War & Peace

Life Contained in Gaza

Every Friday since March 30, 2018, mass demonstrations have taken place in Gaza along Israel’s separation fence.
Protesters in Gaza are not only undoing the myth that resistance can be crippled or contained. They are also helping us, on the other side of the fence, to understand what true freedom might mean in the future.
Protesters in Gaza are not only undoing the myth that resistance can be crippled or contained. They are also helping us, on the other side of the fence, to understand what true freedom might mean in the future.

The MB1215DE is a state-of-the-art mobile container scanner manufactured by the Chinese company Nuctech. It uses high-energy imaging technology to detect contraband goods concealed within shipping containers. Due to its rapid throughput—up to twenty-five containers per hour—it is now part of the standard equipment of the world’s busiest ports, including those in Dubai, Taipei, Tangiers, and Rotterdam. It is also in operation at a lesser-known logistical hub: the Kerem Shalom terminal, on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Through this particular piece of infrastructure, an uncanny symmetry appears between zones of maximum circulation (that support global trade) and zones of maximum confinement (of which Gaza might be the world’s most infamous example). In the first instance, the container scanner functions within a security apparatus that is tasked with maximizing the flow of goods while preventing threats to the trade order itself. In the second instance, it contributes to a different security operation: minimizing the flow of goods while preventing the complete collapse of the “hostile territory” under blockade. High-resolution, real-time monitoring, and control are essential to both operations.

The Gaza Strip’s land, sea, and air blockade has been in force since 2007 and Israel is unlikely to lift it anytime soon. Unlike a medieval siege, the blockade does not aim to bring about the final capitulation of the citadel of Gaza by completely cutting off its supply lines. Almost every day, some goods and—to a lesser extent—some people do cross the border in both directions. However, Israel maintains these cross-border flows at the minimum level it deems necessary to avoid mass starvation and all-out unrest among the two million Palestinians crammed into Gaza’s 365 square kilometers. For this reason, the blockade could, at least in principle, last indefinitely.

With the blockade’s establishment, Israeli authorities acquired the ability to monitor, channel, and modulate the circulation of everything and everyone going in and out of Gaza. Rather than simply eliminating all movement, the closure has enabled a form of centralized command over Gaza’s vital circulatory system. As diplomatic, political, and juridical processes remain suspended indefinitely, logistics has effectively turned into a mode of government.

Not a single export product left Gaza in the first six years of the blockade. In 2013, the Dutch government donated an MB1215DE scanner to Israel for the specific purpose of installing at Kerem Shalom—the only functioning crossing into and out of Gaza. As stated in the joint declaration prepared for the occasion, one of the donation’s key objectives was to ease “the transport of goods... between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” while “safeguarding the security of Israel.”

The scanner soon found itself at the center of a diplomatic row between Israel and the Netherlands. Shortly before the inauguration ceremony, meant to feature the Dutch Prime Minister himself, Israel announced that it would continue to ban exports from Gaza to the West Bank. It justified this decision on the basis of alleged high-level security concerns. In response, the Dutch government abruptly cancelled the ceremony. The scanner remained idle at the terminal for months, ready to inspect a nonexistent flow of goods.

In 2014, Israel launched the largest and deadliest of its three military operations in Gaza since 2007. Never before had the built environment of the Palestinian enclave been so extensively destroyed. In spite of the critical need for reconstruction in the aftermath of the war, the blockade remained in force. As a consequence, life after the cease-fire threatened to turn into an uncontrollable humanitarian crisis. In order to avoid this outcome, Israel finally put the container scanner to work at Kerem Shalom. A second scanner was also installed at the same crossing—this one funded by the European Union. As part of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism established shortly after the war, Israel allowed an increased number of trucks to enter Gaza, and even permitted a few to exit the enclave. Nonetheless, such flows represent a small fraction of the pre-2007 volume of trade. What is more, Israel persistently keeps the flows far below the crossing’s logistical capacity.[[1]](https://www.jadaliyya.com/#_ftn1)

Israeli authorities modulate the tightness of the blockade based on the level of tension they perceive with the various armed resistance groups in Gaza. Whether in response to Palestinian actions or as a preemptive measure, Israel always has the option to suddenly cut off all circulation in and out of Gaza. The policy extends beyond the flow of goods: the delivery of individual permits to exit Gaza through the Erez Crossing reflects this same logic, while the limits of the authorized fishing zone off the coast of Gaza ebbs and flows according to Israel’s own assessment of the security situation. With its erratic oscillations, the curve describing the volume of cross-border circulations over time reads as a political seismograph of the enduring conflict.

Through its administration of the blockade, Israel rigorously implements the latest principles of global logistical management. These “elastic logistics” consist of maintaining the flexibility to expand or shrink delivery capabilities, so as to align quickly with the ever-shifting demands and operational conditions of a supply chain. This principle is originally designed to optimize commercial profits by reducing an operator’s exposure to friction. In Gaza, the Israeli security apparatus applies it as a means to minimize the supplies to its perceived enemy without fueling its determination to resist.

