Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Forensics, denial, Rios Montt, Green Lines and ratshit

Last Monday I had the privilege of seeing Eyal Weizman deliver the 2013 Tom Hurndall Memorial Lecture at Manchester Metropolitan University. Tom, in case you don’t know, was a young MMU student who was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier in 2003 whilst trying to pull Palestinian children out of a street into which the troops were firing. After months on life support, Tom died in 2004.

Eyal Weizman (as well as being one of my persistent intellectual crushes ever since I saw him speak in London a number of years ago), is professor of Spatial & Visual Cultures as Goldsmiths University in London. He’s an Israeli architect who said on Monday that he would like to consider himself “an academic and an activist” – always a tricky balance, although Weizman might be one of the few who manage it. His political take on the situation of Palestine is probably summed up very briefly in two of his comments in the introduction words to his talk – that since Tom’s death we are “not an inch closer to justice in Palestine” and that “in Gaza an entire people are still held hostage to Israeli policies”.

Weizman’s talk, though, was not the standard Palestine stump speech (even if some of the ‘questions’ in the Q&A were, sadly, the usual waffling-speech-masqerading-as-questions which plague most political events). What follows is an attempt to reconstruct the key points of the talk from my notes; apologies to Professor Weizman for an misrepresentations I may have made of his fascinating and sophisticated ideas. I’ve tried not to go beyond making the contents of my notes comprehensible to anyone by myself, instead of trying to create a narrative out of someone else’s material, and the only direct quotations from Weizman are those in “quotation marks” – the rest is my summary. I hope it works.

Key Concepts
proof and denial
testimony and evidence

Denial: a form of political practice which is based on the destruction of traces – not just the negation of a statement but a practice which includes both violence against people but also against the proof that the target was ever even targeted – acts through technology, media, law and manipulation of all of these.
The denial of actions and of atrocities is also related to the denial of the rights of people
In every act/killing denial is folded in on by the larger negation of the right of the Palestinians and their violations

Questions About Truth Production
Obviously affected by epistemological frameworks
The relationship between testimony and material evidence
Questions of who is believed, who can be believed, how belief is constructed and how belief becomes part of the violence of negation

Example 1
Mapping violations – ie settlements = a mapping of violation
Mapping settlements becomes a negation of the negation
Edward Said in the London Review of Books called for a mapping project – necessity of understanding how the occupation operates spatially – despite Said’s fierce critique of and deconstruction of mapping as an imperialist technology
Part of the ‘transformation of the nature of the crime’ – the mapping of the ‘high imperialist’ era was operating in a different environment – when the imperialist could be proud of their activity
In contrast to contemporary colonialism which exists in a framework where theoretically at least the perpetrator is focused on covering up his own acts as he perpetrates them – which requires a logic of mapping and ‘counter-cartography’ to challenge the cartography of imperialism

Example 2
Operation Cast Lead (2008/9)
15-20% of the buildings in Gaza destroyed
Most of the people killed were within buildings, often their own homes – ie there was a total invasion of private space – private space became not just the site of killing but the means of death when people are killed by their homes collapsing in on them
Creating an ‘archaeology of the present’ where war is investigated through its rubble and the ruins become the testifier through the ‘interpretor’ – in this case Goldstone – a well-meaning figure but ultimately reinforces the logic of denial because of the shift from human interviewees to interpretation of physical destruction
The testifier become the material evidence and buildings stand for those who cannot speak – but this is ultimately based on the idea that the international community would not accept the testimony of Palestinians themselves because it is not deemed reliable as proof, so there is a shift from human to non-human evidence, ie forensic investigation which is a denial of people and the truthfulness of certain people

Latin – art of the forum – ie part of rhetoric
But in the modern sense it is objects not people speaking, with a person as the translator for the object
Forensics therefore becomes a relationship between the object, the people standing around it (eg the press listening to Goldstone, or the readers of the report), and the translator of the object

pyramids of gaza

The Pyramids of Gaza
Especially in Rafah – the specific result of an encounter between the standard Middle Eastern 3-storey residential building format and a D9 Caterpillar bulldozer
The pyramid is formed by the bulldozer cutting through the peripheral columns of the house but not being able to reach the central column, so the floors of the house collapse down around the central point forming a pyramid shape
Like the pyramids of Giza they have become a vernacular architecture specific to one region

War crimes
These start with an event or material reality and construct a chain of association – they arise from intertwined units within a military framework sitting within an ideological and geopolitical framework – ie it is impossible to resolve war crimes in the same way as civilian crimes, that is, with a straight line of accountability from perpetrator to victim – and to try and do so is a “huge mistake”
For Israel, this mistake is highly useful because it allows the scapegoating of one person and the ignoring of the political framework within which he acted, thus exonerating the political environment by placing the blame on an individual
In the context of war crimes, forensics therefore needs to shift from the “banal criminal” level of investigation to become a radical political force

Weizman is part of a UN investigation into the effects of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Gaza – effectively “the largest ever murder investigation”
But hindered by a conceptual problem of seeing drone warfare as just about robotics and not about the geopolitical environment of siege by economic and political means – not just in Gaza but eg Waziristan
All of this is part of a denial process

