Kate Siegfried. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. Volume 17, Issue 3. 2020.
Jagged concrete blocks pile atop one another, layered around and between bent metal rods that once formed the scaffold of a home. Dust clouds in the air as interior and exterior walls are cracked open. Glass shards fall to the ground as windows are busted, and the sharp edges of barbed wire poke out from the inside of the now empty Palestinian home. Often, the sight of construction machines such as bulldozers and concrete trucks signal a key step in a violent process of destruction and expropriation of Palestinian habitational space rather than the first step in a material process of spatial renewal. Through the practice of home sealing, or the punitive practice of pouring concrete inside a Palestinian home to render it uninhabitable, the land beneath the home is expropriated, slowly advancing the expansion of the Israeli state.
When a Palestinian home is “sealed,” or welded shut and filled with concrete, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers approach the home and forcibly remove the family from their private, domestic space. Often, they sledgehammer down interior walls before running barbed wire through the house. Next, they pour concrete into the home through windows or other exterior holes, filling the area and making it impossible to move through or inhabit. After rendering the interior of the home unlivable, the IDF welds shut windows and doors, hence the term “home sealing.” The family is materially barred from entering their own home, displaced to the exterior, even as their home continues to stand in front of them. When the home is sealed, the potential for new relational becomings to take place within that space is foreclosed, and the intimate communicative and cultural practices that are specific to domestic space are displaced and shut down. Often, this specific practice of home dispossession is carried out as a form of collective punishment when a Palestinian is labeled a terrorist for acting out in some way against the Israeli state. While the violence carried out against the Israeli state is tragic in its own right, the act of home sealing as a punitive action is a violation of international law. Sometimes, the act of home sealing is more instrumental. While still carried out for punitive reasons, “sealing” the home with concrete (rather than demolition) ensures that the family cannot get back into that specific apartment, while the rest of the housing complex remains intact for the time being.
Home space has consistently played a central role in the Israeli state-building project. During the 1948 Nakba (in Arabic: النكبة, al-Nakbah, meaning “disaster” or “catastrophe”), an estimated 711,000 Palestinians were forced from their land. Legally, Israel justifies home demolitions under military law, a holdover from the colonial British mandate that governed Palestine from 1923 to 1948 and “authorized punitive demolitions of Arab homes in the 1936-1939 Arab Rebellion.” Since 2014, Israel has demolished or sealed 67 homes for punitive reasons, leaving over 320 Palestinians homeless. Some home demolitions are justified through other legal measures, such as “military purposes.” Since the initial implementation of home demolition as collective punishment began in Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, the Israeli government has destroyed over 25,000 homes in Palestine, leaving over 160,000 homeless. Home sealing operates as a form of settler-colonial state building by displacing Palestinians from their land and homes, rendering their lives more precarious as the land is claimed for Israeli settlements. Indeed, home sealing, dispossession, and the intentional creation of ruin are key fulcrums of settler colonialism. Palestinian homes must be cleared to make way for the becoming of Israeli society. The home is a fundamentally communicative space as a central site of cultural practices and other place-making, collective activities. For instance, Nadera Shalhoub- Kevorkian found in interviews with Palestinian women “mothers of martyrs, for example, who repeatedly discussed the loss of their children and the related loss of their homes, often spoke of their home as a vessel of unity, love, care, and hope, expressed through the rituals of cooking, meeting together, and maintaining social ties.” While not every Palestinian may feel that their home is a “vessel of love,” as myriad forms of violence take place in homes all over the world, the home functions as a key communicative site where individuals might gather together. Thus, bringing to the forefront the social dynamics of home sealing demands attending to the communicative dimensions of home dispossession.
The expansion of territorial ownership is the crux of settler-colonial projects, and thus struggles over land, space, and architecture are key modes through which settler colonialism plays out. As Henri Lefebrve argues, struggles take place not only in space, but also over and through space. Space is a mechanism by which we organize, structure, and make sense of our world. Katherine McKittrick argues, “we produce space, we produce its meanings, and we work very hard to make geography what it is.” Space and thus struggles over space are fundamentally communicative as they produce and constrain our social relations and modes of being in the world together. Specific to the settler-colonial project of Israel, Eyal Weizman argues that space is not merely the “background” of Israeli state projects but rather “the medium that each of their actions seeks to challenge, transform, or appropriate.” Indeed, home sealing and dispossession are the active cultivation of what John Ackerman calls “ruination” or a “circumstance and force within local communities” that “unravels the social tissue that binds households, neighborhoods, and regions together.” In Israel, habitational violence, or the intentional destruction of domestic space as an imperialist and racialized state-building practice, is carried out through the creation of ruin. Yet, the practice of ruination is not unique to Palestine. The United States alone carries a violently rich history of precarity-by-design and habitational violence, as acutely manifest in the systematic abandonment of black people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, the historical and ongoing expulsion and containment of Native Americans from their land, and the slow creep of gentrification in cities across the country. These mechanisms of habitational violence evoke practices of settler colonialism as an ongoing process of destruction and creation in relation to territory in which material manifestations of indigenous land claims are destroyed, making way for the creation of a new (and often elite) society.
