Manuscript: Thanato politics

I’d like to thank the organizers for asking me to do the exergue today. I understand the task of this talk as to frame the relationship between the previous dictionary event last month and this one and to point to the way concepts could be further pushed and developed, however, news of the kind of events and situation that we are exposed to right now – Israel’s war with Hizbollah and in Gaza – requires that we make this event, or at least this talk, more specific.

The previous meeting in Frankfurt was important in charting up a possible critical engagement with the depth of the concept of war. I think that otherwise critical debate on the left has been too often engaged with protesting the visible consequences of war, the result of violence, rather than the full complexity of military thinking and practice, the complex relations between politics and war. It is strange that the critical discussion on the left has been for many years deeply engaged in analyzing the various structures of capitalism in a way that anti-war discourse not always was willing to engage the mechanisms of destruction. But by relying solely on the end-result of military action without understanding how to interpret it, without understanding military thought and mechanism, the military itself as an institution, which is quite complex, on its various institutional conflicts and fault lines, the guerilla as an institution which is quite complex, their relationship with politics, the relationship with media, we become ourselves somehow victims of the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of war, its simplified, call for action, '''images''', that we consume.

Two scenes to start of my reflection on current event in gaza and lebanon:

The father of the kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, now held in Gaza has criticised Israel policy of unilateral evacuations and fortification behind seemingly impenetrable walls in clear architectural terms: "Wherever there is a wall, there would be a tunnel." In this he meant that walling – the walling off of ones ‘enemies’, would necessarily lead to all attempts at '''unwalling'''. In that sense, the construction of the wall around Gaza and the West Bank, led to explosive being transferred in to the area in underground tunnels and out on improvised rockets through the airspace, somehow bypassing the systems of closures on the ground. the 650-meter-long tunnel dug under the fences surrounding Gaza, passing, remarkably, close under the bombed Palestinian “International Airport” of Dahania, allowed Palestinian guerrillas to emerge close to IDF positions and return to Gaza with the kidnapped Israeli soldier. With a few spades, buckets and some hundreds of working hours, Palestinian militants have thus made the three billion dollar worth phantasm of “hermetic enclosure” seem remarkably pervious. Thought along the vertical axis -- the more efficient the destructive capacity of the Israeli Air Force became, the deeper the resistance retreated into the subterrain. This reality sustains the last symmetry of the asymmetrical conflict: absolute control of air- and outer-space (as the US military already painfully learned in Vietnam, and the Soviets in Afghanistan) is mirrored by the enemy’s mastering of subterranean warfare.

In one of the videos Nasrallah released during the early days of the war he rhetorically asked: "Do you want total war? Because if you do, we are ready for it". I am not certain whether Nazrallah has or has not meant to refer to the famous speech of Goebbels when he screamed: "Wollen sie totalen Krieg" but, before moving on, it is important to try to understand this limit concepts of war. What is total war? Historically speaking, total war refers to total social and economical mobilization of all available resources, the draft - “levee en mass”, a total national effort at war-making designed to destroy another nation's ability to engage in war. But beyond their meaning in the total mobilization of society “total wars” are those wars that allow no longer any communication between the enemies to take place. Colonial wars have often been total wars, because the “natives” were not perceived to share the same “humanity” as the colonizers and thus could not be considered a party capable of rational behaviour and discourse. Total war acts to attack the very possibility of discourse. Degree and distinctions is precisely what makes war less then total. If total war has no language, it implies that any other war has a '''language''' component – the semiotics of violence. And I think that on that issue it is important to linger and to think about.

Every other war is as well a discourse between the enemies. It is a discourse between the two rivals as well as, and now increasingly, its international audience. It is a horrific discourse that is magnified through the media. The language component of war exists in the gap between the level of destruction which is '''possible''' and the level of destruction which is '''actually applied''' in every given situation. That gap between what you '''can do''' to somebody and what you '''actually do''', is the gap into which language and discourse can enter. Threats are obviously the easiest kind of discourse to communicate and understand on the battle field. Threats could only operate through a certain relational application of power. I can do this to you now. It is incredibly horrific, but I can do you even worse. Military threats could function only if gaps are maintained between the possible destruction an army can inflict in the application of its full destructive capacity, and the actual destruction it does inflict. Restraint is what allows for the possibility of further escalation. A degree of restraint is thus part of the logic of almost every conventional military operation: however bad military attacks appear to be, they could always get worst. Every escalation, or radicalization of war always seeks to leave the potential to make it even worse then what it is. Any escalation could work as language only if one could escalates the war further. At the moment this gap between the '''possible''' and the '''actual''' application of force closes, war is no longer a language, violence is stripped of semiotics and simply aims to make the enemy disappear as a subject.

