The Invisible Occupation

Eyal Weizman

The latest round of fighting in Gaza should be understood not as an interruption of an imaginary calm, but as the compounding of one kind of violence with another. The status quo that the people of Gaza have now returned to – the state of occupation, domination, isolation and siege – is violence by other means. Indeed, the structural violence of the occupation is physical and real and no less deadly than the bombs and guided rockets; it is only much harder to identify and represent in images and thus also to rally against.

In 2005, the architecture of Israel’s occupation in Gaza took a 90-degree turn: control previously enacted from command posts in settlements and military installations was relocated to networks of drones that at 30,000 feet are mostly invisible, although they sometimes appear as glittering sparks in the sky, and their terrifying deep hum can sometimes be heard at night. It was the ability of the Israeli air force to maintain a constant ‘surveillance and strike’ capacity over Gaza – drones can remain in the air around the clock – that made territorial withdrawal possible.

The perimeter fencing system Israel withdrew beyond is made up of several layers of fences and roads, like the West Bank Wall, but it is almost invisible to the people of Gaza because Israeli soldiers are ordered to shoot at anyone who enters a no-go area that extends anywhere between 300 and 1500 metres from the fence – or at anyone who looks at it through binoculars or in any other ‘suspicious manner’. The UN estimates that the no-go area – from which all trees and buildings have been removed – covers 62.6 square kilometres: 17 per cent of the small and densely populated Gaza Strip. Within that area Israeli security forces have in the past seven years killed 213 people, at least 154 of them civilians including 17 children.

At night, the fence area is intensely illuminated. From the Israeli side it appears as a brilliant white streak of light that contrasts with the dim yellowish tint of the camps and neighbourhoods beyond, which suffer from Israel’s severe rationing of electricity. The fence is equipped with day and night-vision cameras as well as motion detectors. The firing stations along it are remote-controlled from several miles back.

In September 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza, the Israeli government announced:

sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime in order to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity. Restrictions will also be placed on the movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip. The sanctions will be enacted following a legal examination, while taking into account both the humanitarian aspects relevant to the Gaza Strip and the intention to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

The Mubarak regime agreed to help Israel enforce the siege along Egypt’s short border with Gaza. Everything that entered the Gaza strip was counted and regulated: electricity, petrol, soap, food (2279 calories per person). True, the effects were relieved by goods ferried through the tunnels, the siege conditions were made less harsh under international pressure after Israel’s 2010 attack on the Turkish flotilla, and the new Egyptian government has eased its predecessor’s border controls. But the blockade still enacts a violent and arrogant regime that treats Palestinians as deserving only of humanitarian aid rather than political rights and freedoms.

The Israeli government makes sure to allow enough provisions in to prevent the situation from reaching a point of total collapse, because of the consequences of the international reaction that would follow. It can also reward calm by sending provisions through the gates in the fence (or by distributing export permits) and punish resistance by tightening the blockade. During the recent attack, Israeli propaganda offered this control over the flow of provisions as evidence of their humanitarian war-making.

The overall death toll from the recent bombardment in Gaza is estimated at about 160, with 1350 buildings destroyed or damaged. But the tragedy of Gaza cannot be comprehended by the number of violent deaths alone. Relative to other wars worldwide, the Israel-Palestine conflict does not produce a high number of direct fatalities, and the deaths that do take place are relatively conspicuous. There is another, slower, more subtle process of killing, carried out by the degrading of life-sustaining environmental conditions: by reducing the quantity and damaging the quality of water, destroying sewage treatment farms, ruining the agricultural sector, limiting access to healthcare. Deaths from these causes are the invisible outcome of the invisible occupation. Different UN agencies try to evaluate and present them, but ‘excess mortality’ figures are difficult to establish. They are buried in comparative statistical calculations of trends in mortality rates. Their relative invisibility might also explain why indirect mortality rates have rarely been used, even by those mobilising world opinion against the occupation.