In addition to land and space, building materials have taken on political valence within Palestine, as the act of building is a means by which to solidify one’s land claim. This is the case with concrete, in particular, as concrete is a key building material in the region due to its cheap cost and utility in hot climates. Within Palestine, concrete is used for building homes and businesses, fortifying clandestine tunnels that cross under borders and checkpoints, and even building the Israeli-built wall erratically weaving through the region. Wendy Brown articulates the political utilization of the wall, describing the wall as “limit[ing] or attempt[ing] to define nation-state boundaries” rather than being built as a “fortress against invading armies,” as we might typically understand the material function of a wall. Much like the concrete border wall, the concrete home walls become another government apparatus that defines where a body can and cannot go. Indeed, Kundai Chirindo argues, “the nation is taken to be a sociopoliticalspatial assemblage that legitimates certain material experiences … and limits the mobility of certain bodies as banal yet necessary adjuncts of national preservation.” In effect, concrete is a political material, as it is a primary tool of state building for both Israel and Palestine. Israel utilizes concrete to control territory through undertaking new architecture projects such as the wall as well as the focus here: Israel’s violent use of concrete as a tool of habitational violence through which Palestinian families are displaced from their land and homes. Palestinians, on the other hand, struggle for access to concrete to revitalize their homes and businesses as well as to fortify underground tunnels through which other key materials and resources are secured. Indeed, Eyal Weizman argues, “the architecture of the frontier could not be said to be simply ‘political’ but rather ‘politics in matter.’” Here, we can extend Weizman’s claim regarding “politics in matter” to the very matter, or materials, utilized in the political struggle over spatial revitalization and expropriation.
In this essay, I argue that, within the context of settler colonialism, the agentive materialism and political valence of concrete is utilized as a tool for Israeli state building. As I unravel the myriad communicative dimensions of home sealing as a settler-colonial practice, I demonstrate the importance of decolonial approaches to materialist rhetoric and, in particular, to materialist approaches to studies of space and place. In this essay, I first outline what settler colonialism is before providing an overview of contestations over Zionism as a mode through which to achieve Jewish liberation. I argue that Israel is, fundamentally, a settler-colonial project. Next, I argue for the importance of taking a materialist approach to settler colonialism, as colonial struggles are, at their core, a struggle over territory that plays out via contestations over building materials, architectural projects, and land itself. I specifically trace a political history of struggles over concrete in Israel/Palestine as a key material through which these state-building projects are actualized. Finally, I offer an analysis of the concrete or sealed Palestinian home in three parts, each of which focuses on a different communicative effect. Pulling from news coverage, photographs, video documentation, and first-hand accounts of home sealing, I read the rhetorical effects of the sealed home and of the ruin left in the aftermath. In particular, I analyze the embodied, affective, and sensory “clues” visually and textually documented: the sound of soldiers approaching, clouds of dust, pours of concrete, and the sharpness of barbed wire. First, I highlight that, by rendering the home unlivable, the walls of the home are transformed into border walls, designating another space that Palestinians can no longer traverse. Second, I engage the communicative encounter with the sealed home, arguing that the sealed home rhetorically functions as a relic or ruin of collective punishment, projecting a disciplinary message to Palestinians who encounter it. Third, I demonstrate that home sealing is an expression of the Israeli state’s permanent anxiety surrounding Palestinian compositional power. Ultimately, the various dynamics of concrete home sealing detailed here highlight the necessity of attending to the communicative effects of state-building practices as enacted through the destruction of domestic space.
Contestations over Zionism and Israel’s Settler Colonialism
Fundamentally, settler colonialism is a struggle over land. Patrick Wolfe details that land is necessary for life, and “thus contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life.” Settler colonialism can be distinguished from colonialism more generally through this emphasis on the connection between life and land. While colonialism is a project primarily oriented around the extraction of surplus labor from the native population, settler colonialism is “predicated upon displacing indigenes from (or replacing them on) the land.” While land struggles might take place through other mechanisms such as racialization, “territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.” Thus, as Patrick Wolf argues, citing Deborah Rose, “to get in the way of settler colonialism, all the native has to do is stay at home.”
