Siege on film

Two new films about sieges in later modern war…. tragically not the contradiction in terms you might think.

The first is a documentary about Syria, For Samawhich won the prize for Best Documentary at Cannes this year (and has garnered a host of other awards, including the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs Festival).

Here is G. Allen Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle – and, given my work on the Assad regime’s systematic attacks on hospitals and medical care you will see why this is so important to me:

The civil war in Syria is horrific, is killing innocent civilians and is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. It could make you lose your faith in humanity, and who could blame any residents there if they did?

And yet, out of the ashes of conflict comes “For Sama,” a remarkable documentary  … about a doctor struggling to care for civilian war casualties in a makeshift hospital in the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo, his journalist wife who documents it, and their infant daughter.

It is hard-hitting and graphic — some scenes cause you to look away. Yet it’s also loving and warm, a remarkable blend of reporting, cinema verite and essay not to be missed.

Waad Al-Khateab, who sent footage and reports from Aleppo to Channel 4 in London, also shot much personal footage. She and British filmmaker Edward Watts, who is credited with her as director, shaped the footage into the story of her family in the form of an essay. Her narration speaks to her daughter Sama — an explanation of why she and her husband Hamza stayed instead of taking her to safety.

“I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did,” Waad says.

The answer is they believe in freedom and humanity. Waad began covering the outbreak of civil war as a student in 2011. Hamza is a doctor who must save every life he can. “This is our path, this is our life,” he tells Waad.

The bulk of the film takes place in 2016, when constant bombing by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad— which include Russian aircraft — turn much of the city into rubble. The dead and wounded number in the thousands.

So there are intense, bloody scenes in the E.R., where lives are lost and saved. Meanwhile, Sama is being raised with the constant sound of exploding bombs. Waad does her best to comfort and raise her.

The family loses their beautiful home in the shelling, and eventually Hamza’s hospital is also destroyed (Assad’s forces specifically targeted places such as hospitals). Hamza and his team locate a building that would not be on Assad’s maps that would be suitable as a makeshift hospital — and home, as they will all live there — buttressed by thousands of sandbags as buffer against bombs.

Teo Bugbee in the New York Times adds:

“For Sama” provides a coherent account of a humanitarian crisis from the perspective of the wounded and displaced.

But just as crucially, and perhaps more compellingly, al-Kateab’s reflexive filmmaking provides an uncannily relatable example of the mundane experience of war. Profound bravery exists alongside profound ordinariness; friends still gather for dinner, they still tell their children bedtime stories, they still have to cook and clean and sleep.

The activists of this film, including al-Kateab herself, don’t speak in the language of philosophers or politicians. Their quotidian aspirations — to build a garden, to send their children safely to school — demonstrate the brutality of the government’s response, but they also invite viewers to picture themselves in the shoes of these modest political dissidents. Unselfconsciously, “For Sama” prompts audience members to ask themselves: How long would you defy tyranny if your world was coming down around you?

You can find a conversation with the film-makers here and (especially) here, and more reviews at the Intercept here and from the great Roger Ebert here.

The second film is Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell’s Gaza:

It’s hard to imagine anybody living a normal life in the Gaza Strip. Frequently labeled as the world’s largest open-air prison, it makes an appearance on news reports every time a confrontation erupts between Israel and Hamas. From TV sets thousands of miles away, this tiny piece of land has been reduced to an image of violence, chaos and destruction. So what do the people do when they’re not under siege?

The Gaza which is seldom seen is ordinary, everyday Gaza, a coastal strip which measures just twenty-five miles by six and which is home to an eclectic mix of almost two million people. Gaza cannot be understood in a purely political context or by analyzing tragic sound bites during conflict. It can only be understood by immersion, by living amongst its people and by recognizing and exploring its rich social diversity and cultural subtleties.

 

GAZA will introduce the audience to the surprising and the unexpected, the unfamiliar stories that portray its true face. It takes an atypical approach to finding out what makes this remarkable place tick as it introduces to the world extraordinary stories of everyday characters leading ordinary lives.

GAZA depicts a people plagued by conflict but not defined by it and as we journey through the physically broken and battered landscape, we let our cast of characters speak for themselves. Through them we gain a nuanced understanding of what life is really like for its citizens and by extension, grow and foster a rare familiarity and affinity with this truly unique place, as we build towards a tender portrait of a beleaguered humanity.

