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Israel's war on the Palestinians: banalization of occupation or routinization of settler colonialism?

In June 2015, a group of thirty-seven Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers climbed to the roof of Muhammad Abu Haya's house near Hebron, in occupied Palestine, brushing aside Abu Haya's protests and his dismayed children, in order to get a group photograph, in the best tradition of what Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein term "digital militarism" (2015). The recent proliferation of Israeli social media accounts of the occupation, according to Kuntsman and Stein,

render the occupation at once palpable and out of reach.... On the one hand, mobile technologies have made a spectacle of state violence instantly available, often in real time in the palm of the hand on smartphone screens ... [extending] Israel's occupation into the most private Israeli spaces and times.... At the same time, the patina of the digital everyday can minimize and banalize this violence, obscuring its visibility and mitigating its impact. (Kuntsman and Stein 2015, 8)

Reporting the Abu Haya incident, Israeli political activist Hagai Matar (2015) argues that although far worse things happen in the context of Israeli settler-colonialism, there is something in "the banality, the casual day-to-day aspect" of the video recording of this incident that captures an essential component of the occupation, and the apparent oblivion by the fully armed soldiers heading to the roof of Abu Haya's home, simply because they felt like posing for a "groupie" against the background of colonized Palestine.

One is tempted to theorize this and similar incidents as epitomizing "the banality of the occupation," commensurate with Michael Billig's "banal nationalism" concept, which, he argues, enables the everyday reproduction of the nation. As Billig writes, "daily, the nation is 'flagged' in the lives of its citizenry" (1995, 6). In Israeli Palestine, the nation increasingly manifests itself through everyday militarized hashtags, "selfies," and "shares," absorbed into the most banal acts of digital militarism. However, starting from a critique of Hannah Arendt's by now somewhat hackneyed concept of the "banality of evil" (1977), this article argues that Israel's war against the Palestinians performs more than banalization: rather, it amounts to the routinized racialization of millions of Palestinians by the settler-colonial Israeli state.

The temptation to theorize war and genocidal atrocities as "banal" owes to Arendt's report on the 1960 Jerusalem trial of the mastermind of the Nazi deportations, Adolf Eichmann, whom she immortalized as epitomizing "the banality of evil." The lasting influence of Arendt's journalistic depiction of Eichmann as a technocratic bureaucrat who presented himself at the trial as a self-effacing servant of the German state dutifully following orders has endured, even though this misrepresents the fullness of her understanding of both totalitarianism and of Eichmann's role as a faithful "joiner" of the Nazi cause (Berkowitz 2013).

Eichmann's more than banal motivation became a topic for public debate with the 2014 publication of Bettina Stangneth's Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which reproduces a series of interviews the Nazi journalist and Holocaust denier William Sassen conducted with him in 1965 in Argentina, exposing Eichmann's full cynicism and zealous commitment to the Nazi cause. Based on a pretrial report by Israeli psychiatrists that demonstrated that Eichmann's motives were contradictory and calculated rather than banal (Kulcsar and Kulcsar 1966), and on a memoir Eichmann wrote while in jail, Jose Brunner writes that the banality thesis negates the possibility that perpetrators of atrocities (including occupation, siege, and ethnic cleansing) are complex human beings performing intentional acts, rather than obedient or banal creatures (Brunner 2004, 104).

My argument here is that theorizing the Israeli occupation in terms of banalization posits a circular truism that masks the realities of settler colonial wars, which can more persuasively be understood as a routinized resort to what Giorgio Agamben calls the "state of exception" (2005), and what David Theo Goldberg depicts in the specific Palestinian context as the "racial state" (2009). The laws applying to Israel's Palestinian citizens and occupied and besieged subjects--but not to the state and its Jewish citizens--epitomize the declaration of a state of emergency in which the sovereign both enacts the law and stays outside it, but also the idea that it is the body of the racial volk that needs defending from its racialized others.