Despite the utilization of Zionism today to ideologically justify Israel’s actions of home dispossession, Zionism has not always occupied a prominent role as a favorable political project for Jewish liberation. In 1897, Theodor Herzl relocated the meeting of the first Zionist Congress from Munich to Switzerland due to protest and opposition from European rabbis. These rabbis made a number of arguments against the Zionist project, including that the Jewish people are only a separate community with respect to religion (rather than nation-hood) and that the goal of establishing a Jewish State contradicted the messianic orientation of Judaism. Other Jewish criticisms of Zionism, such as from Haredim (ultra-orthodox) leaders, also stem from the theological argument that it is forbidden for the Jewish people to constitute Jewish rule in the Land of Israel prior to the coming of the Messiah as well as a fear of secular nationalism replacing observance of the faith.
Rather than relying on theological arguments, other Jewish anti-Zionist trends throughout the twentieth century mobilized political calls to action against the existence of the Israeli state. The General Jewish Labour Bund, a socialist movement in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, argued the call for a Jewish State was a “bourgeois” and “pessimistic” response to anti-Semitism “favored by the Jewish and Gentile upper class, that … simply re-segregated the Jews into an exclusivist nation-state.” Once European Jewish people began arriving in large numbers, Palestinian Jews often rejected the colonially imposed mandates that lent coherence to Israel as a Zionist project. For instance, in the 1920s when the British Mandate government ordered every Jewish person in Palestine to register under the Zionist National Council, leading rabbis of the Sephardic Jewish people ordered their communities to disobey the order. More recently, racism against Mizrahi Jews in Israel is well documented, and James Eastwood argues that this racism is constitutive of Israel’s settler colonialism. Indeed, there is hardly a consensus regarding the utilization of Zionism or the establishment of a Jewish ethnic state as a mode through which to achieve Jewish liberation.
Despite historical and ongoing contestations over the establishment of a Jewish State, Israel today exists as an ethnic state that engages in the occupation of Arab lands. After the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, Palestinians lived formally under military rule until the end of 1966. In 1967, when Israel launched a war to seize remaining Palestinian territories, Israel imposed military rule without granting citizenship to those in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli interpretation of the British Mandatory emergency regulations, Israel’s colonial predecessor, was the basis for the military rule imposed in 1948 and 1967. Yet, when “these regulations were first imposed in 1948 and again in 1967, no one mentioned the fact that when they were originally introduced by the British Mandate, they were condemned by all Zionist leaders as Nazi legislation.” As Pappé details, Zionist leaders described these regulations as “regulations with ‘no parallel in any enlightened country’” and argued “‘that even in Nazi Germany, there were no such rules.’” Alongside the imposition of an emergency mandate previously regarded as essentially fascist, discussion in Israel of how to run occupied Arab lands as a long-term project began in October 1956 during the Sinai operation when “in collusion with the Britain and France, the Jewish State tried to topple the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.” This action, among others as Maxime Rodinson details in his history of Israel, led to the Arab world almost unanimously viewing Israel as an imperialist project. Rodinson states, “for the Arabs, Israel is an imperialist base set up in the Middle East by British imperialism in collusion with others; it is part of a worldwide imperialist system; and therefor, the activity it carries out … is of an imperialist nature.” The failure of the attempt to topple Nasser led to serious contemplation regarding how to take a more methodological approach to the occupation of the West Bank. The plan devised was code-named the “Shacham Plan,” while the official name was “the Organization of Military Rule in the Occupied Territories.” Four years later, an assembled legal, governmental, intellectual, and military team was ready for military occupation, which occurred in June 1967.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, the thirteenth government of Israel convened to debate the fate of the West Bank and Gaza. The thirteenth government represented the “widest possible Zionist consensus,” meaning a diverse array of ideological outlooks participated, including socialists from the Mapam party, revisionists, representatives from the Zionist labor movement, and “the most secular liberal and the most religious and ultrareligious political parties.” Despite the presence of seemingly vast ideological divergences, the group adopted resolutions that clearly charted the settler-colonial principles by which future Israeli governments would adhere. Despite the diversity of the thirteenth government, they were not debating if Israel would exist, but how they would govern an ethic state that, by definition, necessitated the expulsion and reorganization of the current population inhabiting that land. Indeed, as Pappé details, the only way to substantively challenge the settler-colonial project well underway at this point would have been to challenge Zionism writ large.