 

More here and here and (especially) here.

I’ve written about siege warfare in an extended series of posts (here, here, here and here). You can find my posts on Gaza by using the GUIDE tab (above), and I really recommend Ron Smith‘s excellent work on siege warfare in Gaza: Healthcare under siege: ‘Geopolitics of medical service provision in the Gaza Strip’, Social science and medicine 146 (2015) 332-40; ‘Isolation through humanitarianism: Subaltern geopolitics of the siege on Gaza’, Antipode 48 (2016) 750-759; ‘Israel’s permanent siege of Gaza’. Middle East Report 290 (2019) here

Landscapes of intervention

An excellent new edition of Middle East Report (290) on The New Landscape of Intervention; full download details here.

The concept of intervention brings to mind foreign military actions that violate a sovereign jurisdiction. This issue of Middle East Report identifies other, increasingly prevalent, ways in which the lives of people in the Middle East are being shaped by forces beyond their borders. In a context of increasing US retrenchment and neoliberal globalization, powerful states and transnational actors intervene across the region in a variety ways—under the guise of humanitarian assistance, democracy promotion or border security—as well as through new methods like urban planning, infrastructure development, crisis research and health deprivation—what might also be called biopolitical interventions. Even as the 2000’s saw the return of traditional forms of imperial intervention—with the US deployment of military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in pursuit of a quixotic and unwinnable war on terror—there are increasingly new forms of intervention that must be understood, assessed and mapped.

Contents:

The New Landscape of Intervention – The Editors
The Globalized Unmaking of the Libyan State – Jacob Mundy
Iraqibacter and the Pathologies of Intervention – Omar Dewachi
The Shifting Contours of US Power and Intervention in Palestine – Lisa Bhungalia, Jeannette Greven, Tahani Mustafa
Urban Interventions for the Wars Yet to Come – Hiba Bou Akar
The Palestinian McCity in the Neoliberal Era – Sami Tayeb
Humanitarian Crisis Research as Intervention – Sarah E. Parkinson
The UAE and the Infrastructure of Intervention – Rafeef Ziadah
Israel’s Permanent Siege of Gaza – Ron Smith
Border Regimes and the New Global Apartheid – Catherine Besteman

‘The Bomb and Siege Routine’

I’ve been on the road – I’m in London now for more archival work at the Wellcome, after a wonderful conference on “Drone imaginaries” at Odense – but I hope to post the next essay in my series on siege warfare in Syria shortly.  It will address medical care under siege – a continuation and extension of my wider work on ‘surgical strikes’ on hospitals and medical facilities (see for example here: more under the GUIDE tab) – but in the interim here is a short post from Jonathan Whittall at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF Analysis; also at al Jazeera here) on the ‘bomb and siege routine’:

Medicine and medical workers have also been sucked into the violence. This can be seen in the attempts by the Syrian government to control the provision of healthcare in opposition-held areas by denying humanitarian access, threatening or arresting medical staff, and damaging or destroying medical infrastructure.

Early on in the conflict, medical facilities went underground, forming the beginning of a network of field hospitals such as the ones I visited in Homs. The international backers of the Syrian armed opposition on their part imposed stringent sanctions on the Syrian government which contributed to the decline of the government healthcare system.

As the war raged on, we saw indiscriminate bombing and shelling that did not differentiate between civilian and military targets. In some cases, civilians were considered military targets based on the fact that they had remained in areas controlled by groups designated as “terrorist”.

Hospitals have regularly been hit. This is the new norm. We no longer know if they are struck accidentally or intentionally or destroyed as part of a general rampage of violence. Either way, the infrastructure that sustains life is being eliminated….

From Syria to Iraq and from Yemen to Gaza, the armies and their backers use the trump card of the “fight against terrorism” as the ultimate justification for any atrocities committed against civilian populations under siege.

Indiscriminate bombing is never acceptable, no matter who the enemy is. Nor is targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. Humanitarian supplies must always be exempt from the military tactic of siege.

The wounded and civilians wishing to escape the violence must always be allowed safe passage. The civilians who stay behind do not become legitimate targets. Providing treatment to patients – both civilians and wounded combatants alike – is never an act of “terrorism”, nor is it a form of support for “terrorism”. It is a legally protected act of humanity.

