Intervention — “The COVID-Climate Moment: Approximating Planetary Crisis in Palestine/Israel”

Ben Weinger (Department of Geography, UCLA)

“We are in a state of emergency, both climatic and democratic. A dangerous Knesset bypass law will be put to vote tonight, and we won’t allow it … We hereby announce that we will protect the Knesset with our bodies, and we will not allow the passage of the dangerous law!” (HaMered BeHach-khedah Yisrael [Extinction Rebellion Israel] 2020)

Introduction: “This is precisely what democracy looks like”

On 22 July 2020, dozens of Israeli climate protestors formed a blockade of key roads leading to the Knesset. Their performance of crisis featured dozens of young demonstrators chained to one another, metal shackles binding their wrists together and locks tethering their necks to street posts. Chants of “power to the people” and “this is precisely what democracy looks like” rang through their face masks amidst a cacophony of car horns and police sirens. Yet, in departure from the group’s usual collective efforts raising awareness around the climate crisis, this performance was not strictly oriented around the climate. Rather, demonstrators organized this blockade to prevent Knesset Members from voting on the Special Powers Law for Dealing with Coronavirus. While each blockade lasted only an hour before police violently dragged demonstrators’ bodies off the road, this performance of overlapping crisis situated COVID-19 discontent within a familiar repertoire of climate emergency and civil disobedience.

But why were climate protestors “protecting” the Knesset on the day the Special Powers Law for Dealing with Coronavirus was set to be voted into law? What does a law ostensibly aimed at containing COVID-19 have to do with climate change? Drawing on the performative moment above, this Intervention considers how two putatively planetary crises overlap. I argue that thinking climate and COVID-19 together can reveal an accretion of spatial violence, inadequate territorial means of containment, and a protracted crisis unresolved and indeed elongated by present global governance structures.

Despite the rapidly fleeting, unstable, and often contradictory context of COVID-19 and climate change, as well as the numerous challenges and limitations of conducting research on emerging social formations, of which there are indeed great risks, I use this Intervention as a provisional opportunity to consider how nascent political responses to two ostensibly planetary formations and crises may overlap, foreclose, or open certain possibilities for the future. The moment of convergence described above has already begun the work of approximation for us, binding two seemingly unrelated crises to a power laden geography of abandonment.

Approximating Planetary Crisis: Geographies of Abandonment and Discontent

While climatic changes and global pandemics transcend political boundaries and invite collective action, the continued assertion of territorial claims and boundary making within orthodox political responses to these planetary crises signals the highly calculated nature of containment and social organization in Palestine/Israel (Adalah 2020; Abu Hatoum 2020; Axelrod 2020; Lukash and Yanko 2020; McGoldrick 2020). Drawing on the Israeli climate movement’s performance of overlapping crisis, I consider three potential limitations or optimisms to approximating planetary crisis.

First, the notable absence of Palestinians from the Israeli climate movement signals a profound gap between the proposed Israeli vision of justice and the political reality for Palestinians on the ground. The irony of this performance inheres in the corporeal defense of what these Israeli climate protestors see as the emblematic institution upholding their liberal democracy – the Knesset, a body that has historically privileged the state’s demos (read ethnos), the Jewish nation, at the expense of Palestinian citizens, noncitizens, and other groups subject to the state (Yiftachel 1999). The avowed corporeal protection of this putative liberal democracy, and continued commitment toward state institutions as the locus of justice, legitimizes and obfuscates the colonial foundations and ethno-racial basis of uneven privilege, resources, territory, and reproductive futurity. If a movement for climate justice is really about transforming systems of governance to create more ecologically sensible and just futures, can the institutions of organized violence be relied upon to proffer justice? Or does such a performance merely disavow the violent histories and geographies of abandonment that render adaptive capacities uneven?

As Ophir (2010: 44) contemplates: “Must there be an event, clearly distinguished in time and space, in order for a catastrophe to take place?” Singular focus on the momentary and spectacular may obscure the systematic abandonment, slow violence, and withdrawal, particularly via spatial fragmentation and dislocation, through which means of protection and relief have been suspended and chipped away. After decades of spatial confinement, territorial dispossession, de-development, violent military incursions, and entrapment within the strictures of Israeli settler colonial expansion, Palestinians across the territory are inherently exposed to the impacts of COVID-19 differentially. Those in the West Bank and Gaza are especially impacted by the hindering, weakening, and destruction of proto-state infrastructures – from unstable electricity to refrigerate vaccines and power ventilators to unsanitary water for hand washing (Amir 2017; Hanafi 2009; Roy 1999; UNICEF 2020; UN OCHA 2020). Absent from the Israeli climate protesters’ denunciation of the antidemocratic coronavirus law and performance of crisis is a recognition of the always already anti-democratic political regime through which a systematic process of catastrophization (Ophir 2010) and organized abandonment has remained ongoing. The uneven rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for Israeli citizens and the exclusion of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza reflects these catastrophic and territorial power relations.

