Palestinian Homes: Infrastructures Of Intimacy And The Politics Of Representation



Part of Israel’s settler colonial practices is the systematic destruction of home. Home embodies many different ideas: a nation or a person, home can be a picture, home can be a memory. Yet, home is also the actual material infrastructure people live in and around. As sites of living, homes are infrastructures of intimacy. They do the work of nurturing, controlling, sanctioning, and negotiating through cooperation and disagreement. They reproduce the social relations that are embodied in the modern distinction between the public and private spheres. When a home is demolished, it has implications that reverberate across Palestinian society. It implies a destruction of a place where people sleep, eat, have conversations, argue and make love. The targeting of Palestinian homes is a war on being together in Palestine.

How does Israel lay claims on Palestinian homes? Part of the material practices is the very discourse Israel holds on homes. In the context of evictions and demolitions by Israel, homes are discursively constructed with direct consequences on Palestinian subjectivity. Knowledge about Palestinian homes is produced as either a threat to the Israeli state, or as a site of destruction and disaster. Such narratives often render invisible the realities of settler colonialism and its effects on Palestinian everyday life. Seeking to challenge and overcome knowledge production on Palestinian subjectivities beyond the fetishization of war, I want to think of ways to weave together theorizations on representation and the concept of “infrastructures of intimacy” in an effort to provide alternative ways of thinking, reading, watching and speaking of Palestinian subjectivity.

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In the house of the author’s family in Doura, Hebron/Al Khaleel. / All photographs by Sabrien Amrov (2017).

The infrastructural lens is often used to showcase the way hard politics and state violence creep into people’s lives: surveillance systems, segregated roads, public infrastructures. But I want to push the idea that an infrastructural lens allows us to think about the various aspects in people’s lives that become blurred because we get too caught up in popularized frameworks like the one set by the notion of human rights. In the Israeli settler colonial context, we often find an interest in reporting the ways in which settler colonialism steals land, territory, histories, and abuses indigenous people’s rights. These are all true and important. But more is at play. Just like feminist geographers tells us to pay attention to attachment and to respect that the personal is political, intimacy shows us how power travels well beyond the spaces we think of. Infrastructure of intimacy allows us to see what gets taken away in these analyses. I think it is important to reinstate the relations of kindship that I argue are under threat in the Palestinian context. I share Ara Wilson’s enthusiasm that intimacy as analytic rubric makes visible the ways in which political conditions have profound effects on human relationships (The Intimate Economies of Bangkok: Tomboys, Tycoons, and Avon Ladies in The Global City, 2004). How receiving a notice of home demolition affects people’s psychology. How harassment in their homes has made some men and women incapable of being intimate with their significant other. How rebuilding your home every time it gets demolished can drive you mad. How being asked to demolish the home you built has strong affective consequences on how people continue to live their lives.

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In the context of Israel’s settler colonial occupation of Palestine, intimacy attends to often overlooked complexities of Palestinian subjectivities framed through settler colonial violence. Indeed, accessing the everyday of Palestinian life through the intimate is not meant to turn away from the structure of dominance, but rather, as Ann Laura Stoler argues, “relocates their conditions of possibility and relations and forces of production” (“Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History,” 2006). With my work on Palestinian homes, I want to demonstrate how attending to Israel state violence is a more intimate method of shedding light on the ignored ways Palestinian have to endure settler colonialism.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinians homes are regularly evicted, demolished and raided. In quantitative terms, 2016 and 2017 witnessed both a record number of home demolitions and evictions for Palestinian families, on one hand, and an increase in the number of illegal settlements built on the other. Israeli journalist Amira Hass reported that the weekly average of home demolitions in 2016 was 20 structures (“Israel Demolishes Homes of 151 Palestinians, Almost Four Times Last Year’s Average,” Jan 07, 2017).

Today, in East Jerusalem, Israeli courts offer the option for Palestinians to demolish their own homes once an order is issued, arguing that this constitutes the most affordable option for Palestinian families who can’t afford a demolishment by the state. In early 2017, Palestinian writer Ramzi Baroud documented how the Palestinian Bedouin village of Al-Araqeeb was destroyed over 116 times (“Israel Demolishes Arab Village for the 116th Time,” August 1, 2017).

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There is also eviction and systematic bullying. In September 2017, Hareetz reported that the Israeli police evicted a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem from their home in which they’d lived for decades, making way for Israelis deemed by the Israeli Supreme Court to be the lawful owners of the property with ownership that dates back to 1948 (“Israel Evicts Palestinian Family from East Jerusalem Home to Make Way for Pre-’48 Jewish Owners,” Sep. 5, 2017). In neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Tag Mehir (translated as Price Tag) is a Jewish settler movement supported by the government, a sort of vigilante group that proceeds through an economic analysis of security to target Palestinian communities and spaces. They bully Palestinians around their homes and raid their premises, without any repercussions from the state of Israel. They have been effective at getting Palestinians to leave their homes in East Jerusalem and settle in Ramallah to flee the harassment.

When children get arrested by the Israeli army, it is often done through a home raid. This will imply physical altercation with the parents and violent ransacking of the premises by the soldiers. Hence, the Israeli State dismisses the historical connection of Palestinians with their homes. It puts them in a place where they end up physically demolishing their own homes and authorizes Israeli settlers to harass and bully Palestinians who remain in their homes. These examples — many more could have been chosen — illustrate how the Israeli state targets intimacy at varying levels of Palestinian everyday life.

