People search through buildings, destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on November 7, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)
Nathan Thrall’s harrowing new book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy, illustrates the slow, enduring violence of decades of Israeli occupation through the lens of a singular tragedy. At the heart of the book is a fatal 2012 school bus accident in which Abed Salama’s five-year-old son Milad and several other Palestinian children are killed at the outskirts of Jerusalem. As Thrall’s telling makes clear, the accident could be labeled accidental in only a literal and immediate sense: no one intended, planned, or desired it. And yet, the conditions that made a rainy day deadly were far from accidental. It was not only weather, or individual decision-making, or bad driving that led to a fatal collision between Milad’s school bus and a semitrailer truck. It was also poor infrastructure, undertrained drivers, a lack of regulation, and failed schools; a physical obstacle in the form of the Separation Barrier dictating where children attend school, play, and receive medical care; and that Israeli military and police forces are tasked primarily with protecting Israeli lives while the Palestinian Authority, in many parts of the West Bank, is prohibited from operating. Moreover, Palestinian life has become simultaneously globally less visible and locally more precarious in recent years: Palestinian national aspirations have been marginalized in regional and global politics even as Israeli settlers, supported by extreme right-wing governments, further expand their territorial control over the West Bank while terrorizing Palestinians. The story Thrall tells, with precision and compassion, is one of a normalized regime of state violence that impedes, reroutes, and structures Palestinian life every day. It is a regime comprised, framed, and regulated by and through law, even if Thrall doesn’t frame it this way.
It might seem inapt or even inappropriate to recall a decade-old tragedy as Israel besieges and bombs Gaza. Yet the story of five-year-old Milad Salama bears telling in this moment because his death was structured by the same mundane, slow violence that conditioned his, his father’s, and millions of others’ whole lives. It reveals how structural conditions, including the laws that putatively govern those conditions, produce death and suffering, particularly for Palestinian children and young people.
The last four weeks have brought one spectacular tragedy after another. The stories, videos, and images of people in Israel – Israeli and not – dying horribly or being taken hostage, were devastating. But proportionality in international law is not about weighing one set of civilian losses against another. In the days since Oct. 7, we have seen ample demonstration of what a group of U.N. independent experts deemed the unlawful collective punishment of Gazans for these acts: including dehumanizing statements by senior Israeli officials, photos of the rubble that used to be entire neighborhoods and hospitals, the brutal deaths of thousands, desperate pleas for help and stories of children dying, families fleeing, the immiseration of 2.2 million people.
As many including the ICRC have noted, Israel’s actions in Gaza are incompatible with international humanitarian law. Law functions here as a kind of arbiter of atrocity: this strike is too indiscriminate, that displacementtoo great, this denial of needs too severe. For days now, many of us have been deploying law as what can feel like a combination of weak warning and post-hoc judgment, separating the terrible-but-lawful (e.g., “proportional” attacks) from the criminally cruel (e.g., targeting civilians, or simply not caring how many die). This is the role of law when it comes to spectacular violence, the types of events that are, as Randle DeFalco describes, “expected to manifest themselves as highly visible, shocking displays that capture our attention, resemble previous well-known atrocities, and elicit a host of negative emotional reactions (horror, disgust, sadness, etc.).” DeFalco argues that linking international law (in his book, international criminal law specifically) to atrocity and atrocity to spectacle unwittingly downgrades and deprioritizes “slow, banal, bureaucratic, attritive” forms of mass harm.
The other, no less important, role that law plays in the Palestinian context is everyday subordination. Legal decision regulates, structures, and defines the brutally oppressive conditions of everyday life – the violence of fettered mobility and endless waiting at checkpoints, of limited resources and power, of settler violence and impunity, and of radical physical, material, emotional, psychological, and existential vulnerability. The legal regime created in the 1990s under the Oslo Accords, which constructed the Palestinian Authority as both a government simulacrum and an institution for outsourcing the occupation, midwifed and strengthened these modes of violence. It created an illusion of two self-contained entities negotiating over a clear and relatively fixed set of issues. This false appearance of parity, however, never reflected the parties’ radically unequal power, which over time has grown more extreme and deadly. Even before Oct. 7, 2023 was the most lethal year in the West Bank since the Second Intifada. Since Oct. 7, and as of Nov. 2, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Israeli forces and settlers have killed at least 132 Palestinians in the West Bank; with the world distracted by the horrific events in Gaza, reports suggest that settlers are exploiting the situation to displace yet more Palestinians and take over their land in the West Bank.
