The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine
Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures
Published by: Stanford University Press
344 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503610897
- Published: December 2019
Waste Siege offers an analysis unusual in the study of Palestine: it depicts the environmental, infrastructural, and aesthetic context in which Palestinians are obliged to forge their lives. To speak of waste siege is to describe a series of conditions, from smelling wastes to negotiating military infrastructures, from biopolitical forms of colonial rule to experiences of governmental abandonment, from obvious targets of resistance to confusion over responsibility for the burdensome objects of daily life. Within this rubble, debris, and infrastructural fallout, West Bank Palestinians create a life under settler colonial rule.
Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins focuses on waste as an experience of everyday life that is continuous with, but not a result only of, occupation. Tracing Palestinians' own experiences of wastes over the past decade, she considers how multiple authorities governing the West Bank—including municipalities, the Palestinian Authority, international aid organizations, NGOs, and Israel—rule by waste siege, whether intentionally or not. Her work challenges both common formulations of waste as "matter out of place" and as the ontological opposite of the environment, by suggesting instead that waste siege be understood as an ecology of "matter with no place to go." Waste siege thus not only describes a stateless Palestine, but also becomes a metaphor for our besieged planet.
The Preface introduces and defines the concept of "waste siege," providing an overview for why it is useful for understanding West Bank Palestinians' experiences of their material environment in the twenty-first century, as well as their practices of engaging with it. It explains how the concept of waste siege builds upon and departs from prevailing ideas about the meanings and effects of waste, infrastructure, and the environment. Articulating the need for an ethnography of the mundane, everyday practices that surround waste in this politically charged context, it also elucidates why waste siege both describes Palestinians' particular moment of nonsovereignty and offers a metaphor for a dying planet.
The Introduction describes the types of waste that constitute waste siege and explains how waste siege resembles, relates to, and departs from conventional military siege. Palestine's accumulation of wastes is an outcome of the West Bank's post-Oslo jurisdictional arrangement: Israel controls the territory and many Palestinian Authority (PA) functions but has abrogated governing responsibilities in Palestinian-inhabited areas, while the PA is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid. Though Israel holds the monopoly of the (albeit illegitimate) use of force in the West Bank, Palestinians there experience the PA as a state-like, matter-of-fact presence and as a primary address for adjudicating the challenges of waste siege. The chapter argues that two critical concepts for understanding waste siege's effects are improvisation, practice that acknowledges its own imperfection and temporariness; and infrastructure, a (material) form of improvisation and a facilitator of material and discursive flows.
The PA opened its first two regional landfills in 2007 and 2013 to concentrate, compress, and bury large volumes of Palestinian garbage. The landfills were designed to eradicate a system where each of roughly four hundred municipalities dumped or burned trash within administrative boundaries, simultaneously performing Palestine's sanitary modernity for international audiences. Yet landfill engineers face acute time-related dilemmas because landfills are technologies that accumulate waste and thus fill up and expire, because ceding land for waste burial is particularly painful for Palestinians squeezed by Israel's rapid territorial expansion, and because landfills are losing their modern aura as alternatives like recycling and incineration with better environmental reputations gain global favor. The chapter argues that landfills' temporal properties make them infrastructures that mitigate waste siege and create it anew by redistributing waste and its risks across territory, putting waste into play with debates about the public good, governance, and modernity.
After Israel's mid-1990s segregation of West Bank Palestinians from the Israeli market, Palestinians lost jobs and access to Israeli-made and Israeli-imported products. Impoverished and stuck in place, Palestinians increased cheap international imports. This led to a feeling of inundation by disposable, flimsy, and unreliable goods under suspicious PA regulations. Meanwhile, Palestinians developed illicit trade networks transporting discarded objects from Israel into the West Bank. Based on fieldwork in Jenin's secondhand (rabish) market, chapter 2 shows how secondhand Israeli goods are simultaneously revolting and riveting, humiliating and uplifting. As Israeli discards in Palestine, they are easily construed as part of discriminatory dumping. Yet they are also objects of desire as commodities assumed to be of higher quality because their signs of use (patina) index their origins in a state (Israel) inhabited by people who enjoy the economic comforts and protections of citizenship.
Thousands of Palestinians live, work, and move through West Bank areas that have become dumping grounds because they are "hypogoverned," lying outside PA administration, but also "hypergoverned," subject to unmediated, hostile Israeli military rule. Chapter 3 centers on Shuqba village, one such "waste accumulation" site, where some landowners accept payments in exchange for dumping. Shuqba representatives do not seek help from Israeli officials: doing so would mean turning over fellow Shuqbans to the occupying forces. The chapter argues that accumulated wastes can condense impossible-to-answer questions of culpability, especially under such conditions of nonsovereignty. Yet accumulated wastes are unique among other infrastructural substrates because they index unethical human action that nevertheless demands adjudication. Shuqba representatives adjudicate Shuqba's toxicities by initiating "incomplete interpellations," repeatedly appealing to the PA for help that never comes and thereby making the PA what some call a shibih dawla, or phantom state.
Palestinians buy fresh bread almost daily. But city dwellers are also often left with leftover, unwanted bread. This creates an ethical-material burden: it is widely held that bread must never be discarded. Many improvise to maintain a sense of ethical selfhood by casting off unwanted bread out of doors in the hope that someone will take it, keeping it in circulation. Chapter 4 argues that this is a form of gift giving where the giver, rather than the receiver, is the party to the exchange most burdened by obligations, contra long-standing anthropological understandings of gift exchange emphasizing the recipient's burden. Outdoor bread deposits become infrastructural as they facilitate circulation of the idea of a democratic collectivity, or commons.