Colonial wars have often been total wars, because the “natives” were not perceived to share the same “humanity” as the colonizers and thus could not be considered a party capable of rational behavior and discourse. Another example for a total war and where there are no “degrees,” and no gradient of escalation is nuclear war. This is the reason that the intellectual attention given to nuclear wars, game theory, was engaged with attempt to avert it and stir safely out of conflict, political or military. It‘s vocabulary was that of signalling; threatening, bluffing, double bluffing and counter-bluffing.

'''Aerial assassinations'''

One of the most important types of violent operations where this type of discourse if applied is the case of targeted assassinations, the way it interacts with politics. Throughout the years of the second Intifada, a major Israeli effort was directed at the development of the tactics of airborne assassinations. From a “rare and exceptional emergency method” it has become, throughout the second intifadah, the Air Force’s main form of attack in the Gaza strip. One can thus call the kind of effect thanato-politics. I will briefly take a detour through these forms of state assassinations to show the kind of levels of calculations and communication that violence may produce. How do assassinations intersect with political consideration and calculations? How are they seeking to influence the fabric of Palestinian politics? Beyond thinking of targeted assassination as a direct, preemptive response to terror, Israeli security organizations conceived it as a central component in a political “project” and as an attempt to generate a degree of control over Palestinian politics and the population at large. Following on Achille Mbembe’s essay Necropolitics, one can say there has emerged a new relationship between politics and death, where bodies replaced territories, or death - space, turning the formers into the raw matter of sovereignty.
The operational aspect of airborne targeted assassinations rely on military developments that originated in Israel’s war in Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s. In February 1992 Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Abbas Mussawi was the first to be killed in an airborne assassination as a group of Israeli helicopters flying inland from the Mediterranean Sea, attacked his convoy, killing him and his family.
The planning of the execution of these operations follows the principles of Air Force operational planning. The unit of “operational analysis,” is part of the Israeli Air Force’s “operational group,” and is responsible for planning and optimizing bombing missions. There are three levels according to which Air Force bombing is planned and executed: mechanical, systemic and political.
At the mechanical level, planning is concerned with the matching of munitions with targets – calculating what size and what type of bomb is needed to destroy a particular target; what is the amount of explosives needed to destroy a car, a building [of various sizes], a tunnel or a bunker. The mechanical level involves calculations by civil engineers and blast experts assessing the structure of the target and quality of its construction. Military engineers would then be using a computer program to determine the munitions, attack angle and time of day that will ensure the destruction of the target with the minimum use of munitions, destruction and death to bystanders.
In the context of targeted assassinations, the mechanical level is concerned with development of the warhead, the explosives used within it and the accuracy of its delivery. Like the knife of the guillotine – the warhead and other innovations in the technologies of bombing, aiming at making killing more efficient and “civilized” – enables in fact its routine and frequent application.
The second level of planning is the systemic. The function of the unit of “operational analysis,” extends beyond the planning of physical destruction. It attempts to predict and map out the effect that a destruction of a particular target might have on the enemy’s overall system of operation. Following the principles of “system analysis,” the enemy is understood as an operational network of interacting elements. In Air Force targeting theories -- cities, societies and political regimes are vulnerable because of their reliance on networked infrastructures that sustain life. The killing of members of Palestinian organizations is thought in relation to the system it serves. Unlike state militaries, much of whose power is grounded in physical infrastructure and equipment -- in the case of Palestinian resistance –-- the infrastructure of resistance are the people themselves. The effectiveness of the Palestinian resistance is grounded in its people and the efficiency of the relation between them: political and spiritual leaders, spokespersons, financiers, commanders, experienced fighters, bomb-makers, and recruiters. The killing of a key individual is conceived in similar terms to the destruction of a command and control centre or a strategic bridge. Both are intended to trigger a sequence of systemic “failures” that will disrupt the enemy’s system, making it more vulnerable to further military action. “Operational shock” is best achieved, according to the military, when the rhythms of these operations is rapid and the enemy system is not given time to recover between attacks.
The third level of planning is political. Aerial bombings has had a political dimension from the inception of air forces between the first and second world wars. In his 1921 The Command of the Air the Italian Giulio Douhet recognized the effects of bombing on civilian and military morale. Air power could break a people’s will by destroying a country's “vital centers”. Douhet identified the five basic target types as: industry, transport, infrastructure, communications, government and “the will of the people.” The first four are types of targets relate to targeting’s military-systemic logic, while the last two could be attributed to political/psychological ones. The political effect of targeting is an attempt to compel enemy leadership to negotiate a surrender on the attacker’s term. Douhet was explicit about the fact that air war called for the manipulation of civilian fear and suffering in order to achieve its political aims, and that according to these terms air war could be considered a terror war. When considering this political rationality of targeting, the killing of the uninvolved civilians that the military calls “collateral damage” could no longer be simply considered as the by-product of the intention to hit military targets, but rather as the very aim of the bombing.
In terms of these aerial assassination -- “Radical” Palestinian leaders could thus be assassinated to open the way for a more “pragmatic” politics. “Pragmatic” leader could be assassinated to open the way for direct confrontation or to stave off a diplomatic initiative. Other assassinations could be undertaken in order to “restore order,” others still to “create chaos”; some assassinations would be undertaken simply because they could be undertaken, because too much money was already invested in the manhunt, because security forces enjoyed the thrill, wanted to impress foreign observers, test new technological developments or to keep themselves practiced. It is the same people, members of the same organizations that train for these operations, the same agents and officers that need “successful” kills in their resume to gain promotions, that are as well those in charge of assessing their effects, and based on their own assessments, continue demanding that the government authorize more attacks. In fact the assassinations have been supervised by non else but their executioners.

