The Living Dead in Palestine and the Failure of International Humanitarian Intervention

Nothing sums up the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to a recent NBC News report, more than the video of the Palestinian teen Ahmad Manasrah, who was left to bleed in pain and distress on camera for the whole world to watch. Ahmad was run over by a Jewish settler’s car in retaliation for allegedly attacking two Israelis with his cousin Hassan, who was gunned down by the police.

In the video that went viral on social media, a bunch of Israeli vigilantes, mobs and bystanders recorded themselves hurling a barrage of obscene invectives and expletives on the squirming, bleeding Palestinian teen Ahmad. Prior to this, the young boy was run over by an Israeli settler’s vehicle, with some saying it was a military vehicle. One of the vigilantes is heard urging a police officer to “do him a favor and give him a bullet in the head,” a fact that was omitted from NBC’s report. The video also shows a police officer stomping over the boy and pushing him down on the ground to continue writhing in his agony, while paramedics denied him medical care.

While the NBC report is wrong about calling the brutal war Israel is waging against the Palestinians merely a “conflict,” it is correct about identifying the phenomenon documented in the video as a major troubling symptom of the genocidal trajectory of the Israeli occupation and the spreading fascist ideology in Israel. However, whatever is correct in the NBC News report is correct for the wrong reasons.

Fortunately, Ahmad did not perish in the attempt to kill him. However, the time that he was left to endure and suffer in expectation of his ultimate death demonstrates that the dehumanization of the Palestinians is taking on a specific form at this stage in the Palestinian struggle for freedom against the Israeli colonial occupation and its apartheid politics. The issue here is not only the extrajudicial executions captured in these images, but more importantly, the deferral of Palestinian death and the suspension of the victims’ lives between two deaths, one biological and the other symbolic.

What It Means to Be Undead

In recent weeks, an increasing number of videos and images representing summary or extrajudicial executions and other forms of violence against Palestinian teens by trigger-happy Israeli state agents, settlers, vigilantes, mobs and bystanders have gone viral on social media. The victims include, among others, Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, Farah Bakir, Shurouq Dwayyat and Ahmad Manasrah.

These videos and images show that the teens were usually “neutralized,” often shot at point blank range or in direct contact, left to bleed for some time, hanging there not only between life and death, but between two deaths. As they lay there, soaked in their blood, motionless or squirming in an attempt to get up, the shooters can be seen or have been reported to be seen either roaming around and taunting the victim, stomping or pinning them down, encircling them with their guns pointed at them or chasing them and repeatedly shooting them.

The issue here is the deferral of Palestinian death and the suspension of the victims’ lives between two deaths, one biological and the other symbolic.

In these cases, Palestinians have come to occupy the metaphoric position of the undead, or the “living dead.” This position applies not in relation to the semiotics of the mindless flesh-eating zombies of popular culture, but in the precise sense of being literally suspended in an indeterminate necropolitical zone between a biological death and a symbolic death.

Undead Palestinians, who are left to bleed to death, first go through a biological death. In this initial stage, the death can be attributed to a proximate cause of death that results from the immediate attacks. However, their ultimate and eventful death is deferred, by prolonging the agony of the dying individual and denying them their basic human rights under international law, setting the stage for them to be repeatedly killed, before they could be completely dispatched with impunity. The interval between the two deaths is a threshold of mortality from which there is no turning back for these victims.

These undead Palestinians are also forced to undergo a “second death.” As Slavoj Žižek puts it in the context of the cinematic “living dead,” they are excluded from their symbolic substance and reduced to the mortifying dimension of the signifier of unnatural monstrosity (read: “terrorism”) in the hegemonic neoliberal system of symbolic representations. Consequently, these undead Palestinians retain all the trappings of their former human existence, but at the same time they are deprived of their human substance. In other words, Palestinians may look like “us,” but to paraphrase some common titles of books on the undead, they are not us. To this extent, their dehumanization is usually accompanied by denying them proper funeral rites, as their bodies are abandoned to the sovereign power of the state.

The Story of Hadeel Hashlamoun

The deferral of Palestinian death and the necropolitical management of Palestinian subjects between two deaths is clearly evident in the tragic story of Hadeel Hashlamoun. An 18-year-old resident of Hebron who was wearing her niqab (full-face and body cover), Hadeel was shot by heavily armored Israeli soldiers stationed at Checkpoint 56 to protect two illegal settlements in Hebron, killing her deliberately and unlawfully without her posing an imminent threat to the soldiers’ lives.

According to an Amnesty International report, one of the soldiers shot at her at first from a half meter distance, which made her walk away and duck behind metal rail. According to Amnesty’s witness, “The soldier who had shot first got up and moved closer to her, until he was about a metre away, and then shot at her upper body four or five times again while she was lying motionless on the ground…. The first witness also described the soldier moving closer to al-Hashlamoun and shooting her in the chest.”

