Book Review: Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza

Posted on May 13, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. New York: Verso, 2011. 

Reviewed by Lisa Hajjar 

[This review was originally published in the most recent issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]


In that historical moment after the September 11 terrorist attacks, American politicians and pundits launched a debate about whether torture should be employed to combat terror. Those who endorsed the use of torture, and even some conflicted torture opponents, affirmed the consensus view that torture is unequivocally bad. But, they opined, if torture was necessary to elicit vital information to keep Americans safe, it would be a justifiable lesser evil in the service of national security. Nowadays, drone strikes have supplanted torture as the popular lesser evil.  

Eyal Weizman begins The Least of All Possible Evils with a history of lesser-evil thinking. “The principle of the lesser evil,” he explains,

is often presented as a dilemma between two or more bad choices in situations where available options are, or seem to be, limited…. Both aspects of the principle are understood as taking place within a closed system in which those posing the dilemma, the options available for choice, the factors to be calculated and the very parameters of calculation are unchallenged. Each calculation is taken anew, as if the previous accumulation of events has not taken place, and the future implications are out of bounds.

Weizman’s work is a profound and empirically rich engagement with developments in contemporary “humanitarianism,” which, he argues, has evolved into various technocratic collusions among those who work to aid the vulnerable and those who mete out state violence in the name of security. He names this lesser-evil collusion “the humanitarian present.”

Weizman dates the start of the humanitarian present to the 1980s, specifically the “humanitarian crisis” in Ethiopia and the role Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) played there. The “crisis” was not the devastating famine in East Africa. It was rather the ways in which Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime co-opted MSF’s relief work to seize and relocate starving people who came from rebel-controlled regions to the food distribution centers, ultimately leading to thousands of deaths. 

Weizman traces the contemporary history of humanitarianism to French left-radical politics in the late 1960s and the influence of Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism. Anti-totalitarianism supplanted revolutionary leftism, and activism shifted from proletariats and capitalists to the “passive quasi-religious dialectics of victims and perpetrators.” This elevation of victims as the focus of humanitarian concern and action congealed as a politics of compassion and a practice oriented to the humanitarian culture of emergency. The humanitarian ethic, in the words of Bernard-Henri Lévy, was the utilitarian objective to “make the world a little more livable for the greatest number of people.” The nexus of compassion and practice found its infrastructure in humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, such as MSF.

The logic of principled compromises can be seen in MSF’s promotion of “humanitarianism in its minimalist form…as the practice of ‘lesser evils’…[to sustain] life without seeking to govern or manage populations, [or to make] political claims on their behalf, [or to seek] to resolve root causes of conflicts.” Weizman compares this willingness to compromise for the goal of keeping people alive to that of the world’s most preeminent humanitarian organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, where access to prisoners is traded for the promise not to publicize what is learned.

Such political agnosticism involved a three-part move: creating humanitarian spaces separate from the political spheres of armies or regimes, adhering to a logic of humanitarian minimalism to sustain life, and believing that the people whose lives were saved would create their own politics, someday. This conjunction most clearly manifested in camps where victims, refugees, or internally displaced people could find shelter. Weizman describes the logic: “As long as refugees are alive, the potential for political transformation still exists.”

In the early 1990s, the confluence of horrific state-sponsored violence in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda and the end of the Cold War provided the context for humanitarians to ask and debate whether they should support—or even insist on—foreign interventions and armed responses to crimes against humanity and genocides. This was “the seed that would later grow into the responsibility to protect (R2P)codified in a 2005 UN resolution” (emphasis in original).

Humanitarian engagements with militarism gave rise to new forms of knowledge production and expertise. One was humanitarian forensics, in which data derived from bodies (and, later, from ruins) came to be preferred over witness and victim testimony derived from memories and speech. Another was competency in international humanitarian law (IHL). By the turn of this century, there was a blurring of agendas and interests between humanitarian organizations dedicated to aiding victims of conflicts and human rights organizations that issued increasingly insistent calls for accountability for the perpetrators who created those victims.

In the humanitarian present, the IHL concept of “proportionality” has become the sine qua non of lesser-evil calculations. Proportionality seeks to constrain violence from tipping into excessive—disproportionate—force. For war-makers who wish to be perceived as abiding by IHL, the question of how much violence is too much has inspired a macabre algebra. As Weizman explains, Israel has pioneered novel interpretations of proportionality to push the bounds of law to cover state violence.

