PRATT: Settler colonialism, normalisation and resistance at the Zionist borders 18Jun12 June 18, 2012


by Nicola Pratt   -   Jadaliyya   -  12 June 2012

A visit to Palestine in April has led me to reflect on Israel’s border practices and how they relate to the performance of Israel as a settler colonial state. I have also considered whether by subjecting myself to these border practices I am contributing to the reproduction of Israel’s sovereignty over the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In other words, is travelling to Palestine an act of normalization of Israel’s occupation or of solidarity with Palestinians under occupation?

This question was directly highlighted by other visitors to Palestine in April. Palestine solidarity activists from Europe attempted, for the second time, to explicitly visit the West Bank as part of the ‘Welcome to Palestine’ campaign (also dubbed, the ‘Flytilla’). Many of them were prevented in European airports from boarding planes to Tel Aviv, or were detained then deported on arrival. Official Israeli reactions to this and previous ‘flytillas’ (not to mention a number of humanitarian flotillas to the Gaza Strip) highlight Israel’s ongoing efforts to maintain the OPT as an international no-go area, not only in terms of visitors but also in terms of the application of international law. Around the same time, the Grand Mufti of Egypt visited Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem, provoking the anger of many Egyptians who refuse to normalize relations with Israel despite the Egyptian government’s signing of a peace treaty in 1979. The Egyptian’s visit followed an announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that, ‘Visiting a prisoner is an act of support and does not mean normalization with the warden’. Others have also questioned whether the Arab boycott is actually counterproductive to supporting Palestinians. Arguably, whatever the intentions of the Mufti, his visit operated to whitewash the fact that the majority of Palestinians are prevented from visiting Jerusalem.

I visited the OPT in April in order to attend a workshop at the Institute for Women’s Studies at Birzeit University. In addition to the academic and intellectual reasons, my visit constituted an act of solidarity with Palestinians under occupation, in line with the academic boycott of Israel, which not only entails refusing to cooperate with Israeli academic institutions but also developing links with Palestinian universities.

Israel’s border practices—Western exception or norm?

My visit to the OPT began and ended with Ben Gurion airport. Nightmare stories of Ben Gurion airport (as well as Allenby Bridge) circulate amongst those who have to pass through these border control points—invasive questioning techniques, very thorough searches of bags and computers, not to mention the biggest nightmare of all—strip searches. This airport is apparently the safest airport in the world. Passing through Ben Gurion airport is a stark reminder of how one person’s safety can be another person’s nightmare.

We ordinarily assume that airport security practices constitute an implicit security pact—we submit ourselves to the intrusive procedures at the border in order to secure our mobility. For many, these intrusions are an acceptable level of discomfort to endure for the sake of our own security, and, therefore, our mobility. Striking up conversation with the couple sitting next to me on the flight out of Tel Aviv (an Israeli guy and a Polish guy), swapping stories of our reasons for visiting ‘Israel’, one of the men inquired whether I had got a ‘hard time’ from airport security when I told them I had been in the West Bank. ‘They give me a hard enough time without me mentioning that,’ I replied. His response echoed the general assumptions that one comes across about heightened security since 9/11. It is assumed that the purpose of airport security is to ‘secure’ mobile citizens. It may be annoying, but it is necessary. And, understandably, Israel, being ‘such a big target for terrorism’, is even more thorough than most with security procedures. However, in Ben Gurion airport, or the Allenby Bridge crossing, it is not our mobility that is being secured. These ‘border crossing points’ (and I use the scare quotes to denote the historically shifting nature of Israel’s actual borders) are part of the mechanisms for securing the settler colonial project of Israel and all those who have a vested interest in it. The fact that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not allowed to use the airport is in itself an indication of Israel’s efforts to ‘eliminate the native’ from certain spaces.