In this context IDF operational planners draw on the principles of game theory – a branch of applied mathematics conceived to provide the tools to model environments in which various rational players interact. Game theory was developed after World War II as a strategic logic by Thomas Schelling and others at the US Air Force think-tank RAND Corporation in order to evaluate alternative nuclear strategies, and later used to “manage” the Vietnam War. It was first tried out in Vietnam where McNamaras “wiz kids” imagined violence as a kind of discourse between the enemies, in fact the kind of gradual escalation, an entire intellectual strand was invested in how many bombs should be thrown on North Vietnam on Cambodia in a way to communicate that we are in a process of escalation that could be stopped. The failure of this thinking was that the Americans were thinking that they are in discourse with somebody who did not in fact accept the very terms of the discourse with them.

In the context of the low intensity environment “game theory” is used for modelling the behaviour of guerrilla and terror organizations, of the governments that support them, as well as of the international community. Its influence on Israel military strategy stems from the fact that since the 1960s, the Math faculty at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in Jerusalem has become one of game theory’s leading centres world wide, Robert Aumann was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences together with Thomas Schelling for his contribution to “game theory”. “Game theory” and other kind of simulation-based tactics were in the context of the IDF associated with the “brainy” and disastrous command style of Ehud Barak. As IDF Chief of Operations and later as Chief of Staff, Barak experimented with the politically manipulative dimension of military violence in general and of Air Force bombing in particular. As Prime Minister, in trying to achieve final status accord with the Palestinians in Camp David, Barak disastrously employed a negotiating tactics that used Game theory principles.
A considerable part of Israel’s security logic of assassinations is grounded in the bias of Israel’s intelligence agencies towards personality analysis. The Israeli sociologist Gil Eyal demonstrated that, following a long orientalist tradition, the Israeli intelligence services have tended to seek motives for political developments, as well as for terror attacks, not in response to a history of repression or in pursuit of rational political goals, but in the personal irrationalities, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies of Arab leaders. When undertaken, political and economical analysis generally only provided context to the work of psychological profiling. The natural consequence of this logic was the believe that in killing, Israel’s security services does not only remove a leader but also the cause of a political or security problem.
Although so much effort has been put into modelling enemy behaviour, and the security services remain confident in their methods, years of targeted assassinations did not managed to limit violence, nor did they reduce Palestinian motivation for resistance; or strengthen the hand of President Mahmoud Abbas or “reinforce the moderates in the Palestinian street;” nor yet did the killings ever managed to “sear the Palestinian consciousness” regarding the futility of resistance. On the contrary, assassinations fed the conflict by creating further motivation for violent retaliations, and dramatically increased Palestinian popular support for acts of terror.

