Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Meron Benvenisti: The temples of the occupation

A valuable corrective to the myth of Israeli establishment concessions to Abbas is here provided by Meron Benvenisti in Ha’aretz (28 Dec). Benvenisti shows that the black religion of sacrificing Palestinian lives on the altar of Occupation continues unabated, using punitive soldiers’ actions and roadblock regime to “institutionalize the expropriation of the physical space and the public infrastructure of the West Bank and their transference to the exclusive use of the Israelis.” This “discipline and punish” system of course bears little security value, and the number of checkpoints has multiplied. His call for the dismantling of all roadblocks not on the borders of sovereign Israel is an eminently reasonable one; whether it will transpire of course falls back to the power machinations of the worse-than-apartheid state and its neocon backers.

So far, of the dozens of checkpoints promised to be removed from the West Bank in a “gesture” to Mahmoud Abbas, not a single checkpoint has been dismantled.

It will be interesting to see what excuse they come up with after the weather improves. The plan to remove the roadblocks has been delayed over some excuse or another for several years, and in the meantime their number has multiplied. We can assume with reasonable certainty that the newest attempt to ease the lives of the Palestinians will fail like its predecessors, because the regime of roadblocks is not a matter of a marginal gesture, nor a matter of quantity, whose reduction is likely to signal change in the situation prevailing in the occupied territories. Instead, the roadblocks are the foundation of Israeli control of the West Bank, and they fulfill three major roles: symbolic, geo-strategic and socio-political. Therefore anyone who attributes only tactical-security or settlement-dependent significance to them is missing the point.

In this respect, the IDF officers (who sabotage any effort to remove obstructions) are more faithful to Israel’s basic perception than are the prime minister and the defense minister, who are using the roadblocks as a short-term political means. The hundreds of permanent and mobile roadblocks, the constructed and improvised ones, the cement blocks and the revolving gates, the mounds of earth and the ditches, are all designed for one purpose: to show who has the power to control the lives of the Palestinians. Small groups of young, inexperienced and frightened soldiers serve as the agents of the power that forces millions of people to behave according to arbitrary rules that interrupt the most basic routines of their lives. This domination is implemented for the most part without any need for force, by exploiting the fear of the Palestinians.

The disdain for the Palestinians and the arrogant use of a mentality of submissiveness is reflected not only by the roadblocks themselves but by the checking procedures, which are conducted without any sensitivity to the dignity and needs of the Palestinians, who are expected to wait in line in silence or else be “punished.” Colonial regimes have always been based on the arrogance of a small number of soldiers who controlled the lives of million of natives with minimal force, and a dependence on deterrence, which guaranteed the inferior status of those subject to their authority.

The Israelis have improved on the colonial system: Instead of the occupying powers dictating the lives of the natives on a daily basis in their towns and their villages, they force an indirect regime of imprisonment on the natives, fencing them off and interfering in their daily routines. Here, the ruler does not encroach on their space, but they are forced to plead with him in the temples of the occupation, the roadblocks; and as long as they surrender to the rules imposed on them, the occupier knows his status is secure.

The roadblocks serve as a first-class geo-strategic means: They institutionalize the expropriation of the physical space and the public infrastructure of the West Bank and their transference to the exclusive use of the Israelis. The map of the hundreds of roadblocks erected in Palestinian populated areas outlines the physical division of the West Bank into areas west of the separation fence that have been annexed de facto, and the Jordan Valley that has been cut off from its surroundings, and 10 Palestinian enclaves from Jenin in the North to Mt. Hebron in the South.

The mounds of earth and the cement blocks, which are ostensibly scattered randomly, in effect constitute a complete geo-strategic system, and therefore the “removal” of several mounds of earth or obstructions is liable to spoil the scheme so carefully planned out. And those who believe that “the ideology of Greater Israel has been shelved” should understand that the roadblocks symbolize the expropriation of the West Bank territories without annexation, albeit with the addition of the creation of Palestinian “reservations.” The geographical division has fragmented the Palestinian community into weak and impoverished sub-communities, where centers are disconnected from peripheries, urban centers are eroding and rural areas becoming poor, families are separated, and medical treatment is denied along with access to higher education. This division is imposed in the hopes that the political and social siege will result in demographic distress and perhaps to emigration.

The planners of the roadblock regime devoted great effort to the planning and implementation of the system, but apparently were mistaken in their assessments of the efficacy of their method. Palestinian society is demonstrating signs of strong cohesion and adjustment to the cruel living conditions forced on it, and there are no signs that the strategic goals have in fact been achieved. Therefore, the planners feel that they must increase the number of roadblocks each year, and this number has already reached 522, i.e. an obstruction for every 3,500 Palestinians. Anyone who seriously desires to stop this march of folly – when even its limited usefulness for security is in doubt, and its damage clear to everyone – must order the dismantling of all the roadblocks that are not deployed on the borders of sovereign Israel, and must not surrender to the army officers’ wheeling-and-dealing.

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"