Yet, the existence of a Jewish ethnic state in Palestine had already been called into being on a global scale, in large part due to the profound violence waged against European Jews during the Holocaust. Even prior to the specific violence of the Holocaust, Jewish people in Nazi Germany were targeted by a number of measures aimed at forcibly removing them from society through undermining access to land, work, and other basic needs. Laws passed in 1933 enabled the revoking of citizenship rights and the confiscation of Jewish land, and also barred Jewish people from practicing as doctors or lawyers. Jewish neighborhoods were controlled, and various proposals for expulsion, such as the Madagascar Plan, were explored as options for the “cleansing” of the population through expelling the Jewish people. Essentially, Jewish people across the globe were facing extreme forms of habitational violence and, as such, seeking a tangible solution to a forced and imposed diaspora. Indeed, on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two new states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Arab leaders rejected this recommendation, as this “solution” was predicated on accepting settler-colonial practices such as the forcible removal of Arabs from their homeland.
Settler colonialism is predicated on a logic of elimination. The elimination of an indigenous population is necessary for the imagined society to emerge. For pro-Israel Zionists, they, like other settler-colonial projects throughout history, “considered any territory ‘empty’ and available if its indigenous population had not yet achieved national independence and recognized statehood.” Indeed, as Annamaria Brancato demonstrates in her study of Zionist narratives, Zionist historiography describes Palestine as “inhabited by underdeveloped and uncivilized people.” As Theodor Herzl, or the ideological “father” of Israel, states in his manifesto, “if I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.”
The collective imagining of “empty land” is a primary catalyst for driving settler-colonial projects forward. As Edward Said argues, “all the constitutive energies of Zionism were premised on the excluded presence, that is, the functional absence of ‘native people’ in Palestine” [emphasis added]. It is the imagined absence that becomes functional, as the imagining of emptiness justifies and legitimizes territorial expansion. Yet, a contradiction exists in the imagining of Palestine as “empty,” as settlers must deal with the actual presence of a subaltern population on a daily basis. David Loyd argues, “whenever one thinks of Palestine, one is thus faced immediately with the paradox of the ‘present absentee,’ of the one whose identity is shadowed by nonidentity, in the peculiar afterlife or afterglow of the disappeared.” The collision of imagined absence with literal presence requires that settler colonialism never cedes and, instead, always be on the offensive. Indeed, this is the permanent anxiety ideologically underwriting many of Israel’s state-building actions; because the Palestinian is always present, the potential for anti- or nonstate resistance also always exists.
Importantly, Wolfe argues that settler colonialism is a structure rather than a single event. Settler colonialism is not “finished” when a single event of elimination, whether through genocide, expropriation, or expelling a population, takes place. As Slamanca et al. highlight, when viewed through the lens of settler colonialism, “the Nakba in 1948 is not simply a precondition for the creation of Israel”; instead, “the Nakba … is manifested today in the continuing subjection of Palestinians.” After the Nakba laws were passed by the Israeli government, Arabs were prevented from returning to their homes or reclaiming property. While the “event” of expulsion happened decades ago, today, most of the Palestinians living in the West Bank are descendants of those who were expelled from their homes in 1948.
The Materiality of Settler Colonialism
Settler colonialism, as a structure, requires infrastructures and bureaucratic mechanisms to advance as state-building projects. Materialist approaches to rhetorical studies offer theorizations of state logics that highlight the often diffuse, erratic ways that power is waged. For instance, theorizing a materialist rhetoric in relation to Foucault’s concept of governmentality, Ronald Greene offers a materialism that focuses on how rhetoric traverses, distributes, and circulates “different elements on a terrain of a governing apparatus.” Rather than honing our critical gazes toward “demystifying” the representational dynamics of operations of power, the goal of materialist rhetoric, as a critical practice, is to understand rhetoric as one material modality among others in an apparatus of power.
Similarly, communication studies scholars engaged with broadly new materialist approaches remain concerned with the agentic qualities of the material world and how this comes to bear on communicative encounters. Christopher Gamble and Joshua Hanan argue that new materialisms “insist that humans and human discourses are always ontologically enmeshed with more-than-human configurations,” an approach that is taken seriously here as I attend to the encounters between humans and concrete in Palestine. Importantly, a turn to the apex of space/place, critical mobility studies, and communication lays the groundwork for enquiries into how matter becomes entangled with what Tim Creswell names the “politics of mobility,” a relevant framework for understanding physical containment as an effect of settler colonialism. The primary concern for materialist rhetoric and broadly new materialist approaches to communication is how the discursive and material, as tools, operate in relation to power. Here, utterances and discourses are inseparable from the materiality of people and institutions as they enmesh to enact governance. Further, decolonial approaches to the relationship between place and rhetoric have lent insight into how theorizations engrained in rhetorical studies reproduce colonial logics. Taking the lead established by those broadly engaged in decolonial approaches to rhetoric, materialism, place, and mobility, I attend to the material mechanisms by which key communicative sites, such as the home, are destroyed and transformed as part of an ongoing settler-colonial state-building project.
