Thursday 22 February 2024

Peace as a Local Exception

I. 22nd century, another planet

In an unfinished science fiction novel by Arkadi and Boris Strugatski, the hero of an earlier novel travels to an empire that in a previous novel occupied the role of absolute evil. Submarines of that empire spread destruction, torture and murder in the coastal areas of neighbouring countries. In the unfinished novel, the hero Maxim Kammerer discovers that the inhumanely brutal submarine crews constitute only the outer layer of the empire. Travelling further inwards, he first encounters a middle layer of ordinary people who are neither very good nor very bad, and finally arrives at the centre of the empire inhabited by utterly ethical, peaceful and sophisticated people. When the hero confronts them with moral incompatibility of the different layers, they react with polite condescension: ‘How come, would the world be differently organised where you come from?’ When Kammerer describes the utopian communist society from which he comes from, and which essentially is the same as theirs only without the surrounding layer of brutality and violence, they reply: ‘Such a world can only be imagined. I’m afraid, my friend, that you live in a world that somebody has imagined.’ (Boris Strugatski cited by Erik Simon 2010: “Eine Zukunft mit zwei Enden. In: Arkadi and Boris Strugatzki, Werkausgabe vol 1., ed. by Sascha Mamczak and Erik Simon, pp. 893-95. München: Heyne)

The idea of peace as something that is inevitably surrounded by war and violence is common in our linguistic, cultural, and religious heritage, as well as our political present. The pax romana implied that where the Roman Empire is there is peace; war is in the outside. The Islamic legal pair of dar al-salam (realm of peace) vs. dar al-harb (realm of war) was developed at a time when the early Muslim empires where at the peak of their might and able to provide peace and thriving to their subjects. It associates peace with Muslim rule, and war with the rest of the world. The landlord of my small holiday plot in East Germany recently reminded me that I’m contractually obliged to ‘pacify’ my plot. Or that’s what I first thought he meant, until I understood the correct meaning. The German verb einfrieden, literally ‘to generate peace within’, means to fence in a plot of land. It indicates that peace is the quality of a local or territorial sanctuary, an exception from a dangerous and violent outside - or to use a term coined by Michel Foucault, a heterotopia.


II. 2023, Kuwait and Germany

Mid-October last year, I was in Kuwait to meet Egyptian workers for a book I want to write. The new war in Palestine that had begun a week earlier was visible on the television sets of cafés, and on billboards with the koufiya pattern and the line ‘We’re with you’. The contrast of the news on television against the peaceful and orderly routine of life in Kuwait was striking. Waiting for the departure of my flight back to Germany, I wrote into my diary:

 ‘In the taxi to the airport, I looked at the houses and wondered about the normality of peace and the invisibility of histories and layers of violence. In this country, [there is] the small and unspectacular violence of exploitation and ethnic hierarchies, and glossing over the past violence of the 1990 war - but on standards of international politics, this is a peaceful place. They are not being bombed by anybody, and not bombing anybody.’

Later in Berlin, with the war continuing and getting worse, I was haunted again by the contrast of the news and the unchanged normality of my surroundings. On 20 December, after a joyful Christmas party of the institute where I work, I wrote into my diary:

‘I have flashes during my daily life of a parallel reality, or maybe the future. I board the S-Bahn full of people busy with their phones, and I see the train stuck on its tracks, blown up and burned, bodies scattered inside and outside, mine among them. I dance with my colleagues at the office Christmas party, and I see our lecture hall and offices filled beyond limits by refugees searching any shelter, the toilets in a terrible state after the water has been cut, the trees in the garden cut for cooking and heating. I enter a supermarket to choose my favourite cereals from a ridiculously vast selection, and I see a crowd of hungry and irritable people lining for bread at the door, very close to losing their tempers and looting the shop. I encounter young men joking in a bar, and I see them in dirty uniforms descending from buses for a holiday from the front, an expression of excited incomprehension on their faces after they have learned their first practical lesson in murder and rape. I sit on the sofa of our small but beautiful home and I wonder which rooms would be safe from shrapnel and sniper fire, and I realise it would be only the kitchen and bathroom (in World War Two, a bomb destroyed the house next door and damaged badly the rooms that now are our bedroom and living room). I walk down the streets of our beautiful and well-tended neighbourhood, and I see houses shot into pieces, some burned, others collapsed and surrounded by people frantically seeking for survivors in the rubble. I even see entire neighbourhoods and their inhabitants wiped out by a nuclear blast.’

