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The Least of All Possible Evils: A Short History of Humanitarian Violence

January 16, 2018 at 10:28 am

  • Book Author(s): Eyal Weizman
  • Published Date: October 2017
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1786632739

Eyal Weizman commences his discussion of humanitarian violence with a succinct reflection: “It is through the collateral – flood or blood – that a government – divine or human – can demonstrate, indeed exercise, its power.”  “The Least of All Possible Evils: A Short History of Humanitarian Intervention” (Verso Books 2017) departs from early narratives of collateral damage which depict the political concept of violence as a “lesser evil”.

The book is divided into four chapters and an epilogue, commencing with a discussion on spatial reality and how governments navigate this space not with the intent of eliminating violence, but rather how to create a concept of violence that is, in Weizman’s words, pragmatic. Israel’s violence on Palestinians is elaborated upon as an example of how the atrocities are not only normalised, but also force compromise upon international institutions in terms of calculating the maximum threshold of violence while still falling within prescribed limits. However, the author also notes that managing violence also becomes an incentive to expand the boundaries that define human rights violations.

In keeping with the “lesser evil” upon which international law is founded, states are able to defend their cycles of violating human rights and promotion of humanitarian intervention – the latter becoming, in terms of diplomacy, an acceptable means of conducting an array of abuses, as long as there is hegemonic political justification.

Weizman notes: “The fundamental part of this book is that the moderation of violence is part of the very logic of violence. Humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), when abused by state, supra-state and military action, have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed.”

The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate, and Resistance in Palestine

In terms of collateral damage, such conjectures are used to justify the loss of human lives, particularly in colonial wars, which discriminated against the colonised through dehumanisation and increased aggression. Israel’s dehumanisation of Palestinians and its use of excessive violence is deemed premeditated by Weizman. To manage such levels of violence the author notes that the aggressor must first construct the dynamics of power, through which political objectives then determine the course of violence and humanitarian intervention.

Weizman draws upon the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s to discuss the politicisation of humanitarianism. The dependency of NGOs upon governments, militaries and militias distorts what the author terms as the “humanitarian space”. This trend also contributed to a shift in the dissemination of war – with humanitarian endeavours becoming increasingly dependent upon politics and allegiances, it also became possible for governments to “recast their own political projects and military adventures and humanitarian ones”.

The absence of independence in humanitarianism, which is carried out mainly under the auspices of international institutions, is one aspect of how violence is regulated and controlled with the intent of maintaining violations, rather than prioritising the targeted civilians’ safety and well-being. Refugee camps are one such example of how humanitarianism becomes a form of politics controlling the subjugated population, described by the author as “governed spaces which lack the capacity for self-governance”.

Complicity is another component of calculated violence. At times, says Weizman through his discussion of Israel’s apartheid wall, reducing the scrutiny of human rights violations brings about a situation where lawyers, for example, are unable to fight for the rights of the oppressed but are recruited by the oppressor as the means through which it can regulate “the worst effects of military violence”.

Weizman quotes Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer, describing Israel’s intentions in continuing with the construction of the wall with permanence in mind: “It is very difficult for me to say it but there are several places where I designed the actual route of the wall. It has become clear to me that in fact I am one of its architects.” To this effect, Weizman notes that the apartheid wall was “co-designed by humanitarian lawyers”.

Israel operates on several levels of collusion. Commenting on Gaza in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead Weizman makes an important observation. With reference to the enclave, he states: “it is the thresholds that are tested and pushed; the limits of the law, and the limits of violence that can be inflicted by a state and be internationally tolerated.” He reminds us that the deprivation inflicted upon Gaza by Israel is also derived from the facets of humanitarian intervention with the intent of subjugating a population – destroying Gaza allowed Israel to replace its political governance with “a system of humanitarian governance”, thus exacerbating the dependency which is a direct result of intentional deprivation.

The Commander: Fawzi al Qawuqji, the accidental hero of Palestine

Weizman also includes an in depth focus on the purportedly humanitarian tactics and its evidence in the physical space. Israel’s “knock on the roof” tactic before targeting civilian housing under the pretext of eliminating Hamas is considered by the military as a “humanitarian approach to war”. The evidence of such tactics, which the author terms as the “forensics of architecture”, is described as “reverse engineering of the process of military destruction”. Weizman interviewed Marc Garlasco to expound upon this topic, a former Pentagon adviser whose work was to seek military targets while minimising civilian casualties. Garlasco, who was assigned the task of compiling evidence in Gaza by Human Rights Watch, was involved in controversy after his fascination for Nazi memorabilia was discovered. His story, however, illustrates many of Weizman’s arguments, particularly when it comes to the collaboration between perpetrators and human rights organisations in achieving their aims. He states: “Today’s forensic investigators of violence move alongside its perpetrators, morphing into them just as the detective becomes one with the criminal.”

The book concludes with photographic evidence of Israel’s destruction of Gaza, with reflections about the ongoing colonisation process achieved through different strategies. Weizman points out that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent violence were the prelude to “an era of colonialism without colonies”. Delays in reconstruction consolidate this violent power, bolstered by the fact that Israel assumed roles both in destroying and rebuilding Gaza through political dominance.

“Pragmatic compromise”, therefore, which Weizman evokes earlier in this treatise, is not merely the means through which violence is moderated. Indeed to achieve moderation in political terms it is imperative for the same powers to ensure there is enough space for manoeuvring, not only to determine how violence should be perpetrated, but also to construct the necessary allegiances in order to shift, for political gain, understanding of international law.

Weizman demonstrates Israel’s achievement of this manipulation within a backdrop of humanitarianism and intervention. His conclusion, which counters destruction by emphasising the necessity of rebuilding, is foreboding. The book is unequivocally clear that the only direct recourse for civilians is tainted by the corruption of humanitarianism, thus creating new cycles of aggression as the “lesser evil” reaches new heights of acceptance within diplomatic circles.