Material Proportionality: the Paul Hirst Memorial Lecture, 2010

The lecture, given by Eyal Weizman on June 16, 2010 outlined work in progress undertaken to advance Paul Hirst’s thinking at the intersection between three categories and fields of study: conflict, space and law. It focuses on international humanitarian law as it impacts upon the politics of the late Occupation by Israel of the Occupied Territories. We publish two excerpts and in Part Two , a conversation.

Eyal Weizman
13 September 2010

In Part One, the opening to Weizman’s lecture by way of introduction, is followed by his account of the legal processes involved in the implementation of the siege of Gaza and some general conclusions. Part Two is a conversation on the lecture, and the images chosen to illustrate it, with openDemocracy editor, Rosemary Bechler.

For a full account, see Eyal Weizman’s forthcoming book, “Lesser Evils: The Forensics of Humanitarian Violence”, to be published next year by Verso press.

Introduction to the Paul Hirst Memorial Lecture 2010

It is a great honour for me to be speaking here in memory of Professor Paul Hirst. I am grateful to the department of politics at Birkbeck College for the opportunity. I was Paul’s student at the London Consortium. He, along with Mark Cousins, was the reason why I joined the programme.  I had already met  “the later” Paul Hirst when I was an undergraduate student at the Architectural Association (AA). At the time, my professor had recently put his ferocious intellect into law, architecture, military history and philosophy in their interconnectedness, showing the multiple ways that space and power interact.

When Paul died, he had just started work on his latest masterpiece, Space and Power – since its posthumous publication in 2005, the reference point for any discussion of politics and built form – and had recently delivered a sparkling series of Architectural Association lectures on architecture and war. Conflict, for Paul, never simply happened in space. Conflict was space making, and space redefined the way conflict unfolded.  The two categories intermeshed and continuously shaped each other. Paul had no patience with the lazy opposition between a ‘formal’ and a ‘social’ understanding of space. He saw them always forming complex assemblages. Politics was not a formless abstract process, but rather a formal process, a process in form.

I have sought to further his line of thinking with the term: ‘political plastic’ - space is a political plastic in as much as built forms and landscapes are continuously shaped and reshaped by forces, folding transformations in political processes into form. ‘Political plastic’ is also the consistency of matter, space that should never be seen as hard, finite, unsurpassable, but rather as gelatine-like, bearing the imprint of events and political processes. The elasticity of political plastic is not a benign category. As I hope to show, it can be more deadly than the most fixed hard of spaces.

A few months after Paul’s death, once the administration had reminded me for the nth time that I’d have to choose a replacement adviser, I went across the street to the AA to speak to Mark Cousins about it. Mark mentioned, in all seriousness, without a hint of a smile, and seemingly a little irritated by the bureaucratic rules, that the fact that Paul had died should by no means imply that he could no longer supervise me. We tried to convince the university administration. And succeeded. This is how things went. Paul, whose advice I still seek and get from time to time, has in fact been a great mentor: it has certainly become easier to book tutorials! So in this vein, this lecture might be said to be the result of these ongoing conversations…  and since Paul once mentioned that international humanitarian law was one area he would like to cover, this particular lecture is first and foremost a tribute to him.

I have chosen today, to speak of an aspect of my research that I refer to as ‘Forensic Architecture’, a practice that emerges at the intersection between three categories and fields of study: conflict, space and law.  So I am going to examine three legal controversies:

  1. The legal processes concerning the design of the separation wall in the West Bank. 
  2. The legal processes and “humanitarian” deliberation concerning the implementation of the siege of Gaza. 

3.   The war crime investigation after the Gaza attack.

After this introduction, the lecture covered these three aspects. This is an excerpt from the second set of legal cases:

Legal controversy no.2:  “Humanitarian” deliberation concerning the implementation of the siege of Gaza

On September 2007, several weeks after the Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, and after citing ongoing rocket fire, Israel’s Political-Security Cabinet declared the area a “hostile entity” - which amounted to a declaration of war short of giving Gaza the status of a state. It then set forth to “limit the movement of goods into the Gaza Strip, reduce the supply of fuel and electricity, and limit the movement of persons to and from the Strip.” It also set up a system that will regulate and moderate these restrictions. These limitations, the declaration continued, “will be applied following a legal examination, taking into account the humanitarian situation and with the intention of preventing a humanitarian crisis.