Within the context of Palestine, Israeli justification for settler colonialism ranges from Zionist ideology to punitive approaches to the Palestinian population. As highlighted by Weizman, these justifications then play out through a variety of power sources, creating a context in which power flows from a variety of places, accumulating into the coherent project of settler colonialism. Weizman situates Palestine within an “elastic geography” due to this diffused (rather than single source) nature of power at work. Weizman argues, “rather, the organization of the Occupied Territories should be seen as a kind of ‘political plastic,’ or as a diagram of the relation between all the forces that shape it.” Thus, in Weizman’s study of architecture in the region, he explicitly does not interpret architecture as “the material embodiment of a unified political will or as the product of a single ideology.” Similarly, my interpretation of concrete and home sealing here, rooted in materialist rhetoric, can be understood as one force, among many, through which the Israeli governing apparatus is overdetermined by a number of dynamic expressions that manifest in the total spatial organization of the region.
Within this “elastic geography” in which settler power is diffused across various forces, building materials take on a particular importance as a means through which to solidify settler power by lending permanence to the occupation of land. In particular, concrete is a highly contested and politically laden material within Palestine. The political contestation over concrete dates back to the early twentieth century. For instance, on October 16, 1935, in the port of Jaffa, Arab dockers were unloading drums of concrete from a Belgian cargo ship. One drum mistakenly broke open, spilling out guns and ammunition, resulting in what is now referred to as the “Cement Incident.” Upon investigation by the British Mandate, officials found a large quantity of smuggled weapons and ammunition that were bound to arm the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that later came to comprise the core of the IDF. In 2013, the IDF found a 1.5-mile concrete tunnel running under the Gaza-Israel border built by Hamas. The concrete used to build the tunnel was obtained through smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that became active as a result of strict Israeli blockades on imported food and materials that intensified after Hamas took control of the strip in 2007. Specifically, between 2007 and 2013, Israel imposed a blockade on building materials such as concrete, gravel, and steel out of concern that Palestinian militants would use the materials for fortifications and weapons instead of for (re)building homes and businesses. Finally, in September of 2013, Israel began allowing a limited amount of gravel, concrete, and steel into Gaza for private builders.
In April of 2016, Israeli authorities again suspended the delivery of all concrete and cement into the Gaza Strip, claiming that construction materials were diverted by Hamas. This suspension came right around the same time Israeli forces found the first tunnel from Gaza into Israel since the 2014 war. According to reports from the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), this particular concrete blockage resulted in organizations suspending “cash assistance for house repairs to over 1,370 families” and, in addition, “payment to 1,550 families scheduled to start reconstruction” was delayed “due to lack of available concrete.” The official justification behind this blockade, as stated by a spokesperson for Israel’s Coordination of Government Activists in the Territories, was due to the diversion of construction materials by Hamas, and thus the ban would be in place until the issue is addressed. However, according to OCHA, “most of the previously entered shelter repair and reconstruction material has already been sold to beneficiaries.” As of May 2016, according to the UN, 75,000 Palestinians remain homeless in the Gaza Strip, two years after Israel’s offensive. The constructed conditions of scarcity regarding access to concrete within Gaza can be contextualized within Israel’s broader imposition of severe economic blockages that have been in place since 2006 as well as different modes through which Israel has systematically destroyed Palestinian homes since the 1930s. Despite the imposition of concrete scarcity, concrete flows in excess through the region every time a home is sealed. Within the settler-colonial context, concrete is a weapon of creation and destruction as Israelis and Palestinians each work to secure access to the material as a key mode through which to wage their respective struggles for land.
The Concrete Home
When a Palestinian home is sealed, that block of land is rendered uninhabitable. While the home continues to occupy its foundation and the earth that sits underneath, no human can access that area. The Israeli state has “claimed” the land. Yet, the block of concrete, composed of materials such as shale, clay, and slate and chemicals such as calcium, aluminum, or iron, also cannot be seamlessly resettled. The hardened block sits, unattended, for an indeterminate amount of time either until everyone else in the apartment complex is pushed out or until the sealed home is destroyed. The hardened block of concrete marks another space where Palestinians can no longer traverse. As their lives are structured by walls, checkpoints, fences, and other mobility regulations, concrete squares dot the landscape, slowly but surely marking more land space where Palestinians are no longer able to walk, live, gather, or reside.
