Eyal Weizman and Books of Destruction

Eyal Weizman in the LRB on Israel’s strategies of spatial control over Gaza — and Israel’s cynical, shocking legal acrobatics to consider a Palestinian civilian in Gaza as a “voluntary ‘human shield.’”

We will learn more about the way Pillar of Defence was conducted when, over the coming weeks, it becomes possible to start reading the rubble. Some of what we know about the 2008-9 assault comes from an archive – the Book of Destruction – compiled by the Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing. The archive contains thousands of entries, each documenting a single building that was completely or partly destroyed, recording everything from cracked walls in houses that still stand, to complete ruins. The ministry will no doubt put together a new archive following the latest attack. Its list will be a close parallel to the one contained in a document owned by the Israeli military. This is the Book of Targets in Gaza, a thick blue folder that the outgoing chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who presided over Operation Cast Lead, passed to his successor in a televised ceremony at the beginning of 2011: ‘I want to hand over something I carry with me all the time,’ he announced.

Now that the bombing is over, evidence will be accumulated (and allegations made and contested), not only by speaking to survivors and witnesses but by using geospatial data, satellite imagery of destroyed buildings and data gathered in on-site investigations. But investigation is difficult: in Gaza ruins are piled on ruins, and it isn’t easy to tell them apart. The wars of 1947-49, the military incursions of the 1950s, the 1956 war, the 1967 war, the 1972 counterinsurgency in the refugee camps, the first intifada of 1987-91, the waves of destruction during the second intifada of the 2000s, and now the two attacks of 2008-9 and 2012, have each piled new layers of rubble on top of those produced by their predecessors.

The Book of Destruction is also a haunting publication by the excellent photojournalist Kai Wiedenhöfer, published after the last war on Gaza in 2008-09. Get it. Both photos in this post are from Wiedenhöfer’s book.

Aerial Views 1919

A young English painter born in Oxford joined the British air force during World War I and became an “Official War Artist,” sketching battlefields and cities from above, some of which he turned into oil paintings in his studio after the war. From an airplane Richard Carline’s views are realist but flat, distances shortened and the horizon stretched. The views suggest the compactness of some of the area’s landscape. High above Damascus, at 10,000 feet, you can see over the Anti-Lebanon range to Jebel Sannine and the Mediterranean.They are also an artifact of an imperial era, since the views are from an RAF plane over lands that the British and French had taken during and would occupy after the war. A perspective of domination, maybe, or at least of framing Damascus, Baghdad, and Jerusalem from above, as a British airplane saw them.

The BBC has a gallery of his paintings, all of which are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Above, Baghdad. Below, Jerusalem:

The Nation – Roadblocks to Damascus

July 2, 2010 – The weekend before Memorial Day, Senator John Kerry visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus—his third such trip as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and second in as many months. He was there, by all accounts, to defuse tensions and clarify Syria’s response to Israel’s unconfirmed accusations, echoed by the United States, that Syria had delivered Scud missiles to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

With past visits by special envoy George Mitchell, Under Secretary of State William Burns and a stream of other officials, the presidential palace has been busily receiving guests at its perch above Damascus—and that’s only the Americans. The French and German foreign ministers were in town the same weekend. Assad has become one of the region’s busiest hosts in the past year, as he maneuvers Syria out of the diplomatic cold by talking to everyone: friends (Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey), enemies (America) and cool neighbors (Saudi Arabia) alike.

High-profile American statesmen may go to Damascus, but not—at least not yet—an ambassador. In early May Senate Republicans blocked a motion to confirm career foreign service officer Robert Ford as the first American envoy in Damascus in five years, since Margaret Scobey was recalled to protest presumed Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A week later, twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatening to prevent Ford’s nomination from going to a full vote in the Senate. Their letter warned that “if engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior.”

Read the rest of the piece at The Nation.

In Our Orbit: What Was Lost

Frederick Deknatel | May 12, 2010 This article appeared in the May 31, 2010 edition of The Nation.

One day in the fall of 1970, as he was studying Arabic in a mountain village overlooking Beirut, Kai Bird heard on the BBC that a plane hijacked by a group of young Arab men, “secular Marxists and Palestinian nationalists,” had landed at Beirut’s international airport. From his perch in the mountains the 19-year-old Bird had a view of the plane on the tarmac; he did not know that his girlfriend was one of its passengers. She was a hostage of the Dawson’s Field hijackings, which violently thrust the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood into international view and ended with three empty airliners exploding at a former RAF airstrip in the Jordanian desert.

Bird’s girlfriend survived the ordeal, and her story is a window onto Bird’s uncommon, personal and privileged perspective on the Middle East. In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978 (Scribner; $30), Bird, a Nation contributing editor, sifts through his memories as the son of an American diplomat stationed in Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo and sets them against the region’s history over three busy decades. The book’s title refers to the barbed-wired checkpoint that demarcated the 1949 armistice line between Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem, and through which Bird and his father drove daily en route to the Anglican Mission School in West Jerusalem from their home in Sheikh Jarrah. Minus his father, Bird and his younger sister and mother evacuated Jerusalem for Beirut in 1956 when Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt in an attempt to topple Gamal Abdel Nasser and seize the Suez Canal—a conflict that did not end until the following year, when David Ben-Gurion, under threat of economic sanctions from President Eisenhower, ordered Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai. A decade later, again without his father, Bird’s family fled Cairo for Athens before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. In the early 1960s the Birds lived in a dusty consular compound in Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, when the kingdom was comparatively open and not nearly as rich. Most expat families in the adjacent oil compound survived the desert with bathtub gin; Bird’s father smuggled in Scotch. During a second stint there in the 1970s, his parents counted among their friends Salem bin Laden, an urbane brother of Osama who “frequently dropped by our house in Riyadh and brought along his guitar so that he and Mother could play Joan Baez and Bob Dylan tunes.”

