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Israel, Palestine, and the Visual Administration of Occupation

Attending to the visual practices that regulate the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Gil Hochberg’s Visual Occupations opens up new ways of seeing life under occupation.

Many words have been written to “make sense” of the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine. Such writings intend to raise our awareness of what the occupation is “about”, so as to not only politicize the conflict, but also to bring clarity to the complex historical and contemporary manifestations of what is now understood, in progressive circles at least, to be a colonial occupation and genocide.

These texts explain events such as the Nakba—the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians after Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. Or, they explain what happened during the 1967 occupation of Palestine by Israel. Or, they explain what commentators talk about when they talk about the West Bank and Gaza. Such writings also detail the ongoing military and paramilitary strikes that, in their production of ever-growing numbers of Palestinian casualties, demonstrate that the conflict is in fact an exercise of asymmetrical warfare.

When we read about “what is going on” in Palestine/Israel, we are often told that this is a conflict over history, land, and religious and national identities.

In conjunction with written accounts, the occupation of Palestine (and Palestinians) by the state of Israel is frequently visualized throughout mainstream and alternative media. Visual media offers images and video of the sites and experience of this conflict. Alongside the written accounts of the conflict, and alongside the statistics of Palestinians who die or are injured by Israel’s military violence, are images and video of exploding buildings, Israeli checkpoints, and crying Palestinian civilians.

These images and videos make viewers into an audience to the violence, and it is well established that mainstream media sensationalizes images of violence and suffering for the purposes of circulation and/or politics. Presented in terms of victim and perpetrator, everyday violence in conflict zones—constant surveillance, a lack of freedom of movement—is not usually visible in mainstream media coverage. In Palestine/Israel, as one example, alternative accounts often work to visualize the “reality” of life under occupation by making visible these instances of habitualized micro-violence. These visual renderings make it possible for those on the outside to see the conflict and understand what it looks like in the everyday.

The specific visual aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the focus of Visual Occupations, a new book by Gil Z. Hochberg. But, Hochberg sets up a different frame for her analysis. Hochberg, who is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at UCLA, aims to leverage the visual regime in a way that will neither reproduce the victim-perpetrator binary nor simply make visible what is currently not visible.

Hochberg’s innovative and productive work in Visual Occupations, a follow-up to her 2007 book In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination asks what it means to speak about and think about this conflict “in terms of how it appears or how we come to see it”. Hochberg discloses the forces that organize the “visual field” of the conflict. She focuses on the differential and unequal access to what she calls the “visual rights” and the practices of seeing. These rights and practices, she says, regulate and determine the shape of the conflict zones that spread across Israel/Palestine, but also determine the representation of the conflict within and outside the region. Hochberg argues that these “visual practices and distributions of visibility” are equally important in the arranging of space and the production of ethno-national and religious identities; however, these practices and distributions, in fact, often remain invisible. In Visual Occupations, Hochberg’s aim is to harness the generative and political potential embedded in redirecting visuality so as to propagate “new modes of seeing” and understanding this conflict.

Hochberg organizes her analysis of the visual field of the occupation around three principles, which, she argues, parallel the organization of the occupation itself: concealment, surveillance, and witnessing.

Concealment erases Palestinians from the visual field of Israel; it also hides and makes Israelis themselves unaware of this erasure. Hochberg, who lived in Tel Aviv for many years, describes how the Separation Wall (at the Israeli-West Bank border) is in the visual distance of the average Israeli, whereas, for Palestinians, it’s an ever-present and nearby visual reminder of their occupied status.

Surveillance refers to the typical technologies associated with surveillance (borders, cameras), but also the visual right that Israeli soldiers have to survey and secure the obedience of Palestinians.

Third, witnessing—visual testimony—is often leveraged as a way of gaining support for the suffering of Palestinians and provoking Israeli state and military personnel to engage in an ethnical relationship with Palestinians. At the same time, witnessing also forces Palestinians to continually position themselves as visibly suffering and be willing to testify about their suffering.

Hochberg’s study considers where and how these three principles of the conflict meet, and then examines how this intersection produces radically different access to visual rights as well as competing visual fields. Her inquiry focuses on the various actors in and spectators to the conflict, and on their respective and often competing ways of seeing and access to what is (in)visible.

Hochberg’s study is unique, for it shifts the study of the visual to one that focuses not on representation(s) of the conflict but rather on its various actors, spectators, and their ways of seeing. What is truly innovative about Hochberg’s examination of the construction and orchestration of the visual field of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it focuses not on media images, or alternative visual accounts of the conflict, but on the visual politics of artistic and cultural production.

Hochberg’s analysis starts with the abstraction of the image of Palestinian ruins that are scattered throughout Israel. Hochberg argues that these ruins are incorporated into “numerous Israeli landscape paintings, films, and literary texts, becoming an integral part of the projected new Israeli landscape and a significant element of so-called authentic Israeli culture.”

She traces the present absence of the ruins in three seminal works of Israeli literature—Khirbet Khizeh, a novella by S Yizhar (1949); Mul ha-ye’arot (Facing the Forests), a novella by A. B. Yehoshua (1963), and Levaya ba-tsohora’im (Funeral at Noon), a novel by Yeshayahu Koren (1974)—as well as Tsŏob (1994), an exhibition of painting by Larry Abramson.

