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The Bulldozer War

by Christian Salmon

During the wars in former Yugoslavia the architect Bogdan Bogdanovich coined the term “urbicide” to describe the destruction of cities in the Balkans. In Palestine the violence has targeted the entire landscape. A trail of devastation stretches as far as the eye can see: a jumble of demolished buildings, levelled hillsides and flattened forests. This barrage of concentrated damage has been wrought not only by the bombs and tanks of traditional warfare, but by industrious, vigorous destruction that has toppled properties like a violent tax assessor.

A concrete-and-asphalt ugliness now mars some of the most beautiful views in the world. Hillsides have been carved up for bypass roads to Israeli settlements. On either side of the road Palestinian homes have been destroyed, olive trees uprooted and orange orchards razed, on behalf of enhanced visibility. All that remains is a no-man’s land topped by watchtowers. In the hostilities, the omnipresent bulldozers have as much strategic importance as the tanks. Never before has such an innocuous piece of equipment augured such violence and brutality.

Unplanned development is not at issue, nor are the concrete jungles of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline nor the forces of heartless capitalism. No, I am reminded of the efforts of the former Soviet Union’s Gosplan, as if this destruction was being overseen by a state planning committee and the wilful hand of Israel was striving to erase the past. The twin mind-sets of construction and destruction have long coexisted here. In the 1950s thousands of pine trees, not olives, not oranges, were planted to wipe out traces of destroyed Palestinian villages; agricultural development was then hailed as a hallmark of civilisation. But today, in thrall to the forces of destruction, the gardener’s hand has turned against the land, slashing and plundering, uprooting, displacing and depopulating. All geographical settings contain intelligible signs and landmarks that bear witness to the narrative of history; but the painful realisation on entering Palestine is how profoundly the topography has been altered: the landmarks have been erased, producing disorientation.

No concerted effort is being made to create a Palestinian state, a binational entity or even two separate Israeli and Palestinian states. Instead the forces at work here seek geographic fragmentation and dissolution, the abolition of the land itself. It would not be the first time that places and streets were renamed or localities taken apart before being remade anew. In Bosnia this was known as “memoricide”, the murder of the past. Here mere name changes are not enough: forests, hillsides and roadways must be completely deconstructed. The territory has been mutilated. We know that geography’s primary purpose is to serve the needs of war. But in Palestine, war is designed mostly to conquer geography.

Official speeches and UN resolutions often fail to mention an important thing: this soil contains the interwoven strands of thousands of years of human history, the strata of numerous cultures and civilisations. The countryside and the roads, the fields and the olive groves are the endangered legacy of all humankind. Unesco was rightly alarmed when statues of the Buddha were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Will we stand by impassively while Palestine is reduced to fields of ruins and Jerusalem becomes another Beirut? Who will speak out against the obliteration of Palestine’s natural and archaeological sites?

Destruction

During the week we spent in Ramallah, Gaza and Rafah, all we saw was destruction: villages, roads and homes, all demolished. Crops have been burned and public services bombarded. Missiles from helicopter gunships or F-16 fighter planes have destroyed newly completed civilian infrastructure. The European Commission has compiled an extraordinary list of the EU-funded projects that have been damaged. These include Gaza international airport, Gaza seaport, Ramallah’s Voice of Palestine radio station, Bethlehem’s Intercontinental Hotel and a forensic laboratory. Municipal infrastructure including schools, public housing projects, roads, sewers and recycling centres have been destroyed, together with the administrative offices of a peace project in Jenin, reforestation projects in Beit Lahia, the central statistics office in Ramallah and irrigation systems in Jericho. In total 17 projects valued at $15.58m. Does anyone believe that all these sites were terrorist hideouts?

We visited a razed village near Rafah on the Egyptian border and walked among the rubble of bulldozed homes. Exercise books, kitchen utensils and a toothbrush were strewn about, signs of life reduced to pieces. One woman told us that residents were given five minutes to leave their homes in the middle of the night. The bulldozers returned several times to “finish the job”; these three words may well become the Israeli army’s catchphrase. Mounted high atop the watchtowers, infrared machine guns watch over the wasteland. There are no soldiers about. At night the guns fire automatically as soon as any lights are turned on. The first few rows of houses are riddled with bullet holes and their residents face the constant threat of automatic weapons fire. This must be how buffer zones are created.

Like some stinging insect bent on inflicting injury, the war machine is in perpetual motion, spreading boundaries wherever it goes, patiently and absent-mindedly. Here the border is an all-pervasive force, cutting through street corners, hillsides, villages, even houses. Military fortifications have replaced the olive groves. City walls are all reinforced, each one a hostile presence. Any private home might conceal a lurking sniper. Checkpoints loom up at every bend in the road, sometimes every 100m; there are over 700 in the West Bank alone. Because some roads are blocked off, travelling to Bir Zeit University means you have to take a bus and a taxi as well as walking part of the way. The occupied territories have become a grid of impenetrable cells, with the Israeli army controlling all access in and out. There are some 220 of these rat traps–perhaps reservations or ghettos might be a better term–with battalions of Merkava tanks and Apache helicopters (supplied by the US military) on constant patrol.

This is a new type of frontier: portable, porous and hazy, a border in motion. One evening we climbed with Mahmoud Darwish, the poet, to the top of a small hill in Ramallah, where we looked out on the twinkling lights of Jerusalem only a few kilometres away. In the foreground lay areas in shadow, with only a few scattered lights from Palestinian homes. To our right off in the distance, there was a zone of bright light with a deserted illuminated roadway leading to an Israeli settlement. And amid this shimmering nightscape, I could pick out the border.

