The New Politics of Exclusion: Gaza as Prologue

15 October, 2021,
“Her­akut, Eyes of Gaza” (pho­to Falk Lehmann).

Ivar Ekeland and Sara Roy


A new kind of pol­i­tics is emerg­ing in West­ern democ­ra­cies, per­haps best char­ac­ter­ized by frag­men­ta­tion. The polit­i­cal debate is increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal, visu­al, and incoherent—without struc­ture or boundaries—and there­fore tran­si­to­ry and ephemer­al. The his­to­ri­an Mar­tin Con­way argues1 that the long­stand­ing polit­i­cal con­tract between the citizen—who vot­ed, obeyed laws, paid tax­es etc. — and the state—which pro­vid­ed a range of social goods and ser­vices in exchange — is retreat­ing and with it, what it means to be polit­i­cal­ly rep­re­sent­ed, what it means to be a cit­i­zen. Because the state pro­vides less, the cit­i­zen feels dimin­ish­ing oblig­a­tion towards it. The result­ing cri­sis of legit­i­ma­cy has giv­en rise to a kind of indi­vid­u­al­ized deci­sion-mak­ing among cit­i­zens who want “con­trol of their local neigh­bor­hood and their nation­al soci­ety, but also the con­trol to decide what they want for them­selves, rather than what oth­ers — a gov­ern­ment, for exam­ple — might deem to be good for them.”2

This rais­es an inter­est­ing ques­tion: how do you con­trol a pop­u­la­tion, which does not want to be con­trolled? What becomes of pol­i­tics when demo­c­ra­t­ic norms and ide­o­log­i­cal aspi­ra­tions dis­ap­pear? The answer is that as rules and norms recede, the excep­tions become the new rules and deter­mine the new norms. Gaza is a lab­o­ra­to­ry where they are being tested.

Since Aris­to­tle, pol­i­tics had been under­stood as a con­ver­sa­tion between peo­ple who hap­pen to share a com­mon ter­ri­to­ry and who try to fig­ure out the best way to live togeth­er. Today, this com­mon ground is erod­ing; the fact that peo­ple share a ter­ri­to­ry is no longer con­sid­ered a strong enough basis for shar­ing the future. This obser­va­tion was pow­er­ful­ly made by Han­nah Arendt. In The Per­plex­i­ties of the Rights of Man, she argues that the fun­da­men­tal depri­va­tion of human rights is expressed first and most pow­er­ful­ly in “the depri­va­tion of a place in the world which makes opin­ions sig­nif­i­cant and actions effec­tive. Some­thing much more fun­da­men­tal than free­dom and jus­tice, which are rights of cit­i­zens, is at stake when belong­ing to the com­mu­ni­ty into which one is born is no longer a mat­ter of course and not belong­ing no longer a mat­ter of choice…This extrem­i­ty and noth­ing else,” she writes, “is the sit­u­a­tion of peo­ple deprived of human rights. They are deprived not of the right to free­dom but of the right to action; not of the right to think what­ev­er they please, but of the right to opin­ion.”3 So placed, Arendt says, peo­ple are “forced to live out­side the com­mon world … with­out a pro­fes­sion, with­out a cit­i­zen­ship, with­out an opin­ion, with­out a deed by which to iden­ti­fy and spec­i­fy [them­selves].”4 She was spurred by the plight of Euro­pean refugees in WWII, but now there is Gaza.


Unsi­lenc­ing Gaza is avail­able from Plu­to Books.

Strate­giz­ing Excep­tion: Gaza

Why Gaza? An area that is just 140 square miles in size, large­ly devoid of resources such as land, water and elec­tric­i­ty, home to a ruined, dys­func­tion­al econ­o­my (with no indus­tri­al base to speak of) and more than two mil­lion people—over half are chil­dren and most are refugees—with high rates of unem­ploy­ment and pover­ty, over­whelm­ing­ly depen­dent on human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance, almost entire­ly impris­oned with­in a mil­i­ta­rized fence, and under per­ma­nent sur­veil­lance from the air.

Yet, Gaza’s small size, its mis­ery, and con­tin­ued vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty belie its pro­found sig­nif­i­cance, which has always been mis­un­der­stood and overlooked—except by Israel. Why did Israel choose to make Gaza excep­tion­al and how did it do so?

