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Gaza Babies and Achille Mbembe's Necropolitics: Doubt, Scandal, and the Palestinian's abyss

Where is a middle ground in a polarization of the discourses of hope and the discourses of despair? How do ‘we’ feel about our consumption of breaking news about war?  

“‘Surgeries have had to stop,’ said the hospital’s director, Dr. Mohamed Abu Salmiya. ‘Kidney dialysis has stopped and the neonatal unit is in a very dire situation. A baby has died because of lack of oxygen and electricity and heat.’ …The hospital has more than three dozen premature babies in incubators, Medhat Abbas, the director-general of Gaza’s Health Ministry, said in a text message on Saturday”–Raja Abdulrahim, Ameera Harouda and Alan Yuhas, “Plight of Gaza’s Main Hospital Worsens as Israeli Defense Force Close In” 12 Nov. 2023 New York Times.  

 In reality, as opposed to the social construction of discourses, war is not a topic of conversation among soldiers alone (take Brian de Palma’s Redacted for example of a fictional retelling of U.S. soldiers in Iraq as point of view shifts to interpret a father mourning, condemning U.S. soldiers for their rape-murder of his daughter and burning his home to cover up the crime). Nor is war thought of conceptually in the mind of generals alone, (“It was a striking public rebuke that signaled an emerging rift between the military and civilian leadership.…  The emerging fissure between the general and the president…. …Signs of friction surfaced….”--Andrew E. Kramer and Constant Méheut, “Zelenky Rebuke of Top General Signals Friction in Ukrainian Leadership” New York Times. 5 November 2023) because war is always embodied and lived and suffered and if the trauma of war is survived it can again surface to be re-experienced again invasively, as an ambush of grief, and rage, combustible as kerosine, and the loss of self unlike the mere surrender of self in the command of others. For if the  collective self is fashionable, unless the ductile moral self is sovereign, then the subjectivities of the subaltern are made fragile in their most political expression, begging for solidarity, having to grovel to be seen as human. The psalmist “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Therefore, we fear not, though the earth be shaken and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea” (Ps 46: 2-3). I am taught not to fear if a mountain is thrown into the depths of the sea, but I stiffen when my Jewish friend, a pediatrician who helped deliver our second daughter, venting the suffering she’s taken on after October 7th, adds the terrible chord of the depths, “They’re just babies."

In the snare of war propaganda--she begged me to believe her sorrow--I believed her. It is what bothers me, the act of capitulating to the moral indignation she felt, ceding my own reaction. I distrusted this one added layer of the outrage and have been wondering about the vindication I felt later, confirming my bias, that the reports were never verified 

If the basic humanity of a people can be reducible to an image, then the intergenerational loss of a people is at stake in our uncritical consumption of such images. We can collude in the genocidal mentality as much by our attention as by our inattention. Observer beware: picture Uncle Sam’s “We need you” (to make war).  

Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, in his November 8th opinion essay “The Road Back From Hell,” challenged Times readers to “unleash our political imagination.” For seven decades Palestinians have lived under in structural lock-down. A deeply embedded idea embodied in Hamas, a military arm of a de-facto political movement elected by Palestinians is the freedom from constraint, the freedom to fish in the ocean. This is to step back from minute incident analysis to ask about ‘the who’ part of the story, not the who-did-it (who in Hamas’s ranks), but whose justice is Hamas seeking to avenge. “The road back from the hell of a zero-sum ‘us or them’ begins with the humanizing of the other.” 

