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Warehousing Palestinians

by JEFF HALPER

So rapid is the pace of systemic change in that indivisible entity known as Palestine/Israel that it almost defies our ability to keep up with it. The deliberate and systematic campaign of driving Palestinians out of the country in 1948 was quickly forgotten, the plight of more than 700,000 refugees becoming an invisible “non-issue.” Instead, a plucky, European, “socialist” Israel arose as the darling of even the radical left, completely eclipsing the campaign of ethnic cleansing which enabled its creation.

Likewise Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, which remained a virtual non-issue until the outbreak of the first Intifada in the last days of 1987. The only part of the conflict which did appear on the public radar was the equation of Palestinians with terrorism. Until the start of the Oslo negotiations in 1993, even the mention of the word “occupation,” not to mention “Palestinians,” would have gotten you labeled an anti-Semite – terms that until today are seldom used in Israel. Even when the conflict, if not the Occupation per se, became an international issue, Israeli ruled the all-important realm of PR. The most telling argument against the Palestinian struggle is the widespread notion that Arafat refused Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” at Camp David. The facts of the matter – that there never was a “generous offer” and that even if Barak had offered 95% of the Occupied Territories (as Olmert has recently “offered” 93%), a Palestinian state would constitute little more than a truncated and non-viable South African bantustan on less than 20% of historic Palestine – disappear in the spin. All that remains is a re-demonized Arafat. Sharon’s subsequent imprisoning the Palestinian president in a dark room of his demolished headquarters, eliminating him politically and, I believe, physically, raised virtually no opposition or even criticism in the international community.

For all that, a determined effort of civil society groups around the world – human rights and political organizations, church and critical Jewish groups, trade unions, intellectuals and even certain political figures, in Israel as well as abroad – succeeded in the past decade or so in raising the Occupation to the status of global issue. No sooner had the concept of Occupation taken hold, however, than Israel’s feverish expansion of the “facts on the ground” overtook that term. For an occupation is defined in international law as “a temporary military situation.” The establishment of more than 200 Jewish-only settlements and outposts in the Occupied Territories, organized into seven large settlement “blocs” anchored by more than 20 are major urban centers, all tied inextricably into Israel proper by a massive network of Israeli-only highways and, most recently, the Separation Barrier, have rendered the Occupation permanent. No longer either temporary or security-based, one indivisible system, an Israeli system, has grown up between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Before our eyes those willing to look unflinchingly saw the truth: whether committed to a two-state solution or not, the Occupation has been transformed into a permanent state of apartheid. It is as yet an de facto reality. If the “Annapolis Process” works out according to Israel’s plan, it will become a de jure system of apartheid, cleverly sold as a “two-state solution” and approved by a Palestinian collaborationist-leader.

Annapolis does not really matter, however. Israel knows that neither the Palestinians nor the international civil society will accept apartheid. Its function is what all the other “political processes” of the past four decades were intended to do: put off any solution that would require Israel to make meaningful concessions while giving it the political cover and time to create irreversible facts on the ground. Israel’s “Occupation” has moved beyond apartheid, a term that has become outmoded almost as soon as it began gaining acceptance amidst great protest and clamor. What has evolved before our eyes, something we should have seen but lacked a reference for, is a system of warehousing, a static situation emptied of all political content.  “What Israel has constructed,” argues Naomi Klein in her powerful new book, The Shock Doctrine,

is a system,…a network of open holding pens for millions of people who have been categorized as surplus humanity….Palestinians are not the only people in the world who have been so categorized….This discarding of 25 to 60 percent of the population has been the hallmark of the Chicago School [of Economics] crusade….In South Africa, Russia and New Orleans the rich build walls around themselves. Israel has taken this disposal process a step further: it has built walls around the dangerous poor (p. 442).

Israel’s facts on the ground are merely the physical expression of a policy that seeks to de-politicize and thereby normalize its control. The Israel/Palestinian conflict is not presented as a conflict with “sides” and a political dynamic. Instead it is cast as a “war on terrorism,” a fight with a phenomenon that eliminates – or presents as irrelevant – any reference to occupation, which Israel officially denies having. Since “terrorism” and the “clash of civilizations” which underlies it is portrayed as a self-evident and permanent “given,” it assumes the form of a non-issue, a status quo (Israel’s official term for its policy towards the Palestinians) immune to any solution and or process of negotiation. If the terrorists and their ilk – jailed prisoners, illegal immigrants, slum dwellers and the poor, the discontented victims of “counter-insurgency,” adherents to “evil” religions, ideologies or cultures, to name just a few – are permanent fixtures to be dealt with rather than people whose grievances, needs and rights should be addressed, then prisons, including prisons-writ-large such as Gaza, the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a whole and entire populations and regions, are the penultimate solution.

