Palestine and the anti-politics of peace and security

In security studies, Palestinians are cast as threats to be monitored and controlled, while Israelis are the human subjects who are worthy of security.

Risky subjects

An American Muslim, a Jewish activist, and an Iraqi Christian were waiting at the Israeli border. Sounds like a rather esoteric setup to a bad joke. And to anyone who has had the pleasure of an hours-long Israeli border interrogation at the Allenby Bridge (Jisr Malak Hussein), that’s exactly what it feels like. For first timers, the border story is like an ethnographer’s arrival narrative, something of a rite of passage appraised by number of hours held. For non-VIP frequent travelers and ordinary Palestinians trying to enter their own country, it is an all too familiar humiliation.[1] For me, as a white male with an American passport married to a Palestinian, Israeli security checks provide me with a brief glimpse of what everyday mobility is like for anyone without white privilege – youth and people of color who are profiled as potential risks and frequently targeted for “random” security checks and routine frisks.

This time the wait at the Bridge was not so bad. Just a few hours of sitting around, rather than the day-long question-answer sessions to which I have become accustomed. But it was a nerve-wracking few hours to the Iraqi-American woman who, having just received her US passport, was fulfilling her life-long dream of making pilgrimage to the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. She kept asking the young Israeli soldiers passing by: “What are we waiting for? Everyone else has gone. Why are you keeping us?” The answer was always the same: “Security.” She was incredulous “Security?  Why? I’m just an old woman! I’m a Christian! I’m not even Arab – I’m Assyrian!” But to the Israeli border guards, who view the world through the colonizer’s Manichean mind-set, her Arabic name was a red flag. All of us were red flags.

Waiting at the Jisr (Photo: Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images )

Waiting at the Jisr (Photo: Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images )

This familiar situation serves as an occasion to reflect on the unique role of security discourse in shutting down discussion and debate about contentious political issues  (as was seen recently in the astounding lack of debate surrounding NSA electronic surveillance in the US). Security is the answer given when questions are not wanted. But there are important questions to be asked. Whose lives are worth securing? From whom are “we” secured against? Can security ever be achieved, and what would that look like? Or does security always, necessarily produce an affect of insecurity? These are salient questions as our lives become increasingly securitized, and at the same time, increasingly precarious. These questions are especially relevant today in Palestine as Palestinians assess the last 20 years of the Oslo Accords, and the political possibilities that lie ahead.

Oslo as security pact not peace agreement

The iconic handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin at the White House lawn on September 13, 1993 marked the culmination of a series of peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian political leadership in responding to the shared crisis of political authority that the intifada had engendered.  The symbolic gesture gave hope to Israelis that they would be relieved of the politically and morally costly business of occupation. Palestinians were hopeful that political autonomy would lead to peace, stability, and, if not immediate prosperity, at least dignified living.

In popular parlance the Oslo Accords are referred to as a “peace agreement” – but its technical title, the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, is a bit more truthful. The purpose of Oslo was to arrange for Palestinians to govern themselves so that the Israelis would not have to, while leaving the overall architecture of occupation in place, namely, Israeli military control over borders, air space, subterranean aquifers, overland passages, and other flows of goods, people, money, water and waste.


The discourse of security features prominently in the language of the accords. Article VIII establishes a strong Palestinians police force that will provide “public order and internal security” while Israel “will continue to carry the responsibility for defending against external threats, as well as the responsibility for overall security of Israelis.” In other words, while retaining military control of the territories and its borders, the occupier will devolve some policing powers to an indigenous colonial police force. Annex I of the Interim Agreement (Oslo II) signed in September of 1995, provides precise details of the size of that police force, as well as the number and type of weapons they will be equipped with, procedures for registering and regulating those weapons, and protocol on joint Israeli-Palestinian security operations. No doubt, the arrival of law and order was welcomed by Palestinians who had grown weary of the instability and uncertainly of the intifada. When the occupation encroaches on everyday life to the extent that access to food, water, and work become a struggle for survival, the political struggle for a life of freedom and justice is reduced to a desire just to live.

