The Virus, the Settler, and the Siege: Gaza in the Age of Corona

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a stressor that delineated power structures and the gradients within them at a national and supranational level. The study of epidemics has always offered insight into “the underlying structures of social relationship within and across group boundaries, including the mechanisms used to sustain complex social architectures of inequality over time.”1 Like the bodies they afflict, these diseases are physical and symbolic artifacts that are “both naturally and culturally produced, and securely anchored in a particular historical moment.”2 Pandemics can therefore either function socially as events, as developed by Alain Badiou,3 or alternatively as crises, as examined by Michel Foucault in his 1973–1974 lectures at the College de France.4 When a pandemic constitutes an event, it is an incident that is “absolutely detached from, or unrelated to, all the rules of the situation” and becomes a radical rupture.5 Whereas crisis, for Foucault, is experienced as “an intrinsic feature of the disease,” an epiphanic process through which “the reality of the disease becom[es] truth.” The pandemic is experienced as a revelatory incident during which what “appeared in its truth” was not the plague as a bacteriological threat but, instead, a cultural and political disease.6

Historians have explored the ways in which pandemics and quarantines have fostered, challenged, or instituted economic and power relations on the ground.7,8 Roy MacLeod noted when studying the influenza pandemic in Africa at the turn of the twentieth century that “epidemics also created conditions favorable to the consolidation of imperial or government rule.”9 The bubonic plague of 1901 in Cape Town, South Africa, resulted in the quarantine and forced eviction of most of the city’s African population to racially segregated quarantine camps. This experience later became the harbinger of future evictions and a precursor to racial segregation in the form of townships during apartheid.10

In this essay I will use what we know about the nature of Israeli settler colonialism and its siege of the Gaza Strip to guide us on how it will deal with this unprecedented event. I will explore those aspects of settler colonialism that influence Israeli policies and the challenges or opportunities that this pandemic offers to further its objectives in the Gaza Strip and particularly its endless siege. By examining the siege of Gaza and its utility to the Israeli colonial project, I hope to understand the dynamics of Israel’s actions with regard to the pandemic, which in turn offers an opportunity to probe settler colonialism’s strategic versatility in the face of such a historic challenge. 

Why Settler Colonialism

In 1998, when Patrick Wolfe published his seminal book, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology, he offered one of this field’s founding statements: “[I]nvasion is a structure not an event.”11 Wolfe later stated that settler colonialism’s essential feature is “a sustained institutional tendency to supplant the indigenous population,” a cultural logic of elimination that “reconciles a range of historical practices that might otherwise seem distinct.”12 This logic of elimination, which Wolfe posits as the essence of the relationship between the settlers and the colonized, has to be the starting point for any analysis of the past and future of the Palestinian people, including this pandemic. It is in the very nature of structures that, often as not, the deep-seated regularities linking individual events can be traced forward as well as backward in time, particularly when they are, as he noted, “impervious to regime change.”13 Reading settler colonialism as a structure exposes that it cannot be relegated to the past and that the present pandemic must be historicized.14 The process of settler colonialism is constantly being reinvented,15 and its logic is maintained by the rearrangement of colonial practices and discourses in contemporary times. Recognizing it as a structure rather than as an event allows us to chart Israeli policies toward the Palestinians during this pandemic as a product of the same logic that initially informed frontier killing as it mutates into different modalities, discourses, and institutional formations during the course of the pandemic. Just as settler colonialism has updated its racist discourse on racialized native populations—from being seen as backward, barbarous, or savage to then being viewed as Arab-Muslim-terrorists16 —it can also produce the necessary stigmatization during this pandemic. Pandemics never emerge in a vacuum, and they serve as a “hegemonic hierarchy-legitimizing myth.”17 A similar process can be seen in Israel’s selective dismissal and rewriting of international law. Colonel Daniel Reisner, the former head of the international law department of the Israeli army, stated, “The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries. . . International law progresses through violations.”18 In the meantime, anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose once noted that, to get in the way of settler colonization, all the native has to do is stay home.19 This essay is based on the premise that the structural continuity of settler colonialism has predetermined the future.

Titrating Life: The Siege of Gaza

On 15 August 2005, Israel began its withdrawal from the land mass of the Gaza Strip, which it had occupied since the 1967 war. Over the course of 38 years, Israel had established some twenty-one settlements across the coastal enclave and transferred approximately 9,000 settlers into its territory. By the end of 2007, Israel had completely sealed Gaza’s borders20 and began what Nurhan Abujidi called a “State of Urbicide that presents the extreme condition of the State of Siege”21— a permanent state of invasion, destruction, and extreme strangulation22 in a landmass designated as a “geography of dispossession” that is marked by the violent practices of enforced displacement and expropriation.23 As was fundamental to all its decisions during the Oslo process, Israel did what all colonialist projects have done throughout history. It chose dominion, which inhered in European sovereigns alone, over occupancy, which entitled natives to pragmatic use of the land.24 This allowed the Israeli state to retain the ultimate expression of sovereignty, the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.25

The siege of Gaza is best understood in terms of a chemical titration reaction, wherein the experiment’s two components are life and death. In chemical titration reactions, two reagents are mixed until they produce a third reactant of a required acidity. For Palestinian lives, the target of this titration reaction lies between Martha Nussbaum’s “two distinct thresholds.” One of “capability to function beneath which a life will be so impoverished that it will not be human at all; and a somewhat higher threshold, beneath which those characteristic functions are available in such a reduced way that, though we may judge the form of life a human one, we will not think it a good human life.” The siege aims to condemn the inhabitants of Gaza to “a kind of premature death, the death of a form of flourishing.”26 As far back as 1959, Frantz Fanon described how “this gnawing at the existence of the colonized tends to make of life . . . an incomplete death.”27 For this reason, Jasbir Puar’s conception of a bio -necro collaboration is an appropriate analytic to examine Israel’s past and present management of the siege as well as its future actions.

