Oren Yiftachel
The National (Opinion)
January 15, 2009 - 1:00am

Let us start with the current sad irony: the invasion and destruction of Gaza is being carried out by an ousted Israeli government, and actively supported by a defeated US administration. Yet, the two outgoing governments are colluding against a democratically elected government of Palestine. Further, instead of sanctioning Israel for placing Gaza under siege for the last two years, and for occupying Palestine for the last four decades, the world has imposed sanctions on the Hamas government. Gazans are being punished twice: by occupation, and for their resistance.

Let us hear the leaders: “We have a great opportunity now in Gaza to smash and flatten them… we should destroy thousand of houses, tunnels and industries, and kill as many terrorists as possible…” So says Eli Yishai, Israel’s deputy prime minister. The foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, promises “to topple the Hamas regime”. Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, wants to “hermetically seal” the Gaza-Egypt border.

These statements sketch in painful clarity the “political geography of mass incarceration” being created now in Israel/Palestine. Large populations are locked into delimited areas against their will, often against international law, and subject to the mercy of their wardens. When the conditions become unbearable, rebellions erupt, to be suppressed by violent collective punishment, setting the conditions for the next uprising.

European imperialists once used mass incarceration of indigenous groups, condensing them into reserves and Bantustans, to enable whites to exploit land, minerals and labour. Mass incarceration was typically employed when the colonial power lost its ability to control by softer means, or when the option of extermination or expulsion was no longer available.

The key to the political incarceration is preventing the rebellious prison-land from gaining sovereignty, leaving it neither in nor out of the state system. Its resistance is criminalised.

Gaza was made an open-air jail when more than 150,000 Palestinian refugees were driven there by the formation of Israel. They joined its 60,000 previous residents, and were never allowed to return. During the peace process of the 1990s, the incarceration of Gaza intensified, with closures, movement restrictions, and the construction of a massive encircling barrier. Following Hamas’s election victory in 2006, Israel’s internationally illegal siege of an area it had supposedly quit intensified, with a near total blockade.

Israel’s ethnocratic regime has worked incessantly to Judaise the country, by confiscating Palestinian lands, constructing Jewish settlements, and restricting the Palestinians to small enclaves. The policy began with the military government inside the Green Line before 1966, and the establishment of a “fenced area” for the Bedouin, which still operates. Since the 1990s, the ghettoisation of Palestinians deepened. Areas were demarcated in the occupied territories, littered with checkpoints, and finally rounded off with “the wall” – all intended to fragment what some hope to recognise as Palestine into dozens of isolated enclaves. Mass incarceration was deemed necessary to protect Jewish settlers. Over 10,000 prisoners are now interned without trial, including dozens of Palestinian parliamentarians; they exist in prisons within prisons.

The difference between Gaza and the other enclaves is the depth of its isolation and its persistent rebellions. Its people endorsed Hamas, which never accepted the Oslo illusion, or believed the promise of two states enshrined in the “roadmap” or “Annapolis process”. They code the promise as empty rhetoric, while their homeland continues to be stolen.

Personal, commercial and financial freedom to move is essential for development and prosperity. But the geography of mass incarceration keeps the Palestinians outside the door, protecting Jewish economic privileges, and preventing free market competition.

Palestinian violence played its part in making this geography, through the hostile dialectic between coloniser and colonised. The shelling of Israeli civilians and previous suicide bombings are indeed acts of terror, which encouraged and excused Israel’s mass incarceration policy. But Palestinian violence, including the shelling from Gaza, should be considered in as prison uprisings, suppressed by the use of state terror, which kills far more civilians than the prisoners do.

Therefore, a process of creeping apartheid is underway in Israel/Palestine. Rights are determined by ethnic affiliation and place of birth. Jews are free to move and purchase land in almost the entire area under Israeli control, while Palestinians are limited to enclaves – Gazans in Gaza only, Jerusalemites only in Jerusalem, Bedouin in the Negev, and so on.

Israelis do not seem to realise that this geography of mass incarceration cannot last. It can never receive legitimacy from the prisoners. We cannot create security as jailors. There is much to say about the need for Palestinians to choose different methods of resistance, but for us, Israeli Jews, it may be time to heed Mahmoud Darwish’s wise advice to his jailer:

“I shall still teach you how to wait/ at the gate of my postponed death/ slowly slowly/ perhaps you will have enough of me/ and will rid yourself of my cross/ and enter your own night liberated/ from my ghostly shadow.”


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