rana dasgupta: I’d like to begin by talking about the shape of the border, which conventionally appears as a line.
Because of its particular conception of threat – external and internal – Israel has made a disproportionate contribution to state theories of defence and segregation. In Hollow Land (2007), your account of the military, bureaucratic and architectural systems with which the Israeli state organises territories and peoples, you identify a remarkable moment in its evolving conception of ‘border’. You describe the debate surrounding the Bar Lev Line: a chain of fortifications constructed by Israel along the Suez Canal after the 1967 Arab–Israeli War. The Bar Lev Line was supposed to be impregnable, but during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 it was breached in two hours by the Egyptian army.
This defensive disaster enhanced the influence of Ariel Sharon, principal critic of the Bar Lev Line, who had dismissed it as the Israeli ‘Maginot Line’ – referring to the vast defensive barrier built by France in the 1930s to protect against German invasion. Sharon argued that the border should be thought of not as a line but as a network extending deep into Israeli territory. You summarise his reasoning thus:
If the principle of linear defence is to prohibit (or inhibit) the enemy from gaining a foothold beyond it, when the line is breached at a single location – much like a leaking bucket of water – it is rendered useless. A network defence, on the other hand, is flexible. If one or more of its strongpoints is attacked and captured, the system can adapt itself by forming new connections across its depth.
eyal weizman: It is fair to say that there has never been an agreed-upon boundary to Israel and its territorial ambitions.
When the Zionist leadership accepted the territories marked out for Israel under the UN Partition Plan in 1947, they expected the borders to change during the anticipated Arab–Israeli War, which was already in preparation. Even after the war, and the expulsion of the Palestinians from Israel’s territorial acquisitions, Israeli historians have reported that the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, accepted the ceasefire agreement because he imagined the borders would be further extended during the next round of conflict.
Still today, the question of borders has not been resolved. There is no consensus within Israel about whether a Palestinian state should exist – even in the most minimal of ways – and so there can be no agreement about Israel’s eastern border. Instead, there is the contested frontier along the West Bank governed by military forces, a compliant Palestinian authority and settler groups that dictate the political agenda.
In the absence of any hard or durable state boundary, smaller manifestations of borders, or border devices, have sprung up everywhere. Like worms cut into pieces, each taking on renewed life, fragments of the border exist deep within the space under Israeli control. In the West Bank, we see this represented by the fences around settlements and military bases, and by important infrastructure such as roads and bridges that function as methods of segregation. And we see it, of course, in the wall itself, which twists through Palestinian lands.
In Gaza, the wall has a different function. It not only cuts the territory off from the rest of Palestine but, by controlling land and maritime borders of the Gaza envelope, Israel is also able to regulate the quantities of all resources entering the territory: electricity, food, medicine, petrol, building materials and so on. With the ability to starve Gaza of resources, Israel ensures the Strip’s total dependency.
It is in this context that we need to see the so-called ‘Trump Plan’, which would create a Palestinian state by connecting fragments of land around Palestinian towns and cities through a network of raised highways, tunnels and bridges. The result would be two mutually exclusive geographies superimposed over the same land. This amounts to the vertical partitioning of Palestine, with Israelis travelling by bridge over Palestinian areas, owning the water underneath and controlling the airspace above – something I have called a ‘politics of verticality’.
There are many borders, and each one produces a different kind of territorial scenario and governing apparatus. The absence of a single line around the state has meant that the border is everywhere. And it goes beyond the organisation of physical space. The border provides a structure to state institutions and bureaucracies based on permits and the control of circulation – who can enter where and when.
dasgupta: What does it mean for a border to exist within a bureaucracy?
weizman: Let’s say you’re a Palestinian in the West Bank. The wall that runs through the territory requires you to conform to a regime of permits that controls every aspect of your movement. You need a permit to pass through the checkpoints, and in order to obtain it you will need to do various things, including, sometimes, collaborating with the security forces. There are different kinds of permits, allowing movement at different times, for different durations and to different places in Israel, so that your movement in space is continuously and transparently monitored. In order to enforce this permit regime, the state must maintain constant individual surveillance, optical and technical.
The concrete and razor wire of the West Bank wall are reinforced with highly effective electronic sensors, a form of smart-fencing technology at which Israel excels. Border control has become one of Israel’s most important export industries. But we need to think of the border not only as a physical instrument but also as an optical-bureaucratic apparatus.
dasgupta: What has changed since you wrote Hollow Land?