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Seam Zones, Security Zones, Death Zones, and Walls

[Time in the Shadows investigates the two major liberal counterinsurgencies of our day: Israeli occupation of Palestine and the U.S. War on Terror.] [Time in the Shadows investigates the two major liberal counterinsurgencies of our day: Israeli occupation of Palestine and the U.S. War on Terror.]

I wrote Time in the Shadows in order to puzzle out why the counterinsurgency practices of enormously powerful state militaries—the US and Israel at the time I was writing the book—so often invoked law and humanitarianism, rather than naked force. And why so much of their war-fighting pivoted around the mass confinement not only of combatants but civilians. I was also struck by the similarities in the practices of confinement not only between Israel and the US but with historical accounts of colonial confinement effected by Britain and France.

For me, what was striking, insidious, devastating, was the less flashy, less visible, practices that were foundational to detention of suspected combatants and incarceration—whether in situ or through resettlement—of troublesome civilians. These practices—law, administration, demographic and anthropological mapping, offshoring—all sounded so dry, so rational, and yet they were grist to the mill of liberal counterinsurgents in so many ways. And the other similarity across a century and several continents seemed to be the repetition ad nauseam of the language of “protection” and of “security” to frame or rename or euphemise atrocities.

Among the technologies that best embody this language of protection used to violently pacify a population in counterinsurgencies are the separation wall and the various “protective” zones invented by the Israeli military to fragment the Palestinian territories and ensure panopticon-like surveillance and monitoring capability over these fragmented zones. These technologies have specific histories and are mirrored in so many different contexts. The following excerpt is an attempt at situating the wall and the various zones in both a longer historical continuum with colonial practices, while also reflecting on the settler-colonial specificities of their present form.

The following is excerpted from Laleh Khalili's Time in the Shadows:


Someone who lives in Khan Yunis or Rafah and wants to
enter Israel to work has to go through all the circles of hell in
order to reach the Erez crossing point. He has to leave home
at six-seven in the evening, after supper, in order to get to
Erez at two-three the next morning and stand in line to wait
for the foreman.
Brigadier General Zvika Fogel, 2007

Walls have been used both in urban counterinsurgencies and in the countryside not as defensive measures—keeping out the unwanted—but as offensive measures: incarcerating populations and providing a point of contact to engage guerrillas and to solidify boundaries that create or consolidate population categories (ethnicities, communities, nations). Counterinsurgency walls were used in Aden, Belfast, and Cyprus. The French built the Morice Line in Algeria along its border with Tunisia, upon whose minefields and barbed-wire entanglements many FLN guerrillas were slain. The Moroccan government has constructed a three-meter-high and 2,700–kilometer-long sand berm against Polisario in the Sahara.

In Israel-Palestine, the Wall has a prehistory. During the Arab Revolt of 1936–1937, the British mandatory powers introduced the use of security walls and watchtowers to arrest the movement of rebels across the landscape. Charles Tegart, previously of the Calcutta Police, hired Histadrut’s construction firm, Solel Boneh, to erect a security fence with imported barbed wire from Mussolini’s Italy, and a substantial body of militarily trained Jewish guards to ensure the safety of the wall-builders. The wall impeded the movements of ordinary civilians and limited Palestinians’ access to their own farmlands. When it came to forestalling rebels, however, as one official complained, the fence “proved useless. The Arabs dragged it apart with camels.”

After 1967, the use of walls continued. Ariel Sharon built walls around Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza in 1970 to isolate these hubs of revolt and resistance. These were later replicated in other refugees camps in the OPT, with many having a limited number of turnstile gates, both to control the flow of the population and as a punitive measure. A gate can be closed if the refugees inside the camp are too restive or if some unknown person has committed an infraction and intelligence is needed. These early walls, like the doublebarbed-wire fence of New Villages, created new geographies and provided a means of military control at the same time.

