Concrete and Livability in Occupied Palestine

By Kali Rubaii, University of California, Santa Cruz §

Portland Cement extracts the enduring time of rocks and mobilizes it to build quickly. Through heat, rock[1] is bound with metals and synthetic chemicals– calcium, silica, aluminum, fly ash, lime. Mixed with water, it becomes concrete and clings to fingers, shovels, jeans. It is rock, transformed into a viscous fluid and again transformed to solid. Drying over a period of decades, it cracks and crumbles.

Its production is toxic, sending carcinogenic dust into the air, and sludge into rivers. Concrete is a life inhibitor, inhabiting space so that other things cannot. Only one species of lichen can grow on concrete surfaces, and water does not seep through. Not only does it threaten biological diversity, but as a technology of empire, it also displaces life-ways and culturally specific bodies. But concrete is an also an agentive being, with a toxic liveliness that impinges on the arrangements of multispecies sociality. It paves a ground for thinking through the convergence of anti-colonial and eco-critical projects (Menozzi 2014).

Is the struggle against settler colonialism about keeping particular bodies in particular places? Or is it about keeping indigenous lifeways alive? In occupied Palestine, concrete clings to the thread of imperial domination, even as it is a national symbol, establishing contemporary “facts on the ground” upon which the future of statehood may be established or defeated (El-Haj 2001, Lambert 2013, Graham 2002, Mrazek 2002).[2] Concrete simultaneously erases indigenous ecological arrangements among livestock, crops, paths, roads, rocks and humans.

Palestinians displaced by the settlement, visible as concrete structures in the background
Palestinians displaced by the settlement, visible as concrete structures in the background. Photo by Kali Rubaii.

Al Aqaba is a Palestinian village that sits at the lip of the Jordan Valley, where I lived and conducted fieldwork, at intervals between 2011 and 2016. The villagers are farmers, goat herders, and schoolteachers, whose homes and animal shelters are constantly demolished: Israeli army bulldozers roll in unexpectedly, knocking down walls, cracking foundations, and uprooting roads.

Aqaba Village Home, Outskirts. Photo by Kali Rubaii.
Aqaba Village Home, Outskirts. Photo by Kali Rubaii.

The Al Aqaba village council submits town plans to their occupier. The plans are never approved, but returned with recommendations to further concentrate the buildings. The goal, according to the nonprofit Regavim[3] that advocates the demolition of Palestinian homes, is to concentrate and detach people from their own land, to move them into tight enclaves, and eventually, out of the way. Asher Rosalite, the man in charge of administering the slow demolition of Al Aqaba, showed me a map of the village: “These [concrete homes] are in the way. These [tents and tin dwellings] are not permanent, so we don’t care [about them].”  He explains that his priority is to demolish the concrete homes surrounding the village center, since they appear on aerial photographs “as if they are meant to stay forever” and thus interfere with this concentration process.

Palestinian concrete is demolished, registering Palestinian tents and rubble as “impermanent” on “empty land.” Simultaneously, Israeli concrete keeps going up in Jewish-only settlements, registering as indisputable “facts” of Israeli rights to build. In both processes, concrete is a sign of national permanence. Villagers who can afford it rebuild demolished dwellings with concrete.[4] The more concrete Al Aqaba can erect, the more “permanent” the village is.[5]

Map of Planned Demolitions Targeting Outskirt Dwellings. Photo by Kali Rubaii.
Map of Planned Demolitions Targeting Outskirt Dwellings. Photo by Kali Rubaii.

