Laboratory of the Extreme: Spatial Warfare and the New Geography of Israel’s Occupation

Books under review:

  • Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (New York: Verso, 2007)
  • Saree Makdisi, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008)
  • Neve Gordon, Israel’s Occupation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

The use of spatial arrangements as strategies to control and even eradicate rebellious populations in warfare has a long history. Such practices can be traced as far back as the ancient Assyrian strategy of mass population deportation, which, according to archaeologist and art historian Zainab Bahrani, “insured that there was little opposition to Assyrian imperial territorial expansion, since the idea of a local population was systematically eradicated, not through the mass killing of the civilian population, but through these reorganizations of land and populace.” Subsequent conquerors and colonizers throughout history have used various “reorganizations of land and populace” to quell rebellion and sometimes settle new populations. Pericles displaced the population of the island of Aegina to prepare room for Attic settlers, Rome carried out massive deportations of local populations, and the European colonization of North America came about through the violent displacement and reorganization of native populations into reservations.

In the more recent period, modern counterinsurgency warfare has often employed spatial strategies of population control to prevent insurgents from, in Mao’s felicitous phrase, “swimming like fish in the sea of the population.” Mass population resettlement schemes were used in such cases as the British-built “New Villages” in Malaya and mass internment camps in Kenya, the French “Douars” in the Algerian War and American “Strategic Hamlets” in Vietnam. However, due to the problem that population resettlement schemes, according to counterinsurgency theorist David Galula, are “bound to antagonize the population”, contemporary counterinsurgency theory as reflected in the new U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual advocates the less extreme spatial strategy of “clear, hold and build” in order to create pacified zones without population resettlement. The American erection of massive blast walls and sand berms to quarantine Iraqis within sealed enclaves as part of the 2007 “surge” strategy in Iraq reflects this latter approach, though political accommodation with the population called for by counterinsurgency theory remains a furtive prospect.

Bearing important similarities to previous spatial warfare strategies, over the past decade Israel has imposed a dramatic new spatial arrangement over the Palestinian territory and population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that it conquered in 1967. Since 2003, Israel has erected a nearly 680 km barrier of high-tech fences and massive concrete walls deep within the West Bank that now encloses Palestinian population centers within a fragmented archipelago of enclaves, separated from each other and from the nearly 150 illegal Israeli settlements and 500,000 settlers Israel has implanted on Palestinian land. This matrix-like spatial arrangement of fragmented Palestinian enclaves is bisected by a network of Israeli-only highways and checkpoints maintained under a blanket of aerial surveillance and deadly unmanned drones. In Gaza, some 1.5 million Palestinians are now living within an enclosed cage, while Israel controls access to the essentials of life through high-tech border terminals and unleashes violent aerial assaults when resistance is offered. Gaza is the most extreme version of the matrix-like spatial “reorganizations of land and populace” that characterizes the new geography of Israel’s occupation.

Israeli officials and supporters frequently defend this new matrix-like spatial arrangement of fragmented and policed Palestinian enclaves as simply a temporary and defensive measure necessary to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorism, especially the surge of bloody suicide bombings inside Israel that followed the renewed violence in 2000 known as the “Al-Aqsa Intifada.”

By contrast, however, the three important books under review in this essay contend that Israel’s new reorganization of Palestinian “land and populace” is neither temporary nor defensive in nature. Drawing upon significant historical research and novel theoretical approaches that reflect a new “spatial turn” in analysis of Israel’s occupation, this work argues that Israel’s new spatial arrangement of Palestinian “land and populace” actually represents the latest stage in Israel’s attempt to colonize Palestinian land for Jewish settlement and suppress Palestinian resistance to its occupation. But the most serious claim leveled in these books, however, is that Israel’s fragmentation of Palestinian space has likely become permanent by making territorial partition and the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict a geographical impossibility. Hence, while Israel’s new spatial regime may constitute a new chapter in the history of spatial strategies of warfare, it may also contain within it a fatal contradiction that may lead to a fundamentally new era of conflict between the two peoples.

The Israeli architect and theorist Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation is the most innovative and comprehensive examination of Israel’s construction of a matrix-like spatial arrangement of fragmented and policed Palestinian enclaves. With an architect’s eye, Weizman’s superbly illuminates the architectural design of Israel’s occupation across three dimensions of space. Weizman illustrates in separate chapters how Israel’s settlement planning schemes and architecture, its road networks and separation walls and its checkpoints have become fused together to both extend Israeli settlement and create a virtual social prison of spatial incarceration for Palestinians, resulting in what he terms a “laboratory of the extreme”(9). The effect of this laboratory has been that “Palestinian life, property and political rights are constantly violated not only by the frequent actions of the Israeli military, but by a process in which their environment is unpredictably and continuously refashioned, tightening around them like a noose” (5).