Warehousing, then, is the best, if bleakest, term for what Israel is constructing for the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. It is in many ways worse than the Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa. The ten non-viable “homelands” established by South Africa for the black African majority on only 11% of the country’s land were, to be sure, a type of warehouse. They were intended to supply South Africa with cheap labor while relieving it of its black population, thus making possible a European dominated “democracy.” This is precisely what Israel is intending – its Palestinian Bantustan encompassing around 15% of historic Palestine – but with a crucial caveat: Palestinian workers will not be allowed into Israel. Having discovered a cheaper source of labor, some 300,000 foreign workers imported from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Rumania and West Africa, augmented by its own Arab, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Russian and Eastern European citizens, Israel can afford to lock them out even while withholding from them a viable economy of their own with unfettered ties to the surrounding Arab countries. From every point of view, historically, culturally, politically and economically, the Palestinians have been defined as “surplus humanity;” nothing remains to do with them except warehousing, which the concerned international community appears willing to allow Israel to do.

Since warehousing is a global phenomenon and Israel is pioneering a model for it, what is happening to the Palestinians should be of concern to everyone. It may constitute an entirely new crime against humanity, and as such should be subject to the universal jurisdiction of the world’s courts just as are other egregious violations of human rights. In this sense Israel’s “Occupation” has implications far beyond a localized conflict between two peoples. If Israel can package and export its layered Matrix of Control, a system of permanent repression that combines Kafkaesque administration, law and planning with overtly coercive forms of control over a defined population hemmed in by hostile gated communities (settlements in this case), walls and obstacles of various kinds to movement, then, as Klein writes starkly, every country will look like Israel/Palestine: “One part looks like Israel; the other part looks like Gaza.” In other words, a Global Palestine.

This goes a long way towards explaining why Israel is unconcerned about entering into genuine peace processes or resolving its conflict with the Palestinians. By warehousing them it has the best of both worlds: complete freedom to expand its settlements and control without ever having to compromise, as a political solution would require. By the same token, it explains why the international community lets Israel “get away with it.” Instead of presenting the international community with thorny issues that must be resolved – violations of human rights, international law and repeated UN resolutions, let alone the implications of the conflict itself on international politics and economy – it is instead seen as providing a valued service: developing a model by which “surplus populations” everywhere can be controlled, managed and contained.

Israel, then is in complete sync with both the economic and military logics of global capitalism, for which it is being rewarded generously. Our mistake, encouraged by such terms as “conflict,” “occupation” and “apartheid,” is to view Israel’s control of the Palestinians as a political issue which must be resolved. Instead, it will be “resolved” when the Palestinians are “disappeared,” just as people were “disappeared” in Latin American under its military regimes. Dov Weisglass, the architect of the Sharon government’s “disengagement” from Gaza, said as much in a revealing interview (“The Big Freeze,” Ha’aretz Magazine, Oct. 8, 2004):

The disengagement plan is the preservative of the sequence principle. It is the bottle of formaldehyde within which you place the president’s formula [that Israel can retain its settlement “blocs,” including a Greater Jerusalem] so that it will be preserved for a very lengthy period. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.

Is what you are saying, then, is that you exchanged the strategy of a long-term interim agreement for a strategy of long-term interim situation?

The American term is to park conveniently. The disengagement plan makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians. There is a decision here to do the minimum possible in order to maintain our political situation. The decision is proving itself. It is making it possible for the Americans to go to the seething and simmering international community and say to them, “What do you want.” It also transfers the initiative to our hands. It compels the world to deal with our idea, with the scenario we wrote….

Warehousing is the starkest of political concepts because it represents the de-politicization of repression, the transformation of a political issue of the first degree into a non-issue, a regrettable but unavoidable situation best dealt with through relief, charity and humanitarian programs, together with schemes for economic “development.” It is a dead-end, a “given,” for which no remedy is available. This, of course, is not the case, and we cannot let it be presented as such. Warehousing is a policy arising out of particular interests of the most powerful. Our use of the term “warehousing,” then, should be to “name the thing” in order to give us a grasp of it, all the better to combat and defeat it. Again Israel provides an instructive (and heartening) example. Despite the almost unlimited and unchecked power Israel has over every element of Palestinian life, including the active support of the US, Europe and much of the international community, including some Arab and Muslim regimes, it has failed to nail down either apartheid or warehousing. Palestinian resistance continues, supported by the Arab and wider Muslim peoples, significant sectors of the international civil society and the critical Israeli peace camp. The conflict’s destabilizing effect on the international system grows steadily, so that it may eventually force the international community to intervene. Neither the Israelis nor the Americans (with European complicity) are able, despite their overwhelming power, to force on the Palestinians the outcome they seek.

The term “warehousing,” then, though referring to a real phenomenon, is also meant as a warning. We must continue our efforts to end the Israeli Occupation, even if this is means, ultimately, the creation of a genuine Palestine/Israel or a wider regional confederation, rather than apartheid-cum-two-state solution or warehousing. Looking at Palestine as a microcosm of a broader global reality of warehousing enables us to more effectively identify those elements appearing elsewhere and grasp the model which Israel is developing, all the better to counter it. Regardless, our language, and the analysis it generates, must not only be honest and unsparing; it must keep pace with political intentions and the ever more rapidly expanding “facts on the ground.”

JEFF HALPER is the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).  He can be reached at jeff@icahd.org.

 

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