Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation. Book Review

Reviewed by Arwa Aburawa, Manchester

Saree Makdisi is no historian; he isn’t a political commentator, activist or even a semi-political writer. He’s a professor of English literature at UCLA, and whilst you may think that this disqualifies him from adding to the already crowded field of the Palestine/Israel conflict, his work is quite simply a breath of fresh air.

His book, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, isn’t about historical findings it doesn’t contain in-depth political analysis, rather it is a book about the daily struggle of ordinary Palestinians dealing with passes, permits, curfews, checkpoints and closures. The loss of control over their inner and outer lives and how the occupation has become as it were an everyday occupation. It explores how the Israeli state has isolated Palestinians from their land, livelihoods and each other and how they can regain their freedom through a single, secular and democratic state solution.

The introduction sadly ignores convention by failing to address the historiography of the conflict, to explain the chapter structures or aims of the book. This leaves the reader feeling a little bit lost as the layout of the chapters is quite unusual. The book goes headfirst into the personal story of Sam Bahour who received orders from the Israeli government to leave his home, family and livelihood in the West Bank and never to return. As Makdisi states these stories of personal struggle may not be spectacular “since they occur on an individual and intimately personal scale”, “silently and invisibly” but they are pushing the Palestinians to the edge of dissolution (p.5-6).

“A politically charged vision, having assumed the neutral and technical language of administration procedures and bureaucratic regulations, is played out in government offices, at roadblocks and checkpoints, and in planning applications; housing permits; citizenship, identity and residency documents- and, of course visa stamps” (p.5).This political vision is of Israel as an entirely Jewish state, aiming to solve the ‘demographic problem’ of the Palestinian people by making their lives unbearable in the hope that they will simply leave.

The first chapter titled “Outsides” explores how the construction of the Wall has created clear boundaries around who belongs whilst pushing Palestinians ‘outside’ their lands and also ‘outside’ a normal, peaceful existence. It looks particularly at the ‘Seam Zone’- an area between the 1967 border and the wall- and how 60,500 Palestinians who now live in this area are denied access to their own land and emergency medical care (p.24).

The extent of the devastation is illustrated by personal accounts of accidents turning into fatalities when Israeli soldiers refuse to grant access to hospitals without ‘relevant permits’ (p.23-8). Makdisi also explains how the Oslo agreement played a vital part in this ‘hyperregulation’ as it institutionalised the checkpoints, curfews, roadblocks which have “led to ever-greater immobilization and paralysis, political infighting, soaring unemployment, and economic collapse” (p.85).

“Insides”- the second chapter- considers the personal and intimate impact of the bureaucratic controls which dictate “who one is, where one can go, where one can live and work” (p.102). This is demonstrated through the demolition of homes, the separation of families without the correct permits and family unification papers. Hence “all the normal markers of inside, home life- the relationship of family members to each other, the legality of their existence as a family, the security of their most intimate domestic space- are undone” (p.119, emphasis added).

Another aspect of this is the fact that illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied territories are strategically implanted to fragment the pre-existing Palestinian communities. Even Jewish homes are specifically designed to encourage surveillance and inspection -and therefore control- of the surrounding Palestinian population (p.122-4).

Vulnerability of Palestinian inner space is portrayed by the personal story of Maryam al-Natsheh, whose home was intruded by armed Israeli settlers in Hebron. Her nine-year old son, Falah, was beaten up whilst her other son Ahmad was stabbed in the back; shockingly such attacks are common occurrences (p.139-40). These policies form part of an Israeli strategy to ‘encourage “voluntary” transfer’ and so displace yet another Palestinian family.

‘Outside In’ the third chapter looks at how certain Palestinian communities have become virtual open-air prisons. For example, Israel’s tight regulation of Gaza’s borders, imports and exports, agriculture, electricity has cut them off from the outside world and destroyed any hope for economic and social recovery (p.156). They are subject to frequent Israeli raids and bombardments, arbitrary curfews and closures which block the export of agricultural products and the flow of medicine and medical equipment.

As a result, “more than half of the families in Gaza now eat only one meagre meal a day” (p.166-70). Such disproportionate military reactions to Palestinian resistance and the ‘collective punishment’ of entire populations have been condemned as war crimes by the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights John Dugard (p.176-7).

Inside Out, the fourth chapter highlights how Israeli settlers- under the protection of Israeli soldiers-are taking over entire cities such as Hebron and forcing Palestinians out as part of a permanent process of dispossessing Arabs. Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing is confirmed by the fact that “Palestinians are routinely denied building permits, and their homes are frequently demolished- but there are government incentives making it easier for Jewish individuals and families to buy or rent space in settlements built in the occupied territories” (p.12).

Recent access to Israel’s military archives has also allowed academics to reconstruct the true extent of the Nakba and confirm the basic Palestinian account of 1948 as a war of expulsion. This has allowed shocking statistic to emerge which demonstrate the true extent of dispossession; for example 531 Palestinian towns and villages have been destroyed or depopulated since 1948 (p.233).

The personal accounts which illustrate the deeply individual impact of the occupation are central to the book’s theme. They are honestly touching, poignant, even haunting and their words will stay with you. For example Laila el-Haddad who waited at the Israeli controlled border with Egypt for hours on end, day-after day describes her experience:
“There is something you feel as you stand there for hours at a time, waiting to be let through the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing. It is something of your humanity slowly drifting away. It is gradual, but unmistakable. And you are never quite the same again” (p.158).

Moshe Nissim’s – an Israeli soldier who operates armoured bulldozers- horrifying, honest statement depicts the unnerving malice which simmers in the mind of the aggressor: “I got a real kick out of every house that was demolished because I knew that dying means nothing to them, while the loss of their house means more to them. You destroy a house and you destroy forty or fifty people for generations. If one thing bothers me about all this, it is that we didn’t wipe out the whole camp” (p.184).

Whilst the book does focus on personal stories, it is not at the expense of clarity as there is enough history and politics to ensure the novice readers can understand the conflict. Major historical events such as the Nakba, the 1967 war, the Intifada and Oslo are all covered throughout and the final chapter focuses on more recent events such as Annapolis, the electoral success of Hamas in 2006 and the subsequent siege of Gaza.

The final installation also elaborates Makdisi’s conviction in a one-state solution which grants both the Palestinians and Israeli’s equal rights- including Palestinian refugee’s right of return- to help secure a just and lasting peace.

The only drawback is that the book is repetitive in places, especially in its effort to condemn Israel as breaking human rights as defined by international law. Makdisi constantly repeats U.N Security Council resolutions, alongside Geneva Conventions, International Law and the International Court of Justice as if Israel could be shamed into submission. Overall, however, this book is a vital shift from an academic audience to the general public who will require a readable and humanist portrayal of the on-going conflict. It is powerful, thought-provoking and deeply moving.

The harrowing accounts of oppression, personal attacks, deaths, control and crippling sieges which Palestinians face gives you real a sense of the suffocation of life occurring. Nonetheless the author maintains that there is room for hope as the struggle for equality within a single, secular state is a cleaner, more popular and ultimately more powerful struggle- which will succeed with a little compromise from either side (p.292).

As he puts it so eloquently: Palestinians have to realise that they will never recuperate Palestine as it was before the arrival of Zionism, and Israelis will never realise a purely Jewish state- they must both put their two impossible ideals aside for the sake of a common future (p287).

Arwa Aburawa, Manchester

Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation
W.W. Norton & Company, 2008,
ISBN 978-0-393-06606-7,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s