With the coalition government formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu easily the most ultranationalist and conservative government in Israel’s history, even the most cockeyed optimist would shrink from imagining that Oslo can still be revived, if only the right treatment were concocted.
The problem today is not that anyone but the most self-interested Israeli, Palestinian or US officials still pretends that the peace process is functioning. Rather, it’s that hardly anyone in a position of power can explain precisely when, how and especially why it died. To do so requires moving far more deeply into the dynamics of the endlessly troubled peace process than most policy-makers or commentators are willing to delve, into what I term the “quantum mechanics” underlying Oslo’s fatally flawed structures.
Israel has long claimed uniquely democratic credentials in a region besot with authoritarian regimes.
The unending occupation, the sheer chutzpah with which the Israeli government continues to expand its presence in the West Bank while sieging Gaza, the escalating protests by minorities inside the country’s 1967 borders, and the composition of the new government, all put the lie to such claims today.
Matrix of control
What’s still poorly understood by most non-Palestinians is just how deep the level of control has long been. Even if you’ve spent decades travelling through the West Bank and Gaza, the intensity of that control remains hard to grasp.
As I walked through the Jordan Valley last month near the front-line village of Fasayel, I began to understand how one reason why it’s been so difficult to explain the intensity and all-encompassing scope of Israel’s “matrix of control” over the Occupied Territories is that even its critics don’t use strong enough language to describe it.
Israel is not just an “occupier” or a “coloniser”. However democratic it may (or may not) be inside its 1967 borders, in the Occupied Territories Israel’s rule is nothing short of totalitarian.
In calling Israeli rule totalitarian, I am not arguing that the government mimics the worst policies of thought control and ideological purism practised by the 20th century’s Fascist and Communist states such as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia or Maoist China (although Israel’s constant harassment and imprisonment of Palestinian activists does reflect a desire to control how Palestinians think and act, at least publicly).
Despite the rockiness of the landscape, the geography of the West Bank can be among the most liquid on earth. It changes as one moves through it, depending on who you are – Jew or Palestinian, settler or refusnik, soldier or international.
Rather, I’m talking about a much deeper level of control, at what can only be described as the quantum level of Palestinian daily life.
To understand how it feels to live as a Palestinian today you need to think like a particle physicist, not a social scientist. Moving through the space of Israel/Palestine involves negotiating a host of forces that the average Palestinian has about as much control over as the average electron or proton does of the nuclear and quantum forces determining its path. And it’s through this near total control of the space that Israel is able, in George Orwell’s description of totalitarianism, to “control the past as well as the future”.
Israeli geographer Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) coined the “matrix of control” to describe these forces. The name evokes numerous overlapping layers of control, including the physical infrastructure of settlements and their security corridors and zones, bypass roads, closed military areas and even “nature reserves”. The matrix also includes the bureaucratic and legal/planning levels, and the use of large-scale violence and imprisonment to control people’s behaviour and movement.
With its matrix of control, Israel has achieved an unparalleled and uniquely successful synergy of “bio” and “necro”-politics, controlling life and death at most every scale of Palestinian existence. The matrix is continuously adjusted with as much care as Israel has adjusted the caloric intake of Gazans during its periodic intensifications of the Gazan siege.
Three, four and five dimensions
A look at the group of detailed maps created by ICAHD reveals upwards of two dozen parameters of control that can intersect at any given coordinate on the map. But the map is only a two dimensional representation of a multidimensional and multi-levelled reality. It’s not just various forces meeting on the ground. When you’re walking through the 97 percent of the West Bank that is in Areas B or C and thus under Israel security control, you realise that the matrix extends both under the ground you’re walking on and above your head.
Below ground, Israel controls all the water resources in the West Bank, and for 50 years has systematically taken most every possible well, stream, aquifer or other water source from Palestinians (in direct violation of international law, it must be remembered).
It also controls the airspace above Palestinians’ heads, as the constant buzz of Israeli fighter jets training overhead in the Jordan Valley, and the ubiquitous presence of drones and helicopters almost everywhere at any time, and the prohibitions on building new floors on existing structures makes clear.
In whatever direction Palestinians look or want to step or reach – left or right, forwards or backwards, above or below them – the land, air and water surrounding them is largely outside their permanent control.
Blink of an eye
But it is not just that most of their territory is out of Palestinian hands. The quantum physics of Israel’s matrix of control also has its own Heisenberg, or uncertainty principle.
In quantum mechanics this principle asserts that it is impossible to know with precision the exact state of a particle because the very act of observing it changes its state. In the same way, merely by changing their location Palestinians change the state of territory upon which they are moving.
On the one hand, despite the rockiness of the landscape, the geography of the West Bank can be among the most liquid on earth. It changes as one moves through it, depending on who you are – Jew or Palestinian, settler or refusnik, soldier or international. Spaces that seems open and free can suddenly be surrounded by military forces and closed off, declared off limits for any length of time for a variety of reasons merely because Palestinians moved into and through it or used it for grazing, water, or other normal activities.
Moreover, their very movement through the geography can change it not just for a moment, but permanently. At the same time, the uncertainty principle can also operate with a time lag. If Palestinians decide to walk through a Jordan Valley village, for example, or to plant trees on their land in the hills around Hebron or Jenin, it’s not at all uncommon for the Israeli military to issue demolition or confiscation orders a few days later.
In particular, the movement of Jews has an even more profound effect than Palestinians especially when establishing an outpost or settlement. Once land is claimed even on the flimsiest of pretexts the military usually moves in and declares a still larger area a security zone, making it impossible for Palestinians to access the land for months, years or even decades.
And so, it seems that land in Palestine can change states from liquid to solid almost instantly, freezing in place whatever Israel decides it wants frozen, from people to legal categories. The quantum physics of Palestinian geography can thus produce permanent changes not just in the three normal dimensions of space, but in the conflict’s “fourth dimension” as well, namely time.
But however many dimensions one considers, the goal remains the same: to achieve, in the words of the Palestinian-Israeli hip-hop group DAM, “Maximum Jews on maximum land; minimum Arabs on minimum land.”
There is even a fifth, economic dimension in which the physics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict operates. The neoliberal policies imposed on the Occupied Territories under Oslo have ensured that when Palestinians aren’t being displaced by Israeli settlers or bombs, they are fixed in place as objects of development, whose economic life is confined to small spaces that remain largely under Israeli control. The possibility of their becoming subjects able to shape their own destinies is, it seems, outside the laws of physics operating in the Holy Land.
It is the changeling nature of the political, physical and economic geographies of the Israeli-controlled Occupied Territories that has made it so difficult for Palestinians and their supporters internationally (including in Israel) to develop effective strategies of resistance, nevermind transcending the occupation.
With Oslo’s final demise, Palestinians don’t just need new strategies for resisting an occupation without end; what’s needed is an entirely new physics as well.
Indeed, it has long been argued that Palestinians are still waiting for their Ghandi. It might well turn out that to overcome decades of totalitarian Israeli rule, a long-dead peace process, and ineptitude, corruption and authoritarianism internally, Einstein would be a far more useful figure.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.