Toward the end of January 2008, residents of Gaza living under a suffocating Israeli blockade managed to punch holes in the wall separating Gaza from Egypt. For a few days, thousands of Gazans were able to cross into Egypt and purchase needed supplies before Egyptian officials, bowing to US and Israeli pressure, moved to refortify the border.

The prison-break metaphors flew fast and furious to describe Gazans’ rush into the breaches, and little wonder: In the coastal strip, Israel’s policy of spatial confinement of Palestinians has reached its apotheosis. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the high point of the “peace process” begun at Oslo in 1993, Israel began to cut off access to its internal job market for the Gazans who had long supplied a substantial portion of the cheap Palestinian labor upon which the Israeli economy once relied. Israeli authorities severely restricted the number of work permits granted to Gazans and put up a fence around the strip, nominally for security reasons, but also to stop “infiltration” of permit-less workers. Those lucky few who got passes crossed into Israel through imposing new terminals where they could be kept under stricter surveillance than at open-air checkpoints. Following the outbreak of the second intifada in the fall of 2000, the closure of Gaza tightened still further, with Israel periodically blocking the inward flow of people, goods and money as well, and since Israeli soldiers and settlers departed the strip in 2005, the closure has more often than not been total. “Open-air prison” became a trendy media descriptor for Gaza when Israel and its allies shut off the flow of aid dollars entirely after Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006, but Palestinians had been using the term for years. Darryl Li notes that Gaza, which constitutes a mere 1.4 percent of British Mandate Palestine, now holds one quarter of all Palestinians living under Israeli control. With this in mind, he argues that Gaza illustrates how the “operational mantra” of Zionist settler-colonialism (“maximum land, minimum Arabs”) has generated its own corollary: “maximum Arabs on minimum land.”

Indeed, spatial confinement has been an Israeli strategy for dealing with the Palestinians since the foundation of the Jewish state. From 1948-1966, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel lived under military rule, with Israeli authorities frequently declaring their towns “closed military zones,” as in the West Bank today. Before the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Oslo years, many refugee camps in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were surrounded by fences and entered through a narrow turnstile. And, of course, at any given moment upwards of 10,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails on both sides of the 1967 Green Line.

The trajectory of Israel’s occupation has extended these carceral arrangements from camps and jails to the Palestinian population as a whole through roadblocks, checkpoints, curfews and closure. Israeli anthropologist Jeff Halper famously coined the term “matrix of control” to describe the “interlocking series of mechanisms, only a few of which require physical occupation of territory, that allow Israel to control every aspect of Palestinian life in the occupied territories.”  This matrix includes the “web of bureaucracy” within which the lives of Palestinians are circumscribed. After Ariel Sharon came to power in 2001, the Israeli system of spatial regulation became starkly visible in the wall that shadows the Green Line, snaking into the West Bank to effect a unilateral annexation of the territory occupied by Israeli colonies.

Reading recent accounts of life under the occupation, however, one gets the sense that Palestinians are caught in a system of confinement that is temporal as well as spatial. This temporal confinement is dual. On the one hand, Palestinians suffer through agonizing periods of waiting: at roadblocks on their way to school and work; in long lines at heavily fortified checkpoints; in their homes under curfew; and in the bureaucratic maze that controls access to permits and other important documents. On the other hand, they are subject to irregular and sudden periods of hyper-accelerated terror: when the army comes pounding at the door; when the rocket or missile hits their neighborhood; or when they frantically try to bring in the olive harvest only to be attacked by vigilante Israeli colonists.

The work of theorist Paul Virilio offers a novel way to conceptualize Palestinian confinement through time. Virilio has explored the concept of “dromocracy” (from the Greek dromos, or race) to describe the role that speed and acceleration play in the exercise of power and, indeed, in the transformation of the very idea of power. Dromocracy can refer to the rule of the fastest (the one who possesses the weapon of superior speed) or to the rule of speed itself (a form of power that can evade human control). In both of these senses, Palestine is a case of dromocracy in action. Just as Israel exercises dominion over space, and constructs iron cages of bureaucracy, it also wields the rule of speed—even as it is increasingly ruled, as we all are, by a generalized logic of acceleration that produces its own forms of confinement.