From the begin­ning of the occu­pa­tion, Israel has not known what to do with Gaza. His­tor­i­cal­ly, the cen­ter of Pales­tin­ian nation­al­ism and resis­tance to occu­pa­tion, Gaza has, despite peri­ods of qui­et, remained defi­ant and reject­ed Israeli rule. For Israel, the turn­ing point in its treat­ment of Gaza occurred dur­ing the first Intifa­da, which changed how Israel viewed Pales­tini­ans (and how Pales­tini­ans viewed them­selves). It was then, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the ear­ly years of the upris­ing, that cer­tain unprece­dent­ed dynam­ics emerged. For one, Pales­tini­ans demon­strat­ed that they could orga­nize and act as a col­lec­tive, main­tain­ing dis­ci­pline and cohe­sion at the local lev­el and beyond.

They artic­u­lat­ed clear demands, insist­ing on a polit­i­cal solu­tion that involved com­pro­mise of the kind Israel had always refused to make. Fur­ther­more, Pales­tini­ans suc­cess­ful­ly shift­ed the polit­i­cal ref­er­ence point from the his­tor­i­cal debate on Israel to a state of their own co-exist­ing with Israel. And for a time, albeit brief, Pales­tini­ans act­ed as a nation­al group, forc­ing Israel to engage diplo­mat­i­cal­ly and on terms that were not sole­ly its own. Pales­tini­ans showed that they could artic­u­late their own his­to­ry, a his­to­ry from which the state of Israel was not freed.5

In this way, the Intifa­da con­front­ed Israel with a new real­i­ty where Pales­tini­ans were seek­ing engage­ment on terms of greater equal­i­ty and in ways that con­tra­dict­ed Israel’s long-held under­stand­ings and polit­i­cal imper­a­tives. How­ev­er, this engage­ment did not occur. Instead, Israel real­ized that it must nev­er adapt to Pales­tini­ans or their nation­al­ist demands but must repu­di­ate both by nar­row­ing their vision and dimin­ish­ing their capacity—attacking what makes Pales­tini­ans present and irre­ducible. Pales­tin­ian exis­tence became a provo­ca­tion to the state. For Israel, the solu­tion was found in mak­ing Pales­tini­ans van­ish in a polit­i­cal no-man’s‑land cre­at­ed for that pur­pose. The present sit­u­a­tion is with­out his­tor­i­cal prece­dent, and there­fore, by its very def­i­n­i­tion, is a state of excep­tion. Gaza is a lab­o­ra­to­ry where Israel is exper­i­ment­ing with new rules and new norms, and it is our con­tention that as our democ­ra­cies evolve towards states of excep­tion they will look with favor to the Gaza experiment.

The first step towards cre­at­ing this state of excep­tion was the dis­mem­ber­ment of Pales­tine under the Oslo Agree­ments. “Under Oslo, the his­tor­i­cal con­test over ter­ri­to­ry was reframed by a pol­i­cy of sep­a­ra­tion, iso­la­tion, and con­tain­ment. With­in this frame­work Gaza and the West Bank were sep­a­rat­ed demo­graph­i­cal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly. As a result, an iso­lat­ed Gaza came to be seen as excep­tion­al or mar­gin­al,”6 excised from a Pales­tin­ian state and a Pales­tin­ian nation. Gaza’s excep­tion­al sta­tus became a defin­ing dynam­ic of Israel’s more cru­cial goal of annex­ing large parts of the West Bank, and the tem­plate for the frag­men­ta­tion of the West Bank into small, dis­con­nect­ed enclaves under dif­fer­ent and con­stant forms of assault. Here, too, Israeli pol­i­cy speaks to some­thing apart. Colo­nial pow­ers would rec­og­nize the oppressed as indige­nous or natives mean­ing they belong to the land even if the land no longer belongs to them. Not so with Israel which aims to erad­i­cate, or at the very least, ren­der invis­i­ble the pres­ence of Pales­tini­ans. This is as true in the West Bank with the expan­sion and encroach­ment of Israeli set­tle­ments and set­tle­ment infra­struc­ture, as it is in Gaza.

