Thursday, January 15, 2009

Geography of Mass Incarceration

Oren Yiftachel
[Prof. Oren Yiftachel teaches political geography and urban planning at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba]

"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 declared Eli Yishai, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, a few days ago. On the same day Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni promised "to topple the Hamas Regime", and Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert demanded in every forum to "hermetically seal" the Gazan-Egyptian border.

These, and many similar statements by Israeli leaders, sketch in painful clarity the ‘political geography of mass incarceration’ increasingly evident in Israel/Palestine. Under this regime large populations are locked into specific areas against their will, and often against international law, and are then subject to the mercy of their wardens. Typically, when the conditions of imprisonment become unbearable a rebellion erupts, and is suppressed by violent collective punishment, which in turn sets the conditions for the next uprising.

This is how Israel is now treating its rebelling prisoners in Gaza. As the leaders’ statements show, it seeks to lock them in the tiny strip and punish them with enormous force. At the same time Israel is further institutionalizing the geography of incarceration and with it the likelihood of future uprisings.

This is not a new phenomenon: European colonialism widely used mass incarceration of indigenous groups, condensing them in reserves and Bantustans, to enable Whites to freely exploit land, minerals and labor. Today too, racist governments attempt to deal with the existence of 'unwanted populations' by applying methods of spatial containment and violent ‘punishment’, as evident in the cases of Chechnya, Kosovo, Kashmir, Darfur and Tamil Elam in Sri Lanka. The key to this spreading political order is the prevention of the rebelling region from gaining state sovereignty, leaving it ‘neither in nor out’ of the state’s control system. As a non-state entity, resistance of the jailed to colonial power is often criminalized, leading the state’s righteous claim that it has 'no choice' but to further oppress the anti-colonial struggle.

Importantly, the mass incarceration strategy is usually not the preferred option. It is typically employed only when the colonial power has lost some of its ability to settle and control the land by other, softer, means, and when the option of ethnic cleansing has become untenable. Much to the regret of racist regimes, this is the situation today under international law. Hence, mass incarceration remains one of the main policy options for colonial states aiming to dominate indigenous populations.

Back to Israel/Palestine: Gaza turned into an open air jail already in the late 1940s when over 150,000 Palestinian refugees were driven by Israel into the small region (covering just 1.7% of British Palestine), joining its 60,000 previous residents. The refugees were never allowed to return to their lands and homes which were confiscated and destroyed. Ironically, it was during the 'peace process' that the incarceration of Gaza intensified, with a sequence of closures, movement restrictions and the construction in 1994 of a massive barrier around the Strip. Following the 2005 disengagement and the election of Hamas, Israel's illegal siege over the area was notched up with a near total blockade of movement and trade.

Gaza is a severe case, but it’s not unique. Since its establishment, Israel's ethnocratic regime has worked incessantly to Judaize the country by confiscating Palestinian lands, constructing hundreds of Jewish settlements and restricting the Palestinians to small enclaves. This began with the military government inside the Green Line until 1966, and the establishment of a 'fenced area' for the Bedouins in the south, which operates until today. Since the 1990s, the ghettoisation of Palestinians continued with the marking of areas A-B-C in the occupied territories, with the advent of closures and checkpoints, and finally with the construction of ‘the wall’ – all helping to fragment Palestine to dozens of isolated enclaves.

The long-term geographical impact of the Judaization policy has been dramatic. -- the Palestinians in Israel, for example, constitute 18% of the population, but control less than three percent of the land. In the entire area between Jordan and Sea, the Palestinians constitute just under 50%, but control only 13% of the land. Critically however, Judaization seems to have reached its limits, and since the Oslo period Israel has been re-arranging its colonial geography to fit realization.

The difference between Gaza and the other enclaves is the depth of its isolation and its persistent rebellion. The Hamas leadership never accepted the Oslo illusion, or the promise of 'two states for two people' enshrined in the 'roadmap' or the 'Annapolis process'. They have realized that the promise has become an empty rhetoric which enables the on-going colonization of their lands. The promised Palestinian state has become in the meantime fragmented, suffocated and impoverished. And what has been Israel's response to this crisis? The deepening of mass incarceration, 'necessitated' to protect Jewish settlement, and at the same time maintaining a campaign of massive personal incarceration, during which Israel has arrested over 10,000 prisoners who are now jailed without trials, including dozens of Palestinian parliamentarians. The incarceration policy has thus resulted in the creation of prisons within prisons.

While the geography of incarceration is typically explained as a security measure, its appeal is also increasing for economic reasons. During the current age of globalization, personal, commercial and financial movement has become essential for development and prosperity. The geography of mass incarceration helps to keep the ‘unwanted’ outside the riches of this process. Therefore, the on-going fortification around Gaza, including the current invasion, also put in place a system of protecting Jewish economic privileges.

Indeed, Palestinian violence plays an important part in the creation of this geography, through the hostile dialectic between colonizer and colonized. For example, the shelling of Israeli civilians by Hamas and suicide bombing of previous years are clear acts of terror, which gave legitimacy within Israeli society to carry out the incarceration policy. But Palestinian violence, and particularly the shelling from Gaza should also be perceived as a prison uprising, currently suppressed by the use of state terror, which kills many more civilians and creates infinitely more damage than the initial act of resistance. This dialectic means that the very maintenance of a geography of incarceration already sews the seeds for the next prison uprising...

It is important to note, however, that the option of rebellion only intensifies the punishment and killing, but not the basic geography of imprisonment. Hence, even after the current invasion is over, Israel will undoubtedly continue to use this strategy in both Gaza and the (non-rebelling) West Bank, and in softer forms inside the Green Line, where Israel's Palestinian citizens are also contained in small enclaves. I have termed this process 'creeping apartheid' – an undeclared yet powerful political order, which creates vastly unequal forms of citizenship under one ruling power. Rights under such regimes are determined by a combination of ethnic affiliation and place of birth. This cannot be illustrated more vividly than by noting the differences in mobility and property rights – Jews are free to move and purchase land in almost the entire area under Israeli control, while Palestinians are limited to ‘their own’ separated enclaves -- Gazans in Gaza only, Jerusalemites only in Jerusalem and so on.

This type of political geography tends to result in a chain of absurdities. Here is one: the invasion and destruction of Gaza is carried out by an ousted Israeli government, and is actively supported by a defeated US administration. The two governments which lost power are violently attacking in their dying days the democratically elected government of Palestine. This leads to the next absurd: instead of condemning and placing sanctions on Israel, which has placed Gaza under siege for the last two years, the world has imposed sanctions over the Hamas government. The occupied are punished twice: once by the brutal occupation, and a second time for the attempt to resist.

Sadly, these absurdities are not surprising, being part of the geography of mass incarceration, under which the colonial power will recognize the prisoners’ leadership only if they refrain from rebelling against their incarceration, as is currently the case with the Abass regime in the West Bank. In the case of a rebellion, however, its leaders are likely to be oppressed are often eliminated.

What may be slightly (but not entirely) more surprising is that Israeli leadership and society have not learnt from history that a geography of mass incarceration exists on borrowed time. Such as geography can never receive legitimacy, and hence cannot create security for the jailing side. On the contrary, instability and constant rebellions are likely to undermine the incarcerating regime itself.

Against the reality of mass incarceration, it may be advisable to listen to Mahmoud Darwish’s wise advise to his prison warden: “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 night liberated/ from my ghostly shadow."

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