The Least of all Possible Evils

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Eyal Weizman

Eyal Weizman's last book, Hollow Land, was a groundbreaking study of the occupation of Palestine. In it he outlined how settlement building has always been at the front line of the war against the Palestinians, how land is taken by force and justified at a later date in the courts.

In his new book he is at his strongest when discussing Israeli "humanitarian violence" in Gaza. The title is a quotation from an Israeli court case that was brought by Palestinian landowners who were told that the apartheid wall was set to go through their village.

Incredibly an adviser to the court declared it to be "the least of all possible evils" for the Palestinian villagers. The court had laid out alterations to the route, and the wall could now be declared legal as it balanced the need for Israeli security in proportion to the destruction it brought to the lives of the Palestinians.

The concepts of proportionality and the lesser evil are key to Weizman's exploration of the philosophy of humanitarianism. Crucially the point here is that in coming to rest on the "lesser evil" it is forgotten that evil is still being perpetrated. The author aims to explain the "necro-economy" of state violence. In justifying wars and military interventions on humanitarian grounds, governments present to the world a system of judgements that are arrived at by an almost mathematical assessment of the amount of harm that will arise from acting or not. The absurdity of this is demonstrated by some in the military who are trying to develop "ethical robotic warfare" - military robots programmed with international humanitarian law in mind!

Weizman looks at Hannah Arendt's identification of the Holocaust as "The Worst", an absolute demarcation at the most extreme end of the scale of evil.

He argues the invocation of the Holocaust as a possibility is a key part of the "modern humanitarianism" of states and aid agencies. These are all interesting themes on their own, but unfortunately the book does not have much of a theoretical underpinning. It certainly has nothing approaching a Marxist analysis of the history of imperialism and resistance to it. There is no attempt to place the evolving nature of humanitarianism in a wider context of class antagonisms or state rivalries.

The chapters on Gaza are a useful account of the impact of the apartheid wall and its relationship (or lack of) with international humanitarian law. However, the lack of a coherent theoretical framework means that the book doesn't achieve what it sets out to. It has a disjointed feel to it that makes it a challenge to read, especially the opening essay on "the humanitarian present". This is unfortunate as many of the subjects Weizman discusses are fascinating and do deserve to be fully explored.

The Least of all Possible Evils is published by Verso £16.99