The peacefulness of Germany, like that of Kuwait, is surrounded and underlined by violence in other places and times. Yet only at moments when my attention to that violence is great, does it enter my everyday consciousness at such a degree as to disturb me. In Kuwait, most active violence is small in the sense that it considers only few people at a time: domestic and sexual violence, denial of wages and freedom of movement, and humiliating working conditions experienced especially by the majority of non-nationals working in the country, and also by Kuwaiti people denied of citizenship. In Germany, it is more difficult to exploit and mistreat workers at home and in factories, which is why much of the economic violence on which our peace and wealth relies is outsourced to other countries, just as is the violence of our borders.

Kuwait’s solidarity with Palestinians is largely non-combatant. As a country that depends on a foreign power (the USA) for its defence, Kuwait is not in a position to join other wars even if it wanted to. Germany is involved in wars abroad more directly. It is providing ammunition and weapons to Ukraine but abstains from sending soldiers. The latter would bring some of the war home, which would be much less popular than letting Ukrainians do the fighting and the dying. In the current Gaza war, Germany’s support for Israel looks more like that of Kuwait for Palestine. There is a proliferation of strong words of solidarity, and pressure against those in Germany who think otherwise. But Germany’s military support for Israel is symbolic: sanitary material and two drones (these items are direct support without payment; Germany does sell to Israel much more, see endnote at the end of this essay).

Last but least, peace in both places is preceded by a past trauma of violent defeat and destruction. In Kuwait, the 1990 Iraqi occupation has left an unhealed scar. Those who can afford it, I was told, prefer to invest their money abroad rather than at home. They expect that any neighbouring country could, if they want, come and occupy Kuwait again. In Germany, the Second World War has left a double trauma of a devastating defeat, and of the guilt of having started the war along with committing at least two genocides (against Jewish and Romani people). This double trauma structures political consciousness until today. It is also tangible in the peaceful urban present. The beautiful park with a playground in front of our apartment is the result of a British or American bomb destroying the house next to ours during the war.

The playground in front of our home, temporarily closed during the first Covid-19 lockdown, March 2020.

War on television, Kuwait, October 2023. My friend in the picture asked me to clarify that he was watching the news on a screen on the opposite wall, not turning his back to them. He says: 'There is a difference between living with wars, and beginning to not care about them.'

The peace that prevails in Kuwait and Germany is constituted in part by a violent past of war and destruction, a violent underbelly of exploitation, and a violent regional context of direct or indirect participation in wars elsewhere. What does this say about peace? Is our peace a fake one? What if hidden or extraterritorialised violence is a common constituent of peace?

III. 1999, Palestine and Israel

The State of Israel is one of the places where the constructive tension between peace within and war without is most dramatic and extreme today. This has to do with the special circumstances of its establishment: a colony of settlers who came to Palestine escaping persecution and genocide elsewhere in order to live in peace as owners of their own country. To accomplish this aim, they forcibly dispossessed people whose own country it had been until then. Israel, promised to be a space of peace and safety, was thus established by means of war and conquest against the resistance of the long-standing inhabitants of the land. Importantly, this was done in a time of decolonisation, when doing so was no longer as politically tolerated as it had been before. Due to the new post-World War II international context, and due to the fierce resistance of Palestinians and neighbouring Arab countries, the military victories of the Zionist movement have not resulted in the secure and unchallenged dominance that other, older settler colonies today enjoy. Without settler colonialism, Turkey would not be Turkish, North Africa would not be inhabited by Arabs, and Americans would not speak Spanish, Portuguese, or English. The Zionist movement has not accomplished such degree of success, but it was successful enough to create an enclave Zion as it were, a state within the borders of which peace has been the norm. This was accomplished by locating war outside, in the lives of the Palestinians who had to give way to the Jewish national project. 

