01 October, 2006

Conference: Palestine as 'State of Exception': a Global Paradigm (part two)

Remember part one?

On the second day, Raef Zreik opened by talking about the constitutional setup in Israel. Legal theory imagines other countries as moving from a chaotic revolutionary situation where all metaphorical gloves are off to one bound by constitutional niceties, while in Israel the revolutionary state of emergency has remained in being while the forms of constitutionality have been adopted. He also mentioned an odd feature of the country – that the state notionally exists not just for the benefit of its actual inhabitants, but also for all Jews everywhere, giving Israel a notional constituency several times larger than its actual citizenry.

Honaida Ghanim began with an account of a named Palestinian woman who found herself giving birth at an Israeli army checkpoint, losing the child. She discussed the incident in terms of it being almost the perfect atrocity, and then went on to talk about the Palestinians living in a situation of endlessly terminable bare life, subject to total biological control by the Israeli powers that be. More sociology.

Laleh Khalili discussed the relationship of Hezbollah with the Palestinian issue. This was for me one of the most interesting of all the papers delivered at the conference, perhaps because it was more to do with politics than sociology. Dr. Khalili talked about how Hezbollah have painted themselves as the champions of the Palestinians, taking numerous symbolic and actual acts in their favour. However, she cast the relationship as being not entirely symbiotic, with Hezbollah being prepared to subordinate Palestinian concerns to the party’s own interests. Thus, Hezbollah organised commemorations of the Sabra & Shatila massacres that focussed on the small number of Lebanese Shia Muslims killed, obscuring the far greater number of Palestinians killed. For Lebanese political reasons, Hezbollah invited speakers from the Amal party to speak at the commemorations, despite its role in killing numerous Palestinians during the camps war of the mid-1980s. Dr. Khalili went on to talk about how Hezbollah’s symbolic attachment to Jerusalem obscures the city’s status as an actually existing place in which real people struggle to maintain their lives, echoing themes covered in my beloved’s unpublished MA thesis.

Ronit Lentin then talked about Zochrot, this being an Israeli Jewish organisation which seeks to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba (the Nakba being the Arab language term for catastrophe used to denote the founding of the state of Israel and the associated dispossession and exiling of numerous Palestinians). Zochrot organises trips for Israeli Jews to places that were once Palestinian towns or villages. They place signs in Arabic and Hebrew showing the localities’ old names and arrange for the places’ former inhabitants to talk of their dispossession. Lentin was somewhat critical of this fascinating organisation, partly because their trips can often traumatise Palestinians who must re-experience the Nakba for them, and partly because Zochrot proletarianises the Palestinian victims of the Nakba by making them performers of misery recreation for Zochrot tourists. More crucial, however, was Lentin’s disdain for Zochrot’s politics, or Zochrot’s de facto lack of politics. They commemorate the Nakba, but they are a bit vague on whether they are calling for the Nakba’s victims (and descendants) to be able to return to the country in which they used to live. Meh, that seems like ultra-leftism to me – what Zochrot does is more important than what they call for.

During lunch, they showed two short films by Tamar Goldschmidt, apparently downloadable from http://www.mahsanmilim.com - Abu Dis Report and Qalandiya Report. These are both about crossings through the Wall that Palestinians use if they are coming to Jerusalem. Abu Dis is a surreal spot – it is a section of wall standing on its own, with fencing on either side of it, fencing that has had holes knocked through it so that people can climb through it and enter Jerusalem without showing papers to Israeli soldiers. The film is an endless succession of people climbing through the gap, carrying an endless variety of stuff to or from Jerusalem. The surrealism of the whole thing is accentuated by the musical accompaniment – an early Zionist song about the wonderful country they were going to build in Palestine. Qalandiya Report showed people moving through the checkpoint at Qalandiya, the entry point to Jerusalem from Ramallah and the northern West Bank. The passage looked amazingly chaotic, with enormous numbers of people having to crowd through a handful of turnstiles as they waved their papers at Israel conscripts. However, the piece lost some of its power with me because it was filmed about a year before I was in Palestine. The Qalandiya checkpoint had changed greatly by then (and has probably changed even more since), becoming much less chaotic and more efficient, though still somewhere that anyone interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should visit.

One odd thing for me with both these films and the earlier use by Professor Goldberg of an image of an Israeli settlement on a West Bank hilltop was the nostalgia they evoked – while intended as images of oppression, they reminded me of places I had been to on holidays.

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