Postscript: Disrupting the Colonial Gaze—Gaza and Israel after October 7th

17 May, 2024,
In commemoration of the 76th anniversary of the Nakba. The 1948 catastrophe, which disenfranchized the Palestinian people from their lands, livelihoods, civil rights and self-determination, is revisited in all its horrors during Israel’s continuing war on Gaza and assault of the West Bank, according to leading thinkers and activists.


Ivar Ekeland and Sara Roy


The Gaza experiment is ongoing, and it is taking the world further than any of us would have thought possible. In our article, “The New Politics of Exclusion: Gaza as Prologue,” published more than two years ago, we claimed that Israel had turned Gaza into a human laboratory where entirely new conditions were artificially created. A society numbering over two million people found itself cut off from the world, confined by fences and walls to a small sliver of land and kept under constant surveillance, deprived of every right except the right to what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls a “bare life”; that is, a life reduced to the mere biological dimension of eating and reproducing. They were even deprived of the means to exercise that right, since they were almost entirely dependent on the outside world for food, water, medicine, and fuel, like animals in a cage. We claimed that this experiment was a portent of things to come, that Western countries were creating mini-Gazas around the world to park unwanted people, mostly non-white migrants (Ukrainians are welcome in Europe, Africans are not), and we were wondering where this terrible state of affairs would lead us.

Now we know. The end of the Gaza experiment is no longer to ensure separation or repudiation, but elimination through genocidal slaughter, or, more euphemistically, “forced” or “voluntary” emigration to other lands largely unwilling to accept these Palestinians. At a conference held in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024 entitled, Conference for the Victory of Israel — Settlement Brings Security: Returning to the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria, the participants, who numbered in the thousands and included several government ministers and Knesset members, called for the resettlement of the Gaza Strip and the transfer of Palestinians who live there. Shlomo Karhi, Israel’s Minister of Communications, explained what he meant by “voluntary emigration” in times of war: voluntary’ is at times a state you impose [on someone] until they give their consent.”(1)

As this conference shows, the goal of “exterminating the brutes” and the racism underlying it, are no longer concealed, but openly justified and valorized. This is what Israel has long proclaimed, repeatedly and consistently, from top to bottom, from the Prime Minister and other members of government, calling the Palestinians “animals” and “wild beasts” to soldiers on the ground in Gaza, chanting and dancing in the ruins to the tune of “there are no innocent Palestinians,” as the brief of South Africa to the International Court of Justice has convincingly documented. For Israel, furthermore, not only are Palestinians guilty, they also are criminal. Israel’s President Herzog stated it thus: “It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible. This rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved, it’s absolutely not true. They could’ve risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime.”(2) That is, not only are Palestinians responsible for their own justifiable deaths, they also are guilty of not struggling against Hamas to protect Israelis. They exist either to protect Israel or to destroy it.(3)

This points to another critical dynamic of the post-October 7th world: the criminalization of context and the abandonment of history. History did not begin on October 7th, as Israel has argued when it claimed that the attack was unprovoked. Yet, the attempt to historicize and contextualize Israel’s repression of Palestinians and the damage it has wrought on Palestinian life over seven decades, is treated as justification for the horrific murder of Israeli men, women, and children, and therefore morally reprehensible and illicit. Rather, the devastation that occupation imposed at the individual and societal level was not only ignored over the last 56 years, but also deemed necessary and justifiable by Israel and the West. As we argued in our original piece, Israel’s aim — until October 7th — was not the “death of the ‘Indigenous other’ — as it is now — but his nullification, along with the counter-memories and counterclaims that otherness naturally embodies. In this way, Israel … redefined the colonial distinction between self and other, the space that Israelis and Palestinians inhabit. In this redefined space, there [could] be no approach or nearing, let alone engagement … reciprocity or redemption… Palestinians [were] erased from Israel’s emotional and political landscape, precluding contestation and complexity, and restoring to Jewish Israelis a knowable, unambiguous, easily interpretable clarity.”(4) It is this clarity that October 7th destroyed.

Invisibility of Palestinian Lives

Consequently, the philosopher Judith Butler argues, Palestinians are “deprived of life before they are killed, transformed into inert matter or destructive instrumentalities . . . To kill such a person, indeed, such a population, thus calls upon a racism that differentiates in advance who will count as a life and who will not … Under such conditions, it becomes possible to think that ending life in the name of defending life is possible, even righteous.”(5) It is this very argument that Israel now uses to justify its shredding of Gaza and the destruction of its people.

