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Compassionate Genocide

by Michael Marder Wednesday, May. 08, 2024 at 12:07 AM

The issue is not whether and how Israel lets trucks with the much-needed supplies into Gaza; it is the nearly two-decade-long siege of the Strip, worsened by the most recent devastation. Both literally and figuratively, humanitarianism does not ameliorate the situation on the ground. On the contrary, humanitarian discourse strives to make the intolerable barely tolerable.

Compassionate Genocide

By Michael Marder

[This article posted on April 22, 2024 is available on the Internet,]

On March 8 it was reported that at least five residents of Gaza were killed by the airdrops of humanitarian aid at the Al-Shati camp, west of Gaza City. Less than two weeks ago, Zein Oroq, a thirteen-year-old boy who survived an airstrike on his family home in November, was struck by airdropped food items. He succumbed to his wounds in hospital on April 14. A fragile bridge to apparent salvation proved to be deadly. From the standpoint of the victims, does it matter whether death delivered from the air came in the shape of bombs or aid packages? In fact, this was more than a tragic incident, paling in significance compared to the staggering numbers of civilians killed in the Israeli bombardments of Gaza over the past months. Deaths by humanitarian airdrops are a clue to the broader logic of events unfolding today, especially in Gaza but also in other parts of the world.

Since the beginning of the bombings of Gaza in mid-October 2023, much of the Western world acceded to Israel’s actions under the aegis of “self-defense,” while emphasizing that humanitarian law and the safety of civilians were to be respected and guaranteed. Israel itself played this game by leafletting—also from the air—large swathes of the Gaza Strip with printed instructions on how to evacuate to safer areas. In the best of neoliberal traditions, the messages were framed as acts of concern, with the accompanying advice to follow evacuation routes “for your own safety.” The cynicism of this leafletting was already evident in the autumn months of last year, but it became glaring when the majority of Gaza’s population was concentrated in the southern city of Rafah, hemmed in by the Mediterranean and a heavily fortified Egyptian border, with nowhere else to go. The impending invasion of Rafah by the Israeli military—the invasion likely to result in an untold number of deaths and, perhaps, a forced population transfer outside Gaza’s borders—is the context, in which these sham humanitarian gestures are to be examined.

So, in our age of previously unthinkable combinations of terms and phenomena, an excruciatingly mind-boggling one suggests itself: “compassionate genocide.” Although barely veiled aggressive rhetoric also abounds (recall Netanyahu’s Biblical allusion, “Remember what Amalek has done to you…” or Israeli Defense Minister’s proclamation that Israel was fighting “human animals”), the most telling symptom is the conjunction of genocide and humanitarian concern for its victims. The issue is not whether and how Israel lets trucks with the much-needed supplies into Gaza; it is the nearly two-decade-long siege of the Strip, worsened by the most recent devastation. Both literally and figuratively, humanitarianism does not ameliorate the situation on the ground. On the contrary, humanitarian discourse and actions reinforce the already dire situation, striving to make the intolerable barely tolerable.

In the first decade of the century, Italian political philosopher and scholar of international law Danilo Zolo coined the term humanitarian militarism to explain the workings of the political and military strategies of “humanitarian interventions,” which are allowed to disregard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states and which amount to an invasion by other means. Later on, Zolo added humanitarian terrorism to the nascent political vocabulary, in order to account for the normalization of wars of aggression, invoking humanity (invariably in a the most fraudulent of ways) in the context of a “fight against terrorism.”

Today, we are obliged to consider a further aggravation of the tendency Zolo put his finger on in compassionate genocide—a genocide that is allowed to take place under the cover of humanitarian concern and (meager) material assistance to a civilian population, whose members are utterly unprotected from mass displacements and transfers, killings, weaponized hunger and disease. The most effective way to help those in the crosshairs is to activate all the mechanisms that are available under international law, including UN resolutions at the Security Council, to stop or to prevent a genocide, deemed (almost cynically) “plausible” by the International Court of Justice. Nonetheless, the US has vetoed several such UN resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, even as the US Department of Defense (DoD) reports on how a “specialized army unit is underway to support humanitarian aid delivery to Gaza.” At the same time, Germany and the US top the list of countries that sell weapons to Israel, demonstrating how the airdrops of humanitarian aid packages and of bombs are financially, materially interlinked. Compassionate genocide is an outcome of this interlinkage, supplemented on the side of military operations by the cynically named “Lavender,” the Israeli AI system that identifies an unprecedented number of targets among the Palestinian population of Gaza.

