Gaza: The Paradox of Israeli Sovereignty

By Noah Schwartz

Gaza after an Israeli rocket strike during Operation Pillar of Defense
Image Credit: Scott Bobb/Wikimedia Commons

Defenders of Israel often accuse Israeli security policy critics of undermining Israeli sovereignty and seeking to destabilize the Zionist state. 

This appeals to Americans’ sympathy towards Westphalian norms and a desire for sovereignty. 

However, in the wake of the May Israeli War on Gaza, American policymakers should begin to question this rhetorical tactic. Congressman Richie Torres (D-NY) deployed this tactic in an op-ed, writing that “with sovereignty and security comes the inherent right of self-defense, a right that every state, including our own, takes for granted.”

“Why should Israel be an exception to the rule?” asked Torres, “Why should Israel be held to a deadly double standard in a moment of terror?” 

This is a rather banal defense of Israel, as it falls back on the oft-mentioned tropes of Israeli ‘self-defense.’ However, the insistence that Israel consistently complies with the Westphalian notion of sovereignty raises broad theoretical questions about sovereignty itself. 

These questions should spur American lawmakers to begin to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben begins his seminal work Homo Sacer with the observation that “the paradox of sovereignty…[is] the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.” 

International relations theorists are free to scoff at Agamben’s critical approach to sovereignty, and indeed his analysis does not fit neatly within a realist worldview. 

However, Israeli policy towards Gaza operates on this paradoxical theory of sovereignty. Israeli political leaders frequently fall back upon claims of Israel sovereignty in defense of Israel’s policy of conquest and occupation. Simply put, Israel deploys a claim of sovereignty as it strips others of that very right. 

This paradox is visible in the Israeli approach to Gaza. Gaza is rapidly reaching a humanitarian breaking point. According to the United Nations, 38% of Gazans are unemployed. 54% are food insecure and 90% of the drinking water within Gaza is not considered safe to drink. This detestable condition is exacerbated by the blockade that Israel has placed upon Gaza. 

Furthermore, Israel severely restricts the movements of the residents of Gaza residents specifically through a security fence that is constructed under the policy of Hafrada, or separation. 

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin described the separation fence candidly. As Rabin saw it, “this path must lead to a separation[…]we want to reach a separation between us and them.” 

“We do not want a majority of the Jewish residents of the state of Israel, 98% of whom live within the border of sovereign Israel, including a united Jerusalem, to be subject to terrorism,” added Rabin.

This degeneration of politics and discourse on sovereignty into the ‘friend-enemy’ distinction is extremely present within Gaza. This exposes the central contradiction within Israeli orientation towards Gaza. 

Israel maintains that it desires separation from Gaza. However, it still makes the most important sovereign decision in Gaza: the decision of life and death.

As Agamben scholars Areilla Azoulay and Adi Ophir argue, “the Israeli regime, having shirked its duties towards some of its subjects, did not relinquish the sovereign’s ultimate right: the authority to take life.” 

The casual attitude that Israeli authorities take towards human life in Gaza is prevalent during the Israeli war on Gaza this May. A report by Human Rights Watch on a series of three Israeli airstrikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians concluded that “there was no evident military targets in the vicinity.” 

Israeli policy towards Gaza has erased the distinction between military and civilian targets. Within Israeli policy circles, Gaza serves as an orientalized “Other” that must constantly be punished and no amount of punishment will ever be truly enough. 

The right-wing Israeli think-tank BESA Center concurred with this theory of punishment as a function of sovereignty in an article titled “Hamas is Undermining Israel’s Sovereignty in Jerusalem”. 

“Enemies tend to exploit their foes’ weaknesses and divisions,” wrote Professor Hillel Frisch, “and Hamas (and Fatah) are not exceptions to this rule.”  

“After years of deliberately harmless airstrikes against terror targets in Gaza in response to the firing of rockets and incendiary balloons on Israeli population centers,” continued Frisch, “these terror groups could hardly act otherwise.” 

The belief that Israeli airstrikes into Gaza have been “deliberately harmless” is simply unfounded. In the May 2021 clashes, Israel killed at least 66 children and 44 women according to UN statistics.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch concluded that an Israeli airstrike that demolished four high-rise buildings in Gaza amounted to a war crime. These are not “deliberately harmless’’ actions, rather the actions of a state that continuously transcends international law and humanitarian norms. 

American lawmakers must begin to accept the fact that life in Gaza is life under the boot of this State of Exception. In this current moment, when President Joe Biden has announced an American commitment to human rights and a strategic shift away from the Middle East, there is no reason to continue to spend another dollar on Israel. 

Noah Schwartz is a senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics. He specializes in Chinese Grand Strategy and Left Realism.

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