The decision to tighten the siege was the culmination of the process that saw Israeli control transformed from ‘occupation’ – the territorial system of control grounded in a network of military bases, roads and settlements – to ‘humanitarian management’ operated through and by the external envelope. With this process, the function of the walls around Gaza - a similar series of fortifications to those within the West Bank - has changed from being elements of territorial division and delimitation to becoming membranes for the modulation of life-sustaining flows.

This ability to exercise control through the modulation of flows in which the checkpoints within the wall function as valves and switches, has made Israel’s warfare on Gaza resemble an inverse Milgram experiment. This was the infamous experiment that sought to study the inclination of people to follow the orders of figures of scientific authority to inflict pain on others, by gradually increasing the current in electric shocks they applied in response to mistakes. Here the response to ‘wrong political choices’ was administered by a gradual reduction of the current, undertaken under the supervision of ‘experts’ in security, electricity and humanitarian matters.

Gaza is supplied with ten high-voltage power lines from Israel and one from Egypt. The Strip needs a total electricity supply of between 247-277 megawatts (MW). One hundred and twenty MW are transferred through the 10 high-voltage lines from Israel, 17 MW are carried from Egypt to the Rafah area and the rest,110-140 MW, could be supplied by the Gaza Power Plant. On February 2, 2008, following legal examination, electrical engineers operating under the Israeli Ministry of Defense reduced by 5 percent the current passing in one of these ten lines. In the next two weeks, following meetings in which the effect of the previous reduction was verified not to have breached the threshold that the Israeli High Court accepted as the ‘humanitarian minimum’, they further reduced by the same amount the current passing in two of the remaining lines. Their instruction was to hold back the reduction process at a level in which a “humanitarian crisis will be avoided.” However, as in the original Milgram experiments, the threshold was incrementally stretched to its snapping point.


The limit of the ‘humanitarian minimum’ does not exist as a category in the jus in bello – the laws of war, or as they are otherwise known, international humanitarian law (IHL). This threshold was established in response to a petition submitted in the end of October 2007 to the Israeli High Court of Justice by a number of human rights and humanitarian organizations appealing against the military’s intention to further reduce vital flows. The case was debated throughout the following three months, with the media showing overwhelming support for the government decision. While the petitioners, relying upon figures released by the UN and other international bodies, claimed there was already a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the military insisted that this threshold had not been breached.

One of the central problems in the legal process is establishing what the threshold might be. The court accepted the military’s calculation of these vital needs, undertaken by ‘experts’ in security, technical advisers for electrical engineering, international law and humanitarianism. In the case of electricity, they calculated the limit at about two thirds of full capacity. With food, the military decided on a certain path of calorie reduction. The military promised that the task of reduction would “be discharged with the outmost responsibility and seriousness,” gradually and after weekly assessments of the situation to “examine the progression of the project” and determine whether there were “any indications of a humanitarian crisis developing.” The military explained that its monitoring was based on contacts with UN agencies, NGOs, other humanitarian organizations, Palestinian electricity and health officials. The latter, a military spokesperson said, were contacted and informed about these reductions, and advised to organize accordingly. It insisted that with any signs of humanitarian crisis the flow of electricity will increase. The petition was denied at the end of January 2008, and the line between vital and non-vital needs was established. By agreeing on the calculation and monitoring of what ‘vital substances’ are, the court of course has released the government from transferring non-vital ones. As such, acts of terror directed at civilians were dealt with in court in such a way as to confer on their makers the dignified tragic posture of those who seek the lesser evil.

What critical commentator Yotam Feldman called in relation to the rationing of calories, “the ethic of red-lines” was put in practice. This was an operational mode which he explained, “allows the security forces to undertake all action as long as this line is not breached”. However, rather than functioning as a minimum threshold with the level of provisions fluctuating over it, the fluctuating level of provisions shifted to the other side of the line which, immediately after the judgment was passed, started designating the maximum threshold. At no time did the security services provide more electricity than the minimum defined by the court. On average the provision was about 30% under it.

One of the main instruments controlling the current was Gaza’s power plant, built by a private consortium led by Enron that opened a few weeks after the company’s collapse at the end of 2001, financed by international donation. Here the limit of the ‘humanitarian minimum’ was translated into litres of industrial diesel. The power plant requires a supply of 3.5 million litres of industrial diesel weekly to work at its full capacity of 140MW. The High Court accepted as the humanitarian minimum a quota of 2.2 million, which would have reduced operation to about 68% of capacity. As a result the Gaza Electricity Company had to initiate regular blackouts by turning off disconnection pillars on power lines, and distributing the burden of the power outages over the various distribution areas of each power line. Residents were already enduring blackouts of up to 8 hours a day to allow full current to reach the hospitals. Each further reduction in the amount of industrial diesel forced the power plant to reduce output.

