Kill Chains and the Politics of Impunity: The Case of Gaza

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Two boys sat on a mound of rubble in a demolished neighbourhood | Photograph by Mohammed Ibrahim
Two boys sat on a mound of rubble in a demolished neighbourhood | Photograph by Mohammed Ibrahim

Against a backdrop of an increase in violence locally, regionally and globally, and in light of an acknowledgement that violence must be analysed in order that it might be overcome, the Centre for the Study of Violence launches a regular series of discursive blog posts. The following essay is the first in this series that will be published five times a year by both external and internal contributors. These posts will be influenced by accessible, yet eclectic methodological and theoretical approaches from those across academic, practitioner, and lay contexts. In keeping with the Centre’s mission, the wider aim of the series is to provoke thought on the ways in which violence operates, and the forms it has taken and takes, in both historical and contemporary contexts. Our educative strategy through discursive blog is intended as one strategy in this direction.

 

Kill Chains and the Politics of Impunity:

The Case of Gaza

By Paul Higate

Professor in Conflict & Security

P.Higate@bath.ac.uk

 

In his ground-breaking book Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Zygmunt Bauman challenged the common-sense notion that those involved in the Holocaust were little more than ‘evil’ actors by demonstrating the cumulative impact of their often banal, official roles. Pankaj Mishra’s reading of his work is captured here when she argues that Bauman sought to capture the ‘normality’ of those involved:

 

Technology and the rational division of labour had enabled ordinary people to contribute to acts of mass extermination with a clear conscience, even with frissons of virtue, and preventive efforts against such impersonal and available modes of killing required more than vigilance against antisemitism.[1]

 

In this, Bauman stressed the importance of increasingly specialised divisions of labour, procedural rationality, and processes of bureaucratisation as key components to the distancing of individuals from their role in mass violence within the context of Germany as an allegedly ‘modern’ state. Those clerks and administrators working to ensure the efficiency of the railways that were used to transport Jewish people, homosexuals, Roma peoples and others deemed ‘inferior’ to death camps, were a case in point. This observation resonates closely with what is often referred to in the contemporary context as the ‘kill chain’ comprised of actors with specialist skills oriented towards the death or injury of the ‘enemy’.[2]

Bauman’s analysis has lost little of its explanatory potency, with contemporary militarised violence also being facilitated by such processes, although with their own manifestations and specificities in the age of mass media. While Bauman’s archetypal bureaucrat may never have witnessed the repercussions of their role in mass extermination (although of course many did, and others chose not to do so), today it’s a rather different story. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the extensive coverage of the slaughter in Gaza as it loops continuously through the 24/7 news cycle (though less so in recent months). The devastation in the region has been argued to be equivalent to the dropping of two nuclear weapons in the form of a staggering 65,000 tonnes of ordnance up until the first week of January 2024.[3] Much of this has been delivered through airstrikes, with the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) senior research fellow Justin Bronk arguing that a number of these weapons are so-called dumb bombs. He states:

These bombs would normally be used in a more open area where targets are dispersed and the use wasn't indiscriminate, but if you're using them against targets in a built-up area, then it is almost by definition indiscriminate, particularly when using this older style of unguided bomb with a much higher drag design.[4]

This indiscriminate tactic is used alongside the withholding of food and water from the Palestinian population in the Gaza strip as a further element of the collective punishment to which they are subject. Other observers have recorded the use of unguided ordnance despite the daily claims that smart weaponry’ and ‘surgical strikes’ ensure that ‘collateral damage’ (the killing of civilians) is kept to an absolute minimum; the evidence suggests otherwise. According to Amnesty International the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has used white phosphorous along Lebanon’s southern border, further underscoring the indiscriminate nature of killing in the region.[5]

To return to Bauman – whether it be the bureaucrats sourcing the required chemicals vital for the manufacture of Zyklon-B used to kill those deported to the concentration camps, or skilled physics graduates within British industry designing key components for the F35 stealth combat aircraft that are currently being used in the bombardment of Gaza (a trade estimated to be worth £336 million since 2016[6]), parallel logics span both instances of mass violence. If we proceed from the starting point that the deaths inflicted by the IDF are in breach of international law[7] then it might follow that those avionics experts, designers and engineers in the contemporary ‘kill chain’ have necessarily to engage in psychological or emotional labour in order that they might live with their role in the death tens of thousands of civilians including a disproportionate number of children[8] and the elderly. [9]In the final analysis, in comparing one genocide to another, the point is not to ‘invisibilise’ the differences between them, but to underscore the capacity of humankind to inflict violence when the fascism and the far-right become normalised elements even through ‘democratic’ processes. In this current example the web of culpability extends far and wide to encompass not only those actors involved in face-to-face violence, but others drawing on their technical expertise to manipulate weapon design in facilities far distant from the ongoing bloodshed.


[1] See Pankaj Mishra, The Shoa after Gaza, London Review of Books, Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024. Available at: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v46/n06/pankaj-mishra/the-shoah-after-gaza, accessed 17th March 2024.

[2] For a powerful cinematic representation of the ability of individuals to distance themselves from death and suffering, see the film set in close proximity to Auschwitz concentration camp Zone of Interest (2024). The film skilfully portrays the ways in which the Camp Commandant and his family are directly implicated in the horrors ‘on the other side of the wall’ while going about living their normal lives as embodiments of the banality of evil.

[3] See the Middle East Monitor, Israel dropped 65,000 tonnes of bombs in 89 days. Available at: (https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20240104-israel-dropped-65000-tonnes-of-bombs-on-gaza-in-89-days/ accessed 15th March 2024.

[4] See RUSI news: Intel says Israel has been dropping thousands of 'dumb' bombs on Gaza, available at: https://rusi.org/news-and-comment/in-the-news/intel-says-israel-has-been-dropping-thousands-dumb-bombs-gaza accessed 15th March 2024.

[5] See Amnesty International Lebanon: Evidence of Israel’s unlawful use of white phosphorus in southern Lebanon as cross-border hostilities escalate available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/10/lebanon-evidence-of-israels-unlawful-use-of-white-phosphorus-in-southern-lebanon-as-cross-border-hostilities-escalate/ accessed 15th March 2024.

[6] See Campaign Against the Arms Trade: Statement on UK arms export to Israel. Available at https://caat.org.uk/news/statement-on-uk-arms-exports-to-israel/ accessed 15th March 2024.

[7] See Amnesty International: Damning evidence of war crimes as Israeli attacks wipe out entire families in Gaza, available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/10/damning-evidence-of-war-crimes-as-israeli-attacks-wipe-out-entire-families-in-gaza/ accessed 15th March 2024.

[8] See United Nations, Gaza: Number of children killed higher than from four years of world conflict, available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2024/03/1147512, accessed 15th March 2024.

[9] See United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Death rate of elderly people in northern Gaza Strip soars due to bombing, starvation, dehydration, and lack of healthcare, available at: https://reliefweb.int/report/occupied-palestinian-territory/death-rate-elderly-people-northern-gaza-strip-soars-due-bombing-starvation-dehydration-and-lack-healthcare-enar accessed 15th March 2024.

Photograph source: https://unsplash.com/photos/ZupwcgqWjcU

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