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Within the framework of the Territories exhibition, currently showing at Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam , a lecture series titled “The Politics of Resistance” was organised. Speakers were invited to discuss the representation of the territorial conflict in the Middle East and the role of architecture for the Palestinian population in this area. The main question, which remained unanswered to a large extent, was what a politics of resistance or an art of the politics of resistance might be.
Featuring Tanya Reinhart - professor of linguistics and cultural studies at Tel Aviv University and Utrecht University, Sylvaine Bulle - urbanist and sociologist at the Institut Français du Proche Orient, and Amin Amin - Middle East project coordinator at CICAT (Centre for International Cooperation) Delft University of Technology, I was especially interested in hearing what Tanya Reinhart had to say. More than 10 years ago I was enrolled as a student in her “General Linguistics” class at Tel-Aviv University. It was there that I was first introduced to Chomsky’s linguistic notion of a “Universal Grammar”, but also to his political writings. Politics and linguistics: at first glance they don’t seem to have that much in common, yet a closer look might reveal underlying structures which share more than we think.
Carefully contextualising every argument, and backing it up meticulously with historical and other data, Reinhart pleaded for a return to the “simple”, the “basic”, and the “truth” in politics, intellectual life and art. I write these in quotations marks, not because I find the terms ambiguous or dubious in general - and in particular within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict - but because for so long we (whomever this collective “we” might be) have been conditioned to add the quotations marks, in order to paste on an additional layer of complexity, of indecision. The quotation marks allow for fluidity, for a notion to mean X or Y or Z. They are in fact a snug protective layer, facilitating the luxury of not voicing an opinion, or attributing a singular and clear-cut meaning. In politics, as in language, we’re often too scared (or biased) to strip down to naked reality.
In clear-cut language and with insistence Reinhart spoke with admirable clarity and conviction about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict… seldom had I heard anyone from the Israeli side (if I have to polarize) speak like this. First commenting on the Territories exhibition as a show by Israeli artists & architects against the occupation, and labeling the latter as political art, she made very clear the exhibition was not an art (or act) of resistance. Political resistance, according to Reinhart, is based on the basic value of simplicity. By corollary resistance necessitates truth. She argued that we have become accustomed to post-modern theories of complexity, where there is no concept of truth, but only discourses trying to describe complexity. This is why describing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a very complex matter, obfuscates the very simple truth: that it is - as in any war - about land and resources. Moreover, these discourses of complexity which argue that the conflict is about the right of return, citizenship, dignity, etc…only reinforce the hegemony, i.e. the Israeli occupation. When returning back to the basics of the problem, one should know the facts, and fight what Reinhart calls “the deception lying at the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict”. The era of deception doesn’t start for Reinhart in 1948 with the birth of the state of Israel and the Palestinian naqba (disaster), nor in 1967 with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza strip, Sinai, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but in 1993 with the Oslo Accords. It is a well-known fact that behind all the euphoria for peace in the Middle East and the handshakes on the White House lawn, Israel continued confiscating land, and building settlements at a rapid rate. In effect, Yitzhak Rabin ((Prime Minister of Israel 1992 – 1995) was executing what is known as the “Allon Plan”  (1967), which called for annexation of about one third of the territories occupied during the 1967 war in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in addition to Jerusalem as well as the Golan Heights.
The Palestinians always rejected the Allon Plan. Depicted as a “hawkish’ dove, Rabin remained in politics very much the military man that he was, and continued to perpetuate the ideology of his generation, namely the “redemption of land”. The Oslo Accords resulted in the establishment of a regime of apartheid in the occupied territories. With Ehud Barak (Prime Minister of Israel 1999 – 2001) – also a former general – the grabbing of land was followed up by an additional phase: ridding it of its inhabitants. Reinhart pointed out the ideological dynamics at work, in how Barak had to convince the Israeli public about his tactics: in the 21st century one couldn’t sway public opinion with a war over land argument. So Barak turned to the rhetoric of survival, and made it a war of existence.