On April 9, 2008, after two Israeli citizens were killed by militants, a Ministry of Defense spokesperson declared that from then on, “the opening of the crossings will be considered on a day to day basis.” Israel reduced the flow of diesel to 1.5 million litres per week, 42% percent of what was required for full capacity. Electricity production dropped however to 45 MW. The increasingly frequent power cuts started affecting fresh water pumping from the coastal aquifer, aggravating the deep shortages that already persisted. When flowing through water mains, water could not be pumped up to the higher stories of multistoried buildings. Crop irrigation was interrupted, destroying fruits and fodder production, which in turn reduced egg and dairy output. Fish started dying in the Beit Lahiya fish farms because pumps needed to filter or oxygenate water have gone out of use. Sewage pumping has also decreased. In some cisterns the level of sewage rose to the point when the concrete banks of container pools collapsed. Raw sewage started flooding onto streets and agricultural fields, seeping into the aquifer drinking water. In May, the sewage treatment plant in the north of Gaza was forced to spill into the Mediterranean more than half the daily sewage output of the Strip, some 50-60 million litres of raw or partially-treated waste a day. This further affected public health and reduced the fishing intake. The raw sewage started also affecting Israeli beaches. In June 2008, during a brokered ceasefire, Israel has increased the flow of diesel to close to the level of the ‘humanitarian minimum’ allowing the power station to reach 60 MW again. Depending on the political calculation, Israel would tightens its blockade over the Gaza Strip, or loosen a little the noose, seeking to achieve maximum effect with minimum intervention

When the ceasefire broke down on November 2008, all diesel supplies were cut off along with all other provision otherwise passing through the walls.  The capacity of the power plant was reduced to 18% - barely enough for a single turbine to run for two days before the entire plant has finally shut down. When a single fuel track was received some ten days later, the turbine batteries failed to start up again, and the plant’s engineers hooked up 170 twelve-volt car batteries to restart the plant’s turbines. But there was not enough fuel to run it for more than a few days. In half the days of November and December the station did not produce any electricity at all. In these last weeks of 2008, blackouts in hospitals, already previously endured by heavy reliance on generators, lasted for more than 10 hours a day. The over-stretched generators collapsed one after the other, and computers and medical equipment started failing. Refrigeration outages were destroying stored drugs and refrigeration shut down even in the morgues. Heating was stopped for patients. Surgeries were delayed or cancelled, lab services were scaled down to a minimum. Just when it seemed that things could not get any worst – on December 27, the first bombs started falling. This war was all over before it had even begun.

The Lesser Evil

If, as a friend recently suggested, we were to construct a series of monuments for our present political culture, one would necessarily take the form of a homage to the ‘lesser evil’ principle. It should probably be made of the neon-lit 665 digits and placed on hilltops or high buildings overlooking city centres like giant Hollywood signs - a notch less than evil, a counter displaying the fact that our algorithmic society has become irrevocably obsessed with calculating and reducing the evil it has itself perpetrated.

The principle of the ‘lesser evil’ - the pursuit of otherwise unacceptable actions in the hope of averting greater wrongs has its origin in the classical philosophy of ethics and in early Christian theology. In the latter the problem was articulated through the concept of the ‘tolerated sin’. But the question still casts a long shadow on the present. In fact, in our present political culture, the term is so deeply naturalized and is invoked in such a staggeringly diverse set of contexts - from individual situational ethics and international relations, through to attempts to govern the economics of violence in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and to the attempts of human-right and humanitarian activists to steer their way through the paradoxes of aid  - that it seems to have altogether replaced the position previously reserved for the term ‘good’.

Specifically, the lesser evil has been most often invoked in relation to the intersection of two spheres of action, military and humanitarian, and used to define a distinct set of legal processes in the calculation, regulation and moderation of the affects of contemporary instruments of control. These include the bombings of targeted assassinations (that strike the “terrorists” and spare the civilians); the management of humanitarian zones carved out of war border crossings; and the provision of aid. It is through the lesser evil that societies regarding their regime as democratic can maintain their occupation of other countries. This occurs in Palestine, of course – this is the centre of my research and political engagement – but also across the expanding frontiers of the west’s ‘war on terror’.

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