Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Repopulating the Emptiness: A Spatial Critique of Ruination in Israel/Palestine

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Repopulating the Emptiness: A Spatial Critique of Ruination in Israel/Palestine

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

On the night of 9 October 2000, shortly after the violence of the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada) engulfed Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, a little known incident took place in Kfar Shalem, a working-class Jewish neighborhood on Tel Aviv's southeastern periphery. Armed with metal bars and hammers, hundreds of Jewish residents from the area began tearing down one of the walls of a derelict mosque at the heart of the neighborhood. A squad of twenty police officers armed with clubs was sent to surround the structure to shield it from the crowd. Buried among thousands of incidents recorded during the violence of October 2000, (1) the Kfar Shalem riot is easily overlooked. Yet this event sheds new light on some of the conventions through which spatial ruination and extreme historical transformation in Israel/Palestine have been analyzed.

The mosque targeted in the attack is a remnant of the Arab-Palestinian village of Salama, whose residents were forced to flee their homes ahead of an Israeli attack at the end of April 1948. Like other depopulated Arab villages in Palestine, Israeli authorities settled Jewish immigrants in Salama, partly to alleviate the severe housing shortage of the time and partly to physically block the return of Palestinian Arab refugees to their homes (Morris, 2004). In 1949 Salama was incorporated into Tel Aviv's municipal boundaries (Golan, 2001), and three years later the Israeli Government Names Committee assigned it a new, Hebrew name: Kfar Shalem (Kadmon, 1994). A youth club was opened in the Salama Mosque, but was relocated in 1981, after which the building was gated and locked. According to one strand of critical analysis examining Israeli spatial politics, the transformation and eventual closure of the mosque are yet another example of Zionism's orchestrated effort to radically alter the physical and symbolic Arab landscape of Palestine in order to erase and reconstruct its history and memory according to strict ethnonational principles (as argued, for example, in Benvenisti, 2000; Dalsheim, 2004; Masalha, 1997; Ram, 2009). What, then, triggers such an onslaught against an abandoned building, a presumed locus of erasure and amnesia?

While the Salama Mosque may have stood abandoned and disused, the decades that passed, as well as clear efforts by official bodies to transform it, did not erase its Arab history and cultural significance. (2) The Jewish rioters had no doubt about the building's Arab history, and they experienced no collective amnesia about its symbolic meaning. In fieldwork I conducted in the neighborhood from 2006 to 2009 interviewees repeatedly identified the building as 'The Mosque', and could identify its history with the pre-1948 history of Salama (Leshem, 2010). The unsettled presence of a vacant building that attracts such fierce and violent emotions illustrates the deceptive nature of seemingly empty spaces: despite being the subject of physical ruination and efforts to reinscribe their cultural significance, such places often continue to haunt dominant spatial discourse and politics.

Critical scholarship of spatial transformation in Israel/Palestine is laden with references to the Zionist trope of the empty land, its numerous variations, and diverse articulations. Though this trope has been factually discredited, notions of emptiness and erasure continue to linger in critical scholarship revisiting the formation of ethnonational space in Israel/Palestine and the fate of Arab cultural and physical geographies. As violent and extensive as this process may be, I would argue that the notions of emptiness, erasure, and spatial annihilation cannot be taken at face value if we wish to better understand the complex ideological and discursive forces that take part in the production of space. Looking beyond the skewed rhetoric of a settler society, this paper analyzes concrete spatial technologies of power employed to shore up what is inherently an unstable and contested foundational fantasy. …

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