The Palestinians: Warehousing a “surplus people”


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 became the darling of even the radical left, and for many years after 1967 Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza also remained a non-issue. Even the mention of the word "occupation," not to mention "Palestinians," would get you labeled an anti-Semite in a wink of the eye, especially given the identity of Palestinians with terrorism in the 1970s and early ’80s. Only with the outbreak of the first Intifada in late 1987 did the situation of the! Palestinians under Israeli rule show upon the radar of public consciousness, in Israel as elsewhere, becoming a full-fledged and official "issue" with the opening of the Madrid and Oslo peace talks in the early 1990s. Still, Israeli ruled the all-important realm of PR. Once Arafat refused Ehud Barak’s "generous offer" – a mythical proposal which put a positive spin on a blatant attempt to impose an apartheid regime of "cantons" on the Palestinians – the campaign to re-demonize Arafat and his people proved a relatively simple exercise. Sharon’s imprisoning the Palestinian president in a dark room of his demolished headquarters, eliminating him politically, and I believe, physically, raised virtually no major opposition or even criticism in the international community.

 

Still, a growing movement among civil society groups – 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. A critical mass of descriptions of Israel’s "facts on the ground, combined with the witness of international activists on the ground and a growing body of analyses critical of Israel’s policies and intent, rendered both the term "occupation" and critiques of it valid in public and political discourse, despite the fact that Israel continued to deny the fact of occupation, casting its rule as one of "administration" over a "disputed territory."

 

The rapid expansion of the facts on the ground, however, continued to overtake language and political analysis. An occupation is defined in international law as "a temporary military situation." While the establishment of more than 200 settlements and outposts in the Occupied Territories, all tied inextricably into Israel proper by a massive network of Israeli-only highways and, ultimately, the Separation Barrier, seemed to indicate that the Occupation was no longer temporary, that it grown into one indivisible system between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, many Palestinians, Israelis and international observers and decision-makers alike, committed to a two-state solution, were loathe to admit the transformation of the Occupation into a permanent state of apartheid. The implications of so doing were simply too daunting. The transfor! mation of the Occupation into a country-wide system of apartheid meant the end of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state – unless apartheid could somehow be packaged as a two-state solution, a sleight-of-hand to which many liberal Israeli and Jewish peace groups have succumbed. Nevertheless, slowly, painfully (as Jimmy Carter discovered), the realization that we now have a de facto regime of apartheid over all Israel-Palestine – officially sanctioned if the Annapolis Process succeeds – has begun to sink in, although resistance, even among the Israeli peace movement, is still strong.

 

Yet no sooner have we begun to shift from occupation to apartheid than political realities, defined in large part by an accelerated Israeli campaign of expanding its facts on the ground, have rendered even that conception, radical only a few months ago, completely outmoded. Signs of this came, fittingly enough, from South Africans who knew the apartheid regime there intimately. While experiences of oppression cannot be compared in any objective way and cannot be minimized, a number of prominent South Africans – most of whom were labeled "terrorists," a favorite term employed by colonial regimes to discredit indigenous struggles for freedom – have commented that what is happening to the Palestinians goes beyond even the despicable system they lived under. While black South Africans were deprived of their rights, apartheid’s policy of "separa! te development" did not deny the very existence of black African peoples and nations, as does Israel‘s policy of "Judaization." Demolishing the homes of African blacks was a common policy, but it was never as extensive as Israel’s practice, which has seen some 18,000 Palestinian homes demolished in the Occupied Territories since 1967, on the background of tens of thousands of other within Israel, a policy extending from 1948 until today – ethnic cleansing in a most tangible form. Torture and imprisonment under Israel’s Occupation and more widespread and institutionalized than they were in South Africa, Israeli courts are far less likely to challenge military policies or actions, and the level of violence is far higher: Apache helicopters never strafed Soweto nor were ANC leaders systematically assassinated in their dozens. Even segregation, the very essence of apartheid, is more complete, more institutionalized and more rigorously enforced that it was in South Africa. !

 

Overall, while both peoples suffered extreme economic oppression leading to the impoverishment of their entire populations, the daily repression suffered by Palestinians is on a scale that apparently surpasses that of South Africa in its apartheid days. "The absolute control of people’s lives," said Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a former deputy minister of defense and of health and a current member of Parliament on a recent visit to the West Bank, "the lack of freedom of movement, the army presence everywhere, the total separation and the extensive destruction we saw….What I see here is worse than what we experienced.." Ronnie Kasrils, a Jewish South African cabinet minister and former ANC guerrilla, concurred. "This is much worse than apartheid. The Israeli measures, the brutality, make apartheid look like a picni! c. We never had jets attacking our townships. We never had sieges that lasted month after month. We never had tanks destroying houses. We had armoured vehicles and police using small arms to shoot people but not on this scale." John Dugard, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 to the United Nations Human Rights Council: "Many aspects of Israel‘s occupation surpass those of the apartheid regime. Israel‘s large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, leveling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestinians far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa. No wall was ever built to separate blacks and whites." Dugard, a prominent South African judge, wrote in his report to the United Nations Human Rights Council: "Many aspects of Israel‘s occupation surpass those of the apartheid regime. Israel‘s large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, leveling of agricultur! al lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestini ans far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa. No wall was ever built to separate blacks and whites."

