What the landscape remembers: the oil pipe-protests in North Dakota and its Middle East echo
“Some of our people are very emotional right now,” says Robby Romero to the New York Times. I read the article online as I have breakfast. Its Friday, late October, a southern suburb of Stockholm. North Dakota is a long way for here. Still, the other document open on my computer screen moves me at the speed of association to the violent clashes between police and protesters near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation by the Missouri river. Robby Romero is a musician and veteran American Indian rights activist. “They have a huge army in front of them, ready to enact a militarized operation on us. And these are the emotions of centuries-old oppression and genocide. These emotions are starting to rise after months and months of being out here, in these camps, peacefully praying and protecting the sacred waters.”. References over land rights are made to a 1851 treaty, ceding the land to the Great Sioux Nation. The rights was later revoked. Other people can better than I explain the story of land, wars and white settlers in the North Dakota plains. The reason for the intense media presence in the region this fall is due to the plans of building a pipeline across the plains of North and South Dakota and begin pumping up the expected 570 000 barrels of oil from the northwest corner of the state. Besides the plead to keep fossil fuel in the ground, massive protests are held to prevent the Missouri river from the risk of being poisoned.
Its strange overlaps puzzles me. It catches my attention as coincidence does. That is, as it does before coffee, before synapses connects and the logic of hegemony and land are right in front of my eyes. Under the soils and sands of a landscape are always a layered past, build up on piles of titles deeds. Which of the deeds we see when we brush away the sand is however strictly dependent on our very current understanding of ownership, of land use right and common areas. The word document on my screen blinks. I've just finished writing the story of the 1858 land law of Palestine and how it is a foundation for the current tragedy of illegal settlements of the West Bank.
A landscape is a fusion of human and nature. A landscape is a painting and a force of power. Interpreting landscape, or depicting it, is a constituting process of the organization of the same landscape. Only talking about it reshapes it, moulds and kneads it. Dreams projected on it comes to life using time, not only forward time but also backward time. It is saved. It is preserved. It is restored. This will be a story of the Palestinian hilltop landscape; its slopes, its valleys and the dry, chubby trunks of the olive trees in its orchids.
Laying claim to power over the soil in Palestine has always included time. Here, time are never free flowing in the typical way of time. Instead, it is backwards, circular or temporary, as if the current day doesn’t really count. There is holy time, ancient time, time out of mind and a struggle against time. Here, time, thus, just as the mountains, are created by man.
The Palestinian hills have merged with the humans, extending the topography with symmetric rows of houses, meandering along the top. With the Israeli hilltop settlements the mountains have gotten eyes. Suddenly, visibility is everywhere. Just as how the sedimentary rocks metamorphosed into coal, did the sedimentary hilltops of Palestine metamorph into a physical manifestation of dominance, fear and dreams for the future.
This story begins in the mid19-century. A short time line for the holy region. At this time, the area known today as Israel or Palestine was part of Great Syria, a large region in the Ottoman Empire. In an attempt to modernize and secure the territorial integrity of the empire from outside and inside pressure, the Ottoman rule undertook a set of reforms known as the Tanzimat. Among them was a large scale classification of land in a process known as the Land Code. With time, the Land Code would prove to have major impact on the contemporary Palestinian landscape. The new land regime introduced a system of taxation where a plot of land used for cultivation was registered on an owner, or rather a long term tenant. Most land was used for the common; privately owned land was rare. Signing onto a piece of land meant right to use but for the individual it also meant being registered for tax and, perhaps equally important, being registered for conscription. This had a number of consequences. First, it meant that land too dry or in other ways unsuitable for cultivation was rarely claimed. Largely, this meant the sandy hilltops but it could also be dry patches in otherwise fertile soils. Secondly, it meant that wealthy people no longer living in the region had an easy opportunity to claim large tracts of land. They became known as absentee owners. The concept of owning land was in many cases an abstract formality for the people actually using it. Some fifty years later, when the British Empire controlled then Palestine (known as Mandate Palestine, or the British Mandate) a western conceptualization of ownership was used to interpret the laws regulating the land. And so it happened that the hilly landscape was stratified into fertile valleys covered in olive and lemon orchards topped off by legally ownerless hilltops. This high altitude land was also the land that became the homes of the jewish settlers, who thru settler organisations like the Jewish National Fund, found land to establish villages on. These villages, crusting the landscape, are usually referred to as settlements, colonies or suburbs, each word packed with value. Built on land within the lines of Palestine, the so called Green Line, these settlements are all illegal according to the international community. Today, there are 149 settlements on the West Bank, legal according to Israeli law, and an additional 100 outposts, illegal according to Israeli law. The international community does not make this distinction. The “outposts” are built after 1995, when the international community put pressure on Israel to ban further expansion.