The Concrete Home as State-Building Material
When a Palestinian home is sealed, the walls of the home are transformed into technologies of governmentality. A home is built to create a material interior and exterior. As highlighted by Samira Kawash in their discussion of how the Israeli government apparatus operates through controlling the movement of Palestinian bodies, in the context of home demolition, “the house is at best a fragile, tenuous space in which to be when all other spaces have been refused.” Nowhere in the world are homes pure sanctuaries of nonviolence. However, the precariousness of the home takes on a specificity in the context of settler colonialism, where at any point the home can be transformed into a tool of state violence.
As the family is physically pushed outside of their own home, the walls of the house transform and become another border dictating where they can and cannot traverse. Weizman highlights the malleability of the borders raised by Israel, stating “these borders are dynamic, constantly shifting, ebbing and flowing; they creep along, stealthily surrounding Palestinian villages and roads.” In Palestine, borders fundamentally impact life. They control where one can and cannot go. When new borders creep up, alternative routes to school and work must be established. When a home is sealed, the land the home sits on and the remaining interiority of the home are transformed into a space where Palestinians can no longer go. Much like the border wall, the home walls transform into an expression of Israeli state power that defines where a body can and cannot go. As Kundai Chirindo highlights, “in contrast to Doreen Massey’s view of space as ‘lively’ … borders, especially those which are tightly policed, effect the nation-state as static, with im/material boundaries that are superimposed onto natural geographies and onto diverse, mobile human cultures.” While the act of filling a home with concrete carries a permanency, the ability to transform any home, overnight, into a new set of borders highlights precisely the dynamic, shifting, erratic, and diffuse nature of the Israeli government apparatus. The always present potential of transferal between home and border casts the Palestinian home itself as a material tool for Israeli state building. By ruining the home, the social fabric of Palestine is profoundly undermined.
The precariousness caused by concreting the home must be understood in tandem with the fact that Israel refuses to recognize Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as full citizens. Ilan Pappé draws a detailed and robust history of Israel, tracing how the citizenship of Palestinians has been negotiated. He argues that the Palestinian population both cannot be expelled nor “fully integrated as equal citizens of the Jewish State, given their number and potential natural growth that would have endangered the decisive Jewish Majority in Israel.” When a home is sealed, the Palestinian family is expelled from the spatial enclave of the home, forced into the open and out into a society that rejects them yet also might not let them leave. The politics of this spatial dynamic fully realizes the conceptualization of Palestine as an “open-air prison.” Indeed, in a prison, the prisoner is neither executed nor integrated into society, but sits in a liminal space of control and surveillance.
The Concrete Home as a Relic of Collective Punishment
For homes that are demolished, the rubble occupies the former space of the home until it eventually gets cleared away. Mounds of concrete with bits of wire or furniture poking out mark where collective life used to reside, or perhaps still does reside, as some may continue to live adjacent to the rubble of their home, as they have nowhere else to go. Yet, much of Gaza and the West Bank is filled with rubble from regular ruptures of conflict, other home demolitions, or damage wrought from targeted assassinations carried out via drone. Concrete rubble blends in with the landscape of occupation.
Yet, the sealed home or apartment continues to stand mostly or partially intact. Life is drained from the home structure as people no longer come and go from the building. If one is unfamiliar with the neighborhood, perhaps they do not notice the absence. Yet, small visual cues likely signify that no one lives in that space any longer. Perhaps excess dried concrete can be seen streaming down the side of the house from the window or a piece of barbed wire pokes out. Maybe part of an exterior wall was demolished offering a partial view into an internally destroyed home or the clearly broken windows alert the viewer that something is off. Or, as was the case with Omar al-Asmar’s relatives who lived in tents outside of their sealed home for over four years, the presence of a homeless family living outside the structure clearly alerts the passerby that the home has been forcibly taken, even as it still stands.
Casey Schmitt offers a framework for understanding “found” places rhetorically, arguing that the ways in which we understand museums and memorial spaces as “place-as-rhetoric” can be extended to “sites not necessarily designed as museums or memorials in the Western sense but functioning as such today.” The presence of a forcibly emptied home within a settler-colonial context evokes rhetorics of memorialization and ruination in which the family that previously occupied the home is brought to mind. Through this indirect memorialization, the Israeli state evokes a disciplinary message, in which the idea that “you and your family could be next” looms over the surrounding area. The constant presence of the threat of home dispossession hangs in the air as the sealed home crystallizes the reality that the Israeli state would rather a home sit empty and filled with concrete than allow a Palestinian family to live. Within the context of Occupied Palestine, the sealed home sits as a disciplinary monument for all to see. Those in the neighborhood know what happened, as sealing a home requires bringing a group of soldiers to forcibly remove the family, sectioning off a space around the home while the sealing takes place, and bringing in large, loud concrete trucks to pour concrete in through the windows. While the family is removed from the home, the home continues to stand as a relic of collective punishment.