I experienced this personally on the two visits I paid to Palestine and Israel as a student in 1997 and 1999. Historically, it was an exceptionally peaceful time (approximately from the end of the First Intifada in 1994 until the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000). On my second and last visit in 1999, the possibility of a two-state solution still seemed within reach, and Israeli and Palestinian people I met expressed cautious optimism. And yet even then, the contrasts were striking and troubling. After visiting a friend in Ramallah, I spent two days in Tel Aviv waiting for my Egyptian visa. The city presented itself to me as a low-cost backpacker idyll by the sea. It was easy to forget other realities. As soon as I received my visa, I decided to continue to Gaza City, only to discover that there was no public transportation. People were not expected to travel that way. By combination of hitch-hiking and a Palestinian minibus service from the last Israeli town, I reached Erez Crossing, a maze of fenced corridors where one was at the same time visible and constrained in a frightening way. Already in 1999, Gaza was surrounded by a border fence unlike the metropolitan area of Jerusalem, where the border was intentionally kept as vague as possible to enable the gradual expansion of Israeli settlements in the West bank (the separation wall was built later, its completion concluding the defeat of the Second Intifada). Six years later, at the end of the Second Intifada, the evacuation of Israeli settlements from the Gaza strip completed this process of enclosure and enabled the blockade of Gaza, turning it conclusively from an ambiguous site of potential expansion into an outside space of warfare. In Gaza City as I encountered it in 1999, Israel was constantly present: in ships guarding the coast, in the currency, in consumer goods, as a place where people worked, through visas they needed to do so, in colloquial expressions borrowed from Hebrew. Gaza, on the contrary, was absent from Tel Aviv in 1999.

A newlywed couple gets photographed in the old harbour of Yafa, south of Tel Aviv in June 1999. The city of Tel Aviv was established in 1909 north of the old Palestinian town of Yafa. Today, Yafa is part of the metropolitan area and municipality of Tel Aviv.

Abu Hasira beach in Gaza City, June 1999. The men running the cafeteria offered me free accommodation for a night because I couldn't afford hotel rates.


My stay was short. The people I met were open and generous, and there would have been a lot to learn. But I simply could not afford the high prices of the few hotels in Gaza, catering as they did to journalists and international aid workers whose budgets were bigger than mine. I continued my journey to Egypt. My last memory of Palestine and Israel is that of a nervous young Israeli soldier at Rafah Crossing who leaped to restrain my arms when I tried to pull out my passport from a hidden pocket inside my trousers. Apparently, he was trained to anticipate an assault from anybody and at any time.

I had no desire to return. Although Egypt was poorer, more disorderly, and dirtier than the West Bank and Gaza (the latter surprised me by being a more well-ordered city than I had expected), I experienced life in Egypt as more normal and less absurd. I did not know it then, but this was the turning point in my life that would make me an anthropologist writing about Egypt. Perhaps it also indicated my future path as an anthropologist, more interested in everyday life than in violent confrontations and activist stances.

Looking back at Rafah crossing on the Egyptian side, June 1999.

Fast forward to a time of open war, in 2023. The 7 October attacks by Hamas and allied militias across the 1948 line of control caused a shock in Israel and the West. Part of this shock was due to the extreme death toll (with nearly 1200, it was the highest in such a short time since the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982). Another part was due to the unequal hierarchy of care where western audiences tend to care more for murdered Israelis and less for murdered Palestinians. But there was also a third part to the shock. The attack violated a hierarchy imposed by Israel that determined where there can be war and where there is peace. The construction of a fence around Gaza in the 1990’s and the withdrawal from the settlements in 2005 had done two kinds of work: it fenced out Gaza as a site of war; and it fenced in Israel as a site of peace, as in the German verb einfrieden. Crossing that literal fence, Hamas and other militants brought war to places that were supposed to be well-protected sanctuaries of peace for their inhabitants. The kind of violence employed by the militants was appropriate to that purpose. It was personal and close-range, aimed to cause the greatest pain possible, seeking and killing people in their homes, raping many (yes it really happened), and broadcasting much of the events live on the internet. This kind of violence says: Look, there is no peace here for you. This spectacular violation of the border between places reserved for peace and others exposed for war amplified the horror, and by so doing, it also amplified the willingness to support horrible countermeasures.