In this oxymoron, describing a part of contemporary reality, each of the two components is affected by the other. Ideologically, the global public is meant to feel better about a “plausible” genocide because of the manifestation of compassion in the shape of humanitarian airdrops or even some trucks with vital supplies entering the Gaza Strip. Ultimately, the aim is to quell public opinion, which has been and continues to be expressed in multitudinous demonstrations from around the world in support of the Palestinian people and of residents of Gaza in particular. The aim, in other words, is to let members of the (predominantly Western) public feel good about themselves—humanitarian assistance as a PR ploy and as psychological self-help. This cheapens compassion itself, rendering it as distant as the indifferent airdrops of humanitarian aid, many of them ending up in the waters of the Mediterranean, or the dispassionate algorithmic mechanisms of the Lavender AI system. When compassion is combined with personal involvement, the price is steep: the seven workers of World Central Kitchen who were on the ground in Gaza were killed in a targeted strike by the Israeli army. Compassionate genocide thus takes place with the necessary mediation of social media, in addition to live broadcasts and the 24-hour news cycle, that keep it distant and make it incredibly close.

The personalization of compassion, which is inconsistent with the cheapening of this sentiment, is acute when it comes to the Israelis held hostage in Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 raid of southern Israel. It is easier to identify with human suffering when the victims have names and faces that are acknowledged and remembered, when the pain of their loved ones’ is glaring in in-depth interviews and singular stories. Conversely, the tens of thousands of Gazans, among them 14,000 children, who have been killed by the Israeli military, remain largely anonymous. It is not only that “there is no way to quantify the suffering in Gaza,” as Israeli journalist Amira Hass suggests, but any attempt at such quantification is bound to render compassion ever more abstract, ever more diluted and befitting a compassionate genocide in the making.

Back to the AI target identification system called Lavender, which has generated thousands of casualties, many of them civilians, in the bombings of Gaza. As one of the intelligence sources told investigative journalists at +972 Magazine: “It was very surprising for me that we were asked to bomb a house to kill a ground soldier, whose importance in the fighting was so low. I nicknamed those targets ‘garbage targets.’ Still, I found them more ethical than the targets that we bombed just for ‘deterrence’ — high-rises that are evacuated and toppled just to cause destruction.” Though unimaginably brutal, the term “garbage targets” is an antidote to compassionate genocide. It shows how, with the help of the most advanced of technologies that are actually in control of the operations, Gaza is rapidly transformed into a dump, where high-rise buildings and human bodies, ecosystems (including the fragile riverine one, cutting between the north from the south of the Strip) and orchards are mutilated beyond recognition and reduced to organic-inorganic rubble. A solidarity with dumpified lives, places and worlds requires something other than compassion. So what could that be?

In my 2020 book Dump Philosophy: A Phenomenology of Devastation, I suggested the possibility of a another kind of solidarity based on the shared condition of biomass. As I wrote in a chapter titled “Je suis biomasse,” “‘I am biomass’ is a speech act that identifies with a vanishing life, with life’s vanishing into dumped massiveness. […] The affirmation says: I am decimated being and stymied becoming, yet not exactly nothing. Dumped, I resist the dump with the surreal power of not-nothing.” It is quite a stretch of the imagination to think that one can easily identify with the victims of genocide in Palestine. But what if Gaza were a condensed and particularly blunt version of a planetary tendency, as neoliberal newspeak with regard to “compassionate genocide” leads us to believe? If so, then the biomassification of life, which proceeds at an uneven pace elsewhere, is accelerated in Gaza at the cutting edge of the most recent technologies of devastation. Rather than compassion, then, what is required is the solidarity of the dumped, who dare assert, “We are biomass.”

The Author

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Spain. Among his books are "Pyropolitics" (2015), "Energy Dreams" (2017), "Heidegger" (2018), "Political Categories" (2019), "Dump Philosophy" (2020), "Hegel's Energy" (2021), "Green Mass" (2021), "Senses of Upheaval" (2021), "Philosophy for Passengers" (2022), and "The Phoenix Complex" (2023). For more information, consult his website,

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