The Concrete Home as Enclosure of Compositional Space
In addition to the more direct logics of state building underwriting home sealing, the practice is also an expression of the Israeli’s permanent anxiety over the compositional power of domestic space. Compositional power, or “the individual and collective ability to organize,” is a process of becoming. Through this process, relational capacities for engaging in struggle are continually developed and reshaped. Understanding struggle as compositional highlights the nature of resistance as a process that begins before a particular resistant event. Composition requires a continual reorienting of the body in order to carry a resistant act out. Compositional power emerges as it is enacted. If we consider this claim within the context of understanding how material spaces interact with the body—for instance, a doorway creates the structure that enables a body to move between rooms—the dynamic relationship between the materiality of the home and the potential for bodily composition becomes clear. Within the context of Palestine, home space plays a particular role in the making of anti- or nonstate resistance. In Christopher Harker’s ethnographic work, he highlights the relationship between family, home, and society in Palestine by demonstrating that the Palestinian notion of family includes extended family or clan, as exemplified by the “long-established practice of living in close-proximity to both their immediate and extended family.” Thus, the home is a site where specific collective social relations take shape.
The practicality of having access to a home as an autonomous space creates the conditions for that space to play a role in the making of anti- and nonstate compositional power. Within the home, individuals are able to escape from more direct forms of surveillance waged by the Israeli security apparatus, such as military drones or private security officers. Indeed, in Weizman’s study of targeted assassinations via drone, assassinations are carried out when the target “surfaces,” or is spotted walking down the street, driving a car, or moving around outside of the protection of a building. When homes are filled with concrete and doors welded shut, Palestinians are pushed out into more direct spaces of surveillance. Consider the aerial view of a city or village. When inside the home, individuals are able to escape from the watchful and panoptic view of technological apparatuses, government officials, and neighbors, unless they happen to pass by a window or communicate via surveillance technology. Inside, individuals might be able to breathe a bit deeper, settling into the space as their intimate sphere momentarily comes into the foreground. If still careful, they can speak with one another more freely and express attachments of solidarity that might be dangerous to express publicly. Alternately, in a more public space, a passerby could overhear a conversation or a larger gathering could alert suspicion. The need for autonomous private space is further enhanced by the imposition of curfews, where going out under the cloak of night or during other “off limit” hours imposes a higher risk, more planning, more difficulty traveling, and the potential for serious punishment.
Within the context of colonization, familial relations can also take on additional layers oriented toward political composition. As Harker highlights, “since 1948 most Palestinian families have lived in nation-state contexts in which they have no formal political representation. In such circumstances, the family has become a key protector and form of social authority.” Examples of this can be found in the village of Nabi Saleh. After members of the Tamimi family were arrested following the incident in which Ahed Tamimi slapped an IDF solider in a video that went viral, the village families collectively organized in preparation for further raids on their village. Specifically, the village families organized practice drills to prepare the children and teens for Israeli detention. Under the conditions of occupation, the family takes on particular relational duties that very well may extend to the potentials of imagining a non-or antistate way of being. Harker argues, given the conditions of occupation, “the Palestinian family must therefore be thought about … as a form of solidarity.” The primary space for these familial relations to take shape as political relations is within the home as a relatively safer space for political becoming. The home, in this case, becomes a site of composition, as it offers the material infrastructure needed for planning and organizing to take place or for bodies to experiment and recompose themselves as non- or antistate actors. Further, within the context of Palestine, homes are utilized as a way to hide mechanisms of struggle from the Israeli state. For instance, tunnels that often run under walls and borders originate in Palestinian homes. The tunnels are used to smuggle key materials into Palestine that people need for basic survival as well as for acts of resistance.
The Palestinian home is a crucial site of enclosure precisely because of the absence of the accused terrorist. The absence of the terrorist positions the home as a potential material staging ground for the establishment of compositional power. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s explication of the “virtual” is helpful here, for grasping the neuroses underwriting home sealing as a practice of habitational violence and communicative control. Deleuze and Guattari define the virtual as “real without being actual.” The virtual gestures at that which exceeds capture by state apparatuses, which in Palestine are the communicative and relational dynamics that potentially exist within the home. Citing Deleuze and Guattari, Bost and Greene further explicate, “the virtual is real in the sense of an absolute space of ever-present but overdetermined ‘elements and relations, along with the singular points’ (Deleuze 208-9) from which organized systems emerge and to which they owe their potential for novelty.” In Palestine, the home operates as a sphere of virtual potentiality for compositional power. Yet, through the eyes of the Israeli state, Palestinians must be made impossible as subjects, but they can never be rendered obsolete. As identified by Pappé and Lloyd, Israel cannot fully expel the Palestinian people and also cannot integrate them into the Jewish State. Thus, Israeli defenses are trying to fill a virtual space with actual concrete. Israeli’s permanent anxiety over the compositional power of the home results precisely from the virtual potentiality of this space as a material staging ground for compositional power. Israel’s erratic, whack-a-mole implementation of home sealing as a punitive response to antistate expressions is both an advancement of settler colonialism and an expression of Israel’s permanent anxiety as the “present absentee” of the Palestinian continues to fundamentally shape the becoming of the Israel state.
Conclusion: The Global Order of Domestic Destruction
The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the urgency in approaching settler-colonial state logics through a lens situated in decolonial approaches to materialist rhetoric. Here, I have argued that Israel is a settler-colonial state through which the Palestinian people are forced into a violently precarious position. This denial is expressed formally as well as through how Israel manipulates and constructs the built environment of Palestine in a way that severely limits and controls the mobility of the Palestinian people. One primary expression of this is the practice of concrete home sealing. I argue that this specific practice of settler-colonial state building via habitational violence functions communicatively in a number of ways. First, the practice encapsulates the logics underwriting settler colonialism as an ongoing process, rather than an event. By rendering the home unlivable, the walls of the home are transformed into border walls, designating yet another space that Palestinians can no longer traverse. Second, home sealing transforms the Palestinian home into a disciplinary monument of collective punishment, warning those who encounter it that their home and family could be next. Finally, home sealing is an expression of the Israeli state’s permanent anxiety surrounding Palestinian compositional power. Because the home offers an autonomous space where multiple people reside, it lends itself, on a practical level, to the communicative dynamics necessary for anti- or nonstate resistance. Ultimately, the various dynamics of concrete home sealing detailed here highlight the necessity of attending to the communicative effects of state-building practices as enacted through different forms of habitational violence.
In a world where assaults on home life are constantly happening across the globe, attending to the agentic qualities of home life in highly politicized contexts is essential. Dispossession of the home is not unique to Israeli practices of state building. Rather, practices of domestic expropriation and habitational violence are carried out across the world as a mode through which to render certain populations disposable. For instance, in 2011, the final Cabrini-Green building, a now infamous Chicago public housing project, was demolished. While the project started in the 1940s as integrated housing, segregation policies eventually produced a project composed almost entirely of African Americans. This reality was then mobilized as racist justification for depriving the inhabitants of necessary funds and basic needs, such as garbage clean up (trash piles once reached the 15th floor). After forcefully vacating the premises, bull dozers tore off the side of the building, which collapsed into surrounding rubble, creating an image of concrete ruin not substantively different from the documentation of home demolitions in Palestine. A particularly horrific 1903 pogrom in Kishinev (now Moldova) resulted in the destruction of Jewish homes and dozens of Jewish deaths, prompting thousands to flee. In 1923 in Levy County, Florida, the Rosewood massacre resulted in an unknown number of black people killed and an entire town destroyed when a mob of white people violently descended when Black inhabitants banded together to protect themselves from lynching. Other forms of habitational violence manifest in current US American anti-immigrant policy, as the imprisonment of immigrants is a mode of containment for controlling who gets access to a home in the United States. Similarly, the imposition of a border wall along the US-Mexico border which, as Brown points out, shares technology and subcontracting with the Israeli-built wall in the West Bank, ideologically and materially delineates who belongs. While not every instance necessarily shares the same motivations or is carried out through the same means, each one sends a racially laden message: we do not want you living here. In the case of Palestine, the agentic materialism of concrete is utilized as a means by which to materially force the Palestinian people out of their home and off their land. Countless similar instances of domestic violence by different means dot the past and present of the global landscape as dispossessed populations are rendered more precarious. Attending to the interplay between settler-colonial logics and domestic space through a decolonial approach to rhetoric and materialism directs attention to the myriad forms of habitational violence carried out through the agentic and communicative dimensions of state-building practices. Such an approach is vital for understanding how state-building logics account for communicative encounters with the material world as well as how the material world is politically laden, ultimately laying the groundwork for robust theorizations of postnational or decolonial approaches to situating home life within a broader political context.