The standardized, modular steel shipping container—developed from US military technology—inaugurated the development of modern logistics in the second half of the twentieth century. In Gaza, the technical and economic rationality of the container expanded into a containment strategy applied to an entire polity. To handle the inconvenient burden of Gaza, Israel has chosen to confine the former’s population to the tightest possible space for the smallest economic, political, and moral cost. Suspended by a calculation machine that reduces all human needs to minimum quantities, the lives of two million people are thereby contained.

If, as Clausewitz affirmed, war is the extension of politics by other means, and if politics in Gaza has been reduced to logistics, then war has also turned into an extension of logistics. Aptly code-named “Protective Edge,” the 2014 Israeli military operation in Gaza declared as its objective the destruction of the network of tunnels that resistance groups had dug in response to the blockade. By opening up channels of unmonitored communication and trade across the border, these tunnels indeed posed a fundamental—one may say, topological—threat to the exercise of a mode of power based on the meticulous control of all forms of circulation. The Israeli army thus attempted to remodel a contested terrain, to fill the dangerous cavities through which Gaza was quite literally undercutting Israel’s authority.

The current framing of Israel’s strategic policy further confirms the essential instrumentality of war to maintain and naturalize the Gaza blockade as a durable regime of power. Israel’s top-ranking military staff officially refer to their recurrent operations in Gaza as a process of “mowing the grass.” In this chilling metaphor, Israel perceives the capacity for Gazans to resist as naturally and perpetually growing. From the colonizer’s perspective, this wild overgrowth requires regular interventions to contain it.

While the MB1215DE scanner is but one component of a far-reaching, distributed architecture, it encapsulates the key operational logic of the blockade as a project of urban containment. From logistics to surveillance, administration, energy supply, and environmental management, all operations that sustain the blockade of Gaza ought to be optimized—constantly readjusted to a set of varying parameters, so as to maximize the blockade’s effects while minimizing its costs. In Gaza, the rising governmental paradigm of optimization reveals its fundamentally oppositional disposition, whereby the gains for one camp are always to be measured against the losses for the opposite one. For Israel, optimizing this cybernetic system primarily means debilitating the enemy while maximizing its own capacities in the process. In terms of its management as an urban territory, Gaza is undeniably smart—as smart as the bombs that keep raining down on it.

While it is the product of a unique history of struggle, the blockaded Gaza Strip also forms a radical diagram of a global phenomenon. In contrast to the cheerful discourse of their corporate providers, smart urban technologies today are mainly applied to the reinforcement and cost-reduction of existing mechanisms of urban exclusion. Digital redlining, data-driven access portals, predictive policing, and facial recognition systems that are biased by design are all cases in point. Smart urbanism has set out to optimize the city’s milieu, yet the targeted capacitation of already-privileged urban users is only one of the modes by which optimization is currently pursued. Another mode, still largely overlooked, consists of the targeted debilitation of all of those who do not belong. On the one hand, we find processes of release and enhancement; on the other, practices of maiming and containment. At stake in this dialectic may be nothing less than the urban question of the twenty-first century.

Every Friday since March 30, 2018, mass demonstrations have taken place in Gaza along Israel’s separation fence. As a means of protesting the ongoing blockade, the people of Gaza are not gathering in public squares or in front of ministries, but along a thick, militarized border and its logistical nodes. Since the start of the Great March of Return, as the protests have been called, demonstrators have set the Kerem Shalom terminal on fire at least three times—and Israel has always promptly repaired it. Protestors also tore down several sections of the fence, only for Israel to repair it in the following weeks. As of August 2019, the response from Israel’s security forces has been to shoot more than 8,000 unarmed protesters with live ammunition. At least 1,200 of them are now crippled for life.

Yet every Friday, for more than a year now, protesters are back to refuse the status quo. Their obstinate return challenges the material infrastructure of the blockade regime, adds friction to the system of organized containment, tears apart the narrative of a humane blockade, and forces the colonial regime to reveal its sheer brutality. The steadfastness of Palestinians in the face of a seventy-one year-long colonial occupation is all the more laudable now Israel has utterly banalized the daily violence to which they are exposed. Today, even the most revolting of abuses—such as the killing of twenty-year-old volunteer medic Rouzan Al-Najjar, who was hit in the thorax by an Israeli sniper’s bullet as she was helping to evacuate the wounded—will not stir much more than a fleeting moment of indignation from the so-called “international community.” Through their struggles and perseverance, the protesters in Gaza are not only undoing the myth that resistance can be crippled or contained. They are also helping us, on the other side of the fence, to understand what true freedom might mean in the future.

Francesco Sebregondi is an architect and researcher whose work explores the intersections of violence, technology, and the urban condition. Since 2011, he has been a research fellow at Forensic Architecture, where he coedited the group’s first publication, Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (2014). He is currently a CHASE-funded PhD candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths.

Photo: Mohammed Zaanoun, Activestills.org

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Francesco Sebregondi
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