Militarized Ecological Conflict: Infrastructure and Representation

Conflicts over Land in Israel and North Dakota

By Andrew Strong


The infrastructure of a system, for water or oil or town planning, provides a mechanism through which resources are managed, distributed, and shared. This is true not only of material resources but also of culture and time, both of which become mediated by the systems that one adheres to. These infrastructures embody conflict when they facilitate the consumption of a resource or the utilization of land that is contested between ideologies. In both South Dakota and in Israel contestation of land utilization has come to the forefront through an exposure of infrastructure impositions upon a minority group.

In Israel, “the quest for nature preservation through [the Green Patrol] came into direct conflict with indigenous culture and claims to land ownership [in the Negev]” (Tal, 345). “[The Green Patrol] was established in 1977 by a coalition of national environmental agencies — the Nature Reserves Authority (NRA), the JNF, and the Ministry of Agriculture with a seemingly benign task: the ecological preservation of the desert’s threshold” (Sheikh, 46). But in doing so, it countered Bedouin land ownership claims by locating and forcibly removing “Bedouins still living on, or returning to, land seized by the state (Sheik,46).

Nature Preservation is infrastructural in both its associated land use practices and the ideology that informs them. Preservation is distinguished by its intention to eliminate human impact within an ecological system (National Park Service). During the American environment movement of the 20th century, preservation distinguished itself from conservation in its mission to preserve the concept of the wilderness whereas conservation incorporated forms of interventions to manage the land (Silveira).

In Israel, relationships between the Israeli government and the Bedouin communities were caught between preservation rhetoric that saw the Negev as a wilderness, despite a long history of nomadic communities, and Zionist rhetoric, which “imagined Jews as having returned to a desolate, neglected ‘dead land,’ belonging to no one, and having revived it” (Sheik 52).

As a result, these relationships have been tenuous. “When the Roman Byzantine government … collapsed in the seventh century, Palestine’s deserts became the domain of the Bedouin” (Tal, 346). “For the most part … until 1948 the Bedouin of the Negev were on their own and wandering freely” (Tal, 346). “While the Negev Bedouin had formal demarcated boundaries their lands remained unregistered despite calls from the Turks and later the British” (Tal, 346).

“When Israel assumed control of the Negev desert in 1959, only 12,500 of the 53,000 Bedouin living in the area decided to stay” (Tal, 346). Those that stayed were subject to Israeli policies that considered them a security threat — concentrating them into a ‘closed area’ from which they were not allowed to leave (Tal, 346). This policy was in place until 1966 when relations with Bedouin communities were renewed (Tal, 346). With the renewal of these relations came migration of the Bedouin communities back to the Negev, while at the same time, the area was seen “as largely unsettled and as the ultimate land reserve for Jewish immigrants, who would continue to come” (346). However, problems arose for the Israeli government in their own development aims with growing and increasingly distributed nomadic population (Tal 346). The governments response was to then settle the Bedouin community in several cities. The Green Patrol was founded shortly after in correlation with increasing resistance to settlement advice (Tal, 347).

Since it’s foundation, there has been increasing tension around the Green Patrol’s aggressive strategies to remove Bedouins from the land. In their book The Conflict Shoreline, Fazal Sheikh and Eyal Weizman share the following quote from a Bedouin still living on seized land. “‘They would attach a jeep to a tent and just drive off. They would poke holes in our jerry cans so that we’d run out of water … Imagine how a man felt when he returned from the army to find his tent destroyed and his wife beaten.’” (Sheikh, 48). Another example they shared is from “February 2002, [when] crop dusters, everywhere to be seen spraying pesticides over the intensely irrigated fields of the Jewish settlements of the northern threshold of the desert, started spraying toxic herbicides on the small sustenance fields of illegalized Bedouin settlements that the state wanted to evict acting now” (Sheikh, 46). What’s more, this action situated the Israeli government “as agents of desertification [and displacement]” through militarized action (Sheikh, 46).

