24 September, 2006

Conference: Palestine as ‘State of Exception’: a Global Paradigm (part one)

I went to this conference recently in Trinity College Dublin’s Institute for International Integration Studies. In her introductory comments, Ronit Lentin of IIIS and TCD talked about Edward Said’s ideas regarding the distinctness of Palestinian history as distinct to that of the Arab world generally – the Palestinian experience of oppression and rolling dispossession has created a uniquely Palestinian identity. The idea behind this conference was to discuss the Palestinian experience in the context of ideas around state security regimes developed by Carl Schmitt, Michel Foucault, and Giorgio Agamben. The term ‘state of exception’ is a literal translation of the German Ausnahmezustand, or state of emergency; the Palestinian identity has been shaped by near continuous experience of such a state of exception. However, the rest of us are seeing states of emergency becoming institutionalised as part of the War on Terror – as rights are taken away, the state of exception becomes increasingly unexceptional.

Usual caveats apply – my description of what the speakers had to say relies on my scratchy notes and what my faulty memory recalls about the event. I therefore apologise in advance to any of the speakers who stumble across what I have written and find that I have completely misrepresented them.

The conference’s first proper speaker was David Theo Goldberg. He talked about how Palestinian racial identities have been constructed, more in terms of how Zionist settlers and later Israelis defined “Palestinians” rather than how the locals defined themselves. Early ideas of the Arabs of Palestine as people over whom a benign hegemony could be asserted evaporated in the face of determined (if ineffectual) resistance to the Zionist project, leading to a switch in which the Palestinians were recast as an endlessly demonized and bestial Other. That leads to the Palestinians being in practice stripped of any rights they might expect to have in a normal liberal democratic polity, reduced to the status of what Agamben would call homo sacer, a state of bare life where one exists merely at the whim of the dominant party. This was all pretty interesting, but a bit heavy on the sociology for me. And I did think that maybe Professor Goldberg was going a bit overboard when he said that in the current War on Terror, with the continuous erosion of civil liberties, we are all Palestinians, or potential Palestinians; I don’t think there is any real likelihood of some cockfarmer putting a wall and a load of checkpoints between me and where my parents live.

Ilan Pappe spoke next. While not exactly a household name, he is one of the most important of the Israeli “New Historians”. He talked about the ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing that the Palestinians have had to contend with since the fighting that erupted in the last months of the Mandate. In the past, such things were swept under the carpet within Israel, but more recently the past expulsion of Palestinians has come to be seen as a necessary part of the creation of the Israeli state. More recently, some Israelis have become exercised by the fear that Palestinians will outbreed them and become a majority in the territory west of the Jordan river – the so-called “demographic problem”. Dr. Pappe ties this fear to the essentially unquestioned idea with Israel – that the less Palestinians there are within the country’s borders, the better; Right and Left differ only in how they propose to advance this goal – by expulsion or by redrawing borders.

Dr. Pappe then went on to talk about how the Palestinians have responded to their rolling dispossession. The first strategy was based on nationalism and attempting to cast their struggle as one of anti-colonialism. This was the approach of Yasser Arafat, Fatah, and the mainstream of the PLO. It led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the limited self-rule of pockets of Palestinian territory, but it has proved to be a failure. Dr. Pappe sees its failure as being intrinsic to its status as a nationalist discourse – the world, seeing a conflict between a Palestinian nationalism and an Israeli nationalism attempted to broker a kind of compromise between them, but one based on partition that had no viability (I am not entirely clear whether Dr Pappe is talking of the non-viability of partition based on creating a Palestinian state on all of the territory in Mandate Palestine beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders, of if he means the attempts by Clinton et al. to railroad Arafat into an agreement that sees Israel gobble up all of Jerusalem and large swathes of the West Bank. Dr Pappe would probably feel that the problem with either of these is that they do nothing for the victims of past expulsions – those rotting in refugee camps in Lebanon are not going to be returning).

The second strategy of the Palestinians has been to rely on Islamism as mobilising strategy. While this is still ongoing, Dr Pappe does not see it as having any great likelihood of bringing about an improvement in the situation. He therefore turns to the third strategy, one only now emerging – one of post-nationalism where human rights rather than religious zeal or national rights would be the focus of demands for a halt to the dispossession of Palestinians and a reversal of past expulsions. Dr Pappe talks of campaigning for the emergence of a single state west of the Jordan River, where no religious, national, or ethnic group enjoys any kind of ascendancy over any other.

Now, this might sound utopian, but Dr Pappe sees this as a more credible goal to strive for than something based on national or religious particularism. I do not know if I agree with him on this, but the failure of the other strategies to yield any positive results is striking. Dr Pappe notes how ethnic cleansing is now widely seen as an unacceptable act. The US State Department’s own mission statement stating an uncompromising commitment to the absolute right of refugees to return to their countries of origin, so it’s not like advocating the right of return for Palestinian refugees should be seen as some kind of ultra-leftist madness.

(part two to follow shortly)

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