The essay The Erotics of the Occupation was originally published in Hebrew as a series of articles in Ma’arav Hebrew. Translated by Hilla Dayan.
Searching and Stripping
The perverse relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is a depressing B movie that the entire world daily watches. Many actors, spectators, and producers take part in the Mis-en-Scene: soldiers, civilians, international observes, humanitarian organizations, to name few. Despite the attraction to the action, not many realize that the Israeli occupation is all about the body: sweat, heavy breathing, desire. There are several principles to the erotics of the occupation, such as stripping and searching.
The Israeli authorities look for war in your handbag. They ask for your identification papers. They strip and search you with a metal detector, and put you through a screening machine. If they say hello to you, at the entrance to a bus station, for instance, they just check your accent. Airport interrogations may take hours and they are all about intimate knowledge. The Israeli authorities want to know who did you come to visit, and where do you work, and where do you sleep, and with whom, and what are you looking for in wherever it is you are going to. National security is obsessed with inspecting, identifying, examining, searching and stripping the body.
The Israeli Ministry of Defense has a unit called the Passages Administration. This is the authority responsible for “fabric of life,” and “life” stands for the life of the residents of the occupied Palestinian territories. The Passages Administration recently began to import a machine that is going to improve its stripping capacity. The new apparatus produces a three-dimensional hologram picture of the body, and is officially called the Three Dimensional Holographic Body Scanning. Long transmission signals produce a naked image of the body. Safeview, the American company that developed this stripping technology, had to seriously deal with the issue of privacy. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a naked image produced in real time at the airport or in the mall can be reconciled with the right to privacy Americans so cherish. To avoid constitutional problems, the machines were made to create a hologram image of inorganic parts of a “normal” body. Israel is an enthusiastic client.(1)
The extent to which technology advances erotics is not well appreciated. Something about the sterility of technology goes against this notion. With the Three-Dimensional Holographic Body Scanning, however, the Israeli Passages Administration has found a new sex toy that will help it stimulate the erotics of the occupation. The gallery show of still-life pictures of Palestinians passing checkpoints is going to transform into a giant media installation. Of course, authorities convince most Israelis that they make use of stripping and searching technologies only to enhance their security, rather than to enhance the erotics of the occupation. But the new machine is clearly an erotic device. After all, for the Passages Administration “the fabric of life” has nothing to do with life itself. They are not interested in the life of human beings with aspirations and dreams. Life is, rather, the fabric of the Palestinian body, stripped and frozen into a three-dimensional hologram picture.
Arabness or Arabism is booming in Israel. You notice it everywhere on the street. You hear it in the music, you eat it in restaurants, you smoke it with a nargileh [oriental tobacco pipe]. The Israeli Arabism is Palestinian-less, a principle of the erotics of the occupation. Especially since intifada 2000 Tel Aviv rediscovered the humus, the knafe [a sweet desert], and Arabic music. Suddenly there was a craving for the authentic humus and knafe. The more impossible it became to travel to places like Bidia or Bethlehem in the West Bank, the more their tastes became desirable.
This is the nature of the asymmetrical affair, the relationship of attraction and revulsion between Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis have to know, to touch and to smell everything that the other has – the land, the coffee, the music – but without knowing the other. They desire the senses and the tastes, without knowing the people and their language, and for Israelis not to know the Arabic language is rather like insisting not to know. It is not a coincidental ignorance, but an active ignorance.
Israelis basically know nothing about Palestinians or Palestinian culture, but the other side suffers from ignorance as well: many believe that Israelis live, think, and breath only in uniforms.
Arabism was actually a gradual process, which started in the 1990s. A search for lost Mizrahi roots was in full swing. Popular music bands like Sheva and Hasmakhot made the country a darboukkah [drum] land, and Mizrahi-Arabic music became mainstream. The battalions of post military service India-crazed Israelis have been recruited for the mission. They began celebrating the Orient in hippie festivals, like the Shantipi festival, where ethnic music was played, suddenly becoming part of the hegemonic Israeli culture. For the sake of clarification, this music is not influenced by Arabic music at all, Fairuz or Marcel Khalife, for instance. Only the 4 sound of typical Arabic music instruments, the ud and the daff, is heard everywhere.
This cultural transformation came about just as Palestinians became trapped in the occupied territories, and daily interface was completely obstructed. Now, with an official ban on the possibility of knowing, with border patrol jeeps cruising Salame street in Jaffa and Shlomtzion Hamalka street in West Jerusalem, and with a ninemeters-tall separation wall, Arabism flourishes within the 1948 borders. More Arabic coffee is poured in Tel Aviv now that the Palestinians have completely disappeared from its streets.