Often, this political logic of targeting is hidden behind military rhetoric that argues the logic of bombing according to the first two levels of planning, the mechanical and systemic, which are considered legal according to international law. For example, in Israeli military announcements during this war now taking place between Israel and Hizbollah, Israeli targeting was explained according to a military logic: the destruction of airports, bridges, Hizbollah offices, launching sites, supply lines, infrastructure, etc... the military thus intentionally “confuses” cause with effect and side-effect. It presented civilian casualties as the regrettable side effects of its attempts to hit military or dual-use targets. However, the destruction of homes and the killing and displacement of civilians was the main leverage of political pressure. This calculated set of acts have precedents in the logic of Israel’s military interventions in Lebanon, which often aimed to manipulate differences and existing hostilities within Lebanon’s complex social-political-ethnic fabric. This recalls Israel operation “accountability” in 1996. An operation that was conducted by Barak. The plan sought to combine military attacks and political manipulation in order to compel his enemies to act as he wanted. The strategy was to bomb more than seventy Shiite villages in order to force hundred of thousands of civilians to flee northward towards Beirut. There, Barak hoped, their presence would put pressure on the government, who would in turn put pressure on the Syrians who were themselves hoped to put pressure on Hezbollah leadership (themselves part of the refugees now in Beirut) to stop its military activity and disarm.
The bombing in this current Lebanon war aims '''again''', according to Israeli speakers, to turn the Lebanese populace against Hezbollah – a stratagem that was based on the assumption that cold political calculus can triumph over vengeful rage in time of war. The creation of civilian casualties and their justification as “collateral damage” was part of an attempt to create a human catastrophe that could not be tolerated internationally and would thus precipitate international intervention on Israel’s terms. Needless to remind, these tactics led to israeli strategic failures throughout the 1990s. The refugees had neither inclination nor power to pressure the government in Lebanon or Hizbollah and the bombings created nothing but public outrage and further support for Hizbollah. It will most likely fail again.
However, can we believe Israel that the effects that is seeking are operational effects? Is it attacking the Guerrillas as the ‘thing in itself’? I think that there is a confusion between the aim and the side-effect. What is portrayed as a side-effect is in a sense the essence of this war. What seems to be the essence is the side-effect. In this respect the collateral damage, if we can still use this horrible word, the death of civilians, is not a side effect of the war, is not a regrettable kind of outcome of Israels attempt to undo the operational logic of the Hezbollah but the very aim of this war. Killing civilian that is meant to outrage, creating refugees that is meant to make the world intervene.

Why bombing Lebanon itself, rather than targets within lebanon? Simply because, and I think here is another paradox, the level of sympathy that the Western world has to Lebanon, simply because the Lebanon stands for the sort of middle class revolution, which is imagined to be possible in the Middle East. Something that gives Europeans and Americans hope to a sane Middle East. Paradoxically it is because of that love of Lebanon that it is so mercilessly attacked. There is no point taking a hostage who is not loved. The ferocity of the attack on Lebanon is just a n opposite relation to the love that Europeans have for a contemporary Lebanon. The world needs to know that israel has gone mad and that therefore the world must accept its demands. This is mobilizing of outrage. What is clear is that if the civilians that have been killed in Lebanon are not what Israel claim as the “side-effect” of it war, but the very aim, the only conclusion is that we have to start think of stopping this logic with the tools of international criminal court and war crimes.

