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Murderous humanitarianism

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“The white man preaches, doses, vaccinates, assassinates and (from himself) receives absolution. With his psalms, his speeches, his guarantees of liberty, equality and fraternity, he seeks to drown the noise of his machine guns. It is no good objecting that these periods of rapine are only a necessary phase and pave the way, in the words of the time-honored formula, ‘for an era of prosperity founded on a close and intelligent collaboration between the natives and the metropolis!’ It is no good trying to palliate collective outrage and butchery by jury in the new colonies by inviting us to consider the old, and the peace and prosperity they have so long enjoyed.
– ‘Murderous Humanitarianism’, Surrealist Group of France, 1932”

IDF snipers, under instructions from their commanders, have been picking off and murdering civilians

This massacre, the latest visited on protesters participating on the 'Great March of Return', was timed to coincide with the opening of a new US Embassy in Jerusalem. It seems likely that the killing is, in its own mediated way, a celebration of Trump's carte blanche extended to Israel with regard to the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem. But it continues, as Doctors Without Borders and B'TSelem have both pointed out, a policy of firing live rounds at protesters, justified by the idea that the protests are a "combat zone" -- or, in the fevered imagination of the IDF, an "area of terror".

Condemning this, Amnesty-style, on human rights grounds, ought to be the easy part. Indeed, in a way, it is. But condemnation can be compromised by its untenable precepts. And without extending this critique to Amnesty or any of the other agencies doing their best to chart Israel's current crimes, I want to quickly point out one way in which humanitarian critique, as in empires past, can be bound up with some quite barbarous precepts.

 Consider Peter Tatchell:

"Why do Israelis not use non-lethal defence methods like tears gas & water cannon? Or shoot at legs, not heads or torsos?"

What is it that Tatchell implies is being defended against here? Or, to take another example, what lies behind the "friction" and "level of clashes" euphemistically alluded to by this Haaretzjournalist, before he goes on to blame protesters for marching toward helpless snipers, "like a line of bulls on the way to the slaughter"? Bear in mind that, as with the Tatchell quote, the argument here is phrased as a critique of the IDF. Israel should have done more to stop the "lethal clashes", it is averred.

The IDF has, in giving ideological flesh to these bare bones of "clashes" and "friction", resorted to terrifying the world with Hamas's malign orchestration of "arson kites" and "disabledcivilians". Kids with fence-cutters? Gazans lobbing rocks at tanks? Kites on fire? Against one of the most powerful military forces in the world, backing up three lines of barbed wire fence?

Clearly, these images are not supposed to speak for themselves. They rely, for their coherent power to terrify, on an underlying narrative. The line of the day from Israel, repeated by Nikki Haley, is that Israel is defending itself against "violent rioters", who aim to break through the armistice line "with the goal of kidnapping or killing Israelis". The Hamas leadership, don't you know, "instructed" its people to tear out the hearts of Israelis. By the Infowars.com standard of proof that Israel's supporters tend to adopt, this is damning. Israeli propaganda increasingly resembles a foghorn of paranoia.

And so it is that, within the "area of terror", everything is a manifestation of the Hamas plot. They're coming. They've announced their plans. Everything has happened as if under the direction of this plot. Never mind that this march has little to do with Hamas. That Hamas did not organise it. That Hamas endorsed it at the last minute. That any speech by a Hamas leader in this context, even assuming good faith in translation, is pure, impotent bombast. That the fantasmatic idea of Gazans flooding into Israel to enact such a threat is not only insensible of the real balance of forces, but also racist in its precepts. That it is barbarous that one even has to point all this out (and one does, you know). Never mind all that. 

It just so happens that a certain type of humanitarian liberalism can't get over the fantasy, and the terror (or thrill) that it imparts. This is rooted, for non-Israelis, in a form of narcissistic solidarity with "people like us". As Edward Said used to point out, everyone wants security from invasion, kidnapping and murder, but this discourse is generally not meant for Palestinians. If anything, the outcry of Palestinians, their protests, tend to be the object of a performative disidentification. And that is what is happening when people say, 'couldn't Israel just shoot them in the legs?' 

The march is happening in Gaza because Israel is persecuting Palestinians, ultimately seeking their oblivion as a political entity. The killings are happening because Israel is trying to solve, with its overwhelming military power, a political problem. That problem is that Israel cannot reconcile its long-term objectives with any peaceable settlement with the Palestinians, and is slowly losing international support. And, there is a chance that over time the strategy of civil society mobilisation will break out of the constraints imposed by political leaderships which are themselves rooted in an Israel-dependent capitalist class. And that it will gain global solidarity which, linked to the BDS campaign, might even be effectual.

One is free, of course, to express an underlying solidarity with Israel's "defence" against such a protest. And it makes sense that, in doing so, one would at least partially partake of the fantasy framework that construes it as a military defence against a military threat, rather than a military defence against a political threat. One is likewise free to prescribe and calibrate just the right type of violence, just the appropriate level of prophylactic bloodshed, proportionate to such defence. 

However, if this is the foundation of one's humanitarianism, then it really is "murderous humanitarianism" in the sense described by the Surrealists.