A hopeful reading of the Oslo Accords would suggest that the focus on technical matters, from security arrangements to water resource management, was a pragmatic approach to solving common problems and thus generating the necessary trust to address the thornier political issues at a later stage – the so-called ‘final status’ issues such as refugees and the status of Jerusalem. This is what is meant by peace process. In practice, though, cooperation on technical issues allowed Israel to preserve the status quo while pursuing its own political agenda. The Israeli public were relieved of the guilt of occupation, and the Israeli government was relieved of its burden of governing the Palestinians, while the Palestinians themselves were left with fragmented pieces of pseudo-autonomy, and an ever-shrinking physical and political landscape.

The Palestinian Authority was granted full control over the population centers of Area A, and political sovereignty, but not police powers, in Area B, while Area C, comprising more than 60% of the West Bank (including settlements, closed military zones, and ‘security corridors’) was left under Israeli military control. This fractured terrain of splintered political sovereignty was inscribed upon the landscape through a ‘matrix’ of checkpoints, watchtowers, fences, walls, and barriers regulating everyday life and mobility in Palestine.[2] This, combined with accelerated growth of illegal settlements, eventually culminated in the eruption of a second intifada. Ironically, it was the introduction of a “strong police force” by the Oslo peace process that, in part, led to the violent intensification of the second uprising. Among the first responses of the Israeli occupation was to annul the policing powers it had granted to the Palestinians through direct attacks on Palestinian police, as well as other government institutions and municipal buildings.[3] However, since the US-backed coup of the Hamas elected government in 2007, Israel once again has a willing partner in the West Bank to implement its shared security protocols.[4] In this way, through a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and security guarantees in the West Bank, Israel it has achieved the political goals of Oslo without having to reach a final agreement.


Today Palestinian police provide security and internal order by coordinating with Israelis in the capture of suspected militants, and in suppressing political protests, with ample funding form the US Department of State’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement fund for “security reform.” During the 2008 Israeli assault on Gaza, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank maintained order and control by suppressing demonstrations in Ramallah and preventing contact between demonstrators and Israeli soldiers. Their work enabled Israel to redeploy forces away from the West Bank in order to reinforce the fight in Gaza. This earned the praise of Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, former US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy entitled “Peace through Security”, Dayton remarked “the new professionalism and competency of the new Palestinian security forces guaranteed a measured and disciplined approach to the popular unrest,” so much so, in fact, that “a good portion of the Israeli army went off to Gaza from the West Bank […] That shows the kind of trust they were putting in these people now.” Here, Palestinian security is assessed by its effectiveness in aiding Israeli soldiers, raising the question, for whom are Palestinian security providing security?

Security for Whom?

As in many places, security in Israel/Palestine  functions as a relation of power in which Palestinians are cast as threats to be monitored and controlled, and Israelis are the human subjects who feel fear and pain and are thus worthy of security. The relative worth of Israeli lives over those of Palestinians, and the idea that only Israelis experience terror whereas Palestinians can only terrorize, is firmly ingrained in dominant political consciousness, and is iterated in other forms in similar political contexts. A vivid and foretelling example of this came in Sderot when the candidate Obama made an oft-quoted speech on a stage decorated with spent rocket casings, stating that “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” Exhibiting remarkable obedience to the ideology of security, in which some are marked as worthy of being secure and others marked as threats, Obama cannot imagine for one moment the very possibility that Palestinian parents too fear for the lives of their daughters and sons. Nor can he see that Palestinians parents would do anything to protect their children and defend against those trying to harm them. Only American and Israeli boys and girls have the right to be secure, and to have their lives valued and protected.

Obama in Sderot. (photo courtesy of Electronic Intifada)

Obama in Sderot. (photo David Silverman/Getty Images)

The predictable utterances of campaigning politicians aside, one need not look for a more obvious example of security culture at work than the so-called ‘separation barrier’ of ‘security fence’ that Israel has erected well within the 1967 green line. The wall achieves politically and psychologically what the Israelis attempted but failed to fully achieve through the Oslo process, namely, politically disengage from the Palestinian people, combined with full military control over Palestinian territory.[5] In this way, Palestinian “security” has allowed Israel to solve a problem that has vexed political Zionism since its inception, namely how to acquire the maximum amount of Palestinian land, while minimizing the number of Palestinians it must govern on that land. The security barrier represents an ideal balance between Israel’s paradoxical objectives of territorial sovereignty and demographic superiority. The wall, and the entire security complex within the West Bank, including the security arrangements with the Palestinians, allows Israel maximum control over the West Bank, including its aquifers, borders, tourist sites, and fertile Jordan valley land, while not having to govern any Palestinians.

Security discourse involves more than barriers, checkpoints, soldiers, and police, however. Security is at the heart of Palestinian self-governance at all levels, from the Palestinian Authority security services, to international donor-funded civil society organisations (the PA itself, of course, being one massive donor-funded project.) Palestine is one of largest recipients of international aid and donor-funded development in the world. While donor funding comes in a variety of forms and serves a variety of interests, international aid largely serves the purpose of shoring up the two-state, peace process status quo. Funding from USAID, for example, has gone from everything from road construction to “peace building” between Palestinian and Israeli children focused on practical issues such as the environment and water conservation. Road construction in Area C, however, under full Israeli control, essentially serves as direct aid to the Israeli government, relieving it of the burden of building roads for the occupied territories. Meanwhile, even seemingly benign projects such as water conservation among children and youth ignore the structural inequalities that under-gird the occupation. Educating Palestinian children how to conserve water while their counterparts live in lusciously irrigated settlements complete with swimming pools is an education in subjugation, not peace. Indeed, a variety of donor-funded projects targeting Palestinian children and youth for trauma-relief, civic participation, and entrepreneurship, all essentially have Israeli security as their core concern. Palestinian youth are problematized as the problem to be fixed, not the occupation. They must be provided with productive outlets for their pent up anger, lest that anger be released at some point in the future.

The West Bank barrier near Jerusalem - Israeli view.

The West Bank barrier near Jerusalem – Israeli view.

Re-politicizing security

Despite the limitation of international donor funding, however, Palestinian NGOs and civil society organisations use creative means to attract international support and subvert donor government priorities. For instance, aid projects aimed at psychological trauma relief become venues for educating youth about resistance, solidarity and steadfastness.[6] Likewise, a growing number of Palestinian civil society organisations such as Dalia, and rights-based groups like Badil, are developing a critical response to the humanitarian/security discourse that pervades the political context in Palestine, and keeping a focus on core rights issues include the right of return. These groups are at the forefront of articulating a new politics of peace and security, seeking answers to questions like: “what does security mean to Palestinians living under a military occupation?” and “how can we imagine other forms of mutual human solidarity beyond humanitarian aid?”

For too long, Palestinian political elites have pursued a narrow view of peace as security, while preserving their own positions in the post-Oslo order. A mobilization of Palestinian civil society organisations is needed now that brings into question the very foundations of the Oslo status quo. A broad spectrum of Palestinian NGOs, putting aside the two-state solution issue, endorsed the call for international Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, and the BDS movement has since become one of the biggest present threats to Israeli political interests. However, largely internationally focused, ordinary Palestinians have very little opportunity to engage in BDS politics themselves – Palestinians cannot boycott Israel when they live under Israeli occupation. Perhaps this same energy and spirit of unity and plurality could be put into articulating rights-based demands for true human security, including freedom of movement, freedom from imprisonment, killing and torture, freedom from gender based violence, and the right to a life of dignity. After all, the Palestinian struggle has always been about a struggle for freedom, rights, and autonomy, not merely the struggle for a state.

Sandy Marshall is a post-doctoral research associate in Geography at Durham University. His research explores the everyday political geographies of childhood and youth in Palestine. 

[1]  For an excellent unpacking of the border experience as colonial temporality see Véronique Bontemps “Le temps de traverser le pont. Pratiques et perceptions des temporalités dans les Territoires palestiniens occupies” Temporalités 15 (2012).

[2] Jeff Halper, “The Key to Peace: Dismantling the Matrix of Control,” (2001),

[3] GregoryDerek Gregory, The Colonial Present (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004).

[4] David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair 2008; Sandy Marshall, “The Double-Occupation of Palestine,” Human Geography: A New Radical Journal 4, no. 1 (2011).

[5] Simon Falke, “Peace on the Fence? Israel’s Security Culture and the Separation Fence to the West Bank,” Journal of Borderlands Studies 27, no. 2 (2012).

[6] David J. Marshall, “‘All the Beautiful Things’: Trauma, Aesthetics and the Politics of Palestinian Childhood,” Space and Polity 17, no. 1 (2013).

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