A review of Julie Peteet, Space and Mobility in Palestine. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), 252 pp.


Space and Mobility in Palestine by Julie Peteet is a rare ethnography that offers an in-depth critical analysis of the spatio-political processes currently taking place in Palestine. This book is valuable for scholars and students from a wide range of disciplines who are interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Palestine studies and in understanding how spatio-political processes govern everyday life.

The book opens with Peteet’s encounter with Ahmad, a Palestinian from the village of Bil’in, whose life story encapsulates the history and contemporary reality of colonized Palestine. Ahmad’s restricted mobility in the territory of Israel\Palestine, the history of his family as subjects of a colonial project, the unclear future of his land and his exposure to routine violence, all movingly illustrate Peteet’s main theoretical contribution to the contemporary study of Palestine: showing how the violent territorial expansion of Israeli settler-colonialism has developed mobility regimes that govern and restrict Palestinian movement through space.

Space and Mobility in Palestine shares many concerns found in other important books about Israel’s occupation and the colonial project in the West Bank. These include Neve Gordon’s seminal book Israel’s Occupation (2008), which offers a Foucauldian political, historical and economic analysis of Israel’s occupation; Normalizing Occupation (2017), edited by Marco Allegra, Ariel Handel and Erez Maggor, which provides a framework for understanding the process of “normalization” of colonization in the West Bank, highlighting the transformation of the landscape, the patterns of relationships shared by the region’s residents and the lasting effects of Israel’s settlement policy; and The ABC of the OPT (2018), edited by Orna Ben-Naftali, Michael Sfrad and Hedi Viterbo, a lexicon of Israeli control over the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which describes the ways in which international and domestic laws are implicated in the multitude of measures taken by the Israeli regime to establish and maintain its control over the Occupied Palestinian Territories.[1]

Peteet’s book, however, takes a different methodological and theoretical path. Rather than focusing on Israel’s legal, policy or military apparatuses of occupation, she analyses the effect of Israel’s colonization on Palestinians. She offers a micro-study of Palestinian mobility and everyday life as a “site of particular configurations of power, identities and meaning in a modern settler-colonial context” (2).


Regimes of Spatial Domination 

The book provides a unique opportunity to study the production of colonial territory at a specific historical moment: 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It critically studies and evaluates the history, politics and spatial dynamics of the West Bank since 1967 and questions not only the ‘top-down’ production of space, such as the use of planning, infrastructure, and legal action (chapters 2 and 3), but also the everyday responses of Palestinians and activists (chapter 5). Each chapter focuses on a specific topic—space, surveillance, mobility and time—but Peteet deconstructs the vocabulary of power throughout the book. She exposes the settler colonial logic that stands behind the apparent neutral terminology of Israeli rule, such as “security” (chapter 1), “demographic balance” (chapter 2) or “risk” (chapter 3).

Peteet’s historical and political analysis, importantly, links the settler colonial project of the1948 war and the establishment of the state of Israel, to the spatial turning point of June 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As she does with Israel’s initial settler-colonial processes, Peteet examines two complementary strategies implemented by Israel to relocate borders and boundaries, shift populations and reshape the occupied territories: the construction of a massive outer ring of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Both are referred to as colonies by Peteet—colonies that currently house over 700,000 people and serve to constrict all Palestinian development. Other Israeli policies, such as house demolitions, the prevention of immigration and control over land further restrict Palestinian development.

As a scholar dealing with the politics of space in general and Israel\Palestine in particular, I find this book important. It discusses the complex macro geopolitics of the West Bank and the influence of military power in the form of the permit regime and checkpoints (chapters 2 and 3) and the weaponization of spatial planning and infrastructure, such as the Separation Wall and the differentiated road systems (chapters 2 and 4). Looking at spatio-political processes in the West Bank through the lenses of mobility, space and time reveals important insights. Beyond the unequal distribution of services, roads and other infrastructure, colonization has dramatically changed the cognitive map of the territory. For Palestinians, the fragmentation of space caused by segregated road systems, colonies, checkpoints, and the Separation Wall, creates a severed time\space reality. For Israeli settlers, the same spatial elements produce a continuous cognitive map, linking the West Bank to Israeli territory within the Green Line.


The Impact of Fragmentation

The production of a continuous purified territory for the Jewish population culminated in the construction of the Separation Wall following the al-Aqsa Intifada which began in 2000 and during which nearly 4,000 people lost their lives, three-quarters of them Palestinians. The level of violence allowed Israel to unilaterally transform the area’s landscape by building the barrier and to further constrain Palestinian development, rights and movement (chapter 3). The outline of the Separation Wall was approved by the Israeli government in October 2003. It passes within the Palestinian Occupied Territories, so that the majority of the Jewish settlers remain on its Israeli side, effectively annexing to Israel 16 percent of the West Bank. As noted by Peteet, this had grave consequences for Palestinians, some 210,000 of whom are either trapped between the Separation Wall and the Green Line or cut off from their own lands and livelihood.

