Waste Siege
The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine
Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins

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INTRODUCTION

ON MARCH 27, 2007, A SEWAGE TANK COLLAPSED IN THE GAZA STRIP, submerging the Palestinian village of Umm al-Nasir in many tons of raw sewage and killing five people. When the Palestinian Authority’s interior minister arrived on the scene a few hours later, he was chased out by the gunfire of angry villagers. Two and a half years later I attended the premiere screening of Gaza Is Floating, a documentary featuring the incident. The screening took place in the West Bank in the Quaker-run Ramallah Friends Meetinghouse, a beautiful stone building in Ramallah’s heart.1

A coalition of sanitation-focused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international aid agencies, and Authority ministries had advertised the event, and a mixed Palestinian and expat audience of about thirty people attended. As we sat on white-painted pews, footage of the disaster in Umm al-Nasir rolled: people wore wetsuits to wade chest-deep through sewage, and a boy sat on a door in a lake of shit, paddling through it with a wooden plank.

We knew the odor that the film, as a visual medium, was unable to convey. Most of us had at some point driven through Wadi al-Nar on the road connecting the central West Bank to the south. A river of sewage flows through Wadi al-Nar. It flows across the West Bank, downhill and eastward from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Even those expats renting apartments in newly constructed Ramallah neighborhoods had likely smelled sewage backing up in overburdened drainage systems.

I had just moved to the West Bank. Attending the screening was one of my first steps as I tried to piece together how Palestinians manage waste that, during earlier visits, had for me been only a putrid but indistinct backdrop to the occupation. Like other travelers to Palestine, I had casually observed the difference between the spotless sidewalks of West Jerusalem, now a predominantly Jewish-Israeli area, and the debris-strewn road leading to Ramallah, a major Palestinian city, from Qalandiya checkpoint, which separates Jerusalem from the West Bank. I had smelled the odor of rotten eggs—sewage stench—in Tulkarem refugee camp. I had learned that Israeli settlers and soldiers use wastes to harass Palestinians, and in Hebron’s Old City I had seen chicken wire fencing above Palestinian shops, placed to catch trash thrown from above by settlers. I knew that Israeli trucks dump wastes on Palestinian farmlands.

But that night on my walk to the screening, I trained my gaze to foreground refuse. I noticed men in vests wheeling carts, picking up litter from the sidewalks in Ramallah’s market. I saw plastic bags of bread hanging off dumpster handles and an elderly woman sweeping the sidewalk outside her gate. I remembered seeing empty cardboard boxes stacked atop the makeshift roofs of fruit and vegetable stands in Jenin’s fresh produce market (see figure 2). I also recalled notes I had written the night before, following dinner with a friend named Ziad.2 Ziad grew up in Balata refugee camp in Nablus, a city forty-five minutes north of Ramallah. As we ate, he told the story of his brother’s death at the hands of Israeli soldiers. His story, surprisingly, was also about waste.

Ziad’s younger brother, Faysal, had been active in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a secular coalition of armed Palestinian groups based in the Occupied Territory, during the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada. Palestinians across Israel/Palestine had been participating in years of large-scale demonstrations and strikes.3 Some had taken up arms to protest Israeli dispossession, violence, and humiliation. The intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2006, had been characterized by intensified Israeli military violence against Palestinians, including incursions into, and closures of, cities and villages, targeted assassinations, mass arrests, bombings, and demolitions (Baroud 2006; Tabar 2007a, 2007b).

Faysal had gone into hiding after learning the Israeli army wanted him. To intimidate his relatives into informing on him, the army had ransacked his family home three times, demolishing some of its walls (cf. Weizman 2007, 185–220). Soldiers had left Ziad and Faysal’s elderly parents to sift through the humiliating rubble all over the floor, the broken tables, and the contents of their cupboards. After news got back to the family that the soldiers had found and killed Faysal, the debris had become a testament to the period during which he had successfully evaded them. Sipping a beer, Ziad explained that his parents had cleaned the house with neighbors’ help but had left some bullet holes unrepaired for future visitors to see.4

Waste Siege is about waste and waste management in the absence of a state. More precisely, it is about waste in the absence of an indigenous state (Palestine) but in the hostile military presence of another state (Israel). In 1918, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the British carved the part of the Ottoman Empire south of what was to become Lebanon, north of Egypt, and west of what was to become Transjordan (and later Jordan) into the British mandate of Palestine. As a result of the violent events of the 1947-49 nakba, or catastrophe, through which the Israeli state was established, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced, between four hundred and six hundred Palestinian villages were razed, and over thirteen thousand Palestinians were killed (al-Aref 2013, 177). British colonial governance of Palestine was replaced by governance by three other states. Egypt came to administer what came to be called the Gaza Strip. The newly formed Israeli state seized the territory now understood as Israel proper along with the western half of Jerusalem. And the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan annexed eastern Jerusalem and a kidney-shaped piece of land west of the Jordan River, which came to be known as the West Bank (see figure 1).