Distinction and the ethics of violence

In another lifetime, or so it seems, I wrote a short essay on ‘The death of the civilian’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and I seem to have spent much of the intervening years developing those early ideas.  So I’m thrilled to see an important new paper from Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon, ‘Distinction and the Ethics of Violence: on the legal construction of liminal subjects and spaces’, available online now at Antipode:

This paper interrogates the relationship among visibility, distinction, international humanitarian law and ethics in contemporary theatres of violence. After introducing the notions of “civilianization of armed conflict” and “battlespaces”, we briefly discuss the evisceration of one of international humanitarian law’s axiomatic figures: the civilian. We show how liberal militaries have created an apparatus of distinction that expands that which is perceptible by subjecting big data to algorithmic analysis, combining the traditional humanist lens with a post-humanist one. The apparatus functions before, during, and after the fray not only as an operational technology that directs the fighting or as a discursive mechanism responsible for producing the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a force that produces liminal subjects. Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—we show how the apparatus helps justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war.

Their two case studies focus on US drone attacks in Pakistan and the use of human shields in Gaza (the image below, taken from the article, shows the Israeli Defence Force’s ‘Laboratory of Discrimination’ (sic)).

You can watch a video where Nicola and Neve discuss their ideas on the Antipode website here, which also provides a less formal gloss:

[Their paper] examines how militaries actually make distinctions in the battlefield, given that today most fighting takes place in urban settings where distinguishing between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly difficult.

Their paper shows how liberal militaries are utilizing new technologies that aim to expand that which is perceptible within the fray. Combining the more traditional forms of making distinctions such as binoculars and cameras with cutting edge hi-tech, militaries subject big data to algorithmic analysis aimed at identifying certain behavioral patterns. The technologies of distinction function before, during, and after the fray not only in order to direct the fighting and to help produce the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a mechanism that identifies and at times creates new legal figures.

Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—Nicola and Neve show how technologies of distinction help justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war. Ultimately, they maintain that distinction, which is meant to guarantee the protection of civilians in the midst of armed conflict, actually helps hollow the notion of civilian through the production of new liminal legal figures that can be legitimately killed.

For more on the intersections between international law, military protocols and the (in)visibility of the civilian, I also recommend the insightful work of Christiane Wilke (see ‘Seeing Civilians (or not)’ here).

Intelligence and War

Vue d’artiste de l’évolution de l’Homme peinte sur un mur, stencil graffiti on Vali-ye-Asr Avenue in central Tehran. By Paul Keller, 4 November 2007

A new edition of the ever-interesting Mediatropes is now online (it’s open access), this time on Intelligence and War: you can access the individual essays (or download the whole issue) here.  Previous issues are all available here.

The issue opens with an editorial introduction (‘Intelligence and War’ by Stuart J Murray, Jonathan Chau, Twyla Gibson.  And here is Stuart’s summary of the rest of the issue:

Michael Dorland’s “The Black Hole of Memory: French Mnemotechniques in the Erasure of the Holocaust” interrogates the role of memory and memorialization in the constitution of post-World War II France. Dorland hones in on the precarity of a France that grapples with its culpability in the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up, spotlighting the role of the witness and the perpetually problematized function of testimony as key determinants in challenging both the public memory and the historical memory of a nation.

Sara Kendall’s essay, “Unsettling Redemption: The Ethics of Intra-subjectivity in The Act of Killing” navigates the problematic representation of mass atrocity. Employing Joshua Oppenheimer’s investigation of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966, Kendall unsettles the documentary’s attempts to foreground the practices of healing and redemption, while wilfully sidestepping any acknowledgment of the structural dimensions of violence. To Kendall, the documentary’s focus on the narratives of the perpetrators, who function as proxies for the state, makes visible the aporia of the film, substituting a framework based on affect and empathy in place of critical political analyses of power imbalances.

Kevin Howley is concerned with the spatial ramifications of drone warfare. In “Drone Warfare: Twenty-First Century Empire and Communications,” Howley examines the battlefield deployment of drones through the lens of Harold Innis’s distinction between time-biased and space-biased media. By considering the drone as a space-biased technology that can transmit information across vast distances, yet only remain vital for short periods of time, Howley sees the drone as emblematic of the American impulse to simultaneously and paradoxically collapse geographical distance while expanding cultural differences between America and other nations.