The Israeli war of retaliation against Gaza appears to have among its aims to reestablish the hierarchy of places exposed for war and places reserved for peace. This is evident in the shocking discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian losses: By 19 February 2024, 29,092 Palestinians have been confirmed killed according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza (the number does not differentiate civilians and combatants). Israel claims to have killed over 10,000 Palestinian militants, and reports that 236 Israeli soldiers have been killed in action during the invasion. 236 is an extremely low number after months of urban warfare, which is usually close-range and bound to cost many lives on both sides. By losing as few of its soldiers as possible, the government of Israel keeps death in war at a distance from Israeli society while at the same time mobilising for a massive military operation. The only way to do so in urban warfare is to mindlessly bomb entire blocks, even neighbourhoods to the ground and shoot everybody at sight (even if they are holding a white cloth to surrender) in order to avoid the risky confrontation of man to man. It means to bring exceedingly much more death to everybody on the other side, combatant or not. A report by The Guardian cites an Israeli soldier returning from the front: ‘We take some fire and identify a target. For an hour we unload everything we’ve got, our own weapons, tanks, anything we can get. Then we advance and find dead terrorists.’

Contrary to the violence by Palestinian militants on 7 October that was intended to hurt in a personal and close-range manner, the violence of the Israeli retaliation is decidedly impersonal and distanced. It uses long-distance massive firepower, and treats people that come into its way as mere material to be liquidated or pacified, undressed less for the sake of personal revenge through rape, and more for the sake of impersonal processing and potential disposal. This kind of violence says: There is nothing to see here, look away while we restore order. It is the kind of violence that seeks to reconstitute the logic of peace within and war without by maintaining a deadly distance between the two.

Such violent constitution of spaces of war and others of peace is not unique to Israel. It also structures Arab solidarity for Palestinians. Palestinians are frequently venerated as martyrs but often unwelcome as neighbours and colleagues. This, too, is a violent fence of peace. It allows people to live in relative peace and at the same time support the cause of Palestine without having to bear the responsibility nor to experience the devastating consequences of yet another disastrous battle in a never-ending war of liberation.


IV. 2024, here

In my recent research work I have thought much about the work towards a normal life that may not be a normative one, and the many things we need to be silent about, ignore, or evade in order to accomplish the visible and tangible means of a good life (Bromber et al. 2023). The current war in Gaza has made me connect these thoughts with the issues of war and peace. I am a person who prefers even a bad peace over an extended righteous war. This is partly due to my character as a person who favours compromises over confrontation. For another part, it is due to my own political views that began with Leninist communism and moved away from it. Last but not least, it is also due to the recent history of my native country Finland, which survived World War II as an independent country thanks to a combination of a righteous war (against a Soviet invasion), the evillest allies available (Nazi Germany), and a bad peace that was nevertheless better than the available alternative of no peace. Motivations aside, there are good objective reasons for my preference for peace. Even a bad peace allows for living and thriving in a way a prolonged just war does not. However, as a proponent of peace, I also realise that it is necessary to look more closely into what goes into its making, especially into those constituents of peace that don’t look good in broad daylight and that contradict the idea that peace entails justice and harmony.

Among Michel Foucault’s most brilliant ideas was that of the heterotopia: a place that is defined by being different from ordinary places. His examples include prisons, boarding schools, hospitals, boarding and insane asylums. Other scholars inspired by Foucault’s intervention have kept finding more and more heterotopias, from battlefields to downtown weekend strolls. I, too, have participated in the inflationary use of the term to describe all kinds of spaces that are significant by being different. But with so many places turning out to be heterotopias, what if it is the ordinary, unremarkable sites that are different? What if we consider war and violence not the exception to an ordinary state of peace? Following this thought, the patches of ordinary peaceful living like those that I encountered on my travels in 1999 and 2023 could be considered exceptions, heterotopic islands demarcated and constituted by various forms of violence. Their peacefulness is thus more like that of the empire described in the Strugatski brothers’ unfinished novel, brutal and evil on its fringes and its invisible underbelly, peaceful and friendly at its visible centre.

