“Death comes knocking on the roof”

Thanatopolitics of Ethical Killing During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza

– By Mikko Joronen (Abstract): One of the controversies of Operation Protective Edge, which Israel launched in Gaza in July 2014, is the undepreciated gap between the high number of civilian casualties and the claim of an ethically sound military operation with an extraordinary effort put on minimizing collateral damage. This paper examines one of the cornerstones of the Israel Defence Forces’ ethically polished military violence during the operation: the use of preventive warning techniques. By focusing on the technique of “roof knocking”, the paper argues that the ethical justification operates through the three thanatopolitical governmentalities: responsibilization of the subjects, reification of the targeted sites, and the calculative politics of doing “the minimum evil necessary”. The Gaza population are hence not considered as passive victims, merely subjected to the killing power of calculative thanatopolitics, but as an inversion of biopolitical subjects who, instead of improving their own individual capabilities, are made accountable for their own deaths.

  • “The massive amount of material damage in civilian areas alone puts the moral justifications in a troubling light, as altogether 15,264 structures were damaged or destroyed in Gaza (UNITAR, 2014), including 26 schools (some of them civil shelters run by the UN), 24 medical facilities, 75,000 homes, one-third of Gaza’s mosques, 360 factories, and the only power plant in Gaza (thus also shutting down water and sewage treatment) (Middle East Monitor 2014; OCHA 2014b:15; Sherwood 2014; UNRWA 2014a). Moreover, overshadowing the high civilian death toll among Palestinians was the approximately 108,000 homeless and over 500,000 internally displaced persons that exacerbated the already severe homelessness in the small, besieged and densely populated Gaza Strip (OCHA 2014b:8–9).”


In the summer of 2014, the tense situation in the occupied Palestinian territories was again in the headlines as Israel initiated the most deadly military operation in Gaza since the Second Intifada: Operation Protective Edge. After three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were found dead near the Hebron settlements in the occupied West Bank and after the subsequent revenge murder, where a 15-year-old Palestinian boy in the occupied East Jerusalem was burned to death, the situation seemed to escalate into what was widely reported around the world: heavy bombing of Gaza by Israel, and the Iron Dome air-defence system blocking most of Hamas’ rockets before they hit Israel. Of course, one needs to be suspicious about such narratives, which so easily isolate the justification of military operations from the everyday reality of the occupied Palestinian territories. For example, immediately after the truce in August 2014, Israel announced its new plan to implement the largest land annexation in the last 30 years in the West Bank (eg Al-Akhbar 2014). It also remains no coincidence that Operation Protective Edge took place when Hamas’ position had changed due to the broader changes in the region. The events of the Arab Spring, particularly the deposal of one of the grand supporters of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but also the disagreement between Hamas and its supporters Hezbollah and Iran in relation to the Syrian revolution, made Hamas more willing to reopen negotiations with Fatah, the other Palestinian party in power in the West Bank. Israel immediately condemned the emerging negotiations on the formation of the Palestinian unity government, suspending itself from the already faltering peace negotiations only a month before the start of Operation Protective Edge (see Black et al. 2014). [1]

Thus, Israel’s strong reaction in Gaza did not come as so much of a surprise, or at least not the reaction in itself. Yet, the intensity of the 50-day operation targeted against Hamas, particularly with regard to the amount of material destruction and number of civilian deaths, was not so expected. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Israel’s military operation, which began on 8 July 2014 as an airborne operation, later escalating into a land war, resulted in at least 2256 Palestinian victims, of whom approximately 70% were civilians. The death toll on the Israeli side was 71 persons, of whom 93% (66 persons) were Israel Defence Force (IDF) soldiers killed during the land operations in the Gaza Strip (UNRWA 2014b). By comparison, the Gaza casualties consisted of approximately one-quarter of all Palestinians killed by Israel during the entire twenty-first century, with the year 2014 also witnessing the highest civilian death toll since the start of the Palestinian occupation in 1967 (OCHA 2015). Curiously, during the conflict it was Israel, a military superpower with advanced military technology, who actively promoted a view that it was conducting a clean technical military operation with high ethical standards, using, for instance, more accurate missiles (or “pinpoint strikes”) and preventive warning techniques such as “roof knocking” (IDF 2014b, 2014d, 2014f). “Roof knocking” in particular—a military practice where civilian residents in Gaza were warned about the forthcoming shelling through the dropping of light explosives or shooting of warning missiles onto the rooftops of the targeted buildings—was one of the tech- niques used to justify Operation Protective Edge as a more humane and ethically sound mission only targeted at terrorist sites and pivotal persons.

In this paper, I focus on the thanatopolitical rationalities used to justify Operation Protective Edge as an ethical way to conduct war. In particular, I concentrate on the justification of military aggression on the basis of warning techniques that aim to inform the population about forthcoming attacks in civilian areas. I start this paper by framing the use of the warning techniques, which range from roof knocking to cautionary phone calls, text messages and air-dropped flyers, as one of the core   ways to ethically justify the war in Gaza. I concentrate on discussing the nature of such techniques, but also on the general argument used to morally justify killing     on the calculative basis of causing only the minimum necessary collateral damage,   or what Eyal Weizman (2007, 2011) has aptly called the necro-economy of the “lesser evil”. In the first part of this paper I particularly ask how these techniques correspond with the high number of civilian victims during Operation Protective Edge, and how this question has been approached elsewhere. I further locate the paper within the recent discussion concerning the thanatopolitical rationalities of military-related killing. Although geographers have recently addressed the questions of mortality, death and finitude (eg Joronen 2011; Romanillos 2011) and focused on different forms of military-related violence and destruction from several angles (Belcher 2014; Fregonese 2009; Hannah 2006; Hyndman 2010; Shaw 2013), thanatopolitics has received relatively limited attention (see Murray 2008; Tyner 2015), especially if compared with the quite established corpus of literature related to its counterpart, biopolitics (eg Braun 2014; Hannah 2011).

In the second part of this paper I further explore the peculiarities of the warning techniques, particularly the technique of roof knocking. Interestingly, in roof knocking the Gaza population is not framed as a group of passive victims merely subjected to the killing power of calculative thanatopolitics. Instead, the Gaza population is framed as active individuals responsible for their own fates and, indeed, deaths. By leaning on Foucault’s discussion of governmentality, particularly “responsibilization”, “techniques of self” (eg Foucault 1986a, 1988, 2008), I show that the dispositif of ethical killing constitutes an inversion of the biopolitical subject who, instead of improving his/her own individual capabilities, is a subject positioned by the thanatopolitical responsibilization (cf Hannah 2011; Lemke 2001). The ethical polishing of military aggression thus shifts the responsibility of human casualties to the subjects within targeted areas — to the individuals, who are morally responsible for not being in the warned sites when the bombing begins. The third part  of the paper continues with the idea that responsibilization has its counterpart in   the imageries that reify the targeted civilian spaces. By removing the civilian deaths from the responsibility of IDF, the dispositif transfers targeted spaces into dehumanized and transparent sites of destruction. Together, it is argued,  the “reification of target spaces” and the “responsibilization of subjects” create a binary logic, upon which the politics of lesser-evil, and hence the dispositif of ethical war, profoundly rely.


Read full article at Antipode


  1. Israel’s remonstrance against the unity of the Palestinian government has a long and complicated history. In the mid-1980s, for instance, Israel supported the creation of Hamas as a counterforce against the PLO, which it then saw as a bigger security threat (see Robinson 2004:124).

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