Peteet clearly demonstrates that the Separation Wall not only sets the borders of Israeli sovereignty and cements its annexation of the settlements, but also creates obstacles and hinders any possibility for the integrated spatial unity of the West Bank. By introducing the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, Peteet leads the reader to better understand the geopolitical and geo-demographic reality imposed by Israel through the construction of the Separation Wall, and the influence of the new violent reality on the future of the region.

Peteet’s focus on space, mobility and everyday life covers different spheres. Recognizing that space is a social product that produces and reproduces power relations and inequality, for instance, Peteet discusses the implications of immobility and fragmentation on Palestinians’ health and sociality, highlighting the ways that diseases and suffering are disproportionally concentrated within specific communities.

Indeed, violence is a central theme in this book, and Peteet highlights two dimensions of violence that affect mobility, space and time in the West Bank. One relates to active violence, caused by direct Israeli military actions and explicit policies in relation to permits, legibility and closure (chapters 2 and 3). The other relates to violence as discursive, symbolic and implicit; this is expressed in the de-humanising and demonizing of the Palestinians in Israeli public discourse, which in turn justifies active state violence.



An implicit argument throughout this book is that the space of Israel\Palestine has been transformed into a de-facto apartheid territory. Here, a reference to Andy Clarno’s recent book would be important. In Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine-Israel and South Africa after 1994, Clarno argues that in order to understand apartheid it is necessary to move beyond its international legal definition as a form of racial domination, and to rethink a political definition that emphasizes the articulation between racism and capitalism, acknowledging that apartheid does not necessarily end with the elimination of the racial state.[2]

Clarno’s analysis accentuates the ways in which neoliberal governmentality and apartheid policies are reconfigured, mainly through increased inequality, intensified securitization mechanisms, the racialized marginalization of communities as cheap labor and by producing constant crisis moments in which separation regimes are refortified—as demonstrated throughout Peteet’s ethnography. To put it differently, while I was reading Peteet’s book I acknowledged the fact that apartheid in Palestine is based indeed on immobility, surveillance and the destruction of space, which are not always the outcome of apartheid legal structures but first and foremost are the basis of apartheid.

Throughout this book, it becomes clear that politics in settler-colonial societies are racialised and characterized by gradual processes of social polarization, primarily along ethno-national lines. Within this context, mobility, housing, infrastructure and employment are marked by deep patterns of segregation, inequality and exclusion that minimize the control of indigenous members over resources and territory. Indeed, Peteet presents a pessimistic picture of the current conditions in Israel\Palestine. The apartheidization processes draws on three interrelated dynamics: an existing political infrastructure that facilitates division and separation via governance and planning (occupation, colonization); existing spatial conditions that implement political hierarchies, limitations on movement, and political boundaries (road systems, the Separation Wall); and a permeating presence of private, non-state actors, which take part in the process of institutionalized separation in and of the region (settler movements, private companies).


Spaces of Decolonization

According to Peteet “Palestinians understand the mobility regime as part of the logic of an ongoing settler-colonial project” (202). Further, she suggests that “in Israel-Palestine, horrific rounds of violence are interspersed with the periodic ‘peace negotiations’” (205). But beyond the official, top-down, national and international pressure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, other vectors also operate in this political sphere and the political environment in Israel\Palestine is more complex than a top-down approach would suggest. It also involves “bottom-up” initiatives and different forms of anti-colonial and anti-occupation activism these days.[3]

In other words, in my reading Peteet retains the methodological frame of a two-state solution as a potential future for Palestine, rather than considering a more radical (and in my view, the only ethical and tangible) solution of a one-state future to Israel\Palestine. Interesting discussions and initiatives are taking place about de-colonization beyond the methodological nationalism of the two-state solution. In the current spatial and political conditions, different groups of activists including both Israelis and Palestinians have initiated these discussions in recent years. For example, advocacy for a vision of reconciliation—and I would argue de-colonization—between the two peoples is evident in a new movement called “One Land, Two States.”

To sum up, this book is an important contribution not solely to the growing literature on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to the evolving literature on settler colonialism and mobility in the twenty-first century. Scholars and activists from wide disciplines such as anthropology, geography, law and conflict studies will certainly find it relevant to their work.



[1] Neve Gordon, Israel’s Occupation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Ariel Handel, Marco Allegra and Erez Maggor, eds., Normalizing Occupation (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press 2017); Orna Ben-Naftali, Michael Sfrad, Hedi Viterbo, eds., The ABC of the OPT: A Legal Lexicon of the Israeli Control over the Occupied Palestinian Territory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[2] Andy Clarno, Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine-Israel and South Africa after 1994 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[3] Fiona Wright, The Israeli Radical Left: An Ethics of Complicity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

How to cite this article:

Haim Jacoby "Occupying Palestinian Space," Middle East Report Online, October 21, 2019.

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