Crossing a Line
Amahl Bishara's riveting account of the lived experience of Palestinian fragmentation
My weekly book review essays continue on their irregular summer schedule.
Amahl A. Bishara, Crossing a Line: Laws, Violence, and Roadblocks to Palestinian Political Expression (Stanford University Press, 2022)
The push by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right wing government to neuter its Supreme Court to consolidate executive power has galvanized massive popular protests and — thus far unsuccesful — ongoing resistance. Those protestors have largely preferred to keep the focus on preserving Israel’s democracy rather than to grapple with its connections with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But, as a growing number of Israeli activists have argued, those connections have become ever more impossible to sidestep as key members of Netanyahu’s coalition have pushed for ever growing civilian authority over the West Bank and as militant settlers accelerate their attacks on and dispossession of Palestinian communities with the tacit or open support of Israeli forces.
The inextricable relationship between Israel’s subordination of Palestinians and its crumbling democracy was central to my recent book and Foreign Affairs article with Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, and Shibley Telhami on “The One State Reality.” Our work built on decades of scholarship by Palestinians and primarily left-wing Israelis who had long articulated a compelling analysis of the one state reality concealed by empty talk of a possible future two state solution. Amahl Bishara’s Crossing a Line joins these outstanding contributions with a supremely relevant contribution to our understanding of the Palestinian experience of Israeli domination, both within Israel proper and in the occupied territories. Her ethnographic observations and critical analysis of the lived experience of Israeli restrictions on mobility and the fragmentation imposed by different regimes of control within a single de facto Israeli sovereignty move beyond abstraction to render clearly the political horizons and potential connectivities of the forcibly divided Palestinian nation.
Like other Palestinian scholars and activists on whose work we drew, Bishara anticipates many of our arguments in The One State Reality about the uneven unification of the territories under Israel’s de facto control. She observes that “Israel is the sovereign over not only its 1948 territories but also the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, since it controls who and what enters and leaves, and since it has the greatest control over the forms of violence exercised in those territories.” Her concept of “sleight of hand sovereignty” goes well with our arguments about the ways in which the joint pretence of the potential for a two state solution enables ongoing Israeli domination and progressive annexation while serving the regime survival interests of the PA leadership. But her focus is less on international diplomacy (though she is keenly aware of how Palestine is embedded within global power configurations) or the institutions and leadership of the Palesitnian Authority than on the lived experience of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.
Her primary focus and contribution is in exploring the unevenness of the Palestinian encounter with Israeli domination, in which different systems of control across the different territories — 1948 Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza — has produced fragmentation and distance even as a shared national identity remains. She views fragmentation as not simply a characteristic of the Palestinian experience, but a strategic Israeli method and goal for hindering the consolidation of an effective Palestinian collective identity and political agency. She sees the differences between Israel’s rule over Palestinian citizens and non-citizens as less than usually believed, and converging with the ghettoization and increasing pressures on Palestinian citizens. But those differences have real effects. Critically, she argues, the two communities “are profoundly hindered in their ability to speak together” by the legal and institutional divides as well as by the hindrances to mobility. They don’t vote for the same parties or in the same elections, face different local challenges, confront and challenge different configurations of state violence and individual risk, consume different media. That generates different responses to common challenges.
Bishara punctuates her chapters with visceral, gripping narratives of her experiences crossing internal borders, navigating checkpoints, bringing Palestinian citizens of Israel to Bethleham and Palestinians from the West Bank to the beach, attending protests on both sides of the Green Line. She is keenly aware of her own positionality in these encounters, the passages and protections afforded her by her passports and the how they create different experiences from those of her interlocutors, whether Palestinian citizens of Israel or Palestinians in the West Bank. She notes the anxiety created by the variability of closures and restrictions, as well as the sense of community within buses facing stops by Israeli soldiers. The wonder felt by some of her companions on visiting geographically near but politically restricted places is palpable and captures something about the nature of mobility restrictions which a recitation of laws or a geography of checkpoints can’t quite deliver.
The difference and convergence of protests on the two sides of the Green Line are a central theme of her analysis. She pays careful attention to the embodied nature of protest and politics, how particular actions in specific states produce distinctive identities and meanings. Protests by Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated differently than those by Israeli Jews, while Palestinian protests in the West Bank might face repression from the Palestinian Authority rather than (or in addition to) Israeli forces. She is keenly sensitive to the divergent meanings of similar actions: protest slogans which manifest ritual chants in the West Bank could be far more dangerous to protestors inside of Israel, standing in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners had a different feel for Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank. Land Day may be an annual shared day of protest for Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, but their different political conditions produce different slogans, repertoirs of contention, and encounters with police violence. In one telling note, she observes the political meanings of the practice by Palestinians inside and outside 1948 Israel of commemorating Nakba Day on different days
This is powerfully illustrated by her chapter on the protests against the war on Gaza on both sides of the Green Line. All Palestinians, she emphasizes, are subject to Israeli violence: Palestinians in Gaza are killed with impunity and Palestinians in the West Bank face severe repression and arrest, but even Palestinian citizens in Israel face entrenched, institutionalized racism and an ever-present risk of losing those rights they have. As one of her Palestinian interviewees with Israeli citizenship hauntingly puts it, “they kill you [Palestinians from the West Bank] with bullets, but they us with the pen, with law.” As Bishara concludes after participant observation in protests on both sides, “Palestinians’ inability to protest in the same place across these two communities is partially due to Israel’s closure policies, which limit actual co-presence, but it is also due to Israel’s different communicative restrictions on these communities, which yield different modes of protest. What looks and feels like a successful protest in each place is quite different.” That resonates nicely with the best new literature on Arab protests, such as Jillian Schwedler’s brilliant book on Jordan.
There’s a lot more in this rich, compelling and beautifully written book. Bishara ranges over practices of commemoration, the ways in which social media change the meanings and discursive practices of violence, the different architectures of media and the ways they cover “Palestine”, and the experience of prison. As attention increasingly focuses on Israel’s one state reality and the ways in which its accelerating settlement and annexation interacts with right wing threats to Israel’s democracy, Crossing a Line will make for riveting and essential reading for those hoping to understand the lived experience of Palestinians grappling with these realities.
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