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Necropolitics in the Middle East

International Affairs Analyst

Necropolitics is a term that is not often used in contemporary dialogue, however the concept of necropolitics most likely resonates with actions that people see happen across the world. Necro comes from the Greek root nekros, meaning “corpse”. Therefore, necropolitics translates to the “politics of death”. Philosopher Achille Mbembe explains necropolitics as “the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” . Furthermore, the framework of necropolitics sets out to explain how governments assign different values to human life. Al-Kassimi (author of International Law, Necropolitics, and Arab Lives, 2023) mentions that “while racism is a material explanation to the exercise of necropolitics, it is the epistemic schism between both "spiritual Arabia" and "secular Europe" that demands the latter to "ban" the former from the juridical order and render them the "living-dead".” The closer and more similar you are to the dominant power, the more value your life is worth. But the further away you are from these ideals, the less your life is worth under the logics of necropolitics - and in turn, the more perilous your existence becomes.

The concept of Necropolitics comes from Mbembe – it includes various forms of political violence such as the right to impose social or civil death, and the right to enslave others, it is also about the right to expose other people (including a country’s own citizens) to mortal danger and death. Mbembe utilizes examples of slavery, apartheid, the colonisation of Palestine and the suicide bomber to illustrate different forms of necropower over the body. This article will aim to explore a few of the differing forms of necropolitics that can be seen within the Middle East, with a particular focus on how the United States and Israel utilizes this form of power.

A common term that is seen throughout the framework of necropolitics is “collateral damage” – this phrase is often associated with US and Israeli bombings and attacks in the Middle East. This term suggests that some people may have to die in order to achieve societal good. Furthermore, our government’s aim to rationalize their deaths as being the only means in which the rest of us can lead better and safer lives, an example of this is during the Kabul airport drone strike in 2021, with the United States military defending the strike as being a “righteous” attack on Islamic State-Khorasan forces, despite it killing 10 civilians. When looking into the term of “collateral damage” it reaches the heart of necropolitics, in Mbembe’s words: “The calculus of life passes through the death of the Other.” In other words, one person’s life holds more value and comes at the expense of a less valued, more vulnerable persons death. A prime example of necropolitics within the Middle East is in Palestine, which Mbembe explains is the most accomplished form of necropower in contemporary colonial occupation.

The Gaza Blockade that has been in place since 2007 has been held against the notion of necropolitics, it severely restricts the movement of people and goods – this has had a significant impact on the health and well-being of the Palestinian population, through limiting access to vital resources such as medical supplies and clean water. Critics have argued this policy has contributed to a humanitarian crisis; it has disproportionately affected the lives on Palestinian people. In addition, the humanitarian crisis has only been exacerbated in the last five months, with the World Health Organisation reporting that children are dying of starvation in Northern Gaza. In recent weeks, the lack of food has resulted in the deaths of 10 children and severe levels of malnutrition. To highlight this point further, a senior UN official who warned that approximately 756,000 people across the Gaza strip - one quarter of the population - was facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity and one in six children under the age of two are suffering from acute nutrition in the north .

The continuing blockade of basic resources is an indication of the use of necropower, it is a form of collective punishment and is indiscriminately killing people, with the persistent reason that it is for the greater good – that those from the Middle East are intent on killing and disrupting our way of life and they will stop at nothing to achieve this, as Obama once said. It is a completely preventable, man-made act that is being used to assert power and dominance on a whole population. As Mbembe would explain, the ability of a state to be able to subjugate populations so that they may not have the liberty of autonomy over their lives is a clear example of necropolitics, that this creates zones of existence for the living dead.

Continuing with how necropolitics is evident when it comes to Palestine is the growing instances whereby it is being practiced in relatively debased forms – the most recent revolve around raids in Jenin and the outskirts of Ramallah, throughout a period of a few weeks, occupation forces committed indiscriminate murders, used aircraft attacks in small areas, and supported settler violence. This has also been reported in more recent months within both Gaza and the West Bank – as according to news outlets such as the BBC – violent attacks including fatal shootings by armed Jewish settlers have risen sharply. Moreover, two problematic tactics are prominent in these instances; the first being the intentional obstruction of life-saving efforts through the obstruction of emergency workers, and the second is the use of drone/AI technology that attacks targets in close quarters. First aid being prevented means individuals are dying due to the lack of medical attention, these actions can be argued as being a strategic effort in increasing mortality; in addition to the initial violence.

