Blog post

"Most were willing to inflict pain beyond the threshold marked as life endangering, when ordered to do so": An extract from The Least of All Possible Evils by Eyal Weizman

Eyal Weizman16 November 2012

In this extract from The Least of All Possible Evils, Eyal Weizman details the dyanamic of the transport of provisions between Israel and Gaza, comparing it to a reverse Milgram experiment - a classic psychological experiment in power and authority and the capacity to inflict pain on ordinary people.


The legal petition against the further reduction of provisions into Gaza was rejected at the end of January 2008. ‘This is the difference between Israel, a democracy fighting for its life within the framework of the law, and the terrorist organizations fighting against it,’ the High Court stated, as if it were a state spokesperson. The court performed the task of an administrator rather than an adjudicator, a partner in the calibration of how much pain Gazans are to be made to legitimately feel. As such, acts of torture and terror aimed at forcing civilians into political compliance conferred on their makers a dignified image. Those proportionaly admin- istering the level of pain could now see themselves as being responsible for the necessary and tragic task of calculating and responsibly choosing the lesser of all possible evils.

Unlike other provisions, imported through the hundreds of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, which threw out Israel’s modulations and calcula- tions, Israel has complete control over the supply of electricity. Examining the fluctuations of electrical current therefore yields a revealing picture of how Israel forced the designated thresholds to the breaking point.

The ability to exercise control through the modulation of flow – in which the checkpoints and terminals within the wall function as valves and switches – has made Israel’s warfare on Gaza resemble an inverse Milgram experiment. In reflecting upon the willing participation of indi- viduals in the functioning of repressive regimes, the Yale professor Stanley Milgram’s infamous 1961 experiment sought to investigate the extent to which ordinary people would obey the orders of figures in authority to inflict pain on others. On one side of a room divided by a one-way mirror, a scientist ordered a volunteer to deliver electrical shocks of ever-increasing strength to a person strapped to a chair on the other side of the room whenever she or he gave wrong answers to questions read from a ques- tionnaire. In the experiment, the person answering the questions was an actor: there was no current in the system and the effects of the shocks were simulated. Those administering the ‘shocks’ were, unknowingly, the subjects of an experiment in the limits of their obedience to a figure of scientific authority. Most were willing to inflict pain beyond the threshold marked as life endangering, when ordered to do so.

An analogous process happened in the context of administering the siege of Gaza, with the crucial difference that the current in Gaza was real enough and the response to bad political choices by the Hamas govern- ment was not to increase the current but rather to reduce it gradually – and thereby destroy the strip’s life-sustaining infrastructure and eventually bring its population to the brink of physical existence. In this inverted Milgram experiment, the authority figures are the scientists, engineers and humanitarian experts advising the Israeli High Court, which ultimately decides on the level of current. Although those administering the reduction guarantee to provide current at a threshold above that at which a ‘humanitarian crisis will be created’, this threshold was constantly tested – much like the upper limits of the electric shock in the Milgram experiment.

Nearly all of Gaza’s energy is supplied by Israel, both directly, from its electric grid, paid for by tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and indirectly, through fuel supplies paid for by the European Union and supplied by the Israeli company Dor Alon to Gaza’s only electrical power plant. Nine high- voltage power lines from Israel and one from Egypt supply Gaza with a maximum of about 140 megawatts (MW). From 2 February 2008 – days after the legal judgment on the humanitarian minimum – the military reduced the current supplied by each of the power lines in turn by 5 per cent every week for the next several months. Another 140 MW were provided by the Gaza Power Plant, a structure built by Enron and which opened a few weeks after the company’s collapse at the end of 2001. Israel reduced the power plant’s capacity by gradually reducing the supply of industrial diesel. The power plant requires a supply of 3.5 million litres of industrial diesel weekly to work at its full capacity. The high court accepted as the humanitarian minimum a quota of 2.2 million, which would reduce its operation to about 68 per cent of capacity. At this level the Gaza Electricity Company had to initiate regular blackouts, and spread the burden of the power outages over the different distribution areas of each power line in order to keep hospitals and other vital services running.

On 9 April 2008, two Israeli citizens were killed by militants at an Israeli-controlled border crossing where this very industrial diesel is piped into Gaza. Israel saw this as ingratitude for the minimum level of fuel provided, and a Ministry of Defence spokesperson declared that from that point on, the opening of the crossings ‘will be evaluated on a day to day basis’. Israel immediately reduced the flow of diesel to 1.5 million litres per week, 42 per cent of what was required for the Gaza Power Plant’s full capacity, and 24 per cent below the threshold of the legally defined red line. Electricity production dropped to 45 MW. Power cuts now affected fresh water pumping from the coastal aquifer, thereby aggravating the water shortages. Crop irrigation was interrupted, destroy- ing fruit and fodder production, which in turn reduced egg and dairy output. When the current was further reduced, fish started dying in the Beit Lahiya fish farms because the pumps needed to filter or oxygenate water stopped functioning. Sewage pumping also decreased. In some cisterns the level of sewage rose to the point where the concrete banks of container pools collapsed. Raw sewage started flooding onto streets and agricultural fields, seeping into the aquifer’s drinking water. In May 2008 the sewage treatment plant overflowed: more than 50 million litres of raw waste poured into the Mediterranean every day, further affecting public health and reducing the fishing catches. Slowly, it also started affecting Israeli beaches. Israeli coastal municipalities north of Gaza started complaining, asking for more current to be supplied to Gaza. In June 2008 Israel increased the flow of diesel close to the level of the ‘humani- tarian minimum’, allowing the power station to reach 60 MW again and for the sewage farms to be repaired and restarted. Depending on the political calculation at any given time, the military reduced or increased the supply of diesel, seeking to achieve an optimum of maximum political impact with minimum intervention. Although there were small demonstrations against Hamas’ rule during times of drastic reduction, Hamas’ control of Gaza was generally strengthened during this period due to the fact that it was the only supplier of emergency services.

When, on 5 November 2008, after Israeli forces killed six Hamas gunmen in a raid into the territory, breaking the ceasefire that had held for several months, all diesel supply to Gaza was swiftly cut off, together with all other provisions. On 5 November the Israeli government sealed every way into and out of Gaza. Egypt did the same on its border to the strip. On 5 November the capacity of the power plant went to 18 per cent of the ‘humanitarian minimum’, but then supplies dried up again and the entire plant shut down three days later. When a single fuel truck arrived on 18 November, the turbine batteries failed to start up, and the plant’s engineers worked frantically to hook up 170 twelve-volt car batteries from cars in the plant parking lot to restart the plant’s turbines. They succeeded but the plant soon shut down again for lack of diesel. For half the days in November and December, the plant was unable to produce any electricity whatsoever. Overstretched generators collapsed. In hospitals, computers and medical equipment fell into disuse. Surgeries and medical lab services were cancelled. Refrigeration outages rendered stockpiles of drugs useless; even the morgues shut down. Just as it seemed things could not get any worse, on 27 December the first bombs started falling. But considering Israel’s more invisible and lesser-known humanitarian attack – exercised across the wall of Gaza – the war of 2008–9 was all over before it had even begun. 


Filed under: excerpts, gaza