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, my first trip to the West Bank, benefiting from amazing and generous help. It is a daunting place to visit for so many reasons, not least the expertise that seems to be required to say anything at all about it. My response here, as in my earlier digital writing project Occupy 2012, has been to document my own experience. I reference only information that was available to me on the ground. I have used only photographs I took myself as visual documentation. These 'rules' constitute this as a digital performance (in the classic sense of twice-performed behavior) of my experience. Or, simply as a digital diary, arranged in non-hierarchical format.

The book is an illustrated alphabetical guide to what I saw, arranged letter by letter.  I realized before going that I had no mental picture of what to expect, of what Palestine is like. This project is my response and perhaps others can use it to begin to create such a mental map. At a time when many academics and artists are pondering whether to support calls for BDS but not all of us can go, this alphabet can be useful in helping people to decide. The everyday examples in this project are places from which we can begin to unravel how the occupation does what it does. 

The first pages of the book in this "path," as Scalar calls a set of linked pages, reflect on my experience as a whole. If you want to get started on the reports, jump to here.

Introduction: Encountering Palestine

There's no doubt as to my first and most lasting impression: this is what it is to experience colonialism. I have written about colonialism so often but it was different to know what it feels like. Above all else, Palestine was astonishing for the sheer intensity of the occupation. You see soldiers everywhere like the two above, on patrol in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. For an outsider, it was stunning to see with what force the regime operates, to experience the daily banality of violence, and to see how everyone who lives there has learned to deal with it. It was humbling to see the challenges of being an activist in Palestine, compared to my own privileged position.
Next, even on a short visit it is impossible not to see that it is complete and exclusive settlement that is now the palpable, visible goal of the occupation, which builds structures to that end everywhere it can. This occupation under 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 land and 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 is now a land made to be seen and to 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. The mature pines offer timber but also a sense of long-term residence. Palestinians have been evicted from their houses and forbidden to cultivate their land, so a pleasing (to eyes trained by Romanticism) ruination and weathering dominates the prospect. Even the wildlife has been sedated and removed to Israeli territory. Here appropriation meets land art and produces an aesthetic of (non)settlement, at the intersection of the visibility of the settler and the forced invisibility of the Palestinians. 

And so I came to realize that the sight of occupation is the site of occupation. I saw elements of many different visual regimes struggling to cohere into what might become 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. Counterinsurgency seeks “full spectrum dominance” but expects the insurgency to be permanent unless its conditions of possibility are removed.  

This sight of occupation is designed to produce a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, to keep all the subject population in full view, and to create an open field of fire in which to be present is to be a target. Against all that, with the remarkable persistence that they call sumud, Palestinians remain, insist on being seen and persist with their claims. 

{A note to my critics}

Anyone writing on Palestine knows what to expect: accusations of anti-semitism. The haters out there are going to hate, so this isn't really for them, it's for the worried middle. 

For the record: all four of my grandparents were Jewish. My paternal grandparents grew up in Jerusalem where they met and married. On my mother's side, the family came from Poland and were inevitably part of the Holocaust. I grew up in England, where anti-semitism was a day-to-day experience. So I know from anti-semitism. The rule is simple. Never again for anyone. There are no sides in never again.

I live in New York now, a city that is jewish to its bones, where the Central American wait staff in Katz's Deli urge you to be a mensch and have the whole pastrami sandwich, where Seinfeld is sacred writ, and Yiddish from bupkes to oy vey is part of the vocabulary. So I don't hate myself either and I certainly don't hate Jews because those are so many of my friends. 

I'm against the current regime in Israel, yes, just like many Israelis. I support the boycott, yes. It's not about Israeli individuals, academics or otherwise, many of whom helped me with this project. Boycott is a peaceful tactic. Should other places be subject to boycott? If there's a call from local civil society to do so, then let's have that discussion. Should we boycott the US? Some European academics, like Giorgio Agamben, already do. I can totally see why. I certainly don't refuse to read or assign Agamben as a result or call for his dismissal. 

But this project is not about Israel, it's about Palestine and how we might see it. It does not make any proposals for political solutions, whether in the 'West Bank' or the region as a whole. As we've written elsewhere, when we do engage with mainstream politics, the Palestinian Authority are certainly part of that problem.

After Trump (added 11/23/16)

Perhaps the election of Donald Trump clarifies this issue somewhat. The complicated ways in which someone willing to discuss Palestine gets produced as 'anti-semitic' surely pale by comparison with the insertion of Stephen Bannon, an old-fashioned Jew hater into the White House.

Perhaps the success of a campaign based on the promise of a 'beautiful' wall, xenophobia, hatred of Islam and Muslims and a willingness to separate existing populations will help people understand why Palestine is an example not an exception.



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