FIGURE 2. Used boxes sit atop a fruit and vegetable stand in Jenin, 2010. Photograph by the author.

Approximately 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee their homes during the nakba, taking refuge in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria and to other areas of Mandate Palestine. Over the next decade, camps like Balata, where Ziad grew up, came to be established in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank. Refugees receive services there from an agency called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was established in 1950 and which provides basic health care, education, welfare, and infrastructure maintenance like trash collection to over five million Palestinian refugees.5

In 1967 there was a second mass displacement, which Palestinians call the naksa, or setback, during and following a war between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Displacing another 280,000 to 325,000 people from the West Bank, Gaza, and the Syrian Golan Heights, Israel seized the three territories by force, along with East Jerusalem, and has occupied and administered them since. Over six million Palestinians now live under some form of Israeli rule, and a similar number live in the diaspora, or shattat. Though the Palestinian Authority, which is staffed mainly by Palestinians, has functioned alongside UNRWA in parts of the West Bank and Gaza as an interim government since 1995, its control, like its territorial jurisdiction, is fragmentary at best. This book is about how, and with what effect, waste siege emerges from the palimpsestic relation between state absence and presence that results.

Where infrastructures function to make wastes disappear, people need not think much about waste (Nagle 2013; Reno 2015b). Humans’ experiences of waste are in this sense inseparable from the infrastructures that manage them. Today, this means they are also inseparable from the state because of the central role states play in establishing and operating infrastructures. Most people’s experiences of waste are shaped by their state’s allocation of resources to waste management, by the relative evenness with which the state distributes waste infrastructures and services across territory, and by the extent to which different subgroups are perceived as exposable to waste, which is to say disposable. The ways in which and the extent to which a population is exposed to waste can thus be diagnostic of the nature of governance. And populations’ relative exposure to waste can be part of how people evaluate everything from state legitimacy to definitions of the public good and their own role in pursuing it.

My postdinner notes sketched my impression of Ramallah: “Litter everywhere. Uninhabited lots with half-built or half-crumbling houses. Scrap metal, fabrics that could’ve been curtains or duvets.” What can these disparate scenes tell us, I wondered, about how waste helps shape forms of sociality, politics, and self-understanding for people living under conditions of nonsovereignty?6 Before answering this question, I use the following two sections to describe the types of waste that make up waste siege in Palestine and the type of siege they enforce.

WASTES AND SCALES

The waste that surrounds just under three million West Bank Palestinians is both waste the occupying state produces and waste Palestinians produce themselves. Given that subjugated, often indigenous communities tend to become dumping grounds for the discards of those more powerful, including those who have colonized their lands, it is perhaps not surprising that the Israeli-occupied West Bank is a dumpsite for Israeli waste.7 Israel transfers to the West Bank urban and industrial by-products including sewage sludge, infectious medical waste, used oils, solvents, metals, electronic waste, and batteries. There are at least fifteen formal Israeli waste treatment facilities in the West Bank to which these untreated wastes go with the Israeli state’s support, though the Israeli government has not made available to the public information about them or about informal Israeli dumping in the West Bank (BʾTselem 2017a, 5-6).

Indicative of the scale of informal dumping is the fact that in 2014 the Civil Administration, the branch of the Israeli army that has administered civilian affairs in the West Bank since Israel occupied the territory, established an entire unit to monitor Israeli waste smuggling into the West Bank.8 The administration boasts that the David Unit has “thwarted hundreds of attempts to smuggle waste” (COGAT 2017a). Countless more attempts continue unthwarted.

