BOOK: “Thinking Palestine” by Ronit Lentin 10Oct09 October 11, 2009

Reviewed by Dr Claudia Prestel, Leicester  -  Friends of Al Aqsa -  10 October 2009

080608-deane-lentinRonit Lentin’s edited volume, a collaborative effort of an interdisciplinary group of Palestinian, Israeli, American, British and Irish scholars is an “analysis of Palestine in light of Georgio Agamben’s ‘state of exception’ (p. 2)”. For Raef Zreik, for example, the State of Israel “exposes the Achilles’ heel of liberal political and legal theory” (…) and reveals “what lies beneath the smooth surface of other countries” (p. 144)

Ronit Lentin, a distinguished Israeli scholar and peace activist who lives in a chosen “exile” in Ireland,  reflects on the reasons for the Israeli scholars’ preoccupation with researching Palestinians. She mentions the close cooperation between the security services and Israeli universities. It is in this context that the academic boycott of Israeli universities has to be seen as they are often part and parcel of the Israeli occupation. In the book Lentin therefore calls for a “theorization of ‘Palestinians’ not merely as victims, or as spoken for and about.” (p. 3) Apart from offering “theoretical approaches to thinking Palestine” the contributors are also politically committed to advocating a one-state solution (p. 14) which makes this book even more important in its originality for new ideas and solutions to the conflict.

Several scholars have tried to reflect on the nature of the Israeli state and challenge its definition of a “democracy”. Whilst some scholars have called it an “ethnic democracy” David Theo Goldberg in the edited volume takes on a new approach. For him Israel “represents a novel form of the racial state more generally” (p. 26) and he argues that Palestinians are “treated not as if a racial group, not simply in the manner of a racial group. But as a despised and demonic racial group.” (p. 42) A brief psychological explanation which would call for a much deeper analysis concludes his argument by pointing out that those “ready to inflict so much pain on others cannot possibly ‘like themselves either’. The violence thus “can only be a mania of the most debilitating, distorting, self-destructive sort.” (p. 44) This is a very important point and one wishes to see far more research into these issues as it would also offer then a solution to the conflict.

Gargi Bhattacharyya investigates the unconditional support Israel enjoys in the West and how Israel exploits this support under the disguise of the “War on Terror”.  The new discourse in the West symbolizes the end of multiculturalism and an explicit embrace of neo-colonialism and imperialism as the “powerful must use all the might at their disposal because this is better for civilization and the world” (p. 60).

Honaida Ghanim uses the heartbreaking story of a woman giving birth at a checkpoint as a starting point in order to shows how even the classic “civilian” – unthreatening, harmless and a woman – became the “potential terrorist”, since colonial occupation left no room for the category of civilian (p. 67). She uses the model of “thanatopower” and Thanatopolitics to explain population management under colonial occupation. For Ghanim the power used against the Palestinians is about “managing them as biological subjects through localizing them in the liminal zone between life and death, between dieting and starvation – not really dying but being one step before that, where ‘a decision on life becomes a decision on death.” (p. 77) Ghanim offers a sophisticated approach to suicide bombing – as “an escape route from the total control of the occupation” where  s/he recharges the ‘death act’ with a symbolic political meaning, giving it a unique form of eternal life, which cannot be controlled by any outsider” (p. 78) – yet also warns of the danger of this “deadly trap” as it turns the “political into a state that can be gained only at the moment of its elimination” (p. 79).

Sari Hanafi argues that the space of the refugee camps in Lebanon was treated as a “space of exception and an experimental laboratory for control and surveillance” (p. 88), yet agency also expresses itself in the state of exception (p. 91).  He advocates the inclusion of the camps in the state’s urban infrastructure and challenges the notion that the camps nurture Palestinian national identity. Instead these camps where “radical national movements mingle with religious conservatism” created a “new un-docile urban identity rather than a national one” (p. 95) and as a “space of radicalism” contribute to perpetuating the conflict.

Laleh Khalili investigates the Al-Ansar Mass Detention Camp in Lebanon where in between June 1982 and May 1985, 12-15,000 Lebanese and Palestinian men and women were held and argues that the Ansar detention camp is a relevant subject of study because of its very familiar “ordinariness as an instrument of control”, perfected in “past colonial settings”. Ansar therefore was the “historic outcome of a whole series of strategies of counterinsurgency, institutions of domination, and technologies of control perfected through decades of colonial rule, beginning in the late nineteenth century”.

In a comparative approach Alina Korn classifies the Occupied Territories as a prison or a network of prison rather than referring to Bantustans. The change in pattern of control began with the Oslo process when ghettoization (in Palestine) has replaced imprisonment (in Israel), which also enables Israel to take over more and more Palestinian lands. Whilst the classic ghetto also offered the “subordinate group partial protection and a platform for succour and solidarity” (p. 122), the process of ghettoization in the Occupied Territories led to the “destruction of political and civic organizations and to the dismantling of the natural and national fabric of Palestinian society” (p. 123). She also challenges the concept of anarchy and argues that the situation in the Territories is an “exercise of limitless state power” (p. 123).  Korn also critically investigates the role of international humanitarian aid and how it benefits the occupation. Her arguments are thought provoking as she argues that funds provided by the international community “fund, directly and indirectly the Israeli occupation” (p. 127). The neighbourhoods built following Israeli house-demolitions are “specially fitted to the size of Israeli tanks” (p. 127).

Ilan Pappe on the other hand warns against viewing Israel as a ‘state of exception’. On the contrary, for him Israel is a Mukhabarat state, a ‘state of oppression’ – at least with regard to the indigenous population – and not a variant of a flawed democracy. To include Israel within the ‘state of exception’ would only “reinforce the global immunity Israel receives for its membership in the camp of democratic states” and would thus enable the state to continue the dispossession of the Palestinians (p. 149). Only a process of De-Zionisation would lead to the democratization of the country as a whole as well as a change in Western attitudes (p. 150). Pappe uses the example of Azmi Bshara, the former Knesset member and Palestinian citizen of Israel, to argue the case that genuine supporters of democracy are branded as the arch-enemies of the state.

Nahla Abdo challenges the Western feminist representation of Palestinian Munadelat, arguing that these feminist discourses on Palestinian women freedom fighters continue to orientalise and racialise Palestinians. Based on interviews Abdo argues that Palestinian women’s bodies and sexuality “are best understood as tools used by the coloniser/occupier to quell the occupied/colonised resistance.” (p. 186)

David Landy investigates the complex role of alternative study tours and demonstrates the limits of the “good intentions”. Whilst the foreign activists can feel as heroes and walk away, the Palestinian tourist guides experience it as a disempowering activity that comes at the expense of the “subjectivity and political aspirations of Palestinians themselves” (p. 203).

Similarly Ronit Lentin in her critical analysis of Zochrot, an Israeli group dedicated since 2002 to the commemoration of the Nakba, argues that despite its benefits, it is still a very problematic and very Israeli lieu de memoire (p. 214) as its activities deprive the Palestinians of their voice and appropriates Palestinian memory and perpetuates Palestinian victimhood. Furthermore, its activities do not translate into political action such as the support for the right of return. Lentin even goes as far as to argue that  Zochrot “perpetuates rather than contests the ongoing colonization of Palestine” (p. 217).

The edited volume challenges accepted wisdoms and concepts and forces us to rethink critical issues. It provides a fresh framework despite the fact that some ideas needed further analysis. The book not only tells the story of suffering and abuse but provides the analytical framework for the underlying reasons and therefore also offers possible solutions to the conflict. It is a must read for every scholar and one hopes that it would also reach a wider audience, in particular decision-making powers such as Western politicians.

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