Hence, it is only Israeli life that is valid and consequential, innocent and civilian. Palestinians exist either as the “guardian of Israeli life or colonized subject … Whether Palestinians are worthy of merely living or dying depends thus on their active acceptance or refusal to remain colonized.”(6) Any possibility of living through a shared experience has been extinguished. The question remains why is the destruction of Palestinian life met with such “calm uninterest and lack of remorse, reflecting, what the historian Gabriel Kolko termed the ‘absence of a greater sense of abhorrence’”?(7)  So repudiated, Palestinians have long failed to enter our consciousness let alone our conscience until now, but only when Israeli lives were destroyed.

Another point related to the barring of context is the failure to connect the everyday nature of oppression with Palestinian actions including military escalation — a failure to account for the lived experiences of Palestinians and the misery that so deeply defines it.(8) This failure sees Palestinians as something separate and distant, impenetrable, unable to approximate the Other as us. Deprived of any claims based on justice, Palestinians continue to remain absent in Israeli eyes. “The real threat, therefore, lies not in acts of Palestinian violence against Israel but in understanding that those acts are responding to injustice and dehumanization. . . in making Palestinians intimate, in seeing the world through their eyes … in rejecting any endeavor that would treat them as indeterminate and notional, or consign them to abstraction.”(9) Or as Professor Ghassan Hage has argued, “In the war/siege society, social explanation can disrupt the way both self and society are invited to define and stabilize themselves against an other that has to remain different and unknowable. Social explanation can threaten the warring self with disintegration, which is why it sometimes unleashes such passionate response. Social explanation is not merely rejected. The threat of the humanized other it carries with it is affectively feared.”(10)  Hence, it must be understood that evil resides in the conditions not in the people — what other scholars have termed “structural sin.”(11)

As far as Israel and the West are concerned, the siege, including in its current genocidal form, was accepted and unquestioned, in effect telling Palestinians in Gaza, this is how you must live, and this is the violence you are expected to endure even if it means the eradication of your way of life.

Consequently, social and political problems, which arise from poverty, dislocation and destruction and the efforts of Palestinians to address them, have consistently been treated as a threat, even as a form of terrorism. Privation remains unexamined and unfamiliar and disconnected from action and understanding, where justice is removed from and irrelevant to context. Consequently, Israel’s struggle against Gaza, which is also a struggle against Palestine, must be sustained and unbroken no matter the cost as we see in Gaza today.

The level of inhumanity that is revealed is unprecedented since the Holocaust and the colonial wars. The Gaza experiment has now reached the point where Palestinians are removed from human society, but also from history, deprived of the only right left to them, the right to a life, however “bare.” How then are we to think of Gaza? As a place of non-life? Where does this leave any of us? “Once again,” writes the historian Jean-Pierre Filiu, “what is happening in Gaza goes far beyond this ravaged enclave.”(12)

Western Indifference and Collusion

The declarations by Israeli government officials, and the massacres they lead to are even more terrifying against the complete indifference with which they are met by Western governments and media, an indifference and neglect that have a long history in this conflict. In 2019, Michael Lynk, who was then the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, captured the essence of Western disregard:

The … Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory — Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem — is a bitter illustration of the absence of international accountability in the face of the systemic violations of Palestinian rights under human rights and humanitarian law … Israel, a relatively small country in terms of geography and population and with a particular dependence on the international community for both trade and investment and diplomatic cooperation, could not have sustained such a prolonged and repressive occupation in clear violation of international law without the active support and malign neglect of many in the industrialized world. While the international community has issued numerous resolutions and declarations critical of the unending occupation by Israel and its steady designs for annexation, such criticisms have rarely been matched with any meaningful consequences … It is therefore necessary to ask whether it is simply to be accepted that, with this occupation, international law is closer to power than it is to justice.(13) (emphasis ours)

The question posed by Mr. Lynk reveals a position on the part of the international community that legitimizes Israel’s occupation as long as there is no collective agreement to end it. The recent interim ruling issued by the International Court of Justice in South Africa’s case against Israel for its horrifying assault on Gaza, repudiates, at its core, Western acquiescence to Israeli violence against Palestinians. The court found “plausible evidence that Israel has the intent to commit genocide; and . . . plausible evidence that Israel is committing genocide” and ordered Israel “to stop committing those acts that appear to be genocidal, and to preserve any evidence that bears on this matter, obviously for the trial ahead.”(14) To our knowledge, this is one of very few legal decisions to hold Israel accountable for its crimes, challenging the impunity with which it has consistently violated the rights of Palestinians.(15) Unsurprisingly, Israel’s Western allies, notably the US, have condemned the Court’s decision. Even before the ruling was made, the US found the charge “meritless, counterproductive and without any basis in fact whatsoever.”(16)