It is evident that heterotopic peace is incomplete and unsatisfactory. It does and should cause moral trouble and torment. That better kinds of peace would be preferable is obvious. But the more important question is: what kinds of peace would be attainable?

A pragmatic modesty of ambition is evident in the pre-modern origins of terms like einfrieden and dar al-salam: peace is a local accomplishment, an exception from the general state of the world. Anthropologists today don’t like such conclusions, because many of us are committed to the idea of a radical critique, a search to overcome the normal assumptions of our societies and states. But why exactly should our critique be radical? As a former radical myself, I have seen ample evidence about radical movements, when victorious, turning their violence of resistance into a violence of domination, and building archipelagoes of prison camps in which the violent margins spread out even further than they might otherwise. And when radical movements fall short of their aims, the picture is often not better. Those who today rally the slogan ‘No justice, no peace’ rarely seem to realise that their demand has in fact been fulfilled. There is no justice and there is no peace. Rather than a radical critique seeking to overcome the present for the sake of a revolutionary transformation, I would pursue a pragmatic critique grounded in a sense of responsibility and an attention for consequences.

When the hosts of Maxim Kammerer in the Strugatski brothers’ unfinished novel claim that the communist utopia from which Kammerer arrives can only exist as a work of imagination, this is a humble admission by the authors that the political hopes of their youth could not be realised. The Soviet Union they participated in building turned out to look much more like the evil empire Kammerer travels to than the 22nd century utopia they sketched in their earlier novels. We, too, face this discrepancy between our radical utopias and the constituents of our everyday peace.

In a way, we are all Israel. Not only we the western people who feel more for Israeli lives because we consider them ‘us’. I also mean us pro-Palestinian anti-Zionists. I mean you who is reading this. You are Israel, too, insofar as the peace in which you live is enabled by boundaries of violence that are beyond your everyday experience. The degree of violence may be less extreme, but it is just as constitutive. I doubt whether it is possible to completely remove violence from our patches of peace. But it is possible and necessary to make the violence less extreme, and the patches more encompassing.

Berlin, 21 February 2024. Text and photos by Samuli Schielke. Big thanks to Asmaa Essakouti who read the two drafts of this essay and gave very helpful suggestions for improvement.


The issue of German arms sales to Israel has been in the news, with Germany featuring as the second largest source of Israel's arms imports. This is a recent development. According to the same statistics collected every year by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), German arms exports to Israel were minor until 2021, but then jumped from tens of millions to hundreds of millions in 2022 and 2023. Information about arms exports is publicly available in Germany, so I checked what exactly has been sold. The leftist nationalist party of Sahra Wagenknecht made a parliamentary inquiry on how much weapons were sold to Israel in 2023. The answer by the government: 20 million euros, mostly land vehicles, vehicle maintenance, anti-tank grenades and rifle munition:  

That is a lot less than the other figure of ca. 320 million that's also been published by the German government, referred to by SIPRI, and then cited by others as indicating Germany's important role in arming Israel. Where does the difference come from? The same answer of the federal government to the parliamentary inquiry states that the figures don't include Drakon, a new submarine of the Dolphin class that was approved of but not yet delivered in 2023. The submarine is a strategic weapon that can carry nuclear weapons. The unit price was 500-700 million USD when the first one was delivered 13 years ago:

So the 300 million difference between the two official figures provided by the German government for 2023, as well as the sudden jump of German arms exports to Israel in 2022 and 2023 from tens to hundreds of millions consists of one submarine. Germany's role in arming the current massacre in Gaza appears to be not major. However, Germany plays a substantial role in something potentially far more terrible and destructive. The nuclear warheads that will be carried by that one submarine alone can cause destruction that would make the current war look like a brawl among friends. And a big part of the price of this submarine as well as the previous ones delivered by Germany to Israel in the past two decades has been subsidised by the German federal government. This is strategic military aid that can be extremely consequential if the current war escalates into a bigger one.