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Can Palestinian Men be Victims? Gendering Israel's War on Gaza

[In Gaza There's A Boy. Artwork by Mazen Kerbaj] [In Gaza There's A Boy. Artwork by Mazen Kerbaj]

Every morning we wake up to an updated butcher’s bill: one hundred, two hundred, four hundred, six hundred Palestinians killed by Israel’s war apparatus as of this writing. These numbers gloss over many details: the majority of Gazans, one of the most populated and impoverished areas in the world, are refugees from other parts of historic Palestine. It is under a brutal siege, and there is nowhere to hide from Israel’s onslaught.  Before this “war” Gaza was a form of quarantine, a population held captive and colonized by Israel’s ability to break international law with impunity. They are population in a relationship of dependency—for food, for water, medicine, even for movement—with their colonizers. In the event of a ceasefire, Gaza will remain colonized, quarantined, and blockaded. It will remain an open-air prison, a mass refugee camp.

One detail about the dead, however, is repeated often in Western-based mass media: the vast majority of murdered Palestinians in Gaza are civilians—and sources say that a “disproportionate” number are women and children. The killing of women and children is horrific—but in the reiteration of these disturbing facts there is something missing: the public mourning of Palestinian men killed by Israel’s war machine. In 1990 Cynthia Enloe[1] coined the term “womenandchildren” in order to think about the operationalization of gendered discourses to justify the first Gulf War. Today, we should be aware of how the trope of “womenandchildren” is circulating in relation to Gaza and to Palestine more broadly. This trope accomplishes many discursive feats, two of which are most prominent: The massifying of women and children into an undistinguishable group brought together by the “sameness” of gender and sex, and the reproduction of the male Palestinian body (and the male Arab body more generally) as always already dangerous. Thus the status of male Palestinians (a designation that includes boys aged fifteen and up, and sometimes boys as young as thirteen) as “civilians” is always circumspect.

This gendering of Israel’s war on Gaza is conversant with discourses of the War on Terror and, as Laleh Khalili has argued persuasively, counter-insurgency strategy and war-making more broadly. In this framework, the killing of women and girls and pre-teen and underage boys is to be marked, but boys and men are presumed guilty of what they might do if allowed to live their lives. Furthermore, these boys and men are potentially dangerous not only to the militaries that occupy them, but to those womenandchildren who actually are civilians. The young boys, after all, may grow up to be violent extremists. Thus, kill the flesh—extinguish the potential.

Only within this logic can criticism of Israel’s war on Gaza be answered, straight faced, with statements about the “fate” of women and homosexuals “under” Hamas. Recently, a spokesman for Israel answered Noura Erakat’s condemnation of Israel’s violation of international human rights by sharing this gem of wisdom: “Hamas, they wouldn’t allow a young, liberal, secular woman to express her views like you do, ma’am. They would not allow my gay friends to express their sexuality freely.” This statement aims to mobilize the gendered discourse of the War on Terror, a discourse that plays on the affective registers of US liberalism through a pandering to feminist and LGBTQ rights. This pandering allows Islamophobia and war to be manifested as a public and international good—after all, it is “we” that are defending the helpless from the ravages of Muslim and Arab men. Laleh Khalili has called this “the use of gendered ‘telling’ to distinguish those who are to be protected from those who are to be feared or destroyed.” This discourse is so powerful that it does not need to rely on facts—it has in fact overridden and pre-determined them.

The Israeli war machine, much like the US war machine in Afghanistan or Iraq, does not protect Palestinian queers and women and children. It kills them, maims them, and dispossesses them alongside their loved ones—for the simple reason that they are Palestinian, and thus able to be killed with impunity while the world watches. Today, the difference between Palestinian womenandchildren and Palestinian men is not in the production of corpses, but rather in the circulation of those corpses within dominant and mainstream discursive frames that determine who can be publicly mourned as “victims” of Israel’s war machine. Thus the sheer number of womenandchildren dead are enough to mobilize the US president and the UN to make statements “condemning” the violence—but the killing, imprisonment, and maiming of Palestinian men and boys in times of war and ceasefire goes uncited. In Israel men, settlers, and even soldiers are framed as victims of Palestinian terrorism and aggression. All are publicly mourned. In an almost direct reversal, Palestinian boys and men who have been the primary target of Israel, as evidenced by the population of political prisoners and targeted assassinations, are not seen by Western-based mainstream media as victims of Israeli terrorism and aggression. Palestinians are put in the self-defeating position of having to fight to be recognized as human, to be recognized in death and in life as victims of Israeli policies and actions.  

