Frontiers and Ghettos:
State Violence in Serbia and Israel
by James Ron,
University of California Press.
In what direction are Israeli-Palestinian relations heading? Will the imminent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip lead the two parties closer to a peace agreement? Or will the fighting between the two peoples reemerge with a vengeance once Jewish settlements have been dismantled and Israeli troops redeployed? In order to gain insight into what lies ahead, it is important first to analyze the use of violence in the region, asking ourselves why the employment of force was less lethal in certain areas than in others. This is precisely the question James Ron asks in his daring and groundbreaking book Frontiers and Ghettos.
Ron’s basic and straightforward insight is that state violence is dramatically shaped by the institutional setting in which it takes place. A sociology professor at McGill University, Ron holds the Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Human Rights. He analyzes Serbian behavior in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sandzak and Vojvodina, and Israeli behavior in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Lebanon, employing two spatial metaphors — frontiers and ghettos. One reads that the crucial difference between frontiers and ghettos is the extent to which states control these arenas — legally and bureaucratically — and feel a moral and political sense of responsibility for their fate.
QUOTE “States enjoy an unrivaled level of control over the ghetto’s borders and territory, suppressing challenges to their monopoly and force. Although this grants states some distinct advantages, it also implies important responsibilities. Ghetto residents are despised members of society, but both local and international rules stipulate that the state bears substantial responsibility for their welfare. Frontiers, by contrast, are perched on the edge of core states and are not fully incorporated into their zone of control. States do not dominate frontiers as they do ghettos, and they are not bound by the same legal and moral obligations. In times of crisis and uncertainty, frontiers more easily become sites of ethnic cleansing.”
In others words, ghettos are densely institutionalized by the core state, since they are within its legal sphere of influence, and serve as repositories for unwanted and marginalized populations. Frontiers, on the other hand, are distinguished from the core state by clear boundaries, and are only thinly institutionalized arenas. The different institutional settings determine the kind of violence employed. Whereas ghettos are characterized by ethnic policing, mass incarceration and ongoing harassment, frontiers are more prone to brutal and lawless violence. State violence, Ron claims, is organized very differently at the core, within the bureaucratic-legal zone of power, than it is in regions which are not incorporated into the core state’s institutional apparatus.
In the section that deals with Israel, Ron’s research concentrates on the first Intifada (December 1987 to 1993). His goal is to explain “why Israel engaged in ethnic policing rather than ethnic cleansing during the Palestinian uprising, despite the potential for more despotic measures.” It is within this context that he distinguishes between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which he characterizes as a ghetto, and Lebanon, which he considers to be Israel’s frontier.
Ron begins, however, by reminding his readers that in 1948 “Jewish troops participated in the often forced removal of some 750,000 Palestinians over international borders in a campaign that today would be termed ethnic cleansing.” He goes on to show that Israel has employed much more lethal methods on its frontier — Lebanon — than it has in the Occupied Territories. In the fifteen-day operation dubbed Grapes of Wrath (1996) the Israeli air-force carried out 600 sorties, the military fired 25,000 artillery shells, killed 154 civilians, and displaced 400,000 Lebanese. Three years earlier, in Operation Accountability, Israel killed 120 civilians and displaced 300,000 more. Ron traces these operations to the 1970s, showing how the more recent military campaigns are no different from operations Israel carried out in June 1974 and May 1975. He also discusses the Litani operation of 1978, as well as the Lebanon war and its aftermath, highlighting some of the similarities to the Serbian experience in Sand ak, particularly Israel’s use of the Phalange militias and the South Lebanese Army.
Ron concludes this section by noting that Lebanon has always been external to “Israel’s formal zone of responsibility, separated by a sovereign border from the norms and laws of Israeli state and society. As Israeli rights group B’tselem noted, the Israeli public debate almost completely ignored the suffering and injustice inflicted on Lebanese civilians,’ suggesting that unlike the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, Lebanese civilians were not part of the collective Israeli consciousness.'” Put differently, if Israel had employed the same methods in the Occupied Territories as the ones used in Lebanon, it would have been “tearing at the fabric of its own state.”
Whereas the Israeli military in Lebanon was distant and ferocious, striking with great intensity but making little effort to penetrate and manage Lebanese society, Ron shows that in the West Bank and Gaza Israel created a system of control, which was devised to monitor and circumscribe each and every aspect of Palestinian life. Shortly after the 1967 War Israel realized that it could not properly control the Occupied Territories if it did not seal its boundaries from external infiltrations of fedayeen (Palestinian guerrilla fighters). Simultaneously, it rapidly worked to suppress internal resistance, and began rationalizing its mechanisms of control by installing a complex bureaucratic-legal apparatus within the regions it occupied. It also incorporated Palestinian laborers into the Israeli workforce.
Ron illustrates how the military government monitored Palestinian society, surveying the precise number of “licensed carpenters, printing presses, fire trucks and water wells.” There were even detailed inventories of Palestinian workshops for cement, furniture, cigarettes, soap, metals, olive products and sweets. “Nothing was too small to count, and no object was too minor to register. Perhaps most significant was the state’s registration of the Palestinian population itself and its creation of detailed document-verification procedures.” The crucial point is that by inscribing Palestinian lives into Israel’s bureaucratic registries, they became objects of state responsibility. The “ghettoization” of the West Bank and Gaza functioned, in other words, as a mechanism of restraint, limiting Israel’s options with respect to the employment of violence.
