Living and dying in Gaza under Israel's necropolitics

Living and dying in Gaza under Israel's necropolitics
From indiscriminate killings to forced famine and stealing corpses, Israel controls over every aspect of Palestinian life and death, writes Samirah Jarrah.
6 min read
25 Mar, 2024
When and how to die and mourn have became spaces to take back sovereignty and sovereignty and resistance, writes Samirah Jarrar. [Getty]

Since the start of Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip in October, a relentless series of violence against Palestinians has unfolded, sparing not even the dead bodies.

Palestinians have become deliberate targets of a systematic policy of death by Israel, resulting in a staggering death toll surpassing 32,000 to date.

The practice and logic of the elimination of Palestinian lives and bodies have been intrinsic to the Zionist settler colonial enterprise from its inception. However, since October, it has manifested in particularly overt forms.

Despite the inflicted brutality, Palestinians continue to stand against annihilation and dehumanisation.

"The constant spectre of death in the Strip has led many residents to perceive their existence as a liminal state—a blurred boundary between life and death"

Necropolitics and necroviolence in the Gaza Strip

Since October 2023, Israel has wielded its necropolitics, defined by philosopher Achile Mbembe as the power to kill, through a number of exceptionally brutal measures on the Palestinians of Gaza.

In addition to indiscriminate aerial bombings, ground troops have opened fire on defenceless civilians while using bulldozers to run over people and bury them alive under the rubble.

Beyond the immediate elimination of Palestinian lives, Israeli necropolitics operates on a broader timescale, fostering conditions for a slow death, through induced famine and the systematic destruction of the healthcare system in Gaza.

The constant spectre of death in the Strip has led many residents to perceive their existence as a liminal state—a blurred boundary between life and death.

As journalist Rami Abu Jamus eloquently put it: "We have come to a point where death and life mix. We are between life and death. We are dead, but still alive. We are alive, but always dead."

This condition of "living-dead", as defined by Mbembe, is emblematic of the colonised subject—deprived of sovereignty over their own lives and bodies.

The Israeli death policy in Gaza extends to the already deceased as well, who are degraded and desacralized.

After Israeli aerial bombardments have disfigured and torn apart the bodies of the victims, recovered corpses are hastily buried without proper funerary rites, often in mass graves, due to general insecurity and movement difficulties.

Many bodies remain unrecovered from under the rubble or the streets, leaving thousands of dead unaccounted for. Videos and testimonies reveal the discovery of bodies decomposed into skeletons or being consumed by stray animals.

Not even buried corpses have been spared, as Israeli forces have destroyed cemeteries, uprooted graves, and even seized corpses. Similar episodes occurred in some hospital facilities, with hundreds of deceased patients being confiscated, raising concerns about illicit harvesting of organs and tissues.

The violence inflicted on the deceased serves as an instrument of humiliation, counterinsurgency and control over the living, as the threat of death and "bad death" is employed by Israeli authorities to forcibly evacuate Palestinians from their land and dissuade them from engaging in resistance.

Dehumanisation and domination

Necropolitics is underpinned by a racist division and hierarchization of lives and bodies, with the implication that some lives are inherently considered disposable. Such a premise is starkly evident in colonial projects, where the exploitation, domination, and elimination of indigenous populations are historically rooted in discursive devices of dehumanisation.

The explicit characterization of Gaza's inhabitants as "human animals" or "subhumans" by some Israeli representatives exemplify this dehumanisation.

Israeli social media is replete with testimonials and videos reaffirming racist stereotypes. Replicating the Orientalist trope of Arabs' sexuality, Israeli soldiers have for instance displayed stolen female underwear from demolished Palestinian homes, accompanied by derogatory remarks.

Simultaneously, videos from Israeli soldiers and accounts from Palestinian prisoners document various forms of physical and psychological torture and humiliation, including beatings, deprivation of essential needs, sexual abuse, and forced degrading acts - like being forced to bark like dogs.

Alongside these dehumanising discourses and practices, the Palestinian population, stripped of essential goods and services, experiences inhumane and humiliating living conditions.

After months of aggression, blockade and destruction, many in Gaza find themselves drinking polluted water, resorting to wild herbs and animal feed for survival, and competing over the ridiculous and insufficient airdropped food.

"In Gaza and across occupied Palestine, even in death, Palestinians face annihilation and dehumanisation"

Humanity and resistance amidst suffering

The imagery of the extreme deprivation imposed on the people of Gaza reinforces another dehumanising vision of the colonised population—a portrayal of needy and deficient subjectivities.

This vision aligns with historic racist perspectives where the Other is constructed as both excessive- in terms of aggressivity and sexuality- but also lacking and necessarily dependent.

The othered subject is often recognised only in their deprivation and suffering, especially in those forms that are decipherable and recognizable by the West. Despite benevolent intentions, this mechanism strips the oppressed population of their humanity, normalising their suffering and undermining empathy.

Since the oppressed are considered legitimate only in their passive suffering, every other form of agency and assertion of humanity is denied to them. Active forms of anti-colonial resistance and self-emancipation are met with condemnation, reinforcing racial stereotypes of barbarism and irrationality.

Likewise, the sumud of the Palestinians, meaning their steadfastness against colonial domination and annihilation, is often depicted as indifference to their own and others' deaths, or even fostering a “culture of death”.

In recent months, Palestinians have emerged from the rubble and have buried their loved ones while pronouncing words of defiance and resistance, affirming their determination to stay in their homes and land despite the threat of extermination.

Indeed, the sumud shapes the collective and social forms of mourning within Palestinian society, while martyrdom and the resulting pain acquire a particular collective and individual meaning, linked to the existential need to live a freed and dignified life.

When and how to die and mourn became spaces of reappropriation of sovereignty and resistance.

But while the resilience of Palestinians might be celebrated as heroic, this risks normalising the violence inflicted upon them and minimising their pain. Though martyrdom may be comprehended within the sumud, this does not negate the pain endured.

In Gaza and across occupied Palestine, even in death, Palestinians face annihilation and dehumanisation. The anti-colonial struggle thus becomes a fight against Zionist necropolitics. It's a rejection of zombification and a constant struggle to assert sovereignty over their lives and bodies.

The refusal of the population to evacuate despite the risk of being killed, the bravery of Gaza's doctors risking their lives to not abandon patients, and the courage of those exposing themselves to sniper fire to retrieve bodies in militarised zones are acts of defiance, pride, dignity, and steadfast humanity.

Samirah Jarrar is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Aix-Marseille University.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.