Sieges are a form of low-intensity warfare based on persistent pressure.28 Gaza’s small size, population density, and time elapsed under the blockade are weaponized to produce a baseline of spatial violence29 onto which different policies can be added to properly titrate people’s existence in Gaza between life and death. But even this baseline itself varies. Siege is a dynamic process that shifts in severity and practice monthly and daily.30 By adjusting the depth of the “buffer zone” that runs along the internal perimeter of Gaza and by varying Gaza’s maritime boundary, the spatial violence of the siege can be ratcheted up.31 Both buffer zone and maritime border have the added value of restricting access to farmland and fishing grounds,32 giving this fine-tuning mechanism a nutritional and economic dimension.

In addition to these spatial or territorial strategies,33 nutrition has also been weaponized in this titration reaction. From 2006–10, Israel severely curbed imports of foodstuffs yet claimed to restrict only goods “not vital for the survival of the civilian population.”34 Released in October 2010, the “Red Lines” document revealed how the Israeli government conducted surveys to calculate a “minimal subsistence basket” for Gaza–– that is, a basket of consumer products just shy of producing malnutrition.35 From that minimum, it inferred the maximum number of food trucks to be allowed through the siege every day.36 The result is that about two-thirds of the people living in Gaza are food insecure today.37 As Dov Weisglass, a senior advisor to the Israeli cabinet, said in 2006, they are “on a diet” but are not going to “die of hunger.”38

The same policy applies to other basic needs of the Palestinians in Gaza like electricity, fuel, water, and cement. Power and fuel shortages in turn cripple critical infrastructure, including emergency medical services, garbage collection, and sewage and water treatment. Over time, the technical apparatus employed to channel the circulation of such indispensable supplies has undergone significant upgrades. Then vice prime minister Haim Ramon coined the term “infrastructural oxygen” to describe his new doctrine of cutting off Gaza’s electricity, fuel, and water supply.39 In the aftermath of the 2014 war, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, a data-driven logistical framework regulating the inflow of construction materials, was set up.40 Nothing escapes the burette of this titration reaction. In 2017, only 54 percent of patients from Gaza received a permit in time for their hospital appointment,41 while in January 2020, some 2 percent of Gaza patient applicants who were denied an Israeli permit to get treatment in Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Israeli hospitals had appointments for cancer care.42 Israel’s continuous use of drone strikes allows it to continually top off the titration solution with the necessary level of violence.43

Yet, unlike a carefully executed chemical reaction, this biopolitical experiment still has irregularities that require cyclical resetting. Every few years the system is reset by what Israeli military leaders call “mowing the lawn.”44 Repeated air raids and incursions in addition to the three wars waged on the Gaza Strip are an integral part of the siege system rather than an abdication of its logic. Lori Allen has warned that acute increases in violence over a short period of time have the “paradoxical effect of calling attention to only certain forms and levels of violence in Gaza, while obfuscating and normalizing the ‘everyday’ violence of Israel’s military occupation.”45 By focusing world attention to Gaza for that limited period of time, Israel historically and spatially decontextualizes46 the violence, and creates the impression that it represents a departure from the nonviolent norm. These actions are representative of a form of “scalar politics” that have been a key dynamic of the conflict from the beginning.47

In “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe writes of asymmetric war entailed in infrastructural war, or the “war on life support.”48 The destruction of Gaza’s infrastructural networks (water treatment plants and electricity generators) during these attacks is an added component of this titration that aims at regulating the siege. Infrastructure is weaponized because of the ways it connects, binds, and enables life.49 Its destruction ensures that Ramon’s “infrastructural oxygen” doctrine would be better titrated during the siege. Leading up to the 2014 war on Gaza, the deterioration of water infrastructure resulted in households receiving only six to eight hours of running water, with 25% having access on a daily basis, 40% every other day, 20% every three days, and the remaining 15% only one day out of four.50 Attacks during the war led to the total collapse of Gaza’s water system and waste treatment services, leaving raw sewage spewing into streets.51

Attacks on Gaza during these onslaughts have the added value of reducing Gaza’s livable space “by bomb and bulldozer,”52 thus raising the baseline spatial violence of the siege. During the 2014 war, 18,000 residential units were either completely destroyed or heavily damaged, leaving more than 100,000 Palestinians (17,000 families) homeless. Over four years later, 13,000 were still homeless.53 After twelve years of siege, time itself is weaponized. Puar argues how the inability to control time prevents its organization and undermines an individual’s and society’s sense of being.54 It is the absence of temporality. Whole lives have known nothing but an existence under siege, as Puar puts it, which keeps Palestinians in perpetual temporariness as they live through their annihilation. Cruelty itself, which I define as the deliberate injection of nonutilitarian pain, is also a component of this titration reaction. Acts ranging from sending a ten-year-old cancer patient for treatment in the West Bank while denying her parents permission to accompany her,55 to the tactic of “roof knocking,” wherein the Israeli military uses cell phone calls and small “warning rockets”—usually sent from drones—to tell people that their homes are about to be bombed,56 emphasize and “indulge” Israel’s “taste for omnipotence.”57

The Aim of the Siege

“The town belonging to the colonized people . . . is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees.”

