gaza, darfur & the politics of naming



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Coming across these fantastic mirrored sculptures by Rob Mullholland got me thinking. Made of mirrored perspex, they create a slippery, creepy, sliding effect of shifting perceptions and distorted realities. They’re installed in Scottish forests, but to me suggest another shifting, disidentified landscape: that of Israel and Palestine. I’m reminded of an academic essay from a few years ago—2009, so apologies for datedness—on Darfur, Palestine and the politics of naming:

Is Gaza a genocide; is Darfur a genocide? Where do you draw the lines between ‘land conflict’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide’, and what are the political value(s) of doing so? And how does something get designated as genocide anyway – is it, legally, only when the ICC at the Hague says so?

Consider this 2009 article by Oliver Kamm in which he concludes that

But the greatest tragedy is that this dispute is not about territory. If it were, it could be resolved. The dispute is, rather, a conflict. Conflicts don’t have resolutions: they have outcomes.

Clearly, the current situation changes things, not in the least in terms of magnitude of violence, massacre. It is made difficult in that it now seems imbued with the ready hypocrisy inherent to taking any moral stance – perhaps even an academic one. I’m very torn as to what I actually think. And does what I think to myself even matter if Gaza being popularly recognised as genocide is the most ‘politically sound’ or beneficial outcome? Today, it seems that there can be nothing worse than being a Holocaust denier, and perhaps a genocide denier.

To deny that a genocide is taking place in Darfur is to deny the very real suffering of millions, and be well castigated for it. Is not ‘calling genocide‘ in Gaza then then a similar denial, even traitorship of sort? If the declaration of genocide is indeed an opening of the discourse, and a ‘setting the stage’ for external intervention, is this necessarily a bad thing? I don’t have any of the answers. The redress by intergovermentals / ‘international community’ approach (for example, the International Criminal Court, has however always struck me as strange in that it targets and prosecutes individual leaders for crimes which are defined by their very systematic nature. And given that the Israeli occupation is not just Olmert’s, or Barak’s, or Sharon, or whichever bogey-monster’s policy, but intrinsic to the very construction and functioning of the state, are such proceedings even possible? On to the essay, then:

Reading Genocidal Legacies in Darfur and Palestine.

The Rwandan genocide is popularly characterised as one of the most shocking massacres of a century already stained by violent bloodshed. Much of its associated visceral horror comes from the situation of neighbours turning against each other. Not unlike its historical cousin of the Nazi Holocaust, it too was structured around several poles of binary opposition. Citizen and subject; native and settler. Hutu and Tutsi; Nazi and Jew. Both of these atrocities have seeped their way into the collective Western consciousness, and have come to function as embedded points of reference for future conflicts. In thinking of their legacies, it would be easy, and perhaps logical to map Rwanda and the Holocaust to the ongoing conflicts in Darfur and Israel-Palestine respectively. I will however argue that there is instead a cross-fertilisation of these legacies, focussing on the Palestinian situation. This results in semantic emergences that become crucial to the way that they are politically read.

Both Darfur and the Palestinian Territories share several similarities borne of their postcolonial context. Conflict is driven by issues ranging from access to land and water, national identity and the politicisation of ethnicities, forced displacement and the right of return, humanitarian intervention and refugee camps, armed militias and State militaries, and volatile borders and government complicity. Despite this, both situations are labelled in very different ways. Darfur is frequently referred to in media and human rights reports in terms of war or ‘ethnic cleansing’. For Jérôme Tubiana, this latter term “highlights the fact that civilians were forced off their land because of their ethnicity – their villages destroyed, their livestock and other belongings looted.” Palestine meanwhile is characterised as a ‘conflict’, be it for land, liberation or security, or simply, a ‘problem’.

Should a term with more negative connotations be sought, the standard lexicon speaks of “Genocide in Darfur” and the “Occupation of Palestine”. Just looking at the prepositions suggests an interesting assignation of the familiar paradigm of the internal and external. Like the Holocaust in Europe, Darfur is seen as being predicated upon internal factors and actors such as the Sudanese military or the Janjawiid militias. Palestine and Rwanda meanwhile tend to be conceived in terms of external regional factors and motivations. They serve almost as a designated site of conflict, with trained forces entering the space only when they are, essentially, ready to rumble. And as Mahmood Mamdani suggests, “while the crisis of nationalism can be made sense of in a single-country context, the crisis of citizenship cannot be grasped fully outside of a regional context.”

Why, then, are these situations so differently named – is it purely subjective and identity or ideologically based? Tubiana’s definition of ethnic cleansing is uncannily disconcerting in that it could be equally applied to the situation in Israel and Palestine today. Forced displacement to make way for Israeli settlers has resulted in an estimated 6 million refugees created since 1948. The same Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre statistics estimate that around 950 000 of these have been displaced since 1967. In addition to this, a further 400 000 are internally displaced within Israel, amounting to nearly 1 in every 4 of the current Israeli population.