In Gaza today, these two forms of violence, spectacular and slow, are conjoined. On the one hand, we see shocking images of Gazan neighborhoods reduced to rubble, the mangled bodies of small children, the destruction of churches and hospitals. On the other, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s appalling decree that there would be “no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel” for Gazans portends quieter and slower deaths. Even as Israel has assented to a slow trickle of aid into Gaza through Rafah, Gallant’s statement remains a startlingly explicit statement of the dehumanization of Gaza’s people – and of disinterest in even the appearance of following international law. And he was not alone.
As Tom Dannenbaum wrote recently, starvation too constitutes a crime, and he observed that, in an international armed conflict, “the war crime of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare can be perpetrated through the denial of relief supplies,” according to the International Criminal Court (ICC) statute. Indeed, days later the ICC Prosecutor noted in a statement, “Impeding relief supplies as provided by the Geneva Conventions may constitute a crime within the Court’s jurisdiction.”
Even as the catastrophic violence continues, many more Gazans will likely suffer and die not by the direct violence of a bullet or bomb but slowly in hospitals that lack necessary resources and while suffering illness, dehydration, and hunger. Once this round of fighting is over, whatever the outcome, the violence of displacement, homelessness, hunger, and immiseration will be many times worse.
All of this is important for two reasons: first, as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently affirmed and the Israeli Ambassador strenuously rejected, neither the terrible events of Oct. 7 nor the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza can be understood in a vacuum. While he condemned Hamas’ actions, Guterres placed them in the context of 56 years of “suffocating occupation” by Israel. For Gaza, that suffocation has been all-encompassing. Today’s siege and malnutrition are not new, even as the level of devastation grows exponentially by the hour. Israel’s actions in Gaza for the past four weeks are less a new paradigm than an egregious exacerbation of the old. The latter was a situation of seemingly permanent slow violence punctuated by periodic spectacular violence, often associated with what Israel calls “mowing the grass” – exercising extraordinary military action against Hamas and other Palestinian militants in Gaza (often with deadly consequences for civilians) against the backdrop of the ‘ordinary’ state of siege. Everyday state violence has been exacerbated by a 16-year blockade that has left Gazans without the basic necessities of life. They have long lived with limited electricity, trade, and movement. Israel’s reluctance to open a humanitarian corridor during the current war is horrendous, but it is also simply building upon past precedent including Israel’s infamous 2007 calculation of Gaza’s caloric needs, putting its residents on a “diet.” For decades, Israel has controlled the water in Gaza, the electricity that allows the water to flow, and the infrastructure that links water to homes. The destruction of entire buildings is catastrophic and spectacular but the ability to turn the taps (both metaphorical and literal) on and off is quietly deadly.
Second, it is critical to ensure that the “new” dispensation that emerges at the end of this particular catastrophic era does not in any way resemble the old. Israeli officials have repeatedly asserted they will “destroy Hamas” – itself an impossibility if one considers the movement’s membership and civilian infrastructure, although the military wing and leadership may be largely wiped out. Rulership of Gaza in the aftermath remains unclear in this scenario, but some might hope for reverting to some version of the prior regime. Yet this is a plan that fails utterly to take into account the daily violence faced by Palestinians for decades. That violence has taken many forms: slow and structural, fast and physical, imprisonment of individuals and of entire collectivities. These forms did not begin in 1993 but they were exacerbated and exaggerated by the regime designed over those years. It is a regime that has subjected Palestinians to multiple ongoing forms of subordination and violence that we should now be seeking to end. And while that regime was often justified as a way to maintain Israeli Jewish security, that too has been proven a failure.
There has been little since Oct. 7 that has not been unbearable to see, hear, and watch. Today it is impossible not to pay attention to the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza – as well we should. It is stunning in the scale of destruction, in the number of deaths, and in the seemingly casual trampling of international law and human rights. Certainly I hope that international lawyers and human rights activists (and everyone else) will maintain their strong condemnation of the globally visible mass killing and displacement of Gazan civilians happening right now. International lawyers have a responsibility not only to pay our respects to the dead but to understand the context of oppression in which these horrors have occurred. Law may be overly permissive or plastic, but it is at the moment one more way to define the excessive nature of the atrocious acts these weeks. Yet the excesses of atrocity should not distract from the slower, quieter, quotidian violence that started long before and will inevitably continue long after the horrors of today. In a recent interview, Thrall said that many feel right now as they discuss his book that “we can’t talk about an injustice in the face of atrocity.” But, of course, this is precisely his point. We must talk about both.