According to Agamben's influential theorization, in states of exception sovereignty is haunted and shadowed by the figure of bare life, the Roman legal category of homo sacer--a human that cannot be ritually offered, yet can be killed without enduring the penalty of murder (1998). While persuasively applicable to theorizing the occupation of Palestine, I agree with Alexander G. Weheliye's critique of Agamben that the categories "state of exception" and "bare life" transcend traditional social and political markers and eradicate divisions such as race, religion, nationality, and gender (2014, 38).

In aiming to ensure that Jewish citizens and settlers live at the expense of Palestinian citizens and occupied and besieged subjects, whose lives are regulated and controlled by the Israeli military and secret services as well as the occupation's civil authorities, the Israeli settler colony qualifies as a state of exception. However, following Weheliye, I want to position race center stage and analyze the Zionist settler-colony as a racial state. Racial states exclude and include in order to construct homogeneity through governmental technologies of border controls, citizenship entitlements, and census categorizations, as well as invented histories and traditions that construct state memory, cultural imaginings, and the evocation of ancient origins. The Israeli racial state enacts what Goldberg calls '"racial Palestinianization": "Palestinians are treated not as if a racial group, not simply in the manner of a racial group, but as a despised and demonic racial group" (2009, 139).

Zionism, according to Goldberg, is about the modernizing imperative according to which Jews (though an ancient Biblical people) are modern, while Palestinians (Philistines) are pre-modern and thus in need of Zionism's civilizing--always also colonizing--mission. It is this modernizing imperative that Goldberg calls "historicist racism" (2002, 74-9). Paradoxically for a people whose history is replete with racial persecutions, Israel's Zionism itself articulates "the Jewish race," constructing a homogeneous "Jewish people" despite obvious Jewish heterogeneities, with Jewish self-and-other racialization an integral part of the Zionist ideology (Falk 2006).

This race thinking led to Israel's citizenship regime. Constructed as the state of the so- called "Jewish people," Israel grants automatic citizenship through the Law of Return to anyone who can prove she has a Jewish mother, at the same time denying citizenship to Palestinians born on the land who were deported or who fled during and after the 1948 Nakba. The 160,000 Palestinians not expelled were dubbed "Israeli Arabs" and subjected to a military government regime based on the colonial British Emergency Regulations of 1945. Though officially abolished in 1966, the emergency regulations are still in place, controlling twenty percent of Israel's citizens (Pappe 2006, 220-2).

There is a danger, however, that theorizing Israel as a racial state of exception may occlude the workings of race and coloniality that have become routinized through the proliferation of discourses and practices of banal nationalism that, in the case of Israel's ongoing war against the Palestinians, lead to everyday racialized acts of renationalizing the nation. Racialization in the current Israeli context configures Gaza as a concentration camp whose inmates are mere objects of Israel's security, leading to justifying the blockading, starving, and frequent bombardments of the besieged enclave. The Israeli racial state routinely performs its supremacy via armed raids, arrests, checkpoints, the separation wall, curfews, house and village demolitions, and population transfers, holding hundreds of Palestinians in "administrative detention" without trial. These governmental technologies render the occupied and besieged Palestinians--but not Jewish citizens and settlers--abject and subject to sovereign Israeli rule. The settler colony enacts draconian permit regimes in the West Bank (Berda 2012), jails and tortures young Palestinian children with the complicity of the law via a system of military courts, and operates a hugely disparate water regime between occupied Palestinian subjects and Jewish settlers and Israeli citizens (B'Tselem 2013), while repeatedly declaring its determination to continue its colonial supremacy.

The Israeli racial state of exception develops and manufactures nuclear and innovative lethal weapons of mass destruction. The successful marketing of these armaments (Mack and Landau 2015) is enabled by the besieged Gaza enclave, which serves as a testing ground. This does not deter Israel's international arms customers from buying its "combat proven" weapons, as demonstrated by Yotam Feldman's documentary "The Lab" (2015), in which former IDF officers turned arms dealers and renowned Israeli academics laud the development of armaments aimed at maximizing Israel's ability to control its occupied and besieged Palestinian subjects.