Israel built its first Jewish-only settlement in the West Bank the same year its occupation began. As of 2017 over 413,000 Israeli settlers lived in the West Bank and over 214,000 in East Jerusalem (Peace Now, n.d.). In addition to extensive, fenced-off housing, settlements feature military bases, schools, malls, universities, factories, and government buildings. Settlements generate 446,000 tons of solid waste annually, most of which they dispose of within the West Bank (ARIJ 2015, 1). Largely located on hilltops, many settlements also dispose of their raw sewage downhill by spilling it into West Bank valleys. Israeli waste dumping in the West Bank contravenes the Geneva Conventions and binding multilateral environmental agreements such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, to which both Israel and Palestine (as the Palestinian Authority) are party, and is increasingly coming to light through the work of Israeli, Palestinian, and international NGOs (Abdel-Qader and Roberts-Davis 2018).

Less visible to the outside observer, however, whether from a distance or even from closer up, is how Palestinians dispose of—and think about—their own waste. That includes municipal sewage, over 90 percent of which flows untreated into the ground; household trash composed of materials like paper, glass, plastics, and food; agricultural refuse like pesticide containers and plastic irrigation sheets; commercial waste like butcheries’ refuse and shops’ cardboard packaging; hazardous materials from hospitals; concrete, steel, and wood debris from construction projects; and sludge from olive oil, soap, and plastic bag factories. Meanwhile, Palestinians today import, buy, and discard goods at unprecedented rates, while worrying that what they buy is a waste of money and that acts of discarding make them wasteful.9 Earlier modes of reuse and recycling have all but disappeared, and existing wastewater infrastructures cannot sustain increasing volumes of sewage as the occupied population grows.

Waste besieges different people differently and at different scales. Built into the Oslo Accords that established the Authority was the prospect that the Authority would eventually turn into a future Palestinian state, but only if it could demonstrate its “readiness” for statehood to the international community and to Israel (Khan, Giacaman, and Amundsen 2014; N. Brown 2003; Rashid Khalidi 2006; Parsons 2005; Schulz 1999). Readiness, I learned, includes evidence that the Authority can protect the environment. That condition was written into the Accords themselves, which codified waste as a matter of environmental concern and, crucially, framed the West Bank as an environment “shared” between Israel and the Authority. This principle became justification for continued Israeli involvement in Palestinian waste management in the West Bank and generated an urgent need to construct large-scale infrastructures, thereby proving the Authority’s ability to govern, as well as a need to account for “leakage” of Palestinians’ waste. As the Umm al-Nasir story demonstrates, Authority officials also face siege from “below” in the form of scrutiny from the Palestinians they purportedly represent and govern.10

When sewage seeps into the West Bank’s aquifers, furthermore, it poses challenges to the farmers whose crops depend on freshwater springs but also to the Palestinian engineers struggling to convince treatment plant donors that Palestinians are capable of handling sophisticated equipment. Many Palestinians live in no-man’s-lands where the Israeli military fails to collect trash and the Authority lacks the jurisdiction to do so. When they burn trash piling up in public dumpsters, the flaming garbage diffuses into children’s lungs dioxins that are difficult for Palestinian physicians to detect. Israelis and foreign observers may read the smoke as a sign of Palestinians’ cultural backwardness and conclude that Palestinians are unfit to govern themselves, hence that an Israeli presence is needed in the West Bank to protect not only the environment but even Palestinians (from) themselves. Meanwhile, the odor of burning trash, for some Palestinians working abroad to support their families in the stifled occupied economy, may be the smell of home.

INVISIBLE SIEGE

Waste siege juxtaposes two words to deepen our understanding of each. It offers a way of understanding siege that differs in some respects from military sieges. Military sieges encircle from without. Seen from the viewpoint of waste, the idea of siege expands to include emissions from within, whether from within a territory or a body. Waste siege is constituted as much by movement and flow of waste as it is by encirclement—for example, by inflows of commodities that people discard and by outflows and circulations of refuse from economic and household activities.11 It is created by the chemicals and particles that waft and leak out of attempts to control those flows. People cannot escape even if they leave the place where the waste first found them. Its toxins follow them in their bodies, and its dilemmas plague their minds as they move.

