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tudies of Palestine are often presented as narratives of physical violence, geopolitics, religion, and territory from the perspective of Israelis or Palestinians. Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’ Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine offers another perspective – that of waste. She demonstrates how infrastructural neglect and toxicity are used as tools of the occupation, perpetuating slow violence while justifying protracted settler-colonialism. Simultaneously, certain types of waste in Palestine are re-evaluated as sacred or valuable commodities that sustain circuits of mutual aid and community building. Waste Siege is a brilliant and insightful ethnography into the West Bank’s inundation of waste dumped from Israel, Israeli settlements, and Palestinian cities. Stamatopoulou-Robbins does not just focus on what the Israeli military does to the Palestinians, but the role Palestinian political parties, bureaucrats, humanitarian NGOs, and the international community play in the slow degradation of Palestinian life through waste.
Palestinians not only face a military siege, but also a waste siege, as their eroding territories are used as dumping sites for a variety of waste including household trash, disposable goods, medical waste, demolition and construction waste, and untreated human fecal waste sewage – making a life not surrounded by waste inconceivable. Within the Palestinian context of the everyday, Stamatopoulou-Robbins rethinks the definition of waste as “matter out of place” (Douglas, 2005, 44), and argues that for Palestinians, waste has become “matter with no place to go” (Stamatopoulou-Robbins, 2019, 10). Given that there is no proper infrastructure to deal with this inundation, waste is always present even as it changes form. Even when waste is burned in residential areas, the refuse continues to live as toxic smoke particles embedded in the lungs of Palestinians. Waste Siege illuminates how waste functions within the everyday Israeli occupation of Palestine to subjugate and humiliate a population, as they adapt to life amongst waste. Stamatopoulou-Robbins exposes how waste management is used to control the exposure of Palestinian bodies to slow violence, as an alternative to direct Israeli military violence, which is condemned by the international community. Slow violence through waste offers more plausible deniability, both due to its subtlety and invisibility, as well as due to the complex relationship between myriad actors - Israeli, Palestinian, and the international community, that all play a role in waste management in the West Bank.
Waste Siege sheds light on how waste can be used as a political tool, or as an explanation of political events by historicizing the role waste has played in Palestinian history and struggles for statehood. For example, Stamatopoulou-Robbins describes how Fatah’s failure to deal with waste was used to explain why Hamas won the 2006 election. Or, how the Oslo Accord’s prerequisite of Palestinian readiness to undertake environmental protection through waste management, has been used to justify continued Israeli occupation as environmental stewards.
Stamatopoulou-Robbins conducted years of anthropological fieldwork in Ramallah and Jenin, and spent time living with multiple families to observe and understand waste practices and the (re)valuation of discard. Each chapter of Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine, provides an approachable ethnography of a different type of waste that is tracked through the everyday material and sensorial life of Palestinians in the West Bank. The first chapter, “Compression: How to Make Time at an Occupied Landfill,” explores the short life span of landfills in the West Bank, that are considered a temporary arrangement until statehood creates more viable permanent alternatives. Stamatopoulou-Robbins spent extensive time with Palestinian waste management landfill managers whose collective work extends landfill life through improvisations and contributes to the appearance of a ‘modern’ Palestine – an area in which people can live together absent from waste. She also highlights the desire of Palestinian waste managers to adopt advanced waste management alternatives rather than build landfills, and the ways they are stymied by donor and investor stipulations as well as the Israeli military. The building of landfills is premised on logics of accumulation. Once a landfill is full, more must be built, further dispossessing land from Palestinians through environmental and public health regulations that designate where ever-expanding landfills can be built. Once valuable land becomes a dumping site - devaluing the land around it and redistributing toxicity and risk to the surrounding environment and population.
Chapter two, “Inundated: Wanting Used Colonial Goods,” looks at the material and economic conditions of the West Bank that led to the inundation of cheap, affordable goods imported from China that are unreliable and end up as waste. In juxtaposition, this chapter also explores economies of second-hand Israeli goods that are smuggled in, refurbished, and recirculated in rabish markets within the West Bank. The rabish plays a central role in mediating lower-income Palestinians’ ability to care for their domestic spaces, avoiding the pain of domestic infrastructural erosion despite the social humiliation of being sighted at the rabish. Refurbished objects, though thought to be Israeli in origin, are assumed to be of higher quality than items readily available to Palestinians under the assumption that Jewish Israelis had more expensive tastes and were liable to waste. These discarded items provide a sense of class mobility based on the tastes of the colonizer. Refurbished Israeli goods come to symbolize how Palestinian desire for their own commodities and lifestyle choices cannot be separated from Israeli ways of living and governing.