The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon

In 1961, Frantz Fanon described the spatialization of colonial occupation in vivid terms. For Fanon, the essence of colonial occupation entails a division of space into compartments. This compartmentalization becomes a conduit through which necropower operates, mediated by various modes of confinement, closure, sequestration, and obstruction.58 For the settler, sovereignty over the besieged space means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.59 To this end, sieges deploy indirect and spatial forms of violence.

An enduring aspect of colonialism is the efficacy with which it disciplines bodies to make better use of them: Docility and productivity have always gone hand in hand. The magnitude of the power colonialism exerts and the ostentatiousness of its display depend on that increase in productivity.60 Unlike African labor, which was indispensable to apartheid in South Africa,61 two million Palestinians in Gaza serve no apparent purpose to the Israeli government, and the territory of Gaza itself appears to be of no strategic value to the Israelis. Indeed, if we take the principle of Avoda Ivrit , or “Hebrew labor,”62 as a constitutive principle of Israeli society, then the siege is a result of the brutal logic of Israel’s categorization of Gaza as a hostile surplus population.63 As Palestinian labor becomes increasingly dispensable, Gaza has to become less like a Bantustan and more like a reservation, and other mechanisms of profit generation need to be devised. Israel imposes siege as a long-term means of isolating and managing a surplus population.64 By reducing the inflow of life-sustaining resources to a bare minimum, it created “a structure of subjugation that is unparalleled around the world.”65 J.A. Tyner suggests that the origins of the notion of surplus population can be traced to Marx’s critique of Malthusian population control in Capital: Volume I,66 wherein Marx states that capitalism makes certain populations’ labor redundant through the separation of workers from their labor.67 Fanon noted that when this is done under colonization, the basic functions of life—eating and breathing—become occupied. As a consequence, life’s sole task is to not die.68

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon describes the life of the colonized as stripped down: “[L]iving does not mean embodying a set of values, does not mean integrating oneself into the coherent, constructive development of a world. To live simply means not to die.” The mere fact of life is a victory, one that is difficult to maintain. Fanon continues, “Every date grown is a victory. . . . The sole obsession is the need to fill that ever -shrinking stomach, however little it demands.”69

The siege’s target is not the existence of the population but the quality of that existence and the degree to which it can be denuded without being extinguished. The aim, in the words of Israeli officials, is to keep Gaza’s economy “on the brink of collapse.” According to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, “Israeli officials have confirmed to [U.S. embassy economic officers] on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.” According to a November 2008 cable, Israel wanted the Gaza economy “functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.”70 This skeletalization is achieved through a strategy of “catastrophization.” Adi Ophir describes the situation in Gaza as akin to a “suspended catastrophe,” where the humanitarian conditions approximate a downright catastrophe. Oscillation between repressive and palliative measures keep the impending threat of disaster alive without quite producing irreversible conditions of famine and mass starvation.71 Yet, to be effective as a tool of “surplus population management,” as Lisa Bhungalia argues, “death is not ‘something to be hidden away’ but something to be strategically exposed. The spectacle of death is a critical reminder of the stakes involved.”72 For Fanon, colonial occupation entails first and foremost the division of space into compartments. They provide the raw material of sovereignty and the violence it carries with it.73 For him, colonial violence is made up of “multiple, diverse, repeated, and cumulative violence” which, in the case of Palestinians in Gaza, forces them to see their lives as a “permanent battle against atmospheric death” and gives it the semblance of “incomplete death.”74

The siege of Gaza exemplifies how elimination and exploitation not only coexist in tension; they also co-define each other.75 Through its siege on Gaza, Israel extracts political value and accumulates capital from this society of surplus labor, as explained below. By maintaining Gaza at the edge of a humanitarian precipice, Israel has incorporated a moral economy, namely a humanitarian rationality, that prevents catastrophic conditions such as mass starvation and disease.76 The humanitarian response to the siege has to be understood as part of its logic; humanitarianism is part of its functioning mechanism, not a direct challenge to it. Humanitarian interventions are constituted as the opposite of political ones.77 The siege allows Israel to shift the discourse around Gaza from one of national liberation, occupation, and self-determination to the balance sheet of humanitarian aid: the numbers of trucks allowed in, hours of electricity, the amount of medical supplies, and the number of patients allowed out for treatment.78 The exigency of redressing human suffering bypasses questions of political responsibility by prioritizing the logistical and seemingly apolitical problem of how to alleviate the victims’ suffering.79 After every war on Gaza, donor conferences raise billions of dollars to rebuild infrastructure. Despite the inevitability that Israel will destroy Gaza again, the “donors will pay up because it is far easier than addressing the underlying causes of and possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”80 The status of Palestinians in Gaza is therefore transformed from the political category of the refugee to the humanitarian category of the victim, generating political value for Israeli colonizers. Humanitarianism dehistoricizes and depoliticizes the conflict by reducing it to balance sheets of human suffering.81 The siege becomes a mechanism for exchanging negative political value, or political liability with positive value or political assets. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Arjun Appadurai invites us to understand the notion of value (in this case political) as a product of such interactions inscribed in power relations.82 Ilana Feldman calls for breaking open the obscuring frame of humanitarianism and disrupting the cycle of destruction and rebuilding that ultimately regenerates the colonial situation.83 