One of Hollow Land’s most important achievements is to show how Israel’s civilian settlement project in the occupied territories has simultaneously served as mechanism of military control over the Palestinian population. Weizman traces the militarization of Israel’s settlement project to the fierce debate between Israeli generals after the 1967 War over the most effective way to defend Israel’s new territorial possessions against its Arab enemies. The Israeli military Chief of Staff Haim Bar Lev proposed a massive linear barrier of forts and trenches to be built along the Israeli side of Suez Canal while then-General Ariel Sharon opposed it in favor of a matrix-like system of “defense in depth” composed of a cluster of hilltop fortifications linked across the Sinai by roads rather than a single line.

Although Bar Lev’s linear strategy was adopted in the Sinai, Sharon’s strategic vision ultimately prevailed in the rest of the occupied territories when the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin placed Sharon as minister in charge of expanding Jewish settlements in 1977. Sharon translated his military doctrine of “defense in depth” into a civilian settlement strategy across the heartland of Palestinian territory throughout the 1980’s. Architects and urban planners worked with settlers and soldiers to construct every aspect of civilian settlement with an eye towards strategic domination of Palestinians. The strategy was to target Palestinian territorial contiguity by isolating Palestinian population centers within an overlapping network of Israeli settlements that simultaneously served as integral elements of Israel’s military control and surveillance over the Palestinian population. As Weizman points out, “(f)or Sharon the architect/general, politics was war as much as war was political and both were exercises in space making” (84).

Israel’s settlement expansion has since hardened into a vast mechanism of population control through Israel’s erection of its massive high-tech barrier and permanent checkpoints around and between Palestinian enclaves following the Palestinian uprising in 2000. Although Israel’s widely heralded withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 led to partial withdrawals of Israeli soldiers and settlers from some Palestinian areas, Weizman contends that Israel has replaced its direct system of military domination with a new one that “seeks to control the Palestinians from beyond the envelopes of their wall-off spaces, by selectively opening and shutting the different enclosures, and by relying on the strike capacity of the Air Force over Palestinians areas” (11).

Weizman concludes that Israel’s colossal transformation of the built environment has created an Escher-like geometry of vertically separate worlds—Palestinian and Israeli—in the occupied territories that extends Israeli colonial settlement while containing Palestinian life within a territorial patchwork of about 200 sealed islands dominated by Israel. Although some Israeli leaders have “generously” offered that Palestinians can build bridges and tunnels between these enclaves to make a “state,” Weizman concludes that there is simply no way now to “separate the inseparable” created through Israel’s spatial colonization no matter how sophisticated the architectural design. The ongoing “peace process” premised on spatial partition into two states has become an empty illusion and must now give way to what Weizman terms a “political solution” hinting at, but never completely spelling out, some form of a one-state solution based on equality between the two peoples.

The question of how this regime impacts Palestinian lives is largely left out of the picture in Hollow Land. It is precisely here that Saree Makdisi, a Palestinian-American professor of literature at UCLA, makes an important contribution to the new “spatial turn” in his book Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation. Whereas Weizman’s account emphasizes the view from the panoptical heights of Israel’s occupation, Makdisi provides a view from the cracked rear-view mirror of the fragmented zones of life inhabited by Palestinians. Although Palestine Inside Out is aimed at a more general audience and lacks the theoretical innovations of Weizman’s book, it utilizes thick description based on interviews, anecdotes, and various human rights reports to illustrate how Israel’s matrix of spatial control invades all aspects of Palestinian life creating a social prison of spatial incarceration. The result is one of the most comprehensive guides to the Palestinian experience of this passage to a new and possibly irreversible spatial system of domination in Israel’s occupation.

Palestine Inside Out is organized around four spatial themes—Outsides, Insides, Inside Out and Outside In—which allow Makdisi to construct a composite and graphic evocation of the way in which Israel’s matrix-like spatial regime has resulted in a virtual state of siege across various spatial dimensions of Palestinian life. Like Weizman, Makdisi documents how Israel’s barrier, road networks, and checkpoints have created new outsides that confine Palestinians to ghetto-like enclaves and severely disrupt economic activity. Yet Makdisi’s most important contribution to the new “spatial turn” is his emphasis on how Israel’s spatial regime has penetrated the most intimate inside spaces of Palestinian lives. Israel has imposed an entire classification and permit regime upon Palestinians that affects their ability to conduct even the most mundane daily activities and severely restricts their rights to residency, travel, housing and security of person.

