My Land Is Not Your Land

by Alex Cocotas

Impact craters and wreckage of target plane along dummy airstrip, live-fire zone, Nahal Masor basin, the Negev
 Latitude: 30°45'14"N / Longitude: 35°10'31"E // 22 November 2011 
 Fazal Sheikh, from the Desert Bloom series

Everything in Israel returns to land. When Israelis speak of their country, they rarely use the word “Israel,” but, most often, ha’aretz — the land. Pre-state Palestine is eretz Israel. A well-known song, frequently invoked during wartime as a vapid political slogan, by the right and the left, states, “I have no other country (eretz) / even if my land is burning.” Knowledge of Israeli politics is ultimately superficial — Netanyahu said, Rabin said, Ben Gurion said — to truly understand Israel, one must, as the early Zionists advocated, return to the land.

Few countries have such an obsessive, and uncertain, relationship with its constituent territory. In fewer countries does the government, directly and indirectly, control more than ninety percent of the land. And in even fewer countries is the land subjected to such frequent and continuous manipulations, permutations, and radical reorganizations: spatially, conceptually, and residentially. Its inhabitants are expelled, new inhabitants resettled. Nature is iterated, imposed, and subverted. The visible surface is a palimpsest of development and destruction, dreams and despair, where a copse on an arid ridge or a pair of tire tracks in empty expanse are imbued with ideological character.

It makes, however, for a difficult artistic subject, liable to become a deluge of senseless detail or an aesthetic gloss signifying nothing, requiring so much explanation that you lose sight of the art, or simply reduced to a series of pretty landscapes in lieu of any context. The photographer Fazal Sheikh’s new work Desert Bloom, part of his Erasure Trilogy, is thankfully neither; it is one of the most comprehensive works about the land of Israel, visual or otherwise, succeeding at once as artistic creation and critical inquiry.

Sheikh, a MacArthur fellow, takes as his subject the Negev desert, the country’s most sparsely populated region, but which also accounts for fifty percent of its land mass. It is, at first glance, a curious choice: It is not rich in biblical history, nor does it loom large in the popular imagination as a site of contemporary wars and conflicts. There is not much there, or so one would think. But, like the rainwater that winds its way across the region’s ridges and canyons to collect in basins and stream beds, it seems all of Israel’s history filters down to the Negev.

Desert Bloom consists of a series of large aerial photographs, forty-eight in total: both the year of Israel’s establishment and, incidentally, the length of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza at the time of its first exhibition last year. (Desert Bloom will be shown at the at the Slought in Philadelphia until May 1st and at the Brooklyn Museum until June 12, as part of the of the “This Place” exhibit.) The work is defined by paradox: The unmediated, decontextualized photographs superficially appear as abstract images, a bewildering and impenetrable grid, each picture like a mysterious gesture from a stranger on a passing train — tawny scabs, striated sand, geological wrinkles, traces of human presence, planning, and infrastructure — but an accompanying pamphlet serves to decode the images, revealing the research and care that went into selecting each image, and how each one is anything but a haphazard collage of aestheticized space and form.

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Formations simulating enemy installations for military manoeuvre training, live-fire zone, the Negev
 Latitude: 30°57'14"N / Longitude: 34°39'25"E // 13 November 2011
 Fazal Sheikh, from the Desert Bloom series

Each photo is numbered and appears in the pamphlet with its lateral coordinates, which are collectively plotted on a map of the Negev, while a short paragraph provides information and context. Altogether, the photographs and the pamphlet tell a wide-ranging and comprehensive history of the land and its utilization: an array of approaches to desert agriculture, traditional and modern; ruins and remains from the Nabatean and Byzantine eras; seismic experiments; environmental degradation; afforestation by the Jewish National Fund (a quasi-governmental organization that controls a significant amount of land in Israel); the foundations of expansion for the region’s Jewish communities; and military installations, both British and Israeli, permanent structures and transitive training grounds. The central concern, however, is the fate of the region’s Bedouins.

Like the residents of Yaffa, Lydda, and numerous other villages, Bedouins in the Negev fled or were expelled from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948. These settlements sometimes became the site of Jewish communities, like Ofakim; or were incorporated into agricultural developments and newly declared military zones, preventing former inhabitants from returning; or they were simply destroyed. Many displaced Bedouins were resettled in the nineteen-fifties by Israel’s military government, which ruled over Arabs in Israel until 1966, and these new government-directed settlements became, bizarrely, what are now called “unrecognized villages.” Today there are dozens of such villages across the Negev, hardscrabble places consisting of tents and hastily-built structures. They often lack access to water and electricity, let alone health and educational infrastructure, because the Israeli government does not recognize their right to exist.

Under the pretense of reclaiming state land, the government has repeatedly destroyed Bedouin “unrecognized villages,” which are subsequently rebuilt by residents. (Many Bedouin also self-demolish under heavy government pressure). The village of Al-Araqib, for example, was recently demolished in December for the ninetieth time. The phrase “unrecognized villages” is Orwellian cover for a process that seeks to justify the expulsion of families from their houses, destroying their property, separating them from their sustenance and traditional way of life in an effort to induce Bedouin “sedentarization,” another obfuscating term. The ultimate goal is to drive these residents, who are mostly farmers and herders, off their lands and into government-sanctioned townships, which are essentially Bedouin ghettos with endemic poverty and crime. It is often couched in parochial concerns for the residents’ well-being — the familiar patina of benevolent civilization — and conveniently ignores Bedouins’ stated desire to remain, which could easily be facilitated by connecting the villages to power or water lines, or building rudimentary infrastructure, like schools or health clinics.

