The IDF Is Deleuzian?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Deleuze once commented in a discussion with Foucault that “[a] theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate.” I wonder what Deleuze would have thought if he had known that his theories have had a profound impact — as recounted in a 2006 essay by Eyal Weizman — on the Israeli Defence Forces’ urban war-fighting:

The attack conducted by units of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’.

During the battle soldiers moved within the city across hundreds of metres of ‘overground tunnels’ carved out through a dense and contiguous urban structure. Although several thousand soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas were manoeuvring simultaneously in the city, they were so ‘saturated’ into the urban fabric that very few would have been visible from the air. Furthermore, they used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.


[Shimon] Naveh, a retired Brigadier-General, directs the Operational Theory Research Institute, which trains staff officers from the IDF and other militaries in ‘operational theory’ – defined in military jargon as somewhere between strategy and tactics….  I asked Naveh why Deleuze and Guattari were so popular with the Israeli military. He replied that ‘several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaux became instrumental for us […] allowing us to explain contemporary situations in a way that we could not have otherwise. It problematized our own paradigms. Most important was the distinction they have pointed out between the concepts of “smooth” and “striated” space [which accordingly reflect] the organizational concepts of the “war machine” and the “state apparatus”. In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders. […] Palestinian areas could indeed be thought of as “striated” in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, roads blocks and so on.’ When I asked him if moving through walls was part of it, he explained that, ‘In Nablus the IDF understood urban fighting as a spatial problem. [...] Travelling through walls is a simple mechanical solution that connects theory and practice.’

I don’t quite know what to say about the essay, which is absolutely fascinating and I highly recommend.  Something tells me, though, that Deleuze would have been secretly pleased to know that his theories have found such a productive reception in a very unlikely place.

3 Responses

  1. Deleuze was a resolute critic of Israel in his writings (see his essays, “The Spoilers of Peace” and “The Indians of Palestine”), so I’m not sure he would have been quite so pleased about his appropriation here.

    Ps: This essay first appeared in 2006.  For a more productive use of social theory by Weizmann himself (instead of by the Tsahal), his essays on the Politics of Verticality and the Geometry of Occupation are much more insightful.

  2. Weizman’s hyperventilation notwithstanding, the language of Deleuze or (say) EBO looks cool and keeps the graduate military theorists in fresh neologisms, but doesn’t seem to be the driver behind what basically looks like urban maneuvre warfare. Otherwise, why isn’t this piece about Clifford Geertz?

  3. I can’t resist making a plug for Complex Terrain Lab, your online source for applying Deleuze to armed conflict … contact Mike Innes there if you want sources or discussion.

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