When is a massacre not a massacre? (Jenin) 21 April 2002

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2002, Israel / Palestine
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The simple answer to this question would seem to be, when it is committed by the Israeli ‘defence’ forces. ‘Brutal yes. Massacre no’, writes Peter Beaumont in The Observer, while a correspondent takes me to task along similar lines: ‘your reference on theglobalsite to the Jenin “massacre” is highly misleading since it gives the impression that something like Srebrenica happened. What does seem to have happened is that (a) the IDF showed a criminal disregard for civilian life and thereby caused very high casualties and (b) that some illegal executions took place. It will be easy for the Israelis to show that nothing like Srebrenica occurred, and by appearing to make that the issue their critics will hand them an easy victory – especially in the eyes of US public opinion.’

There is a serious issue here. The term massacre is becoming a litmus test of illegitimate versus legitimate war: ‘your killings are massacres; ours are legitimate defence against terrorism/ legitimate resistance to oppression.’ Proponents of possible just war, like Michael Walzer, have always made separating war from massacre a key part of their argument. But this is ahistorical: few wars avoid them. The truth is simpler than either apologetics or just war theory. Massacres are not categorically distinct from war, but are a regular feature of what war is about. Deliberate plural killing, carried out in a more or less one-sided way, is all it takes. Massacres come in many shapes and sizes and they are committed by almost all sides in almost all wars.

The Americans, in their ‘war against terrorism’, have committed many (albeit ‘accidental’) massacres of Afghan civilians. I have written therefore that ‘repeated small massacres are an understood feature of the new Western way of war’ (and no one took me to task for that). The Russian army in Chechnya, the perpetrators of the apartment block bombings in Moscow … massacres are the stock in trade of armies and guerrillas alike. They can even involve ‘mutual’ slaughters of combatants, as in the massacres of the Somme.

Certainly, the Israeli army did not do a Srebrenica on a wholly unarmed population. There were Palestinian fighters in the Jenin camp, and many of the victims were fighters. So the Israeli killing and destruction was not simply genocidal, in the sense of being directed only at Palestinian civilians as such. But a ‘brutal’ action of this kind, with its ‘criminal disregard for civilian life … high casualties and … illegal executions’ can hardly be called anything else than a massacre, in the sense that Tanya Reinhart describes opposite.

Jenin is a striking demonstration of the degeneracy of the Israeli war against Palestinian fighters/terrorists. It is simultaneously a war against the Palestinian people, and for this reason it cannot be just and cannot be fought in a just way. The degeneracy is however mutual. The massacres of Palestinian ‘suicide’ bombers are genocidal in a simple sense (directed at Israeli Jews as such) albeit as an extension of a war against the Israeli state. The manifest legitimacy of the Palestinian national cause is dragged into the global gutter by these horrific killings, and Arab/Islamic culture is besmirched by the ‘honouring’ of such murdering ‘martyrs’.

What is clear, then, is that here as always war as such is a huge problem: unjust killing is its norm. Peace ‘at any price’ may not be the answer. But war between armed forces and groups in densely populated zones cannot aid justice, or  only at an unacceptable cost. It was clearly a historic catastrophe that the recent peace negotiations did not produce a solution. The possible outcomes were not perfect. But it is difficult to believe that either Palestinians or Israelis have benefited from their rejection.

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