This process was accelerated on a vaster canvas as time went on. The first berms around Jerusalem were built in 1990 to physically separate it from the West Bank and to consolidate its annexation to Israel. Shortly after the Oslo Accords, the Rabin government began planning for a wall to separate Gaza from Israel. The eventual fifty-one-kilometer electrified perimeter fence had only a few entry and exit points, most famously the Erez crossing, which became a nightmarish space of transit: claustrophobic, filled with workers in an underground tunnel whose process of passing through the multiple checkpoints and entry and exits could take more than twenty-four hours. Other checkpoints, like Tufah near Al-Mawasi village in Gaza, could be closed without warning, thus completely cutting off Mawasi residents outside the enclosed enclave. Thirteen electric turnstiles were constructed in the old city of Hebron in 1998 to protect the most virulent settlers of all, those invading and taking over Palestinian homes in Hebron’s old city. With the start of the Second Intifada, the government of Israel began new experiments in encirclement and enclavization. In 2001, the Israeli military dug a deep trench around the whole of the city of Jericho and confirmed that “Jericho was chosen as a test case since it is relatively isolated and surrounded by open territory which allowed the easy digging of the trenches.”

In early 2002, the sand berm around Jerusalem was replaced with cement walls and electrified fences. By the end of that year, the plans for the Wall were slowly implemented, and massive cement barriers started to appear throughout the West Bank. To construct the Wall, expropriation orders were issued, orchards and olive trees were uprooted, and homes were razed. The Wall complex would eventually consist of a series of electronic sensors, trenches, berms, and barbed-wire entanglements with patrol roads running alongside it, with the whole measuring sixty to one hundred meters wide in places. The Wall zone would also benefit from “special” or less restrictive rules of engagement.

Given that the route of the Wall is designed to go deep inside the West Bank, it is intended as another method for territorial expansion, but it also serves specific counterinsurgency functions. Like a New Village, it is a mechanism for concentration of populations, but on an enormous scale. Its operations includes a whole series of human and technological elements that monitor the people inside the enclaves but also allow the occupying military to test its capabilities and weapons, experiment with new technologies, and constantly revise and refresh “traditional” methods. For example, the electrified and touch-sensitive fence around Gaza is monitored both by sensors and by “Bedouin trackers” in the Israeli military who check the sandy shoulders for footprints, signs of digging or any other suspicious change that could indicate terror activity. But the patrols along the fence are only one part of the system. Behind the patrol road, sometimes out of sight of the closely-guarded border area, spotters from the IDF’s Intelligence Corps keep their eyes glued to screens monitoring the fence, and the area around it, 24 hours a day. In a task almost exclusively performed by female soldiers, it is the spotters who are responsible for most of the sightings along the fence, alerting tanks and infantry when they notice suspicious movement in the area.

The Wall and its technology make and reproduce gender and civilizational hierarchies. The women soldiers of the IDF are said to be good at “spotting” on the monitors—noncombat work suitable to the gentler sex, no doubt—and the IDF’s Bedouin soldiers are recast as the eternal nomadic trackers, with instincts and abilities to read nature that the “modern” man (read, Israeli soldiers) does not have.

In Iraq, walls have been used to remake the lived environment. In the earlier phases of the war, before population-centric counterinsurgency had become fashionable, some carceral elements were already influencing operations. After an ambush near the town of Abu-Hishma in 2003, the commander of US forces there began to wrap the entire village in barbed wire, and closed all but one entrance and exit, which was guarded by American soldiers. Every male in the village between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five was given an identification card, and anyone who wished to enter or leave the village was required to present his ID. A curfew was installed, which sometimes conflicted with the agrarian nature of the Iraqi economy. The Iraqi citizens, not surprisingly, found this process degrading and responded with anger and hostility of their own. They compared themselves to Palestinians, who sometimes endured the same sort of indignity.

Later, such carceral methods were reinterpreted as humanitarian. When in 2007, the United States began to construct three- to four-meter-high barriers around neighborhoods in Baghdad, what Petraeus had laconically called a “500 meter caterpillar,” the US military spokesman reassured the Iraqis that “it’s only coincidence that so many of the enclaves are Sunni.” The residents of the Adhamiyya neighborhood in Baghdad furiously protested the walls, and one imam astutely noted that the Wall was “the beginning of a huge plan intended to divide Baghdad ethnically and according to sect.” Sadr City, the site of much resistance, was entirely walled in by August 2008. The walls, which were supposed to protect the neighborhoods from sectarian bloodshed and were quaintly called “gated communities,” in practice accelerated the sectarian homogenization of each neighborhood. Here, instead of expropriation, the military tactics of population control, encirclement, and enclavization were consolidating difference by dismantling social relations and unraveling the everyday fabric of life across neighborhood boundaries. 

