THE PALESTINIAN ARCHIPELAGO / Arquine (2012)
“The Palestinian Archipelago: A Metaphorical Cartography of the Occupied Territories,” in Arquine 59, Mexico City (February 2012)
Since 1967, the West Bank and East Jerusalem with the Gaza strip, while being considered by the United Nations as the territories of the Palestinian sovereignty, have been subjected to an ever growing military and civil colonization organized by the successive Israeli governments and implemented by an important part of the Israeli population itself during its military service and/or as civil settlers. Similarly to all cases of colonization, violent military phases are followed by longer periods of time in which the very lives of the occupied population are administratively and technically (re)organized by the occupier to serve the latter’s economy and ideology. Such organization of the daily life — one might talk about biopolitics — requires an active role of architecture, which is inherently a technology of power. Books written by Eyal Weizman or Stephen Graham as well as the spatial analyses accomplished by Decolonizing Architecture (Petti, Hilal & Weizman) are exemplary in describing the militarization of architecture in the West Bank.
This article focuses on an understanding of the spatial and displacement politics at stake in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. In order to make these politics and their implications fathomable, I would like to narrate a metaphorical cartography of the Occupied Territories under the name of Palestinian Archipelago. Since 1993, the secretly signed accords in Oslo between the P.L.O. (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and the state of Israel have been spatially implemented through the division of the West Bank in three different zones: Areas A, B and C. While Area A guarantees – supposedly – a zone of governance for the Palestinian government and the right to insure security via its own means, Area C, on the contrary gives an absolute power to the Israeli army over security, planning and movement. Area B is a buffer zone where both the Israeli Defense Forces and the Palestinian police have the right to intervene. These accords were signed by the P.L.O. in order to gain a relative independence from Israel in the main cities of the West Bank except Hebron which remains a special case, but it has been experienced by most Palestinians as an outrageous territorial compromise with no legitimacy whatsoever. In addition to a clear asymmetry — Area C constitutes 63% of the West Bank while Area A, only 17% — almost twenty years of application of this partition prove that the Israeli army regularly penetrated Palestinian cities, during the two intifadas for example, but also in ‘calmer’ phases since then.
In addition to being by far the largest zone, Area C is characterized as an ambient territory surrounding Areas A and B. This observation led me to assimilate these two latter zones to islands upon which Palestinian have a relative power, and thus transforming the West Bank in a Palestinian Archipelago, the object of this essay. I propose to continue this oceanic metaphor and I will thus use its terminology all through this chapter.
Far from being calm waters, this archipelago constitutes the scene of an ordinary violence for its inhabitants. The movement between each island is both subject to a heavy ‘maritime’ official control and to potential attacks from settlers/pirates, as many of them colonized the region. Corsairs would actually be a more appropriate name to define them, since their presence and actions are tolerated by Israeli authorities. The latter have developed a form of biopolitics implemented by the construction of ‘reefs’ that filter or prevent the movement of Palestinians between their islands. These reefs constitute a paradigm of militarized architecture, its physicality entirely dedicated to the colonial purpose it serves. These reefs are mostly divided into four types.
The first is a continuous barrier whose function was claimed to be temporarily separating the Israeli waters from the Palestinian waters. In reality, this barrier has been built mostly on Palestinian territory and thus not only prevents the movement from one territory to another but also participates into the colonial confiscation of the territory. The small yet densely populated island of Qalqiliya (45,000 inhabitants), for example, is almost entirely encircled by the sinuous scar in the landscape that this barrier constitutes, resulting in a potential ‘quarantine’ of the city, as only one maritime route links it to other islands.
The second type of reefs is episodic and frequently applied. Placed on various maritime routes between islands, this second type of reefs simply blocks these routes. Others are organized into checkpoints, imposing a degree of fluidity on the maritime traffic. This degree of fluidity, or rather of antifluidity, is the result of an ambiguous mix of governmental policy and the subjective appreciation of the colonial fleet in charge of those checkpoints. Its consequence is a continuous uncertainty for Palestinians, who can never be sure to be able to leave an island to go to another, whether they accomplish this displacement in order to work, to visit friends or family, to go back home, or simply to exercise the freedom of movement which is granted to nations on their own territory.
I mentioned earlier the presence of many corsairs/settlers — about 500,000 — living on Palestinian territory. This colonial population lives on artificial reefs/islands that host from a dozen to tens of thousands of inhabitants. These reefs introduce a defensive, yet domestic architecture which leaves nothing to chance in its geological formation. They constitute another important obstacle to the circulation between Palestinian islands. The regular attacks from the most violent and ideologically charged fraction of corsairs on the local population also affect this circulation as they trigger a paralyzing fear experienced by this population.
The fourth and last type of reefs, more affiliated with infrastructure than architecture, frames some special maritime routes that are used exclusively by the colonial fleet and the corsairs. While the Palestinian movement is filtered and slackened or simply prevented, the Israeli one is maximized by those routes, thus contributing to the hegemonic control over the sea that hosts the archipelago.
Various Palestinian populations, farmers and office workers, rich and poor, Bedouins and Arabs, all suffer from the numerous apparatuses of movement restriction on their own territory. The maritime routes between each islands are supervised and controlled, triggering a form of resistance against the colonial organization of space that consists in experiencing the land via other means. Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh is exemplary. He practices the sarha (سير), sort of drifting walks in the hills of Ramallah in a spirit of joy and resistance. Of course, these sarha cannot be used as the only way to resist effectively against the established biopolitics; however, the action of walking — swimming, if we keep the water metaphor — reintroduces the engagement of the body with a territory. This territory being the very object of the conflict, the interaction between the body and the land is not innocent. In fact, the issues that the Palestinians living in the West Bank have to face are not coming exclusively from the Israeli occupation but also from the internal dynamic of their own nation. Indeed, a movement of rural exodus — catalyzed partially by the occupation itself — is provoking dangerous social changes, as a new Palestinian social class of depoliticized bourgeoisie seems to have traded its dream of collective freedom for a compromised one of personal wealth. This class does not mind so much the politics of the island within the same nation as it favors the concept of private property over a common becoming. On the contrary, this class encourages the fragmentation of the territory to the scale of the family and the individual. Its bodies are dematerialized into cars, phones, computers and comfortable houses.
The battle to reconnect all the Palestinian islands into a unique continent does not seem to be winnable via another way than the enforcement of the international law. Nevertheless, until such legal application is reached, forms of resistance have to be sustained and developed. In order to be effective, this resistance cannot focus on attacking the occupier’s body, but rather on the liberation of the occupied’s body. In fact, the architectural colonial apparatuses, evoked earlier in that text, are subjecting the body of the occupied to a state of immobility in which that body is either absent if the apparatus acts as a form of dissuasion against the movement, or hurt, in the case of a confrontation with the apparatus’s physicality. In this regard, the pedestrian checkpoints’ narrow and heavy turnstiles are paradigmatic of the violence inflicted to the bodies on a daily basis. In response to this violence, a revolutionary body that could freely migrate from one island to another needs to exist. Rather than delimiting a territory in the form of the sedentary property, (s)he considers her/his land in the same way than nomads do, a mobile parcel of earth that the body itself delimits.