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"The first hammer blow feels like you're hitting yourself" explains Azzam Afifi describing his pain after being forced to demolish his home in East Jerusalem under Israel’s new "cost-effective policy.” It is a cheaper option for Palestinians, who would otherwise have the State of Israel charge them to do it, some sort of colonial rebate it imposes on Palestinians when it forces them to demolish their homes (Al Jazeera, 2017). In fact, 2016 saw a record number of demolitions of Palestinian homes. But it was also the year the Knesset approved the greatest number of new illegal settlements. Israel simultaneously demolishes and builds. Dispossessing Palestinians of their homes and replacing the population with Jewish settler colonies. But as Afifi's comments suggest, more forces are at work beyond dispossession, theft and demographic (re)calibration.
‘Beit” is both the Arabic and Hebrew word for “home.” It denotes an affective relation to a place, space, or person. Importantly, Arabic and Hebrew do not make a distinction between ‘home’ and ‘house,’ as English does. Beit captures both the affective and material qualities of the home. Like bell hooks (1990), who wrote insightfully about the black community and the task of "making home" during Jim Crow, I am interested in thinking about the affective power of Palestinian homes as infrastructures of intimacy in the context of Israeli settler colonialism.
Intimacy involves feelings and practices of closeness and reciprocity and so is a fundamental domain of everyday experience of security. Here, security encompasses “both the lived experience of security processes and the related practices that people engage in to govern their own safety” (Crawford and Hutchinson, 2015: 2). The current hegemonic human right discourse on housing fails to capture this double meaning by focusing only on the limits to housing access. Thinking not only about inaccessibility to housing, but about the affective dimensions of the loss of home provides deeper insight into the intimate and overlooked effects of settler colonialism on Palestinian everyday life.
Ara Wilson (2016) defines infrastructures of intimacy as a complicated and intricate “material-symbolic assemblage that embeds intimate relations in fields of power.” Wilson insists that there is a relationship between the intimate and the infrastructural that sheds light on how power operates in both tangible and intangible, visible and invisible ways. Intimacy here is not just about the domestic, the personal, or the separation of the private and public. Instead, as Lauren Berlant (2000) argues, intimacy builds public worlds and creates public spaces. Homes as infrastructures of intimacy do the work of nurturing, controlling, sanctioning, and negotiating through cooperation and disagreement; they reproduce the social relations that are embodied in the modern distinction between the public and private spheres. In other words, “intimate relations are already inextricable from, and realized through, larger relays of power” (Wilson, 2016). Engaging with intimacy as a lens to understand (infra)structures of dominance makes palpable the political significance of homes.
Palestinian homes—the bricks, the windows, the space they stand on—are more than just obstacles in the path of a settler colonial project. They are actively subjected to Israeli state violence in order to undermine the potential or active security and resistance of the colonized community. Hence, they are demolished, raided, and residents are constantly subjected to questioning. They are deemed unlicensed and fraudulent. Just like the Palestinians themselves, homes are constantly attacked by the Israeli state on the grounds of their "illegitimate” claims to being. Just like with Palestinian people, claims regarding Palestinian homes are more often than not dismissed under the dictates of Israeli law.
And yet, losing a home goes far beyond just losing the shelter that LeCorbusier (1927) understood as "a machine for living." It is not enough therefore to critically interrogate the violation of the right to housing. An alternative level of analysis is required. In very geographical terms, home is a “socio-spatial system” that sustains and constrains different relations and patterns of action through its location, design, size, condition (Mallett, 2004). Writing about Palestinian homes is writing about Palestinian people and their relations to place-making. Fatima Kassem’s ethnographic work with Palestinian women in Lyd and Haifa demonstrates this well. She writes:
As Um Omar from Lyd says, ‘I am from el-Far home [beit el-Far]… My father was a well-known and educated man.’ Here she indicates her familial affiliation to her father in her use of the term ‘home’. Elsewhere in the interview she says, ‘We are the home [beit] of Haj Mahmud el-Far.’ While pointing out places in the city of Lyd, Um Omar goes on to say, ‘All this belonged to the home of el-Far…(Kassem, 2011: 196).
The use of the word beit by the women to identity their family kinship and neighbors highlights the role homes play as social and spatial organizers through intimate interactions of individuals and groups. Belonging and associations are made through the intimate language of beit.