Photo: Tzuriel Cohen-Arazi, Tazpit News Agency.
The image 2nd image above illustrates Bedouin routes across the Negev. The image 1st shows a Northern Israeli city. Both reveal infrastructures that frame relations to the land but are ready quite differently because the respective infrastructures are understood through different ideologies. Photo: Eyal Weizman, The Conflict Shoreline.

To this end, “Israel’s land laws have been turned into ideological tools of dispossession (Sheikh, 52). Their attempts to rid the Negev of nomadic people, by enacting an infrastructure of preservation on the land and forcing Bedouins into non-nomadic city infrastructures has produced social injustice.

“Many environmental leaders are unapologetic about framing the issue in nationalistic as well as ecological terms” (Tal, 350). “‘The Green Patrol performed an enormous mitvah, a good deed.’ declares scientist Aviva Rabinovich, [who also acted as chief scientist for the NRA]. ‘The war over land is painful and difficult, and it always will be. We are fighting here. (There should be no illusions in this regard.) It’s a battle for this land and or survival.” (Tal, 350). This reveals the cooptation of ecological narratives to include rhetoric justifying displacement.

“Rabinovich claims that the aerial photographs from 1917 to 1948 that she used as an expert witness in NRA court hearings clearly showed that the Bedouin never laid any real claim on most of the Negev.” (Tal, 350) These aerial photographs prove to a complicated tool for arguments of land rights and belonging because their framing is based on evidence of land use within a particular ideology. Sheikh and Weizman, similarly take aerial photographs in the same locations to tell a completely different story, but one whose markers are rooted in a different ideology that that of Rabinovich. Both make a case using these markers as reasons for belonging and rights to land, with Rabinovich invoking the military power of the state as enforcement.

Visual representation also plays a central role for the Standing Rock Water Protectors in South Dakota in terms of identifying a claim to the space and to the land. The Water Protectors are currently protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which currently has plans to transport crude oil underneath the Missouri River, which is “the primary drinking source for the Standing Rock Sioux” (Worland). Through website, news, and social media, the Water Protectors have expressed through visual imagery a sense of unity and groundedness both between members of the movement and with the earth. These images have taken the form of a diverse activist camp, with tribes represented from across the United States, and videos of activists discussing their harmony with the land and with the water.

Representations of protests embedded in the landscape. Aligns with central narratives around connectivity to the land. Photo: Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images.

Rachel Figueroa, an activist in the movement says the following of their connectivity: “Mother Earth is our mother. She’s everything. She’s life. She brings life, she takes life. We get everything from her; we get our food, our shelter, medicines. The water flows through her creeks, the lakes, sacred places. This is why we’re here. This is why we chose this planet, because of her. It’s everything” (NPR).

Alexander Howland, another activist participating in the protests, mentions that “A lot of people don’t see it, but we are connected to that water. We are water. That’s why a lot of us are here. That’s what water means to us: it means life, it means unity, it means one people, it means all these things because we’re all connected, because of water” (NPR).

Example of the militarization of police at Standing Rock protests in North Dakota. Photo: Daniella Zalcman, YES Magazine.

Example of the militarization of police at Standing Rock protests in North Dakota.

Despite the expressed connectivity to the land and water by the activists, the US government has responded with militarized police to enforce the peace and protect the continued development of the pipeline, “[which will come] within a half mile of tribal land, directly upstream from where [the tribe] sources [their] water” (Sammon). “Dakota Access Pipeline, LLC’s initial draft environmental assessment of December 9, 2015 made no mention of the fact that the route they chose brings the pipeline near, and could jeopardize, the drinking water of the Tribe and its citizens. It actually omitted the very existence of the tribe on all maps and any analysis, in direct violation of the US environmental justice policies” (Standing Rock).