Amnesty International has highlighted how Israel has not only failed to provide Palestinians basic needs, but it has also been blocking the passage of sufficient aid into the Gaza Strip, particularly in the North which is virtually inaccessible - this is highlighted by the number of aid trucks decreasing from 146 to an average of 105 a day in the weeks following the International Court of Justice order of “immediate and effective measures” to protect civilians, by ensuring sufficient humanitarian assistance. This deviant ‘population control’ is seen in numerous other actions undertaken by the Israeli occupation and exposes the power that is being exerted among the civilian population. Not only are the living targets of this, but it is also becoming more blatant that there is control being wielded over the dead too, an example of this would be the cemeteries of numbers, whereby graves are only marked with numbers not names, thus dehumanizing the dead. Another instance of this is also recent settler attacks reaching cemeteries, graves have been vandalized and some destroyed. While this highlights instances of necropower, it also emphasizes that necropower is not only passed through state apparatuses, but also illegal settlers.

An example of US involvement in the Middle East when it comes to necropolitics is the use of drone attacks. The United States has carried out numerous drone strikes in countries such as Yemen andPakistan, with these strikes often resulting in civilian casualties. Such strikes have been criticized for their indiscriminate targeting and disregard for the lives of innocent civilians, thus contributing to a necropolitical environment in which the US military asserts its power and control over the lives and bodies of individuals within these countries. Within the context of necropolitics, one drone strike that has been examined is the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general, by a US drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq in 2020. This has been analysed under the framework of necropolitics due to several reasons. The impact on civilians was a key element, this strike resulted in the death of others – at least seven people were believed to have been killed - and the incident occurred in close proximity to a civilian airport, heightening the risk to non-combatants in the surrounding area. In addition, this drone strike escalated tensions between the US and Iran, contributing to a more volatile geopolitical situation in the region.

Critics, such as Human Rights Watch, have argued that such actions may lead to further violence and instability – impacting the lives of civilians in the affected areas. One example of how drone strikes have led to more violence and radicalization is Faisal Shahzad who placed a bomb in Times Square as revenge for the use of drones strikes by the US, Shahzad said they were comfortable killing innocent civilians because “the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims". This testimony highlights that there may be counterproductive effects, including fueling resentment and anger among local populations, that civilian casualties and collateral damage associated with drone strikes may alienate communities and in turn potentially drive individuals towards extremism and violence.

Drone strikes come under a form of necropolitics as it involves the deliberate use of lethal force to maintain control or dominance over a population. The decision to target individuals to assassinate from a distance, often without due process, demonstrates a disregard for the value of human life and the rule of law. This is highlighted by the Human Rights Watch statement submitted to the Senate in 2022, that “record shows a pattern of dubious adherence to the rules and repeated mistakes that are violations of the laws of war, and evidence of recklessness and even deliberate violations that amount to war crimes”.

The approach of using drone strikes in the remit of war allows those in power to assert their authority through violence, creating exceptions whereby certain individuals are deemed expendable in the pursuit of national security objectives. Therefore, drone strikes reinforce the power dynamics and hierarchies that prioritise some lives over others, and ultimately perpetuating a politics of death. Within the realm of necropower, it is important to note how drone warfare allows militaries to conduct these attacks remotely, often miles away from the intended target. Thus, this remote aspect has the potential to create a detachment between the decision-makers and the consequences of their actions. It can therefore be argued that this detachment may reduce the perceived humanity of the target, thereby emphasizing the political power to decide who lives and dies without facing the consequences.

To conclude, it is important to consider multiple perspectives when examining the impact that political decisions have on human lives, however this article aims to provide more clarity on the importance of how necropolitics, a framework of politics that can be seen across the world and throughout history. The purpose is to highlight the sheer amount of damage that can be done and to bring awareness and critical analysis to actions that we are told are for the greater good - but at what cost does this come at? The analysis of necropolitics provides a critical framework for understanding the complex dynamics within the Middle East and ultimately, this exploration highlights the need for a nuanced and comprehensive approach to the complex geopolitical realities and their impact on human lives in this region.


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