The Smearing of UNRWA and Its Intended Result

Another striking example of Western disdain concerns UNRWA. On the same day as the ICJ ruling was handed down, Israel provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of 12 of its employees (out of a workforce of around 13,000 in Gaza alone(17)) in the abhorrent October 7th attack in Israel. In response UNRWA immediately terminated the contracts of these individuals and launched an investigation to determine the truth. Yet, in the absence of any investigation and in clear violation of the principles of due process, several Western countries including the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland, Australia, and Canada(18) froze their funding to UNRWA (amounting to around $700 million) at a time of desperate need, when the entire population of Gaza is at imminent risk of famine.

In fact, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) assessment, Gaza’s entire population of over two million people are “estimated to be acutely food insecure [meaning they are facing acute food shortages], while a quarter of its population faces catastrophic hunger and starvation, [which] is unprecedented. No IPC analysis has ever recorded such levels of food insecurity anywhere in the world.”(19) Of the total world population facing famine, 80 percent are now found in Gaza.(20)

Against this reality of acute need created in large part by Western support for Israel’s assault on Gaza, the denial of funding to UNRWA is as appalling as it is devastating. According to Philippe Lazzarini, the UNRWA Commissioner-General, “It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation. These decisions threaten our ongoing humanitarian work across the region including and especially in the Gaza Strip.”(21)

The decision to temporarily suspend funds on the part of Western governments reveals their contempt for Palestinian suffering, and for the ICJ, given its ruling that called for the provision of urgently needed humanitarian aid in which UNRWA plays the dominant role. Does the withholding of funding therefore make the West complicit in plausible acts of genocide? Furthermore, the unwillingness of Arab governments, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to increase their funding of UNRWA — because it is accused of having links to Hamas — is similarly shocking given the regional instability that UNRWA’s collapse would precipitate.

Subsequent statements by Israeli officials expose the real purpose behind the attack on UNRWA, which has long been the object of Israeli assault — to shutter and eliminate the Agency and ensure it has no role in postwar Gaza. In so doing, Israel (and the West) aims to undermine Palestinian refugee status, refugee rights —especially the right-of-return —and remove the refugee issue and any attendant demands such as compensation from future discussions. And as the analyst Jonathan Cook critically points out, “Uniquely, [UNRWA] is the sole agency unifying Palestinians wherever they live, even when they are separated by national borders and Israel’s fragmentation of the territory it controls. UNRWA brings Palestinians together even when their own political leaders have been manipulated into endless factionalism by Israel’s divide and rule policies . . .”(22) UNRWA has long acted as a defence against Israel’s persistent efforts to eliminate the rights of Palestinian refugees. The growing demands of Israeli government officials to expel Palestinians from Gaza reflects Israel’s desire to have them integrate into other countries, forever suspending the question of the right-of-return among other claims.

According to Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, “We have been warning for years: UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue [meaning that it helps refugees reproduce?], obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza.”(23) (emphasis ours). Yet, it is not UNRWA that perpetuates the conflict as Katz would have us believe; it is the conflict that perpetuates UNRWA.(24) What then is the alternative to UNRWA? Will Israel or the Arab states be willing to assume responsibility for over two million refugees in Gaza and the West Bank and millions more beyond, providing them with food, education, healthcare, housing, and employment?

End of the International Rule of Law

Despite Western derision, Gaza has powerfully disrupted the colonial gaze. Gaza is evidence of a future that is already here, bereft of humanity, law, and human rights. We are at a crossroads where, as Antonio Gramsci states in The Prison Notebooks, “[t]he crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”(25) In Gaza, this morbidity speaks to gross insecurity, famine, disease, economic disintegration, physical destruction, displacement, and ecological collapse.

If Israel, with Western support, achieves its aims in Gaza, it will constitute the end of fellowship among inhabitants of this planet, forcing a confrontation between the rules-based international order in which the West predominates and prioritizes its own interests, and international law “which has governed the behavior of states for over 500 years.”(26) It will be clear to everyone that Western societies, meaning the US and its allies, consider themselves apart and exceptional, where rules they apply to others do not apply to them, and where advocacy of democracy and the rule of law is no more than a means to preserve their historic hegemony, no matter the cost. Global institutions, such as the UN, which were created after WWII to foster diplomacy over force, peace over war, will fall into disrepute and irrelevance.