Through a fruitful marriage of science and colonialism (scientific colonialism),84 Israel has also harnessed the siege to accumulate capital by commodifying its siege policies85,86 and technologies.87 By turning the West Bank and Gaza into a “laboratory,” as architect and theorist Eyal Weizman puts it, a “territorial and urban conflict that can take place in other places,” Israel was able to sell the “siege.”88 For Naomi Klein, this is how Israel promulgates a “generalized state of exception,” furnishing the model of “the cutting-edge homeland security state” globally.89

In 2012, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s conservative estimate, Israel exported 76% of the arms it produced, amounting to around $7 billion.90 Joseph Pugliese documented that Elbit, the company whose drones were tested during Israel’s assault, recorded a 6% increase in profits during the first month of Operation Protective Edge.91 Israel is the “world’s single largest exporter of drones.”92 Israeli arms companies and officials frequently state that Israel’s weapons are “field tested” in “real time”––meaning, they are tested on a captive Palestinian population.93 Avner Benzaken, the head of the Israeli army’s technology and logistics division, underscores the significance of Gaza as Israel’s weapons testing laboratory: “If I develop a product and want to test it in the field, I only have to go five or ten kilometres from my base and I can look and see what’s happening with equipment.

. . I get feedback, so it makes the development process faster and much more efficient.” 94

The continuity between historical settler colonialism and the present-day neoliberal world order resides in the exigencies of managing surplus populations and encouraging the spatial confinement of populations targeted for repression. State strategies for managing the warehoused surplus populations evince characteristics that are distinctly settler colonialist.95 Systemic harmony between military siege as a manifestation of colonial intervention and the formations and practices of the neoliberal state have emerged to regulate and promote a new regime of capital accumulation worldwide. David Harvey has described “accumulation by dispossession” as designating a more rigorous understanding of the process, which sees the settler-colonial logics of law and violence as the means to advance and safeguard the neoliberal economic regime.96

Biopolitics of Siege

The essence of Foucault’s work is that the living body lies at the epicenter of all politics. Foucault used the notion of biopolitics to speak of the relationship that power establishes with the social body. The siege of Gaza is an exemplar of the way settler colonialism performs biopower in deeply historical and fully contemporary ways.97 The biopolitics of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip ensures its longevity as a settler state. We must interpret its activities as enacting settler colonialism. We must challenge ahistoricity in accounts of the coloniality of biopower in Gaza’s siege that accept narratives of securitization. To temporalize such narratives that depict the situation as having advanced beyond colonialism is to naturalize how settler colonialism continuously acts within them. Telling the truth as an event is a malicious act of denying it as structure.

In accordance with Giorgio Agamben’s thinking, Israel’s retention of sovereignty (or dominion) over the Gaza Strip after its 2005 withdrawal afforded it the power to designate Palestinians as homo sacer: the sacred man who may be killed without being sacrificed or made subject to homicide. The sacred man enters a “state of exception” to the law that simultaneously reinforces its rule. Agamben defines the exception by reference to the camp as “the political space itself of modernity,” which, by forming a permanent “space (bare) life” creates a “materialization of the state of exception” as “the rule.”98 He describes the structure of the state of exception as representing inclusion and capture of a space that is neither inside nor outside. Even though this state of exception is a hallmark of settler colonies,99 Agamben ignores the absolute normality of the state of exception under colonial regimes.100 Ilan Pappe fervently refutes the notion that Agamben’s work is applicable to Israel. He notes that the state of exception in Europe constitutes a “treacherous disequilibrium that needs to be rectified,”101 whereas with Israel as an active settler-colonial state, the malady is in the design. Oren Yichtafel has shown that any pretense by liberal Zionists of opposing “exception” is posturing inherent to what he terms Israel’s ethnocracy.102 Positing that “exception” is intrinsic to the state’s “history, composition, and aspirations,” Marcelo Svirsky notes that it is “exemption” rather than “exception” that better explains Israel’s constitutive nature.103

The declaration of emergency is the means by which settler-colonial states justify their invocation of an all-encapsulating and permanent state of exception, which is characterized by a multitude of laws and directives tailored for its regulation. Propelled by its urgent need to normalize the exceptional status of its regime of occupation in accord with law, Israel makes “temporariness,” which grants it “the license of the state of emergency,” the permanent state of the occupation, allowing it to become “an unrestrained, almost boundless sovereign, because when everything is temporary almost anything—any crime, any form of violence—is acceptable.”104 Mbembe goes further by reading the colony as exception.105 He insists that following his experience of the war, Fanon had become convinced that colonialism was a “necropolitical force animated at its core by a genocidal drive.”106 Mbembe reads necropolitics as the logic of the colony as exception, and argues that the past of necropolitics informs the present when it recurs in “late modern colonial occupation.”107 With around 18,500 Palestinians wounded during Israel’s 2008, 2012, and 2014 wars on Gaza,108 and another 8,000 shot by snipers during the Great March of Return protests in 2018–19,109 Puar tracks the biopolitical dimensions of this structured violence in her conceptualization of the “right to maim” as exercised by the Israeli state. She defines this maiming of bodies, lives, and infrastructure as an intentional practice that “expands biopolitics beyond simply the question of ‘right of death and power of life’; maiming becomes a primary vector through which biopolitical control is operated in colonized space and hence not easily demarcated necro as it is mapped in Mbembe’s reworking of biopolitics.”110 The aim of maiming is not only the “infliction of harm” but also “the attrition of the life support systems that might allow populations to heal from this harm.”111