Reinhart’s analysis was to the point and factual, and her emphasis on bringing problems back to their material reality is an urgent and necessary move. I am not sure whether an evasion of complexity is the solution to deal with “complexly” constructed discourses around seemingly simple problems, but I wholeheartedly agree that conflicts as the Israeli/Palestinian one, are not metaphorical and philosophical problems, but painfully engraved in the hardships of everyday existence. When Reinhart said that currently Israel’s policy is not apartheid, but genocide, I startled. Yet, if genocide is the slow killing of a society, the systematic deprivation of people’s livelihood and the slow starvation of a population – be that relating to nutrition, education, health-care or other basic human rights – then perhaps we have to conclude that over the past few years we haven’t been startled enough.
Sylvaine Bulle’s presentation was in stark contrast to Tanya Reinhart’s, and ironically enough was a literal illustration of Reinhart’s aversion to post-modern theories of complexity. Referring to Foucault and more particular to his notion of “bio-power”  , Bulle built her argument around the idea that for the Palestinians the settlements are not the most powerful metaphor of the occupation and the oppression; she claimed that they seem to ignore the latter in their daily lives. According to her it is the absence of the existence of public space, which allows people to “be in the world”, that is the main issue. I always wonder what an academic exercise, like deconstructing metaphors of power, might mean in a conflict that is so much about the material reality of people. It is almost damaging to relate to the conflict in a discourse of metaphors of power and symbolical borders: it has a distancing and alienating effect. The reality is that we are talking about real power, real borders, real curtailment of mobility, real deprivation. How would a metaphor function here? Whilst Reinhart was talking about land and resources, Bulle emphasized that the real problem was about citizenship and civil rights; she turned the conflict into an ethical and ontological problem. Granted, ethics and ontology are elements which are invested in the conflict, and do play an important role, yet do they lie at the core? When Bulle speaks of “invisible walls and fences” and “symbolical borders” creating a “landscape of desolation”, I wonder: why on earth flirt with the rhetorics of the symbolic, when every checkpoint and every strip of barbed wire testifies to the very tangible reality of borders and fences? Nevertheless, after this quite confusing start, she did manage to pick up her presentation. She described the “special status’ of the native Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem: they are so-called “permanent residents” (carry a blue ID card, as Israelis do) of Jerusalem; this status can only be inherited in a patrilineal way, so if the mother is a native of Jerusalem, the children do not acquire this status; in addition, one can lose one’s status by moving to the West-Bank or abroad. Since 1993 “permanent residents” of Jerusalem are not allowed to marry someone from the West-Bank, in order to prohibit migration from the West-Bank into Jerusalem. By corollary, the only option for the groom or bride is to move to the West-Bank, which results in a loss of the blue ID card, hence of free movement to Jerusalem. It is clear that these drastic measures severely disrupt family life.
Amin Amin, last speaker of the session, elaborated on how restrictions on mobility, residency and housing completely decompose normal family life by showing a project conducted by a group of students. This project described the family tree of a Palestinian family living in Jerusalem, and how in one family several members have different residency statuses: ranging from the blue ID card (permanent resident), to having a green one (occupied territories), to none (the mother has a blue ID-card, not transferable to the children). What the project examined in detail, was how the obstruction of normal life by Israeli policy, as for example the refusal of building permits to build on one’s own land, completely alters the architecture of Palestinian houses. Construction of buildings occur at great speed before the bulldozers come to knock them down; since houses are constructed without the required legal permits it is near to impossible to organise normal basic infrastructure, such as electricity, water, and so on. Often the latter are obtained by tapping into neighbouring houses water and electricity resources. Residents are pushed in a situation of dependency on the goodwill of their neighbours. Amin stressed once again that urban planning is very much a part of the politics in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and brought the discussion back to the issue about land. The conflict is on a micro- as well as macro-scale very much about “facts on the ground”. If Israel practices an architecture of oppression, then the Palestinian architecture is not so much one of resistance, but one of survival, as the abovementioned example illustrates.
Coming back to the Territories exhibition, where “resistance” is voiced by Israeli architects and artists, within a context that takes survival for granted – I am reminded of Tanya Reinhart’s premise that political resistance is about simple things. Such is certainly the case with survival in a context were nothing can be taken for granted. In that light, the question posed at the beginning of the summary can be asked again: what do we mean when we speak of a politics or an art of resistance?
1. More info: http://www.wdw.nl/ENG/text/projects/territories/fr_territories.htm
2. Allon Plan: http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_1967to1991_allon_plan.php
3. see for definition: http://www.california.com/~rathbone/foucau10.htm
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Submitted by natmuller
Posted on Thu Dec 18, 2003 at 1:47 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME