July 23rd, 2005

operesque

Israelization

In today's Guardian Mark Lawson describes the anxiety of a trip on London's tubes and buses following Thursday's second attack on the network, and the shooting of a suspect on Friday.

"On July 22," Lawson writes, "the sense was not of sombre gratitude for escape but grim acceptance of the possible beginning of a pattern. According to check lists on the internet, based on Israeli experience, one way of spotting a suicide bomber on public transport is to look out for passengers who seem sweaty or anxious or who are mouthing silent prayers. But the flaw in this technique is that almost everyone I saw on tubes or buses in yesterday morning's rush hour was glistening with apprehensive perspiration, while several seemed to be muttering secret deals with some deity... Has London become Belfast or Tel Aviv?"

Israelization is a theme that's been hanging in the air for a while now. Last March I did a Click Opera entry called Anger in Angrael. Angrael is the name I give to the strategic alliance between the US, UK and Israel following the second Gulf War. Angrael is a cultural bloc and a military bloc. One consequence of the alliance is "Israelization", exactly the process Mark Lawson describes in his article. The countries of the alliance will inevitably become "security states" and will be forced to adopt the extreme security measures seen in Israel: road blocks, constant states of alert, security perimeter fences, the sequestration in camps of "the Other", an internal Other increasingly seen, in the wake of suicide bombs and other terrorist incidents, as an enemy.



The main cause of Israelization is fear and insecurity. This fear is sewn deliberately by the terrorists themselves. It has two sides: active and passive. The active side is the sweat, tension, clenched knuckles Mark Lawson describes in his article. The passive side is "Blitz spirit": a refusal to be swayed or thrown off course, a hysterical indifference to abnormal circumstances. Here's Lawson again:

"It's always a sign of bad times in a city when the noise of sirens becomes as constant and unremarkable as birdsong. Perhaps one of the reasons we remember those violently killed with silences is that their killing makes a city shriek. Already, your ears almost tune out the sirens, registering only the helicopters. Soon, presumably, the blades of surveillance in the air will make no impression."

The trouble is, to treat abnormal events as if they're normal is not, well, normal. It's not a sane adjustment. There's a clear contradiction in the advice coming from the British government, which is "business as usual" but also "report anything suspicious". You cannot "carry on regardless" and also regard the world around you with suspicion. You cannot be both ostrich and eagle, sticking your head in the sand while remaining vigilant.

The main result of Israelization is a militarization of civilian space, or rather the dissolution of boundaries between the military and the civilian. A woman on the BBC News the other day described how the police had taken over her flat in Brixton, forcing her to camp in a back bedroom. They told her it was because bombs were being made in a neighbour's flat. Witnesses of the shooting of a man at Stockwell station yesterday spoke of their horror at seeing plain-clothed policemen with guns running onto a train and slaying a suspect with five shots. The sight of policemen armed with submachineguns has now become commonplace in London. The extraordinary has become ordinary.

I was living in New York when 9/11 happened. The atmosphere of the city changed drastically. Whole streets were barricaded and sandbagged, and it was hard to avoid a sense of paranoia. Was biological war about to break out? Who was sending anthrax through the mail? Should you stock water? What was your contingency plan for escaping the city? My commitment to the city was low, and I began making plans to leave. I went to Tokyo (a city, ironically, hanging under a much more massive threat than either New York or London, the threat of a devastating earthquake). In an interview yesterday with Vancouver magazine Ion, I described why Tokyo is still my favourite city:

"It's a place where you're not afraid, where you feel relaxed in public, where you like—and feel you think like—the people around you, the strangers you mingle with. It's a dense but well-organized place where people are considerate and polite and enjoy mingling, where there's interesting art and culture, where there's a high degree of equality. It's a place where public transport is more popular than private transport. It's a place where you don't feel like you need a big apartment because the whole city feels like an extension of your apartment."