As a result, Makdisi emphasizes that another goal of this new spatial regime, in addition to those of colonization and population control highlighted by Weizman, is population transfer. Israel’s new spatial regime has had both the direct and indirect effect of inducing a growing number of Palestinians to leave or emigrate from the occupied territories over the past decade, turning these spaces inside out, the key concept in the title of his book. Since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, some 100,000 Palestinians, or 3.3 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza, have already left the territory. Moreover, Israel has created new laws that place onerous conditions upon Palestinians who live in certain areas. In 2006, for example, Israel stripped 1,363 Jerusalem Palestinians of the right to live in the city on the grounds that they could not prove to Israel’s satisfaction that Jerusalem has continuously been their “center of life.” As Makdisi points out, “But what had been possible in 1948—large-scale forcible expulsion—has seemed more difficult to carry out since 1967; hence the shift in Israeli strategy from outright expulsion to the ‘voluntary transfer’ of the Palestinian population” (10).

Like Weizman, Makdisi also concludes that Israel’s colonization of Palestinian space has advanced to such a stage as to make territorial partition and thus, a contiguous Palestinian state with meaningful sovereignty, a “geophysical impossibility” (280). But unlike Weizman, Makdisi explicitly endorses what is known as a “one-state solution” in which Israelis and Palestinians would have full and equal rights in the historic land of Palestine and Israel. One of the virtues of such an outcome, Makdisi contends, is that it may, ironically, be the most easy to implement because it already exists. As Makdisi points out, “The one-state solution is not, however, something that has to be worked out in advance, with a series of ‘interim agreement’ negotiated by armies of committees and subcommittees over a period of decades. It is the present reality” (294).

Both Weizman and Makdisi, however, tend to portray Israel’s new spatial arrangement of fragmented and policed Palestinian enclaves as the product of an evolutionary extension of Israel’s efforts to colonize Palestinian land. This assumption is challenged by the Israeli political scientist Neve Gordon in his perspicacious and theoretically innovative book Israel’s Occupation. Gordon argues that the actual structure and aims of Israel’s occupation have profoundly shifted over the past four decades, primarily in response to Israel’s failures to normalize the occupation and suppress Palestinian resistance. Israel’s weakness and Palestinian resilience, not Israeli omnipotence, have driven fundamental changes in Israel’s occupation.

Gordon’s primary claim is that the underlying structure of Israel’s occupation has fundamentally shifted from the colonization principle, in which Israel attempted to administer and control the lives of the Palestinians while colonizing its land to the separation principle, in which Israel abandoned efforts to administer the lives of the colonized population while still maintaining its control over the land. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s three different notions of modern power, Gordon demonstrates how Israel originally sought to maintain its occupation through the use of disciplinary power, which is a form of power directed at the daily practices of individuals to render them docile and useful, and biopower, which is power applied across the population to maximize and extract forces from the population, often in productive ways. Hence, Israel’s occupation authorities initially encouraged health, education and economic programs in order to increase Palestinian economic productivity and encourage self-rule while simultaneously controlling their political lives through coercive modes of sovereign power such as the violent suppression of Palestinian political activity.

But Israel’s attempt to normalize its occupation was gradually undone by a combination of excesses and contradictions, such as its invasive settlement expansion and its vast restrictions on Palestinian economic life, which revealed the aggressive and exploitative nature of the occupation and triggered the first Intifada in 1987 and then the second Intifada that broke out in 2000.

As a result, the underlying structure of Israel’s occupation has shifted to the principle of separation, resulting in the new strategy of spatial incarceration that constitutes the core of Weizman and Makdisi’s books. On the one hand, Gordon contends that the principle of separation is illustrated through Israel’s emphasis on more brutal forms of sovereign power through its lethal application of violence and collective punishment as methods of control across the entire population, which illustrates Israel’s abandonment of concern for individual Palestinian lives. But the most dramatic illustration of the shift to the separation principle is Israel’s reorganization of Palestinian space into ever shrinking and policed enclaves which signifies the application of biopower to contain and pacify Palestinian rebellion by reducing the overall quality of their lives. “The barrier is a good example of a bio mode of power (in the sense of operating on the population as opposed to the individual), yet unlike biopower it is uninterested in life” (214). Gordon claims that Israel’s fragmentation of Palestinian life has enabled Israel to keep the occupied territories in a state of permanent crisis but without reaching the point of total collapse which might trigger international intervention, possibly under a UN mandate (208).

