In his final book The Drowned and The Saved, the writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, reflected on ‘useless’ forms of violence. In the book, he notes that violence for some had the ‘sole purpose of creating pain, occasionally having a purpose, yet always redundant, always disproportionate to the purpose itself’. The moral voice of such a humanitarian as Levi cannot be lost to history at times like these and poignantly his thoughts speak to the events unfolding in Gaza. Israel’s current military assault on Gaza appears to meet Levi’s definition of ‘useless violence’. It’s consistent with the Dahiya Doctrine, the asymmetrical military strategy first implemented by Israel in its aerial strafing of Dahieh, the southern suburb of Beirut, in 2006. IDF commander Gadi Eisenkot articulated the strategy at the time when he said: ‘We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction’. So, Israel’s prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu was being completely consistent with this strategy when he vowed following the Hamas attacks on 7 October: ‘All the places in which Hamas is based, in this city of evil, all the places Hamas is hiding in, acting from — we’ll turn them into rubble’. As the occupying power in Gaza, Israel is obliged under international law to ensure that Palestinian civilians are not held responsible for the crimes of Hamas or made to ‘suffer for acts they play no role in and cannot control’. UN human rights chief, Craig Mokhiber, concluded that Israel’s ‘systematic persecution and purging’ of the Palestinian people represents ‘a textbook case of genocide’ and he resigned in protest at Western complicity in the ‘horrific assault’.
The death toll alone in Gaza has been on an industrial scale with one in 200 people killed since 7 October which is 0.5 percent of the population, with 68 percent of the dead women and children. It is not only the indiscriminate civilian death toll inflicted on Gaza that reflects the application of ‘useless cruelty’ but the callous decimation of the civilian infrastructure designed to make life intolerable for the living. Bakeries, hospitals, schools, health facilities, ambulances, and water and sanitation installations, in addition to 45 percent of the housing stock, have been damaged or destroyed. Israel’s total siege of Gaza imposed on 9 October to include food, water, medicines and fuel – described by Oxfam as a ‘siege within a siege’ since the territory was already blockaded since 2007 –- is leading to the spread of infectious diseases. The World Health Organisation has recorded 44,000 cases of diarrhea and 70,000 acute respiratory infections caused by almost 900,000 internally displaced persons taking refuge in 154 UNRWA shelters, mostly schools. As Gaza faces into wWinter, 2.3 million people, of whom 80 percent or 1.7 million are refugees –- descendants of 700,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homeland in the 1948 Nakba – need urgent humanitarian support and shelter.
Primo Levi drew upon an interview with Franz Strangl, the commandant of Treblinka, in which he was asked ‘considering you were going to kill them all … what was the point of the humiliations, the cruelties?’ They were necessary, argued Strangl, ‘to condition those who were to be the material executors of the operations’. In other words, argues Levi, the ‘victim must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt’. When Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, described Palestinians as ‘human animals’ and Benyamin Netanyahu called described the war in Gaza as a ‘struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle’, can these statements be interpreted as anything other than the dehumanisation of Palestinians?
Levi’s definition of ‘useless violence’ is also reflected in the vague and aimless goal of Israel’s military strategy on Gaza. ‘We will change the Middle -East’, said Netanyahu in the immediate aftermath of 7 October, and ‘uproot Hamas’. But how is Gaza to be administered without Hamas? As Haim Tomer, a former senior officer with Mossad, suggests: ‘I don’t think that there is a viable, workable solution for Gaza the day after we evacuate our forces’. So apart from wreaking what Amnesty International describes as a ‘cataclysmic assault on the occupied Gaza Strip’, amounting to indiscriminate deaths, mass civilian casualties and war crimes, what is Israel’s end goal? It has vowed to continue the assault on Gaza after the temporary pauses in bombing to facilitate an exchange of hostages for prisoners. The forced displacement of Gazans from the north to the south of the Gaza Strip has been followed up by an order to evacuate Khan Younis, the largest city in the south. This suggests the beginning of a major and, for Gazans, catastrophic Israeli campaign in the south. The people of Gaza remain steadfast in opposing their forced transfer into Egypt’s Sinai desert – a second Nakba – which means 2.3 million people will be corralled into ever decreasing areas of land without shelter, food, water, medicines and fuel.
There have been two contrasting responses to the assault on Gaza that will echo through history. The first has been the craven complicity of Western powers and political leaders, with Israel’s war crimes in Gaza. Indeed, a Federal complaint has been filed against President Biden and two of his cabinet, for complicity in genocide by the New York Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The second has been the millions of protestors across the world who have marched in solidarity with Palestinians since the start of the conflict. These protestors recognise, as Arundhati Roy puts it, that if we ‘allow this brazen slaughter to continue…we are complicit in it’. ‘Something in our moral selves will be altered forever’. So, the ‘useless violence’ must stop. A permanent ceasefire must be agreed. The siege of Gaza must be lifted. If not now, when? If not you, who?
Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education in Belfast and author of Global Learning and International Development in the Age of Neoliberalism (Routledge, 2022).
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