Second, in approximating climate change with COVID-19, the Israeli climate performance highlights the inadequate territorial state responses to extraterritorial planetary crises. Met themselves by violent policing and brutality in the face of the pandemic’s ungovernability, the climate demonstrators instantiate the state’s performative expansion of sovereign power amidst crises unbound to borders. COVID-19 anxieties and discourses that center containment and protection through territorial means begin to align with the elevation of national security discourses around climate change (Netanyahu 2020; State of Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection 2018; State of Palestine 2020). For example, on 16 August 2020, then Israeli Coronavirus Commissioner Ronni Gamzu likened the behavior of Palestinians in Israel to “a terror attack”, reproducing the habitual internal-enemy binary and xenophobic anxieties of intrusion and the storming of the gates (Lukash and Yanko 2020).

The uneven sovereign means (policing and brutality) utilized to effectuate biopolitical ends (Jewish prosperity) within the COVID-19 pandemic signal the continued disavowal of state responsibility towards segments of its population and groups ultimately under the state of Israel’s control. Israeli climate discourses similarly relegate Palestinians and non-Jewish refugees to the margins of legality and “bare life” (Agamben 1998), denying a territorial history and future for a state of Palestine and the Palestinian polity. Positioned as dangerous vectors of disease and violence, Palestinians in Gamzu’s formulations would require intrusive sovereign (military) means to control. The war metaphor many world leaders have constructed to represent the coronavirus indeed takes on a more literal meaning in Palestine/Israel where actual instruments of war, as opposed to the more figurative equation of the vaccine as weapon, are utilized, discursively and materially, to effectuate containment. By illuminating the nexus of structural abandonment and organized violence, the Israeli climate performance thereby exposes the conditions that have congealed to produce “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Gilmore 2017: 227).

Finally, the geographical scale of the state at which these climate protestors direct their performance renders visible the territorial-bounded-state paradigm and asymmetric geopolitical conditions under which planetary crisis has been inadequately governed. The politics of climate change and COVID-19 have been organized, almost exclusively, in relation to states and conceptions of absolute territorial sovereignty via the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the World Health Organization. The territorial-state based ontology of the United Nations and its associated institutions is thereby trapped within a regime of Westphalian territorial sovereignty, fixing states as containers of sovereign space, despite a more complex world order of flows and networks that transcend absolute political territoriality, as the crises of climate change and COVID-19 instantiate (Agnew 2005; Agnew and Muscarà 2016: 171). The case of Palestine, a non-sovereign, non-politically autonomous ‘no-state yet to come’ (Abu Hatoum 2020), further unsettles the territorial-bounded-state paradigm through which extraterritorial crisis is normatively governed and recognition is adjudicated (Agnew and Muscarà 2016: 44).

In reifying politics at the scale of the state, climate protestors restrict climate and COVID-19 governance to the provisional borders of the state of Israel, effectively eliding the territorial entanglements that subject Palestinians to a web of inclusive-exclusion (Hanafi 2009). Subjected to Israeli military law, fragmentation of space, and economic dependence, Palestinians, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, are abandoned by the social, political, and economic privileges afforded by Israeli citizenship, such as its COVID-19 vaccination program or climate adaptation (Axelrod 2020; Ophir et al. 2009).

Conclusion: Structural Homologies

This Intervention admittedly risks equating two crises that operate on different temporal scales. Yet, approximating climate change and COVID-19 within a historical geography of abandonment highlights the profound homologies that shift attention to how politics and policies, such as COVID-19 regulations and climate adaptation plans, become discursive scripts of material futures, embedded nonetheless in the colonial past and present (Gregory 2004). The assemblage of power relations revealed in the Israeli climate movement’s performance provokes the need for alternative understandings of resistance and solidarity that exceed national boundaries.

Palestine’s archipelagic sequestration and the vicious sedimentation of Israel’s settler geography, illegal and unfortunate as these processes are, nonetheless reveal the spatial impossibility of partitioning this territory into two states. It is only through this recognition, illuminated by the flow of COVID-19 despite the Separation Barrier, that the Israeli climate movement can come to embrace a “politics of space sharing” and align with Palestinian movements for collective futurity (Weizman 2007). Perhaps the most meaningful mechanism to resist the Israeli state and its always already anti-democratic structures, rather than “protecting” the emblematic Knesset (and in effect alienating Palestinians), is to transgress the protracted regime of exception by building solidarities and shared imaginations of the future. Curtailing premature death, whether in the form of preventing the spread of COVID-19 or mitigating climate change impacts, depends upon constructing an “antagonistic contradiction” to organized abandonment and violence (Gilmore 2017): what may be thought of as a “biopolitics from below” (Sotiris 2020). This effort proposes alternative forms of governance in the face of repressive state responses to COVID-19, and in extension to climate change, dissociated from violent forms of abandonment and sovereign power.

Perhaps only by turning away from the state and its production of social and spatial separateness can sundered relationalities be reterritorialized. While the Israeli state stands as the primary structure of dominance towards which opposition must inevitably be directed, climate protestors can defy historical processes of social and spatial differentiation by realigning collective efforts toward the uniting of shared struggles. In effect, COVID-climate justice must be predicated upon decolonization.


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