The study of waste as political material and the study of populations exposed to waste by the state reveal that many of the burdensome experiences of life under occupation in the West Bank offer less overt signs of who is responsible for them.12 When a Jenin resident smells refuse or stops in the street because her shoe strap breaks days after she purchased the shoes, an array of possible actors is available for blame. She may choose to blame street sweepers, UNRWA, the American government that withdrew its funding for UNRWA (Wong 2018), the political party in charge of the municipality, the Authority, herself for walking that route or buying those shoes, China (where the shoes may have been made), the shopkeeper who sold them to her, or “the situation” (al-wadiʿ), a term Palestinians often use to refer to the occupation. She might blame the individualist ethos (anania) many see as having replaced the mass, cross-class solidarity that characterized life during the first intifada between 1987 and 1993 (Taraki 2008a, 2008b), an ethos many remember as having inspired them to collectively keep streets clean. Ziad’s parents’ refusal to repair the bullet holes offers one condensed view of what adjudication of responsibility looks like. That Gazan villagers took up arms against a Palestinian official in Umm al-Nasir offers another.

Waste siege creates this indeterminacy around responsibility as a second-order burden following the first-order burdens (e.g., odor, disease, anxiety) of waste itself.13 Blame is not predetermined, established, or fixed. People experience waste as a material violation more open to interpretation than other forms of violence like bombings or incursions. Military siege makes a spectacle of the prowess of the besieger. It can be understood as a form of authoritarian governance, top down or outside in, an intensified form of rule that creates its own forms of order and that people can and will attribute to its presence. In the infamous nine-hundred-day blockade of Leningrad by Nazi-led forces, for example, over 1.5 million people died, largely from starvation but also when residents murdered each other to obtain ration cards or to eat human flesh (Reid 2011, 284–87). There could have been little question that those who ate wallpaper paste and shoe leather, and a woman who reportedly fed her eighteen-month-old to her three older children, did so as a result of the siege. Historians of World War II do not hesitate to place events in Leningrad during those nine hundred days under the title of “siege.” While there can be debate about who or what may have provoked military siege, the siege’s perpetrator and the fact of the siege itself appear self-evident.

Waste as siege, by contrast, makes accountability more opaque. Waste siege shares the feature of indeterminacy with other contexts: for example, after industrial disasters, where it is hard to trace or prove the toxic cause of disease (e.g., Fortun 2001; Murphy 2006; Petryna 2003). Part of this has to do with waste as a material type: it indexes the presence of people and processes that produced it without the producers having to be present.14 Waste’s murky indexicality can invite discursive displacement (Ortner 2006) of its burdens onto singular actors, making its adjudication misguided or perpetually incomplete. In Palestine, it was striking that despite the range of possible responsible parties for a given burden of waste, people were quick to select one as their primary focus. They tended to narrow or hyperindividuate responsibility—for example, onto themselves or onto the Authority. Or they tended to open it up enormously by blaming China, for instance. Either way, frames for accountability seldom accounted for multiple actors.15 The diffuse material processes that lead wastes to besiege were obscured.

Waste siege can of course enact what Rob Nixon (2011) calls “slow violence” on a population by imperceptibly wreaking havoc on bodies (Roberts 2017) and ecologies, as when sewage nitrates percolate into an aquifer, and when even nitrates’ casualties are invisible, as when intestinal troubles appear only years later. Yet waste siege differs from slow violence in that the waste that constitutes it is both mystifying and perceptible at the same time. People experience waste siege more acutely than they experience structural violence. Waste siege is always an encounter with sensorily accessible materials. It is there for all to see, smell, and feel. It is its relationship to ethics and politics that is obscure and mystifying.

That waste siege obscures the diffuse reasons for waste’s burdens means that waste siege is always a problem whose sources exceed consciousness of them. It also means that the relationship between waste siege and military siege—in this case settler colonial occupation—tends to be obscured as well. Waste siege is not just another feature of occupation. It exceeds occupation. But it also interacts with occupation, distracting people from occupation. This is what reorienting politics means. Waste siege is sensorially obtrusive, yet blame varies too much to stick on anyone or anything in particular. It comes without consensus about responsibility. Even when waste is present in overabundance, the chains of responsibility leading back to occupation and to Palestinians’ resultant nonsovereignty tend to be less visible.16

Waste siege’s obscuring quality means that the people with whom I spent time did not always understand their own uses of techniques for mitigating waste’s burdens as political. Like military siege, waste siege requires improvisations in order to navigate the everyday challenges siege poses, like scarcity (Maček 2009). People ration goods, develop barter systems. Rationing may be seen by the besieged as a kind of resistance, as a way of remaining alive. Palestinians usually associate the condition of being political, and politics as a field of action, with encounters with Israel. Yet for them their efforts to manage waste siege are not resistance (muqawama) or steadfastness (sumud), the term used by Palestinians to connote national endurance in the face of colonial processes (Meari 2014; Peteet 2017, 171). Instead they view practices for ameliorating waste siege as matter-of-fact, mundane avenues for relieving pressures of equally matter-of-fact, if undesirable, materials in their midst. Without agreement on culpability, “resistance,” the concept that has dominated many observers’ understanding of Palestinian society and history for the past several decades (Zureik 2003), lacks an object and, arguably, is a less relevant analytic.