Albert Memmi’s pioneering work on settler colonialism suggests that subordinating the indigenous population requires the assumption of a racial hierarchy. The prestige and the legitimacy of the settlers depend on the conviction of their superiority to the indigenous, whether in terms of the higher development of their culture and moral values or in terms of material civilization. The settler state reiterates to the population it has dispossessed the settler colony’s claim to superiority, both in its system of governance and in its social and moral values, casting itself as a representative of so-called civilized values in a “backward region.”112 Historian David Lloyd notes that what in Memmi’s terms is the constant reference to the “mother country” becomes in Israel’s case the reference to a more diffuse but no less potent “Western civilization” of which Zionism has believed itself representative since the earliest days of the colonization of Palestine.113 The brutality and cruelty Israel visits on the Palestinians on a daily basis find their legitimation in an institutionalized racism that belies Israel’s faith in its legality, democracy, and civic virtues. Geopolitically describing Gaza as a “hostile entity” is an expression of classic Orientalist posturing of “Self” against “Other” in colonial exchange.114 Gaza becomes a manifestation of Thomas Barnett’s strategic “threat environment,” and is set against the normalized, civilized space of Israel.115

The Virus and the Settler

The pandemic arrived to find Israeli settler colonialism, the siege of Gaza, and the Palestinians at two biopolitical landmarks. The first is a March 2020 interview in Haaretz with the Israeli army snipers who had taken part in the intentional and intimate disablement of 8,000 Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza during the Great March of Return protests. There was practically no outrage on the part of the Israeli public over the descriptions of this act of maiming and the use of sports analogies by the soldiers as they bragged about their achievements. “‘I brought in seven-eight knees in one day. Within a few hours, I almost broke his record. . . . He got around 28 knees. . . [O]bviously there’s joy at the hit. . . ’ The arena of the disturbances is like a sports arena, a situation you can sell tickets for. Group versus group, with a line down the middle and an audience of fans on both sides. You can totally tell a story of a sports encounter here.” These excerpts show that the Palestinian homo sacer, whose killing does not constitute homicide, has become a noxi: an enemy of the state whose punitive killing is an entertainment spectacle, a summa supplicia (execution by exposure to wild beasts, crucifixion, and burning alive).116 The second landmark is a February 2020 statement from Agamben, in which he accuses governments of using the pandemic to normalize the state of exception.117

In a prophetic note written in 2010, historian Lloyd observed that since a key part of any colonialism is memory and narration, it becomes the major challenge for the settler colonialist, who is plagued by the insecurity of a never-quite-legitimate possession.118 During the pandemic, this insecurity has manifested itself as neurotic compulsion by the Israelis to repeatedly (and thus far falsely) announce that they are on the cusp of discovering a vaccine for COVID-19. As early as 28 February 2020, Israel announced that it was weeks away from developing a vaccine that would “provide a needed response to the grave global COVID-19 threat.”119 When the promised vaccine failed to materialize by 18 March, the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) stated that its scientists “expected to announce in the coming days that they have completed development of a vaccine.”120 Among IIBR’s previous inventions was the poison injected into Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in Jordan in 1997 by two Mossad agents, and the one used by a Mossad hit team to assassinate Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010.121

IIBR then announced on 2 April that it had tested a COVID-19 vaccine prototype on rodents at its biochemical defense laboratory.122 By 20 April, still with no vaccine, scientists at Tel Aviv University announced they were “two-thirds of the way into developing a vaccine for COVID-19.”123 Israeli settlers’ obsession with discovering the vaccine has exposed how, in the words of Memmi, the Tunisian anticolonial writer turned Zionist, “his disquiet and resulting thirst for justification require the usurper to extol himself to the skies and to drive the usurped below the ground at the same time.”124

The Virus and the Native

During the pandemic, Palestinian health professionals inside the Green Line were to receive a substantial surprise. Constituting 17% of the Israeli state’s doctors, 24% of its nurses, and 48% of its pharmacists, these Palestinian medical personnel found themselves overnight “essential foot soldiers and field commanders in the country’s struggle against the virus.”125 By virtue of the pandemic they went from being the victims of a “malicious shell-game of holding formal citizenship (ezrahut) while being denied the right to nationality (le’om), which is reserved for Jews only and which grants the most substantial rights,”126 to being feted by the Israeli establishment.127 In the words of journalist Gideon Levy, “[S]uddenly there are Arabs on the front page of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily—and they’re not terrorists.”128

Noting that the fight to save lives would be “fatally compromised” without Arab professionals, a policy brief by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Tel Aviv University think tank led by former military officers, urged the government to create a “positive basis” for “full integration” of Arabs in Israeli society and for “an end to exclusionary and racist discourse and statements that call into question Arab loyalty.”129 As Wolfe notes, settler colonialism’s strategies of elimination may change from genocide and ethnic cleansing to brute exclusion and controlled inclusion, but, when necessary, assimilation can reflect the ideological requirements of settler-colonial societies, which “characteristically cite native advancement to establish their egalitarian credentials.”130 In the “Israeli war on coronavirus,” the native Palestinian doctors become soldiers who “rush to the front.”131 Unlike Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, these health professionals are now portrayed by the Israeli press as three-dimensional personalities who have names, whose children have names, and one of whom even had a birthday that she missed, “without a hug from her parents,” because of their work in the hospital.132 The Majadlas, a Palestinian family of five doctors celebrated by Haaretz for “battling to save lives, Jewish and Arab,” during the pandemic, became a household name.133 In his book Final Promise, Frederick Hoxie notes that “assimilated natives would be proof positive” of “an open society, where obedience and accommodation to the wishes of the majority would be rewarded with social equality.”134 The Israeli press’s calls for an end to “discrimination” become a tactic to maintain settler authorities’ suppressing of Palestinian specificity into the so-called post-racist era, depoliticizing their otherness by rendering it a technical problem for civic administration.135 Needless to say, this newfound love for its Palestinian health professionals does not extend to the rest of the Palestinian community, for which Israel refuses to provide testing, and whose protests it meets with the usual brutality.136