In New York after 9/11, new Afghan restaurants were all the rage, just like belly dancing classes in the East Village. Every bombing campaign on the Taliban carved cultural spaces of mystery, and generated yet another photo exhibition showing veiled Muslim women. And likewise, for every so-called targeted killing operation of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), you could buy more Hayona Tahinah from Nablus in Tel Aviv. In 2005, a popular song titled “the middle of the night in the village” hit the radio charts in Israel. The lyrics sung by Harel Moyal, a former border patrol soldier from the settlement Ma’ale Edomim, depict an imaginary place, somewhere between the Palestinian village al-Hader and Beit Jala in the West Bank. He is on duty, listening to the voice of the Muezzin in the mosque, lighting one last cigarette before going on an arrest operation. Moyal sensually pronounces the names of Palestinian villages, and the melody of the Muezzin is incorporated into the music.
This song is a simple lesson in Orientalism: the desire for the exotic other and his appropriation. Racism becomes more pronounced the greater the desire for appropriation is. In the delirious colonial encounter, the colonizer wants to separate, enclose and protect himself, yet is attracted to the other through the senses as to entertainment or to a cooking spice. Meanwhile, Tali Fahima(2), resisting the occupation with her mind and body, is thrown into administrative detention just as authentic
Arabic humus joints multiply in Tel Aviv. Israel is like an obsessed lover, who wants to separate forever and by all means from his loved one, but equally desires to wake up each morning beside him, smell his clothes and spray his perfume all over a house that they share.
The occupation is experienced visually. Another principle of the erotics of the occupation is the desire cultivated by the eye to witness the occupation and the war.
The eye has gotten accustomed to the excitement, to the orange and red flashes on the television screen, to the blood-red smeared headlines of the daily newspapers, to the illustrations and maps of the bombing campaigns that graphically depict the event, the incident, the attack, the war zone. The eye, aided by a dramatic soundtrack announcing the special news edition, cultivates a desire for the aesthetics of violence.
Israel has a film industry, which exports violence and suffering, and benefits the makers and the spectators. It rips awards for the makers, and expands for the spectators the possibilities for witnessing disasters. The subjects of the films, the victim, the terrorist, the refugee, the prisoner or the soldier, are usually figures, who trigger national and international catharsis. Already in 1991 the Israeli filmmaker and critic Jad Neeman observed that the Israeli film industry produces war movies comparable to soft porn movies, and argued that it is difficult to make the distinction between the war movies industry and the war industry itself. It is indeed not easy to establish what gives to what: do wars inspire the images, or images produce wars? Today, the aesthetics of the occupation has become a big industry. Many documentary films on the occupation find a comfortable place on the programs and 6 catalogues of prestigious film festivals all over the world. The industry and its consumers seem to believe that watching documentary films is a political act, and this gives them a sense of relief from responsibility to what they are witnessing.
The war campaign Israel launched in Lebanon in the summer of 2007 signaled a return to the pyrotechnics of a good-old war movie: smoke over Beirut, mass destruction, debris, and scores of anonymous corpses. This was not the skillful and engineered aesthetics of documentary films on the occupation. No beautiful visuals of the separation wall and the checkpoints, these were messy images of a full-blown campaign of doom, Gog and Magog, a nightmare projected on the conscience screens of culture.(3) And we as spectators accept this as part of our normal visual experience of life. The futurist artists in the early twentieth century thought that war was a good thing, a stage in the development of mankind. Mussolini had said that peace is decadence, and that war makes the human being stronger. And we indeed become stronger, more pronouncedly fascist as we experience war on the screen. The image feeds our eyes and souls with erotic violence that we have become addicted to.
Without this visual feed we do not exist. If the flames stop burning there is no desire left in our lives. The short answer to the question of what gives to what, images or war, is that although not always and not in every case, usually it is the image that is in the service of violence. The aesthetics of violence make us believe that this is simply how the world is and another world is not possible. If we wish for another world or at least for the possibility of imagining it, we need to start thinking of inventing a new body, and we must begin with the eye.
Mystery and Uncertainty
In every erotic relationship there is an element of uncertainty: secrets, words whispered in bedrooms, intimate situations, delicate games of closeness and distance. The Israeli authorities specialize in intimate games of intrigue. They create a radical uncertainty as for the present and the future of the relationship, and the uncertainty is a central principle of the erotics of the occupation. To begin with, uncertainty is generated by the law, which is normally boring, because it is public and accessible, and appears in the official books. Like the identity number of your partner, the law is not a very interesting detail. But for Palestinians in the occupied territories the law is determined ad hoc by the military commander of “the area,” and is thus mysterious, flexible, changing all the time. It is very difficult to obtain information about it in Hebrew, let alone in Arabic. I once tried, as a human rights lawyer, to get a hold of a new warrant regulating passages in the occupied territories. I called the “fabric of life” office at the Ministry of Defense, and was told that all military orders are kept in public libraries in Israel. Indeed, at the library of Tel Aviv University I found some military orders updated only up to 1994. Criteria for authorizations or bans, procedures for permits or applications, administrative decrees, the protocols of appeal committees of IDF military tribunals are all secret materials. These secrets time and again ignite the passion in this crazy relationship.