These Israeli Arabs present an interesting example in that their ethnicity subjects them to slightly different laws. They are not, for example, required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. Fascinatingly, people of a given (minority) ethnicity will have different legal statuses depending on where they live – not unlike the way in which someone might cease to be considered a Hutu or Tutsi upon crossing certain borders. As a result the Druze living in the annexed Golan Heights region tend to largely retain their Syrian citizenship despite being considered as permanent residents in the (controversial and internationally rejected) Golan Heights Law. Those who are Israeli citizens are not required to serve in the IDF either, although their fellow Druze citizens living in elsewhere in the country are.

Can this be considered a new form of customary law, in which citizenship is granted, regardless of race? Discrimination of ethnicities meanwhile occurs not only de facto but de jure too, to the extent of being codified into law. In the way that Rwanda functioned as a “halfway house between direct and indirect rule” it might be possible to posit the intra-Israeli situation as another structure – perhaps a drive through rest stop – on the road to decolonisation. The different IDF requirements also reveal a certain conflating of ethnicity and presumed patriotism or national allegiance. Is there a fear that Arab Israelis in the IDF – which works heavily in Palestine might be motivated into instead turning their guns on their fellow citizens, rather than shoot their fellow Arabs? Similarly, would Golan Druze soldiers be more likely to privilege ethnic solidarity with their fellow Druze people in Syria?

Despite all citizens being equal under Israel’s Basic Law, it is then telling that until 2005, Israeli identity cards for Israeli citizens included the field of ethnicity – fascinatingly labelled as nationality -,which could be Jewish, Arab, Circassian or Druze.

The ‘ethnic’ identity was however mutable in some cases – an ‘ethnic’ Arab Muslim or Christian could convert their religion to Judaism to be considered ‘ethnically’ Jewish. This was in itself problematic as some denominations of the religion refused to recognise conversions that didn’t fit their own standards. So it is that when, in 2002, it was decided that even those undergoing Reform conversions were to be listed as Jews, the then- Interior Minister Eli Yishai, from the Orthodox party Shas, decided to remove the category, instead of having those he did not consider to be Jews listed as such.

More explicitly discriminatory is the right of access to land, which, like the traditional land rights in Darfur, is organised along politicised ethnic lines. That is to say, 93% of the land in Israel today is public domain, and is managed by the Israel Land Administration. 13% belongs to the Jewish National Fund, with the rest going either to the State, or the Jewish Development Authority. Although the JNF share is small, they appoint a disproportionately high 10 members to the ILA board, with the remaining 12 coming from various government ministries. Problematically, JNF policies disallow non-Jews from leasing the land, which is to be acquired for the purpose of Jewish settlement. After tenuous legal battles, it was ruled in 2007 that the JNF would no longer be able to discriminate based on ethnicity.

At the same time, it would be compensated –in land- every time that land was sold to a non-Jew, so as to maintain the proportion of total land owned by Jewish Israelis. The ruling was however temporary, thus leaving this structural ethnic discrimination fundamentally unaddressed. The laws drawn around the right of return of refugees are similarly ethnically delineated and motivated. Again, then, as with in Rwanda, an ethnic citizen can claim land as a customary right, a kin based claim that is a consequence of membership in an ethnic group. So it is that as in Rwanda, an official “deracialising without deethnicisation continued to produce a bifurcated citizenship.”

How then can the Israeli State be understood? Is it, as a nation based on building a cultural community, with a common past, or a political one with a common project for the future? These two approaches are not mutually exclusive but rather, seem to go hand in hand. Yet does the past brutal persecution of the Jewish peoples legitimise their own occupation – and some would say, colonisation, of the Palestinians? Similarly, does the Palestinian resistance (or terrorism?) act as a native violence against the settler?

It would be helpful to define exactly who is the settler and who is the native. Palestinians might be said to lay claim to the land based on prior and present residence, and some Israelis based on ethnicity, however amorphously defined. Still others might locate their claims in history, or in a religiously bestowed homeland (whether mythologised, revised or otherwise). It would here be interesting to see claims to land being made that go back beyond these two millennia – perhaps as a case for acquiring Ethiopia, sometimes considered the birthplace of civilisation?

Or perhaps it’s a question of temporal proximity. A far more recent example – yet one that would likely be equally as denied – is that which Mamdani considers the prototype of settler violence in the history of modern colonialism: the near extermination of Amerindians in the New World.” It might even be said that financial or religious linkages aside, the United States’ support of Israel stems partly from its affirmation of America’s own settler-style founding. Interestingly, just as the US has fairly effectively re-mythologised away its own genocidal guilt, the same machinations can be seen today in Israel, particularly around its own myth of origin. So it is that the 14th of May is celebrated for its marking of the foundation of a Jewish homeland at last. At the same time, the next day – commemorated as ‘Nakba Day’ for its marking of the beginning of the 1948 Palestinian exodus is systematically discounted and almost disappeared from the discourse surrounding the event.