Annulling Gaza’s place in Pales­tine and ren­der­ing Pales­tini­ans right­less has been achieved through sev­er­al Israeli poli­cies. Per­haps the most strik­ing is the trans­for­ma­tion of Pales­tini­ans in Gaza from a peo­ple with polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and nation­al rights into a weak­ened com­mu­ni­ty depen­dent on human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance. A senior offi­cial at the Israeli human rights orga­ni­za­tion, GISHA, dis­tilled Israel’s approach to Gaza: “In the rest of the world we try to bring peo­ple up to the human­i­tar­i­an stan­dard. Gaza is the only place where we’re try­ing to push them down—to keep them at the low­est pos­si­ble indi­ca­tors.”7 In this way human­i­tar­i­an aid is used not only to meet the rapid­ly expand­ing needs of an increas­ing­ly impov­er­ished pop­u­la­tion (pri­mar­i­ly due to Israel’s inten­si­fied mil­i­tary clo­sure of Gaza, now in its 15th year), but is also used to pro­long con­flict and suf­fer­ing. Israel cre­ates and main­tains a human­i­tar­i­an prob­lem to con­tain a polit­i­cal one. At best, polit­i­cal jus­tice is replaced by com­pas­sion (as Eyal Weiz­man has writ­ten8), at worst, by ruina­tion. In this way, human­i­tar­i­an­ism itself becomes a form of vio­lence against the peo­ple it is meant to assist.

In the most recent attack on Gaza in May 2021, Israel com­plete­ly or par­tial­ly destroyed—as it has in pre­vi­ous assaults—some of Gaza’s infra­struc­ture includ­ing homes, schools, health facil­i­ties, busi­ness­es, fac­to­ries, roads, and gov­ern­ment offices. Also destroyed was one of Gaza’s largest stores of pes­ti­cides and fertilizer—specifically 259 tons of pes­ti­cides and 1,758 tons of fer­til­iz­er (in addi­tion to 9,312 tons of seeds).9 Yet, the objec­tive of this tar­get­ed destruc­tion far exceeds any one sector—notably, agri­cul­ture. The delib­er­ate release of car­cino­genic chem­i­cals into the envi­ron­ment in this way (in addi­tion to the tox­ins intro­duced by the bombs and oth­er muni­tions dropped on Gaza) ensures their infil­tra­tion into soil and ground­wa­ter and, by exten­sion, into a food sup­ply that is not only dimin­ished but increas­ing­ly nox­ious. This speaks not only to lethal­i­ty but, over time, to defor­mi­ty and per­haps, infertility.

Hence, Gaza is not only iso­lat­ed but also made irrel­e­vant and use­less; human life is whol­ly vul­ner­a­ble with­out, in effect, any legal or juridi­cal sta­tus, recourse, or appeal, which is exact­ly what is meant by a state of excep­tion. The lack of recourse also exists with­in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty where Israel has man­aged to dele­git­imize the Pales­tin­ian nar­ra­tive, and remains removed from the vio­lence it cre­ates. In this state of excep­tion, Gazans are stripped of cul­ture and accom­plish­ment, ren­dered “unname­able” except for their bio­log­i­cal needs, where, to repeat Arendt’s words, they are forced to live out­side the com­mon world, denied place and belong­ing and all that attends it; even their Face­book and Twit­ter posts are censored.

Israel has cre­at­ed a par­en­thet­i­cal real­i­ty for Gaza, which is expressed in the destruc­tion of the ordi­nary (or that which binds soci­eties togeth­er): the undo­ing of shel­ter and liveli­hood, in social space that is nev­er insu­lat­ed from vio­lence, where vio­lent excess is nor­mal and made inti­mate, and in pol­i­cy that regards “peace” as an instru­ment of oppression.

Gaza’s era­sure finds anoth­er expres­sion in Israeli pol­i­cy, which insists on a kind of clar­i­ty that will silence any empa­thy that might arise. For Israel every­one in Gaza is Hamas and there­fore a legit­i­mate target—children, women, men, fam­i­lies, even the dead and buried. There are no inno­cents or blame­less in Gaza, no fathers or moth­ers, sis­ters or broth­ers, daugh­ters or sons. There are no homes or schools, no muse­ums or uni­ver­si­ties, no libraries or health clin­ics, no parks or play­grounds. Instead, say Israeli offi­cials, there is only grass, which must be mowed from time to time.10

Some Con­clud­ing Thoughts

Gaza has been removed from the sphere of pol­i­tics. Relief is the only choice left.