The pipeline is an imposition of US entrenchment in neoliberal global capitalism and rooted in a long history of Native American displacement. As infrastructure, it supports the continually increasing consumptive needs of Americans dependent on neoliberal capital structures. Historically, neoliberal ideology has been exploitative and continues to do so.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was used as a tool by the US government to displace Native Americans from their tribal lands, pushing them west alongside westward expansion. In 1851 the Indian Appropriations Act again forced Native Americans to move from their land to designated reservations. It wasn’t until the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 that tribal sovereignty and tribal land management was established (Elliot). There is still a blatant lack of respect for the sovereignty of Native American tribes and their land as is evident here as well as a lack of support.

At the heart of both conflicts is water. For the Bedouin of the Negev, climatic cycles producing an arid landscape require a nomadic lifestyle that follows the water in the form of limited vegetation for their flocks while for the Water Protectors, they face a potentially disastrous risk of contamination from parties outside of their purview, imposing power on them. Narratives of contamination are also inherent to the rhetoric of preservation, which has been employed to remove Bedouins from their land. Both are facing imposed infrastructures that would require they shift their living styles to accommodate an external force making claim to their land. In being presented with this claim their respective rights to the land and to the resources the rely on are called into question. A continued refusal to relinquish these claims to resources, though an uphill battle against powerful, militarized states, proposes an alternative to the dominance of the neoliberal agenda.


“Form making, history-telling, and activism … together … consider the art of designing interplay between spatial variables — an interplay powerful enough to leverage the politics of extrastatecraft.” Through the term extrastatecraft, Keller Easterling explains how infrastructure space becomes a tool to obtain, wield, and maintain power, that it is in essence, a spatial manipulation of systems and networks (Easterling). The spatial forms that infrastructure takes, the ways in which both a knowledge and a cultural imaginary of these forms is cultivated, and human engagement with these forms are all complicated by the politicization of infrastructure.

“Contemporary infrastructure space, [the roads, electrical grids, pipelines, towns, and digital networks to name a few,] orchestrate activities that can remain unstated but are nevertheless consequential” (Easterling). In other words, the complexity and layered nature of contemporary infrastructure obscures activities intricately connected to its existence. Often it is through the narratives of the physicality of these systems that allow for certain understandings will limiting others. There is power in obfuscation. What goes unnoticed goes unchallenged and this benefits those in line with the obscured activity.

Both Bedouin resistance to Israeli development and the Water Protectors’ resistance at Standing Rock reveal infrastructure that might otherwise be obscured. In response, States served by and in power of these infrastructures have responded with military force in attempts to quell resistance. But they also both live within their own material and social infrastructures, some of which are tied to the very infrastructures they oppose because of far-reaching globalized systems. These infrastructures are linked and interdependent, which makes them especially difficult to be uncoupled.

Thresholds become key in the storylines of struggle in both examples. In Israel, the central threshold is this concept of the aridity line. The aridity line is considered 200mm of rainfall, below which you have a desert climate (Sheikh, 12). This threshold serves not only as a climatic marker but it is also entangled in political conflict. It implies a condition of relatively low inhabitability from the perspective of the Zionist, who’s mission is then to enter and cultivate. But this sits in contradiction with the differing vision of habitability on the part of the Bedouin. This threshold also has specific colonial connotations: “both the Ottoman and the British did not effectively govern beyond the aridity line. In this sense the threshold of the Negev, like the thresholds of other deserts throughout the colonial world was to a certain extent the threshold of imperial rule, and most importantly, the limit of its law (Sheikh, 51).

The Water Protectors are similarly facing a challenged threshold, that of their land, which has historically been manipulated by the US government regardless of their own perceptions of their land. In response, they are push back, not only calling out the infringement, but also expressing their expanded notions of connectivity to land and resources.