As we will see momentarily, the more recent process whereby the Sharon government has been turning the Occupied Territories into a frontier entails a qualitative change in the kind of violence Israel uses. Here, though, it is important to underscore that the regulations Israel set up in the territories served as the nuts and bolts of a controlling system until the Oslo process. And while Israel used harsh and painful violence, its actions were subordinate to the “rule of law” and therefore constrained. As Frontiers and Ghettos underscores, the Israeli security forces employed “police style” methods in their attempt to quell the first uprising, incarcerating tens of thousands of Palestinians while subjecting thousands of them to torture; Israel refrained, however, from employing the kinds of methods it used in Lebanon. Ron’s theoretical model accordingly helps explain why, despite Israel’s overwhelming firepower and the constant confrontations between demonstrators and the military during the first Intifada, “soldiers killed only 204 Palestinians between December 9, 1987, and November 15, 1988, the most intense phase of the uprising.”
While Ron’s argument is persuasive, it is crucial to keep in mind that the institutional apparatus which constrains the use of violence, is, in and of itself, a form of violence. Ron fails to emphasize this dimension in his book, thus eliding an important aspect of Israel’s occupation. This form of violence may not be as lethal, but its effects are often no less devastating. In the West Bank and Gaza, for example, one of the consequences of the bureaucratic-legal system that Israel introduced has been the complete fragmentation of Palestinian society. Social fragmentation may, at first, appear to be less brutal than artillery, but in many respects its long-term ramifications are more destructive to the fabric of Palestinian society.
Frontiers and Ghettos is important not only because it helps us understand the past, but also because it provides us with tools to analyze the political processes that are currently unfolding in the region. One of these processes is the ongoing trend of transforming the West Bank and Gaza from ghettos into frontiers. This change began immediately after Oslo, when Israel started curtailing its institutional apparatus in these regions.
In 1994, the Palestinian Authority willingly took on the role of managing the daily lives of the inhabitants in the Occupied Territories. Within a matter of months, the civil institutions needed to administer populations in modern societies — inter alia education, health and welfare — were passed from Israel to the hands of the fledgling authority, which was also given some limited form of sovereignty. Israel, however, maintained control over security matters (at least in areas B and C which comprise 80 percent of the territory). The borders separating Israel proper (pre-1967 borders) from the West Bank and Gaza became much clearer, so much so that access to the Strip was denied to all Israelis except for soldiers and settlers. Even Knesset members can no longer enter Gaza. The overwhelming majority of Palestinian laborers who had been incorporated into Israel’s workforce, and were therefore part of the daily scenery inside Israel, disappeared as their right of entry into Israel was revoked. The limited — and albeit very hierarchical — integration of the two societies unraveled, disintegrated, and a sharp bifurcation swiftly emerged.
Changes in the Gaza Strip occurred earlier than in the West Bank and have been more dramatic, particularly following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the area. According to B’tselem, the level of violence has increased dramatically. In the first ten months after the official decision to dismantle the settlements and withdraw from the Strip, Israeli forces killed 563 Palestinians in Gaza, while during the previous ten months period 264 were killed. But even before Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza, Israel’s repertoires of violence were modified and in no way compare to those used during the years preceding the Al-Aqsa Intifada. If in the thirteen year period between December 1987 and September 2000, 1359 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli security forces, in the four and a half years that followed over 3,100 have been killed.
To be sure, the fact that in this Intifada the Palestinians have been using firearms and suicide bombers has had an impact on the level of violence, but forms of Palestinian resistance only partially explain Israel’s violence. Moreover, in June 2004, Ha’aretz journalist Akiva Eldar revealed that the top Israeli security echelons were interested in “fanning the flames” during the Intifada’s first weeks. He cites Amos Malka, who was the military general in charge of intelligence at the time, as saying that during the first month, when the uprising was still mostly characterized by non-violent popular protests, the military fired 1.3 million bullets in the West Bank and Gaza. The idea was to intensify the levels of violence, thinking that this would lead to military victory.
Israel now regularly uses F-16 jets, apache helicopters and tanks to bomb Palestinian cities, a form of violence that was hardly — if ever — utilized in the West Bank and Gaza in the past. Extra-judicial executions have become common practice as have massive demolitions of houses. In the Gaza Strip alone Israel has destroyed 2,548 houses since the beginning of the second Intifada, leaving over 24,000 people homeless. The southern Lebanese peasants could, at least, flee northwards, a non-existent option for the inhabitant of Gaza.
Frontiers and Ghettos also suggests that alongside the transformation of the means of violence one should expect to see a corresponding change in Israel’s sense of moral responsibility towards the occupied population. And indeed, it is no longer the case that Israeli liberals underscore their country’s ethical obligations toward their occupied neighbors, as they did when these regions were ghettos. In many ways the Palestinians have become Lebanese. Israel is now less interested in penetrating and managing the lives of the Palestinians and is more willing to employ brutal violence to quell any resistance. Insofar as this is the case, it is likely that at least in the near future the violence in the West Bank and Gaza will only become more ferocious.
NEVE GORDON, who teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, is a visiting scholar in the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the editor of From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org