Time, like space, is critical to Israel’s colonial rule of Palestine.
“They are stealing our time. Everything takes so long!” Muna lamented, referring to the Israeli system of permits and checkpoints that governs daily mobility in the West Bank and makes the normally short trip from Ramallah to Jerusalem a nightmare of delays. She had just been granted a one-day permit to travel those six miles, a requirement for West Bank Palestinians who want to enter Jerusalem. Obtaining such a pass requires advance preparation: a trip to the Palestinian office that coordinates with the Israeli office that confers travel documents. A wait of days or weeks then ensues, followed by another trip to pick up a permit that allows entry into the city for a delimited period of time. On top of such preparation, the actual trip, which in the past would take about 15 minutes, now takes anywhere from one to two hours, given the expanded network of roadblocks and checkpoints along nearly every route in the West Bank.
In view of such new daily impediments, it is not surprising that Palestinians routinely share the stories of their travel woes. Twenty-year old Ziad’s Kafkaesque narrative of his attempt to visit his family in Jenin, once a two and half hour trip from Ramallah, offers a glimpse into the intrusive and capricious restrictions on Palestinian mobility:
On Friday, I left Ramallah around 7:30 am. Stopped at a checkpoint, I was told to go back. I asked, “Why?” The soldier said, “There is a curfew in Jenin and since you are from Jenin, you are under curfew wherever you may be.” I tried waiting at the checkpoint to find a taxi to take me to Nablus. The soldier yelled at me, “Go away!” Finally, I got a taxi to Nablus and I had to go through a checkpoint I had already passed going the other way. The soldiers saw me returning and laughed at me. They knew I would be turned back at that checkpoint. I was so angry! I went to Nablus but could not find a taxi to Jenin. People told me to go to the Bayt Iba checkpoint in the north. There, people were lined up single file to cross through the electronically controlled metal turnstile. I was stuck in there for five minutes. The soldiers control it with a button and sometimes they lock people in for the fun of it. When I exited the soldier smiled and said, “Shalom.” He took my identity card, put it in a tray, pushed it toward me and said, “Take it.” He did not want to hand it to me. After Bayt Iba, I failed to find a taxi to Jenin. I didn’t want to return to Nablus and I didn’t want to go through the Bayt Iba checkpoint again so I found a taxi to take me back to Ramallah…. One more checkpoint—the soldier said I can’t go to Ramallah because I am from Jenin. I told him I work there and he finally let me go. I got back to Ramallah around midnight.
Ziad’s story is one of mobility constrained and denied, of prolonged waiting and perpetual delays. Time, like space, has been critical to colonial rule in Palestine. Time is sharply contoured by an interlinking repertoire of mechanisms of control over the subject population. The direct corollary of Israeli freedom of movement and expansion through space and control of time is that Palestinian space shrinks, time slows and mobility is constricted. Palestinians wait at checkpoints for hours before being allowed to pass with no explanation as to why they are being delayed. Soldiers take their identity cards and simply walk away.
Palestinians and Israelis occupy different zones defined by walls, bypass roads, permit systems and checkpoints. Hierarchy is thus written in both time and space. Israeli settlers speed to their destinations along well-groomed bypass roads. No checkpoints or permits for them! For Palestinians to go nearly anywhere requires moving through an obstacle course of checkpoints and a multitude of closed roads. Checkpoints have become signposts on the landscape that guide Palestinians’ spatial cognition. When a bus driver asks a woman boarding the bus where she is going, she replies, “I am getting off just before the checkpoint in Beit Hanina.”
Moreover, time itself is increasingly clocked by checkpoints and inevitable waits of unpredictable duration. One refrain heard from Palestinians about passage through checkpoints is: “It all depends on the mood of the soldiers.” Once Palestinian vehicles are halted, usually after being made to wait before approaching the checkpoint, the young soldiers continue to talk, play around and flirt. Rarely do they board immediately—they continue whatever they were doing and then saunter over, all the while continuing their conversations or flirtations for at least several minutes. The only discernible logic to these checkpoint encounters is the calibrated chaos that enables the expropriation of land and water, the expansion of settlements and the immiseration of daily life for Palestinians. As Israelis move through time and space with choice and ease, Palestinians’ own right to determine their mobility is thus severely compromised and their experience of time slows to a crawl.
In general, colonial regimes tend to fashion the native as occupying a different, timeless and motionless zone, distinct from the settlers’ modernity and civilization—what anthropologist Johannes Fabian in his book Time and the Other (1983) referred to as the “allochronic.” In the Zionist imagination and often in the media, space and time are telescoped to draw a direct line from biblical time to the present. Nearly 3,000 years of local non-Jewish history and presence magically disappear to make way for assertions of a sacred linkage between past and present that endows some (Jews) with rights and the privileges of citizenship. If the events of 1948 are narrated by Palestinians as a veritable catastrophe (nakba)—a moment of radical rupture and a trope for ongoing suffering—for Israelis 1948 serves as a temporal marker of a long-desired restoration and renewal. Israel and its supporters further gloss 1948 via the lens of statehood and even attractiveness: “Israel: Still Sexy at 60” was the self-described “marketing slogan” used at the celebration of 1948 by a Georgetown University student group. And what is true of 1948 is true of 1967 as well. The “reunification” of Jerusalem in the course of the 1967 war is jubilantly cheered by Israeli Jews on an annual basis.
In the meantime, as talk of negotiations proceeds slowly, bulldozers are at work every day building roads and settlements in and around Jerusalem. When the occupation began in 1967, settlements were cast as “temporary” but then became facts on the ground. The $3 billion “separation barrier,” a complex of fences and 25-foot cement walls destined to be 700 miles long, has been referred to as “temporary” as well. Negotiators for Israel and its US ally have consistently deployed a strategy of delay premised on present necessity: They may assert readiness to negotiate on mundane current issues while relegating to “later” the critical “final status” issues. Negotiations therefore focus on the short-term exigencies of checkpoints and mobility rather than the long-term questions of borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and resources, putting the Palestinians politically in a state of perpetual beginnings. In other words, the events of 1948 and 1967—the nakba and the occupation—are treated as faits accomplis.
Time has thus become another commodity, like land and water, which Israel expropriates from the population in the occupied Palestinian territories. In the wake of the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, native time was appropriated for the extraction of labor. Since then, Israel has weaned itself from Palestinian labor by turning to the global labor market, but has continued to steal Palestinian time through myriad tactics of enforced waiting. The temporal dimension in the final stage of colonization of Palestine is apparent. Economic strangulation and immiseration are intended to create a stream of migrants—a sort of slow-motion ethnic cleansing—in contrast to the fast-paced military operations of 1948 and 1967 that engendered mass exodus of refugees. The third phase of colonization is difficult to name or label because there is not one discrete or identifiable moment in time as in the momentous years of the past. It is a continuous process, a relentless march of settlements, of dispossession and displacement. For Palestinians, this is the larger meaning of nakba.
_Julie Peteet is the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Louisville. She is the author of Landscapes of Hope, Landscapes of Despair: Place and Identity in a Palestinian Camp.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Middle East Report,www.merip.org.