The global South and large segments of public opinion in the Western world see the danger and are organizing to pressure Israel, the US, and Europe to recognize that the Gaza experiment has failed, that it is immoral and unacceptable. This brings to mind something the American writer, James Baldwin, once said about being Black in America and it has particular resonance for Israelis and Palestinians: “Every white person in this country . . . knows one thing: they may not know . . . what I want but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know … We are all, in any case, here.”(27)


(1) Nir Hasson, “Netanyahu Ministers Join Thousands of Israelis in ‘Resettle Gaza’ Conference Calling for Palestinians’ Transfer,” Haaretz, January 28, 2024
(2) The Guardian, October 16, 2023
(3) Ruba Salih, “Can the Palestinian speak?Allegra Lab, December 2023
(4) Sara Roy, “I wish they would disappear,” Postcolonial Studies, Volume 21, Number 4 (December 2018), Postcolonial Studies, p. 531
(5) Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable (London: Verso, 2009), pp. xxix-xxx
(6) Salih (December 2023)
(7) Roy (December 2018), p. 534
(8) Some of these points appear in Sara Roy, “Gaza: Can you hear us?” Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics and Art, Forthcoming.
(9) In this regard also see Roy, Postcolonial Studies, p. 532
(10) Ghassan Hage, “‘Comes a Time We Are All Enthusiasm’: Understanding Palestinian Suicide Bombers in Times of Exighophobia,” Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1(2003), p. 87
(11) Hage, Public Culture, p. 89
(12) Jean-Pierre Filiu, “American Christian Zionists Crusade against Palestinian ‘Evil‘” Le Monde, January 30, 2024
(13) Michael Lynk, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Territories Occupied by Israel since 1967 (A/74/507), UN General Assembly, October 21, 2019, pp. 10 and 21
(14) John J. Mearsheimer, Israel’s Day of Reckoning, January 27, 2024, online:
(15) The others are the 2004 ICJ advisory opinion on the illegality of the separation wall (and Israeli settlements), and the 2009 Goldstone report that accused Israel of various war crimes and referred to the criminality of the blockade. See Norman Finkelstein’s comments here.
(16) Foundation for Defense of Democracies, U.S. Rejects “Meritless” South Africa ICJ Case against Israel, January 5, 2024
(17) Over 130 UNRWA employees have been killed in the war. The Agency employs a total of 30,000 people region wide.
(18) Japan and the European Union also froze their funding but Norway and Ireland did not, drawing a needed distinction between possible criminal activity of individual staffers and UNRWA itself.
(19) Gaza: Joint Statement by Hight Representative Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic on the risk of famine – European Commission, December 22, 2023
(20) Sharon Zhang, “Eighty Percent of Global Famine Is Currently in Gaza, UN Expert Warns,Truthout, January 3, 2024 and Isaac Chotner, “Gaza Is Starving,” The New Yorker, January 3, 2024. Also see, Human Rights Watch, Israel: Starvation Used as a Weapon of War in Gaza, December 18, 2023. and Leanna First-Arai, “Famine in Gaza Is a Culmination of Israel’s Long War on Palestine’s Food System,” Truthout, January 10, 2024.
(21) Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s Lifesaving Aid May End Due to Funding Suspension, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, January 27, 2024. Also, Reuters, “More Countries Pause Fund for UN Palestinian Agency,” January 27, 2024.
(22) Jonathan Cook, In waging war on the UN refugee agency, the West is openly siding with Israeli genocide, January 30, 2024.
(23) Mehul Srivastava and Neri Zilber, “UN Chief Urges Countries Not to Pull Funding Over Israel Attack Allegations,” Financial Times, January 28, 2024.
(24) Marilyn Garson, “With Gazans starving and freezing, the US withholding funds from UNRWA is unconscionable,The Forward, January 30, 2024.
(25) There are many references to the popular statement. See, for example, Gilbert Achcar, “Morbid Symptoms: What did Gramsci Really Mean?” Notebooks: Journal for Studies on Power, February 14, 2022
(26) John Dugard, “The choice before us: International law or a ‘rules-based international order’?Leiden Journal of International Law, Volume 36 (2023), p. 224
(27) James Baldwin, Address, University of California, Berkeley, January 15, 1979

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