The Earth is closing on Palestinians in Gaza. As I write these lines, Israel continues to bomb more than two million Palestinians, refugees and the descendants of refugees confined to the besieged Gaza Strip, which measures a mere 365 square km. More than 300,000 Israeli troops are preparing for a ground invasion. Israel has also ordered 1.1 million Palestinians to move from the north to the south of the Gaza Strip, and international diplomatic efforts to remove Palestinians in Gaza outside Palestine—which is to say, to ethnically cleanse Gaza—are underway. Meanwhile, the destruction from the air is intensifying: devastation, wreckage, bodies under and above the rubble. There is nowhere to escape. The strip is too small, too devastated, already unlivable.
In anticipation of their deaths, some Palestinians in Gaza are posting their pleas for forgiveness in case they have ever wronged anyone. If we thought there was an empirical limit to the extent of the Israeli destruction of Gaza, due to the constraints of a military strategy, we can see that such a limit does not exist. When we read “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly,” we are not receiving the words of an Israeli minister speaking about a military strategy that responds to a concrete situation. Instead, we are listening to the voice of a settler colony reasserting its mastery over the land, asserting its supremacy over the indigenous Palestinian population. We are in the presence of a conqueror who refuses the revolts of the conquered, demanding that they declare their defeat. We are in the presence of a desire to eradicate Palestinians, if not from the land, then from the politics of the land. We are in the presence of a campaign that attempts to destroy what escaped destruction during and after earlier rounds of conquest and devastation, rounds that began in 1948. We are in the presence of a settler-colonial desire to obliterate the native.
Signs of obliteration appear first in language. Hence, civilized states and international organizations, liberals and conservatives, and US university presidents and donors alike have all lined up to participate in this discourse. Its colonial order is clear: it contains not a single dignifying reference to Palestinians. This is not a coincidence. Before they can be obliterated, Palestinians must first be discursively transformed into barbarian monsters. This discourse does not merely wish to criminalize Hamas for its actions. For that, we already have the juridical imaginary of war crimes, of prosecution, of individual punishment. Instead, this international colonial discourse affects something much more far-reaching than the legal imaginary allows. It condemns the very being of Palestinians, their very existence. This order of discourse, which the West (understood not as a set of states or a place but rather as a moral project that continues to violently universalize itself) has already authored about other colonized and enslaved peoples, figures Palestinians as inherently blameworthy. This order of discourse fashions them as the enemy of all, an enemy who must be crushed instead of negotiated with politically. Insofar as this discourse, maintained and enforced by civilized states and liberal media, engenders the wordlessness of Palestinians, its effect is genocidal. We know from other histories that the language that constructs the distinction between the civilian and the barbarian is a language of extermination.
The Western production of Palestinian wordlessness is pervasive. While catalogs of the horrors that Hamas has provoked abound, no such catalogs exist in relation to Israeli actions. This is not because the settler state’s daily, routine and structural destruction is impossible to enumerate and catalog. It is because the emotional response of the liberal West can only summon horror in the face of quite particular atrocities. The ongoing blockade on the captive Palestinian population does not cause dismay. The bombardment, time and again, does not trigger sorrow. The siege incites no ethical reflection. The military and settler violence required to maintain the occupation in the West Bank provokes no concern. What explains this indifference to the suffering of the indigenous colonized and the horror at the pain of the colonizer? Why are the senses so unequally distributed? Is it merely a matter of double standards? What, then, accounts for its overwhelming consistency? To what extent is this radical disparity generative of obstacles to the Palestinian struggle? Could it really be that so many outside Israel secretly wish for Palestinian resistance to disappear so that so-called tragedies can be avoided, the “mess” can be fixed, and the colonial international order can be restored? And, too, wouldn’t such wished-for disappearance only reinforce the grammar of obliteration?
There are many answers to these questions. One takes us back to the 1967 war, when Israel’s victory over Arab armies and the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were received, inside and outside Israel, as miraculous and messianic.
There was also the British support for and facilitation of a settler Zionist state in the 20th century.
There is the unwavering American support for Israel, the deep affinity between the settler colony in the Middle East and the settler colonies of the Americas.
