How To See Palestine: An ABC of Occupation

What is the ABC of Occupation?


ABCs are for beginners. I am that beginner. In May-June 2016 , I undertook a militant research visit to Palestine. This site consists of my field notes of the catastrophe (to Palestinians, the nakba) I witnessed, documented with photographs and video. 

Visiting Palestine was astonishing for the sheer intensity of the oppression. Even before arrival, we were briefed to never mention to Israeli officials that we might visit Palestine, to delete all Arab names from our phones and to have documents attesting to our status. 

Once in the country, i
t was clarifying to see how the Israeli regime operates and how little it cares what others think of it. It was humbling to see what being an activist means in such conditions and how marginal external academic-activism seems to the daily litany of harm to which any person in Palestine is exposed.

How to see Palestine

Concentrating on my own interests in politics and visual culture, I saw elements of many different visual regimes, beginning to cohere into a new form. Surveillance is universal but it’s not a Panopticon because the jailers are all too visible. Religion is the justification for settlement, as it was under high imperialism, but there is no desire to convert the unbelievers as in the past. The counterinsurgency of the regime seeks ‘full spectrum dominance’ and intends to remove the insurgency's conditions of possibility.

It is complete and exclusive (Jewish) settlement that is now the palpable, visible goal of the occupation, which builds everywhere it can. This omnipresent construction is exclusive and segregated behind walls, fences, checkpoints, soldiers, CCTV and the all-pervasive security culture that excludes the Palestinians not only from their traditional homes, but from services like water, electricity, transport and so on.

The one thing everyone on all sides agrees on is that it’s all about land—who owns it, who can farm it, live on it, use the rainwater that falls on it and the minerals below—and so on. Palestine was once a land made to be lived in. It now a land made to be seen and be under surveillance. The illegal settlements cluster on the top of hills, rather than spreading across the valleys, to maximize their viewpoint.

The valleys are starkly beautiful but where there is most beauty, there is most colonial arrangement, concealment and destruction. Palestinian olive groves have been replaced by fast-growing pines. People have been evicted from their houses and forbidden to cultivate their land so a pleasing (to Romantic eyes) ruination and weathering dominates the prospect. Even the wildlife has been sedated and removed to Israeli territory. It's where appropriation meets land art and produces an aesthetic of (non) settlement, produced by the visibility of the settler and the invisibility of the Palestinians.

Whatever this is, it’s an occupation, a specific form of colonialism. So I decided to use my impressions to create this ABC of Occupation. Unlike Bukharin’s classic ABC of Communism, this is not a program. It is a report back on visuality at the heart of its own contradiction. That is to say, Palestine is an actually existing possibility for the general condition of social life in the twenty-first century. In the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, columnist Gideon Levy pithily called the regime one of 'real estate and messianism.' Not unlike a certain candidate for the US presidency.

Edward Said famously said that Palestinians above all had a ‘desire to be visible.’ That 'visibility' was part of an identity politics in which to be visible was to be able to make rights claims, to be acknowledged and, simply, to exist. It claimed particular, rather than universal, form. In the era of Palestinian ID cards, work permits, CCTV, drones and all the other apparatus of what Gil Hochberg calls 'visual occupation,' it would seem that Michel Foucault was right: 'visibility is a trap.'

But this trap is not that of the reforming Panopticon that Foucault described as the regime of discipline. Nor is this a state of exception. Everything is done according to the law and there are even posted signs to that effect. I would not even call it a 'necropolitics,' a regime in which the sovereign determines who shall die and who shall live. From what I saw, Palestinians die all the time, trapped by being seen from some watchtower or checkpoint, not because some decision was made but because a panicky young conscript fired their weapon.

The example of Palestine
Thinking globally, as Michael Hardt has written: 'rather than an exception, we can see Palestine and the struggles of Palestinians as exemplary.' The Palestinians are not a particular instance of wrong but have become exemplary for a new form of settlement and occupation marked by a combination of spectacular punishment (typical of slave colonies), service deprivation (typical of segregated global cities from Detroit to Johannesburg), physical segregation (the divided cities of both the Cold War and global counterinsurgency like Baghdad) and racialized distinction within the category of the human. This last is why Black Lives Matter say of Palestine "when I see you, I see us." And supports BDS. 

Palestine certainly fits my definition of the new global society in How To See The World: a young, urban, and networked society, undercut and challenged by the effects of climate change. It does so, however, in conditions of intensified colonialism. In my earlier work, I’ve demonstrated that visuality is a colonial technology that renders ground into space for battle or for enclosure. In Palestine, those spaces are indistinguishable. And then layered with the claim to be the gift of God.

In The Right to Look, I argued that visuality was struggling to find a stable form for the conditions of global counterinsurgency. In How To See The World, I looked closely at those conditions--the young, urban, networked and hot world of today. Palestine is where those two axes of investigation meet. It is one of the exemplary spaces of what is happening under the intensified form of neo-liberalism outside the oligarchic spaces of the G20. But increasingly, as always happens with regimes of visuality, these conditions are coming to play a role within the so-called 'developed' nation-states as well.

Living everyday life every day
When I came to write up my notes and photographs, I found that what I had been researching was everyday life in conditions that are both exceptional and exemplary. In these conditions, to have an everyday life and to live every day, is a revolutionary act. Just as it has been throughout the long regimes of colonial settlement for those who had the misfortune to be there already.

It is, as they say, no coincidence that Henri Lefebvre published his ground-breaking Critique of Everyday Life in 1947, at height of the decolonial transformation following World War II. India had just become independent. The Nakba was just months away. For Lefebvre, 'the revolution...can only be defined concretely, at the level of everyday life.' In the same way, cultural studies came to the fore at the beginning of neo-liberalism in 1970s Britain. And today, new (visual) activisms worldwide are asking Grace Lee Boggs' question: 'How do you make a life, rather than make a living?'



Reading on

In this book, all aspects of the occupation of everyday life every day matter. You can read it A-Z or at random. Knowing that people might want more direction, I've created paths through the alphabet, centered onThere are of course many experts in the field like Ariella Azoulay, Gil Hochberg, Jasbir Puar, Helga Tawil-Souri, Eyal Weizman whose work can help you go further. These are nothing more than my impressions, offered because I think Palestine matters to all of us, expert or not. 

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