Israel’s border security practices are hotly debated. On the one hand, some commentators call for the ‘Israelification’ of US airport security to allay security anxieties post-9/11. Israeli security methodology informs much of post-9/11 airport measures. Indeed, a former head of security at Ben Gurion aiport, Rafi Ron, is contracted by Logan Airport, Boston, to provide security solutions. The EU is also seeking Israeli expertise in airport security, having funded a ‘Behavior Modelling for Security in Airports’ (BEMOSA) research project, headed by Israeli professor Alan Kirschenbaum, to ‘meet the needs of airport security professionals, airport management officials, human resources and operations personnel, providers of airport security services and technology, providers of airport security training services, public officials and policy makers.’ A central philosophy of Israeli security practices is ‘Behavior Pattern Recognition’, which has otherwise been described as ‘the human factor — the inescapable fact that terrorist attacks are carried out by people who can be found and stopped by an effective security methodology’. This means that trained Israeli airport employees question every passenger before boarding. However, some people are questioned more than others.

Accusations of racial profiling at Ben Gurion airport are rife. Swedish authorities have refused to allow Israeli security officers to undertake security procedures at several airports in Sweden because they employ racial profiling, contrary to human rights legislation. Objections to racial profiling have also been voiced in the United States. According to one Israeli security consultant, Yuval Bezherano (and without any apparent irony in his statement), “Americans find it hard to swallow a security policy that employs different standards to different groups.” Nevertheless, civil rights are being constantly sacrificed at the altar of ‘security,’ and a form of racial profiling has been employed by the United States since 2010, with the introduction of extra searches for passengers from a designated list of countries.

The micro-politics of race, gender, sexuality and security

Palestinians, whether they possess Israeli passports or Jerusalem IDs, or they are from the diaspora with non-Arab country citizenships, are subject to humiliating questioning and searches, often including strip searches (for example, see here, here, and here, amongst many other places). However, non-Palestinians may also become suspicious to Israeli security personnel through their perceived ‘fraternizing’ with Arabs/Palestinians. In the lengthy security procedures prior to checking in at Ben Gurion airport in April, I was twice referred to someone’s supervisor because I had stamps in my passport from Arab countries (even though those countries both have peace treaties with Israel) and I was carrying a report in Arabic (by the Geneva-based DCAF) in my luggage. The Israeli airport security officer was concerned, ‘that someone in an Arab country has used you to transport something’. Following a 1986 incident when a Jordanian man planted a bomb in the bag of his Irish fiancee, Israeli security officials have adopted a trope of ‘Arab man manipulates white woman to harm Israel’, which forms an important part of Israel’s ‘Behavior Pattern Recognition’.

This is not merely racial profiling but the construction of particular racial, sexual and gendered hierarchies that enable Israel to be seen as ‘normal’ and ‘exceptional’ within Western governance practices. Airports in general are spaces where the state performs its sovereign power. In the case of Israel, a settler colonial state with historically shifting borders (even reaching into European capitals, as its actions over the ‘Flytilla’ activists illustrate), the airport is central to the performance of the Zionist identity and logic that underpins Israel as a settler colonial state. Through Israeli security practices, Palestinians are not constructed as a vulnerable minority or a people under decades of illegal occupation, but as an essentially threatening group, who must be contained through humiliating, invasive security techniques (that is, gendered feminine). By feminizing Palestinians, Zionism constructs its strategic superiority. Meanwhile, the single Western woman traveler, potentially a victim of Arab manipulation, is physically juxtaposed to the Israeli (most often) woman security officer, simultaneously embodying Israel’s vulnerability and its supposed support for gender equality (and, thereby supposedly reaffirming Zionism’s moral superiority).

Ben Gurion Airport as a Zionist space

It is not only Israel’s security practices that enable the performance of Zionism’s borders. Ben Gurion airport has been consciously designed as a Zionist space, normalizing the settler colonial project. Most obviously, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been eliminated from the space and signs in Arabic are even less frequent than those in English. Opening the new international terminal, Terminal 3, in 2004, then PM Ariel Sharon explicitly evoked the memory of Ben Gurion and his vision for Israel, whilst implicitly underlining the need for Israel to continue to ‘civilize’ the land it has settled: ‘The construction of Terminal 3 – one of the greatest infrastructure projects carried out in Israel since the establishment of the state, the glorious gateway into the State of Israel, faithfully representing Israel’s status as one of the most developed nations in the world – is part of this effort.’