The Israeli occupation comes down to this: the right to determine what will be illuminated and what will be cast into darkness, what will be rendered visible or invisible, accessible or inaccessible. The border governs every aspect, even the division of light and shadow, like some supernatural apparition.

Shifting, furtive border

The Polish writer, Tadeusz Konwicki, once said of his homeland: “My country is on wheels: its borders shift in keeping with the latest treaty.” The situation is even worse here in Palestine: the border shifts like a swarm of locusts in the wake of another suicide attack, like the onset of a sudden storm. It might arrive at your doorstep like a delivery in the night, as quickly as the tanks can roll in; or it may slip in slowly, like a shadow. The border keeps creeping along, surrounding villages and watering places. It is a mobile phenomenon, like the specially designed walls we saw in Rafah: the dull partitions of an evolving habitat, easily transportable to keep pace with the ever-expanding settlements.

The border is furtive as well: like the rocket launchers, it crushes and disintegrates space, transforming it into a frontier, into bits of territory. This frontier paralyses the ebb and flow of transit instead of regulating it. It no longer serves to protect, instead transforming all points into danger zones, all persons into living targets or suicide bombers. It has ceased to be a peaceful boundary designed to separate two autonomous lands, to assign a rightful place to each, to endow a given space with its distinctive shape, form and colour. The border here is meant to repress, displace and disorganise. In Israel and Palestine alike the very concept of territory has become hostile, devoid of content or contours, making insecurity the norm. In the words of the French poet, Rene Char, “To stifle distance is to kill”.

There are windows with narrow openings to accommodate guns, wall after wall of high facades, row upon row of buildings: this is the city-as-barracks. The Israeli settlements present a series of closed-off architectural forms that embody the feeling of self-confinement. No doubt this is due to security constraints but it also reveals an obsession with space, a conception of space based on fear and repression. “The truth of an era”, said the Austrian writer, Hermann Broch, about late 19th century Vienna, “may generally be read in its architectural facades”. If Broch’s conclusion is correct, the building facades in the Israeli settlements are slogans that betray a sense of environmental panic, a fear of the outside world, the antithesis of hospitality-of-place.

This is exophobia, a fear of the outside world, the converse of the process of occupation: the further you advance into enemy territory, the more you retreat into yourself. This holds for Israeli society in general. It is not exo-colonialism, to borrow the term used by the French architect and writer, Paul Virilio, as illustrated by the outward-looking style of Spanish colonial architecture in Latin America. This is endo-colonialism, an inward-looking variety that seeks more than the appropriation of enemy territory: it breeds dispossession, a withdrawal into itself. Its sign is the military bunker.

The political debates and media coverage have failed to address an important issue: Israel’s colonisation of the occupied territories is not only unethical and illegal, it is impracticable. Indeed it is founded on a sense of unbearable living that is peculiar to the pathologies of exile and also afflicts those living in refugee camps. Strictly speaking, the Israeli settlements are uninhabitable places, not just uncomfortable, dangerous or impractical over the long term. The settlements show the impossible side of habitation that goes hand in hand with the question of return. They are an anti-urban development, based on warfare, as we might speak of a war-based economy. This is civil development founded on incivility.

Hence the paradoxes. The settlements are extravagant, in the etymological sense of the word (from the Latin extra + vagare, to wander). Ensuring security within areas having a Palestinian majority–there are 5,000 settlers versus 1.5m Palestinians in the Gaza Strip–requires constant vigilance and complete control over traffic entering and leaving the areas. An Israeli settler driving by creates traffic jams on the side roads, which are blocked off by checkpoints. This roadside version of apartheid obliges the inventive civilian population to come up with ever-greater feats of nerve.

In Gaza we saw roads separated by high walls forming a bridge, a work-in-progress stretching across the occupied territories. Somebody mentioned a scheme that involved lining the roads with crocodile-infested canals. Although this proposal may seem far-fetched, it shows the prevailing mood. The Israeli transport minister even estimated the cost of building a viaduct to link Gaza and the West Bank, a grandiose project worthy of the pharaohs. Whether true or not, such plans indicate the climate of panic. The Other must be cast out or warded off. The choice boils down to repression or immobilisation. Never have so many people been confined to such a small area. Traffic between Israel and the occupied territories has been totally blocked off, with large numbers of Palestinians complaining of house arrest. Meeting with other people is impossible because of the traffic restrictions, which also make travel between Ramallah and Gaza impossible. Even a trip within the Gaza Strip can take longer than the flight from Tel Aviv to New York. In the occupied territories Israel is occupying time as well as space, with people facing long lines at checkpoints before being allowed to return home.

Over decades the Israelis have abandoned the utopia of the kibbutzes for the atopia, the nowhere, of the settlements. People were fond of saying in the 1960s that they tried to make the desert bloom and the kibbutz exerted a powerful appeal. Since then the biblical garden has become a desert, a wasteland, a battlefield.

The bulldozers on the roadsides are the troubling acknowledgement of this. The key question is not the one posed by Kafka– “What must we do in order to live?”–since the goal here is not living, but dislodging and destruction. This is the first war to be waged with bulldozers. This is an attempt at deterritorialisation without historical precedent. This is total warfare that targets the civilian population and the land . This is war in an age of agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, seeking not the division of territory but its abolition.

Christian Salmon is the author of Tombeau de la fiction, Denoel, Paris, 1999 and Censure! Censure!, Stock, Paris, 2000. He is also the founder and executive director of the International Writers’ Parliament, for which he edits the journal Autodafe. This essay originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

Translated by Luke Sandford

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