/ 31 March 2024

God edition: Where is God in the Gaza war?

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‘Spare no one’: Israel has declared a war of attrition, of annihilation, in Gaza, and its leaders have invoked not only the Book of Samuel but also the Crusades. Civilians, even children, are killed in the war that includes starvation as a weapon. Photo: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

Edward Said had a short, rationalist answer as to the legitimacy of Israel’s appeal to a divine right to Holy Land as justification for war. “There’s no convincing way to assert special claims whose origins are divine,” he said in 2003.

In recent months many have returned to his writing in search of the comfort of moral clarity as the retaliation visited on Gaza extends to mass starvation or a compass, at least clues, to a way out of destructive tribalistic division. 

If Said’s work reads as though it was written yesterday, Moustafa Bayoumi wrote in The Guardian, his relevance endures partly because Israelis and Palestinians remain stuck in a replay of the past two decades after his death.

“In truth, it’s not that Said was prescient — it’s that Palestinian dispossession continues, that the Israeli occupation remains, that justice for Palestinians is as elusive as ever. If anything has changed, it’s the scale of the violence, but not the violence itself.”

It is here, in the extent of the violence, that the present has overtaken Said’s pronouncements in his critique of Israel’s attachment to indiscriminate retaliation as defence and security as the only failsafe protection against future genocidal attempts on the Jewish people. 

French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy’s reading of the Hamas attacks of 7 October as the start of a new pogrom on Jews, and his defence of Israeli retaliation as just, suggests that it is stronger than ever.

In describing Palestinians as the victims of the victims of the Holocaust in a schema that is harmful to both sides, Said said: “Short of genocide, I cannot think of a single human right that has not been violated in Gaza.” 

In October last year, United Nations special rapporteurs warned that the people of Gaza were at risk of genocide. In January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard an application by South Africa in which it accused Israel of actions that are “genocidal in nature” in response to the massacre of 1  200 people in southern Israel, arguing that it had created conditions in Gaza aimed at ensuring the eradication of its population. 

Papers filed by South Africa’s counsel cited, verbatim over eight pages, instances where Israeli officials either expressed intent to annihilate all those who live in Gaza or incited the military or the public to commit genocide. The call to reduce Gaza to lifeless rubble emerges as a refrain, and so does religious rhetoric.

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu invoked the Crusades to describe the onslaught on Gaza as a “a battle of civilisation against barbarism” and the Book of Samuel as a battle cry: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.”

He returned to the same passage in a message to the military. “Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.”

Weeks into the campaign in Gaza, Haaretz contributor Anshel Pfeffer reiterated that anybody who hoped to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must accept that it never was a secular territorial struggle, but a religious-nationalist quest.

The international community’s failure to do so was central to the failure to find a settlement, he argues, because Western brokers cannot fathom a conflict that cannot be reduced to ethnic oppression.

It is a divisive argument at a time when seeing the Palestinian struggle for self-determination as one against Zionist colonialism is no longer a marginal view and one that Pfeffer — who rejects this discourse as a fashion started on foreign campuses by Said and others — has been making for a decade. 

“Theodor Herzl may have been born into an assimilated Viennese family, and David Ben-Gurion along with his fellow pioneers ditched religious stricture, but they still used the Bible as their deed of ownership to the ancient homeland,” he wrote 10 years ago. “For a few decades, while various forms of nationalism and socialism remained popular among Arabs and Jews alike, both sides could claim that they were secular liberation movements and that their battle was over disputed territory. But they could not keep the charade up for long.”

The growing political influence of Israel’s hardline settler movement over decades and the accord reached by Hamas and Fatah in 2014 made religion an overt driving force.

Netanyahu, then in his third term as prime minister, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were speaking the language of holy war with fundamentalists to shore up their flagging support bases. Being clear-eyed about what informs the conflict, Pfeffer argued, would be a necessary start to holding both leaders to account for encouraging the extremists in their respective camps. 

French historian Stéphanie Laithier takes the opposite view. Writing in Le Monde, she warned that advocating for a religious reading of the war was a revisionist exercise that risked putting peace further beyond reach.

“To propose a religious interpretation of this conflict amounts to adopting the fundamentalists’ point of view,” she said. “It prevents any understanding or acceptable solution. Siding with such an approach contributes to blocking any path toward peace.”

Laithier said it was vital not to forget that both sides long ago integrated their religious identity into a far broader ideological framework.

“Those who meddle in these issues, be they politicians, intellectuals or religious leaders, would be well advised to take a closer look at the history of the two national movements, in order to fully understand their responsibility in adopting discourse that falls within the realm of fundamentalism. 

“These were two movements based on a secularised conception of the nation, with religious remembrance above all serving the desire for national standardisation.”

Religious interpretations gained currency after Israel captured the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the Six-Day War in 1967, as Arab nationalism waned and Islamic radicalism entrenched itself.

For their proponents, Laithier said, “the defence of the nation and the territory attached to it now falls within the exclusive sphere of the religious; it relies on a sacralised legitimacy and asserts its own temporality, different from that of history”.

The result, she said, is that the only conceivable political action becomes that which brings historical reality into line with the prescriptions laid down by religious doctrine.

Commonality becomes an impossibility when religious difference drives conflict, as does compromise because sacred wars have always been zero-sum games of conquest. 

The concept was rejected centuries before Israel was born by the historians and philosophers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment who, in reckoning with the bloody legacy of mediaeval religious dogma and warfare in a new era of tolerance, reasoned that just war could only be sanctioned in law.

The just war theory had been evolving over centuries, muddled in its early form by the thin line between church and state, before it was codified by Hugo Grotius in De Jure Belli ad Pacus.

By grounding it in principles of natural justice that he argued applied to all nations so that consensus could contain conflict, Grotius foreshadowed international law as it is now being invoked to halt the war in Gaza.

But there is a deep field of study and debate about the binding authority of international law and its power to compel political actors to alter their behaviour. It has become less abstract as Israel continues to ignore the order the ICJ handed down on 24  January to take measures to prevent Palestinian genocide.

Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC, who was part of the legal team that prepared South Africa’s application, said in a lecture last week that for all the significance of the ruling Israel’s refusal to abide by it has left open the wider questions on international adjudication. “It is being asked whether law is an antidote to war.”

Ngcukaitobi said he would submit that the court has confirmed its legal and moral authority, but added: “We should also recall that law is not an end. 

“It is part of a larger political repertoire. Law does not replace popular struggles for freedom, but supports and supplements them.”

If that speaks of the purposeful activism of his lawyering, there is a school of thought that says the measure of international law lies in its persuasive power to create a new consensus around norms of conduct. 

When emerging legal norms are perceived to be legitimate, because they are rational and resonate morally, “they generate adherence and serve to persuade”, professors Stephen Toope and Jutta Brunnée have written. 

“When a regime can generate thick acceptance of emerging legal norms through the particular strength of legal rationality, this contributes to regime change and reconstitution.”