“Media reports say that Israeli forces denied Palestinian medics access to Hashlamoun and did not put her into an ambulance for 30 or 40 minutes after they had shot her.”

The horror, however, did not stop there. According to another witness who remained at the scene for about 20 minutes after the shooting, Hadeel was denied medical care. This witness adds that “five minutes after she was shot, Israeli soldiers roughly pulled al-Hashlamoun by her feet onto a piece of ground out of sight of the other side of the checkpoint and checked her pulse, but then did not attempt to provide any medical help.”

Amnesty also mentions that, “Media reports say that Israeli forces denied Palestinian medics access to Hashlamoun and did not put her into an ambulance for 30 or 40 minutes after they had shot her.” Hadeel later died at Sha’are Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, as stated in the medical report, from “severe bleeding and multiple organ failure as a result of multiple gunshot wounds in the right knee, left heel, and several bullet wounds in the abdomen and chest.”

Amnesty is unequivocal about the fact that Hadeel was shot multiple times “as she lay wounded on the ground,” prompting the organization to call this unlawful and deliberate killing an extrajudicial execution. The videos and images that surfaced of Hadeel’s death, just like the others, do not only testify to the brutal extrajudicial executions of Palestinian teens, but also bear witness to the voyeuristic deferral of the death of the Palestinian on camera as a spectacle of colonial power and sovereignty over two deaths.

This obscene form of violence is best described by a term invented by Francois Debrix and Alexander Barder: “agonal sovereignty,” in which attention is redirected from the distinction between life and death to the horrific violence that is inflicted upon the dead body.

Agonal sovereignty overrides questions of life and death altogether and unsettles the distinction between them that lies at the heart of biopolitics – a mode of governance concerned with the preservation of certain forms of valuable or mournable lives, and conversely and simultaneously with the determination of worthless and unmournable subhuman non-lives.

Indeed, the limits of biopolitics here can be seen in the recent statement of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which in its typical inscription of “false symmetry” in the description of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli colonial occupation, affirms its condemnation of “all types of violence” as well as “the responsibility of the Israeli State, occupying power, to preserve the life of all of its citizens, Palestinians and Israelis alike.”

This new form of obscene agonal violence is clearly a step further from what Honaida Ghanem calls “thanatopolitics” in the administration of life and death in the occupied Palestinian territories. Drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s work, Ghanem maintains that the biopolitical power of the Israeli colonial occupation over Palestinian life and death is “about managing them as biological subjects through localizing them in the liminal zone between life and death, between dieting and starvation – not really dying but being one step before that.” Quoting Agamben, she notes that under the Israeli colonial occupation, “a decision on life becomes a decision on death” and “biopolitics can turn into Thanatopolitics” (the politics organizing who should live and who should die).

Palestinian scholar Hanan Ashrawi argues that the Israeli government is “deliberately creating a situation of violence and instability.”

Ghanem identifies thanatapolitics with the image of Palestinian pregnant women and the elderly, left to die nonchalantly at checkpoints, denied any medical assistance or access to receive medical help beyond the checkpoint. She links this strategy to the Israeli control of the caloric intake of Palestinians in Gaza, which leaves Palestinians in a situation between life and death. As Dov Weisglass, an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

However, thanatopolitics presumes a state of exception that emerges out of Israel’s apartheid politics in the occupied Palestinian territories, limiting its temporal frame to the relatively recent construction of the separation wall. Shifting the attention to agonal sovereignty makes it possible to understand how the Palestinians have been turned into a disposable surplus subhumanity as a result of the long history of Israel’s colonial project.

The Undead Are Seen as Unworthy of Humanitarian Intervention

This understanding of the Palestinians as undead within the new agonal economy of horror and violence has serious political ramifications in international relations. As the structural violence of the occupation mutates into the wanton killing of Palestinian civilians in response to the recent popular and spontaneous riots and clashes, what has been referred to as the Third or Fourteenth Intifada, this re-presentation of Palestinians as undead makes it possible to understand the reluctance and unwillingness of the international community to step in to provide the necessary protections for Palestinians guaranteed under international law.

In her statement on the escalation of violence in the occupied territories at the outset of these recent events, Palestinian scholar Hanan Ashrawi argues that the Israeli government is “deliberately creating a situation of violence and instability” and “the conditions for a new ‘Defensive Shield’ operation similar to that of 2002 in which the Israeli Army carried out the senseless destruction of Palestinian lives, infrastructure and institutions.” She notes the similarity in the steps taken by the Israeli government in both contexts, including collective punishment, curfews on East Jerusalem, and the erection of more fly checkpoints around the occupied territories.