The potential for political transformation through the concept of the home as an infrastructure of intimacy is especially relevant in contexts of such state violence. bell hooks (1990) writes in her essay Homeplace (A site of resistance), “For those who dominate and oppress us benefit most when we have nothing to give our own, when they have so taken from us our dignity, our humanness that we have nothing left, no ‘homeplace’ where we can recover ourselves.” Cynthia Dewi Oka (2011) also reminds us that home is a fundamental infrastructure where “we are grown and raised into social beings, where we receive our earliest definitions of humanity, where we first learn to recognize love, violence, justice, and pain.” Aja Monet (2016) has recently explained that home is a place where the marginalized can find a safe space. Despite all the travesties that can take place inside a home, Monet explains, Black youth in America find refuge in home as one of the few safe spaces to come together, be together, create together. The constellation of these experiences are not about shelter as much as they are about expressions of intimacy through interactions, feelings, and sensations. Here, the articulation of home is succinct and reverberates all the way to Palestine. To protect your safety and to produce your own security is an act of resistance.
Palestinian homes as infrastructures of intimacy spatialize relationships of proximity, reciprocity, and continuity, and are part and parcel of the process of shaping and making Palestinian public life. From Afifi’s sensory reaction to demolition to the ways in which the Palestinian women speak of home as ‘core’ and ‘periphery,’ there is a relationship that transcends the communal and the singular. The Israeli state’s targeting of Palestinian homes recognizes this fundamentally affective role homes play in sustaining life, and by extension, sustaining revolt. As such, we should think about the destruction of these infrastructures as a systematic process of fragmenting and uprooting intimacy itself. Acknowledging intimacy as infrastructure challenges the idea that Palestinian subjectivity is limited to frames of destruction and trauma.
Considering the political power homes play through intimacy contests the prevalent frame of analysis from which we understand Palestinian homes: house demolitions and disaster. Taking analyses beyond this limited frame on housing to one focused on the home reveals how the destruction of the Palestinian home actively interrupts the intimate spaces between networks and bodies that navigate the everyday to exist in meaningful ways. The violation and destruction of the walls, the roof, the plumbing, the electricity, the security and the sanctity of that intimate space is a key method of the settler colonial state violence. Israeli attacks on Palestinian homes can be located in what Ann Laura Stoler (2016) refers to as “emotional economies of humiliations, indignities, and resentments.” Indeed, the settler colonial state understands the political value of the affective. It demolishes Palestinians home at the same rate as it builds homes for Israeli settlers. Just like destroying Palestinians homes are an attack on Palestinian intimacy, the building of Israeli settlements are not limited to territorial control, but an affective desire to repopulate the land, very explicitly with affirmation of Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people.
None of this is to say that the places and spaces of home produce only positive experiences which settler colonialism seeks to disrupt. Rather, the home is where different fields of power meet and negotiate space around the intimacies of kinship, community, family, and togetherness. It is these intimacies that are the targets of Israeli state violence on housing infrastructure, aiming to turn them into yet another choke point in what Jeff Halper (2007) aptly calls the matrix of control. It is precisely for these reasons that the blustering of homes is beyond the moment of demolition. Thinking through infrastructures of intimacy alters our gaze toward trauma and shows how it can be intricately state sanctioned. For example, in the neighborhood of Silwan, house eviction notices are delivered by a group of the Israeli military right to the doors of Palestinians. During house evictions, Palestinian families witness the state-sponsored takeover of their homes by Israeli settlers simultaneously as they are asked to leave. How some Palestinian families go through the ordeal of building their homes after every demolition. How families in Gaza were given text-message notices to evacuate their homes before shelling.
These types of strategies by the settler colonial state are not only about efficient tactics of control. More is at stake. When Israeli national security wages a war on Palestinian homes—in Gaza, the West Bank and inside its voluntarily undefined borders—it is effectively laying claim to a specific collective power that Palestinian homes as infrastructures of intimacy hold. The question then becomes, what is it about Palestinian homes that haunt the existential infrastructure of Israeli sovereignty?
Beyond the fact that their presence is a material reminder of the persistence of the Palestinian people, homes function as an important motif in the narration of this history. In fact, Palestinian homes are stories. They figure centrally in the struggle to “return home” for those in the Palestinian diaspora. For those still in Palestine, homes narrate the daily processes of building intimacy: how money is put aside or debt is accumulated; how parents think of making room for the house their son or daughter will inherit; how families feud over land; how Palestinian Bedouins in Barsheva collect artifacts to put together a makeshift home. Indeed, Palestinians’ subjectivity and place-making is not limited to disaster and demolition as some contemporary scholarship would have us believe. Those who write about and for Palestine should consider revising the idea that Palestinians only exist in the rhythm of urgency, the representation of disaster, and the language or resistance. Narrating the intimate relationship between Palestinians and their homes as infrastructures of intimacy is about altering this gaze to think differently about political subjectivity, place-making, and the possibility for transformative futures.