Seam Zones, Security Zones, Death Zones

When you maintain two crossings, you can play them off
as pressures change: if you’re good we will give you both of
them, if not we will open only one.
Brigadier General Zvika Fogel, 2007

Another Israeli spatial carceral mechanism has been the creation of a variegated landscape of zones, entry to which is unpredictably restricted. These zones have their precedents in the black zones of Malaya, forbidden zones of Algeria, and the free-fire zones of Vietnam. Here I delineate three Israeli zones: the seam zone, special security zones, and a Gazan death zone. The seam zone is the area of land expropriated for the Wall complex.

The seam zone creeps well inside the West Bank, and in fact, several Palestinian villages and/or their farmlands are trapped therein, most significant among these the Qalqilya area villages and nine thousand acres of their farmland. In October 2003 the head of the Central Command, General Moshe Kaplinski, declared, “No person shall enter or stay in the seam area” and “a person found in the seam area shall be obligated to leave it immediately,” although these restrictions do not apply to Israeli citizens or the settlers, or “persons entitled to immigrate to Israel pursuant to the Law of Return, even if they are not Israeli citizens (i.e. Jews from elsewhere in the world).” Palestinians, however, are categorized into thirteen clusters: twelve different categories that do receive permits of various sorts—each with its own set of applications and required documentation—and one final category that is denied access. A quarter of all applications are denied, and the appeal process is profoundly complex and differs across different permit regimes. Access is granted only through the sole gate recorded on the permit, and nighttime access requires additional permissions. Permits expire after varying periods. Donkeys, automobiles, and work vehicles may or may not be allowed in the seam zone, depending on specificities, although this is also arbitrary. Some gates allow entry by villagers for farming their lands, whereas other gates allow only merchandise to pass to and from Israel. Some gates open two or three times a day; others are closed randomly and without any previous notice. The hours of operation of the gates are erratic. More recently, privatization of some of these crossing points has meant that “civilian security guards” are in charge of some crossing points alongside or instead of soldiers or border police. The dizzying complexity and arbitrariness of the measures create disorientation, confusion, and uncertainty, excellent techniques for maintaining control over civilians.

Security zones are much more familiar affairs, as wherever the Israeli military goes, security zones follow. Also called buffer zones, these are, more often than not, offensive in nature, granting the Israeli military the ability to train its guns on strategic targets such as Hizbullah strongholds and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. In the OPT, the entirety of the Jordan Valley has been declared a security zone, and Palestinians have been evicted from it. Settler-only roads in the West Bank are similarly forbidden areas to Palestinians, although only informally rather than through a military edict. Although settlers can travel swiftly and conveniently on these roads from the West Bank to inside the Green Line, the Israeli military establishes checkpoints, roadblocks, and patrols to prevent Palestinians from travelling the roads. Classified “army training zones” cover up to a quarter of all land in the West Bank, which are of course strictly forbidden to Palestinians.

Special security zones have also become another geographic category with their own Byzantine access rules. Special security zones are three-hundred- to four-hundred-meter-wide cordons around settlements, as measured from the outer wall of the outer ring of settlement outward. Given that the settlements are already placed in close proximity to existing Palestinian habitation, the zones often overlap with Palestinian homes, farmlands, and public spaces. These cordons were first established in 1998, but their expansion and consolidation occurred in 2005, concurrent with an uptick in the building of the Wall. The breadth of these zones, according to the Israeli military, is determined by “a balancing of time and space considerations (the need for warning to deploy troops when there is an ‘infiltration’), topological consideration, minimization of the infringement on the right of property of the individual and to freedom of movement and the like.” The anodyne language of expertise (legal, topological, cartographic, and security) veils how the zones circumscribe Palestinian movement and access in the West Bank. Much of the land so expropriated, and often doubling the surface area of a settlement, is farmland of adjacent Palestinian villages. Because the Israeli military ostensibly claims that the lands are not expropriated but “temporarily seized,” the Palestinian owners of the land should be able to access them to farm them. However, unsurprisingly, the labyrinthine permit regime is applicable here as well, with the added inconvenience of having to  secure permission from the settlers themselves.

Finally, in addition to the formalized regime of spatial variegation, there are the death zones of Gaza. Brigadier General Zvika Fogel, the former head of Southern Command, explained that after the Second Intifada, the Southern Command unofficially declared death zones in Gaza, where anyone entering could be shot: “We understood that in order to reduce the margin of error, we had to create areas in which anyone who entered was considered a terrorist.”

[This piece originally appeared in a special weeklong series on the Stanford University Press blog, and is reposted here in partnership with SUP blog. The entire 10-part series can be found on the SUP blog.]

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