What is “Collective Punishment”, and why do states use it?

States engaged in asymmetric warfare with rebel groups know that it is very difficult to fight dispersed paramilitary forces with traditional means of combat. Except for the IRA of the Border Campaign, I know of no rebel paramilitary group which has made attempts to obey the Geneva convention – so state armies are in a position of being held to international law, while fighting groups which choose to disregard international law. The simple solution to the problem is – states simply ignore international legislation, and use whatever works to fight the enemy, which means adopting terrorist tactics.

I use “terrorist” in a technical sense – the use of violence against civilians towards political ends. Yesterday and today’s attacks on targets in Gaza in response to yesterday’s terror attack in the south of Israel are terrorist attacks because their goal is to frighten the leaders of resistance not to attack in fear of reprisals against their own people. This is called “collective punishment”, because the collective (the people) who the resistance wishes to represent is punished rather than the resistance itself (the legality of resistance is a separate issue, if you’re interested in the legal basis of revolutionary violence you might want to read this essay).

Collective punishment is the exception rather than the rule for populations that engage in resistance. Norman Finkelstein explained this quite well in an interview he gave on Lebanese television. You should watch the interview, but basically he points out that we honour resistance against occupation even when, as in Nazi occupied France, 400 people were killed for every 1 person killed by the resistance. I’m not comparing the occupation of Palestine to the occupation of France, but there is a relevant point to be made here (which isn’t in Finkelstein’s explanation, but I think it is an logical implication of it): if you consider a resistance movement valid, then by extension you have to blame the oppressors, not the oppressed, for the collective punishment imposed in reaction to the oppression.

Collective punishment is used by occupying forces because it works, or at least they think it will work. It certainly worked in Nazi Germany – the resistance was never more than a tiny proportion, and co-operation nearly total. Most everyone says (to quote Finkelstein), “we want to live”, hardly anyone says “we would rather die on our feet than live crawling on our knees”.

Collective punishment was used by the British forces, in conjunction with the loyalist paramilitaries, during the troubles in Northern Ireland – and increasingly so leading up to the last IRA ceasefires and the incorporation of Sinn Fein in all party talks. The collective punishment took two forms – the large scale killing of republican suspects by loyalist paramilitary units, with the intelligence supplied by the British, as well as the more traditional attacks on Catholic civilians in response to IRA activities.  Prominent Loyalist activists (in this case “activist” means paramilitary) strongly believe that their actions, more than anything done by the British Army itself, brought Sinn Fein to the negotiating table. I’m not in a position to evaluate the correctness of their claims. Even if they are true, this doesn’t justify the extra-judicial executions, or the killing of civilians – both of these tactics undermine the rule of law, the basic social contract which states use to justify their monopoly on violence.

The major problem with collective punishment, however, is the same problem as rebel groups encounter when they try to use terrorism for political aims – the use of violence against civilian populations can tend to radicalize them along in-group lines, and solidify their support for harsh responses to the violence used against them. Collective punishment creates an oppressed group which can define itself clearly against the agressor in an “us and them” relation. This is why, in the occupied territories, in a sense things are much simpler than they are here. Here I’m expected to care about everybody’s feelings on both sides, I’m meant to make sure I don’t offend anyone. But when “zionism” means the soldiers coming into the camp and shooting at kids throwing rocks, or having water supplied only one day per week, or white phosphorus falling from the sky – then there is no room to care for the conflicted feelings of those carrying out or supporting the daily reality of violence.

I do not believe, personally, that the use of collective punishment against a population – even when that population gives popular support to terrorist attacks against civilians, can be justified by any moral precept or idea in natural law. And yes, that means I disagree with the rights of rebel groups to use collective punishment against civilians who support an illegal occupation. Two unjustifiable sets  of acts can’t be justified co-extensively, without functionally approving of armed struggle as a legitimate way for grievances to be settled.



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