The section below situates waste siege in Palestine’s historical context, arguing that waste siege materialized in the 2000s, phenomenologically displacing direct Israeli violence. It lays the groundwork for the two sections following it, which explain how the particular arrangement of occupation, Authority governance, and Palestinians’ dependence on foreign aid together came to form what we can think of as rule by waste siege.

NOTES

1. The film was directed by Fady Al-Ghorra and produced by LifeSource.

2. I have changed most people’s names to pseudonyms throughout the text. I have kept real names where people asked me to do so or where people spoke with me in their official capacities.

3. I use Israel/Palestine to refer to the combination of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

4. For a discussion of Palestinians who choose not to rebuild their homes after they are demolished and on the politics of memorializing camp architecture as refugee heritage, see Allan (2013); Feldman (2015b, 2016); Petti, Hilal, and Weizman (2013); Plascov (1981); Ramadan (2010); Schiff (1995); R. Sayigh (1993, 1995).

5. On Palestinians’ experiences of UNRWA, see, e.g., Allan (2013); Feldman (2018); Gabiam (2012); Hanafi, Hilal, and Takkenberg (2014); Salam (1994); R. Sayigh (1993). For analysis of the category of the “Palestine refugee,” see Akram (2002); Feldman (2012).

6. For another iteration of the question of how sovereignty and toxicity relate, see Langwick (2018).

7. Toxic dumping on the lands of indigenous peoples and in areas inhabited by the poor and the racially marginalized has been well documented. See, e.g., Auyero and Swiston (2009); P. Brown (1997); Bullard (2000); Checker (2005); Cole and Foster (2001); Lerner (2010); Little (2014); Lora-Wainwright (2013); Pellow (2002); Szasz (1994); Voyles (2015).

8. The name of the administration was changed from “Military” to “Civil” Administration in 1981.

9. Palestine’s imports have recently increased at an annualized rate of 4.8 percent—for example, from $3.36 billion in 2011 to $4.95 billion in 2016 (Observatory of Economic Complexity n.d.). Thanks to Kareem Rabie for alerting me to this resource.

10. This book is one of the first book-length ethnographies that simultaneously examines everyday life both under and within the Palestinian Authority. It is the first study to tack back and forth between Authority employees’ experiences governing and the experiences of the people they govern, and it is one of the first to focus on the Authority’s infrastructural functions rather than those of its security services or economic visionaries. In this sense it echoes Ilana Feldman’s (2008, 2015a) historical work on Gaza. For work on the Palestinian security services and repressive functions, see Farsakh (2012); Frisch (1997); Lia (1999); Ghanim (2008); Nossek and Rinnawi (2003); Parsons (2005); Tartir (2015b); Turner (2009); Zureik, Lyon, and Abu-Laban (2010). For important work on the Authority’s economic policies, see Dana (2014, 2015b); Daoudi and Khalidi (2008); Haddad (2016); Raja Khalidi and Samour (2011); Tartir (2015a).

11. For another ethnography framed around dilemmas, see Hutchinson (1996).

12. Such studies contribute to discussions of Palestinian nationalism and resistance that have generally presented Palestinians as having a clear sense of the object they are resisting and of the reason for committing to the nationalist movement. Examples include Abufarha (2009); Rashid Khalidi (2006); Meari (2014); Peteet (1994); Tamari (1983). This ethnography takes as its starting point the observation that the period after the second intifada is characterized by what many are calling the collapse of the national movement. See, e.g., Allen (2013). With such a collapse comes murkiness around the goals of political action and indeed the parameters that make any act political.

13. On indeterminacy, see Csordas (1993); Fisch (2013); Hird (2013); Morgensen (2016); Samuels (2001); Weszkalnys (2015).

14. On wastes as indexical, see Reno (2015a). For a relevant consideration of indexicality, see Kohn (2013).

15. On environmental framing, see McKee (2018).

16. For a recent, related discussion of settler colonial capitalism and toxicity, see Murphy (2017).