On the home front, an administrative order allowed its internal security agency, Shin Bet, to track Israelis through their phones,138 as it routinely does with Palestinians,139 to ensure their compliance with social distancing measures. On 16 March, the Knesset intelligence committee approved the use of a hitherto secret national database, codenamed “The Tool,” compiled by the Shin Bet since 2002. The database contains the names, addresses, and phone numbers of every Israeli citizen; it also records every phone call made and the recipient of these calls. It uses geolocation to track where one travels within the country, and maintains records of all online activity, including internet searches.140 While many Israelis were surprised to find out that Shin Bet had been collecting their cell phone data since 2002, liberal Zionists were offended at being subjected to the same software as Palestinians. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute argued, “This is not war or an intifada. It’s a civilian event and should be treated like one.”141

Abroad, Israel went to great lengths to advertise how it had assigned the procurement of medical goods to its intelligence agency, the Mossad,142 rather than to health departments. In an interview broadcast by Channel 12, the head of the Mossad’s technology department described to a grateful nation how its covert teams had secured masks, testing kits, and ventilators.143 In what can only be described as a celebratory piece, the New York Times’s Ronen Bergman quotes an Israeli health official bursting with pride, “It is only in Israel that the Sheba hospital could have enlisted the help of the Mossad. Can you imagine Mount Sinai Hospital going to the C.I.A. for help?”144 Hundreds of Israeli soldiers were sent on patrol to enforce the lockdown of Israeli citizens145 while for the first time the Border Police, whose main mission is to enforce the occupation by preventing West Bank Palestinians from entering Israel as illegal workers, enforced the blockade on the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) city of Bnei Brak.146

Israel’s verbose publicizing of its cybersecurity software was not only for political consumption. The pandemic has opened up such software, tried and tested on the Palestinians, to potential uses in the realm of biosecurity and public health population management.147 Tal Dilian, a former Israeli intelligence officer and now a co-CEO of Intellexa, a cybersurveillance firm that works with intelligence agencies in Southeast Asia and Europe, could not hide his excitement: “I really believe this industry is doing more good than bad. . . . Now is a good time to show that to the world.” Many other Israeli companies are also rebranding their data-tracking tools as biosecurity tools critical to pandemic response, including cell phone location information and facial recognition software.148 In April, the Israeli company Cellebrite was busy marketing the same capability to help authorities learn whether a person infected with the coronavirus had transmitted it to others. In an email pitch, the Delhi police force was promised that “when someone tests positive,” authorities can siphon up the patient’s location data and contacts, making it easy to “quarantine the right people.” Intellexa’s Dilian said his company’s platform will cost between $9 million and $16 million for countries with large populations. He believes COVID -19 tracking is only the beginning. Once the pandemic ends, he hopes countries that invested in his mass surveillance tools will adapt them for espionage and security. “We want to enable them to upgrade,” he said.149 Start-Up Nation Central, an Israeli NGO, has compiled a directory of some 150 Israeli technology companies trying to cash in on the pandemic. In late March 2020, the Israeli Ministry of Health launched the app HaMagen, Hebrew for “the shield,” which uses geolocation technology to inform users about points of contact with known COVID-19 cases.150 The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has offered support to an Israeli start-up called Vocalis Health, which is developing an app capable of diagnosing COVID-19 based on the sound of someone’s voice.151 AnyVision, a surveillance and facial recognition company that scans faces at military checkpoints, claims that its computer-vision and deep-learning technology can pick out an infected person on a watch list in a crowded stadium. At Sheba Medical Center, AnyVision’s system was plugged into a network of about 600 surveillance cameras in public areas, setting off alarms when someone entered a department without wearing a mask or letting management instantly determine who needed to be quarantined when a hospital worker tested positive.152

In the field of population management, an artificial intelligence triage platform developed by Israel’s Diagnostic Robotics—a security company that was adapted to tackle the current pandemic—produces risk assessment and predictive models to provide public health officials with continuous monitoring of the patterns by which the virus spreads.153 Unable to contain his excitement, New York Times journalist David Halbfinger exalted the Israeli Defense Ministry’s research and development arm, “best known for pioneering cutting-edge ways to kill people and blow things up,” for its latest “lifesaving” mission, as it has been “spearheading a sprawling, high-speed effort to unleash some of the country’s most advanced technologies against an enemy of another kind: Covid-19.”154

Throughout its history, Zionism was an international movement that intentionally avoided the restraints of a single metropole in favor of what Maxime Rodinson called the “collective mother country.”155 Yet during this pandemic it has become apparent that some metropoles are more equal than others.156 U.S. health professionals have been treating patients without proper protective gear,157 and Italy, a NATO founding ally, had to triage patients in need of ventilators.158 But the U.S. government sent one million masks159 and a hundred ventilators160 to the Israeli army. The same altruism was not on display when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a request from Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to allow ventilators to be exported from Israel to the United Kingdom.161 This unique relationship with the United States as the metropole of choice was further emphasized by a study published by the University of Tel Aviv’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology. The study found that more than 70% of Israeli patients were infected by a virus that genetically originated in the United States, meaning that the original carriers caught it there and then brought it to Israel. In most of the remaining patients, the virus originated somewhere in Europe, namely Belgium (8%), France (6%), the United Kingdom (5%), Spain (3%), or Italy (2%).162