Rule of the Fastest

Official Israeli defense policy has always been based on the fear of a lightning-quick attack by its Arab neighbors, who, the argument runs, could overrun a country whose sheer smallness reduces reaction time to a matter of seconds. Yet it is Israel, time and again, that has demonstrated its possession of the weapon of speed, whether in the 1967 war or in any of its subsequent “preemptive” strikes. Much like the US, Israel has achieved military supremacy through mastery of the skies. In Palestine (or Lebanon), an Israeli F-16 fighter jet or helicopter gunship can appear as if out of nowhere, bringing intimidation in the form of a sonic boom or death in the form of a missile strike. Israeli freedom of action can be accelerated further, and also miniaturized, through the use of booby-trapped cell phones that kill in the time it takes to say hello.

Such tactics illustrate the organic relationships among technology, acceleration, violence and confinement. Seen from one perspective, satellite technology “opens” the world by enabling the rapid circulation and exchange of information; seen from another, it envelops the world and makes everyone a potential target of war waged from orbital space. Google Earth is, in this sense, the public face of post-modern war in the same way that cheap nuclear energy to power consumer appliances was the public face of the age of superpower “mutually assured destruction.” The difference is that, this time around, there is no time to “duck and cover.”

The architect Eyal Weizman coined the phrase “politics of verticality” to describe the three-dimensional system of Israeli control over the Palestinian territories. This system includes roads and tunnels, hilltop settlements, control over underground aquifers and sewage systems, as well as dominance of the air. Even if the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” miraculously bears fruit, this “politics of verticality” will have already transformed not only the facts on the ground, but also the facts above and below the ground.

Yet to stop here is to miss a fourth dimension of Israeli control—the dromocratic dimension. As Virilio dryly notes, inattention to the centrality of speed handicaps understanding of power in general: “People say, ‘You are too rich,’ but no one ever says, ‘You are too fast.’ But they’re related. There is a violence in wealth that has been understood: Not so with speed.…. The one who goes the fastest possesses the ability to collect taxes, the ability to conquer, and through that to inherit the right of exploiting society.” The connection between wealth and speed is evident in the neoliberal structures of contemporary global capitalism. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on “freeing” the flow of capital is dromocratic to the core, rewarding the merchants of speed while encouraging policies (such as privatization and social militarization) that produce involuntary migration, mass incarceration, declines in real wages and other forms of structural violence.

While often less visible than the direct impact of Israeli violence, the effects of neoliberalism in Palestine have been profound. Under the influence of World Bank models outlined in reports such as 1993’s Developing the Occupied Territories, the leaders of Israel and the PA have consistently pursued a path that yokes the “peace process” to a deeper process of neoliberal restructuring. This transformation has involved the replacement of Palestinian labor in Israel with migrant workers from Asia and Eastern Europe, the rebranding of Israel as a global leader in the high-tech and “homeland security” sectors and the privatization of basic services for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. As Andy Clarno notes, neoliberalization has ensured “that the PA remains in debt and therefore subject to external pressure for political reform and structural adjustment,” while the elimination of cheap Palestinian labor “has facilitated the emergence of Israel’s new governmental strategy of separation and enclosure.”

