Control the geography, control the people: Saed Abu-Hijleh in Toronto

Just over a month ago (Oct 14/09) Palestinian geographer and director of the “Center for Global Consciousness” Saed Abu-Hijleh spoke at the University of Toronto. Traveling to the North American continent was no escape: Canadian Border services had put him through the ringer at Pearson airport, the border agent asking him whether he would “say anything against Israel” during his time in Canada. “Why did they give me a visa if they were going to humiliate me? I’ve had Canadians stay at my house in Nablus, but when I come to Canada I get treated like this.”


Just over a month ago (Oct 14/09) Palestinian geographer and director of the “Center for Global Consciousness” Saed Abu-Hijleh spoke at the University of Toronto. Traveling to the North American continent was no escape: Canadian Border services had put him through the ringer at Pearson airport, the border agent asking him whether he would “say anything against Israel” during his time in Canada. “Why did they give me a visa if they were going to humiliate me? I’ve had Canadians stay at my house in Nablus, but when I come to Canada I get treated like this.”

Harrassment by border police of every country is part of being Palestinian, and being Palestinian means being stateless. Abu-Hijleh’s analysis was that sovereign states had certain characteristics: control over land, a permanent resident population, a functioning government, economy, and transportation and communication infrastructure, a capital city, sovereignty, international recognition, control over airspace, water, mineral resources, and the EM spectrum. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t meet any these requirements. To Abu-Hijleh, the Palestinian state is better characterized as a Bantustan, ghetto, canton – or prison. The latter is his favoured term.

Abu-Hijleh applied Sack’s concept of “territoriality” to Israel. Loosely, territoriality means the control of a population through control over a geographic area.

Military and physical control is seized and, later, negotiated – not in good faith. Under the Oslo accords of the 1990s, the Palestinian state was promised contiguity. Israel interpreted this as Palestinians getting “safe passage” through Israel. The Palestinians understood it as a physical corridor under Palestinian control. Like every dispute of interpretation, this one was settled in the stronger party – Israel’s – favour.

History as well as geography are controlled: in 2006, Israel destroyed all the civilian records for the governorate of Nablus. Destroying these records strengthens Israel’s ability to define each a Palestinian’s identity is, and express it through ID cards produced by Israel for Palestinians.

The concept of territoriality also describes how the Israelis destroy the Palestinian environment. Deir Sharaf, near Nablus, is an example. There, Israel dumps its solid and hazardous waste in a former quarry, with no preparation and no regulation. There’s an aquifer under the hill that is now landfilled. By controlling water rights Israel controls Palestinians.

Part of the agenda is to try to get young people to leave. Control the territory, control livelihoods, prevent people from having a future or earning a living, and you can control the future.

In addition to being a geographer, Abu-Hijleh is an environmentalist who sees the occupation as being inseparable from environmental destruction.

“The environment is any use of resources. The relation is first basic resource utility. In Palestine because of the occupation you have a system of differential access to resources. Israel can degrade Palestinian environment at will. Air pollution for example depends where you are. Factories are placed in the west part of the West Bank, since the prevailing wind is westerly. There’s a chemical factory in Tulkarem, for example, and the pollution goes east. The majority of the population will be affected. The colonized can’t get the colonizer to help them solve environmental problems.”

He doesn’t believe the environment is a luxury to be concerned with after the political issues are solved.

“Control of the environment is central to occupation, it takes place through the control of the environment. Environmental destruction, like the uprooting of trees is central to Israeli strategy. The dump sites in the Jordan Valley. The whole spatial environment is fragmented and it’s hard to legislate for a fragmented landscape. The environmental struggle isn’t separate from the anti-apartheid struggle. And the struggle for the environment is the same as the struggle for a just society.”

The most extreme example of occupation’s effect on the environment is in Gaza, and no accident.

“Gaza’s an environmental catastrophe, a very unnatural spatial- demographic creation, with 1.5 million people in 360 sq. km. Gaza’s semi-arid with 200mm/yr, 300mm max, of precipitation. There are no natural springs. People are digging wells that go deeper and deeper with ever worse saltwater infiltration. There’s cholera and typhoid. Israel cuts the electricity, and people can’t pump sewage to treatment. It accumulates in the street and you get a cycle of disease. This is deliberate and genocidal.”

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.