Israel has always sought to be accepted among the community of advanced democracies while also demanding to be excepted from the norms of international law and human rights conventions on the basis of its peculiar destiny as a state that enshrines ethnic nationalism and religious prophecy. Unlike the European secular nationalisms it was modeled on, Zionism is also imbued with traditions of messianism. A belief not only in the historical destiny of the Jews to return from the diaspora to Zion but also in the association of that return with the return of the Messiah and the inauguration of the end times.163 Even secular Zionism is haunted by the concepts of messianic redemption, such that “we can fairly ask whether the affinity between Zionism and messianism is too intimate and powerful to have ever been anything other than partially—and finally unsuccessfully—repressed.”164 This tension between the vaccine-inventing, ventilator-manufacturing,165 software-designing modern state and a nation waiting for the Messiah exploded spectacularly during the pandemic. Israel’s 71-year- old Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman, who also leads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, sought to allay the fears of Israelis worried about the pandemic because he was sure “that the Messiah will come and bring us out as [God] brought us out of Egypt.”166 When the Messiah failed to show, the health minister claimed that the outbreak of COVID-19 was divine punishment from God because of LGBT pride parades,167 undoing decades of careful Israeli pink-washing by liberal Zionists.168 Two weeks later, the minister and his wife contracted the coronavirus.169

The Virus and the Siege

On 9 March 1918, Marcel Proust described the effect that living through World War I had on him: “Just as people used to live in God, so I live in the war.”170 Palestinians in Gaza, in turn, live in the siege. In the words of Gideon Levy, “[I] n Israel, where the coronavirus has turned everything upside down, only one thing remains as it was, cruel and hermetic: the Gaza blockade. The entire world has changed except for the biggest prison of all.”171 To predict Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip during this pandemic, we must solve a riddle: What happens during times of “normalized exception”172 in a “space of exception” that already lives in a permanent “state of exception”?173 What is the fate of the Palestinian homo sacer, whose inconsequential murder became so mundane that to ensure its continuity it had to become entertaining? And how can the Israeli state turn a pandemic, which the World Health Organization director called an “enemy of humanity,” into being only an enemy of the Palestinians?174

When trying to predict Israel’s policies during the pandemic, it is easier to start with what it does not want. On 5 April 2020, a war game was held at the INSS, simulating a large-scale outbreak of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip that resulted in hundreds of fatalities. It concluded that the greatest risk, to be prevented at all costs, was that an “infection [would] spill over into its own territory.”175 Short of that, Israel will attempt to weaponize the pandemic and use it as another additive in its titration reaction of life and death in Gaza—or, as the INSS put it, the “corona crisis may prove to be an opportunity for Israel.”176 According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Israel insisted that the first testing kits allowed into Gaza were to be used to test Gaza’s sewage outflow. Since then, Israel has severely restricted the delivery of testing kits into Gaza, to the point that testing had to be suspended on several occasions.177 It has prevented international agencies from donating ventilators178 (Gaza currently has 65) and has prevented the importation of personal protective equipment (PPE) by the Ministry of Health in Gaza.

By employing draconian quarantine measures to compensate for the lack of testing capacity, the authorities in Gaza have so far been able to control the pandemic. Like a water-boarding torture victim who holds their own breath so as not to drown, Palestinians in Gaza employ a strict quarantine process. They established 28 quarantine centers in hotels and schools and 1,000 quarantine units in Rafah, in the south, and Beit Hanoun, in the north of Gaza.179 The decision to put all Palestinians who returned to Gaza into isolation in these centers for a month proved to be the most effective way to prevent the spread of the disease.

As one Palestinian official said, “From the beginning we knew that in case of an outbreak, the medical system would collapse, so the method of immediate isolation for everyone who entered the Gaza Strip was the best.”180 By mid-July, over 6,500 people had been quarantined,181 and as a result of stringent quarantine measures the total number of reported COVID-19 cases in Gaza totaled 72, with all identified cases being returnees from outside Gaza, including the only fatality (a 75-year-old woman suffering from chronic conditions).182

But this lockdown came at a high price. According to HelpAge International, an NGO working in Gaza, 73 people died due to lack of health care during the pandemic lockdown; 850 oxygen gas cylinders had to be redistributed to COVID-19 patients from people who needed them for other health conditions; and 1,200 patients were unable to access life-saving medical care. The European Hospital effectively closed its doors to all but COVID-19 patients, and 3,500 patients who depended on it for health care had to seek treatment elsewhere.183 The severe lockdown has also precipitated an economic downturn in an already crippled economy.184

Throughout this pandemic, binarism has remained at the heart of the settler-native relationship. As a result of their agency, Palestinians have remained distinct as the only possible bearers of sovereignties, exceeding the monistic version imposed by the Israeli settler. By attempting to relegate its relationship with those Palestinians who became its citizens into a “post-racist era” while rebranding the fruits of its “industry of oppression” as potential salvation for humanity during the pandemic, Israel deliberately attempts to dilute this binarism as an instrument of conquest.