In Palestine, concrete is “dual-use” and indiscriminate: used by the Israeli civil administration to build Jewish-only settlements and bunkers, by the United Nations to build partial structures for refugees, and by steadfast resistors in Palestinian villages to rebuild their demolished homes. It reproduces and proliferates regardless of who uses it, which is why the Nesher Cement factory bags its ready-mix cement in two colors, selling red bags to Israeli distributors and green to the Palestine Authority and Palestinian distributors.[6] Nesher may be “committed to building the State of Israel,” but the company is a for-profit corporation and recently with the French multinational, La Farge.[7]

Clinker, cooked rock, waiting to be ground up at Nesher Cement. Photo by Kali Rubaii.
Clinker, cooked rock, waiting to be ground up at Nesher Cement. Photo by Kali Rubaii.

When I ask him about the dilemmas presented by a stack of green cement bags with an eagle symbol, Al Aqaba’s mayor shrugs. Nesher: Building the State of Israel. While Israeli settlers have not yet moved into Al Aqaba’s territory, they do encroach–regardless, the army and Nesher Cement have.

The village mayor talks about how concrete is comprised of both indigenous rock bodies and an invasive lifeway, highlighting a debate among scholars and architects on how to frame the threats to Palestinian society. For example, RIWAQ, a Palestinian restoration group, argues that stone dwellings and classic architecture are the way to Palestinian endurance, while the designers of Rawabi disagree, having constructed a massive concrete housing complex completely detached from the climate and surrounding land (Weizman 2007).[8]  Some scholars argue that settler colonialism destroys the lifeways of Palestinian multispecies landscapes (Qumseiya 1996 and 2004, Sansour 2010, Abufarha 2008), while others caution that nostalgia for rural village life posits Palestinians as noble savage (Petti 2009). As described by Hilal, Petti and Weizman, “The surface of the suburb …inscribed extensively with the signs of the petty bourgeois lifestyle that maintains it: an excess of roads and parking lots, private gardens, fences, sidewalks and tropical plants. The first ten centimeters of the urban ground surface embody most of its operational logic and also its ideology” (2009).

A Model of Rawabi. Photo by Kali Rubaii.
A Model of Rawabi. Photo by Pierre Marshall (labeled for reuse and not license limited).
Israeli Settlement. Photo by Kali Rubaii.
Israeli Settlement. Photo by Kali Rubaii.

Palestinian people are not using concrete only because they are living under occupation, but its use is accelerated by colonialism, counterinsurgency practices, and corporate opportunism.[9] It is the “operational logic” of settler colonialism that distributes concrete in spatial formations conducive to Palestinian “siege-ability,” spatial vulnerability to anthropogenic shocks (Klein 2008, Graham 2011). During the First Intifada, Palestinians resisters were immune to Israeli siege because they grew their own food in their own gardens and orchards. By the Second Intifada, it was easy for Israel to cut off food supplies and generate a siege, because enough families lived in spatial arrangements that made them dependent on food purchased from Monsanto and Siemens plantations[10] in the Jordan Valley (Sansour 2010, Hilal, Petti and Weizman 2009). It is precisely multispecies arrangements that fix the methods of political resistance (Cohen 1993).

I take seriously the argument of other anti-colonial thinkers who argue that liberal nostalgia for things like “lifeways” are a traditionalist abstraction, and that the struggle against settler colonialism is about supporting the specific political aims of specific groups of people (Coulthard 2014). Many Palestinians are doctors, lawyers and call center operators, millions of whom may one day return from all over the world, mostly from cities and suburbs. They will not all take up the tools of their ancestors and farm olive trees. Their practices of consuming industrial meat and food will continue to displace farmers and herders: whether with indigenous bodies or settler bodies, such multispecies arrangements usher and prolong the Anthropocene. Concrete does not care whether settler bodies or indigenous bodies, whether prisoners or kings, consume it. It cares about a lifeway that produces more and more of itself using concrete.

But unlike concrete, we who are concerned about the logics and effects of settler colonialism are not only interested in life-ways. We are also interested in the placement of culturally specific bodies. My colleague, Amira Sakallah, argues that if people want Utopia, they can try it on their own land. An ecologically sensitive Israeli kibbutz is still a settler enterprise, no matter how noble this thing we call “lifeways.” We are not all in this together. Some of us are under siege.

