The Arab World Geographer
Forum on Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel
The Symbolism of Space and Place amongst Israelis and Palestinians

David Newman
Department of Politics and Government, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel    84105

To understand the recent eruption of violence and bloodshed in Israel/Palestine, just one month after the Camp David Summit which, so we are led to believe, was so close to signing a final peace agreement between the two protagonists, one has to explore, more deeply, the different meanings of space and territory which are so central to this conflict.

At the superficial level, the conflict is all about the tangible dimensions of territory—namely, the location of the border, the removal of Jewish settlements, the rights of refugee return, and the amount of territory to be controlled by the Israeli and Palestinian States respectively. All of these can be quantified, all of them can be negotiated between the two sides, and all of them can be exchanged or compromised over in an attempt to reach a final resolution of the conflict. Nearly all of the geographic literature dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict has dealt, almost exclusively, with these tangible dimensions of territory, examining the alternative spatial configurations of a two-state solution to the conflict.

But the final attempt to reach an agreement at Camp David, and the eruption of bloodshed and violence, not only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but also inside Israel proper amongst the Palestinian citizens of the country, was not because of the inability to reach an agreement over the territorial dimensions of the conflict. It was about something much more important. It was about the deeply rooted symbolic dimensions of the conflict in general, and the attachment to specific spaces and places in particular. These places, of which the most important is the Temple Mount or Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, reflect the core of the national identity professed not simply by Israelis and Palestinians  (a  modern national identity) but by Jews and Moslems in their respective self-justifications of just what they are doing here in the first place.

Back in 1973, Canadian geographer Andrew Burghardt, published a paper in Geographical Review, in which he analyzed the different ways in which groups justified their claims to territory. In particular, he mentioned the dual dimensions of priority (being there first and tracing their roots back longer than anyone else to a particular place) and duration (being in a particular place uninterrupted over a long, and recent, period of time).  In doing so, Burghardt touched upon the deeper symbolic and abstract dimensions of the role played by territory, place, and space in the formation and evolution of national identity. These are the dual dimensions which are always played up by both Israelis and Palestinians in arguing that they, and only they, have the right to this land. They both use history, archaeology, literature, religious texts, and science to construct the knowledge and to socialize others into believing that they are the rightful owners of this small piece of real estate, lying between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Ariel Sharon understood this when he made his provocative visit to the Temple Mount, a visit which was akin to the match lighting the fuse which set off the explosion. He knew that he was not simply visiting a few hundred square metres under dispute, but a place which represented the very heart of the Palestinian-Moslem identity, just as the neighbouring Western Wall represents the core of Israeli-Jewish identity. And for the same reason, this was why Barak and Arafat were unable to finalize the agreement at Camp David, because this one remaining issue was symbolic, not tangible, and could not simply be resolved by a signature on a piece of paper, nor could it be compromised, even a few square meters, by either of the sides.

Read any comparative study dealing with conflict resolution and the issue of symbolism comes through as the most difficult of all problems to resolve. A recent book by Irish professors John Darby and Roger Macginty, The Management of Peace Processes (Macmillan Press, 2000) compares the successes and failures of similar processes in Northern Ireland, South Africa,  Israel-Palestine, and Sri Lanka. In all of them, it is always the symbolic issues of national identity which prove to be the obstacle on the way to true reconciliation, not the tangible issues. In the Israel-Palestine case, the issue of territory is shown to be the most significant of all the symbolic issues separating the two sides. In addition, the spoilers, anti-peace process extremists, always have a role to play in trying to derail the negotiations—a bus bomb here, a new settlement there, or a visit to a sacred site somewhere else.  It only needs a small group of people, in some cases just an individual (as in the case of Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount) to derail everything which has been negotiated over a period of years. Just touch the right symbolic chord and the explosion can be felt everywhere.

It is the symbolic dimensions of the conflict which explain why the eruption of violence and bloodshed spread way beyond the artificial boundary, known as the Green Line which, for most Israelis, was meant to symbolize the territorial line dividing "Palestinians" from "Israeli Arabs", an artificial distinction which has been maintained, even by left wing pro-peace process Israelis, ever since 1967. As though an artificial line, drawn up in the wake of a war in 1948–49, separating a single ethno-national territory into two units, and which was partially opened in 1967, could create two different peoples. This has always been a fallacy of Israeli policy making, namely that once the issue of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian State, is finally resolved, everything will return to normal inside Israel, and the Arab-Palestinian citizens of the country will no longer have any cause for complaint or unrest.

But they have many reasons to be dissatisfied with Israeli rule. For 50 years, they have been the recipients of a discriminatory policy of development and allocation of State resources. One only has to take a simple field trip to neighbouring Jewish and Arab settlements in the Galilee or the Negev to see this—the problem is that too many Israelis sit in their homes in affluent Tel Aviv and hardly ever—sometimes never—visit an Arab settlement, and they have little idea of what actually happens in these communities. Add to this tangible dimension of economic discrimination, the symbolic attachment to place and space which is common to all Palestinians-Arabs-Moslems, on both sides of the Green Line, and it is not really hard to understand what has taken place in this troubled part of the world during the past two weeks.  It is one thing to make a peace agreement (with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza) or to adopt policies of true political and economic equality (the Palestinian residents of Israel) but it is quite another to trample on the root feelings of national and religious identity. If we, the Israelis who laboured so hard to create a state in the first place, don't understand this, then who will?

(Submitted 6 October 2000)

© The Arab World Geograppher

orum / Editorial / Nolte / Khashan / Mustafa / McColl / Newman / Halper / Schechla / Khamaisi / Taylor
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