Obtaining and maintaining secret information used to be the purview of the General Security Services (Shin Bet). Today they have serious competitors. Secret information is no longer the property of the Israeli intelligence services alone, but is gathered by many mistresses, such as the Israeli police, and specifically its “prohibited from entry” unit. The boring protocols of the Inter-Office Committee for Special Affairs at the Ministry of the Interior also contain juicy secrets. This is a practice of desire. The most trivial information about a person becomes an object of official whispering and yearning.
The Israeli High Court of Justice in its ruling on targeted killings established that the function of secret materials is not to determine the security danger a certain person poses in advance.(4) Supreme Court Judge Aharon Barak wrote in this ruling, that you cannot know and make a decision in advance as to whether the assassination operation is legal or not according to international law. Only in retrospect, after the execution, the court will review secret materials in order to determine that. But the true function of secrets is to sustain the erotics of the occupation. The intimate language whispered in the bedroom of the occupation, includes such terms, as security needs, investigation needs, the defense of sources and methods of action, indications, insinuations, allegations, and saves the occupation from becoming boring. It sustains an exceptional, out of the ordinary, relationship. Secrets are the aphrodisiac, an addictive love potion. Something has to keep a forty-year-old relationship going.
Poster boards in Jerusalem are filled with tempting calls for Defensive Shield operation in Gaza.(5) The mailboxes of Israeli leftists meanwhile explode with invitations to take part in the celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the occupation. But, the general feeling is that the occupation is no longer as exciting as it used to be. It is becoming redundant, like a “slight bang on the wings of the airplane” as Dan Halutz famously put it (when he was IDF Chief of Staff), referring to what Israeli air force pilots felt when they dropped a one-ton bomb on a residential building in Gaza. Even the excitement of targeted killings, having gone through the 9 laundromat of the High Court of Justice, is winding down. The assassination operations used to infuse new blood to the dying romance, but now barely get fourand- a-half lines in the newspapers. This is the dry season of academic conferences and human rights reports. When passion is over, when a routine of violence makes everyone yawn, you have to look for excitement somewhere else. And so we look for Iranian Shihab missiles with nuclear heads, and gaze at the Syrian landscape.
Up to now, the relationship was mostly restricted to Gaza and the West Bank, but how much longer can one mess around with this domestic triviality of the Palestinian “fabric of life”? We need new names, new places, new infrared desires. And so the romance is turning into polygamy. Emmanuel Wallerstein conceives international relations as one whole system, which reflects the power of capital to shape the world.(6) Not only capitalism, but erotic violence as well, always seeks bigger, more serious partners. It is likewise in a polygamous relationship with the world. This violence is real, strong, divine, wrath of God violence, not like the checkpoints, and the wall, and bypass roads, and the ban on family unification, and the ritualistic invasions of Jewish settlers to houses in the Muslim quarter of the old city in Jerusalem. The search for a polygamous relationship is not just prompted by boredom, but also by an imperial passion, the passion to expand, to make the arena of conflict bigger and bigger, and the rules of the game more complicated. James Ron compared the repertoires of state violence in Israel and Serbia.7 Violence deployed in what he calls ghettos tends to be less pernicious than in frontiers, where violence is directed against populations that are not under the direct control of the state. We witnessed this dynamic on the northern frontier in the 2007 Lebanon campaign. Exiting the ghetto of the occupation, Israel unleashed hellish violence against populations not under its control. The erotics of the occupation may go global, or turn 10 into nostalgia. It is likely, in any case, when it reaches its full-blown imperial proportions, to make old objects of desire increasingly irrelevant. As Bertolt Brecht said, “the public is dead,” and for that matter all publics are dead and irrelevant in this global war. We live in an era of polygamous violence, and there is no telling what is yet to come.
- Safeview is a company, which develops “innovative security technology for full-body security screening,” see safeviewinc.com/frontend/index.aspx
- Tali Fahima, a young Israeli woman, established contacts with Zacaria Zbeidi, head of the Al Aqsa brigade at the Jenin refugee camp, and declared she would be prepared to serve as a human shield to protect him. Fahima served a three-year sentence in the Israeli Jail for her actions.
- Gog and Magog are a Biblical pair associated with apocalyptic prophecy, and are also mentioned in the Quran as Yajooj (Gog) and Majooj (Magog).
- HCJ 765/02, Public Committee against Torture in Israel and Law v. Government of Israel (2002).
- Defensive Shield was a large-scale IDF operation to re-occupy major Palestinian cities, which took place between March and May 2002. During this massive military campaign 497 Palestinians werekilled and 1447 were wounded according to UN statistics.
- Wallerstain, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Duke University Press, 2004.
- James Ron, Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel, University of California Press, 2003.