In “Accumulation: Toxicity and Blame in a Phantom State,” Stamatopoulou-Robbins argues that within Palestine’s non-sovereign state, communities are simultaneously hypo-governed and hyper-governed, by a variety of actors - leaving residents unsure of whom to blame or address with concerns. The built environment and basic needs of residents are hypo-governed, that is under-governed and neglected, while residents are hyper-governed or over-governed through hostile surveillance and regulation. A phantom state emerges to fill this provisional gap and address the toxic accumulation of waste in Palestinian communities. This creates a gray zone, that the author argues, extends beyond Palestine, and can be seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Within these gray zones of state abandonment, governance is constituted by a conglomeration of NGOs, private corporations, international bodies, and humanitarian relief agencies, “making collectivities that are rarely more than fleeting” (ibid., 417).
The fourth chapter focuses on unwanted bread. In Palestine, it is a sin to waste bread. The word bread is a metonym for life. “Gifted: Unwanted Bread and Its Stranger Obligations,” provides an ethnography of the life and circulation of unwanted bread and the establishment of outdoor bread deposits to avoid bread going to waste. These bread bags emerge as a form of collectivity or commons. The act of placing unwanted bread within existing infrastructure transforms the meanings and functions of these infrastructures, as Palestinians fulfill what they believe is their ethical duty not to waste and to give to those in need. Ledges, corners of trash bins, and corners of fences are turned into unwanted bread deposits, as bagged bread is hung on these structures for others to take, facilitating the management and flows of discarded bread. This chapter also illustrates micro-practices of responsibility while living within a phantom state to contribute to a community of care and mutual aid. Additionally, Stamatopoulou-Robbins highlights the burden placed on the bread gifter to ensure sacred bread is kept in circulation or received – completing the act of gifting and fulfilling their ethical obligations to God and community. She complicates previous theorizations of the burden placed on the gift recipient to both receive and reciprocate the gift (Mauss, 1990).
Lastly, the fifth chapter, “Sewage and Doublethink in a ‘Shared Environment’” rethinks the imaginary frame of Palestinians as sovereign polluters of their Israeli neighbors through sewage spills. As per the Oslo Accords, Israeli actors and international donors are empowered to influence how Palestinians manage their sewage and freshwater sources. As such, they have continuously blocked Palestinian requests to build wastewater networks and treatment plants. These same actors interpret Palestinian inflows of waste spills in the West Bank as acts of aggression toward Israel and the Israeli environment, and as symbols of Palestinian ineffectiveness and inability to manage their waste or govern. Stamatopoulou-Robbins illustrates how this strategy is used by Israel in the West Bank to create an environmental imaginary, a way of perceiving a territory and its relationship to its inhabitants that bolsters settler-colonial claims in the name of ‘improvement’ and ‘environmental protection.’ Simultaneously, the lack of wastewater treatment centers in Palestine creates the need to send sewage to Israel for processing, a financial burden placed on the Palestinians as Israel charges for this service. Valuable Palestinian waste, extracted from Palestinian bodies, is then converted into fertilizer and irrigation water for Israeli farms.
Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine contributes to multiple fields of study including infrastructure studies, waste studies, environmental studies, and studies on Palestine within Middle Eastern Studies. This work is in conversation with a growing body of research that highlights the biopolitical utility of infrastructure and waste management as tools of settler-colonialism, population management, and the regulation of community socialities and public spaces. Stamatopoulou-Robbins’ method of following waste’s pathways through Palestine provides a deep anthropological investigation at the convergence of waste, statehood, infrastructure, the environment, and settler colonialism in relation to the accumulation and inundation of material excess. This works disrupts the focus on spectacular violence inflicted on Palestinian bodies, and instead focuses on the everyday materialities, improvisations, spatialities, as well as sensory and tactile experiences of West Bank residents living under a waste siege. This work not only describes the waste siege in Palestine, but it also uses this siege as a metaphor for our dying planet, which is being used as a landfill as waste production rapidly outpaces the development of technologies to manage or minimize their detrimental effects on the environment and vulnerable populations.