As far as nature is concerned, the word is never as deceptive as in Palestine. Rooting the Zionist movement in the soil of Palestine was the act of planting trees, funded by money gathered from households in the Jewish diaspora - small amounts, pocket change mostly. It was a symbolic act creating a physical symbiosis with the soil. By planting trees the land was saved from the infertile desert and was again blossoming with forests, trees and plants. But redressing the landscape was also an act of simultaneously erasing traces of violence and abuse as well as traces of Palestinian life. The planting of forest over Palestinian villages, abandoned or destroyed in the 1947 war, was a strategic way of using the force embedded in the idea of nature as wholesome, straight and juste. Today, the spreading of the forest is still used as an argument for evicting non-jewish citizens of Israel from their land.
Palestine is a frontier landscape. The confrontations, politics and violence is pulling and stretching the landscape based on perceptions of ownership. The everyday decision of the farmers to keep planting is a strategy for laying claim to land. Keeping the land farmed is necessary in order not to have it seized under Israeli law as abandoned state land rooting back to Ottoman legislation. The struggle to keep the land cultivated seems two-fold. It is one the one hand a heavy responsibility resting on the individual Palestinian farmer to keep the national border in place. The wall wobbles, twists and turns after the illegal settlements. It is also a way to keep one’s place in the social network: the culture of the farmers is strong. There is an individual sacrifice involved in modelling the landscape, or rather, in stabilizing the shape. In this way, the Palestinian landscape is one where the human sphere has moulded with the physical interface of the landscape, as if myths and stories of war, displacement, loss has dissolved the atoms of the humans and the physical features of the land and turned it into one. This fusion is also the process that turned the hilltop settlements and its inhabitant settlers into prolongation of the topography. The hills are claimed and the new human hills claim even more: they act as system of surveillance and dominance thru mere visibility over the land.
The Israeli/Palestinian time-space is perhaps the most prominent aspect of all. It is interwoven in every process taking part in the landscape change. The Palestinian landscape is both stuck in a thunderstruck form, never truly allowed to move forward in time; the refugee camps with their inverted time and constant need of having one foot in the past, in order to not let go of the claim to return; the constant excavations of the holy past. In the same time: a radical change in the current landscape! The farmers of the Jordan Valley are moving from vegetables to date palms , the Jordan Valley border land is being cultivated, the western region farmers are seeing more and more land turn fallow behind walls impossible to penetrate and prohibited roads. The inherent demands from the soil itself to be cultivated, in order to not be confiscated by the occupation.
And then there are the roads, that parcels the land and turns the Israeli time-space into a cohesive, effective, rapid landscape, while simultaneously turning the Palestinian into a fragmented, slow, scattered, multiplied landscape. Ironically, what seems to be happening is a coming true of the prophecy condemned by the colonial, orientalist gaze of an undeveloped, slow, Palestinian population. The process of power creates a circular effect on the landscape with depicting and realization at each end.
Whats make an occupation? The stolen square kilometres hidden under the hilltop settlements makes out a tangible portion of an occupation. But settlements can never be a satellite. What’s make a community are the lines connecting the nodes of civilizations: roads, streets, rivers, flows of information. Nobody can cross a highway by foot. It is necessary to rethink the lines of the road map as something that lay claim to land far reaching its physical limits. The theft has to be multiplied by the land separated, by the number of meetings not taking place.
I am back in North Dakota. Back to the pipeline and the protests. An oil pipe is a rigid line but the history is not. The land will keep move around it. And I will closely follow the news.
By Johanna Adolfsson
Read the full story in the Power of the Palestinian Landscape at http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A938427&dswid=1578