In these works, the ruins are seemingly invisible, but Hochberg argues that the “visible invisibility” of the ruins haunt these works. The presence of the ruins as empty and destroyed Arab villages becomes central in not only how Israel is seen but also the visual experience in the literary texts and the paintings. Through this cross-media analysis, Hochberg shows how the visual field of Israel is shaped and determined by Palestinian ruins.

Hochberg also focuses on the function of the visual apparatus in visual art and media. Hochberg looks at subversive art projects and film-essays that highlight the relationship between desire, violence and spectatorship. In so doing, she examines how these works undermine what is commonly understood to be a unidirectional politics of the visual field. One of these artworks is Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints (2003) which I had the opportunity to view at the 2014 Nuit Blanche festival in Toronto. Chic Point offers first a fashion show, replete with colorful lights and club music. The designs are of clothing made for passing through Israeli checkpoints: shirts that lift up via a pull cord, or shirts that expose the abdomen. All designs offer ease of inspection by Israeli soldiers.

The second part of the film offers, by contrast, a series of black-and-white photographs of Palestinian citizens passing through these checkpoints or being stopped by Israeli soldiers. The juxtaposition of fashion show campiness with checkpoint brutality highlights, Hochberg argues, “the obvious chasm between the superfluous world of fashion and the harsh reality of living under military occupation.” At the same time, she suggests that this juxtaposition offers an “unresolved tension” between the body and the gaze, where, on the one hand, the body is an object of desire and, on the other, the body is the object of military surveillance.

Finally, Hochberg uses two films—Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Lebanon (2009)—and two “essay films”—Nervus Rerum and We Begin by Measuring Distance—to demonstrate the presence of an artistic challenge to “unwitnessable reality” made possible by particular uses of cinema. The two essay films, which, unlike documentary film, do not convey the bias of the filmmaker, subvert the trope of making reality visible because they refuse to “land on” a particular image or segment of footage. Instead, Measuring Distance is dominated by a lack of cohesion, while Nervus Rerum is marked by a frenetic cinematography. Both films disavow testimony by limiting the spectator’s capacity to bear witness and to see. This refusal to provide the typical visual evidence of Israeli violence and Palestinian suffering, Hochberg says, is an affront to the “fetishized status of Palestinians as image” and an indictment of “this model of knowledge production which reifies Palestinians as stuff of news or documentary.”

Other sources on which Hochberg draws include two films by director Elia Suleiman, Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention, which she uses to disclose and examine the political potential of being a Palestinian “ghost” in and to the architects and architecture of the occupation. In these two films, the protagonist makes himself an invisible spectator to Israeli soldiers who do not see him even though he is standing right there in their line of sight. This visible invisibility, she says, reveals not only the absurdity of militarized Israeli society but also the liberatory potential in evading this militarization.

Ultimately, Hochberg directs her analysis towards the manner in which ways of seeing and ways of regulating seeing arrange and produce the visual field. Visual Occupations opens up for consideration the question of what is produced in, for, and by the visual field, as well as by and for whom it is produced. Crucially, it is not the content of the visual but rather its management that reveals that “the colonial visual arrangement… currently grants unequal visual rights to Israel and Palestine”.

Hochberg originally ended Visual Occupations on a cautiously optimistic note. Initially, she had hoped that the artistic and cultural productions that interrogate the visual field of the occupation could produce different ways of seeing and, perhaps, a different-looking future. However, as the book went to press, Hochberg’s optimism shifted, and she became disheartened by the fact that the technologies that dominate contemporary warfare often produce no visual evidence. Drones and airstrikes, she points out, are modes of warfare that are premised upon visual disengagement with their “targets”, and they explicitly conceal the violence that they inflict. In closing, she calls for current studies and investigations of “invisible” modes of warfare to interrogate this shift in visual politics and (in)visibility.

Visual Occupations is an extensive but precise interrogation of the myriad and multifaceted dynamics that produce and maintain the dominant visual configurations of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. It is Hochberg’s far-reaching conceptualization and articulation of vision and visuality in Palestine/Israel that make this a rewarding engagement with the visual politics and problematics of the occupation. Specifically, Hochberg refuses to capitulate to the increasingly uninspired trajectories of either representing the unrepresentable or of presenting the othered peoples as carving out spaces and moments of empowerment for themselves from within in their marginalization. Instead, Visual Occupations finds itself in muddier territory, focusing on the messiness and instability of the ongoing shifts in the visual field, both within and between the various interests and identities that are at stake.

As a result, Hochberg’s work bolsters extant analyses that attend specifically to the extra-military means that produce and secure this unjust and lethal occupation. Visual Occupations complements works like Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, which focuses on the structural and spatial mechanisms that created and now sustain the Israeli state’s practices of control. It also supplements Jess Bier’s work in Mapping Israel, Mapping Palestine, which examines how the cartography of segregated landscapes in Palestine/Israel shape and are shaped by the conflict.

Hochberg’s is a timely and important book that demonstrates that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is determined in and by the visual realm and through the shape of visual fields. Resistance to the occupation means reclaiming the tools and meanings of vision and visuality. This work focuses little on how the production and regulation of the visual field connects and interrelates with the ongoing global political moves that shape and support the conflict. Instead, Visual Occupations reveals the great extent to which the Israeli occupation of Palestine is interwoven and deeply embedded in the visual politics of cultural production—informing its content, framing, form, message, and even execution—yet the visibility of this influence is not always apparent.

RATING 7 / 10