Sex is often thought of as an accident of birth: after all, we had no say in our development in utero. We did not get to offer an opinion when others decided that we had been born with a vagina (and were thus female) or born with a penis (and were thus male). Similarly, the original sin of over one million Gazans—the one that makes them available for killing, maiming, and homelessness from the air, ground, and sea—is having been born Palestinian. The word “Palestinian” produces them as a threat and as a target, while the words “man” and “woman” determines the way their death can circulate. Palestinians had no choice or say in being born Palestinian, under settler colonial conditions or in refugee camps scattered across nation state borders. They did not pick up and move to Gaza on their own volition. To paraphrase Malcolm X: They did not arrive or land in Israel. Israel arrived and landed on them.

The emphasis on the killing of womenandchildren, to the exclusion of Palestinian boys and men, further normalizes and erases the structures and successes of Israeli settler colonialism. “Civilians” and “non-combatants” are chosen. Men are always already suspicious, the possibility for violence encased in human flesh. The individual and personal extinguishing of female lives and the lives of children is massified and spoken of in statistics. Palestinians are framed as having the ability to choose whether they are a threat to Israel, and thus deserving of death, or not, and thus deserving of continued colonization clothed in the rubric of “ceasefire” or, even more elusively, “peace.” 

However, you do not have to pick up a gun in Palestine to be a revolutionary or an "enemy" of Israel. You do not have to protest or throw stones or fly flags to be dangerous. You do not have to rely on underground tunnels for food and cancer medication in order to be deemed part of the civilian infrastructure of terrorism. To be a threat to Israel is easy: You just have to be Palestinian. For Israel, Palestinians serve as a reminder that there is an “other” there—an irritant, a stain, a conscious or subconscious understanding that one’s ability to be a “Jewish nation-state” or “Jewish democracy” is inextricably tied to another’s presence and/or erasure.

As such, every Palestinian man, woman, and child is living within a discursive and material infrastructure that identifies and enumerates them, sequesters and quarantines them, occupies and divides them, disenfranchises and under-develops them, places them under siege and wages war on them with impunity. These practices of the everyday have ceased to shock us. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the erasure and normalcy of the slow death, genocide, structural violence and dependency lived daily on Native American reservations or indigenous Australian territories. In fact, it is the normalization of Israeli settler colonialism that produces today’s war on refugees living in an open-air prison in Gaza as a separate and condemnable “event.” It is the success of settler colonialism that “Gaza” is spoken of as somehow apart and different than historic Palestine, that “the West Bank” and “Gaza” are two separate and seperatable entities, rather than one nation divided and exiled into separate territories by practices of colonialism. Today’s war lies on a continuum with the everyday structural and informal violence faced by Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, or as Palestinian citizens of Israel: from resource monopolization and water shortages to home demolitions and checkpoints and settler-only roads and talks of population “transfer” to overflowing prisons and second class citizenship. Historic Palestine, from the river to the sea, is an Israeli settler colony at varying stages of success.

Palestinian men and women and children are one people—and they are a people living under siege and within settler colonial conditions. They should not be separated in death according to their genitalia, a separation that reproduces a hierarchy of victims and mournable deaths. Jewish Israelis (including soldiers and settlers) occupy the highest rungs of this macabre ladder, Palestinian men the lowest. This hierarchy is both racialized and gendered, a twinning that allows Palestinian womenandchildren to emerge and be publicly and internationally mourned only in spectacles of violence, or “war”—but never in the slow and muted deaths under settler colonial conditions—the temporality of the “ceasefire.” To insist on publicly mourning all of the Palestinian dead, men and women and children—at moments of military invasion and during the everyday space of occupation and colonization— is to insist on their right to have been alive in the first place.


[1] Enloe, Cynthia. "Womenandchildren: making feminist sense of the Persian Gulf Crisis." The Village Voice 25.9 (1990): 1990.

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