Bird’s memoir is about understanding but rejecting borders as they were being redrawn and reinforced in the postwar Middle East, which he had the liberty to do as an American expatriate growing up “out of place.” Bird uses the phrase deliberately: it’s a nod to Edward Said’s description of statelessness, though Bird never likens his own wanderings to those of a refugee. The politics of Bird’s parents were a product of the bygone era of empathic Arabists in the Foreign Service; their son shared their support of the Palestinians. As a university student in Beirut he saw the Palestinian resistance grow armed and stout in a city that was the region’s cultural capital on the eve of civil war. The wholeness of Bird’s Middle Eastern story is really a longing for the Jerusalem of his childhood, before Israel’s victory over Nasser and the Arabs in 1967, when Mandelbaum Gate was demolished and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. “The Israelis proclaimed the city unified,” he writes. “It was not—and it is not.”

Bird was an earnest antiwar college student in the United States in the early 1970s when he met Susan Goldmark (whom he would later marry), and learned another lesson about dislocation. Goldmark is the daughter of Austrian Jews who fled the Holocaust, and stories of her parents’ escape to the Balkans and Italy and eventually to New York City came to serve as a foil for Bird’s view of Palestinian dispossession and Israeli aggression. Bird doesn’t equate their suffering but rather contemplates the collective failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile their histories of loss and victimhood. Among his parents’ friends in Jerusalem was an Armenian family with long ties to the city. They fled in 1948 and returned two years later, but their property had been expropriated. “The Kalbians identified themselves as Christian, Arabic-speaking Armenians whose home was Palestine,” Bird writes. The nascent Jewish state “regarded them as non-Jews and therefore Arabs.” Eventually they immigrated to America. Bird links their displacement with the plight of Susan’s parents. In 1959 she and her mother returned to Graz to knock on the door of their old house, stolen during the war by a neighbor, “to see what she had lost.”

Bird admits that he has long avoided writing about the Middle East because “I did not wish to spend my entire life forlornly trying to rectify the injustices of the Nakba and the Shoah.” With its conviction and range, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate avoids that futility. Bird’s honest book recalls a remark of the historian Albert Hourani about the Six-Day War: “Victory is a much less profound experience than defeat.”

Link at The Nation (but behind the subscriber firewall).

Avi Shlaim, Abraham Burg and Ian Black on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera English’s talk programs are so much better than CNN, among others. Too bad it’s barely available here in the United States. Here in this program of Empire, Shlaim, Burg and Black discuss whether Israel is involved in a colonial war, how quickly Obama has failed to live up to his Cairo speech vis-a-vis Israeli occupation and settlements, and other such topics that the US media would never touch. Have to say, the moderator Marwan Bishara still has to fill the void of semi-annoying host.

20 years later

Marking Berlin anniversary, Palestinians breach Israel’s wall

Ramallah – Ma’an – Marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Palestinian demonstrators breached Israel’s concrete barrier near the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday.

Reporting from the scene, Ma’an’s correspondent said the protesters, once they reached the other side, set fire to tires. Israeli forces also opened fire, the reporter said.

Mrs. Clinton’s statement was intended to clarify her remarks in Jerusalem, which had left some of her aides nonplused because she had not voiced the administration’s official position that settlements are illegitimate.

Though not a core subject in peace negotiations, Jewish settlements are a charged issue for Israelis and Palestinians because they involve building in areas that both claim as their ancestral lands.

How not to start the day: read bits like this in the Old Gray Lady, wonder why they go to pains to misinform. The words occupation, occupied land, international law, violation of international law, land seized in war, illegal annexation and the like were axed, because the Times doesn’t want you to think of the conflict like that. It’s about ancestral land claims and, in fact, colonies housing a half million Jews on the occupied West Bank (very much including East Jerusalem) are not a core subject in this nebulous thing called the peace process. No, they’re not.

Instead read this interview with Rashid Khalidi on CFR.org. He says very clearly what many others have on the need to negotiate confront the settlements:

The point is, though,that settlements were designed expressly to make a negotiated resolution of this conflict impossible. We have to accept this. They’re not just there because they happened to grow like mushrooms on hilltops. They were scientifically planned so as to cut Jerusalem off from its hinterland. They were scientifically planned to cut the West Bank into pieces. They were scientifically planned to prevent movement from point A to point B. As long as these objectives are achieved, there’s not a West Bank state. There is not sovereignty, there is not contiguity, there is not economic viability.These huge settlements have to either be removed or enormously shrunk or subjected to some other arrangement whereby the objectives for which they were established are defeated. I’m sure it would be hard for an Israeli government but otherwise you won’t have a deal, or you’ll have a deal that collapses immediately and then everybody will go back and say “well we told you so.” I’m telling you now, if you don’t deal with the root issues caused by the settlements you won’t have a viable deal.”