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What does it Mean to Return, and Return, and Return?

Palestinians continue to return to the border. The weekly marches, which began nearly three months ago as part of the Great March of Return, were intended to build until Nakba Day on May 15th, yet Palestinians continue their March...

A man waving the Palestinian flag,,Wikimedia Commons

Even as Israeli snipers shoot at unarmed Palestinians, killing more than 135 Palestinians and wounding more than 13,000 since March 30th; Even as injured marchers continue to succumb to bullet wounds while waiting for medical treatment and exit permits, Palestinians continue to return to the border. Return, upon return, upon return. The weekly marches, which began nearly three months agoas part of the Great March of Return, were intended to build until Nakba Day on May 15th, marking the 70th anniversary of the establishing of the state of Israel upon the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. The day prior marked the deadliest day of the demonstrations, with Israel killing 62 people and wounding at least 2,700 on May 14th alone. Yet Palestinians continued their March beyond Nakba day in defiance, returning again and again to the border. 

During the past three months, we’ve seen scores of images of Palestinians pushing their bodies up against their confinement, building on so many more images circulated over the years. When I first began coming across these photos, I was overwhelmed, in the way images can swell inside of us: wheelchairs, and tennis rackets, and kites, amid a densely packed string of protesters marching defiantly towards a border that wires itself into their bodies and everyday; endless barbed wire representing an 11-year-siege, through which Israel has amputated Gaza from its own fishing shores and agricultural resources, limiting access to medical supplies and construction materials for rebuilding. Perpetual darkness in the absence of electricity and clean water is compounded by a 58 percent unemployment rate, growing housing insecurity, and dire health conditions.

“People are being shot in the legs,” journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddos reported on May 14, during the sixth week of marching. “One doctor told me that they’re creating a new generation of cripples. There have been almost 30 amputations.” Another doctor was shot in both legs while treating the injured. As I listened to the news, I could almost hear the sound of crutches hitting the ground in Dheisheh Refugee Camp in the West Bank, where I carried out my fieldwork two summers ago. Knee-capping is how the Badil Resource Center began referring to the form of violence deployed by the Israeli military against predominantly youthful bodies in the camp back then, and again more recently. “I will cripple half of you and let the other half push your wheelchairs,” was the infamous threat that summer from the Israeli commander for camps in the Bethlehem area, known by Dheisheh residents as “Captain Nidal.” At least 17 young people (between 14 and 27 years old) from the camp were shot in the legs that July-August, eight of them directly in the knee, and some in both legs.

How many ways are there to shoot a bullet? Israel boasts it perfects a variety of ways to harm, whether in the West bank, or on a much larger scale in its occupation of Gaza. Through security trainings, Israel exports the tactics it experiments on the bodies of Palestinians around the world. I imagine Captain Nidal prepping the snipers heading to Gaza’s peaceful March of Return with a PowerPoint; flipping between slides titled “shoot to disable” and “shoot to kill,” explaining it with the same calm impunity as Jared Kushner, who was all smiles at the embassy celebration, as snipers carefully fired, as they had been taught, through the legs, chests, and heads of children and doctors and journalists. Kill, and kill, and kill,” the presentation soundtrack would loop, repeating the demographer Arnon Soffer’s prescription to Ariel Sharon’s government in 2004 on how to isolate Gaza.

Gaza-fication of the Occupation 

Sofer, who teaches security officials at the University of Haifa, played a significant role in developing the plan to disengage from Gaza, proposed by Sharon in 2003, and enacted since 2005. Concerned with maintaining a Jewish majority state at all costs, Soffer advised Israel to violently police it, shooting anyone attempting to break out. The plan included vesting the Palestinian Authority (PA) with the responsibility to govern the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip, and handing responsibility for the Gaza-Egypt border to Egyptian authorities.

