Julie Peteet, Space and Mobility in Palestine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Julie Peteet (JP): My first sight of the separation wall in the West Bank launched this book project. In 2004, I attended a conference in Ramallah and had to pass through the Qalandia checkpoint; it was then that I caught my first stunning view of the impending wall. In a way, this experience echoed the inspiration of my second book, Landscape of Hope and Despair, based on fieldwork in Palestinian camps in Lebanon in the aftermath of the camp wars. In 1992, I entered Chatila camp after a hiatus of nearly a decade to find this small space absolutely transformed. In each instance, a new ethnographic project and book resulted, not from a planned field project based on a well-thought out research question, but from a serendipitous visit and the impact of overwhelming and destructive change in places I had once known rather intimately. In Space and Mobility, I describe the sense of being lost in spaces once easily traversed in Palestine. I think in both instances, first in Lebanon and then in occupied Palestine, it was that sense of space radically transformed—not just in terms of the political landscape, but of meaning and mobility and its impact on daily life and subjectivity—that inspired and connected the two books.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JP: The book is concerned with mobility and space under the Israeli policy of closure and its mechanisms: the wall, checkpoints, the permit system (the paper wall), the identity card, and the segregated road system. I explore how a modern settler-colonial regime works to transform space to conform to a narrative of its desired demography and foundational history. I ask: What range of mechanisms are deployed by a modern colonial regime to expand the state spatially and replace an indigenous population with its own? How have Palestinians responded to, made sense of, and continued to live with extreme restrictions on their mobility and under the constant threat of displacement, dispossession, and the ever-present reality and potential for violence? The past decade has seen mobility emerge as a key lens through which to explore inequality and the distribution and enactment of power and control over others. Palestine is the perfect setting to explore the intersection of space and mobility because it is where an elaborate policy of calibrated chaos through spatial transformation and immobilization of the population unfolds in pursuit of domination and, over the longer term, anticipated displacement.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JP: My first book, Gender in Crisis, explored questions about gender in conflict. I probed the at times tense relationship between the women’s movement and the national struggle and the possibilities and limitations that conflict and national struggle held for women and gender relations. My second book, Landscape of Hope and Despair, is when I began to approach Palestine through the lens of space and mobility. This third book, Space and Mobility, argues that mobility has become part of the arsenal of war and in this case, control and eventual displacement. I connect a sometimes seemingly fragmented understanding of Palestinian history into the temporal slots of 1948, 1967, post 1982, Oslo, post-Oslo, and now, closure. Of course, these remain heuristic devices, and they do capture the essential temporal outlines of specific transformations or ruptures. However, I seek to hone in on the continuity in the Zionist project to seize and transform Palestine. Thus, through the lens of space, I seek to illustrate the relationship between Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon and Palestinians in the enclaves formed by the wall and the checkpoints in Palestine. What spatial strategies and policies on mobility tie them together as devices in a massive displacement and replacement scheme by an expansion settler-colonial state?

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JP: I try to write for a range of audiences within the academy. Undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty across the social sciences and humanities should be able to read an ethnography. I have always tried to avoid the jargon, obtuse language, and convoluted arguments that some academics deem necessary for their work to enter the scholarly canon. I want my work to be read. My goal for the past forty years has been to bring Palestine out of the shadows. When I first started working on Palestine in the late 1970s in Beirut, I was one of only two or three anthropologists working on Palestine. The impact I seek is two-fold: to bring research on Palestine into theoretical discussions. For example, in the literature on colonialism, Palestine was for a long time simply missing. I think that has now changed. Scholarship on space and mobility can no longer ignore the work coming out of Palestine. Indeed, Palestine is a perfect place to explore mobility and power, and a lot of good ethnographic accounts are now emerging as scholars begin to gauge the negative impacts on mobility and people’s daily lives that have resulted from this latest period of closure and checkpoints.

When we write on Palestine, I think many of us still operate in a ‘writing against’ mode as we seek to overcome a dominant narrative, to overturn the taken-for-granted, and to challenge an imposed silence. We have now gone beyond the need to ‘write against.’ So I would like my work to be placed in both the period of challenging dominant narratives and of Palestinian studies as standing on its own and contributing to larger, more encompassing, and exciting theoretical and methodological discussions.

Writing on Palestinian still constitutes a sort of documentary stance whereby the writer documents everyday life under an occupying colonial regime bent on dispossession and displacement. I anticipated that Space and Mobility in Palestinewould give readers a real-time unfolding of modern colonialism and the mechanisms it deploys. It is my hope that the book joins the body of literature on colonialism as well as that on mobility and its weaponization.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JP: Currently, I am finishing a Fulbright year in Turkey where I engaged in research on the history, reinvigoration, and meaning of the hamam (bath); the problematics of cultural flows, circulation, and directionality also figured prominently in this project. This project is obviously quite a departure from my previous research in conflict zones. I felt it was time to focus on another aspect of daily life in the area, one that involved pleasure, sociality, care of the body, aesthetics, heritage, tourism, and ‘living traditions,’ and one that addressed the mobility of places and practices across vast expanses of time and territory.