All of this persuades me that Israel's war against the Palestinians goes beyond the dictionary definition of banality as "trite, obvious, or predictable." Rather, as in relation to Eichmann, whom Arendt later admitted was not merely following orders (Berkowitz 2013), Israeli settler colonialism is deliberate and intentional, performed by calculating, complex, and contradictory perpetrators intent on the racialization and ethnic cleansing of people they regard as standing in the way of total control of their "promised land."

Elsewhere, I compared the routinized racialization of the Palestinians to what the African American feminist theorist Hortense Spillers says about the racializing assemblages of the middle passage, plantation slavery, and Jim Crowe (Lentin 2015; Spillers 2003). Just as black flesh was routinely created by "the calculated work of iron, whips, chains, knives, the canine patrol, the bullet" (Spillers 2003, 207), so Palestinian flesh is routinely created through the calculated work of sponge, rubber and live bullets, tear gas and pepper spray, riot control equipment, air bombings and ground offensives, military court systems, torture, jails, checkpoints and walls. This illustrates the routine rather than exceptional workings of the Israeli racial settler colony, and the embodied centrality of race in the Palestinian context.

However, it is the periodic military assaults by the Israeli military (self-styled as "the most moral army in the world") of the besieged Gaza enclave that puts paid to the banalization theory in this specific context. The most recent Israeli military attack on Gaza in July-August 2014, peculiarly named "Protective Edge," was the fourth such lethal assault in eight years. It left 2,220 Palestinians dead--of whom 1,492 are believed to be civilians, including 551 children and 299 women, and 11,231 Palestinians wounded, including 3,374 children, up to one thousand of whom are expected to have a permanent disability. The United Nations estimates that five hundred thousand Palestinians, twenty-eight percent of the population, were internally displaced as a result of the 2014 attack; as of December 2014, some one hundred thousand Gazans remained homeless (UNOCHA 2015).

Over a year after the 2014 assault, Gaza resembles the bombed cities of Europe after the war against Nazism--a fact that renders acceptable my claims here about Eichmann and his conceptualization as a "banal" perpetrator. The relentless assault on Gaza, justified by Israel as a "war against Hamas," was the most recent stage in the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, begun with the 1948 Nakba, which, as Ilan Pappe documents, was carefully and intentionally planned and executed so as to gain as much Palestinian land with as few Palestinians as possible for the Israeli settler colony (2006). The IDF soldiers climbing onto Abu Haya's roof to take a "groupie," like soldiers routinely taking "selfies" and posting Facebook "likes" and "shares," are actors in the drama of banal nationalism and actively engage in the everyday renationalization of the settler-colonial nation-state. They are, at the same time, blithe participants in the routine bureaucracy of the occupation, which "digital militarism" both reiterates and renders invisible.

We now know that Eichmann openly admitted and emphasized his Nazi idealism, and that evil is "done neither by monsters nor by bureaucrats, but by joiners" (Berkowitz 2013). Likewise, the soldiers of the Israeli settler colony, as evidenced by the most recent Breaking the Silence testimonies (2015), partake in war as joiners who perform routine acts and at the same time engage in the everyday--arguably banalized--digital reproduction of colonialism and military occupation. To conclude, I propose that despite its routinization and the lack of international opprobrium, Israel's war against the Palestinians is perpetrated by deliberate, complex, human joiners in routine acts of colonization, intent on racializing and dominating other humans.


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--. 2009. "Targets of Opportunity (On Racial Palestinianization)." In The Threat of Race: Refections on Racial Neoliberalism, 106-50. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

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Mack, Itay, and Idan Landau. 2015. "The Untold Story of Israeli Military Export to South Sudan." +972, May 28,

Matar, Hagai. 2015. "When an Entire IDF Platoon Takes Over Your Roof-- For a Photo." +972, May 27,

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Spillers, Hortense. 2003. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." In Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, 203-9. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Weheliye, Alexander G. 2014. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

RONIT LENTIN is a retired Associate Professor of Sociology in Trinity College Dublin. Among her recent books are Racism and Antiracism in Ireland (2002), Race and State (2006), Thinking Palestine (2008), and Co-Memory and Melancholia: Israelis Memorializing the Palestinian Nakba (2012).
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Title Annotation:CRITICAL FORUM
Author:Lentin, Ronit
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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