The disengagement plan is key to understanding Israel’s means of governmentality after Oslo. As Hani Sayed (2014)  argues, with the signing of the accords, Israel inscribed its future disengagement — not only from Gaza, but also from the West Bank. The disengagement, therefore, is not separate from its wider strategy for controlling the occupied territories, or what Sayed (2014, p. 87)  terms the “Gaza-fication” of the occupation. This mode of governing, in which the PA is a key player, absolves Israel of the legal responsibilities as an occupying power, for managing civilian affairs in the occupied territories (as inscribed in Article 43 of the Hague Conventions). Instead, Oslo relegates civilian affairs to the PA, while placing incredible constraints on the PA’s ability to accumulate characteristics of formal sovereignty over Gaza and the West Bank, and allowing Israel to maintain its ability to exert military control (Sayed, 2014, p. 119).

The bottom line of this governmentality, as Budour Hassan reported, is a belief that all Palestinians are disposable, including those in Jerusalem, and those with Israeli citizenship. Yet, as Hassan continues, “there is a hierarchy of disposability, and the people of Gaza are treated as the most disposable.” 

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Israel has evidenced this through the division of Gaza and the West Bank after the 2006 elections, and its disengaged containment of Gaza. Access to the most basic of needs, like reliable electricity and medical equipment is heavily restricting over  1.9 million Palestinians in what the United Nations predicted in 2015 would be completely uninhabitable territory by 2020.  The blockade is exacerbated by the PA’s imposition of sanctions following the 2007 elections,  which protesters in Ramallah and other West Bank cities have been demanding an end to. 

Palestinians in the West Bank have been mounting their opposition to PA policies in past years, calling out its role in the contemporary arrangement of power structures. Sayed refers to the latter as the “Gaza-fication of the West Bank,” which facilitated Israel’s ability to isolate cities into heavily populated areas that are cut off from one another, after annexing most of the land possible through massive settlements. The Oslo Accords enshrined such interventions through an excess rather than absence of law, solidifying, with the help of the PA, the death of the two-state solution.

The “peace negotiations” that are often spoken about, are therefore an end and not a means. Disengagement is predicated on Israel’s imposing of a particular temporality that seeks to empty the notion of return and replace it with waiting and more waiting; with waiting to wait.

Waiting to Wait 

The imposing of a temporality that is meant to discipline subjects into endless waiting is evident in other forms of governance practiced by Israel. It was concretized by Israel’s building of the separation wall along the West Bank during the Second Intifada in June of 2002, with its network of checkpoints and their accompanying unpredictability, described by Irene Calis (2017, p. 66) as “between routine and rupture,” drawing on anthropologist Michael Taussig’s (1992, p. 18) notion of the “doubleness of social being”, where “one moves in bursts between somehow accepting the situation as normal only to be thrown into a panic or shocked into disorientation at any moment,’), . . . living under constant threat of consistent yet unpredictable disruption.” Such uncertainty is, of course, deliberate, and meant to provoke a sense of resignation to the waiting on bureaucratic and administrative practices (Auyero, 2012); to produce waiting subjects who are normalized to routine rupture.

Another practice that serves this purpose is administrative detention. Unlike time-bound prison sentences, this policy allows Israel to detain Palestinians without charge or trial for six months at a time, which can be renewed without legal justification, leaving detainees and their families in a constant state of the unknown. "We waited the six months, and they were renewed. We waited again, and they were renewed again -- until when will we continue to wait?” the wife of a detainee said in an interview to Addameer in 2016.

It’s not a coincidence that in a conversation with me about administrative detention in August 2016, detainee Mohamed* described the temporality of waiting to wait in a way that seemed to summarize the concept  of disengagement:

So, [administrative detention] is like walking into a kitchen and seeing that it is such a mess with so many problems and so what do you do? You close the kitchen door and go home. . . and as such, even if [the intelligence officer] hasn’t been surveying someone extensively, if they want, they can simply arrest and throw him into detention. Why? So that the officer doesn’t have to think or tire himself. [Israel] is saying, I don’t want to tire myself to put him in jail [by finding a charge]. Let me just arrest him. This is administrative detention. It is a lazy and stupid, temperament [of Israel] that nonetheless very much pressures the region. 