Avital Ronell’s essay, entitled “BIGLY Mistweated: On Civic Grievance,” takes direct aim at the sitting US president, offering a rhetorical analysis of what she calls “Trumpian obscenity.” Ronell exposes the foundations of the current administration, identifying a government bereft of authority, stitched together by audacity, and punctuated by an almost unfathomable degree of absurdity. In her attempt to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical and nihilistic discourse that Trump represents, Ronell walks alongside Paul Celan, Melanie Klein, and especially Jacques Derrida, concluding with a suggestive, elusive, and allusive possibility for negotiating the contemporary, Trumpian moment.

In “The Diseased ‘Terror Tunnels’ in Gaza: Israeli Surveillance and the Autoimmunization of an Illiberal Democracy,” Marouf Hasian, Jr. explains how Israel’s state-sanctioned use of autoimmunizing rhetorics depict the lives of Israelis as precarious and under threat. Here, the author’s preoccupation is with the Israeli strategy of rhetorically reconfiguring smuggling tunnels as “terror tunnels” that present an existential threat to Israeli citizens. In doing so, he shows how the non-combatant status of Gazan civilians is dissolved through the intervening effects of these media tropes.

Derek Gregory’s essay, “The Territory of the Screen,” offers a different perspective on drone warfare. Gregory leverages Owen Sheers’s novel, I Saw a Man, to explore the ways in which modern combat is contested through a series of mediating layers, a series of screens through which the United States, as Gregory argues, dematerializes the corporeality of human targets. For Gregory, drone warfare’s facilitation of remote killings is predicated on technical practices that reduce the extinguishing of life to technological processes that produce, and then execute, “killable bodies.”

But how is the increasingly unsustainable illusion of intelligence as being centralized and definitive maintained? Julie B. Wiest’s “Entertaining Genius: U.S. Media Representations of Exceptional Intelligence” identifies the media trope of exceptionally intelligent characters across mainstream film and television programs as key to producing and reinforcing popular understandings of intelligence. Through her analysis of such fictional savants, Wiest connects these patterns of representation to the larger social structures that reflect and reinforce narrowly defined notions of intelligence, and those who are permitted to possess it.

We end this issue with a poem from Sanita Fejzić, who offers a perspective on the human costs of war that is framed not by technology, but through poetic language.

My own essay is a reworked version of the penultimate section of “Dirty Dancing” (DOWNLOADS tab) which we had to cut because it really did stretch the length limitations for Life in the Age of Drone Warfare; so, as Stuart notes, I re-worked it, adding an extended riff on Owen Sheers‘ luminous I saw a man and looping towards the arguments I since developed in ‘Meatspace?

The Death of the Clinic

This is the fifth in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones. It follows directly from my analysis of the situation in Syria here.

President Bashar al-Assad has consistently denied that his forces have attacked hospitals or doctors.  In an interview with SBS Australia on 1 July 2016 he asked his interviewer:

‘… the very simple question is: why do we attack hospitals and civilians?… No government in this situation has any interest in killing civilians or attacking hospitals. Anyway, if you attack hospitals, you can use any building to be a hospital. No, these are anecdotal claims, mendacious statements …’

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There are at least four answers to Assad’s disingenuous question (if you falter at the adjective, see here).

(1) Silencing the witnesses

When Widney Brown from Physicians for Human Rights testified at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on 31 March 2016 she provided one clear and compelling rationale for Assad’s attacks on doctors:

‘… attacks on doctors silence particularly powerful witnesses. When the Syrian government denies its use of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, starvation, or torture, doctors can bear witnesses to these violations because they have seen and treated the victims.’

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To be sure, there are other witnesses and even paper trails and photographic records.  Ben Taub, who has done so much to bring ‘Syria’s war on doctors‘ to the attention of a wider public, has also provided a detailed account of the work done by Bill Wiley and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability whose volunteers have smuggled over 600,000 documents out of Syria detailing mass torture and killings by the regime.

