Speaking Unspeakable Words

A response to the Israel-Hamas war

Feisal G. Mohamed
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram

In the wake of Hamas’s attack on civilians in Israel on October 7, and Israel’s response in the form of a bombing campaign against and siege of Gaza, Yale professors Peter Cole and Feisal G. Mohamed worked together to produce a joint public statement about the crisis. That statement was signed by more than ninety Yale faculty members and was published as a letter in The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 19. We asked Cole and Mohamed to reflect on their collaboration and on the events of the past three weeks. Click here to read Cole’s piece.

The Editors

“The situation in the Middle East is growing more dire by the hour. . . . I have condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7 October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel. . . . It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.”

—UN Secretary-General António Guterres, October 24, 2023

When I first contacted my colleague Peter Cole after the recent attacks on Israel, it was to make sure he was safe. (Peter was in his apartment in Jerusalem when the attacks took place.) Then, as something of an afterthought, I asked him if we might write a statement together for circulation amongst the Yale faculty, growing from our shared investment in the cause of peace in Israel-Palestine. Peter liked the idea, though for each of us it was venturing into the unfamiliar terrain of writing-as-organizing. In drafting the statement, there was one word we studiously avoided: Occupation. Summoning that history, I thought, might feel like an apology for Hamas, or at least lend their actions an air of inevitability. Even if some form of violent resistance to the Occupation was inevitable, that did not make these particular attacks excusable: Hamas and other militant groups chose to target civilians, and to do so in monstrous ways, and we knew we must be unequivocal in saying that such acts are always wrong. As we were writing on October 12, we wanted to focus squarely on civilian casualties, Israeli and Palestinian, which also placed the focus on stopping the killing. And that still has to be the focus now. Of course any lasting peace will have to address the Occupation’s systemic denial of Palestinian humanity and do something to clean up the mess Israel has created with its aggressive program of building settlements in the West Bank and its economic deprivation of the Palestinian people. But those are arguments for a later time.

Reflecting on the statement and all that has happened since, however, seems to require some grappling with the logic of occupation. (A certain kind of reader will object that Israel withdrew from its occupation of Gaza in 2005, but that is a technicality: it clearly still holds the territory in a vise-like grip.) The horrors of Israel’s response to the horrors of October 7 seem ever-escalating, with Gaza rapidly spiraling into a state of acute humanitarian crisis: two-thirds of its hospitals now cannot function; shelling continues, and continues to increase in intensity; electricity, fuel, food, and water are all virtually nonexistent, with only minimal aid arriving. More than three thousand children have been killed. By every indication, the current death toll is a grim prelude of what’s to come: we are in the early stages of Israeli operations in Gaza, and are just beginning to see the ripple effects of a lack of access to food, water, and medicine. I do not mention these things as though they somehow eclipse October 7. The impulse to compete for a monopoly on suffering has always been an obstacle to peace in Israel-Palestine. I mention them because they draw our attention to a deep and growing human catastrophe. And to ways in which the logic of occupation can so naturally yield an impulse to crush the people of Gaza.

In unpacking that logic, and its cycles of violence, it is hard not to be reminded of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Unlike capitalist society, which masks the imposition of power in all sorts of sneaky ways, colonial government, Fanon tells us, uses a “a language of pure violence.” The agent of that government “does not alleviate oppression or mask domination. He displays and demonstrates them with the clear conscience of the law enforcer, and brings violence into the homes and minds of the colonized subject.” The colonist “fabricated and continues to fabricate” the colonial subject and derives his “validity, i.e. his wealth, from the colonial system.” Given these qualities, the path to decolonization is also always and necessarily violent. Fanon is not necessarily advocating anticolonial violence so much as he is describing a dialectic: the colonial agent’s violence “fabricates” a colonial subject who then deploys violence in the cause of decolonization. A political order grounded in bare force sets the terms of resistance accordingly.

The past few weeks have felt like dark confirmation of Fanon’s insights. As with all anticolonial struggles, peaceful objection to the Occupation has gone on for years and has done nothing to abate its human cost. If anything, that cost has only risen: even before the current conflict started, U.N. data show that 2023 had been an especially deadly year for Palestinians, with Israeli forces killing more of them than in any other non-conflict year since 2005, when data started being collected. And these figures do not include Palestinians killed by settlers, who often act with direct or indirect state support. Annexing the West Bank has become open policy, and is in fact a core aspect of the coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the Religious Zionist Party. The pure violence of the Occupation, and the tendency of a colonial government to derive its validity from the exercise of violence, have never been more clear.

At the same time, applying Fanon’s thought to this conflict risks luring us into the error of seeing Hamas as fighting the good fight of decolonization. Hamas does not advance the interests of the Palestinian people at all. They have a corrupt political branch and a reckless, brutal military branch. Hamas serves Hamas, and also their patrons in Iran and Qatar. Summoning Fanon might imply that Gaza is the Battle of Algiers of our time. But the politics, Palestinian and regional, are different. A Fanonian analysis, then, clarifies some things and can confuse others: while it lays bare the core nature of colonial government and colonial subject formation, it does not allow us to scrutinize the failings of various institutions of Palestinian leadership. But what was true of this crisis when Peter and I were writing on October 12 remains true today: international humanitarian law shines an impartial light appropriately unflattering to all parties involved.

There is, though, a key difference between the statement we wrote and the one I would write at present. It now seems necessary to add a charge in Israel’s column: genocide, the legal definition of which is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Under that definition it’s not hard to see how a case could be made against the architects of the Israeli offensive, given the scale of the assault on the people of Gaza, given that it is directed against Palestinians as an ethnic group. In saying this one also realizes just how disgusting it is for the United States to keep arming and running interference for Israel. As a signatory of the Convention on Genocide, this country is obliged to prevent and punish perpetrators of that crime. And yet we have just seen the United States use its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block the very modest aims of a resolution put forward by Brazil that would allow for humanitarian pauses in the conflict so that aid might be safely delivered. This is not Rwanda, where the U.S. stood on the sidelines of a genocide, but rather a situation where it is actively abetting a genocide.

Seeing the current assault on Palestinians as a genocide in progress also opens our eyes to the violence this particular Israeli government has done to Jewish history and tradition. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s remarks, quoted in our statement, on fighting “human animals” are especially striking in this respect. I say that as an outsider, of course, but an outsider with deep admiration for the intellectual and cultural traditions running from Maimonides and Ibn Gabirol to Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, whose achievements of thought in the face of displacement and antisemitic violence are truly one of the great human stories. We owe the Convention on Genocide to the heroic efforts of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the term genocide, whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, and who worked tirelessly in the wake of the war to see the convention passed at the fledgling UN. If Lemkin is the zenith, then Gallant is the nadir.

Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor of English at Yale. Also trained in law, he is the author, most recently, of Sovereignty.
Originally published:
November 2, 2023


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