In my essay Double Density I spoke about the refreshing sense of tranquility and trust that reigns in Tokyo, despite the fact that it's the world's largest city with some of the world's highest urban density levels. I also mentioned an excellent exhibition I'd just seen at Berlin's Kunst-Werke gallery:

"Territories, the current exhibition at Kunst-Werke in Berlin, examines the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. One artist has made a survey of medieval fortifications, from coats of armour to castles, and showed that all such attempts at 'total security solutions' have failed to make their users invulnerable. Another artist has made the same trip across Israel twice, first in a car with two Israelis, then in a car with one Israeli and one Palestinian. The second trip took five times as long. The exhibition suggests one dystopian vision of the future: that the whole world might one day be as mistrustful, as property- and security-conscious as the state of Israel is today.

"A global Israel. Fortification, roadblocks, vigilance, hatred and suspicion, machismo, super-security, bullet-proof SUVs, stand-offs, tension, terrorism, reprisal, state brutality, incarceration without trial, assassination from the air, bulldozing the victim's family home. Arbitrary borders, shoot first ask questions later. Low density, high death. A hell straight out of Hieronymous Bosch."

The Territories show went from Kunst-Werke to Witte De With gallery in Rotterdam and the Malmo Konsthall, then, modified, became Territories, Frontiers and the Architecture of Warfare at Swedish contemporary art foundation Index between September and October, 2004.

"The exhibition includes a new film by Eyal Weizman and Nadav Harel about contemporary urban warfare, a war that borrows from city planning and where the destruction of infrastructure is an effective and frequent weapon," says the catalogue.

"A central work in the exhibition is also Palestinian Michel Khleifi and Israeli Eyal Sivan’s film ‘Route 181’, a four-hour long journey through their common homeland. They travel according to the borders established in November 1947 by United Nations’ Resolution no. 181 which would have divided Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arabic. Reactions to the resolution led to the first Israeli-Arab war and the conflict that began during the British mandate of 1920–1948 still has not been resolved. During their two-month journey in the summer 2002, both filmmakers met people living along a border that never came into existence. From south to north, they interview Israelis and Palestinians, under humble conditions and without preparation, who all give their perspective about the current situation.

"One of the building blocks of the exhibition was ”A Civilian Occupation, The Politics of Israeli Architecture”, a project by Israeli architects Eyal Weizman and Rafi Segal. Their research records how Israeli architecture and town planning has been used strategically in the on-going conflict since the first half of the 20th century and onward."

I remember seeing a documentary once about how Hong Kong was used by the British as a kind of testing ground for draconian policing techniques which were used, in the 80s, against poll tax rioters, striking miners and other malcontents back in Britain. Colonialization is a two-way process: it both "Britishizes" the colony and "colonializes" Britain. Foreign policy can't be kept foreign forever. At some point it comes home. The blurb for the Territories show repeated this message:

"The territories of Israel and Palestine provide an intense and violent "laboratory" for the working of a territorial conflict of great global significance. It presents us with an arsenal of extreme conditions in which global and generic forms are organized by national, religious and strategic imperative."

I was very impressed by the Territories show when I saw it in 2003. I particularly liked how it took a psychogeographical approach to Israel. Yael Bartana's video of Israeli off-roaders, for instance, climbing sand dunes in huge-tired 4WD vehicles, showed the Israeli state as a place filled with almost hysterical contrasts between rich and poor, leisured and unemployed, Israelis and Palestinians. It showed how the conflict between Arabs and Israelis has "produced spaces" that conflict grotesquely: places of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, populated by the careworn and the carefree, separated by the world's most elaborate security apparatus. What was striking was how the mistrust and segregation on display here was familiar from other highly polarized territories, landscapes in the South Africa of yesteryear and the America of today.

So is this a picture of the past, or a picture of the future? At the time I saw Territories as a cautionary tale: this is how the world must not become. Today, it's looking more and more like an inevitable future, at least for the residents of "Angrael". The question is, how can we avoid Israelization, when both to live in fear and to carry on regardless take us straight to Israel?