The fate of the “unrecognized villages” and the broader Bedouin community cannot, however, be extricated from the government’s broader policy of Judaization in the Negev, an increase in the region’s Jewish population to maintain demographic superiority (similar policies have been implemented elsewhere in Israel, such as in Jerusalem and the Galilee). Exploring this policy underpins much of Desert Bloom, even in those photos which initially appear unrelated. Afforestation by the Jewish National Fund, for example, is often just arbor cover for dispossession — expelling Bedouin villages to plant forests in their place and then clearing the way for new Jewish communities nearby, whose residents are enticed with handsome government benefits and promises of a high quality of life, such as great jogging trails in a recently planted forest. This policy is further supported by an uneven distribution of resources. While Jewish communities are supplied with modern drip agriculture, Bedouin communities must use traditional runoff agriculture (more than seventy-five thousand Bedouin lack access to running water). The overarching objective is to limit the growth of Bedouin communities as a dispersed population, corralling them into insulated townships where they are more easily controlled, poorly served by public transportation and lacking economic and educational opportunities, sequestering them at the state’s mercy.

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Underground communications and power lines to the border fence and intersecting seismic test line, border zone between the Negev and Egyptian Sinai
 Latitude: 31°7'40"N / Longitude: 34°18'49"E ; // 13 November 2011 
 Fazal Sheikh, from the Desert Bloom series

Such policies would be familiar to Palestinians in the West Bank. There, the IDF also declares closed military zones to facilitate expropriation of land; settlers have unfettered access to water relative to their Palestinian neighbors; and government policy has effectively pushed the Palestinian population into a chain of isolated islands with limited scope for expansion. This, then, is the subtle power of Desert Bloom: It exposes the false dichotomy that is often drawn between Israel and the Occupied Territories, between the enlightened democracy of tech startups on one side and the nearly fifty-year military occupation on the other, a false dichotomy of autonomous political spaces with little overlap between them. The same policies, informed by the same ideology, travel freely across the Green Line, the demarcation of Israel’s pre-1967 borders, refined on one side and exported to the other, and vice versa.

While the work’s title, Desert Bloom, first appears as an ironic play on David Ben-Gurion’s famous exhortation “to make the desert bloom” — it is clear from the pictures that not much is literally blooming there — Sheikh demonstrates that it really is blooming, in a way, as a hot house of Israeli politics and policies. Beyond the land policies, Israeli soldiers train at mock Palestinian villages in the Negev; IDF pilots drop mock bombs in desert canyons; and the country’s nuclear deterrent, the true guarantor of its existence, was produced at a “textile factory” near the city of Dimona. The Occupation, the foreign incursions, and the aerial bombardments — that is, the things that define Israel in much of the world — were first practiced and perfected in the Negev.

But there is another aspect of Desert Bloom, which will likely be lost on many who see it: Sheihk’s engagement with aerial photography, a longstanding tool of governments and urban planners, which has a long history in Israel-Palestine as a means of fortifying and extending state power. Some of the earliest aerial photographs of eretz Israel were taken during World War I, and later, the Israeli government has used aerial photography to thoroughly map the Occupied Territories — maps which remain a closely guarded secret. More recently, a different kind of “aerial photography,” drones, have been used to carefully monitor, and bomb, the Gaza Strip, creating an eerie new paradigm of post-territorial military occupation.

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Abu Asa family homestead, Bir Hadaj, the Negev
 Latitude: 31°0'60"N / Longitude: 34°43'4"E // 9 October 2011
 Fazal Sheikh, from the Desert Bloom series

At the beginning of the Second Intifada, Edward Said wrote, “[The Palestinians] had no detailed maps of their own at Oslo; nor, unbelievably, were there any individuals on the negotiating team familiar enough with the geography of the Occupied Territories to contest decisions or to provide alternative plans.” New technologies and new means of dissemination have allowed activists and organizations to document and analyze geospatial developments in the Occupied Territories for the first time, everything from the method and mechanisms of settlement development to the organizational logic of roadblocks, an approach known as forensic architecture, creating their own maps and bringing them to a wider audience. The Israeli architect and intellectual Eyal Weizman, a pioneer in the field and a collaborator of Sheihk’s, writes in his book Hollow Land that these projects “extend our political understanding of the conflict to a physical, geographical reality,” which can subsequently be used to oppose and disrupt the conflict. Desert Bloom brings this idea beyond the Green Line, back to the roots of the state’s establishment.

Sheikh’s work thus engages with this tradition of aerial photography, but ultimately subverts it. Like Prometheus come down from Olympus, Sheikh exposes the opaque logic manifest in myriad disparate actions, no longer experienced as a series of discrete impressions; the machinations of that contemporary god, state power, wrangled from secretive councils and made available for all to see. The mists of subjectivity clear, and we are left with the land: immemorial, writhing, recording.