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The war crimes have not been confined to attacks on hospitals in opposition-held areas.  A photographer known only as ‘Caesar’, who had been attached to the Defence Ministry’s Criminal Forensic Division, smuggled out thousands of high-resolution digital images exposing the horrors of the regime’s own military hospitals:

The pictures, most of them taken in Syrian military hospitals, show corpses photographed at close range – one at a time as well as in small groupings. Virtually all of the bodies – thousands of them – betray signs of torture: gouged eyes; mangled genitals; bruises and dried blood from beatings; acid and electric burns; emaciation; and marks from strangulation…

These unfortunates may have lived and died in different ways, but they were bound in death by coded numerals scribbled on their skin with markers, or on scraps of paper affixed to their bodies. The first set of numbers (for example, 2935 in the photographs at bottom) would denote a prisoner’s I.D. The second (for example, 215) would refer to the intelligence branch responsible for his or her death. Underneath these figures, in many cases, would appear the hospital case-file number (for example, 2487/B)…

[T]he system of organizing and recording the dead served three ends: to satisfy Syrian authorities that executions were carried out; to ensure that no one was improperly discharged; and to allow military judges to represent to families—by producing official-seeming death certificates—that their loved ones had died of natural causes. In many ways, these facilities were ideal for hiding “unwanted” individuals, alive or dead. As part of the Ministry of Defense, the hospitals were already fortified, which made it easy to shield their inner workings and keep away families who might come looking for missing relatives. “These hospitals provide cover for the crimes of the regime,” said Nawaf Fares, a top Syrian diplomat and tribal leader who defected in 2012. “People are brought into the hospitals, and killed, and their deaths are papered over with documentation.” When I asked him, during a recent interview in Dubai, Why involve the hospitals at all?, he leaned forward and said, “Because mass graves have a bad reputation.”

(2) Multiplying the casualties

This is a radicalisation of an old strategy.  As Sam Weber pointed out in Targets of opportunity (2005), ‘every target is inscribed in a network or chain of events that inevitably exceeds the opportunity that can be seized or the horizon that can be seen.’  So, for example, when the United States or Israel bombs a power plant it often as not explains that it has been careful to bomb in the small hours when only a skeleton staff was in the building in order to minimise collateral damage.  But this begs the question: why bomb the power plant at all?  In most instances the degradation of the electricity supply means that it becomes impossible to pump water or treat sewage; refrigerators fail and food perishes; hospitals are forced to use unreliable generators. The result – the intended, carefully calculated result – is that casualties rise at considerable distances from the target and over an extended period of time.

Similarly, Dr Abdulaziz Adel notes:  ‘Kill a doctor and you kill thousands.’  Simply put, patients who are sick or injured then go without treatment and in many cases their lives are put at risk.  (The images below are from Collateral Damage: more here).

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Dr Rami Kalazi, a neurosurgeon from East Aleppo, agrees:

‘They are the artery of life in the city. Can you imagine a life in city without hospitals? Who will treat your kids? Who will make the surgeries for the injured people? So, they are targeting these hospitals because they know, if these hospitals were completely destroyed, the life will be completely destroyed.’

(3) ‘Moral[e] bombing’

This too is an old strategy.  The architects of ‘area bombing’ during the combined bomber offensive against Germany during the Second World War described it as ‘moral [sic] bombing’: a sustained and systematic attempt to undermine the morale of the enemy population so that they would demand their leaders sue for peace.  If this was a tried and tested strategy, however, the test showed that it was a complete failure (see my ‘Doors into nowhere’: DOWNLOADS tab).

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But the lesson was lost in Syria, where attacks on hospitals have had a central place.  As Samir Puri argues, the strategy behind the joint Syrian and Russian air campaign seems to be:

“If there is a total collapse of any kind of trauma care, those are the sort of things that can contribute to collapsing morale very suddenly. The morale of a besieged force can look robust until it collapses.”

And Syria is not unique in contemporary wars: Israel has deployed the same strategy in its repeated assaults on Gaza (see here, here and here for ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014), and the Saudi-led coalition has attacked more than 70 hospitals and health facilities in Yemen since March 2015 (in this latter case Russian media have reported MSF’s objections to the ‘utter disregard for civilian life’ without dissent: see for example here).

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‘Preventing medicine’, as Annie Sparrow puts it, has become ‘a new weapon of mass destruction’.

(4) ‘Violence legislates’

Following the attack on the UN aid convoy delivering supplies to a Syrian Red Crescent warehouse outside East Aleppo on 19 September 2016, 101 humanitarian organisations issued a joint appeal to the United Nations on 22 September; in part it read:

‘Deliberate attacks on humanitarian workers and civilians are war crimes. This must mark a turning point: the UN Security Council cannot allow increasingly brazen violations of international humanitarian law to continue with impunity.

‘Heads of state are gathered in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly. Each one that accepts a lack of accountability for perpetrators and facilitators of war crimes colludes in the ongoing dissolution of international humanitarian law’ (my emphases).

