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A Sociolegal Response to Dea Fejzullahus Obituary for Refaat Alareer

By Terry Trowbridge

I am replying to this short essay by Dea Fejzullahu.

There are so many tragedies in war. They seem to bring nothing but irony, even where there might be justifications. For example, the death of poet Refaat Alareer happened in a surgical airstrike that reportedly hit his family's apartment (in a large apartment building), after weeks of phone calls threatening him. So, there were advance warnings, and it was a targeted strike – two things that Israel claims are important tactical distinctions – in their extensive international media campaigns, and in their argument against South Africa at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. For reasons of international law, the death of Alareer could become evidence exhibiting the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) claim that their war is careful and moderate. 

The bitter irony is that the targeted strike was against a Creative Writing professor who taught first-year courses (17-year-old students), self-expression, and literary criticism. Gaza's culture was vibrant regardless, or in spite of, Hamas. Seeing the libraries and schools leveled, their university campus leveled, their museums leveled (all on BBC News with interviews of the IDF tank crews) is heartbreaking to anyone who appreciates the literature of people oppressed by their own government (like Hamas); who articulate life in an internationally-policed but ineffectually-unjust occupied city (for example, Canada helped fund the UN schools being demolished, and the justice of those schools has always been aspirational and never quite achievable). 

But to also surgically strike the people who are conduits for that culture, the memory of writers and writing, the teachers of writers and writing, foreshadows a finality. We all know that part of literary life will mean picking through the rubble to find surviving texts. After these airstrikes against poets, though, the people who knew what to look for, the people best equipped to do that post-war picking, are gone, too. We have yet to know how much of Gazan/Palestinian literature will only continue to exist in the fragments that appear in online obituaries, eulogies, and interviews with mourners. Irony is the mettle that comprises the evidence for "just war" theory. Refaat Alareer is not the only Palestinian casualty who challenged the existence of a personal level for justice in receiving advance warnings; nor the only casualty who challenged the military doctrine behind airstrikes that probably, merely, harm the fewest neighbours of a circumscribed explosion.

Does the ICJ consider his death a war crime? The IDF’s method for assassinating him, probably not. The social context, in which his assassination guarantees less material culture for a material future for Gazan ideas, inventions, emotions, language, literature, development...? With no articulated end-game, no plan for what to do when the war ends, the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) jurisprudence might fall short of the ability make a decision and put it into justiciable words. That could be a task for poets – if any survive. Is this a case where the death of a poet is equivalent of the assassination of a jurist, or of a lawyer who writes factums and other submissions to international courts? Should poets be able to make submissions to the ICJ about whether the social context of international criminal law could render a killing justiciable? Should the librarians who pick through the rubble of civic institutions make those submissions about international law and its social context? 

Under current jurisprudence, a targeted strike with a limited explosion is a tactical consideration for limiting civilian casualties. The social context might reveal the contrary: that in combination, and at struck at different times, some civic targets result in casualties that extend throughout more than one civilization.


About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, a book reviewer, and a Pushcart nominee. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.

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