Serial numbers are emblazoned on every building in Gaza
eg N300338
They are drawn by the Hamas government because the addresses of houses are often unclear, especially in the camps and especially in areas of widespread destruction
But all buildings have them – ie all buildings have been reconceptualised as potential ruins
It is possible to unpack the process of a battle by the type of destruction used on each building – bulldozers, detonation, aerial bombardment etc
Forensic analyst used by Goldstone – accidental but telling photo of him making a presentation, standing in front of a photograph of a Palestinian woman, but because he is in front of the projector he obliterates her, just as his testimony obliterates that of the actual survivors of the destruction of Zaytoun neighbourhood

Increased use by Israel of international law since 2006 attack on Lebanon
Also increased employment of international lawyers
This is not just about justifying its actions but about reorienting facts – another aspect of negation – for example: the ‘warning’ leaflets scattered on Gaza before attacks – phone and written warnings legally shift the status of people who receive them before their houses are bombed, recategorises them as human shields ie people who can legally be killed – ie there is an increasing use of legal techniques to transform people from protected to non-protected categories of target – civilians transformed into permitted targets
Leaflets used because phones often cut off before an attack, leaflets therefore conceptualised as a general way of supposedly informing people and creating a ‘kill zone’ out of their neighbourhoods even if the people are sheltering inside their homes
‘Knock on roof’ missiles or white phosphorus also declared to be ‘warnings’ for people to leave the area even if doing so whilst these are being dropped can be fatal

Hamas Authority ‘book of destruction’
Around 7,000 entries
Mainly buildings and their serial numbers, plus a description of how the building is destroyed
Called by some Gazans ‘destruction of destruction’ – because the refugee camps were simultaneously present and absent places, the homes of the refugees but also an embodiment of the destruction of Palestine
So to destroy them is a destruction of that destruction – seen by some refugees as a necessary beginning to the process of return

Decolonizing Architecture work
On the ruins of the Palestinian Parliament building in Abu Dis, on the Green Line – built on this site as a political statement because it is as close to the Old City as was permitted by the Israeli authorities without it crossing the Green Line, although the building is now cut off from much of its constituency by the Separation Wall, part of the Al Quds University compound
Decolonizing Architecture identified the location of the Green Line as being on the Israeli side of the wall, but then found that there was no exact knowledge of where is lay in reality, so “nerdishly” paid a surveyor – a Palestinian from East Jerusalem – to identify the exact location, and found that 1/3 of the building is actually built on the Israeli side of the Green Line
“this is kind of how building culture is where I come from”
The surveyor apologised for the result, but Weizman calls it “fabulous” – because Palestinians are divided between so many different places inside and outside Palestine and have so many different constituencies that this building at least can appeal to constituencies in the West Bank and ’48
But there is also, legally speaking, a third area within the building – the area of the line itself – all lines on maps cover some kind of area but the Green Line on the original maps is even fatter than the lines on modern maps – allegedly because when Moshe Dayan and King Abdullah drew it on a map they did so with the paper spread out on the warm bonnet of a jeep and where the map was touching the hotter parts of the bonnet the ink spread further (the same problem applies with the maps used for Oslo, though the margin of error is smaller)
But this gave rise to the artistic project of determining what is ‘in the line’ – commented by the Palestinian surveyor as being the only real Palestine left, which hasn’t been taken by either Israel or the corrupt PA – about 5.5m in thickness
This line in the actual building was ‘cleaned’ – literally of “ratshit” – in common with the symbolic ‘cleaning of Tahrir Square‘ during the Egyptian revolutionary uprising and the assertion of popular control in doing this – to create a symbolic space for those excluded Palestinians
Then ‘built’ parts of the line as art installations at various sites around the world as symbols of the desire for a single and undivided state of Palestine

Key point overall – failure of human rights and international law discourse to locate the issues they address in a wider context of politics and economics

Question about the wider applicability of critique of forensics on other human rights fields – eg Guatemala and Spanish Civil War investigations
Transformation of the human rights field by the introduction of forensics – related to the emergence of human rights in the 1970s as a discourse which gave a voice to the individual within the totalitarian state – but reframing of that discourse after the fall of the USSR when Western liberalism had to rethink what it meant by totalitarian
Also challenge of the limitations of testimony
And of the individualistic nature of human rights concepts – where do those killed by the siege of Gaza come into it? How to think about those whose lives are shortened by military action or by state action – eg thousands of indigenous Guatemalans – critique of Rios Montt trial in Guatemala at the moment
Cannot deal with these people within a sense of linear causality and linear forensics – need a concept of ‘field causality’ from different directions – cannot just look at the people being dug out of the mass graves with a bullet hole in the head, also need to look at those who at the moment are seen as having ‘died’ rather than ‘been killed’
The development of a new ‘radical forensics?’

One comment on “Forensics, denial, Rios Montt, Green Lines and ratshit

  1. Tony Ruley
    May 19, 2013

    Your article is almost beyond parody! Twisting everything to back up your narrative of hatred against Israel. No problem. Just remember that Israel will exist long after you’re gone.

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