Gaza is an exper­i­ment where pol­i­cy is used to exclude and tech­nol­o­gy is used to con­trol. In these obscene spaces new weapons and new means of sur­veil­lance are con­tin­u­ous­ly being test­ed, to the great ben­e­fit of Israeli indus­try. But the drones used for sur­veil­lance and killing or the inde­tectable spy­ing software—the lat­est instance of which is Pegasus—are far from being the most ter­ri­fy­ing exports from Israel: they pale before the auto­mat­ed deci­sion sys­tem that is built into them.

Deci­sions which used to be made by humans are now hand­ed out to algo­rithms, and ago­niz­ing moral dilem­mas have been turned into crude math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­las.11 How many mem­bers of a group should be killed to ren­der the group inef­fec­tive? The answer is 25 per­cent.12 How many bystanders is it accept­able to kill when tar­get­ing a “high-worth indi­vid­ual”? Dur­ing the Iraq war, the thresh­old was 2913 and any num­ber less than 29 was accept­able; at 30 or more, approval was need­ed from Rums­feld or Bush.

In this way moral dilem­mas are trans­lat­ed into a grotesque account­ing sys­tem, defined as “human­i­tar­i­an”. At its core this new ethics speak to a nor­mal­i­ty that is immoral and inhu­mane, that aim to inval­i­date and remove all sites of encounter with the oth­er, where sym­pa­thy can­not be elicit­ed or attach­ments forged—where tragedy and poet­ry do not exist.

Pol­i­tics and ethics are there­fore reduced to eco­nom­ics: every­thing has a price, includ­ing acts of resis­tance. If the price is high enough, people—in this case, Palestinians—will find it irra­tional to indulge in such acts. If they per­sist, the price was too low and needs to be increased until the right lev­el of fear and pain are attained. Ethics become a prob­lem of opti­miza­tion: Gazans must be kept qui­et at a min­i­mal cost in lives and destruc­tion. Find­ing the right bal­ance between killing too many (which will cause moral out­rage among some) and too few (which would not instill the right degree of ter­ror) presents inter­est­ing math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems, very sim­i­lar to ones raised in eco­nom­ic theory.

Gaza, of course, is an extreme case, but there are sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions devel­op­ing around the world, oth­er places of inat­ten­tion and form­less­ness. In the US, for exam­ple, mak­ing Amer­i­ca great again still goes hand in hand with send­ing peo­ple from “shit­hole coun­tries” back to where they will remain unseen. Sim­i­lar­ly, mil­lions are kept in refugee camps in Turkey, Libya, or Europe itself with very lit­tle prospect of leav­ing or earn­ing a liv­ing. Fam­i­lies are kept for years in camps, caught between the hope of an improb­a­ble asy­lum in Europe and the fear of being sent back. They are increas­ing­ly seen as a nui­sance to be con­tained and iso­lat­ed rather than wel­comed and inte­grat­ed. They are the Euro­pean ver­sions of Gaza—with­out the bomb­ing. The French gov­ern­ment, which long insist­ed on the inte­gra­tion of refugees and their trans­for­ma­tion into French cit­i­zens, is now engaged in a cam­paign against its Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, sin­gled out for “sep­a­ratism” while Par­lia­ment has passed laws “to fight rad­i­cal Islamism”. Social prob­lems, which arise from pover­ty and dis­crim­i­na­tion, are thus described in terms of reli­gion and nation­hood and treat­ed as ter­ror­ism. And woe to soci­ol­o­gists, econ­o­mists, or his­to­ri­ans who try to reframe the prob­lem accord­ing to their own exper­tise: the French min­is­ter for high­er edu­ca­tion has called for an inquest into “Islamo- left­ists” in acad­e­mia, in line with for­mer prime min­is­ter Valls, who is on record for claim­ing that “try­ing to under­stand is a step towards try­ing to excuse”.

