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Slavoj Žižek: 'What Goes On When Nothing Goes On?'

Slavoj Žižek23 November 2012

On August 2, 2009, after cordoning off part of the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, Israeli police evicted two Palestinian families (more than 50 people) from their homes, allowing Jewish settlers immediately to move into the vacated houses. Although Israeli police cited a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, the evicted Arab families had been living there for more than 50 years. This event which, rather exceptionally, did attract the attention of the world media, is part of a much larger and mostly ignored ongoing process.

Two years later, not much has changed. On October 16, 2011, Israel announced plans to build 2,600 new homes in southern Jerusalem, despite condemnation from the UN, the EU, and Britain. If implemented, the plans would not only divide the Arab section of the city from the rest of the occupied West Bank, but also severely undermine the chances of a viable Palestinian state and hamper the everyday life of Palestinians. The conclusion is obvious: while paying lip-service to the two-state solution, Israel is busy creating a situation on the ground that will render a two-state solution practically impossible. The dream that underlies this politics is best rendered by the wall that separates a settler’s town from the Palestinian town on a nearby hill somewhere in the West Bank. The Israeli side of the wall is painted with the image of the countryside beyond the wall—but without the Palestinian town, depicting just nature, grass, trees ... Is this not ethnic cleansing at its purest, imagining the outside beyond the wall as it should be: empty, virginal, waiting to be settled?

This process is sometimes in the guise of cultural gentrification. On October 28, 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Simon Wiesenthal Center could proceed to build its long-planned Center for Human Dignity— Museum of Tolerance on a contested site in the middle of Jerusalem. It is currently under construction. Frank Gehry (who else?), until he withdrew from the project in 2010, was commissioned to design the vast complex consisting of a general museum, children’s museum, theater, conference center, library, gallery, lecture halls, cafeterias, and so on. The museum’s declared mission will be to promote civility and respect among different segments of the Jewish community and between people of all faiths—the only obstacle (overrun by the Supreme Court’s ruling) being that the museum site served as Jerusalem’s main Muslim cemetery until 1948 (the Muslim community appealed to the Supreme Court that museum construction would desecrate the cemetery, which allegedly contained the bones of Muslims killed during the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries). This dark spot wonderfully enacts the hidden truth of this multi-confessional project: it is a place celebrating tolerance, open to all ... but protected by the Israeli cupola which ignores the subterranean victims of intolerance—as if one needs a little bit of intolerance to create the space for true tolerance.

What does all this mean? To get at the true significance of news, it is sometimes enough to read two disparate news items together—meaning emerges from their very link, like a spark exploding from an electric short circuit. On September 21, 2011, Obama criticized the Palestinian bid for UN membership, stating to the world that “peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN.” Less than one week later, on September 27, Israel announced plans to build another 1,100 new settlement units in the south of Jerusalem (outside of its pre-1967 boundaries), and the quartet—the US, EU, UN, and Russia—simply called on both sides to return to negotiations and “refrain from provocative actions,” without making any mention of a settlement freeze.

So should the Palestinians stand idly while the West Bank land is taken from them day by day? When Israeli peace-loving liberals present their conflict with Palestinians in neutral “symmetrical” terms, admitting that there are extremists on both sides who reject peace, and so on, one should ask a simple question: What goes on in the Middle East when nothing goes on there at the direct politico-military level (i.e. when there are no tensions, attacks, negotiations)? What goes on is the incessant slow work of taking the land from the Palestinians in the West Bank: the gradual strangling of the Palestinian economy, the parceling of their land, the building of new settlements, the pressure on Palestinian farmers to make them abandon their land (which goes from crop-burning and religious desecration up to individual killings), all this supported by a Kafkaesque network of legal regulations. Saree Makdisi, in Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, described how, although the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is ultimately enforced by the armed forces, it is an “occupation by bureaucracy”: its primary forms are application forms, title deeds, residency papers, and other permits. It is this micromanagement of daily life which does the job of securing the slow but steadfast Israeli expansion: one has to ask for a permit in order to leave with one’s family, to farm one’s own land, to dig a well, to go to work, to school, to a hospital ... One by one, Palestinians born in Jerusalem are thus stripped of the right to live there, prevented from earning a living, denied housing permits, and so on. Palestinians often use the problematic cliché of the Gaza Strip as “the greatest concentration camp in the world”— however, this designation has come dangerously close to truth. This is the fundamental reality which makes all abstract “prayers for peace” obscene and hypocritical. The State of Israel is clearly engaged in a slow, invisible process, ignored by the media, a kind of underground digging of the mole, so that, one day, the world will awaken and realize that there is no more Palestinian West Bank, that the land is Palestinian-frei, and that we can only accept the fact. The map of the Palestinian West Bank already looks like a fragmented archipelago.

At times, the State of Israel has tried to contain Israel’s excesses, as when the Supreme Court ordered the evacuation of some settlements in late 2008, when illegal West Bank settler attacks on Palestinian farmers had become a daily occurrence. But, as many observers noted then, these measures cannot but appear half-hearted, counteracting a politics which, at a deeper level, is the long-term politics of the State of Israel, which massively violates the international treaties signed by Israel itself. Netanyahu is proceeding full steam ahead with plans for new illegal settlements, despite widespread international condemnation. The reply of the illegal settlers to the Israeli authorities is basically: We are doing the same thing as you, just more openly, so what right do you have to condemn us? And the answer of the state is basically: Be patient, don’t rush too much; we are doing what you want, just in a more moderate and acceptable way. The same story seems to continue from 1949: while Israel accepts the peace conditions proposed by the inter- national community, it calculates that the peace plan will not work. The wild settlers sometimes sound like Brünnhilde from the last act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, reproaching Wotan that, by counteracting his explicit order and protecting Siegmund, she was only realizing Wotan’s own true desire, which he was forced to renounce under external pressure. In the same way, the illegal settlers only realize the state’s true desire that it was forced to renounce because of the pressure of the international community. While condemning the openly violent excesses of “illegal” settlements, the State of Israel promotes new “legal” West Bank settlements, continues to strangle the Palestinian economy, and so on. A look at the changing map of East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians are gradually being encircled and their space sliced up, says it all. The condemnation of non-state anti-Palestinian violence obfuscates the true problem of state violence; the condemnation of illegal settlements obfuscates the illegality of the legal ones. Therein resides the two-facedness of the much-praised non-biased “honesty” of the Israeli Supreme Court: by means of occasionally passing a judgment in favor of the dispossessed Palestinians, proclaiming their eviction illegal, it guarantees the legality of the remaining majority of cases.

And—to avoid any kind of misunderstanding—taking all this into account in no way implies any “understanding” for inexcusable terrorist acts. On the contrary, it provides the only ground from which one can condemn the terrorist attacks without hypocrisy.

In this extract from The Case for Sanctions Against Israel, Slavoj Žižek inspects the stark reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict. As the world takes notice when missiles are fired, no liberal defence can excuse the actuality of the situation - that the Palestinians will not stand idly by while more and more of the West Bank is taken from them each day.

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