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« Urbicide as 'Crime Against Humanity' | Main | Reply to Graham: Two Questions »
Friday
13Mar

On the Gaza Tunnels

Bryan, your post regarding the assault on the tunnels of Gaza raises a number of interesting questions. I’ll try to disentangle some thoughts (though I doubt I can say anything definitive):

  • In the book I discuss the widening of the so-called ‘Philadelphi route’ by the IDF. But I do so in terms of the houses that were destroyed, not the opportunity it gave for a renewed assault on the tunnels.
  • I would note that I still think that war is a distinct form of social activity and – without commenting on the legitimacy of any particular war – we can understand attempts to deny an opponent of infrastructural capabilities necessary to wage war under the rubric of ‘warfare’. But all of this becomes murky in relation to structures that have the ‘dual use’ that you describe. I think Steve Graham’s Switching Cities Off is very good at outlining some of the problems ‘dual use’ raises. While we can understand disrupting supply networks under the rubric of war this kind of activity becomes illegitimate very fast when those networks also support civilian life. But the two are hardly separable in the modern city and so war against urban infrastructure could always be seen as a form of illegitimate war.
  • I also think we need to draw a distinction between infrastructure and buildings. Buildings are – to bring Heidegger back in – edifices that gather networks of relations around them. To put it crudely they stand up in front of us and act as focal points that channel interactions and relations orientations around them. Infrastructure is different insofar as it is a carrier that enables mobility, not a loci orienting relations. The tunnels are interesting insofar as they are constructed and yet curiously don’t seem to be buildings. Where a building has presence, the tunnels are constructed absence (literally a hole through the earth). I suspect then, that we must see them as infrastructure not buildings. In my opening comments I indicated that I thought we should see violence against infrastructure as different to urbicide (this is the focus of the piece I circulated which will be forthcoming in Security Dialogue [Summer 09] and which discusses ‘network centric violence’ against infrastructure).
  • I think the point you raise about pre-construction of targets for violence is really interesting. I broadly agree that the creation of particular spatial regimes of control and containment have given rise to the necessity of the building of clandestine routes for escape/logistical supply. The Israeli regime of spatial control and confinement defines these routes as illicit/illegal precisely because they violate its principles of containment. I think you are right, therefore, that these routes were always already criminalised.
  • Finally, I would go out on a limb and venture that the attacks on the tunnels are part of an operational doctrine on the part of the IDF which is broadly urbicidal. Observers of the recent Gaza and Lebanon offensives have noted that the IDF seems to deploy disproportional violence against buildings and/or attack critical infrastructure (bridges etc.) deliberately. Such tactical doctrine could be seen as urbicidal. Though I realise its domestic politics are a complex matter, Israel is a plural state that at times seems to cleave to a dynamic designed to generate an antagonistic separation from its agonistic Palestinian other. In this light IDF tactical doctrines that destroy buildings and infrastructure seem enmeshed within a wider logic of the disavowal of heterogeneity. And this is the marker for urbicide: destruction of urban fabric to disavow heterogeneity. It seems reasonable, therefore, to talk about a wider urbicidal logic operative in Israel’s encounter with its Palestinian other.

I’m aware though that this does not give a definitive answer to your question.

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Reader Comments (3)

Observers of the recent Gaza and Lebanon offensives have noted that the IDF seems to deploy disproportional violence against buildings and/or attack critical infrastructure (bridges etc.) deliberately. Such tactical doctrine could be seen as urbicidal. Though I realise its domestic politics are a complex matter, Israel is a plural state that at times seems to cleave to a dynamic designed to generate an antagonistic separation from its agonistic Palestinian other. In this light IDF tactical doctrines that destroy buildings and infrastructure seem enmeshed within a wider logic of the disavowal of heterogeneity.

I must admit, as I follow the interesting discussion here, that I think we're very much in danger of making something much more complicated than it actually is. (I should add that I haven't had a chance to read the book, so my comments below relate solely to what I've been following on CTLab.)