Yet to return to the present – political, economic and architectural asphyxiation (as created by checkpoints, and access to certain roads) has further served to create a miasmic honeycomb of isolated annexed areas. These can be eerily reminiscent of the compartmentalising and perhaps even Bantustanising policies of colonialism in Africa. The West Bank Barrier is a particularly significant component in this machine, and was built with the stated purpose of protecting and defending Israel, from Palestinian paramilitaries. Despite this, it works instead not only to encroach territory and limit residents’ access to their farmlands, schools, hospitals and workplaces, but, crucially, to divide Palestinians from Palestinians. It can be wondered if this should then be understood as a project for further politicising the Palestinians into micro-ethnic identities. Perhaps even exploiting the current political divisions to engineer identities such as ‘Gaza-Palestinian’ or ‘West Bank-Palestinian.

It is important to note that these barriers – although made of concrete and structurally reinforced – are not impermeable, at least in both directions. Instead, they can be seen to function with the Israeli war machine to create a Schmitt-like state of emergency in which boundaries are relaxed and redrawn, both spatially and socially. To follow Eyal Weizman, this machine, like a bulldozer, unwalls the wall and undoes the law, as it ‘operates in a space as if it has no borders.’ Indeed, after an IDF visit, buildings are left resembling layer cakes. This is achieved through a smoothing of space and erasure of any frictions or concerns. It even extends to appellations of war. Urbicide might be kind of messy but an incisive campicide, or perhaps ‘villagicide’ is swallowed rather more easily. War membranes are thus made permanent yet translucent, like the one-way mirrors found in police interrogation chambers. Unable to see in, those on the outside are instead presented with mollifying reflections of their own better selves.

This semantic machine thus functions to transmute the semantic walls that bound a space of conflict, seeking to reassert and reproduce its parent system. It works through a sealing in and a targeting of language and discourse – Mamdani might even dub it the ‘naming machine’. In Palestine it is seen in action in the silencing of activists and agitator through disappearance and convenient erasure – all of those who might otherwise succeed in renaming or re-mythologising the conflict. Following on from its colonial roots, it targets not only Palestinians’ domiciles and bodies, but also their thoughts. Like the physical space of their villages, their appropriated discourses are deftly occupied, decimated and rebuilt. In Darfur, violence is thus called ethnic conflict and active war, but the Palestinian conflict is spun around land and passive occupation.

So it is that violence can be named, manipulated and even read in a myriad of ways. In the Politics of Naming, Mamdani maps this to Iraq, where “it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency, in Darfur it is called genocide.” He suggests that these names do in fact have very real effects, especially with regards to the War on Terror and fanning the flames of anti-Arab sentiment. Different definitions equally produce meaning and open up critical fissures and entry points for intervention, be it military or humanitarian. In this regard it is not unlike the project of the NGO-Industrial Complex, which extends its development-discursive arm(s) in a similar manner. Sometimes the projects even collide, if accidentally, as happened with the organisation Médecins Sans Frontières in Rwanda. Their plea that genocide could not be stopped with doctors resulted in not only a military intervention, but also a refugee crisis to boot.

Connotations of magnitude aside, it is finally worth noting how some of these names – ‘war’ or ‘genocide’ implies a temporally bounded event – one that can be ‘solved’ with efficiency (and still be back in time to fix the economy perhaps). Cyclical insurgency, conflict and occupation however imply a different time scale, with less hope of ever neatly ‘fixing’ the situation. And even as we move away from entrenched binary oppositions, it is these machinations that serve to mythologise and glorify in one direction even as they deftly reduce the surrounding narratives into a dangerously legitimising singularity. Mamdani does ask, “Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?.” It is worth a brief return to the initial idea of how to ‘read’ a conflict or violent situation. Assigning authorship to each of these texts is a larger initiative. It is however possible that they share one ghostwriter, which is this semantic machine.

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TEXTS CITED

Mahmood Mamdani – When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda. (2001 Princeton University Press)

Mahmood Mamdani – The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency (2007 London review of Books)

Jérôme Tubiana – Darfur: A Conflict for Land? -War in Darfur and the search for peace (2007 Global Equity Initiative)

Eyal Weizman – Walking Through Walls (2007 European Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics)

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre – Occupied Palestine Territory (2007 data)






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rahel aima

rahel is editor-in-chief at THE STATE. Her research interests include alternative futurisms, auntycapitalist praxis, and full #cccccc. She is currently based in Dubai, and can also be found at here & here. @cnqmdi





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