"The attenuation of the Arab project, or the demystification of the Arab potential, has left the Palestinian with his original starting point, as Gerard Manley Hopkins phrased it, being “a lonely began”: the fact that he is a deracinated refugee from Palestine."  --Edward W. Said, “The Palestinian Experience” 

As an observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it could be tempting to ignore a common ground between the U.S. immigration policy and the 16-year Gaza blockade. That is the practice of creating barriers of entry to the United States, the forced separation of families at the border, the U.S. prison and deportation systems. Theorizing about the containment of the Palestinian people, Achille Membe writes about the structures built to satisfy phobia of the other: 

"Now the distance that separates the phobia of the dump from the camp has always been very short. Refugee camps, camps for the displaced, migrant camps, camps for foreigners, waiting areas for people pending status, transit zones, administrative detention centers, identification or expulsion centers, border crossings, temporary welcome centers, ones for asylum seekers, refugee towns, migrant integration towns, ghettos, jungles, hostels, migrant homes--The list goes on…It has ceased to scandalize. It is our future: our solution for ‘keeping away what disturbs, for containing or rejecting all excess, whether it is human, organic matter or industrial waste.’"--Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics 

At first, I hadn’t recognized the number from Vermont where Martha splits her time from the Worker to garden and help raise her grandkids.  

Hello?” Voices asking how long to boil the water.  

“Who is talking about making hard boiled eggs?” I asked.  

 “Eight minutes?” Went a voice into the background. “I’m sorry, it’s Martha. There’s a matter of boiling the eggs here.”  

“Martha,” I said  “I think it’s ten minutes” I offered. 

"Chris Spicer says it's ten minutes,” she relayed to Joanne Kennedy in the kitchen. 

I had written the Worker to ask for hospitality and Dorothy Day’s granddaughter Martha Hennessy, a member of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven, called to tell me they had seven beds available at Mary House and I was in the running.  

"All I can think about is the children of Gaza,” she sighed. 

“On that--do you happen to remember?--Was Golda Meir Prime Minister of Israel when they built up their early nuclear weapons program in secret?” I asked. 

“Sorry, I have no idea.” 

Recent revelations show that the US silence on Israeli nuclear weapons has been required since a September 1969 agreement made between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Nixon (Victor Gilinsky, "The US silence on Israeli nuclear weapons and the right-wing Israel Government" The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 4 May 2023) 

I had not given much thought to the images of women training to fight in the Ukraine war. But against the backdrop of the thirty year war in Iraq and the twenty year war in Afghanistan, against the hypermasculine stereotype of the Arab, images of the European suggested to my unconscious biases an affinity that, put in words, reveals itself as absurd: an imaginary White Women whose righteous fight was due allegiance. Perhaps war is a feminist issue, ran the subtext of these biopic articles, because women make war. Because of the binary of gender, for women draft the articles of war declarations, or submit the Congressional resolution of ceasefire. Women designate terms of engagement: be it a responsibility for the prosecution of sanctions, the collection of intelligence, or the destruction of torture tapes at CIA black sites. Approval of foreign military aid, and the development of weapons systems, overt and covert military missions, is coming into the hands of more women and at the same time women are CEOs of major private firms supplying 800 U.S. military bases and installations with subcontracting for services. Women are leading the war effort, advocating for tomorrow’s military might, building new Zumwalt Destroyers, Columbia class submarines, F-35s, Abrams tanks, missiles, radar and guidance systems. While female employees of weapons manufacturers are responsible at a distance for the use of military hardware, women go directly to the front lines today. That is to say, in the most blatant sense, women have the freedom to kill. As opposed to simply the freedom from being killed, or as President Biden put it November 8 in Lewiston Maine, addressing survivors of the mass shooting at a bowling alley, “…the freedom to go bowling.”  It could be a script a military recruitment officer will tell the young women coming up in neighborhoods where violence is the norm, women are commanding officers training special operations with a license to kill. It stands to reason that with all the potential of war-making women, some of whom are therefore showing the potential to be tried for the execution of tomorrow’s war crimes. The agency of women formerly seen as capable only of auxillary role as nurses, spies, base support, new histories show the U2 stealth intelligence plane was designed by a skunkworks team at Lockheed Martin which included a woman. With the integration of women into armed combat a host of sexual misconduct goes under reported due to navigating the double consciousness that women have as women and as warriors. In other words, war is not a feminist issue simply because of the mere existence of war interrupting civilian life as the culture of women and practices of femininity are encoded, within prevailing Patriarchal norms, to have a passive valence. Showing the humanitarian impact of war on the female body, narratives addressing the loss of civilian life, emphasizing the deaths of women and children, which foreground the idea of the innocent scapegoat, tend to have a background of patriarchal assumptions such as a responsibility to protect the weak. 