I want to focus on another answer, one that stays with the atrocities generative of the Gaza Strip, the destruction that has been indispensable to the creation of Israeli territory, and the expulsions that have been necessary to the making of Israeli civilians and the fading of Palestinian subjects. It seems to me that we now have critical tools to track and condemn the destabilization of the juridico-political category of the civilian, a destabilization that has enabled the killing of innocent, blameless subjects, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen, to mention only a few recent examples. But perhaps we need to think more about the making of the figure of the civilian and the notion of civilian normalcy, the territorial and discursive conditions that go into cultivating civilian lives, and their unequal distribution. I propose that the settler-colonial conquest and territorialization of the land are not merely the context of the current events but forces that produce and stabilize specific categories, including that of the civilian. There is power involved in the making and unmaking of the civilian, not only in her being the target of violence. In Palestine, this power is an exercise of settler-colonial territorialization as it has been intertwined with the ongoing removal, killing, and enclosure of Palestinians.
Let me unpack this point by returning to the Gaza Strip, the site of renewed attempts to obliterate the Palestinians and territorialize a Zionist state called Israel. Let us recall that Palestine did not have an area called the Gaza Strip before 1948. There was, however, a much larger area called the Gaza District. During the 1948 war, the Zionist forces conquered most of the Gaza District, destroyed 49 villages, and forcibly displaced the population. Only 365 square kilometers were spared conquest. Placed under Egyptian administrative rule, this stretch of land would come to be known as the Gaza Strip and receive 200,000 Palestinian refugees who would inhabit eight refugee camps. In 1950, Israel removed those who lived around the camps in the territory that was now Israel’s, depopulated the Palestinian village of Majdal, and began to encircle the strip by setting up settlements to border and enclose it. These settlements were the terrain of the events this weekend. Already then, Palestinians attempted to return to their homes and lands. They also attempted armed attacks against the settlements built on the refugees’ lands. To maintain its settler-territorial hold, Israel enacted more violence. In 1953, for example, a major military operation was initiated and Israel massacred fifty people. In 1956, Israel occupied the strip for the first time. In Khan Yunis, soldiers rounded up and shot down hundreds of Palestinians. In 1967, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip again and stayed as a land occupier until it became a blockader. Throughout this history, Israel deployed an array of pacification measures against the anticolonial struggle of Palestinians in Gaza: systematic arrests, the demolition of homes, economic pressure, and deportations; rebels were rounded up, and dozens were summarily executed. Since then, Gaza’s camps, even after 16 years of blockade, continue to be at the heart of the resistance against what the colonial state wants to impose as a fated and eternal siege.
Elsewhere in Palestine, similar military-settler operations secured the making of Israeli territory where none had existed, resulting in the extreme deterritorialization of Palestine—which is to say, its destruction. For example, despite the widespread destruction and mass expulsions in 1948, nearly 160,000 Palestinians remained on the land on which Israel’s territory was marked. They would soon be subjected to military regime. Plans were put in place to restrict them, confiscate their livelihoods, and prevent them from reaching their fields. Live ammunition was used to prevent the so-called “infiltration” of Palestinians who wanted to return from their places of refuge behind the ceasefire lines. Massacres were carried out. The Judaization of the Galilee was pursued. Since then, many other settler-colonial practices and structures of enclosure, removal, and frontiering have continued to confine the Palestinians, restrict them to small patches of land, and to avail the rest of the land to Israelis. Hence the hundreds of military checkpoints resulting in hundreds of fragmented and enclosed Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
I offer these historical gestures not to provide historical context to current events but to move toward a consideration of the intertwined making of Israeli territory and civilians. Once the Zionist state was able to mark its borders, to fortify them with settlements and armed settlers, once it was able to territorialize itself by depopulating Palestinian villages and cities, destroying them, preventing the return of Palestinian refugees, and conscripting Jews from all the over world to populate the new settlements, once it did everything that was becoming illegitimate elsewhere in the decolonizing world, then it could begin to both materialize the figure of the civilian and the notion of civilized normalcy and weaponize them as conditions on the ground to be defended. In the civilian’s name and for its protection, atrocities could be carried out.
Key to this notion of civilian normalcy is its institutional-territorial condition of possibility: a strong state form with continuous territory and fortified borders. Israel has it. It acquired this state form by force from the Palestinians. This state form has institutions: a professional standing military, a police force, an interior ministry, a registry of citizens, and a defense ministry. These are but select institutions that produce and reproduce the distinction between civilian and combatant, even as national military service is mandatory for all Jewish, Israeli citizens, with only some exceptions. The condition of possibility for these institutions is the exclusion of the Palestinians — in terms of entry to the country, residency rights, family unification, access to land, and so on — their suppression, removal, policing, and enclosure. These institutions have fostered an Israeli civil society, civil posture, civil plurality—and civilian normalcy. The settler, the precise figure through which proceeded both the territorialization of the Zionist state of Israel and the dispossession and removal of Palestinians, has also morphed into a civilian.
The occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 was central to the making of Israeli civilian normalcy. The “occupied territories” have always been the terrain for unleashing Israeli military power, thereby preventing the violence of the occupation from intruding into normalized Israeli civilian life. There, behind the green line, Israel has conducted the “conflict.” The more settler-military violence there is in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the more civilian normalcy there is in Israel, and the more the notion of civilian normalcy can be weaponized to justify more violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the purifying and normalizing operations of the green line did not always go unchallenged. Palestinians have always understood that the condition of possibility for this civilian normalcy, inside the green line, was the destruction of Palestinian existence on the land and the ban on their return to the land. Hence, there have always been breaches of the enclosure and operations to undo the frontier: what Palestinians call “return.”
Meanwhile, a Palestinian claim for civilian status or civilian normalcy has met many challenges. Palestinian society was destroyed in 1948. The territories occupied in 1967 have been purposefully fragmented, disconnected, and separated by settlements. There is no state form, standing military, depth of territory, or civilian posture. Instead, there are many refugee camps, dispossessed families, and subjects-in-struggle. Everything that could cultivate civilian normalcy is already targeted by the Israeli Occupation, from homes and schools to NGOs, cultural centers, and universities. When compared to the other side of the green line, life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the containers of Israel’s violence against Palestinians, cannot manifest civilian normalcy.
But there is more. The civilian ethos, as a matter of liberal sensibility, requires innocence, political passivity, lack of movement, and fixity. In the eyes of the liberal, civilized West, the civilian must be pacified, passive, and blameless and must reject rebellion. The Palestinians, as refugees, as politically engaged resistant subjects, as subjects who look in the direction of the land from which they were expelled and aspire to move in its direction, and as persons who wish not to settle in an enclosure, do not pass the test of this ethos. Their just refusal of confinement, steadfast rejection of enclosure, and non-despairing hope to return to the land from which they were expelled violates this liberal ethos. Their dreams and aspirations render them, in the eyes of those who value civilian normalcy despite its heavy toll on others, obliterable. Therefore, no emotion can be allowed to arise in the face of their extermination. Quite to the contrary. In the name of civilian normalcy, the a-civilian must be obliterated.
On the one hand, then, we have a state with one of the most advanced militaries on the face of the earth, a state that, by invoking violations of civilian normalcy, can mobilize obliterating military forces with the support of most members of the international community. The pain of this state’s civilians is legible and capable of provoking horror. On the other hand, we have a colonized, occupied, stateless, and deterritorialized Palestinian people, with no standing army, with a tiny terrain for maneuver, who, because they dare to resist their settler-colonial devastation, have no civilian normalcy to invoke and to weaponize. Their struggle triggers little international support. On the one hand, we have a self-territorializing settler-colonial state, built through the ethnic cleansing of the land, which carries out destructive extraterritorial operations to reterritorialize itself against those it continues to expel and to confine; its operations are internationally endorsed and militarily fortified. On the other hand, we have the expelled and confined people, persisting under extreme conditions of deterritorialization and obliteration, attempting to create an opening in the land by arriving at it from the edge of the territory; these people are condemned.
Such is our cruel international order with its sacred territorial mandate and regime of civilian normalcy. Perhaps it is time for us—those of us who do not play the game of states—to stop sharing in, contesting or soliciting from the international colonial discourse, to stop affirming its rights and claims, its terms and forms. Only then can we begin to render legible a life that cannot but struggle against the settler colonial hold over the land, cannot but seek an undoing of the frontier, and cannot but refuse the conditions of confinement and deprivation necessary to the normalization of the settler colony. To stay with this life beyond territorialization and civilian normalcy is to create an opening in language, politics, and ethics, an opening in excess of colonial cartography and the international order that enables it.
I thank Reem al-Botmeh, Basit Kareem Iqbal, and Ramsey McGlazer for their feedback on this essay. I am also indebted to the collective discussions with Helen Kinsella and Murad Idris about the question of the civilian.
Reposted with thanks from Made Masr, originally published on 12/10/2023.