However, Israel’s legitimacy is not only constructed through its civilizing mission but also through the constant construction of its ‘ancient roots’. The architects who designed Terminal 3 wanted, ‘to avoid the generic appearance of many large international airports, in part by reflecting the country’s culture and climate. … to embody the dichotomy of daily life in Israel, “a modern society imbued with a sense of ancient history and culture.” ’ A huge wall, made of Jerusalem stone and evocative of the Western Wall, constitutes ‘a connector hallway’ between ‘landside’ and ‘airside’—between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ Israel. This impressive stone wall also functions as an exhibition space. In 2008, on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, the wall was used to exhibit posters marking Israel’s Independence Day. In 2011, a different exhibition marked the anniversary of the Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, displaying posters from before and after 1948, encouraging world Jewry to donate to enable Jewish refugees to ‘return’ to the ‘homeland’ and representations of the ‘promised land’, obviously devoid of Arabs. In 2012, the exhibition was of photographs of objects from the Israel Museum, including ancient archaeology, Judaica and Jewish ethnography—operating to position Israel within a long history of ‘world culture from nearly one million years ago to the present day’ as well as to demonstrate its ‘civiliz-ed/ing’ credentials in preserving such treasures. The ‘ancient roots’ of Israel are also supposedly evoked by the appropriation of three ancient mosaics, mounted on the wall above the doorway to the passport control room, as passengers enter Israel. According to the Israeli Airport Authority, ‘The display and choice of mosaics emphasize the connection between the heritage of the Land of Israel and the highly modern terminal designed by architect Moshe Safdie’. The mosaics depict vines, trees, and animals, as well as inscriptions in ancient Greek.

Resistance at Israel’s Borders

In the face of these overt attempts to naturalize Israel’s settler colonial project, passengers enact a range of responses—from non-cooperation to full cooperation. Full cooperation (that is, answering Israeli officialdom honestly) is unlikely to get you to Palestine if you are a foreign national, as the Flytilla activists discovered (and I also once tried this strategy at the Allenby Bridge crossing and was denied entry, not before waiting for four hours). Full cooperation could also lead to extra security procedures on leaving Ben Gurion airport. Full cooperation does work if you are the Mufti of Egypt or another dignitary visiting Palestine at the invitation of the Palestinian Authority. Many Palestinians are forced to cooperate with Israeli security in order to continue to cross Israel’s ‘borders’ despite the hardships and humiliations that they face. Their stories suggest that they reinscribe their humiliation as resistance—living proof that Zionism has not totally succeeded in its efforts to eliminate the indigenous population. Others refuse the indignities of dealing with Israel’s border agents and chose, instead, to stay home. The most spectacular form of non-cooperation is when thousands of Palestinian refugees, demonstrating in remembrance of the Nakba, attempted to breach Israel’s ‘borders’ in May 2011. Israeli soldiers killed at least 13 Palestinians and more were injured, but reportedly at least one young man made it all the way to Tel Aviv.

In between these extremes is simulation– the strategy that many visitors aiming to reach Palestine adopt. This involves stating that the purpose for your visit to ‘Israel’ is tourism and that the address of where you are staying is in ‘Israel’. At no point should you mention that you are visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Returning to the question that I posed at the beginning of this article, is simulation a form of resistance or normalization? On the one hand, subjecting oneself to Israeli security procedures constitutes an act of recognizing, and therefore, reproducing Israeli sovereignty over the OPT as well as the wider project of settler colonialism. However, simulation could also be seen as a form of ‘mimicry’, which, following on from postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha, demonstrates the incompleteness of Israeli sovereignty. Nevertheless, the act of mimicry, whilst illustrating the cracks in Israel’s power, does not necessarily dismantle the colonial underpinnings of that power. The question of whether visitors to Palestine, crossing Zionism’s borders, are performing an act of resistance or of normalization is determined not by the act itself but by the relationship between the act and wider political projects and by the relationship of these projects to Israel’s settler colonial project.

[The author would like to thank the intimate but excellent Warwick critical security studies reading group for a stimulating discussion of an earlier draft of this article.]

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