weizman continues to offer daring social and political commentary, questioning taken-for-granted structures and processes that perpetuate oppression and violence.”

Blog

  • The horrifying reality of living in the West Bank for Palestinian families



    What follows is an extract from Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation.

    Laith Al-Hlou

    Farmer, day laborer, 32
    Born in Bethlehem, West Bank
    Interviewed in the West Bank

    [Editors] The first thing we notice as we drive to Laith Al-Hlou’s home southeast of Bethlehem is the challenge presented by the roads. Some roads are almost too steep to climb, and others almost too muddy or rocky to navigate. The bottom of our car crunches and scrapes as we creep along toward his village. Eventually we reach the compound where Laith lives with his family. Laith’s house, the family’s olive trees, and two other houses belonging to his extended family are surrounded by a short rock wall topped with barbed wire. When we pull up in our car, a dozen or more kids come spilling out to greet us—Laith’s children and nieces and nephews. Some wear cracked plastic shoes, some wear no shoes at all.  Laith is a skinny thirty-two-year-old with a wife and five young kids. The seven of them sleep in a twelve-foot by twelve-foot room that includes a wardrobe, a crib for the baby, and twin bunk beds piled with blankets. This is the main room of the family’s living space. They also have a small kitchen and toilet, all of which is on the second floor, above a chicken coop.

    After a tour of his house, we sit with Laith on plastic chairs outside, and he tells us about the ways his community has changed since 1996, when Israeli settlers first moved near his home. His wife stays close by, and even though she is hard of hearing, she interjects periodically with her own stories. Laith is one of up to 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C—the roughly 60 percent of the West Bank that is still under full military and administrative control of Israel following the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993.1 Area C also contains many of the West Bank’s Israeli settlements, a collection of villages established by Israeli citizens following the occupation of the region in 1967. Today, there are 400,000–500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank outside of Jerusalem. The guard tower of a nearby settlement looms above Laith’s property as we sit and talk. He tears up as he tells us that pressure from the settlements may force him to someday relocate his family.

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  • Return: A Prologue


    Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel, 1973

    By Ghada Karmi in Return: A Palestinian Memoir


    As I sat at my father’s bedside, listening to his irregular breathing and the sound of the pulse monitor attached to his finger, I thought how frightening it was to be brought up sharp against the awareness of one’s own mortality. I feared death equally as much as I knew my father did. He was a very old man, but age had not dimmed his ardour for life and I imagined I would be the same. Like most people, I did not like to contemplate my dying and avoided thinking about it, but it was always there, waiting in the background to be attended to. An elderly doctor I knew once told me, ‘I believe that people must prepare for death. Avoidance and denial are foolish. If we face up fair and square to the inevitability of death it will lose its terrors.’

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  • A Country in Darkness



    Introduction to Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupationedited by Vijay Prashad 


    Forget Palestine 

    Palestine is easily forgotten. There is war. There is suffering. The war ends. The suffering vanishes. Silence.

    Was there even a “war”? Palestine is under occupation, and has been since 1967, since 1948. An occupied land is not at war, can never be at war. It is occupied. Occupation is a state of war. The occupied space retaliates. It seeks its freedom. It is punished. Was Operation Protective Edge a war or a punishment? Operation Grapes of Wrath, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Cloud—names less of defense and more of vengeful retribution.

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Other books by Eyal Weizman