The Occupation as Chronotope?

Israel is widely criticized for its occupation of Palestinian land.  Which land?  Does “the Occupation” refer to Israel’s 1967 conquests or does it include the pre-1967 state as well?  For the international community and for many critics of Israel, as well as many of Israel’s more dovish supporters, the Occupation refers to the former.  For a small but vocal minority in the western world, and larger numbers in the Muslim and Arab world, the Occupation refers to the state itself.

How one conceives the Occupation in time affects how one conceives it in space.  The Occupation is what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called a chronotope, a “time-space,” in which time is visible, and space is perceived through the lens of history.

For many years, the chronotope of an Occupation that began in 1967 made it possible for Israeli Jews to conceive of the Occupation as a temporary situation, an irregularity.  Normalization would eventually occur – not a return to the precise June 5 1967 borders, which most Israelis believed to be indefensible, but the drawing of secure borders and establishment of peaceful relations with its neighbours.  The expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1980s did not result in annexation, leaving the whole enterprise in a state of temporal suspense.

The First Intifadah of 1987-1993 forced Israelis to realize that the Occupation could not continue indefinitely without some major change in policy.  In 1991, Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh mooted a “two-state” solution to end the Occupation.  At the time, the idea was furiously attacked in Israel by all but the far left, but a decade later it had gained currency.  This was because of the Oslo Process.  By the time the process began in 1993, the Occupation was already a quarter-century old, but with the establishment of the Palestine Authority, Israelis began to conceive of “Palestine” as something separate from “Israel.”  Granted, the PA had highly limited powers, and when Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, he had not embraced Palestinian statehood.  But a critical mass of Israelis were moving towards accepting a structural differentiation between Israel and Palestine.  The Occupation seemed more provisional than ever.

The Oslo Process was destroyed by many actors, Jewish and Arab alike.  But the Second Intifadeh, which killed over 1000 Israeli civilians in spectacular acts of terrorism, is the key for understanding the transformation of the Occupation in much of Israeli political discourse from provisional to permanent. Israelis who came of age during or before the 1990s could conceive of the Occupation as transitory, but for those who have come of age since 2000, the Occupation has assumed a new form as lacking a beginning and therefore having no end.

This way of thinking causes many Israeli Jews who have never adopted the ideology of settlement activists to passively accept the steady expansion within the West Bank of Jewish settlements, the expropriation of Palestinian private lands, and the encircling of eastern Jerusalem with Jewish developments to forestall territorial continuity of Arab territories in a Palestinian state.  The chronotope of eternal mastery over the land makes possible the Israeli hard Right’s confident discourse about annexing Area C, the largest of the three areas into which the Palestinian Authority is divided.  And this way of thinking accounts for increasingly violent Israeli military interventions in Gaza, carried out against what is assumed to be an utterly irreconcilable enemy.

In another blog I will write about the second chronotope, of the Occupation as beginning in 1948, and how it affects the thinking of Palestinians and their supporters about the space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.


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