The growth in infrastructure and capacity for global reach by certain countries has drastically extended the space upon which the law can be applied. Now populations that had been subject to certain groups of people, are faced with the challenge of imposed structures associates with their global reach. Boundaries have been altered and technology, whether aerial photography or through social media, has dramatically expanded storytelling and story sharing capabilities. Images revealing a lack of infrastructure and altered landscapes has been manipulated against the Bedouin community in favor of preservation. But similar images with a different notion of what might represent Bedouin infrastructure has also been used to argue injustice embedded in the former. Images of contested infrastructure similarly exist for the Water Protectors, where machinery and pipelines come up against vast and open landscapes as well as against Native American people, both of which serve as forms of infrastructure but under a different ideology.

These contestations between infrastructures and between representation take place at the interface, the point at which an idea is communicated or an interaction takes place. The interface is “a dynamic form, less a form than a forming, a process active across space and time” (Hookaway, 60). In this regard, the interface is in constant flux and reformation, as it actively exists in the moment of interaction. The moment of interaction is fluid as well, instantaneously changing as a result of being reformed by its own existence.

Keller Easterling’s recognition of power rooted in the tension between position and disposition, where she states that “spatial arrangements, however static, also possess an agency that resides in their relative position,” (Easterling) helps to frame the contestation embedded in the interface. The dynamism attributed to the interface holds the same tension between contradictory states. At each interface, there is a contest between existing in one state vs. another. “The interface both defines a system and determines the means by which it may be known. It takes places as the zone across which all activity must occur in order to possess meaning, force, or power” (Hookaway, 63).

At each of these interfaces their is an embedded potentiality and that is what gives power to both the infrastructure and the way in which people respond. But people, a movement, or a physical space are always experiencing multiple interfaces that often have conflicting implications.

Ecotones in the biological sciences are “steep gradients between more homogeneous vegetation associations [in the landscape]” (Risser). As a result of this meeting place between two or more identifiably homogenous biological communities, there exists an increased biodiversity producing highly integrated and complex systems of interfaces. Both the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and the Bedouin communities in Israel reflect forms of cultural ecotones. They interface with existing infrastructural systems and their respective ideologies while resisting these systems and producing alternative infrastructures.

In a world increasingly militarized to protect infrastructure that upholds specific ideologies and land utilization behaviors, the way in which groups interface and resist becomes increasingly important. “Notions of urban spatial causality will evolve into a new and more comprehensive concept of spatial capital, matching the related notion of social capital” (Soja, 452). This implicates the relations to land as a valuation to be coopted and central to existing mechanisms. How groups manage these contestations at their many interfaces will impact who determines land and resource use, what this looks like, and under what ideologies it will occur.

Desiree Kane — YES Magazine

Works Cited

“Background.” Standing with Standing Rock.

Easterling, Keller. “Extrastatecraft, The Power of Infrastructure Space.”London: Verso, 2014.

Elliot, Sarah K. “How American Indian Reservations Came to Be.” PBS. May 25, 2015.

Hookway, Brandon. “Interface.” Boston: MIT Press, 2014.

“In Their Own Words: The ‘Water Protectors’ of Standing Rock.”

“Israel: Bedoin Facing Mass Evictions from their Land.” Human Rights Watch. August 30, 2013.

National Park Service. “Conservation vs. Preservation and the National Park Service.” National Park Service.

Risser, Paul G. “The Status of the Science Examining Ecotones.” BioScience 45, no. 5 (1995): 318–25. doi:10.2307/1312492.

Sammon, Alexander. “How Did Police From All Over the Country End Up at Standing Rock?” December 4, 2016.

Sheikh, Faraz; and Weizman, Eyal. “The Conflict Shoreline.” 2015.

Silveira, Stacey J. “The American Environmental Movement: Surviving Through Diversity.” Boston College.

Soja, Edward. “Beyond Postmetropolis.” Urban Geography, 32:4, 451–469. 2011.

Tal, Alon. “Pollution in A Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel.” University of California Press, 2002.

Worland, Justin. “What to Know About the Dakota Access Pipeline.” TIME. October 28, 2016.