The first paragraph is damning enough.  Ben Taub in the New Yorker again:

Nowhere has the supposed deterrent of eventual justice proved so visibly ineffective as in Syria. Like most countries, Syria signed the Rome Statute, which, according to U.N. rules, means that it is bound by the “obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” But, because Syria never actually ratified the document, the International Criminal Court has no independent authority to investigate or prosecute crimes that take place within Syrian territory. The U.N. Security Council does have the power to refer jurisdiction to the court, but international criminal justice is a relatively new and fragile endeavor, and, to a disturbing extent, its application is contingent on geopolitics.

But the sting comes in the second paragraph.  As I’ve noted before, international humanitarian law is not a neutral court of appeal, a deus ex machina above the fray, but has always been closely entangled with military violence.  In many respects it travels in the baggage train, constantly pulled by the trajectory of the very violence it supposedly seeks to regulate (or facilitate, depending on your point of view).  In short, as Eyal Weizman has it, ‘violence legislates‘.

There is good reason to fear that the systematic violation of medical neutrality is intended to force its dissolution.  Thomas Arcaro writes: ‘Humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality that once seemed so self-evident have been drawn into question, especially on the politically and ethnically complex battlefields of Iraq and Syria.’

And not only there.  In the case of the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz in 2015, I’ve suggested that some key Afghan officers and politicians chafed at the protections afforded to wounded Taliban combatants by international humanitarian law.  They also alleged that the Trauma Centre had breached its conditional immunity because the Taliban had overrun the hospital and were firing at US and Afghan forces from its precincts.  There is no evidence to support that assertion, but it is an increasingly familiar claim.  On 7 December 2016 US Central Command justified a ‘precision strike’ requested by Iraqi forces on a building within the al-Salem hospital complex in Mosul by claiming that IS fighters had used it as a base to launch heavy and sustained machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks.  That would certainly have compromised the hospital’s immunity, but international humanitarian law still requires a warning to be issued before any attack and a proportionality analysis to be conducted; Colonel John Dorrian said that the US Air Force did not ‘have any reason to believe civilians were harmed’ but conceded that it was ‘very difficult to ascertain with full and total fidelity’ whether any medical staff or patients were in the building at the time of the air strike.

But what the Syrian case suggests is a new impatience with medical neutrality tout court: not only a hostility towards the treatment of wounded and sick combatants but also an unwillingness to extend sanctuary to wounded and sick civilians.

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And that reluctance is not confined to the Assad regime and its allies.    A survey carried out for the International Committee of the Red Cross between June and September makes for alarming reading – even once you’ve overcome your scepticism about public opinion polls.  As Spencer Ackerman reports:

Areas in active conflict record greater urgency over questions of civilian protection in wartime than do the great powers that often conduct or participate in those conflicts. In Ukraine, 83% believe everyone wounded and sick during a conflict has a right to health care, compared with 62% of Russians. A full 100% of Yemenis endorse the proposition, as do 81% of Afghans, 66% of Syrians and 42% of Iraqis – compared with 49% of Americans, 53% of Britons, 37% of the Chinese and 67% of the French.

It’s that last clause that is so disturbing: for the last four states listed are all permanent members of the UN Security Council…

So what, then, are we to make of what I’ve been calling ‘the exception to the exception’?

The exception to the exception

homo-sacerI think it’s a mistake to treat ‘the camp’, following Giorgio Agamben‘s vital work, as the exemplary, diagnostic site of the modern space of exception; the killing fields of today’s wars (themselves spaces of indistinction, where it is never clear where war stops and peace begins, where the geometry of the battlefield or, better, ‘battlespace’ becomes ever more fractured and blurred, and where the partitions between international and internal conflicts have been reduced to rubble) are also spaces within which groups of people are deliberately and knowingly exposed to death through the removal of legal protections that would ordinarily be afforded to them.  In short, killing and injuring become legally permissible.

Those exposed groups include both combatants and civilians, but their fate is not determined solely by the suspension of national laws (the case that concerns Agamben) because international humanitarian law continues to afford them some minimal protections.  One of its central provisions has been medical neutrality: yet if, through its serial violations in Syria and elsewhere, we are witnessing the slow ‘death of the clinic’ – which I treat as a topological figure which extends from the body of the sick or wounded through the evacuation chain to the hospital itself – and the extinction of ‘the exception to the exception’, the clinic as a (conditionally) sacrosanct space – then I think it’s necessary to add further twists to Agamben’s original conception.