Daniel Reisner, former head of the International Law Division of the Israeli military and one of the most preeminent proportionality algebraists, offered Weizman an insight into his work:

Proportionality does not tell us what to include in the calculation, what is the equation and what is the exchange rate....Does one dead child equal one dead grownup, or does he equal five grownups? As a lawyer I need numbers to work with...in order to instruct the soldiers.

The abstract dead child in Reisner’s calculations is more likely than not a Gazan, since Gaza is the target of Israel’s most intense military violence in recent years. And the violence in Gaza also has motivated the harshest criticisms of Israel. Hence, the project of Reisner and others like him is, foremost, to construct a legitimacy shield to deflect criticism.

From the official Israeli point of view, worse than criticism (which can be countered with pro-state propaganda) is “lawfare”: using the law to pursue accountability for violations or to rein in state discretion. In order to use the law for such goals, humanitarians have become experts in proportionality calculations. Weizman narrates and analyzes this bargain-with-violence expertise through three main examples in the Israeli-Palestinian context: litigation over the course of the “separation wall” in the West Bank, contestations over the humanitarian minimum permitted into Gaza, which remains subjected to Israeli siege, and the forensic reading of Gaza’s ruins to hunt for evidence of war crimes.

Attorney Muhammad Dahla litigated two major cases involving the separation wall. The case before the International Court of Justice addressed the legality of the wall as such, namely whether it was a disproportionate security measure for an occupying state. In the case litigated in Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ), Dahla represented landowners from the village of Bayt Surik, and the issue was the more circumscribed question of whether the proposed route would have disproportionate effects on Palestinians. The latter case, for which a scale model was built, “was a war game, with the two sides, playing on the same terrain, each seeking to beat the other.”  Summing up the collusion involved in this litigation to negotiate a “proportional” route, Weizman writes, “If the wall does ever come to designate the borders of a shrunken temporary Palestinian state, it will be the first such border to have been co-designed by humanitarian lawyers.”

The siege of Gaza was part of a larger transformation of Israeli power and control, from direct physical occupation to “unilateral” withdrawal in 2005 and “humanitarian management” thereafter. In 2007, Israel decreed Gaza a “hostile entity,” and imposed tight restrictions on the inflow of all essential resources. The stated objective was to “put Gaza on a diet” while preventing a “humanitarian crisis,” which was understood as mass starvation. Gaza became a walled-in laboratory within which thresholds of suffering could be tested and pushed. The proportionality algebraists worked to determine the contents of a humanitarian minimum, a concept that does not exist in IHL. To challenge the siege in the HCJ, as Adalah and eleven other human rights organizations did, lawyers had to wrangle with the Israeli military over how little—calories, vitamins, electricity, building materials—was too little to avert crisis. In larger terms, Israel’s obligations as an occupying state were pushed aside by the cult of proportionality.  

The growing field of humanitarian forensic architecture and the proportionality assessment of ruins evince a larger transformation by which “the expression of care for victims was replaced by attempts to uncover the mechanisms of violations.” Marc Garlasco has become the preeminent practitioner in this field and the best example of the kinds of collusions between humanitarians and militaries that define the humanitarian present. Garlasco served for seven years as a US military expert in targeting and “battle damage assessment.” He acquired the skills to predict the likely number of civilian casualties in specific bombings, and how to calibrate the amount of force and the directionality of strikes to achieve “pinpoint” effects. In 2003, he joined Human Rights Watch, where his expertise was used to “interrogate” ruins. This information was the substance of assessments and allegations of violations of proportionality. After Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9, the United Nations sent an investigating commission headed by Richard Goldstone. Garlasco’s reading of the ruins for Human Rights Watch formed a significant empirical element of the Goldstone Report.  

Weizman sums up the trajectory of the humanitarian present that culminates in forensic architecture: Developments in precision bombing ushered in aerial targeted assassinations, along with capacities to predict civilian casualties. Together, these allowed for proportionality analysis prior to bombings and ex post facto assessments by humanitarians who could study and interpret the details of attacks. The result is that “today’s forensic investigators of violence move alongside its perpetrators.”   

The Least of All Possible Evils concludes with a discussion of the “book of destruction.” This is an archive, compiled by the Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing, of thousands of destroyed and damaged buildings in Gaza. Weizman includes dozens of images from this book. These structures shattered by state violence are suggestive of the suffering of human beings who once lived or worked in them. The emphasis on ruins, which stand in for people and can be studied dispassionately and forensically, conveys the trajectory of the humanitarian present that Weizman so brilliantly explains. 


Lisa Hajjar is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California–Santa Barbara.

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