Humanity's Border

In May, Israel and the USA staged a bloody diptych of spectacles. On the left, the opening of the new US embassy in occupied Jerusalem. On the right, the daylight massacre of unarmed Gazans by Israeli snipers.  

On one side, the age-old figure of the gleaming "City on the Hill," the Citadel of God's chosen, a favorite of colonial settlers from Cotton Mather to Golda Meir. On the other, the Gate to the citadel, or more exactly, the barbarians that lie outside that gate .

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The City and the Gate: rarely are we afforded such a clear glimpse of this vision—on the one hand, civilization, on the other, barbarism. Freedom and tyranny. Or more simply put, humanity and inhumanity—which is to say, the human and the non-human, the latter less an intellectual category than a gory menagerie of animals, monsters, subhumans and inhumans. 

Wall v. Border

The US media, echoing IDF press briefings, has long referred to the barriers around Gaza as a "border fence." The reference to borders could not be any wronger. 

A border is the line that stands between two sovereign states. Gaza is not sovereign, and never has been; Israel's sense of sovereign territory fully encompasses Gaza. 

A border may be open or closed, but it is not something that is only ever open on one side, and only ever closed on the other. While Israeli forces freely move back and forth across the line that demarcates Gaza, the converse is not true. Israeli crossings into Gaza are not considered transgressions even when they are military and violent; any Gazan movement outside the line, whether accompanied by violence or not, becomes an aggression. 

Thus the fence that separates Gazans from the world can not be called a border. It neither represents a relation of mutual recognition nor a balance of power. It is a line, unilaterally imposed by Israel on Gaza. (And, for the record, the example of Gaza is not unique: Israel has consistently refrained from defining its borders with all its neighboring states). 

So what is it? Most of it looks like a fence. But it is best understood as a prison wall. Just as prison walls are built with one-sided gates designed to allow prison guards to enter, so too does this wall have such gates. But the highest goal of a prison wall is to prevent incarcerated bodies from moving freely. The walls around Gaza accomplish this goal every day. 

Purity and Danger in Israel-Palestine

Conceptually, however, these walls do much more than trap bodies. They prevent also "Palestine" from mixing with "Israel." To borrow from Mary Douglas, they create one space imagined as safe, and pure. 

And a second space that is chaotic, inhuman and full of danger and contamination.  

In this, the walls build on the fundamental Balfourian and Zionist distinction between Jew and non-Jew in Palestine. Now, as during the British Mandate, this distinction between Jew and non-Jews is one between the fully human and the not-quite human.

Only in this conceptual sense can we call the line between Israel and Gaza a 'border'. It was built to mark the categorical division between Israelis (as humans) and Gazan Palestinians (as not-quite humans).

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Monsters at the Gate

But as real as these resonances are with older colonial conceptual divisions, they reverberate even more strongly with stories and images in contemporary pop culture, particularly in dystopic sci-fi and fantasy genres, where noble humans fight against monsters in existential combat. Not accidentally, many of these stories involve epic sieges, where the humans of the citadel must fend off the invasion of creatures whose hideousness and evil derives in no small part from their likeness to humans. It is their status as humanoid—not-quite human—that is so monstrous.

Consider the above representations of Gazans at the gate against these images of embattled citadels pulled from recent blockbuster hits. 

   World War Z  (2013)

World War Z (2013)

   World War Z  (2013)

World War Z (2013)

  White Walkers at the Night's Watch Wall,  Game of Thrones  (2017)

White Walkers at the Night's Watch Wall, Game of Thrones (2017)

  Battle of Helm's Deep,  The Two Towers  (2002) 

Battle of Helm's Deep, The Two Towers (2002) 

The suggestion I am making is that, as bizarre as it may seem, media representations of the Gaza massacres dovetail with these other narratives, and with their imagistic vocabulary, to buttress and extend the walls around Gaza. Whether this is conscious is another question, but the regularity of the shared conventions are unmissable. Just as these fictions imagine an existential battle at the very border of humanity, so too does the Gaza prison wall serve as a staging ground, in the imagination of Israel's right and its allies, in a war against non-human threats.

The media corps of the IDF appears to be fully conscious of these tropes. At the very least, it does not hesitate to make use of them, as we saw in May. 

  Palestinians at the fence, negative image from  This is Hamas' Plan

Palestinians at the fence, negative image from This is Hamas' Plan

Consider the video, "This is Hamas' Plan," that was posted to the IDF Spokesman's Twitter account on May 15. In a series of shots, which simulate surveillance, infrared, night vision, drone and clandestine broadcast footage, this short video depicts Gazans as shadowy ghouls marauding Israel. 

Accompanied by a scratchy, distorted soundtrack that creates a mood of impending doom, it embraces the Blair Witch Project aesthetic so pervasive in contemporary horror-genre film and television. 

This, no less than any physical wall, is part of the larger project to dehumanize Gazans and to render them as morally expendable as any other orc, zombie or humanoid monster we might encounter in fiction or fantasy.

What does it mean for Israel to make a cheap horror film that depicts Gazans as monsters? The real horror, of course, is that there is a state that dispossesses masses of indigenous people, drives them from their lands, cages them as stateless refugees in an open air prison, assaults them for decades, and massacres them in broad daylight when they dare to protest—and then creates a cultural tradition filled with monstrous representations of its victims.

But then again, that's settler colonialism for you. 

  Lithographs of events in the Seminole War in Florida in 1835. (Charleston, S.C.: T.F. Gray and James, 1837.

Lithographs of events in the Seminole War in Florida in 1835. (Charleston, S.C.: T.F. Gray and James, 1837.

   The Siege of the Fort at Detroit  by Frederic Remington

The Siege of the Fort at Detroit by Frederic Remington

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