For grow­ing num­bers of human beings, the new pol­i­tics is sim­ply about remov­ing the oth­er from sight. As a pol­i­cy, the exclud­ed may not be killed but are owed nothing—no land, no income, no pro­tec­tion, and cer­tain­ly no place or home—except mere food and water, what Agam­ben calls “bare life”. And for every human being set apart and denied, there is anoth­er for whom that sep­a­ra­tion and denial are defin­ing. Exclu­sion and iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics are oppo­site sides of the same coin. You are an Israeli Jew if you are not a Pales­tin­ian; you are a French repub­li­can if you are not an obser­vant Mus­lim. You are an Amer­i­can if you are not a Guatemalan immi­grant seek­ing US citizenship.

Mini-Gazas are devel­op­ing around the world. From Gaza to Les­bos, from Les­bos to Afghanistan and beyond, sites of excep­tion are grow­ing where peo­ple are barred from legit­i­mate polit­i­cal dis­course, unrec­og­nized but kept alive, with­out claim to com­mu­ni­ty or nationhood—declared unfit, with­out a past and hid­den from his­to­ry, and con­signed to abstrac­tion. They exist con­fined and world­less, with­out attach­ment, pur­pose, or func­tion, where the prin­ci­pal aim of pol­i­tics is to con­trol unwant­ed pop­u­la­tions with no vision of any­thing but fur­ther con­trol. It is a pol­i­tics designed not to find solu­tions or even imag­ine what they might look like—an approach that is con­sid­ered sup­port­able, allow­ing injus­tice to set­tle in. Hence it is not sur­pris­ing that the devel­oped world is no longer think­ing in terms of a mutu­al des­tiny, which bodes ill for the glob­al chal­lenges fac­ing human­i­ty such as cli­mate change and the pan­demics yet to come. Col­lec­tive action will be need­ed to pre­vent the worst out­comes that await us, but in a world where glob­al pol­i­tics is increas­ing­ly defined by exclu­sion­ary nation­al­ism and the absence of vision and com­pas­sion, such action seems more and more unlikely.

One day the Gazas will defeat us.


1. Mar­tin Con­way, “Mak­ing Trump His­to­ry,” org, Feb­ru­ary 25, 2021, online:‑9.
2. Ibid.
3. Peter Baehr (ed.), The Portable Han­nah Arendt (New York: Pen­guin, 2003), p. 37.
4. Han­nah Arendt, The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism (New York: Har­court Brace, 1951), 302.
5. See Sara Roy, Unsi­lenc­ing Gaza: Reflec­tions on Resis­tance (Lon­don: Plu­to Books, 2021), 201–202. Some of the points raised here are explained in greater detail in this book.
6. Roy (2021), pp. 209–210.
7.  Roy (2021), pp. 78–79.
8. See Eyal Weiz­man, The Least of All Pos­si­ble Evils: Human­i­tar­i­an Vio­lence from Arendt to Gaza (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2011).
9. Pre­sen­ta­tion by Dr. Wesam Al Mad­houn, “Impacts Assess­ment of the Gaza War 2021: A Vision Towards a Sus­tain­able Recon­struc­tion,” Inter­na­tion­al Webi­nar on Launch­ing the Report, The Pol­i­cy Times, July 1, 2021.
10. See, for exam­ple, Adam Tay­lor, “With Strikes Tar­get­ing Rock­ets and Tun­nels, the Israeli Tac­tic of ‘Mow­ing the Grass’ Returns to Gaza,” Wash­ing­ton Post, May 14, 2021.
11. See Derek Gre­go­ry, “From a view to a kill: drones and late mod­ern war,” The­o­ry, Cul­ture and Soci­ety, vol. 28, n°7–8 (2011), p. 208; and Gre­goire Chamay­ou, A The­o­ry of the Drone ( New York, NY: The New Press, 2015).
12.  Weiz­man (2011), p. 14. Quot­ed from an inter­view with Gen­er­al Itzhak Ben Israel in the movie, The Lab.
13. Weiz­man (2011), p. 132.

Ivar Ekeland is a former president of the University of Paris-Dauphine, and a former Canada Research Chair in mathematical economics at the University of British Columbia. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and of the Academia Europea.

Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University. Her most recent book is Unsilencing Gaza: Reflections on Resistance (London: Pluto Books, 2021).


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