Reflections on 34 Years of Field Research in the Israeli Occupied Territories

by Glenn Bowman

This essay is part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip

I write with a visceral sense of loss, aware that producing this piece in support of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) sets the seal on a future ban on my entry into Israel and the (still very much) Occupied Territories.

I’ve signed various petitions (most visibly the Commitment by UK Scholars to the Rights of Palestinians, Guardian 27 October 2015), advised the Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine, and written to the Israeli Science Foundation in response to a request for refereeing of a research grant application to decline on the grounds that I am…engaged in the institutional boycott of entities supporting the occupation of the West Bank (and the ISF certainly does that through its ‘scientific’ and other funding) and for that reason cannot provide you with a review. I’m willing to do all I can to assist individual academics in their research and its dissemination but as a scholar very familiar with the consequences of settler and state projects in the occupied territories I cannot ethically assist in the maintenance of that machinery (3 Feb 2016).

These actions, as well as publishing the current essay, put me in clear violation of the new Israeli law blocking foreign supporters of BDS from entering into the country (a law proposed by the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party and backed on 7 March 2017 at the Knesset by 46 of the 74 parliamentarians voting). My engagement means that nearly thirty-five years of field research in Jerusalem and the West Bank will cease, as will my face to face contacts with close friends (both Palestinian and Israeli) in a land I have grown to love. Risking entry, on the off-chance that I might “slip the net” at Ben Gurion Airport, is–while attractive to a still adventurous anthropologist–highly unethical and puts friends and colleagues in danger. The law calls for pre-expulsion interrogation of any suspect foreign national during which they will “be asked to name their Palestinian contacts or give over their Facebook account details, allowing Israeli officials to search their friend lists, communications, comments and event history” (Lizzie Dearden, “Israel Parliament Approves Travel Ban for Foreign Supporters of BDS Movement,” The Independent, 7 March 2017). 

Why am I willing to call a halt to three and a half decades of rewarding field research on topics as diverse as Christian pilgrimage, Muslim-Christian-Jewish sharing of holy sites, tourism and tour guiding, sectarian as well as national mobilisation, and practices of walling and encystation while simultaneously exiling myself from close friends, stimulating colleagues, and a landscape that–though in many ways increasingly defiled–I continue to find beautiful and engaging? One element of an answer to that question has precisely to do with the changes I’ve witnessed–both physically and socially–over that 35 years.

When I first lived in Jerusalem’s Old City between 1983 and 1985 it was possible to drive north to the Syria-Golan Heights border, south to the Gulf of Aqaba, and southwest to Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border. These were trips I was able to make with Palestinian friends encountering no more than the very occasional identity check. We would pass, on hilltops overlooking the roads, small clusters of trailers housing settlers, but they seemed infrequent and, to the untutored eye, relatively inconsequential. Since Oslo, and the institution of a fierce regime of permanent and “flying” checkpoints, as well as the ever-expanding extent of the separation wall, movement for anyone is fiercely impeded whilst for Palestinians it is near impossible, even within the so-called Areas A and B. Ten years ago in Beit Sahour, a small town neighbouring Bethlehem where I have worked since 1990 on the knitting of traditional practices and Christian-Muslim political solidarities, a key informant (Christian and not political) told me that his sons considered a trip to Beit Jala (3.5 miles distance by road) to be a major expedition. Because of the wall and checkpoints they had never been to Jerusalem (6.4 miles) and they–and he–feared trying to go south to Hebron (26 miles) because of the danger of arrest or settler attack. Since then things have only worsened. 