In sum, Gordon contends that Israel is attempting to forge a permanent spatial arrangement that will enable it to extend its internationally recognized territory while abandoning Palestinians to tiny self-governing enclaves under complete Israeli control. The fact that Israel’s barrier is not being built on the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West bank underscores that “its major objective is to redraw the border between Israel and the West Bank” (215). Yet Weizman notes the paradox this generates whereby “the very idea of Israel as a Jewish state, where Jews are the majority has been undermined…The barrier should be considered both as an effect of this contradiction and as a new form of control that aims to overcome it” (215). Gordon does not call for two states or one state, but stresses that the new spatial regime is in contradiction with both. Any possibility for peace will have to undo Israel’s spatial Gordian knot and reunite the Palestinian people with its territory.

Taken together, these three books illustrate how Israel may be forging a new strategy in the history of spatial control over rebellious and unwanted populations. While European colonialism widely used mass spatial displacement of indigenous groups to enable Europeans to freely exploit their land, Israel is displacing Palestinians by building over, around and under them, while leaving them in place. And while counterinsurgents have frequently applied spatial discipline to isolate insurgents from the population in order to obtain a political solution, Israel has simply abandoned Palestinians behind walls where they will live and interact without ever crossing into Israeli space yet remain under Israeli control. In other words, Israel’s use of spatial methods to wall-in Palestinians appears to be an attempt to enact the permanent disappearance of an unwanted population without outright ethnic cleansing, and an attempt to suppress resistance without political compromise.

In this context, the Israeli scholar and activist Jeff Halper argues that Israel has now embarked on a strategy of “warehousing” its surplus (Palestinian) population by enclosing it within sealed enclaves and abandoning any political efforts to resolve the conflict. Halper notes that this goes a long way towards explaining why Israel is unconcerned about entering into a genuine peace process or resolving its conflict with the Palestinians: “By warehousing them it has the best of both worlds: complete freedom to expand its settlements and control without ever having to compromise, as a political solution would require.”

This strategy of “warehousing” also goes a long way to explaining why Israel’s occupation has served as a laboratory of innovation and emulation for many governments and counterinsurgents around the world, leading Naomi Klein to refer to Israel as a “laboratory for a fortressed world.” In 2006 Israel exported $3.4 billion in defense products making it the fourth-largest arms dealer in the world, largely in such products as high-tech fences, unmanned drones, biometric IDs and surveillance systems, precisely, according to Klein, “the tools and technologies Israel has used to lock-in the occupied territories.” The explosion of walls and enclaves reinforced by aerial surveillance across Iraq as part of the 2007 “surge” strategy clearly bears the imprint of Israel’s urban warfare laboratory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet the demand for Israeli techniques and technology also stems from the spatial challenges that now confront many states with growing numbers of unwanted or “dangerous” internal populations such as illegal immigrants, slum dwellers and those with ethnically or religious “other” identities. Many states and locales are turning into fortified gated communities surrounded by locked-out people living in permanently excluded red zones.

Despite the growing emulation of Israeli strategies of spatial containment through the export of its techniques around the world, what most fail to recognize is that Israel is both a unique and problematic exemplar of counterinsurgency and population control. All of the books under review point to a potentially fatal paradox confronting Israel today. Israel may appear to have virtually unlimited power over Palestinian land and life, but Israel’s spatial colonization of Palestinian land has lead to a situation in which there is now only one state between the Jordan and the sea, composed of roughly equal numbers of Palestinians and Jews. As Israel’s Prime Minster Ehud Olmert warned while still in office, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.” As more Palestinians embrace the one-state solution advocated by Makdisi, Israel may soon confront a truly existential threat of its own making.

* About the Reviewer: Steve Niva is a professor of International Politics and Middle East Studies at The Evergreen State College.

Zainab Bahrani, Rituals of War: The Body and Violence in Mesopotamia (New York: Zone Books, 2008), p. 180.

For a critical discussion of all of these cases of spatial containment in counterinsurgency warfare, see William Polk, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism and Guerilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).

David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006), p. 78.

See The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5-51—5-80.

Jeff Halper, “The Palestinians: Warehousing a ‘Surplus People’, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions Website, September 14, 2008. HYPERLINK “”

Naomi Klein, “Laboratory for a Fortressed World,” The Nation, June 14, 2007.

Naomi Klein, “Laboratory for a Fortressed World,” The Nation, June 14, 2007.

Aluf Benn,“Olmert to Haaretz: Two-state solution, or Israel is done for” Haaretz, November 29, 2007. HYPERLINK “”


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