On Palestine, I am currently working on two projects. One is a chapter in an edited volume on the concept of evil in a settler-colonial occupation setting. It is part of an evolving conversation among anthropologists on morality and evil. The other project is an article on indigeneity and Palestine. I explore the origins and political context of the concept in anthropology, its circulation in the discipline, and then explore the limitations and possibilities it offers to the Palestinian struggle.

J: What sorts of challenges do researchers encounter when they work on Palestine?

JP: One cannot deny that working in Palestine remains a challenge. On an immediate level, from entering occupied Palestine, to moving around in ways necessary for ethnographic field research to the protection of subjects remain a formidable challenge. On the home-front, well-orchestrated campaigns to deny tenure to scholars of Palestine, un-hirings, blacklists, lawsuits targeting faculty who teach on Palestine, silencing, harassment of organizers of Palestine-related events and groups, and free trips to Israel offered to higher education administrators means that Palestinian remains a fraught field. Faculty warn graduate students not to base their research on Palestine. While I understand the need to be realistic with graduate students about their job prospects and the perils of working on Palestine, we will capitulate to the campaign to diminish the already limited presence of Palestinian in the academy if we actively dissuade students from the study of Palestine. Another issue concerns publication and the problems that can be encountered. For Space and Mobility, I had a contract with a university press with whom I had previously published. The book had been reviewed, revisions were completed, and we were set to go to copy editing. Without warning to either the editor or me, the press broke the contract based on the advice of its faculty advisory board who suddenly deemed the book too biased. Luckily, the savvy editors at IUP took the book and we went to press.


Excerpt(s) from Space and Mobility:

Within the framework of global neoliberalism(s), separation and closure join other forms of structural and spatial management of racialized inequality and expulsion. The new era of immobilization and incarceration takes many forms—from the US prison system and its military prison at Guantanamo Bay to the wall in Palestine. In Palestine, physical separation mimics and carries forward the distinction between ruler and ruled, citizen and noncitizen, Israeli and Palestinian, as the wall concretizes identities. Separation resembles Jim Crow America: the dominant sector of society is unable to imagine life in which the other is equal, and the other inhabits a world hedged with restrictions and boundaries whose transgression can elicit a swift and violent response.

Closure’s most immediate effect has been to obstruct Palestinian mobility and access to employment, education, health care, political organizing, commerce, and family and social relations. Most significantly, closure disrupts the notion of a schedule, or trust in a daily temporal rhythm. In trying to grasp this lived reality ethnographically what came to mind for me was the notion of “calibrated chaos.” Chaos began to crystallize as a planned, observable, and lived pattern. …Control through the creation of calibrated chaos, the changing of rules and procedures with no warning or explanation, is enacted daily at checkpoints and in applying for permits. Intermittent and prolonged curfews punctuate these measures. Unpredictability is the new norm. The common expression inshallah (God willing) has political resonance; its utterance in the context of this unpredictability makes it much more freighted than usual.

On a late spring afternoon, I met Muna, an elegant woman approaching her seventies, for lunch. I ask “how are you?” and she replies, “’aisheen” (“We are living” or “We are still breathing”). Muna’s collective use of “’aisheen” points to an unlivable life in which breathing, the state of being alive, is hedged with uncertainty that underscores a subjectivity characterized by a profound awareness of the simple, yet life-sustaining, act of breathing. This brings to the fore the questions: What is it like to live in a state of exclusion and confinement? What are the implications of this for shaping subjectivity?

From her apartment in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis, Fatima Fayyad, a 26-year-old engineer by training, cannot avoid seeing the wall, just twenty or so meters from her house. For Fatima, her husband, Hasan, and their three young children, the looming shadow blocks the natural sunlight that once warmed their home. Most of their relatives live on the West Bank side. When I visited her on a dreary, rainy winter morning, she summed up the meaning of separation and the wall:

The idea of the wall has been there for a long time. Some Israeli writers and politicians used to say the best thing is to put the Palestinians behind walls so the new generations will have no images of Israelis and thus they will be afraid of them—the enemy—we will be afraid of them. The new generation would not be as strong as the generation who fought in the intifada and struggled for years. So what can Palestinians see now? They don’t know Jerusalem; they don’t know the West Bank—only their own village or area. They live in terrible economic and social conditions and the situation is deteriorating every day. So these people—it is easy to deal with them, it is easy to destroy them or kill them or perhaps they will kill each other. So, this is what they want, I think. They, the Israelis, always feel they are living in a state of war, that they are targeted so they are always afraid. They are afraid from inside. Perhaps, some of them, they know they have done something wrong and that this land is not theirs and that is why they have to act strongly to keep what they have achieved. So for them it is a good idea to put us behind walls and then they can forget about us. But I don’t think this will work. I don’t think walls will work in our world now. It is a different world. If the wall were built in 1967—perhaps. But now it is different. The world is so small. You can easily talk and what you say reaches everybody in the whole world via the internet.