In short, possession of the weapon of speed and its related economic advantages allows Israel to move rapidly in transforming the objective geopolitical situation, while shrinking the existential space in which Palestinians operate and enabling continued Israeli domination of Palestine’s economy. Shimon Naveh, a retired brigadier general who founded the Israeli army’s Operational Theory Research Institute, openly acknowledges the techno-logic behind this policy. “The main idea,” he confirms, “is that we can see and do what we please.” Naveh is a key figure in what has been termed a revolution—though not an uncontested one—in Israeli military thought. In their response to the second intifada, Naveh and his institute drew upon elements of French philosophy and architectural theory, including Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s distinction between “smooth” and “striated” space, to help the Israeli army see and understand the space of war in new ways. The influence of Naveh’s approach is reflected in the particular Israeli strategies employed in the army’s 2002 assault on Nablus. In a broader sense, however, this theoretical orientation can be used to explain the emerging spatial dynamics of Israel’s ever changing occupation itself. With bypass roads, tunnels and the wall, Israel allows settlers “smooth” access to Israel proper unimpeded by Palestinian traffic and, indeed, virtually unencumbered by the sight of anything Palestinian. Residents of Beitar Illit, for example, can travel in a loop from West Jerusalem to their West Bank settlement and back again without knowing they have crossed the Green Line, even though they literally pass underneath the densely populated Palestinian town of Bayt Jala. The wall hugging the line of the road keeps the Palestinians out—and out of view.

But the wall is simply the most visible of a wide array of measures through which Palestinian bodies are excluded, scanned, identified and assassinated. Journalist Naomi Klein has foregrounded other examples, including the Suspect Detection Systems Cogito 1002, which uses “biofeedback” technology to identify “suspect” travelers, and the Elbit Hermes 450 and 900 unmanned drones used to facilitate Israeli attacks on Gaza.  Armed with both high-tech weaponry and the dizzying language of French theory, Weizman argues, the IDF is sending a chilling message to the Palestinian population: “You will never even understand that which kills you.” Moreover, as Klein points out, Israel’s success in the high-tech warfare market has global implications, with technologies “field-tested” on Palestinians now being used along the US-Mexico border and elsewhere.

Hand on the Throttle

Dromocracy may also be seen in the rapid tank invasions that reoccupied major West Bank towns in 2002, the ground operations in Gaza in 2006 and the regular, smaller-scale Israeli army incursions into Palestinian areas throughout the period of the occupation and the struggle to end it. As the fastest, the party with the artillery and mechanized armor, Israel has the initiative in maneuvers to occupy ground. More to the point, the armament of speed gives Israel the ability to regulate the pace of daily life in the battlespace. While this ability is hardly limitless, well-chosen maneuvers have an undoubted demonstration effect. Israel acts, at times of its own choosing, while Palestinians are made to wait…and wait…and wait.

Checkpoints are the classic example, but one might also cite Saverio Costanzo’s 2004 film Private, which chronicles in claustrophobic detail the occupation of a middle-class Palestinian home by Israeli soldiers. Seeking to use the house as a lookout, the soldiers take over the top floor, forcing the family of seven to spend long nights locked inside a single room. The film’s brooding, often agonizing depiction of the family’s determined attempt to go about their daily lives—getting ready for school, preparing and eating meals, building a greenhouse, visiting with friends, doing homework—is repeatedly interrupted by bursts of chaotic violence as the young soldiers, mostly bored but always on the edge of exploding, suddenly arrive to exert control over the situation. Meanwhile, the oldest daughter surreptitiously makes repeated forays upstairs, hiding in a closet to spy on the soldiers as they watch soccer matches, tease each other and play music to pass the time.

Costanzo’s film, like the intolerable situation it allegorizes, shows that there are many ways to confine people. It is not just speed that produces confinement; rather, the one whose hand is on the throttle, and who has the option of speeding things up or slowing things down at will, is the one who controls confinement. Virilio uses an ancient Egyptian image to illustrate this point, noting that the pharaoh is often pictured with a whip in one hand and a hook in the other. The former is designed to accelerate the chariot, the latter to slow it down by pulling on the reins.