In 1990 Jabal Abu Ghneim was a pine covered mountain between Beit Sahour and Jerusalem, but a year later its 457 acres were expropriated from the Greek Orthodox Church and residents of Beit Sahour and nearby Um Taba to build Har Homa, a settlement with a population, as of 2013, of 25,000 secular and orthodox Jews (Beit Sahour’s population in that year was 14,381). In 2003 the Israeli wall was extended well into Palestinian territory to “protect” Har Homa, cutting off Sahouris from their olive groves and enclosing behind guarded gates a housing project the Greek Orthodox community had funded and built for poor families. 17% of Beit Sahour’s land has now been expropriated by the illegal–and wall enforced–expansion of Jerusalem’s boundaries. In August 2011 plans for a further 903 new settlement units on 75 acres of expropriated land behind the wall were passed, with building commencing in mid-2014; new plans for Har Homa West (1600 units on 110 acres of the confiscated land below Mar Elyas Monastery) await operationalisation.

Beit Sahour’s situation is far from exceptional. The massive expansion to the south and west of Bethlehem of the settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc (11 settlements east of the Green Line – the “border” marking the ceasefire of the 1967 war – covering 69.8 square kilometres and housing 60,000 settlers) forces local Palestinian populations into smaller and smaller spaces. In territories close to, but east of, the Green Line, villages such as Wadi Foquin, Battir, Al Walaja, Husan, and Nahhalin are encircled by extensions of the wall impeding the movement of goods and persons from and into the rest of the West Bank and leaving residents (increasingly elderly) subject to attacks by the occupants of the nearby settlements who want to take their lands. In Husan alone, settlers, often supported by soldiers, have burned and uprooted many hundreds of olive trees over the past three years.

Checkpoints, closures, walling and more egregious assaults serve to break the back of the Palestinian economy and, in so doing, to force emigration on those with the resources to leave and rage on those who can only helplessly watch their lands, their families and their lives stripped away from them. Members of the Palestinian diaspora who returned to Beit Sahour after Oslo to invest their savings in building lives in their homeland left quickly after it became evident that Oslo was a ploy to structurally segregate populations and destroy the resources that might allow a Palestinian state. I remember the Old City of Jerusalem from my early days of fieldwork as a bustling community hard to move through not only because of crowds of locals, tourists and Israelis but also because shopkeepers were always anxious to talk. However, during my most recent visits I have found the city sullen and angry, dominated by armed soldiers and settlers lording over Palestinians cut off from their livelihoods both by the forced separation of East Jerusalem from its local economic catchment areas and by the diminished flow of tourists that is nonetheless channelled away from Palestinian shops by fear and guides. The hopeless violence of the “intifada of knives” (the current anarchic phenomenon of individual, often teenage, Palestinians armed only with kitchen knives attacking groups of soldiers) is an inevitable product of this situation, and it is tragic and unjust that the Israeli state uses the rage it induces among Palestinians as an excuse for furthering its structural violence against them.

Israel as a state and its universities as​ ideological state apparatuses are deeply implicated in a process of what can only be designated, despite a gradualness which seems nonetheless inexorable, as ethnic cleansing. Israel’s universities and research centres are very much a necessary part of the deracination I have described above as well as of the dehumanisation that mobilises it. The exclusion of ‘67 Palestinians (those brought under Israeli rule as a result of the 1967 war) from Israeli higher education, and the stifling of Palestinian universities, reveal Israel’s educational institutions as active parts of a policy of racially based population separation and Palestinian immiseration. The implication of the universities, and Israeli research institutions, in the development of the occupation’s hardware (weaponry, surveillance apparatus, walling technologies) and software (demographic strategies, socio-psychological tactics, urban and rural planning, etc.) reveal the Israeli state’s weaponisation of knowledge. I will not enter into discussion of “good” vs. “bad’” Israeli anthropologists despite knowing that both exist within Israeli academia; the boycott is not of individuals but of institutions. Our call for the American Anthropological Association formally to boycott relations with the Israeli knowledge/power machine is a call to sunder ties with a system working to destroy a people and a culture. The fact that the Israeli state has passed the above-mentioned law against supporting BDS indicates that the state recognises, and fears, the power of boycott. That response should impel all of us concerned with human rights to commit to this hopefully short​-term tactic.

Glenn Bowman is Professor of Socio-Historical Anthropology at the University of Kent