If wars have semiotics to them, the weapons used are its vocabulary. what does this weapon mean? Is a questin that must replace what does this weapon does? What does it mean to use this weapon rather than that? Why should we actually ask those questions?
When Israel is discussing which rocket, and there is a whole discussion about, which rockets are being currently used againt it. Are those Katyuscha rockets? If they are Katyusha, are they long range or short range? Are there Fajr rockets? Is it Fajr 3 or Fajr 5? are these long range Fajr rockets? Which cities are hit? Is it Arfula, is it Haifa, is it Kfar Saba in the North? How many tons is this bomb? How many tons were dropped on Nazrallahs bunker, on the neighbourhood of dahaiya? All these are part of the semiotics of the different weapons and ammunitions that are being used in that. And they are extremely important. When Hezbollah rockert hit the Israeli boat it was not an operational success, because the sea closure on Beirut port and on the entire Lebanese coast line remained intact. But it must be seen in the context of a communication war – in relation to the video in which nasrallah said, seconds before the rocket was fired, look now at the beach, then the rocket was fired, look at the enemy ship burning and its soldiers jumping into the sea. So the rocket itself, which was fired, was continuous to that speech. That itself created the effect of this operation.

There is special language and there is special munition, there is special weapons to keep that level of conflict at the theshold of the “low intensity conflict”. In the logic of low intensity conflict, the sides seek actually consciously to keep the level of violence as close as possible to the threshold level of the tolerable. this level is itself dynamic.
we need to understand the language aspect of that war as a gradient between the tolerable the intolerable. And there is an economy to that violence and somehow there is an economy to that level of suffering. An economy that perceives the tolerable as different then the intolerable, that there is a shifting threashold between the terms. International politics based decision on that location across the shifting gradient of “acceptability”. These are as well geographically relative – with things accepted in one place unaccepted in another. Low intensity conflicts operate as a sequence of actions that are defined as tolerable. Politically tolerable.
This economy means that in Palestine, for example, IDF hit and run raids and aereal attacks, assassinations, Qassam rockets here and there, even a suicide bomb, in Lebanon Katyusha rockets, again aerial attacks, snipping, shelling, even periodic kidnapping, [before this very act was breaking the rules of the game], are understood as the level of the tolerable and acceptable in that logic. This is as well where the humanitarian situation in Gaza comes into this play.
Israeli writer Ariella Azoulay made the point that there is an understanding in Israeli strategic command that if there will be hunger in Palestine, a humanitarian catastrophe, the “west” would demand an international intervention. although israel has brought the occupied territories to the verge of hunger, the Israeli government tries to control the flow of traffic, money, and aid in such a way as to prevent the situation reaching a point of total collapse, because of the international intervention, possibly under a UN mandate, that might follow. The “occupation” of Gaza has thus been thus re-conceptualized as “crisis management” modulated by Israel through the opening and closing of checkpoints and terminals. It is through this regulation of international aid, under the guise of security that Israel still controls Palestinian economy – and in effect life – in Gaza and the West Bank. Keeping reality always on that threshold of what is tolerable, what the world, not the victims of this aggression, are willing to understand or accept. The world is willing to accept that it is tolerable to be on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe, if you are Palestinian. it is obviously feels like a very different economy.