Chapter 5 traces sewage "leaks" from the West Bank into Israel. The past two decades have seen the rise of a framework for understanding Israel and the OPT as a so-called shared environment, a single ecological unit. Asserted especially by Israeli officials, settlers, and environmentalists and international donors, this framework construes Israel and the PA as equals, eliding the fact that the former militarily occupies the latter. Yet it also assumes that the PA is never quite capable of environmental protection and that Palestinians may intend to pollute for political purposes. It therefore entitles Israel to control over Palestinians as environmentalist practice. The dominance of this framework renders a kind of Orwellian "doublethink" necessary for Palestinians dependent on Israeli and foreign support for sewage projects. The chapter depicts Palestinians' performances of "aspirational phatic labor" through doublethink to help build the would-be state's sewage system.
The Conclusion tells a story of a visit to the Dead Sea, which is both shrinking and increasingly filling with Israeli and Palestinian sewage. It argues that the Dead Sea is a microcosm of the planetary fact that Earth is besieged by growing quantities of waste with no place to go. Yet the Dead Sea is nevertheless an object of desire and an escapist destination for Palestinians, whose access to its beaches is curtailed by occupation even as their sewage is forced to flow freely into it. Waste helps make experiences of governance and abandonment visible while complicating anthropological definitions of nature. Just as waste siege inundates spaces with waste, as if materializing earlier European colonial representations of colonies as empty wastelands, abandonment (by the state) and absence (of a state of one's own) can be lived as material inundation in an ecology whose politics, ethics, and toxicities resist classification.
"There are so many reasons to read this book: it's brilliantly written, theoretically innovative, and politically necessary. Waste Siege is not only one of the most original accounts of waste to date, it is essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the ongoing occupation of the West Bank from the perspective of ordinary Palestinians." ~Joshua Reno, author of Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill
"Waste Siege is an original and innovative account of living with the inundation of debris and toxicity in Palestine. Taking the reader on a journey through landfills and rubbish markets, encounters with bags of bread left hanging on the sides of dumpsters, and the movement of sewage across political barriers, Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins brilliantly excavates the ambient politics of waste and its management." ~Ilana Feldman, author of Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics
"[An] insightful, penetrating account of life under six decades of military occupation for the nearly three million Palestinians....In this well-written, intelligent account based on firsthand ethnographic fieldwork, the author displays a keen understanding of both waste ecology and contemporary life in occupied Palestine. Highly recommended." ~G. M. Massey, CHOICE
"Although Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins' marvelous new book is about waste management in Palestine, it asks extremely timely and relevant questions about the putative universality of environmental threats, mobility, fixity, political violence, and state governance." ~Kareem Rabie, PoLAR
"Waste Siege is a welcome addition to the sparse literature about the environment, waste, and infrastructure in Palestine and the Middle East more broadly.[An] important work." ~Basma Fahoum, Arab Studies Quarterly
"By tracing the flows and forces of waste siege, this text enables a more refined understanding of the socio-political worlds forged with, under, and against occupation....In Stamatopoulou-Robbins's ethnography, environment, occupation, and everyday life are grasped in a single frame." ~Mohammed Rafi Arefin and Benjamin Kaplan Weinger, Cultural Geographies
"Through a careful sifting of the various sites at which waste from Israel threatens to overwhelm physical settings and the ordinary lives of Palestinians, Stamatopoulou-Robbins leads us to appreciate the structural impossibility of Palestinian self-government as a rejoinder to utopian fantasies of a two-state solution. The tracing of the afterlives of bread in the midst of the hurly burly of urban lives and waste management projects, incomplete of necessity, suggests alternative geographies of food infrastructure and mutual aid. We are treated to people who are fully fleshed-out and multi-dimensional and whose voices of rueful honesty, of humor mixed with anguish, continue to ring in our ears long after we put down the book. A community under siege is connected to the rest of the world by waste." ~Sharon Stephens Book Prize Committee
"Stamatopoulou-Robbins provides a visceral and theoretically sophisticated guide to the disposability, toxicity, and ethical dilemmas that Palestinians confront in the West Bank today.Grounded in the anthropology of waste, the state, the environment, and infrastructure,Waste Siegeis a theoretically rich, ethnographically grounded, beautifully written exploration of the 'kind of living we do in the constantly changing ruins we have made.'" ~Andy Clarno,Journal for Palestine Studies
"Waste Siege is a captivating book on the impact of the global inundation of waste, and waste infrastructure, on the lives of Palestinians. In a sense, Stamatopoulou-Robbins carves out the constellation surrounding waste, and in a bigger picture, a global economy of inundation... This book is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the lives of Palestinians under occupation from a refreshing perspective on the nation, and the nation-state. It is a wonderful analysis of Palestinian statehood and the ensuing debate on the Authority's success as a governing body." ~Christina Bouri, Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy
"Stamatopoulou-Robbins's interviews are a particular strength of Waste Siege. Some of her interlocutors are the men of the rabish and the consumers of second-hand goods who tell a story about garbage intertwined with the issues of class and views of the other, all set within the sprawling networks of flea markets." ~Lauren Banko, International Journal of Islamic Architecture