So long as these uncontained alternative sovereignties and areas of structural incompleteness persist within the bounds of the settler polity, Israel’s policies are doomed to fail.185 Of all Western thinkers, Agamben has been the most foreboding about the pandemic’s consequences. As early as 25 February 2020, the renowned philosopher Giorgio Agamben published a piece titled “Lo stato d’eccezione provocato de un’emergenza immotivata” (The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency) in Il Manifesto in which he criticized the measures Italy had started implementing to stop the spread of the virus.186 He warned against accepting measures that severely restrict freedom in the name of security, arguing that the coronavirus response demonstrated a “tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm.” It was almost as if “once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation.”187 Agamben reiterated these ideas in two other texts that appeared on the website of the Italian publishing house Quodlibet in mid-March.188 Evidently, Agamben has been proven wrong in stating that COVID-19 is “invented,” or is hardly different from the normal flu. Whereas patients suffering from flu die in around 0.1% of the cases, the mortality rate for COVID -19 is much higher, with recent estimates ranging from 1%–4%.189 Yet even those who disagreed with Agamben’s analysis from the start admit that by the end of this crisis the surveillance powers of governments will have increased tenfold.190 Security—the freedom from fear or risk—always suggests an absolute demand. Security has, as Foucault wrote, no principle of limitation.191

It is obvious that Agamben’s dystopian permanent state of exception, in which digital control and bio-surveillance are normalized, closely resembles the regime inflicted on the Palestinians. As Stephen Collier and Andrew Lakoff point out, “there are different kinds of biosecurity” that entail different technical understandings of threats and “different underlying values” that transcend and even shape matters of technical disagreement.191 Israel’s embrace of the opportunities offered by such a world results from its ability to furnish that world with the technologies and strategies it needs to flourish. However, these technologies will come with their founding values of settler colonialism and oppression, and will therefore shape the future of global biosecurity in terms of those deleterious values.

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  15. Frederick E. Hoxie, A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
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  1. Guillaume Lavallee and Jonah Mandel, “The Sound of Coronavirus: Israeli Apps Helping Contain Pandemic,” Agence France-Presse, 30 March 2020, https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2020/03/31/the-sound-of-coronavirus-israeli-apps-helping-contain-pandemic.html.
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  5. Maxime Rodinson, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (New York, Monad Press, 1973), p. 76.
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  10. “100 ventilators arrive to Israel from the U.S.” Jerusalem Post, 15 April 2020, https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/100-ventilators-arrive-to-israel-from-the-us-624718.
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  13. Lloyd, “Settler Colonialism and the State of Exception: The Example of Palestine/Israel,” pp. 59–80.
  14. Jacqueline Rose, The Question of Zion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 33, 42–43.
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  28. Levy, “Israel Trading in Ventilators for Helpless Gazans Is Inhumane.”
  29. Michael Herzog and Ghaith al-Omari, “Coronavirus on the Israeli-Palestinian Scene (Part 2): The Gaza Strip,” PolicyWatch 3311, The Washington Institute, 21 July 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/ view/coronavirus-on-the-israeli-palestinian-scene-part-2-the-gaza-strip.
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  31. Shoroq Hamad, Eman Abu Hamra, Riyad Diab, Bassam Abu Hamad, Nicola Jones, and Agnieszka Małachowska, “Exploring the Impacts of Covid-19 on Adolescents in the Gaza Strip,” ODI, June 2020, https://www.odi.org/ publications/17036-exploring-impact-covid-19-adolescents-gaza-strip.
  32. “Occupied Palestinian Territory (oPt): COVID-19 Emergency Situation Report No.13,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA, 1–14 July 2020), https://www.ochaopt.org/content/covid-19-emergency-situation-report-13.
  33. “Gaza: Thousands of Lives of Chronic Disease Patients at Risk during COVID-19 Pandemic,” Help Age International, 23 June 2020, accessed July 20, 2020, https://www.helpage.org/newsroom/latest-news/gaza-thousands-of-lives-of-chronic-disease-patients-at-risk-during-covid19-pandemic/.
  34. Hugh Lovatt, “Defeating Covid-19 in Gaza: Is It Enough?” European Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_defeating_covid_19_in_gaza_is_it_enough1.
  35. Patrick Wolfe, “Recuperating Binarism: A Heretical Introduction” Settler Colonial Studies 3 (2013): pp. 257–279.
  36. Giorgio Agamben, “Lo stato d’eccezione provocato de un’emergenza immotivata,” Il Manifesto, 26 February 2020, https://ilmanifesto.it/lo-stato-deccezione-provocato-da-unemergenza-immotivata/.
  37. Giorgio Agamben, “The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency,” Positions Politics, 26 February 2020, http://positionswebsite.org/giorgio-agamben-the-state-of-exception-provoked-by-an-unmotivated-emergency/.
  38. Agamben’s il manifesto article, and the following discussion in the Italian online journal antinomie, with contributions by Jean-Luc Nancy, Sergio Benvenuto, and Roberto Esposito, among others, are collected on the website of the Euro-pean Journal of Psychoanalysis. Further interventions include Alain Badiou, “On the Pandemic Situation,” MicroMega, 25 March 2020, and Paolo Flores d'Arcais, “Philosophy and the Virus: Giorgio Agamben's Ravings,” MicroMega, 16 March 2020.
  39. See the World Health Organization's statistics at who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019.
  40. Marco D'Eramo, “The Philosopher's Epidemic” New Left Review 122 (March/April 2020).
  41. Michel Foucault, “The Risks of Security,” in Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (NewYork: The New Press, 2000), pp. 365–382.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Ghassan Soleiman Abu-Sittah, MBchB, FRCS (PLAST), is the co-director of the Conflict Medicine Program at the Global Health Institute of the American University of Beirut.

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