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Maha Samman, Trans-Colonial Urban Space in Palestine: Politics and Development, Abingdon and New York, Routledge, 2013, xvi + 314 pages, £90 ($155) hardback, ISBN 9780415677325.

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Maha Samman has written an important contribution to understanding the political and urban geographies of the situation in Israel/Palestine. There are two parts to the analysis. The first two chapters are largely theoretical, developing an approach to the interrelation of urban, colonial and spatial questions, with a range of examples. The next four chapters look at the political situation through different perspectives — on Israel as a colonial project, the lived spaces of Palestinians under colonial occupation, Israeli decolonization, and Palestinian trans-colonialism.

Her key theoretical inspiration is Henri Lefebvre, especially the three-fold understanding of space as perceived, conceived and lived from The Production of Space. She utilises that book, and that understanding, to develop a framework for making sense of the conflict and experience of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Samman does not simply carry Lefebvre’s categories over, though. Instead, she works through a variety of sub-aspects to each, providing an expansion and development of this widely-assumed schema, which will be of interest beyond her own specific focus. Her analysis also goes beyond what might be understood as space in a specific sense to encompass the relation this has to questions of time, and what Lefebvre would have called the ‘everyday life’ of the people. ‘Everyday’ here should be understood in the twofold sense Lefebvre outlined—the mundane, the ordinary, the prosaic—and the repetitive, what happens every day. What is striking is that what might seem extraordinary, or exceptional, is for Palestinians precisely that which they endure on a continual basis. Given this, it is perhaps surprising that Samman’s references to Lefebvre are mainly to the space book, with a few references to the Key Writings collection, rather than other works in English that link to these concerns, notably the Critique of Everyday Life series.

In common with other analyses, Samman wants to understand Israel, and earlier Zionist practices, as colonialism. This gives her a solid basis on which to make comparisons with other states—the US, Australia, South Africa, and others—and to highlight the anomalous nature of the continual struggle today, what Derek Gregory has called ‘the colonial present’ (2004). This analysis is powerfully linked to a debunking of Israel’s claim to be a democratic state, or in the media-phrase ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. There is a profound contradiction in the loyalty oath affirming support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. A democratic state is not just a state where all its citizens have the vote, but a state where all the people within its boundaries, the demos, have a share in the power, the kratos. To stress the partial character of the popular nature of the state—a Jewish state—goes against the second claim, that it is democratic. And this is the case simply looking at the territory within the pre-1967 borders, though it becomes even more pressing when the occupied lands of Golan, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza are claimed. With Golan and East Jerusalem Israel has annexed them, creating permanent residents within its borders, but not granting citizenship to them.

Some of the best analysis here is found in the analysis of Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula in the 1980s following the peace treaty with Egypt, and its dismantling of settlements from Gaza in 2005. And in these discussions, as well as in the prognosis of a trans-colonial future, some glimmers of hope can be found. There is a very good analysis of how both two-state and one-state solutions could either be continuations of the settler-colonial process, or truly decolonisation, utilising Lefebvre’s three-part schema and Samman’s own sub-categories (pages 202-6). Broadening the alternatives is thus a valuable contribution to ongoing debates.

Not all the discussion here is of urban space, unless one understands the urban to encompass all human questions. Of course, such a case could be made, following Lefebvre’s work, but the analysis here goes well beyond urban agglomerations. While the focus of much criticism of Israel in the West Bank is of the settlements, the Wall, and the checkpoints and security apparatus, much less is made of the large areas that are set aside for other purposes. Much of the eastern part of the West Bank, in the Jordan Valley, is a twenty kilometre-wide military zone, and other areas are set aside for this purpose, as nature reserves or for agriculture (i.e. page 115). As such the analysis here goes beyond the narrowly conceived urban, but takes into account the spaces set aside for supporting, securing and enhancing urban experience. But such supports are, as with all Israeli policies, directed as a subset of the population. (It is striking, reading this, just how much the Israeli state actually does for the Jewish population—a provision of services that goes beyond what most other states are able, or wish, to grant.) In addition, taking territory as a three-dimensional volume, with height and depth, rather than just a flat area Samman also shows the exclusions and controls at different levels (see also Weizman, 2007; Elden, 2013). Even in purportedly Palestinian areas Israel controls the airspace and the subsoil. Such occupations of the layers of political space show that Gaza is far from unoccupied today, giving the lie to Israel’s claim of a unilateral withdrawal.

Indeed, the Gazan prison is a powerful example of what Israel is constructing for Areas A in the West Bank. Area A has Palestinian civil jurisdiction and internal security; Area B has Palestinian civil jurisdiction and Israeli security; Area C is under full Israeli control. All areas have Israeli military security, and the different A areas are not contiguous—Samman notes that crossing from Area A spaces in the north to the south would require crossing zones fifty times (page 135; citing Mansour, 2001). The walls, checkpoints, barriers and closed roads are making the A areas, like Gaza, into a series of small prisons. Area A equally includes only 17.2% of the land in the West Bank, entirely enclosed by other, Israeli controlled areas. So much for the benefits of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and so much for what Yasser Arafat turned down at Camp David in 2000 in the dying days of the Clinton presidency.

Some of the most interesting discussions come in the analysis of time. It is not just space that is fractured in the West Bank, but through the checkpoints, circuitous routes, arbitrary security practices, diversions and roadblocks, Palestinian time. As she argues, “The aim of the colonizer is not only to control space and people, but to control time, and the permanency of the ability to have the power to control it” (page 47). One of the examples is the distance between Damascus Gate in the Old City and Abu Dis. A journey that previously took 10 minutes by car now takes at least forty minutes, given the Wall and the new route that must be taken. And this can potentially be increased substantially by security procedures. It is estimated that Palestinians lose 8 million working hours a day due to these policies (page 80; citing a speech by Afif Safieh). The descriptions of the checkpoints, and the disruption caused to the everyday life of Palestinians is powerful and rightly angry, as indeed is much of this book—but a controlled, academic anger against injustice and a blindness to what is actually happening on the ground.

In sum, this is a powerful and challenging contribution. So much is written about the politics and geography of this place, and yet this book provides a new theoretical frame and contributes much by way of detail. Samman’s perspective is informed by her own position as an assistant professor at Al Quds University (where I am a visiting international scholar) as well as by detailed research and lived experience. The book is illustrated with some striking photos and helpful maps. These are not always reproduced terribly well, and the production values, including the copy-editing, are not as high as the analysis deserved—especially for a book of this outrageous price. But if you can get hold of a copy, it is highly recommended. 


Elden S (2013) Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power. Political Geography 34: 35-51.
Gregory D (2004) The Colonial Present: Afghanisation, Palestine, Iraq. Oxford: Blackwell.
Mansour C (2001) Israel’s Colonial Impasse. Journal of Palestine Studies 30: 83-87.
Weizman E (2007) Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London: Verso.