The Speed Trap

Acceleration is a complex social phenomenon, making it difficult to develop strategies for pursuing justice in Palestine. Outside parties attempting to assist the “peace process,” for example, have a tendency to focus on traditional questions of borders and geopolitical sovereignty—lines on a map. President Bill Clinton did bring the third dimension explicitly into the discussion when trying to negotiate the diplomatic minefield of Jerusalem’s Old City during the Camp David talks in July 2000. He proposed a vertical division of sovereignty, with the Palestinians controlling the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif itself (with the exception of the Western Wall) and Israel controlling the space above and below in a prime manifestation of Weizman’s “politics of verticality.” Even here, however, the dromocratic dimension of power remains hidden.

No discussion of dromocracy would be complete without an acknowledgment that speed often operates as a kind of semi-autonomous force in politics. As tempting as it may be to view speed as simply another weapon in the overwhelming arsenal of the powerful, Virilio reminds us that as technology accelerates, human control over it becomes increasingly illusory. The SDS Cogito 1002, tested in the West Bank, is described without irony on the company’s website as “a fully automated system not requiring human control and/or operation.” Much like war, which has a tendency to spin out of control, speed can entice one into a trap: We believe that we are driving the car, but the reverse is equally true. The history of modern warfare is a history of steady acceleration that confirms this observation. The use of computerized controls has taken this process down to the millisecond, threatening to remove the element of human reflection from the equation altogether.

Virilio’s notion of the “gray ecology” comes into play here as a specific outcome of the acceleration of violence. In explaining this concept, he quotes Paul Morand: “Speed destroys color: When a gyroscope is spinning fast everything goes gray.” The “gray ecology” hints at the psychological disorientation produced in those who are on the receiving end of hyper-accelerated violence, but also at the moral disorientation produced in those who deliver it.

With their decision to adopt the morally indefensible tactic of suicide bombing during the last 15 years, Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have undoubtedly played a role in the process of acceleration. Suicide bombing in Palestine engages the Israeli state on the level of dromos. While it is certainly true that the human body is no match in speed for an F-16, it is also true that, from the perspective of the victim, the actions of both are equally sudden and dromocratic. The Academy Award-nominated film Paradise Now portrays this perfectly: The passengers on the bus about to be blown up have no more time to react than do the residents of Gaza have when an Israeli missile slams through the side of their building.

Neither terrorism nor the official violence to which it is responding seems to be able to resist the deadly logic of acceleration. The end result is that civilians everywhere are subject to the tyranny of speed and, by extension, to the tyranny of confinement. If Israelis and Palestinians share anything, it is the experience of confinement. Israeli settlement colonies are closely guarded and confined zones that have been militarized through their integration into the national security apparatus. From their carefully selected location and design to the architecture of the houses, these quasi-fortresses are the ideal expression of a colonizing impulse that seeks to marginalize Palestinians, but does so by enticing Israeli Jews into what Weizman calls “cul-de-sac envelopes” masquerading as ideal locations for the spiritual-national “regeneration of the soul.” Even the network of bypass roads designed to move settlers quickly to their jobs inside Israel is double-edged, for the speed of the roads—undoubtedly a selling point for potential residents—simply makes a small territory seem even smaller. Living in what is already a garrison society in an ideological sense, these Israelis may find that their superior technology brings only further claustrophobia. Not for nothing did the prominent Israeli dissident Michel Warschawski use the metaphor of an “open tomb” in the title of his 2004 reflections upon Israeli society.

Despite important differences in terms of freedom of movement, then, it is clear that Israeli Jews and Palestinians are all victims of an acceleration machine that seems incapable of producing anything more than destruction, isolation and lost hope. This tragic fact suggests that the struggle against dromocracy may be organically related to the struggle against the ongoing effects of settler-colonialism. In this sense, the most important global significance of Palestine may be that it points us toward one of the central (but unacknowledged) strategic questions of our time: If Marxism helped to politicize wealth, and feminism helped to politicize identity, how will it be possible to politicize speed—so as to resist its rule?

How to cite this article:

John Collins "Dromocratic Palestine," Middle East Report 248 (Fall 2008).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This