IDF doctrine to destroy buildings—whether through preemptive destruction of potential IEDs, heavy suppressive fire, or "mouse-holing" through walls to avoid obvious entry and exit points—is hardly unusual or unique. Rather, it constitutes a somewhat refined use of tactics that have been common to most industrialized armies operating in most urban terrain since WWII, whether or not the army in question had any broader attitude to the social structures embodied in the built space. Indeed, what is paradoxical about the IDF's operations in Gaza is they combined extensive destruction of buildings for tactical reasons, coupled with efforts to reduce urban collateral damage (through, for example, the use of smaller warheads on missiles, or even in some cases the removal of the warhead altogether) for political reasons.

Much the same could be said about IDF operations in south Lebanon. Its not clear to be that there is any evidence that buildings and urban space, per se, received "more" disproportionate violence than did than (for example) the olive and citrus orchards that were common Hizbullah MRL hiding places, and which received a very heavy share of the approximately 1 million cluster-bomblets used by the IDF during the conflict.

"Herbicide," anyone?

Mar 13, 2009 at 22:32 | Registered CommenterRex Brynen

Rex, you would not believe how many people at conferences mishear the title of the book and expect me to speak about defoliation ;-).

More seriously, I think I'd like to say the following in reply: you are right that doctrines have evolved for tactical (and strategic) operation in urban space. I would agree that the IDF is at the forefront of this (and here I am simply following Eyal Weizman's ideas). But to be considered part of what we would understand as 'warfare' violence must be organised to bring about the capitulation (or perhaps demise) of an opponent. Perceiving actions to fall in the conceptual terrain of ‘war’ thus rests on those actions corresponding to an inbuilt criteria of proportionality. It is when that criteria of proportionality is exceeded that we begin to discuss the possibility that something other than war is occurring. I think that I wanted to indicate that I share some observers’ concerns that IDF tactical doctrine in these two recent conflicts has gone beyond reorganising urban space to accomplish the defeat of opposing forces. In Lebanon the IDF seemed, by targeting infrastructure to be moving to the kind of ‘switching off' of Lebanese society that Graham has documented in relation to Kosovo and Iraq. Of course I may be wrong and the targeting of infrastructure might be proportional to the task of destroying Hizbullah and thus understandable as an element of warfare. But if not, then we would want to ask what this surplus - this violence beyond the proportionality of war - constitutes.

With regard to olive groves I find this very interesting. It is not part of the urbicide argument, but it is another pointer to the way in which the fate of communities is tied to materiality. Given that many groves are ancient and embody genealogies of family and community could we treat their destruction as destruction of cultural heritage? Or must we also address the targeting of the grove as a distinctively spatial entity?

Mar 14, 2009 at 15:53 | Registered CommenterMartin Coward

"Given that many groves are ancient and embody genealogies of family and community could we treat their destruction as destruction of cultural heritage?" - Coward

If we're talking about intent, I'd say you can go farther and say that -- in some cases -- it is actually the appropriation of cultural heritage. In many cases of grove destruction (which is often done by settlers, sometimes with military help), it is not uncommon for an uprooted olive tree to be loaded onto a truck and reappear in a Tel Aviv garden. The trees, which are very old, provide a sense of long-term presence and rooted-ness.

But, as you mentioned in a previous post, I wouldn't suggest either/or motivations. When I was last monitoring the uprooting of olive trees (2005-ish), over 500,000 trees had already been uprooted in the second intifada. Soldiers or settlers would often uproot one-year-old trees we had just planted, suggesting that more than military "necessity" was at stake.

I might also suggest that the cultivated fields are not necessarily ontologically separated from "buildings" (though I know Coward has mentioned he thinks there is something specific about the presence of a building). Brynen remarks "Its not clear to be that there is any evidence that buildings and urban space, per se, received "more" disproportionate violence than did than (for example) the olive and citrus orchards that were common Hizbullah MRL hiding places". But it seems to me that cultivated groves provide much the same overlapping functions as buildings: both the self's orientation to space (place recognition) and the opposition's ability to hide within.

Mar 15, 2009 at 11:19 | Unregistered CommenterNate Wright

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