The low intensity conflict in those attacked are always portrayed as the more moderate alternative to the devastating capacity that the military and militants actually posses and would unleash no doubt in the former full scale invasion or renewal of ground occupation, when we are speaking about Gaza, or indiscriminate civilian killings, if the enemy exceeds the acceptable level of violences or bridges some unspoken agreement in the violent discourse of acts and counteracts. According to this logic of the necro-economy, targeted assassinations are to be understood as the “lesser evil” alternatives to possible greater evils that could occur to both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel, who undertakes these operations, would like Palestinians to understand that the use of targeted assassinations helps it restrain more brutal measures that would affect the entire population, killing only, or mostly those “guilty.”
The promoters of the instruments, techniques and rhetoric supporting such “lesser evils” believe that by developing and perfecting them they actually exercise a restraining impact on the government and on the rest of the security forces, which would otherwise succeed in pushing for the further radicalization of violence; that targeted assassinations are the more moderate alternative to the devastating capacity for destruction that the military actually possess and would unleash in the form of a full-scale invasion or the renewal of territorial occupation, should the enemy exceed an “acceptable” level of violence or breach some unspoken agreement in the violent discourse of attacks and retaliations. Confirming this logic, Air Force chief Shakedy arguing for targeted assassinations, explained, only few weeks before the June 2006 invasion of Gaza, that “the only alternative to aerial attacks is a ground operation and the reoccupation of Gaza… [targeted assassinations] is the most precise tool we have.”
The quest to make war more “humane”— written since the nineteenth century into different conventions and laws of war — may under certain conditions similarly result in making it more imaginable, more frequent. Regulating violence, the laws of war and other moral rules that societies may voluntarily impose upon themselves, may end up legitimizing it, and even prolonging it. Another analogous phenomena that can help clarify this paradox can be seen in the IDF’s use of rubber-coated steel munitions. Soldiers believe that “rubber bullets” are non-lethal munitions and that their use demonstrates restraint in non-life-threatening situations. But this perception leads to their more frequent and indiscriminate use, causing the death and permanent injury of many Palestinian demonstrators, mainly children.
The re-occupation of Gaza starting June 2002 and the Lebanon war of July-August 2006 demonstrated that more destructive alternatives are always possible, especially when the “unwritten rules” of the low intensity conflict are perceived to have been broken. Since the 28 June kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in Gaza, over 500 Palestinians have been killed, including 88 minors, and more than 2,700 injured. $46 million worth of infrastructure, including a power plant, 270 private houses and residences were destroyed. This should be understood, as an eruption of violence meant to sustain the threat of greater measures. In terms of their justification, thus, targeted assassination exist at the middle of the spectrum between total war and total peace.
The military belief that it can perform “controlled,” “elegant,” “pinhead accurate,” “discriminate” killing could bring about more destruction and death than “traditional” strategies do because these methods, combined with the manipulative and euphoric rhetoric used to promulgate them, induce decision-makers to authorize their frequent and extended use. The illusion of precision, here part of a rhetoric of restraint, gives the military-political apparatus the necessary justification to use explosives in civilian environments where they could not be used without injuring or killing civilians. The lower the threshold of violence a certain means is believed to possess, the more frequent its application might become.
Otherwise, the low intensity conflict is meant to keep this status quo. As this status quo is good domestically for both parties. It is meant to keep the level of conflict constant and not to provoke the enemy to break the rules. The problem however is, that with low intensity war they may become more deadly, simply because the fact that they are accepted and tolerated allow decision-makers, allows the public to extent their duration. And paradoxically thus results in more casualties.
Naturally, I am not suggesting that “greater evils” should be preferred to lesser ones nor that wars should be more brutal, rather, that we question the very terms of the economy of evils, the very system that presented to us its choice as inevitable. By accepting the validity of the choice for the “lesser evil”, thinking it moral to moderate the system that produces harm, one accepts, de-facto, the validity of the system that imposed that choice and produces harm. The positioning of the lesser evil dilemma is integral to political “militarism” – a culture which sees violence as permanent as a rule of history and thus military contingencies as the principal alternative available to politicians. Israeli militarism accordingly always sought military solutions to political problems. Locked within the limits defined by the degrees of violence, it continuously forecloses the exploration of other avenues for negotiations and participation in a genuine political process. At the beginning of 2006, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who orchestrated the bombing of Lebanon, expressed this world view when he states that “the Intifada is part of an un-resolvable... permanent conflict between Jews and Palestinians that started in 1929.” The military, according to Halutz, must therefore gear itself to operate within an environment saturated with conflict and a future of permanent violence. With this he echoed an often-recurring claim within Israeli security discourse: In June 1977 as Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan explained the presumption that Israel's conflict with the Palestinians could be “solved” was fundamentally flawed. “The question, was not, ‘What is the solution?’ but ‘How do we live without a solution?’” The perception of the “lesser evil” approach relates thus to Israeli unilateralism, to the perception that there is no partner and to the idea of infinite conflict. Bombing is ever considered the “lesser evil” in Lebanon, occupation is thus projected as a “necessary evil” in the West Bank and assassinations are a “necessary evil” in Gaza. In the absence of both options – a political solution on the one hand or the possibility of a decisive military outcome on the other – the Israeli military thus merely “manages the conflict.” At the beginning of 2006, Halutz still thought that the precision method of the Israeli Air Force would help keep the conflict “on a flame low enough for Israeli society to be able to live and to prosper within it.” This projection of endless war has accordingly all likelihood to fulfil itself.