The skin of fingertips contains the highest density of nerve endings of any body part. From them pain, touch, pressure, temperature are conveyed through the hands’ vivid sensitivity. There is also something ultimately human about hands, and personal. They say that is part of what makes them one of the hardest things to dissect when medical students start their training. Hands are as individual, as emotional and peculiar, as expressive as a face. Anyone who has spent time in the Middle East knows how their movements in space can describe a language of emphasis and explanation, their messages colorful, immediate, often hot and affecting. In Palestine as anywhere, holding hands can be a prelude to a kiss, shaking them an assurance of goodwill.
In Rula Halawani’s black and white photographs, hands tell stories not of romance and friendship, but of apprehension and waiting, of inspection, violation, and instruction. In these photos of faceless bodies, torsos face torsos across the cinder blocks of checkpoints, and the hands, touching at the edges of presented identity cards, in mid-motion or at rest, meet halfway across that vast distance separating the occupier and the occupied.
This series of pictures serenely and forcefully presents the small details of checkpoint protocol when, repeatedly and constantly, Palestinians must submit their hands, bags, bellies, and identities to the scrutiny of Israeli soldiers. The gloom of black and white evokes the dank and heavy chilliness of the occupation’s smothering proximity. Lack of color reflects the flat, unremarkable nature of these now monotonous checkpoint scenes.
Through each image we see yet another way in which the occupation asserts itself everywhere and close-up– smooth men’s hands folded with polite composure, bejeweled female hands resting impatiently on cement blockades, a teenage hand swallowed by a too-long sweatshirt sleeve clasping an unzipped backpack, fingers laced with worry-beads discretely lifting sweater from stomach, dutiful hands opening packages and briefcases to the required searches.
As everyone in Palestine/Israel knows, checkpoints are not merely pragmatic arrangements on behalf of Israeli security. Checkpoints are tools of discipline and punishment, dramatic displays of Israeli power and Palestinians’ lack of it. That’s why so many of the clashes between soldiers and stone-chucking youth happened at checkpoints. An expression of Palestinians’ refusal of the material and symbolic clamps on their lives and futures. But Halawani’s photos don’t focus on this drama. Instead, they show us the calm, even boring reiteration of submission that happens when soldiers demand their displays of Palestinian vulnerability. The sheer volume of photos in this series emphasizes this banality, while at the same time each image proffers a distinct tone in a range of emotions—concerned, resigned, blasé, worried, sarcastic, edgy, and enduring. Every one distinct even if subdued.
Palestinians’ freedom of movement and personal security has been curtailed by a number of occupation measures, including some 700 checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza, the network of forbidden roads restricting travel, curfews, and now the Separation or Apartheid wall being built through the West Bank. Not to mention the lack of free passage between Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Some checkpoints, referred to as “flying” checkpoints, arise in a matter of hours in new locations, rewriting the landscape of permissible travel. All of these prevent or delay Palestinians from going home, reaching job or hospital. And the obstacle course map shifts from day to day. In the context of a belligerent occupation ceaselessly bombarding the entire area, little was taken for granted, naturalized, or sucked into the realm of the habitual, other than the fact of ceaseless insecurity and invasion.
This mutability of power and space has prompted a new dexterous language among Palestinian travelers, the now universally understood sign language of people living under a checkpoint-filled occupation. While Halawani’s photographs show Palestinian hands tensely immobile and restrained behind the soldiers’ domineering wall of gestures and weaponry, at so many other moments those same hands have twisted, flailed, and directed on the roads. From one car, a quick twist of a hand writes a question mark in the air, posing the general query, “What’s going on?” From the facing car, a back and forth swipe of fingers pointed down replies, “The road’s closed,” which is usually followed by a spinning index finger, telling the interlocutor to turn around, there’s no way through. This is occupation: Open, closed, what’s going on, who knows, go back, go back, go back. The constantly shifting checkpoints, the migrating mounds of dirt closing off first this road, now the next, the new back-road detours plowed by abused taxi tires. The niggling, nagging, nonstop cat-and-mouse game of soldiers, sometimes monitoring, sometimes ignoring, sometimes blocking, sometimes chasing, sometimes offering, sometimes harassing, always, they say, “just doing their job.” These swinging, swerving, dangling, shows of arbitrary power kept everybody guessing. Each movement unsettled, all journeys exhausting, any destination uncertain. Everyone always so busy with the little details of movement: which road can I go down, where must I walk, can the car climb the mound of dirt, has a good citizen with a tractor moved the massive cement blocks, are the soldiers shooting today, or are they just throwing rocks.
