Strange Looking Borders: Identity, Identification & Bureaucracy

“It’s illegal for him to step outside into his garden,” my friend Sahar told me pointing to a photograph she had taken two years ago in Tal Errumaida. Bewildered, I look at the photograph of the house again and ask which section of the garden she meant. “All of it,” she exclaims as she traces the garden surrounding the house in almost perfect square. The house and the annexed garden belonged to an old man and his family located in an area close to an illegal settlement in El Khalil (Hebron) where attacks on Palestinians by settlers is a daily occurrence. Those attacks, taking place under the auspices of Israeli soldiers who stand by idly as stones, include the hauling of rubbish and profanities on Palestinian inhabitants, their homes and their children. In the case of the Tal Errumaida house, the Israeli army was being proactive. In order to extend electricity to the nearby illegal settlement, it had decided that the garden in question, which surrounds the small house would be the best place for electricity poles to be erected thus making the entire garden an area restricted to the Palestinian family; deeming every entry and exit an illegal act of trespass punishable by law. The annexation of the Tal Errumaidah garden is a manifestation of the function of Israeli practice of power vis-à-vis Palestinians, serving as an effective mode by which it, through paperwork and policy, proceeds to, “ kill them; send them to neighboring Arab countries; strangle them geographically, politically, economically, and militarily until they accept their subordination.” (Tawil-Souri)

Far from being an isolated incident, the Tal Errumaida case exemplifies, how in the context of Palestine-Israel: maps are not maps, laws are not laws and borders are certainly not borders. A transmogrification of Torpoy’s exegesis on moderns states’ bureaucratic processes and borders as “legitimate means of movement” to limit freedoms in moving across spaces, Palestine-Israel becomes the epitome of such processes and then some. In Palestine-Israel, every body, person, house or garden for that matter, is a border. The works at hand this week illustrate the futility of borders, ‘defensible’ or not latched onto by hopefuls like the proponents of projects like Peace Now parading the ‘Green Line’ like some utopian solution to the conflict. We all know by now: is not that simple.

“Israeli control over Palestinian space (expansion of settlements and burgeoning settler population, the shifting and growing matrix of bypass roads and checkpoints, military zones and ‘green areas’ deep in the West Bank, the widening buffer zone around the Gaza Strip, the enlarging of Jerusalem’s boundaries.” (Tawil-Souri)

Beyond the physical, the cartographic and geographic, through the works this week, it becomes quickly clear how the Green Line becomes, like the Green cover of the West Bank hawiyyah, a symbol of impotence. Like the electricity poles snaked through and strangled the Tal Errumaida house in Khalil, lines of power in Palestine-Israel take many a shape and form, they are at once geographic, bureaucratic and corporeal. “There may very well be a practice of fragmenting, isolating, transferring, and erasing Palestinians, but they need to be counted, documented, monitored, and controlled first.” (T-S) From a rainbow of identity cards, blunted teeth turnstile teeth, pop-up and permanent checkpoints, forests-worth of documentation and other parlous “borders” we see the many faces of power and its capacity to subjugate, discriminate, survey and “erase”.

By analyzing three case studies in East Jerusalem (Shu‘fat camp, Al Quds University and Fatah), Nigel Parsons and Mark B. Salter use a biopolitical lens to analyze how Israeli regulatory power and authority is exercised over Palestinians, their bodies and mobility.  More specifically, they aim to illustrate how it is that through practices of “differentiating, quantifying, documenting and disciplining” Israel uses a perpetually undefined and permeable definition of borders to police and practice a so-called “governmentality” over aspects of Palestinian life. There is no single border. Physical barriers, despite their material and form, are not ironically set in stone. Rather, they are malleable and pervious. “Policing of the Palestinian population does not simply occur at the Green Line, but throughout Israeli and Palestinian space.”  (P&S) How the self-proclaimed ‘only democracy in the Middle East” extends its use of power beyond borders sanctioned by international law, obscuring not only the borders themselves but the practices of discriminatory control, is also a focus of P&S’s biopolitical survey.

“Israeli-Palestinian territory and territoriality is fragmented, shattered by colonisation and closure. Settlements and the archipelago solution implied by Israeli policies fragment both Palestinian and potential Israeli territory.” (Parsons & Salter)

Made possible through an expanded application of Albert and Brock’s “debordering” process, not limited to border control in terms of “management of flows and norms” and “porosity of control”, P&S’s analysis of Israeli biopolitical control in Palestine spans an analysis that extends and travels, however precariously, beyond borders. “Israel in the OPT is engaged in a territorialisation project: “a matter of marking out a territory in thought and inscribing it in the real, topographizing it, investing it with powers, bounding it by exclusions, defining who or what can rightfully enter.” (P&S)

Through biopolitical analysis of space, identity documents, residency, curfews, permits, anonymous one-time encounters, checkpoints, divided (divisive, rather) infrastructure and surveillance of the Palestinian population, conventional bureaucratic borders are all but relevant. “The Palestinian population is defined, constructed, and policed through Israeli authorities of identification.” (P&S) It is through an “open” abstracted definition of border and control that a forced “closed” application and practice of the same emerges: “Closure” becomes central to Israeli practices on Palestinians.