 

Apartheid is nevertheless a useful term. It advances the political discussion in that it helps people to "get it," to understand that we are speaking of a system that has gone beyond occupation in its scale and permanence. Boiled down to its essentials, apartheid comprises two elements: the separation of populations, whether on a racial basis or, in the case of Israel, according to religion or nationality, and the subsequent domination of one privileged people over others, institutionalized into a permanent system, supported by law. Not only do these elements accurately describe the system Israel has instituted over the entire country, Israel and the Occupied Territories included, but the Israeli government itself calls its system apartheid: hafrada in Hebrew, "separation" in English. The wall Israel is constructing is officially nam! ed the "Separation Barrier" (Mikhshol HaHafrada), not the "Security Barrier." Its tortuous route deep into the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, where it incorporates seven major "settlement blocs" into Israel comprising 80% of the settlers, is known as Israel‘s "demographic border." In the end, Israel will expand to about 85% of the country, take all of its resources and elements of sovereignty (such as control of movement and borders), and leave the Palestinian majority to live in a truncated bantustan with no meaningful sovereignty, no freedom and no economy.

 

Apartheid is linked to occupation in the sense that both are conceived as political situations, as political issues that must be resolved by the parties with the intervention of the international community. Both possess a political dynamic involving grassroots resistance, the mobilizing of public opinion and political forces, appeals to international law, human rights and competing political claims. Israel‘s "Occupation," now more than four decades old, fully entrenched and with no end in sight, appears to have moved beyond both of these systems. It has evolved into a system of warehousing, a static situation emptied of all political content (Israel‘s policies are cast as a "war on terrorism" with no reference to occupation, which Israel officially denies having), which Israel is attempting to present as a permanent "given," a non-issue, a ! state of status quo (another Israeli term for its policy towards the Palestinians) immune to any genuine solution. "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).

 

Warehousing is the best, if bleakest, term for what Israel is constructing for the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. It is indeed worse than the apartheid-era South African bantustans. The ten non-viable mini-states 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 15% of historic Palestine, but with a crucial caveat: Palestinian workers will not be allowed into Israel, which has found a cheaper source of labor, some 300,000 foreign workers imported from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Rumania and West Africa, au! gmented by its own Arab, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Russian and Eastern European citizens. 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.

 

Not only should the permanent warehousing of an entire people be of concern to the Palestinians and those who support them, it should, as Klein stresses, concern anyone troubled with warehousing as a global phenomenon. In fact, it may constitute an entirely new crime against humanity, one that affects, Klein says, those who have been judged irrevocably superfluous: the urban poor (more than a billion of whom are imprisoned in what Mike David, in his seminal book Planet of Slums, calls global slums), the rural poor, particular minorities, refugees and undocumented immigrants and, most recently, peoples, religions and countries demonized for political purposes as "evil" or "uncivilized." To the extent that what we call Israel‘s "Occupation" is, in fact, a model of warehousing, it 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 issues that must be resolved – violations of human rights, international law and repeated UN resolutions, let alone the implications of the conflict itself – it is instead providing a valued service: it is offering a useful model that can applied to "surplus populations" everywhere, including right at home.

 

Israel, then is in complete sinc 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 most stark of political concepts because it represents the de-politization 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. It is a dead-end, a "given," for which no remedy is available. This, of course, is not the case. Warehousing is a policy, an economic and political consequence that can be addressed to the degree that a just "structural adjustment" is made to the system, including the possibility of replacing it if it proves recalcitrant. Using the term "warehousing," then, is not meant to name the final stage of repression but, rather, to highlight it so as to better eliminate it. For despite the almost unlimited and unchecked power Israel has over every element of Palestinian life, it has failed to nail down either apartheid or warehousing. Palestinian resistance continues, supported by the Ar! ab 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; and neither the Israelis nor the Americans (with European complicity) can force the outcome they seek, despite their overwhelming power.

 

The term "warehousing," then, is meant as a warning. We must continue our efforts to end the Israeli Occupation, even if this is meant in a wider sense, of creating a genuine Palestine/Israel, or a wider regional confederation, rather than an apartheid-cum-two-state solution or outright warehousing. Yet 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; they must keep pace with political intentions and ever more rapidly developing "facts on the ground." 

 

 

(Jeff Halper is the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). He can be reached at [email protected])

Leave a comment