As Adia Benton and Sa’ed Ashtan have argued, medical neutrality – the exception to the exception – represents a fraught attempt to restrict the state’s recourse to military violence: it is a limitation on and has now perhaps become even an affront to sovereign power and the state’s insistence that it is ‘the sole arbiter of who can live and who can die’.

Agamben describes the inhabitants of the space of exception as so many homines sacri – where sacer has the double meaning of both ‘sacred’ and ‘accursed’ – and it may be that in today’s killing fields doctors, nurses and healthcare workers are being transformed into new versions of homo sacer: once ‘sacred’ for their selfless devotion to saving lives, they are now ‘accursed’ for their principled dedication to medical neutrality.

 

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Yet the precarity of their existence under conditions of detention and torture, siege and airstrike, has not reduced them to what Agamben calls ‘bare life’.  They care – desperately – whether they live or die; they have improvised a series of survival strategies; they have not been silent in the face of almost unspeakable horror; and they have developed new forms of solidarity, support and sociality.

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Whitewashing

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Regular readers will remember my series of commentaries on Israel’s punitive and reckless assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014 (see, for example, here, here and here).

In the debates over what Israel called ‘Operation Protective Edge’ – and over later modern military violence more generally – questions of law have come to the fore: partly because law is now closely implicated in the conduct of military operations (‘operational law’), as Craig Jones‘s wonderful work has demonstrated, and partly because its legitimating narrative requires (and indeed rests on) militaries investigating their own alleged breaches of international law and their rules of engagement.

B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories has now published Whitewash Protocol: the so-called investigation into Operation Protective Edge.  It’s a complex, forensic investigation, but here is one of the key findings about the Israeli military investigation of its own actions:

The MAG [Military Advocate General’s Corps] examined only several of dozens of almost identical attacks that took place over the fifty days of hostilities, time after time ending with terrible human tall. Given these recurring results, one cannot accept the MAG’s position, that those responsible for these attacks could reasonably base their assessments of the anticipated harm to civilians on assumptions that were repeatedly proven unfounded, and debunked by their own actions or the actions of their colleagues – at a heavy death toll.

The interpretation adopted by the MAG has a far reaching implication that applies to all strikes carried out during the operation: It absolves every level of officials involved in the attacks – from the prime minister, through the MAG himself through to the persons who ultimately fired – of the duty to do everything in their power to minimize harm to civilians. In fact, the MAG sets the bar very low in terms of what is required of those responsible for the attacks – including senior military officers and the MAG (who are not under investigation in any case) – by doing no more than examining what they claimed to know prior to the attacks, while entirely disregarding the question of whether their assessment was reasonable. In doing so, the MAG utterly overlooks the issue of what those responsible for the attacks should have known, including the obligation to learn from their own experience.

And the reason this matters is made plain in the summary:

The fighting during Operation Protective Edge was brutal and violent. Israel implemented a policy of air strikes against homes, which killed hundreds of people, including entire families. Tens of thousands of people were left homeless, losing all they held dear. Genuine, effective investigations are needed not just for the sake of achieving justice for the victims and their loved ones. They are needed as a deterrent to forestall future actions of this sort and to avert further losses. When nothing is investigated, when the consensus is that everything done during the fighting was moral and legal – the stage is set for actions such as these, or even worse, to recur. There was no accountability after Operation Cast Lead, only whitewashing. Now, after Operation Protective Edge, there is no accountability either, only whitewashing. This is not a theoretical legal issue: we are talking about human lives.

The full report can be downloaded as a pdf here.  It needs to be read in conjunction with B’Tselem’s report from May 2016, The Occupation’s Fig Leaf: Israel’s Military Law Enforcement System as a Whitewash Mechanism available here.

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Yael Stein, B’Tselem’s Research Director, writes:

In his response to the report, the [Israeli military] spokesperson said that B’Tselem is waging a “delegitimization campaign” against the military law enforcement system. Yet this system cannot be considered legitimate until it ensures justice for victims and unless its investigations seek to uncover the truth and hold those responsible accountable…. What may appear at times to be an independent, efficient law enforcement system is in fact a mechanism for covering up suspected offenses and protecting the real culprits.

To be sure, the IDF shoots more than the messenger…