While Palestinians are being slowly concentrated into smaller and denser urban enclaves, they are also resisting this process with the same dual-use material–in rural places like Al Aqaba, people rebuild concrete structures in order to remain rural people, with their own goats and their own crops. Al Aqaba villagers participate in the question of lifeways only if they are first able to survive as a culturally specific constellation of bodies (Haas 2015).

Rebuilt Concrete Home in Al Aqaba. Photo by Kali Rubaii.
Rebuilt Concrete Home in Al Aqaba. Photo by Kali Rubaii.

Those worried about things like siege-ability argue that lives and ways beget one another, and assert that the enemy of social justice is concrete (among so many other technologies). This is why the BDS movement[11] targets multinational corporations in addition to Israeli academic, cultural, governmental and economic institutions. It is meant to oppose not only the exploitative eclipse of one people by another (“species” transfer?), but also the proliferation of “invasive species[12]” like concrete, radiation, plastics, and genetically modified crops. Such proliferation–whether it combats or promotes settler colonialism–is worthy of great scrutiny and consideration.

At the juncture of anti-colonial and eco-critical projects, is this about specific bodies being in specific places–“nationalism”? Or is it about biological communities and processes of labor–“ecology”? Concrete embodies the complexity of answering, “Both!” From the perspective of the ecologist, concrete may be hostile to life: from the perspective of the anti-colonial nationalist, concrete is life. And in Palestine, it is strangely, both. Concrete offers not an impasse but a set of productive contradictions. Valuing lifeways is not simply about the connections between species or things, but about the ability to choose the terms of how those connections are made and changed.

Mural on Concrete Wall in Al Aqaba. Photo by Kali Rubaii.
Mural on Concrete Wall in Al Aqaba. Photo by Kali Rubaii.

Works Cited
Abufarha, Nasser. 2008. “Land of Symbols: Cactus, Poppies, Orange and Olive Trees in Palestine.” Identities. 15(3): 343-368.
El-Haj, Nadia Abu. 2001. Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cohen, SE. 1993. The politics of planting: Israeli-Palestinian competition for control of land in the Jerusalem periphery. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Coulthard, Glen. 2014. Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Graham, Stephen. 2002. “Bulldozers and Bombs: The Latest Palestinian–Israeli Conflict as Asymmetric Urbicide.” Antipode. 34(4): 642-649.
Graham, Stephen. 2011. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. New York: Verso.
Graham, Stephen. Geographical Imaginations. https://geographicalimaginations.com/tag/steve-graham/
Haas, Amira. 2015. Palestinians are fighting for their lives: Israelis are fighting for the occupation. http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.6 79129
Hilal, Sandi and Alessandro Petti and Eyal Weizman. 2009. Manual of Decolonization, DAAR.
Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador.
Lambert, Léopold. 2013. Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence. DPR-Barcelona.
Menozzi, Filippo. 2014 Invasive Species and the Territorial Machine: Shifting Interfaces between Ecology and the Postcolonial. New York: Routledge.
Mrazek, Rudolf. 2002. Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sakallah, Amira. 2016. The White American Church is Irrelevant. Theology of Ferguson Project. https://medium.com/theology-of-ferguson/the-white-american-church-is-irrelevant-fa7c9de00655#.sjau15p79
Qumsiyeh, Mazim. 2004. Sharing the Land of Canaan London & Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press.
Qumsiyeh, Mazim. 1996. Mammals of the Holy Land. Texas Tech University Press.
RIWAQ: http://www.riwaq.org/
Viviene Sansour. Fair Trade Sprouting Hope in Palestinehttps://viviensansour.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/fair_world_project_publication.pdf
Vivien Sansour. Agri-Culture Palestine! https://viviensansour.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/agri-cultural%C2%A0palestine/
Weizman, Eyal. 2007. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. New York: Verso Press.


