Spaces of Suspicion and Forbidden Existence in Palestine

by Judah Schept*

People collect drinking water in Khuzaa, Gaza, where food and water are becoming a major concern.

People collect drinking water in Khuzaa, Gaza, where food and water are becoming a major concern. Photo posted by Lewis Whyld (@LewisWhyld) on Twitter.

“The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret it as a place, like every architect and every planner does, to walk through, or do you interpret it as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors.”

Israel Defense Forces Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi describing the 2002 Israeli military attack on Nablus during the Second Intifada, in Eyal Weitzman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation

As I write, it is now two weeks since Israel, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian Authority agreed to an Egypt-brokered ceasefire, ending 50 days of obscene—although not irrational—violence. According to the most recent reports from the United Nations, between July 8 and August 26, 2014, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) killed 2,131 people—1,473 of whom were civilians, including 501 children—during the campaign Israel called Operation Protective Edge. Some 110,000 people remain displaced from their homes, largely because 18,000 housing units were destroyed. Moreover, 450,000 Gazans are unable to access municipal water and are considered food insecure.

Of course, we have seen this scene before, in fact many times, as Israel claims a seemingly semiannual need to, as they grotesquely put it, “mow the grass.” But to a colonial gaze that sees Palestinians as demographic and violent threats, civilian casualties seem to be subject to the same postmodern interpretive logics applied to space in the quotation from Aviv Kochavi above. During this summer’s military campaign, Israeli snipers bragged about killing Palestinian children. Others murdered adults who were searching rubble for their family members. Prominent Israeli politicians called for a war on the entire Palestinian people and advocated the murder of Palestinian mothers to prevent the next generation of “little snakes.” Leaders insisted on the “precision” of their strikes and then repeatedly hit hospitals, schools, homes, mosques, and high-rise apartment buildings. By repeatedly, I mean incessantly: during Protective Edge, 190 mosques were damaged, half of which were leveled; 140 schools were damaged, 24 of which were totally razed. Almost half of the Palestinians killed in the conflict, and the majority of the children, were killed in their homes. When it kills children, the military blames their use as human shields by Hamas, a practice that the IDF itself has been accused of doing since at least 2002. Military spokespeople admitted to technologically sophisticated surveillance even as soldiers fired on and killed four children playing soccer alone on a beach, claiming they thought they were Hamas militants.

How does one interpret a beach? Does one see it as a place for swimming, time with family, and pick-up soccer games? Or is it a place where swimming, time with family, and pick-up soccer games are forbidden? Where transgressing those interpretations gets youthful play defined as terrorist activity? How does one interpret one’s own home? Is it where one feels safe? Or is it, in fact, a forbidden place, a place where one and one’s family may be killed and then blamed for being there?

The accumulation of horrors this summer certainly hurt the legitimacy of the state perpetrating them. Of course, Israel lost its legitimacy for many of us a long time ago. But the violence in Gaza this summer catalyzed important political momentum, including “die-ins” and sit-ins  by American Jewish activists in major cities, together with solidarity actions across the country; brilliant and solemn social media campaigns in Palestine and beyond, such as the rubble bucket challenge that has adapted the viral ice bucket challenge phenomenon for a country without water and electricity; a growing and vibrant Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement; and an increasing number of people, particularly young Jews, joining activist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP, which offers some of the most acute analyses and coverage of the occupation, found its membership growing significantly in response to the war on Gaza. This summer’s activism and movement building offered glimmers of hope amidst the daily atrocities.

And yet, it looks as though the carnage in Gaza, and our attention to it, masked a mundane, administrative violence simultaneously occurring in the West Bank. While we were glued to the gut-wrenching stories and images coming out of Gaza, Israel was mobilizing in the West Bank to appropriate the largest amount of Palestinian land in 30 years. As Haaretz and Mondoweiss reported, the Israeli Civil Administration confiscated 988 acres of land belonging to the five Palestinian villages of Jaba, Surif, Wadi Fukin, Husan, and Nahalin. The land is approved for more than 1,400 new homes to house around 6,000 new settlers, some of whom will live in the newest city to join the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The move simultaneously instantiates the architecture and infrastructure of occupation and aligns with efforts by some Israeli politicians to annex the larger settlements to Israel and create a “greater Jerusalem.”

In other words, the violence this summer operated on two fronts: the brutal military campaign in Gaza and the bureaucratic administration of a slow, quotidian violence of land appropriation in the West Bank. The concurrent operations in the two areas of post-1967 Palestine must be understood together as part of an Israeli strategy toward the Palestinians that Israeli activist Jeff Halper has recently summarized as “submit, leave or die.” Indeed, both the military and administrative violence in Palestine is emblematic of the crisis of Israel itself (a point recently made quite compellingly here)—a crisis of legitimacy and demography. As Prime Minister Netanyahu declared in July in rather bold terms, “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” Or, as Halper has explained of Netanyahu’s legacy: “He left the Palestinians with less than a Bantustan, non-viable and non-sovereign, a prison comprised of the 70 islands of Areas A and B of the West Bank, ghettos in “east” Jerusalem, tightly contained enclaves within Israel, and the cage which is Gaza—half the population of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River confined to dozens of islands on 15% of historic Palestine.”

What happens when existence seems to be forbidden? What happens when the mundane habits, necessities, and architectures of life—having a home to live in, looking out a window, walking through one’s front door, taking a shortcut to school, attending religious services, playing soccer with one’s friends—are outlawed by the definitional authority of an occupying military? Defined as spaces of suspicion and enemy violence, there becomes no place Palestinians can inhabit, no route they can walk, no view they can take in, and no makeshift field on which they can kick a ball without expressing the kind of threat which, without a doubt now more than ever, will get them arrested, imprisoned, or killed.

Judah Schept is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. A scholar-activist, his work examines the political economies, geographies, and cultural logics of the carceral state. Together with Randy Myers, he is the editor of a forthcoming special issue of Social Justice (Vol. 41-3, to be released in early 2015) titled “Youth Under Control: Punishment and ‘Reform’ in the Neoliberal State.”

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Judah Schept, “Spaces of Suspicion and Forbidden Existence: The Interpretive Violence of Occupation.” Social Justice blog, 9/10/2014. © Social Justice 2014.


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