The trope of the undead Palestinian serves to explain the paradox of victimization that lies at the heart of the inconsistent response of the international community to the humanitarian crisis in Palestine.

She thus urges the “international community to undertake its responsibility and to engage positively to put an end to this lethal situation,” adding that, “Palestine has already asked for international protection in accordance with several legal and precedential options available to the United Nations.” More recently, Mr. Riyad Mansour, Palestinian Ambassador to the UN, has called on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution guaranteeing the safety and protection of Palestinians and Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. The Israeli government obviously objects to any international presence in Al-Aqsa Mosque under the excuse that “such a presence would be a change in the status quo.”

Neither these calls nor the recent violence have garnered sufficient global support for such international protection, let alone the deployment of international observers to the holy sites in Jerusalem. Writing for The Nation, nonetheless, Diana Buttu and Nadia Hijab maintain that it is time to think of a new framework for international protection in Palestine that “places civilians and their rights at the fore,” because “an international protection force will ensure that lives are placed above politics.”

There are two main problems with this formulation. First, as Žižek states in his critique of the dominant neoliberal human rights regime, humanitarian interventions can only provide an alibi to “an ideology of military interventionism serving specific economico-political ends.” In other words, there is no disinterested humanitarian gesture as such that can extend protection to the defenseless and oppressed; humanitarian interventions are always motivated by political calculations and interests.

More importantly, Žižek claims that a more serious problem in this neoliberal discourse is positing a political struggle in non-political terms or in a depoliticized language that raises the struggle above politics. He thus writes in the context of NATO’s humanitarian interventions, “What is problematic for me is precisely the purely humanitarian ethic legitimization which depoliticizes the intervention, changing it into an intervention into a humanitarian catastrophe grounded in purely moral reasons, not an intervention into a well-defined political struggle.”

Second, Žižek also argues that humanitarian interventionism presupposes an ideology of absolute victimization, a subject that is utterly reduced to existential nothingness and incapable of defending itself. He thus claims that, “The other to be protected is good insofar as it remains a victim,” adding that the moment the victim “no longer behaved as a victim but wanted to strike back on its own, it all of a sudden magically turned into a terrorist fundamentalist drug-trafficking other.” Such ideology does not tolerate any attempt on the part of the helpless victims to reclaim the status of a “sovereign and independent political subject.” Hence, for him, humanitarian interventionism itself is perverse, because “it is itself (co)responsible for the calamity against which it offers itself as a remedy.”

The Palestinian experience can offer an alternative vision of radical universality from which to reimagine genuinely emancipatory and egalitarian politics today.

The trope of the undead Palestinian serves to explain this paradox of victimization that lies at the heart of the inconsistent response of the international community to the humanitarian crisis in Palestine. On the one hand, Palestinians are reduced to a desubjectivized position of disposable surplus subhumanity – individuals reduced to bare life who may be killed with impunity.

On the other, they are also seen as monsters who, in their unwillingness to die, and in their compulsive return from the dead to haunt their oppressors, exceed the limits of intelligibility within the ideological coordinates of the cosmopolitan human rights regime. As long as they persist in their resistance and as long as they continue to mobilize in the struggle for their legitimate rights – in a word, as long as they are invested with a sense of freedom – Palestinians will be viewed as undeserving of any humanitarian intervention that can put an end to Israel’s indiscriminate attacks on Palestinian civilians.

References to the “living dead,” “walking dead,” and the “undead” have become ubiquitous in global capitalist culture. This comes as no surprise in the global capitalist economy today, which thrives on “zombie debt,” a spiraling and toxic debt that, as Fred Botting says, “will not die, that cannot be repaid,” but that will continue producing “debt-bound automatons.” Therefore, it is important not only to interrogate the conditions that make such metaphors and tropes possible, but more urgently, to examine their ethico-political implications and their language of possibilities.

At one level, the undead are simply symptoms of political struggle. If for every repression, there is a return of the repressed, the undead will not disappear until the causes that brought them to life come to an end. Get rid of the source of the dis-ease, and the symptom disappears. But we can take this even a step further and point, in a Hegelian dialectical fashion, to a different radical trajectory inherent to the undead.

Precisely because Palestinians have been reduced to this undead position in the global capitalist system, Palestinians can be said to represent the truth of the system, its constitutive injustice and inequality. In their inherent exclusion and abjection, therefore, Palestinian can be considered, in Žižek’s words, the “very site of political universality.” In other words, the Palestinian experience can offer an alternative vision of radical universality from which to reimagine genuinely emancipatory and egalitarian politics today. And here begins the hard work of solidarity and struggle.