Footnotes

[1] Cement production is always local, since it is too heavy to transport and can be made (with varying chemical compositions) from rock and sand in almost any region.

[2] Israel has expanded across Palestinian territory in three main stages: 1948, 1967, and current settlement expansion. The Green Line, marked by a wide swath of land forested with Israeli pine trees, references the 1948 border. The 1967 border, marked on maps showing a contiguous West Bank and a distinct Gaza Strip, is the baseline for most current international peace negotiations, which center stopping Israeli settlement expansion into the West Bank and returning territory to the 1967s borders. “Facts on the ground” represent indisputable or infrastructure that would be costly or destructive to remove. Concrete is a material treated as “permanent” in political discourse, demonstrating both Israeli and Palestinian modernity, endurance, and statehood.

[3] Regavim is a nonprofit that petitions the Israeli court to issue demolition orders and implement more demolitions of Palestinian homes, making the argument that Palestinian homes are illegal because there is no such place as Palestine. They took me for a ride-along and to their headquarters, and shared their maps. The photograph of demolition targets in this piece is from the Regavim office.

[4] Many homes are still made of stone, others of tin or cloth, and still others are already made of concrete but are demolished repeatedly.

[5] This is probably why, after builders in Al Aqaba had made and dried concrete bricks, a small stack of them bricks were “demolished” by the Israeli army, knocked over like a tower of children’s blocks.

[6] On the front page of Nesher’s website: “Nesher Israel Cement Enterprises …supplies most of Israel’s cement needs as well as those of the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria. The company was founded in 1925 and thus realized the vision espoused by Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl in his book “Alteneuland”: “The plan for building a homeland for the Jewish people must take into consideration the founding of a Hebrew cement factory as well”. The company today constitutes a prominent force in Israeli industry with a history that is interwoven with that of the State of Israel.”

[7] La Farge is the same company that purchased many facilities in Iraq and Syria. After interviewing Kurdish herders and farmers displaced by the environmental degradation of concrete factories in Bazian district of Iraqi Kurdistan, I also interviewed a regional La Farge manager. I asked whether he felt there was a reason La Farge invested in conflict areas. His response was: “We are not war-profiteering. Concrete is part of the peace process. We bring calm to the region.”

[8] Hilal, Petter and Weizman conducted an ingenious Bethlehem-based art residency Decolonizing Architecture, and produced the Manual of Decolonization in 2009: they imagined for a series of operational steps within the settlements upon the return of Palestinian refugees: de-individualization housing units, re-establishing property parcels, and ungrounding “the petty bourgeois lifestyle (…) roads and parking lots, private gardens, fences, sidewalks and tropical plants” (DAAR, 2009).  http://www.decolonizing.ps/DA_february09.pdf

[9] This is not isolated to settler colonialism: in Baghdad, concrete was used widely, but cement was also instrumental in segregating Sunni and Shia neighborhoods using t-walls (technologies of war). T-walls generated a rapid proliferation to rural parts of Iraq, to the chagrin of my Anbari friends in Iraq who find it too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.

[10] Jordan Valley crops are numerous: tomato, watermelon, cucumber, date, potato, and many more.

[11] Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (bdsmovement.net)

[12] An invasive species is not a foreign thing that enters into an ecosystem. Rather it is a thing, foreign or not, which diminishes the quantity and diversity of life forms: an “excessiveness and repetition of the same that threatens diversity, coexistence, and survival of others” (Menozzi citing Daniel Lunny’s “Pest or Guest: the Zoology of Overabundance”).


Kali Rubaii is a PhD candidate at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research engages the questions of displacement, materiality, and the fraught ethics of war survival, particularly in Palestine and Iraq. Her dissertation, “Counterinsurgency and the Ethical Life of Material Things,” traces how the interface between farmers and counterinsurgency operatives has transformed the landscape and ethical terrain of Iraq’s Anbar province.


This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism.

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