Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Occupation as Actor

The oppressed and the oppressors are often understood as categories of people. The oppressed are always embodied. Their suffering can be seen, quantified, and analyzed. Oppressors are often embodied as well. Their abuses of power can be seen, quantified, and critiqued.

Spending time in the occupied Palestinian territories one can immediately identify the oppressed and oppressor in clear terms. Oppressors are easily identified by their their large weapons, their disregard for international law, their position of power and impunity, and their refusal to the respect the lives of a particular ethnic group.

Yet recently, I have been seeing how oppressors can be disembodied, abstract actors. I recognized this phenomenon as I have heard Palestinians refer to 'the occupation' as an actor in situations. An example is the recent electricity situation in At-Tuwani.

I recently asked a village leader what the status was on the electricity situation. “Really, Sam, it's a big problem. They will tell the media and Tony Blair's office that it's no problem. But then when we start working on the power lines the occupation will tell us to stop working, that the electricity is forbidden.”

One would usually expect to see soldiers, settlers, police, border police, or the Israeli government where 'the occupation' sits in the previous sentence. I am sure that a real person came to tell the village that working on the electricity was forbidden. Nonetheless, the point remains that the disembodied actor called the occupation is operating in some real sense. It is being used in this case because the person who said the electrical work is forbidden will probably never be seen again. If the work continues, another face of the occupation will appear and issue orders that came from a mysterious party called the occupation.

Tony Blair's office said that the Israeli District Coordinating Office (DCO), which is responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs in Area C, has given permission for the work to continue. Yet, when the work begins, the occupation says no.

The occupation is being used by this Palestinian man as a means of describing the impossibility of navigating the network of overlapping oppressors in the system. The DCO might issue a stop work order, which comes from an unknown source somewhere in the Israeli government. Then the stop work order will be implemented by Israeli soldiers or Israeli police, whose faces are constantly changing. Adding to the quagmire, a Palestinian may get a different answer to the lawfulness of the electricity depending on who they ask. It's an overblown good cop – bad cop scenario in which the individual actors are representatives of the occupation.

The occupation is an actor amidst the array of actors under the umbrella of the occupation. The oppressors may be police, soldiers, border police, government officials, settlers, or the occupation. The occupation as an actor is effective because no embodied individual can be held accountable. Individuals are continually unaccountable for their actions, because they are pawns taking direction from the occupation; in some cases they are even figures claiming to disagree with the character or mandate of the occupation. Palestinians are able to face only temporary and varying faces of the occupation, but never the occupation itself.

Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath speaks to this disembodied oppressor with individuals acting out the oppression (emphasis mine):

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars and the felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust.

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, t
he owner man said, The bank - or the Company - needs - wants - insists - must have - as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained. You know the land is poor. You've scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.

The squatters nodded - they knew, God knew. If they could just rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land.

Well, it's too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger then they were. A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that. Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank.

But - you see, a bank or a company can't do that, because those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits: they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.

The squatting men raised their eyes to understand. Can’t we just hang on? Maybe the next year will be a good year. God knows how much cotton next year. And with all the wars – God knows what price cotton will bring. Don’t they make explosives out of cotton? And uniforms? Get enough wars and cotton’ll hit the ceiling. Next year maybe. They looked up questioningly.

We can’t depend on it. The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.

The squatting men looked down again. What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop – we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d be ashamed to go to meetings.

And at last the owner men came to the point. The tenant system won’t work any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it.
We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster…You’ll have to get off the land. The plows’ll go through the dooryard…We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men,

No, you’re wrong – quite wrong there.
The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

Steinbeck's words are profound, but it must be emphasized that the people who speak for the occupation cannot be absolved from responsibility for their participation in the occupation, and thus their participation in oppression. The occupation is something more than soldiers, settlers, and politicians; although it is in fact comprised of those characters. The occupation was created by humans and is something that can, in fact, be dismantled by humans. In fact, it will be dismantled. Inshallah

4 comments:

David said...

Sam, this is a great post! Thank you.

During my time with Sabeel I had a lot of chances to reflect on the idea of the Occupation as something like a demon, possessing individuals and making them do things that nobody would suspect them to be capable of doing.

In particular, the story of the demon possessed man in Mark 5 stuck with me. When asked the name of the demons possessing him, the man says "Legion," the name of the occupying Roman army. During my training, one of our trainers had us read this parable and remarked that this would be something like an Iraqi saying "the 101st Airborne Division" when asked to name the demon possessing him.

I think it was Walter Wink who undertook the most in-depth examination of this passage, pointing out that the pigs driven into the lake were most likely being raised to feed to Roman army, and the importance of the man's neighbors only being afraid AFTER he was healed.

Wink also writes extensively on the idea of "the powers that be" in the Bible and how they can be interpreted as the internal character of external structures--much like the Occupation comes to represent not just the individuals or even the structures and power relationships that make it up, but a disembodied being--able to possess and to embody itself when necessary.


As an aside on the Grapes of Wrath reference, did you know that in the original Grapes of Wrath movie, when bulldozers come to demolish the farmhouses, they're Caterpillar bulldozers, and one of the onlookers yells "Here comes the CATs!!"?

Haunting echoes, everywhere.

Samuel Nichols said...

David. Thanks for the reply man. Sorry I didn't see it earlier, I gotta get a program or something that tells me when there are replies. Anyway, I am glad you liked the post, it was exciting and therapeutic for me to think through some of these things. Also, thanks for the Wink reminder, I knew there were echoes of some thinkers in the post, but I couldn't name any other than William Cavanaugh, but Walter Wink certainly as well. Thanks, man, keep up the good work.

Watch out for those CATs.

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