Achille Mbembe, on necropolitics and colonial occupation

I was reading Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics a few days before Hamas attacked Israel and Israel started bombings and blockades in the Gaza Strip. In the book, Mbembe takes the Gaza Strip as a central example, showing the continuities of colonialist practice in the contemporary world. I’ll note it down not to forget.

Mbembe, A. (2019). Necropolitics. Duke University Press.

“To return to Fanon’s spatial reading of colonial occupation, the late modern colonial occupation in Gaza and the West Bank presents three major characteristics concerning the working of the specific structure of terror that I have called necropower. The first involves the dynamics of territorial fragmentation—the sealing off and expansion of settlements. This process has a twofold objective: to render all movement impossible and to implement forms of separation on the model of an apartheid state. The occupied territories have thus been divided into a web of intricate internal borders and various isolated cells. According to Eyal Weizman, by departing from a planar division of territory and embracing a principle of creation of three-dimensional boundaries within a territory, dispersal and segmentation clearly redefine the relationship between sovereignty and space.

These actions, for Weizman, constitute “the politics of verticality.” The resultant form of sovereignty might be qualified as “vertical sovereignty.” Under a regime of vertical sovereignty, colonial occupation operates through schemes of over- and underpasses, a separation of airspace from the ground. The ground itself is divided between its crust and the subsoil. Colonial occupation is also dictated by the very nature of the terrain and its topographical variations (hilltops and valleys, mountains, and bodies of water). Thus, high ground offers strategic advantages not found in the valleys (better vision and self-protection, a panoptic fortification enabling the gaze to be directed in multiple directions). As Weizman puts it, “Settlements could be seen as urban optical devices for surveillance and the exercise of power.” Under the conditions of late modern colonial occupation, surveillance is oriented both inwardly and outwardly, the eye acting as weapon, and vice versa. Instead of the conclusive division between two nations across a boundary line, Weizman claims, “the organization of the West Bank’s particular terrain has created multiple separations, provisional boundaries, which relate to each other through surveillance and control.” Under these circumstances, colonial occupation not only amounts to control, surveillance, and separation but is also synonymous with isolation. It is a splintering occupation in keeping with the splintering urbanism characteristic of late modernity (suburban enclaves or gated communities).

From an infrastructural point of view, a splintering form of colonial occupation is characterized by a network of fast bypass roads, bridges, and tunnels that weave over and under one another in an attempt to maintain the Fanonian “principle of reciprocal exclusivity.” According to Weizman, “the bypass roads attempt to separate Israeli traffic networks from Palestinian ones, preferably without allowing them ever to cross. They therefore emphasize the overlapping of two separate geographies that inhabit the same landscape. Where the networks do cross, a makeshift separation is created. Most often, small dust roads are dug out to allow Palestinians to cross under the fast, wide highways on which Israeli vans and military vehicles rush between settlements.”

Under these conditions of vertical sovereignty and splintering colonial occupation, communities get separated along a y-axis. The sites of violence duly proliferate. Battlegrounds are not located solely at the Earth’s surface. Underground and airspace are transformed into conflict zones as well. No continuity exists between the ground and the sky. Even the airspace boundaries are divided between lower and upper layers. Everywhere, the symbolics of the top (of who is on top) is reiterated. Occupation of the skies therefore acquires a critical importance, since most of the policing is done from the air. Various other technologies are mobilized to this effect: sensors aboard unmanned air vehicles, aerial reconnaissance jets, early warning Hawkeye planes, assault helicopters, an Earth-observation satellite, techniques of “hologrammatization.” Killing becomes precision-targeted.

Such precision is combined with the tactics of medieval siege warfare adapted to the networked sprawl of urban refugee camps. An orchestrated and systematic sabotage of the enemy’s societal and urban infrastructure network complements the appropriation of land, water, and airspace resources. Critical to these techniques of disabling the enemy is bulldozing: demolishing houses and cities, uprooting olive trees, riddling water tanks with bullets, bombing and jamming electronic communications, digging up roads, destroying electricity transformers, tearing up airport runways, disabling television and radio transmitters, smashing computers, ransacking cultural and politico-bureaucratic symbols of the proto-Palestinian state, and looting medical equipment—in other words, infrastructural warfare. While Apache helicopter gunships are used to police the air and kill from overhead, armored bulldozers (the Caterpillar d-9) are used on the ground as weapons of war and intimidation. In contrast to early modern colonial occupation, both weapons establish the superiority of the high-tech tools of late modern terror.

As the Palestinian case illustrates, late modern colonial occupation is a concatenation of multiple powers: disciplinary, biopolitical, and necro-political. The combination of the three grants the colonial power absolute domination over the inhabitants of the occupied territory. The state of siege is itself a military institution. It allows for a modality of killing that does not distinguish between the external and the internal enemy. Entire populations are the target of the sovereign. Besieged villages and towns are sealed off and isolated from the world. Daily life is militarized. Local military commanders have the discretionary freedom to decide whom to shoot and when. Movement between the territorial cells requires formal permits. Local civil institutions are systematically destroyed. The besieged population is deprived of their means of income. Invisible killing is added to outright executions.” (p. 80-3)

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