Geopolitics & Palestine
There is a very famous academic whose name and works are referenced frequently in lecture halls and journal articles and even in conversation, if you’re friends with the kinds of people who talk about post-structuralism in their free time. (To be clear: I am not that person, and I do not have those friends.) In case you, too, have not had those friends, the guy’s name is Michel Foucault — pronounced Foo-coh, with a French lilt. He wrote a lot about power and control, and even though he died in the 1980s, his ideas are still useful for people who are trying to understand modern issues of control and violence.
Today, with Foucault’s help, I’m going to talk about Palestine.
Foucault had this idea about how the state uses power to control populations. In 1978, he said:
“I would like to begin studying something that I have called, somewhat vaguely, bio-power. By this I mean … the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power…”
Foucault was interested in biopower, having power over bodies. He didn’t just mean physical bodies — biopower also affects where and how those bodies can exist in space, including the biological features (the need for habitat, water, shelter) required for their existence. Biopolitics is how governments exercise biopower to achieve political ends.
So let’s think about the idea of biopower in the context of modern Palestine.
- Space. The people of Palestine have been forcibly removed from their homes by the Israeli government. We know this: we know Israel has made refugees of Palestinians. Those people who have not fled to other nations are now sentenced to Gaza or walled communities elsewhere in deeper Israel.
- Movement. Palestinians cannot move freely from place to place, and the movement of their bodies is restricted de jure and de facto — by law and by fear of violence.
- Water. It is a convenient and violent thing indeed that Palestinians have been relocated to spaces where drinkable water is difficult to access, and where that access is controlled by Israel.
- Ethnobotany. When people are moved against their will, they cannot take ecosystems with them. Forced resettlement revokes access to traditional ecological knowledge; there is loss of memory, loss of agency, and loss of physical health.
These four factors reveal how the government of Israel exercises biopower over the people of Palestine. This is as true now as it was in 1947: Zionist conquest of the land was biopolitical and manipulated human bodies living human lives in order to gain control over the land.
But there’s something missing here. When we’re talking about geopolitical power, struggle and resistance, it isn’t enough to talk about the mechanism of the violators — if we do that, we’re limiting our analysis. We need to understand, too, the driving motivations of Israeli biopower.
As Gabriel Piterberg notes in this article, space is central to the Israeli story in a serious way. He says:
“From time immemorial, the Jews constituted a territorial nation. It follows that a non-territorial nation must be abnormal, incomplete and inauthentic… So long as they were condemned to [landlessness], Jews — whether as individuals or communities — could lead at best a partial or transitory existence, waiting for the redemption of an ‘ascent’ (aliyah) once again to the land of Israel, the only site on which the nation’s destiny could be fulfilled.”
To the Zionists who created the state of Israel in the first place, the suffering of the people of Palestine is unfortunate but subsidiary to fulfilling the manifest destiny of their people — in the divine providence of God.
When we consider that the political action of the Israeli state was and is guided not by ethical obligation to other people, but by a sense of righteousness and justice, we can see quite easily how Israeli biopower could be explained away in the hearts and minds of the Israeli people. Elsewhere in his article Gabriel Piterberg notes that a strategy of Zionist Israel is to shed “crocodile tears over a fait accompli.” The ethics have been breached. The people have been moved. The land has been conquered, and the emptiness filled. But don’t forget: to make the desert bloom required, and requires, a prerequisite belief in the inhumanity of the Palestinians, established and exercised through biopower.
Controlling bodies, water and land is sinister, but understanding the mechanism doesn’t give us the whole story. There is a greater and more mythological violence at play here.
And it makes me wonder how similar the story of Palestine is to the story of indigenous communities of people around the world, over whom the ‘legitimate governments’ have exercised biopower.
The story of injustice in our universe is this: sometimes, beings exercise power over other beings, because the first group believes they are more worthy, more righteous, more deserving or more capable than the second. And when this happens, almost without exception, living things are hurt in the process.
We need to understand the story of injustice before we can start writing stories of equity, safety and peace.