From separation to interpenetration: a response to Eyal Weizman

About the author
Claire Moon is a lecturer in International Conflict Analysis in the Department of Politics and International Relations and at the London Centre of International Relations, University of Kent, UK.
In his powerful photographic essay on the openDemocracy website, Eyal Weizman analyses the role of Israel’s West Bank settlements since 1967 as a deliberate strategy of territorial fragmentation and colonial expansion, revealing a “politics of verticality” which reconstructs political boundaries in three rather than two dimensions.

Weizman depicts the complex sources of legitimacy and power, central to the establishment of the settlements. He illustrates Israel’s strategies of control as both material and mythic; they rely not only on mechanisms of force, but also on the symbolic legitimacy that can be derived from history and archaeology, from cartography and geography, and from religious narratives of belonging and exclusion.

In Weizman’s illuminating focus, the building and expansion of settlements are ‘authentications’ of fundamental claims of sovereignty and legitimacy that derive their authority from a particular narrative of Israel’s history and identity. This narrative, seeking recourse to ancient and biblical ‘origins’, is underpinned by the idea that Israel has a ‘divine right’ to exist. This has perhaps been articulated best by the former Prime Minister, Golda Meir: “This country exists as the accomplishment of a promise made by God Himself. It would be absurd to call its legitimacy into account.”

The stones speak more than one language

All states have violent, rather than moral or divine foundations. They draw upon myths and narratives of nationhood, both religious and secular, in order to legitimise the acts of violence inherent in the establishment of territorial borders, and the political exclusions that such acts incur. The political effects of such narration render certain stories canonical to the exclusion of others, and thus empower particular political discourses laying claim to a territory.

Israel, therefore, is not alone in having a national mythology; and approaching the “politics of verticality” from this general perspective leads both into and beyond Weizman’s representation of West Bank settlements. The latter may be understood as a key example of the crisis in what David Campbell calls, after Jacques Derrida, “ontopology”.

In his book on the conflict in Bosnia, National Deconstruction, Campbell employs ontopology to refer to the practice of binding identity (ontology) to place (topography). He warns that disastrous consequences flow from the assumption that national communities require fixed and unitary identities located within territorial boundaries. He argues that it is precisely the act of inscribing boundaries that makes “the installation of the nationalist imaginary possible”, which in turn necessitates the “expulsion from the resultant ‘domestic’ space of all that comes to be regarded as alien, foreign and dangerous”.

Consequently, the territorial demarcation of identity is an inherently violent practice because it demands the repression or exclusion of the ‘Other’. National myths and imaginaries which materialise within cartographic representations inscribe a distinctive, if contingent, ethnic or national identity which finds its counterpoint in the alien, foreign and dangerous ‘Other’.

The critical value of Eyal Weizman’s representation lies here, in its demonstration of the contingency of such claims to territory by indicating that ‘other’ histories lie below the surface, waiting for the political conditions to be ripe for their plundering. Its effect is to illustrate the way in which identity is never self-same or complete, and that every imposed political form hides within it the conditions of its metamorphosis, of transformation into something other than what it currently is. Lying beneath the territorial surface, other histories await political (re)discovery.

Is there logic beyond separation?

The principal effect of Weizman’s essay is one he does not articulate explicitly: namely, the ‘failure’ of mapping, the impossibility of proscribing and dividing territory into space which clearly aligns with one identity or another, with (in this case) Palestinian or Israeli.

More provocatively, Weizman’s visual documentation of the complexity of relationships between the communities points beyond the desirability of a two-state solution. In Palestine/Israel, two populations are inextricably and violently intertwined, but the ‘necessity’ of separation does not appear within Weizman’s optic, which appears driven by the ethical imperative of a single-state solution.

By throwing the conflict into three dimensions, Weizman evokes the failure of previous attempts at a horizontal mapping of the conflict. As a result, he furnishes a bleak prognosis for any settlement of the conflict where the separation of territory can only, in political terms, be conceived of horizontally and materialised by a two-state solution.

As Weizman relates, there have been attempts to conceive of sovereignty differently. The Camp David summit in July 2000 saw the proposal of the then US President Bill Clinton to striate sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount. Over this, the most hotly contested site, two mutually incompatible national and religious narratives compete for the same sacred space, described by Ehud Barak at the time as “the Archemedic point of our universe, of the Zionist effort”.

In response to the impossibility of a horizontal separation of the site, Clinton conceived a vertical differentiation of sovereignty, which ostensibly gave Palestinians authority over the top of the Mount and Israelis sovereignty below the surface of the Mount, over the Wailing Wall and the airspace directly above the Mount. Palestinian sovereignty was thus to be ‘wrapped’ by Israeli control of access to the site. This story is but one testimony to perplexed attempts to demarcate territory vertically rather than horizontally within mutually acceptable borders.

More recent US proposals envisage an interim Palestinian ‘state’ in the Gaza strip and only 40% of the West Bank. Bush’s vision delimits Palestinian ‘sovereignty’ in the West Bank to a series of land-locked islands surrounded by contiguous Israeli-occupied territory, the effect of which is akin to giving prisoners sovereignty over their own cells.

It is no surprise that Palestinians will reject such plans. But the politics of separation is indubitably and relentlessly driven by the logic of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism and animated by different and incommensurate narratives of ‘authentic’ belonging to the same territory. Separation of the communities into two states demands that identity is single, fixed and formal. It denies the relevance and significance of other bonds that do not technically serve the singular identities bounded by the borders of the state.

The latter include other forms of community, and common things that the ‘two’ peoples share – from religious beliefs, to history, oral traditions and cultural practices. Separation demands that commonalities are rejected and marginalised, that they are subordinated to the singular and exclusive sign of nationalism, which legitimises specific political projects and empowers particular regimes.

As Israel and Palestine are not internally homogeneous, the construction of two states would entail mass expulsions and resettlement of peoples; it would demand, in Derrida’s words, the “spectacular genocides, expulsions, or deportations that so often accompany the foundation of states”. Edward Said has stated that such events institute future violence rather than provide the conditions of its amelioration. He has argued that both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are suffering from an ideology of separation which has led to neither having “surmounted the philosophical problem of the Other, of learning how to live with, as opposed to despising, the Other”.

The Palestinian aspiration to the status of an internationally recognised nation-state, to sovereignty and self-determination, to equity in the partition of land and resources, is unquestionably a just and urgent cause. Moreover, it is now near impossible to envisage a cessation of the current violence without the establishment of a Palestinian state. But perhaps these reflections can be taken as a cautionary speculation on the future of a ‘peace’ that remains fixated by this logic of separation, and that can only be undone again, one way or another, by the interpenetration of identity and place that Weizman lays bare.