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Heed the words of Camus on warfare: the targeting of civilians should ‘never cease to be an outrage’


Dr Matthew Blackman is a journalist and the co-author with Nick Dall of ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ and ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House). He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia and lives with two dogs of nameless breed.

French-Algerian writer Albert Camus once called for the cessation of the targeting of civilians in the Algerian War. For this, his life was threatened and his politics derided. But his call, in 1956, should resonate strongly with all of us with regard to Israel-Hamas war.

Albert Camus’ killing of an Arab in his novel The Outsider is perhaps the most famous literary murder ever penned and the most misunderstood. The story goes that Meursault, a French Algerian, is confronted by a knife-wielding Arab on a beach near Algiers. Meursault sees the sun glinting off the knife and, confused by the heat and the sounds of the sea, he fires.

As one of Camus’ contemporaries claimed, Camus was engaged in a wish-fulfilment fantasy. He was playing out in his novel a French colonial genocidal desire, one that would manifest itself in the Algerian War of the 1950s and 1960s.

This is, it can’t be said more strongly, a gross misunderstanding and misinterpretation of not only the work but of Camus himself. Albert Camus was born in 1913 in French Algeria, which was not technically a colony but was administered as part of France. His mother was a deaf and mute domestic worker, his father a farm labourer who was killed in World War 1 when Albert was still a baby. Camus, however, always insisted that he grew up happy in poverty on the streets of the working-class and racially mixed community of the Belcourt district of Algiers.

Camus’ connection to the Arabs he grew up with was significant. In fact, when he joined the Communist Party in Algeria in the mid-1930s, it was he who was tasked with recruiting his Arab friends. In 1936, he left the party in disgust because of its failure to make a stand on the issue of Arab political rights. As a young journalist, it was Camus who had railed against the inhuman conditions that both the Arabs and Berbers (or Amazighs) were subjected to by the French system. Their poverty and exclusion in Algeria became almost a journalistic obsession of his.

As he once wrote: “I want to point out that the Arab people also exist. By that I mean they aren’t the wretched, faceless mob in which Westerners see nothing worth respecting or defending. On the contrary they are a people of impressive traditions, whose virtues are imminently clear to anyone willing to approach them without prejudice. These people are not inferior except in regard to the conditions in which they must live, and we have as much to learn from them as they from us.”

By the end of World War 2, Camus had emerged as one of the heroes of the French Resistance, having edited the most famous resistance newspaper, Combat. After the liberation of Paris, this young working-class French-Algerian became one of the most respected voices in France. His editorials were considered the expression of the French left.

His pronouncement at the end of the war for the end of colonialism was the clarion call of all those who wanted to rid France of its imperial injustices. But with regard to his beloved Algeria, he wanted to see the Arabs and the Berbers given equal political rights within the French system.

As Camus wrote in 1945, as violent protest in Algeria began to raise its head, “We cannot remain indifferent to the Arab suffering [under French rule], because we have experienced it ourselves [under the Nazis]. Rather than respond with condemnations, let us try to understand the reasons for their demands and invoke on their behalf the same democratic principles that we claim for ourselves.” But this was something France was not willing to do.

In short, Camus believed in a one-state solution, where French, Arab and Berber could meet not with guns, knives and bombs, but at the hustings, voting for their representatives. But Camus’ dream was not to be. Instead, one of the most violent, bloody and eviscerating wars in history broke out, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Massacre was followed by reprisal, murder by torture, torture by bombs in streets and restaurants, and these were followed by the indiscriminate bombing of entire civilian populations. The National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French state engaged in a war of total onslaught in which all people – old, young, infirm, starving and homeless – became the targets.

Camus was utterly appalled by the actions of both sides. In his philosophical work The Rebel, he had argued that the killing of civilians in any context was completely morally unjustifiable. And so it was that, in 1956, he found himself walking to a meeting, in the city of his childhood, in order to call for what he and his friend Ferhat Abbas (the first prime minister of Algeria) called a “civilian truce”. Camus called on all sides in the conflict to agree on not targeting the civilian population, irrespective of circumstances. He called for the FLN to end attacks on civilians and on the French to cease the use of what was euphemistically termed “collective repression”.

As he walked, protected by his Arab and French friends, the jostling European crowd that surrounded him were calling out “Camus to the gallows”. The people calling for his execution were those French men he had grown up with. Just why they wanted him dead is as much the story of French Algeria as it is the story of Israel and Palestine.

Camus stood up at the podium just as stones began to break the windows of the hall. “This meeting,” Camus finally called out, “was supposed to demonstrate that there is still a chance for dialogue … My only qualification to speak about this issue is I have experienced Algeria’s misfortune as a personal tragedy. Nor can I rejoice in any death no matter whose it is. For 20 years, I’ve used the feeble means available to me to help to bring harmony between our two peoples. To my preaching in favour of reconciliation, history has responded in cruel fashion: the two peoples I love today are locked in mortal combat.”

Albert Camus’ attempt to stand up for the innocent civilians, both Arab and French, was derided and mocked. And he was lucky not to have been killed. Many at the time and for decades to follow ridiculed his efforts to end the violence, suggesting his political position was laughably naive. Camus himself acknowledged his failure and duly refused to speak publicly about Algeria. He came to believe that he had only made things worse by speaking out.

But this did not stop him working the back channels. He wrote hundreds of letters to French authorities, speaking up for Arab prisoners who he believed were unjustly incarcerated. Then, at his Nobel Prize press conference in 1957, he offered his first statement on Algeria in over a year. A young Arab journalist had got up and derided him for his silence and his refusal to speak about French injustices. At first the journalist would not allow Camus to answer, but finally he replied.

“Though I have been silent for a year and eight months, that doesn’t mean that I had stopped acting. I have always been a supporter of a just Algeria in which two equal peoples would live peacefully. I have repeatedly demanded that justice be rendered to the Algerian people and that they be given full democratic rights … I have always condemned terror, but I must also condemn terrorism that strikes blindly, for example, in the streets of Algiers and which might strike my mother.”

His silent and deaf mother, whose gentle kindness had been a philosophical inspiration to Camus, still lived in a small modest flat in Algiers. As he finished his answer, he stated that if the war and terrorism in Algeria was being performed in the name of justice then, he claimed, “I prefer my mother.” A justice that could kill the innocent was simply no justice at all. It was a comment that incensed and outraged the people on both sides.

Personally, I think Camus’ beliefs, ideas and political position are something that we should once again take seriously. For any who claim that justice will be served by either the actions of Hamas or the Israeli state are wilfully ignoring the human catastrophe that is unfolding in the name of a partisan hatred.

Like many, I believe there is no hope for a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. The world, in fact, in practical terms at least, treats the Israel-Palestine conflict much like a civil war rather than one between two nations. As both Edward Said and Tony Judt concluded, there is only ever going to be one state in the lands of Palestine, and that is Israel. There can only be a one-state solution.

As Judt put it, this is not utopia; it is “merely hardheaded pragmatism shorn of illusion”. Israel holds the power and only they can hold the peace. It is up to Israel to take a leaf not out of Camus’ fiction but out of his philosophical work The Rebel. The deaths and targeting of any civilian should, he stated, “never cease to be an outrage”, no matter who perpetrates them. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A timely and pertinent reflection of the current ‘middle eastern’ crises occupying most minds and ‘screens’. I am unsure about the conclusion you reach. What I would suggest is that it is not a conflict between Israel and Hamas as your article postulates … but between Israel and Palestinians … with ‘hamas’ being the ‘front/scapegoat’ for Israeli aggression. Is is widely reported that at some stage the Israeli regime ‘supported’ its founding/growth for its own personal agendas. As one insightful commentator stated … Hamas is not just a network of persons and an organisation (which one can ‘destroy’) but it is also an ideology about ‘freedom from occupation/oppression’ … which is a lot harder to destroy. Remember our own history when the ANC was labeled a ‘terrorist’ organisation … by none other than Israel and its sponsor the USA ? I will not indulge in the remarkable similarities between what the Israeli regime is doing now and what our past apartheid regime did . Is it possible many of us have chosen to ‘forget’ that period ?

    • Ben Harper says:

      You should go on a stand-up comedy tour

    • Ben Harper says:

      Why do you always conveniently leave out the part about Hamas’s stated objective of wiping Jews and Israel off the face of the earth and turning the entire region into an Islamic Caliphate (lest you forget that’s ISIS and Al Qaeda’s objectives too)?

      Doesn’t fit your agenda though does it

    • Ben Harper says:

      And pray tell where the over US$40 BILLION in aid (mostly from the US and EU) has gone? Care to expain why that foreign aid is used to fund the opulent lifestyles of Hamas leaders (not actually in Gaza or any of the Palestinian settlements by the way but in Tunisia and Qatar) and to buy weapons and materials for making rockets and building their network of tunnels?

      Also doesn’t fit your narrative so conveniently omitted

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    “Israel holds the power and only they can hold the peace.” I wonder if the jewish youngsters at the festival that were tortured and killed indiscriminately by Hamas see it that way. If they were alive that is. They were innocent kids, the strike was meant to invoke hatred and the response we are seeing now, I have little doubt about that.
    Don’t get me wrong I see issues with both sides historically, and of course I cannot support the mass casualties of civilians caused by Israeli forces at this point, but holding the peace is in the hands of both parties not just Israel. The attack on the 7th clearly was about starting a war, purposefully. This narrative we are seeing lately that Israel is stronger and hence somehow solely responsible for keeping the peace is a little disingenuous, especially in the light of Hamas often using its civilians as human shields.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Not to mention the leader of Hamas calls for the blood of their children, women and elderly “so as to awaken our revolutionary spirit” – all the while living in the opulence and comfort of his home in Qatar

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    Pragmatic with probably the only sensible conclusion I’ve read that has been published on DM since October 7th.

    “Today the highest source of authority worldwide is human rights. That is why Israel—the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East with a free press and independent judiciary—is regularly accused of the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide. The new antisemitism has mutated so that any practitioner of it can deny that he or she is an antisemite. After all, they’ll say, I’m not a racist. I have no problem with Jews or Judaism. I only have a problem with the State of Israel. But in a world of 56 Muslim nations and 103 Christian ones, there is only one Jewish state, Israel, which constitutes one-quarter of one per cent of the land mass of the Middle East. Israel is the only one of the 193 member nations of the United Nations that has its right to exist regularly challenged, with one state, Iran, and many, many other groups, committed to its destruction. Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist as Jews with the same rights as everyone else.”

    -Baron Jonathan Sacks
    Former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Professor at New York University, Professor at Yeshiva University, Professor of Law, Ethics, and the Bible at King’s College and also a Senior Fellow to the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

  • Colin Johnston says:

    It is a pity that most of the comments focus on the Israel Palestine problem which has been almost insurmountable since Israel was established after the war and has become ever more complex since then. Rather the focus should be on Albert Camus and the inhumanities perpetrated so often in the name of freedom. All of us should focus our attention in getting solutions to that problem which is so much greater around the world.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    TIL that Albert Camus was a fan of the The Cure! (/S)

    • Mervyn Bennun says:

      I have no interest in defending Hamas. Harming civilians on 7 October was an atrocity and a crime under the Geneva Conventions. However, Gaza and the West Bank are occupied by Israel, and by international law Israel has no right to defend itself as an occupying power against the resistance of those who are occupied — who, incidentally, are also bound by the Geneva Conventions. There are Jews in the world — I’m one — but there is no unitary Jewish people or race or nation. As Tony Greenstein pointed out in a recent book, “Zionism During the Holocaust: the Weaponisation of Memory in the Service of State and Nation”, ‘Sir Edwin Montague, the only Jewish member of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, was also the only member to oppose the Balfour Declaration. He wrote a memo accusing his fellows of anti-Semitism: “It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation.”’ Zionism demands that every Jew must be a Zionist. That is racist. One has no choice about being Jewish; one can choose to reject Zionism, and that’s not anti-semitic. The President of Israel said on 13 October that “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible”. The result is that we are watching genocide. It is to be hoped that Israel is bombing Zionism out of existence. What must emerge is a democratic, unitary state in which people of all faiths or none are equal and free.

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