Enclavization is more than simply a spatial by-product of colony building or a tool of expansion; enclaves spatially demarcate an “us” and a “them,” making the colonized legible and manageable. In addition, enclaves make daily life unlivable and stifle political opposition. Enclavization imposes another level of spatial and social disconnection much as did the occupations and legal regimes accompanying the 1948 and 1967 wars. Palestinians are literally stranded in space. With enclavization, social life contracted and a localization of politics is discernable. In effect, spatial fragmentation and immobilities can rupture the possibility of collective action and identity.

With carceral politics, Palestinians under occupation join a global coterie of those expelled from the social order. Enclaves share features with the camp, the prison, reservations, Bantustans, and ghettos in intent, effect, and experience while retaining qualitative differences. Each is distinctive, but they do constitute, I would argue, a field of analysis bound together across time and space with discernable continuity.

The wall was a new pillar in the construction of the mobile, sovereign, and rights-bearing Israeli citizen and the immobilized, rights-deprived Palestinian. In a fortressed world, time and space become unbearably stretched as distances of a few miles can take on paramount scale and each side of the wall experiences distinct temporalities and mobilities.

In the small space of Palestine-Israel, mobilities are actively relational—on one side constrained, managed, and decelerated, and on the other, accelerated and spatially expansive. Categories of identity, themselves imposed by the colonial regime, have been instrumentalized as an axis around which mobility is allocated. To travel in Palestine is to be caught in a slow-moving vortex of filtering by the permit system and funneling through the ubiquitous checkpoints, and to move among spaces with varying forms of sovereignty and power.

As the workday draws to a close, Selma tells everyone in the office where she works to take their laptops because “none of us really knows if we will arrive here tomorrow.” Daily life lurches forward in crisis mode; its sequencing enveloped in uncertainty. Selma’s comment underscores the way the pragmatics of daily life—ordinary coming and going—are unknowable and contingent on others. At checkpoints, the state’s structures and protocols for mobility are vividly displayed, publicly enacted, and viscerally experienced. Checkpoints are structured around an embodied and sequential course of movement with corresponding demands on demeanor and speech. Movement is ordered by a disciplinary and ritualistic, although often ambiguous sequencing. Enacting the script publicly reaffirms and reproduces the formula of subordination and domination, yet its strangling effects have prompted resourcefulness and improvisation….

Palestinians complain yet accommodate….. They speak of suffocation and imprisonment, of the desire for a “normal” life: “We want to enjoy the simple pleasures of life—go to movies, to a café in Jerusalem, to travel, to feel safe.”…Checkpoints assume an aggregate, unitary Palestinian body defined by its collective potential for opposition, and thus they violate international law prohibiting collective punishment as well as freedom of movement. Security is the fetishized rationale in which immobilization is cast: “we do this because they are terrorists.” In the post-9/11 world, mobility has been securitized and subjected to ever-evolving surveillance techniques. As part of the WoT, mobility is now a matter of national security globally, reaching an extreme in Palestine where the ability to move is openly and unequivocally distributed according to ethno-religious and national identities. The inequitable allocation of mobility and space crafts an expanding Jewish space/time and a shrinking, fragmented Palestinian one. Israelis move with ease… while the spatially constrained Palestinian only moves with permission.

Checkpoints’ immobilizing effects have seriously eroded their ability to produce space. Human mobility figures prominently in the way landscape is produced, reproduced, and endowed with meaning. A new lexicon of topographic names and spatial locators peppers daily conversation: checkpoints, flying checkpoints, terminals, underground passages, gates, areas A, B, and C, and bypass roads. Landscape is constantly being reconfigured through interdictions of access and mobility, new forms of the built environment, and linguistic changes, evident in Hebrew signage, that can render it nearly unrecognizable. In other words, landscape is always in an emergent state, produced by human design ranging from the banal and subtle to the grandiose and spectacular.

If place acquires definition and meaning through the social activities people engage in and the social relationships they craft and pursue in them, then Palestinians are increasingly constrained in their place-making capacity. They can only craft and give meaning to place in very delimited areas.