(photos by Susan Mirsky, Mass Peace Action)

If we read at length about war today, acknowledging that forty-four  ongoing conflicts are waging, we notice for instance that Yemen, still under a Saudi-backed blockade, has fallen out from the conversation. A resurgence in the protracted conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is, “sucking up all the oxygen in the room,” according to one Massachusetts Peace Action member planning allyship in the coalition for ceasefire gathering Sunday November 11. 


The unconfirmed reports that went viral set up Hamas as the most recent baby killers, depicting beheaded babies to identify Hamas with the tactics of ISIS, which President Biden reacted to and only later distanced himself from, not before contributing to moral panic, further amplified condemnation of the Hamas invasive action Oct. 7, 2023 killing 1,200 Israelis and taking 240 hostage. While neutralizing critics, sensationalizing the unconfirmed incident had a sinister effect suppressing outcry in sympathy for Palestinian civilians (ten thousand Palestinian civilians subsequently murdered October 7-November 7) Biden’s visit to assure Israel support came as Japan and other G-7 nations distanced themselves claiming a “neutral” position to the  indiscriminate Israeli missiles flung into the densely occupied Palestinian territory Gaza. Pundits and leaders worldwide spoke of Hamas’s “unprovoked” action, and some nations have refused to call for a cease-fire. A month later, the baby-killer meme is “dying down,” according to an activist with Mass Peace Action’s Raytheon Campaign “due to the fact that Israel felt the need to exaggerate what was already a brutal attack." 


Forcibly forgotten was the memory of settler colonialism from the Palestinian perspective, ignored, unexamined, unexamined, let alone to be unexplored, (excuse the rhyme). 


A separation wall is supposed to resolve a problem of excess of presence, … This also means accepting that there is nothing common to be shared between us and them. The anxiety of annihilation thus goes to the core of contemporary projects of separation.

            --Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics

Add to the experience of an Israeli state’s genocidal mentality in evidence during the strife of 2008, the justified belief in airstrikes as repayment for suicide-bombings many other times in decades past, let alone the 1,500 civilians murdered in Gaza by Israeli airstrike in 2014, their deaths unexamined. In the U.S. a paper of record The New York Times would commit pages of opinion in an effort to show a balance of views. But in the first days, stunned by the graphic images and comparisons to 9-11 U.S.-based voices for ceasefire were few. 

Often it has been necessary to outline, on preexisting traces, our own silhouette, to grasp for ourselves the contours of the shadow, and to try to see ourselves from the shadow, as shadow. 

--Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics

“We have thousands and thousands of thousands of the troops in the area.” 

“The same precision bombs, the most used bombs used in Yemen, are probably used in Gaza. That 500 lb. The GBU model employed in Yemen. In the early phase in the spring and early one third of the targets were flocks, irrigation pumps, water, whole infrastructure, designed to produce mass death and disease, the same things as going right now in Gaza," said Richard Krushnic. (See "Yemen: US made weapon used in air strike that killed scores in escalation of Saudi-led coalition attacks" Amnesty International 26 Jan. 2023 ) 

“Raytheon provided the bunker buster bombs to blow up the tunnels,” Paul Shannon said. “AFSC have documented in past attacks on Gaza the  Paveways are used. Apache gun ships are being used.”  

An article reads, “Israel will buy its third fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets in a deal worth $3bn financed through US military aid.”

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies and former U.S. Ambassador Chas Freeman of the Watson Institute of Brown University spoke on “The Arabic Hour” October 10. A resolution introduced 17 October for an immediate ceasefire and de-escalation of the violence in Gaza was backed by Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and 11 others. Naomi Klein and Jewish Voices for Peace demonstrated at the White House October 18. Before the first petitions for a ceasefire were circulated thousands of Palestinians would be dead or dying in the rubble of their homes. The U.S.-backed Israeli airstrikes would claim ten thousand Palestinian civilian lives before the first month in the deadliest confrontation since the 1948 war. 

To a large extent, racism is the driver of the necropolitical principle insofar as it stands for organized destruction, for a sacrificial economy, the functioning of which requires, on the one hand, a generalized cheapening of the price of life and, on the other, a habituation to loss.

--Achille Membe, Necropolitics

Art Laffin of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in DC writes about a Catholic-Christian pray-in held in front of the White House on November 2nd, 
“On Wednesday [Nov. 1], I heard the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, which I visited in 1996, was bombed again. This is the third time since October 7th that the camp was bombed. This situation was dire when I visited. I can’t imagine what it’s like now.“ 
Israeli men (and women) have played the war games and now they are bowling airstrikes of Palestinians.
Bombs struck, on Nov. 2, a United Nations-run school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, where at least 27 were killed in the airstrike. A group of seven senior United Nations human rights experts warned Thursday, “Time is running out to prevent genocide and humanitarian catastrophe.” Over its 31-day assault Israel’s army split Gaza in half positioning to encircle Gaza City, as airstrikes killed more than 10,569 people, including 4,324 children, and 2,823 women according to Gaza Health Ministry and more than 26,000 wounded. 
Meanwhile, in the crosscurrents of the Palestinian’s sense of collective endangerment and the existential dread Jews feel, some bystanders are caught up in battling victimizations, and, with rising affectation, gnawing their lips with polite impartiality so as not to offend (“Don’t call for ceasefire without also calling for release of the hostages”).

 “Men keep making war--It’s silly,” Emily says. “I just don’t understand.” Her intolerance of war stems from an impatience with the myth of redemptive violence.  War is a feminist issue, and a curse of Patriarchy.  


 After consuming news of war, what are we doing, as a people of hope? Responsible hope for peace lies at one end of the spectrum, and on the other end, pessimism and doubt, responsible and irresponsible despair. In “The Ever-Dying People,” a 1948 Hebrew essay, Simon Rawidowicz wrote: “Optimism and pessimism are only expressions or indications of our fears, doubts, hopes, and desires. Hopes and desires we must have; fears and doubts we cannot escape. Yet, what we need most at present is a dynamic will to see our reality, the reality of the world, our problem, the problem of the world, in its entirety, without any dualism hell-paradise or whatever.” Similarly, I think we need to be on guard against rhetoric that absolutizes actions of Hamas or Israelis acting as agents of ‘pure evil’. 

He treads on the night  

It gives way  

A free fall 

Into the abyss of doubt 


He traces back his path  

Hoping to find himself one day,  

At the intersection where he lost contact 

--Ehab Lotayef, from “Nocturnal Pursuit” 

A dis-ease too of protest organized solely for Palestine. For Emily, it’s the quagmire of incompleteness, stuck because the message isn’t inclusive enough: “Where is the nuance? Why can’t there be a call for releasing the hostages?”  

Think of the tunnels where Hamas keeps hostages in a state of forced separation

 “…not the equivalent of death.” For as Achille Mbembe wrote, in another context, “It is an unfolding onto an extreme outside that I shall refer to as the zero world. In this zero world neither matter nor life ends as such. They do not return to nothingness. …Speech is in silence. …This world also wears the cuts of the machine in its flesh and its veins. Crevasses, chasms, and tunnels. The sometimes ocher, sometimes lateritic red, and sometimes copper colors of the Earth. The cross-sections, the open cuts, the terracing, the play of depths.” 

For me it’s the tarring of antisemitism (as 100,000 march against antisemitism in France) that gives me pause. 

A valid antisemitism concern are the Neo-Nazis whose hate activity is well documented (such as this past July when Patriot Front that marched in Boston brutalized Black teacher and musician Charles Murell III). The context for fears in the Jewish community includes the attack of students in Concordia, Montreal police are investigating charges of hate crimes. In addition to being divisive, I think when it comes to a decision whether to join public protest, these doubts are distracting: "If there is a hell on earth today, its name is northern Gaza," said aid spokesman, Jens Laerke. "People who remain there, the corners of their existence is death, deprivation, despair, displacement and literally darkness." (Raja Abdulrahim, Ameera Harouda and Alan Yuhas, “Plight of Gaza’s Main Hospital Worsens as Israeli Defense Force Close In” 12 Nov. 2023 New York Times.)

Antisemitism is real, pernicious, and effectively used to distract dissent. According to my friend who gives antisemitism trainings (coming soon to Somerville). It seems a convenient technique of dividing social justice communities (as Columbia University and Brandeis and Harvard shutter funding to campus groups).

"It was unwise for [the Harvard students] to say, the day after Oct. 7, "It's all the Jews fault" in their first sentence" said Hayat Imam, a Mass Peace Action member from Dorchester, during the protest in Copley Square, Sunday. "They put out a statement on the very first day and the first line was extremely unwise: 'Everything is Israel's fault, whatever is happening is Israel's fault.' They should have put that in somewhere later. It's just asking for trouble. You have to couch it. Start by saying, We don't like that Hamas did that but it is understandable."

"There was something about that first weekend where my own pausing of inaction. I was doing some investigating. At some level I'm doing this us-them--It's there--It's their and those--that silence that was used collusively by the Israeli state to go ahead and start its murder spree of retaliation."

Hesitancy to act because of these doubts is suspect: the itching for a space of clearance to absolve oneself from responsibility. On my part, where I feel a vocation to confront the proximate war profiteers.

Gregory Hayes: “As we think about this next tranche, the president’s $100-plus billion request, which is more than $40 billion for Ukraine, what you’re going to see is the same things that we have been seeing, but in much higher quantities. I think, really, across the entire Raytheon portfolio, you’re going to see a benefit of this restocking, on top of what we think is going to be an increase in the DOD top line.”  (“100+ Activists Stage Die-in in Front of Raytheon as Arms Maker Projects Profits from U.S. War Funding Democracy Now. 3 Nov. 2023)


Sewage is filling the streets and aid trucks will be unable to get through,” says the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The NPR analyst adds, “Ninety percent of the water in Palestinian territory was undrinkable before the war.”  

“Do you want to listen to this?” Emily asks.   

Some are caught up in scolding memes. Others sink, in paralysis, drowning in news of war, all but lost in a dense, impenetrable…  

I’d resolved to bury those doubts deep down where they couldn’t be misinterpreted as any signs of weakness, and it would turn out that I had buried them so deep it would take a virtual exorcism to uncover them.

--Christian Picciolini, White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement--and How I got Out



Hussein Barghouthi, Among the Almond Trees: A Palestinian Memoir. Translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. New York: Seagull Books, 2022. 113.

Michael Dan, The Two-State Dilemma: A Game Theory Perspective on The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Toronto: Barlow Books, 2020. 234.

Gary Fields, Enclosure: Palestinian Landscapes in a Historical Mirror. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.

Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a  Land under Siege. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Marc Lamont Hill, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond. New York: Atria Paperback, 2016.

Ehab Lotayef, “Nocturnal Pursuit” May 12, 2002 in To Love a Palestinian Woman: Poems in English and Arabic. Ontario: TSAR publications, 2010.

Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. 60. 38. 43. 169. 172-173.

Christian Picciolini, White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement--And How I Got Out. Boston: Hachette, 2017. 251.

Edward W. Said, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994. New York: Pantheon, 1994. 264.

Yves Winter, “The Siege of Gaza: Spatial Violence, Humanitarian Strategies, and the Biopolitics of Punishment,” Constellations 23, no 2 (2016): 308-19.


  1. Bernie23:00

    Thanks for your reflections here Chris. Sending aid to the children of Gaza. Best to you, hb to DS.


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