Closing the kitchen door is an apt metaphor for the everyday realities of disengaged Gaza-fication, which has absolved itself of responsibility for civilian governance, while maintaining effective military control. Mohamed’s reflections reiterate how disengagement and containment, and detention and discipline as intertwined in Israel’s mode of governmentality post-Oslo, and how Israel is attempting to place the occupied territories themselves under administrative detention.

Refusing to Wait

When a hunger striker declares, “I do not want to wait,” in response to their administrative detention, as Mohamed and hundreds of other Palestinian detainees have since 2011, such a refusal challenges the larger temporal politics of disengagement in Israel’s post-Oslo mode of governing. My conversations with former and recurring Palestinian prisoners, as part of my fieldwork research, iterated how hungering one’s body can also be an offering of it –in this case, against the imposition of waiting. It reconfigures how freedom from this waiting is imagined, in a similar way to the self-immolation of Tibetans refusing the imposition of Chinese citizenship. It “compels witnesses to receive and then to transform in some way” as Carol McGranahan writes (2016, p. 355).

Palestinians protesting along Gaza’s eastern border, though confronting a different face of the occupation, are also offering their bodies in an effort to forge new political terrains beyond their incarcerated lives and beyond the absence of negotiations, which the PA has evacuated. The very act of marching to Gaza’s border, to be met by snipers and mass killings, highlights the unbearable living conditions Israel’s siege has produced. But marching one’s body to a heavily militarized border over, and over, and over, using tennis rackets to bounce back teargas canisters, and sending blazing kites into the sky—all of this invites more than just desperation. It provokes a much stronger message about the possibility of imagining un-bordered lives. Speaking to the Washington Post, human rights lawyer  Noura Erakat adds:

“This resistance is not about returning to the 1947 borders, or some notion of the past, but about laying claim to a better future, in which Palestinians and their children can live in freedom and equality, rather than being subjugated as second-class citizens or worse.”

 Palestinians have been demanding the right to return since Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. Their repeated call ever since is far from rote repetition. Rather, it is constantly affirming alternative and reconfigured possibilities for the future. What does it mean to seek freedom out of the temporality of administrative detention? — To demand return in an era of Gaza-fication?

Palestinians inflect these imaginaries during their repeated march of return to bordered lands. But there are also the skies. The same skies that Israel lit up with bombing and destruction in 2008, 2012, 2014 and wars prior to this. On May 14, Israel filled these skies with tear gas that it dropped from drones. As the black clouds emerged, Palestinians returned the canisters with tennis rackets like boomerangs, deepening their call for return as one that expels militarization in the direction of Israel’s borders—which are its legacy—and imagines freedom and unbordered lives beyond them.  

Perhaps we do not yet have a vocabulary for what this kind of state-of-being looks like, of what it means to articulate a notion of “return” beyond the nation-state that reproduces the oppressive borders marchers are protesting. But the Great March of Return is leaving us with images of bodily offerings that open up a notion of return in which new alternatives of relating to time and space can be carved out, into the realm of the possible. 

[This article was originally published on Mada Masr on 24 May 2018 and was updated to include current events.]

*Note: Upon their request, the author used pseudonyms for some interviewees.

Auyero, J. (2012). Patients of the state: The politics of waiting in Argentina. Durham: Duke University Press 

Calis, I. (2017). “Routine and rupture: The everyday workings of abyssal (dis)order in the Palestinian food basket.” American Ethnologist: 44(1): 65-76.  

McGranahan, C. (2016). “Refusal and the gift of citizenship.” Cultural Anthropology. 31(3):334-341.

Sayed, H (2014). “The fictions of the ‘illegal’ occupation in the West Bank.” Oregon Review of International Law 16, no. 1 (2014) 79-126.