Every conversation begins with a usually blasé recounting of the journey that brought the speaker to that exchange, every conversation inflected by the twinges of arduousness, fear, humor, bravado, with which the person experienced their trip. And time. So much time talking about time. How long I stood in line at the checkpoint. How long they took to inspect each car. How long they held me by the side of the road. How long they kept my identity card. How long they went on break while we waited for the checkpoint to reopen. How long I had to wait to get on with my life. So much time spent in losing it. Through such physical impediments, the occupation makes preoccupation, with space and movement, a major technique of domination. Like colonial regimes everywhere, Israel dominates as much through details as through direct violence. They reconfigure space and time, force into public what should be private. Halawani’s pictures of hands during the repeated examinations of persons and personal items show us this pain, pressure and boredom saturating the minor routines of daily life.
One of the most evocative photos, “intimacysearch33,” shows hands thick and rough, probably those of a laborer, his fingernails ground to the quick, a nest of veins protruding across the back of his hand, a sign of the strength and effort regularly exerted. In one hand he clutches a wallet, ready to retrieve his identity paper resting unfolded beside the soldier’s arm. With the other he hoists for inspection black plastic bags, bulging with unseen produce, leafy stalks poking from their knotted openings. The soldier’s hand clasps the sack, not grabbing, not ripping open, but with a wide palm gently squeezes the contents. There is something so salacious about his own pudgy hands, dotted with age spots, firmly but almost tenderly pressing the bag’s contents between his fingers. There’s something disgusting too. It may be just a bag, just a kilo of eggplant or salad greens. But the calm privilege of the soldier’s movement and the assuredness with which he prods the man’s belongings is a sordid expression of the intensity and vastness of Israeli rule over Palestinians. It represents so well the invasive intimacy that is a foundation of the occupation’s power.
For a time after the intifada began and before the war in Iraq had started, the occupied territories carried the dubious distinction of hosting the most journalists of any region save Washington, DC. For decades, Palestine and the conflict with Israel has been dissected and analyzed, depicted and distorted in newspapers, on TV, through art, polemic, and academic prose. Despite this proliferation of representations, or perhaps because of it, so much of what is illustrated and written about this place and people is bound by a remarkably narrow palate of clichés that strive, fruitlessly, to maintain the drama of “cycles of violence,” “cultures of death,” and sentimental stories of suffering.
But Halawani’s work has managed to carve out for her audience a new enclave of observation, giving nuance to our understanding of Palestinian life under occupation. Respectfully and without romanticizing, she has offered us another vision of “the conflict” — that of Palestinians’ persistence in going about their everyday lives despite these intimate indignities. Without hyperbole Halawani has shown us the mundanity of oppression and the suffocations of occupation, no less deadly and agonizing in their tranquility.
i. Social theorist Michel Foucault put forth the thesis, now almost taken for granted, that forms of power and their related modalities of punishment were radically altered at the beginning of the modern era. At the moment of Enlightenment’s dawn in the eighteenth century, he posits, the west displayed a growing distaste for the “barbarity” of torturous punishments, and an increased “reticence” to touch the body. Throughout his philosophical and historical oeuvre, Foucault discusses the many ways in which discipline became a matter of gestures and mannerisms of the body, power and punishment effected through the body’s comportment in space and regulation through time. Anthropologist Ann Stoler, among others, has taken Foucault’s argument to the colonies, demonstrating how domestic arrangements, the regulation of sexuality, and racially specific parameters for who could be intimate with whom became a fulcrum of colonial policy. Foucault, Michel. 1979 . Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan.
Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002).
ii. As of late December 2003, there are 757 roadblocks in the West Bank, according to the International Checkpoint Watch group http://www.icwpalestine.org (website visited on 21 September 2004); for more reports see www.machsomwatch.org. Also see United Nations Special Commission (UNSCO) Report on Checkpoints and Closures, Oct 2000-Sept 2001. “In the West Bank, closures currently consist of the Barrier and a combination of more than 700 checkpoints and other physical obstacles across roads. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian movement is tightly restricted at all border crossings and within the strip by two main checkpoints and other military infrastructure.” (OCHA, January 2005 fact sheet).
iii. Israel constructed an extensive road network in order to serve the Israeli settlements. To justify expropriating privately owned Palestinian land for these roads, Israel argued that the roads would also benefit the Palestinian population. Now these same roads are completely off-limits to Palestinians. The roads regime infringes the Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement and the right to equality. Israel is therefore in breach of fundamental principles of international law set forth in treaties to which Israel is party, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism, and the Fourth Geneva Convention
Information for the period 28 September, 2000 – 1 March, 2004 at http://www.hdip.org/800×600/index_news.htm
Lori A. Allen is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago, currently writing her dissertation, Suffering Through a Nationalist Uprising: Human Rights, Violence, and Victimization in Palestinian Politics. Her interests center on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, theories of nationalism and embodiment, and the relationship of affect and aesthetics to the formation of national attachments and global politics. She has written for MERIP, Counterpunch, and the Journal of Palestine Studies.