This violence is translated in the way in which Israel represents Palestinian homes. “When is a House a Home?” is the title of a 2014 infographic created by the Israeli army. It was disseminated via social media to an English-speaking audience during its last major assault on Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip during “Operation Protective Edge.” The infographic presents different rooms of a generic family home, replacing their function with a military lexicon. A bedroom is showed as an “operation room,” a living room as a “weapon storage,” and an office as a “commander center.” In doing so, the Israeli army attempted to justify its bombing of an infrastructure otherwise registered in our political imagination as a civilian space; a sanctuary in time of war, a place of security and protection. Through this process, the Israeli state attempts to “dehomefy” Palestinians homes by targeting and destroying them, and by actively laying claim over the representation of what a Palestinian home is and is not, consequently interpreting how to portray Palestinianeverydayness. By doing so, Israel’s state apparatus does not only represent a particular narrative of Palestinian homes, it produces it.

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“When Is a House a Home?” The re-signification of civilian spaces into military targets. / Israel Defense Forces blog (2014).

Furthermore, the IDF targets the spatial production of intimacy, a set of affective attachments to places and people, a shared awareness and communication, tempos and configurations through affect, feeling and sensation, produced through the relationality of Palestinians with their homes. Indeed, an often overlooked and crucial component of Israel’s assault on Palestinian homes is the way in which the Israeli army tries to disrupt the intimacy that is both preconceived around homes as civilian infrastructures more broadly, and to destroy the intimacy that is produced within Palestinian homes specifically. This is done by casting Palestinian homes as an extension of warfare (or annexation of the battlefield).

While the violence of the Israeli state has been extensively documented, there are other implications of this type of manipulation of representation of Palestinian homes. Yet, it is not exclusively the state of Israel which attempts to lay claims on how Palestinian homes should or should not be perceived in our public register. A Google Image search of “Palestinian Homes” will gather thousands of pictures of homes being or already demolished. In the recent cinematographic production
Junction 48, for example, the final scene consists of a home demolition in East Jerusalem, where a group of Palestinians attempt to resist the Israeli bulldozer but fail in the end to stop the demolition. Produced by Israeli writer Udi Aloni and staring Palestinian hip hop artist Tamar Nafar, the story is loyal to the mainstream narrative of Palestinian resistance amidst hardship, with little insights into the intimate lives of the characters outside this frame. When Palestinian homes are not identified as a threat to the Israeli state, they are seen and documented as a site of disaster and destruction in the political imaginary of those who write (from journalists, academics, novelists, etc.) for and about Palestine. Yet, despite this fascination with Palestinian homes, little attention has been paid to the stakes involved in the production of knowledge about Palestinian homes as spaces of threat, tragedy, resistance or dispossession. In this sense, homes are not only spaces of intimacy, but intimacy is constantly threatened to be removed as part of representing Palestinians as victims (media) or illegitimate and thus removable (Israeli State/Israeli public). Palestinians’ lived experiences are thus left choking between different but limiting gazes.

In the 1986 book After the Last Sky — a photography collection by John Mohr on Palestinians everyday lives — Edward Said writes that Palestinian representation is “a very crowded place, almost too crowded for what it is asked to bear by way of history or interpretation of history.” As early as 1986, less than 40 years after the creation of the State of Israel, the sense of crowdedness was felt and noticed. The traffic in and about Palestine was visible and yet, the story of Palestinians remained invisible. “Yet the problem of writing about and representing — in all the senses of the word — Palestinians in some fresh way is part of a much larger problem. For it is not as if no one speaks about or portrays the Palestinians. The difficulty is that everyone, including Palestinians themselves, speaks a very great deal. A huge body of literature has grown up, most of it polemical, accusatory, denunciatory. At this point, no one writing about Palestine — and indeed, no one going to Palestine — starts from scratch.” For Said, the traffic in and about Palestine was visible even back then in 1986, and yet, the representation of Palestinians was limited to images of disaster or victimhood. The rest was deemed not only invisible, but non-existent. To me, this practice of writing the human into the story, into the analysis, into the understanding of complicated processes such as globalization, citizenship, colonialism, and imperialism is the appeal of infrastructure of intimacy as a conceptual lens. Home-making takes place at different scales: through the actual physical building of the infrastructure that is the house, the decorating, the social relations that takes place in and around it, but also, through its representation. In Palestinian society, a home is often the first thing you invest in before marriage. Most Palestinian will be directly involved in the physical building of their home, putting in the bricks. Families will build next to each other and often an entire street or enclave of homes will be residents for the same family.

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Thinking about the spaces Palestinians share with a respect for this sensitivity is crucial. The salience of the infrastructural lens is not limited to its capacity to deconstruct systems of power, global structures of transport and logistics or the mapping of cities. The infrastructural lens has the potential to make us put on a new set of glasses; ones that understand and allow us to consider that what makes an event such as a home demolition tragic is what comes both before and after the three-minute news package. The home is an infrastructure of the social, political and economic fabric of individuals, families and communities. It is for this very reason that they are attacked. Beyond documenting the number of demolitions and rebuilding, the home evictions and the change in population, we need to privilege writings on Palestine that also recognize the lived experiences of individuals and people. If people who write about Palestine are willing to invest their time in drawing images of war laboratories, choking points and fragmentation, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the type of political subjectivity it produces and the type it dismisses.