“Not all cards are created equal” (Tawil-Souri)

Holding P&S’s biopolitical lens close enough to zoom in on identity cards, Tawil-Souri’s examination of identity cards in Palestine-Israel showcases how significant power of control is bestowed upon seemingly benign “things”. A tarot reading of ID cards in Palestine-Israel reveals a camouflaged ‘class system’ concealed by splashes of color. A distinguishing feature of multicultural societies operating under the mantle of democracy, color-blindness in Palestine-Israel is non-existent. “ID cards in Palestine/Israel are instruments of a widespread surveillance mechanism and a principal means for discriminating (positively and negatively) subjects’ privileges and basic rights.” (T-S) Underneath the officialdom of ID cards and permits, a divisive systemic effort to label and brand is at play, drawing lopsided distinctions between Jews and Palestinians.

“In Israel, the issuing of differentiating ID cards stems from a larger strategy of accounting for and controlling different populations differently and unevenly.” (T-S) In Palestine-Israel, there are citizens and there are non-citizens with unequal rights, limits, access, mobility and status. Papers and colors, the most rudimentary of tools, become gatekeepers, economic drivers and traffic lights regulating the flow of life in Palestine. While Palestinians are forced to yield and proceed at the whim of the green, red and orange bulbs, street signs are infinitely blue for Jews in Palestine-Israel. “Identification are bordering mechanisms that the Israeli state apparatus enforces, resulting in uneven im/mobilities based on ethno-national and paradoxical geographic distinctions.” (T-S) Like a house of cards, the “debordered” hypothetical, geographic-territorial borders of Israel-Palestine, quickly come tumbling down.

Duplicity is the natural state of being for the card. On its one side is its ability to dominate, subjugate and discriminate. On its other is its ability to resist, challenge and assert. It is perhaps the force by which each side pushes against the other that renders it flat caught in an infinite state of tension. In Feldman’s exploration of visibility through the ‘monumental, the mundane, the bureaucratic, the symbolic, instrumental and affective’ – the other face of the card is seen. The face, that pushes back, for and against, against injustice and for claims. Through a slightly different variation of lens than that of P&S’s biopolitical, the humanitarian lens is used to examine a way by which claims are asserted. Ranging from the close analysis of keys, flags, camps, deeds, statues, ‘tours’, expired passports, UNRWA refugee cards, the construction of the camps themselves and the resistance against and for them, the ‘special status’ of the Palestinian refugees from other refugee groups in the UN, Ilana Feldman considers the other side of the card.

“For many people, humanitarian documents, specifically ration cards, have been the most crucial form of documented visibility, as well as sometimes a source of shame and control.” (Ilana Feldman)

In their visibility function, such ‘artifacts’ especially the precarious cards demonstrate an ability to be both ‘instrumental’ in obtaining rights (food, housing, aid), make claims of existence beyond the humanitarian function ever foresaw. “To be a refugee, to be in need of a ration card, was to symbolize Palestinian failure,” states Feldman in her confrontation of yet another instance of duality. To that end, the card demonstrates, a constantly tense “thing” that is resisting, asserting, bringing into visibility while simultaneously subjugating, humiliating and sidelining the holder. Only in Palestine-Israeli, can ephemeral objects like cards act as they do, both “used …make themselves (Palestinians) visible on an international stage” and separate them and condemn them to a permanent status of indefinite second-class citizenship and reduction “to a ‘sea of humanity”. Through documentation, bureaucracy, bodies and cards, we witness yet another manifestation of being, once again “pushed them off the map”.

The above is a response to the following cluster of works:

  • John Torpey (1998) “Coming and Going: On the State Monopolization of the
    Legitimate ‘Means of Movement,’ ”Sociological Theory 16
  • Nigel Parsons and Mark Salter (2008). “Israeli Biopolitics: Closure, Territorialization
    and Governmentality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” Geopolitics 13(4)
  • Helga Tawil‐Souri (2011). “Colored Identity: The Politics and Materiality of ID Cards in
    Palestine/Israel”, Social Text 107
  • Helga Tawil‐Souri (2012). “Uneven Borders, Colored (Im)mobilities: ID Cards in
    Palestine/Israel” Geopolitics 17(2).
  • Ilana Feldman (2008). “Refusing Invisibility: Documentation and Memorialization in
    Palestinian Refugee Claims,” Journal of Refugee Studies 21

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