Theses Doctoral

Waste and the Phantom State: The Emergence of the Environment in Post-Oslo Palestine

Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Sophia Chloe

In 1995, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established as an interim Palestinian government on shreds of land within the West Bank and Gaza. One of the new authority’s lesser-known administrative mandates is protection of the environment from pollution. Though the PA was to have a semblance of “self-rule,” the Oslo Accords that established the PA also stipulated that the latter seek Israeli approval when building most large-scale infrastructures—including those designed to manage waste. Meanwhile, emergent ideas about the environment defined it as a limitless expanse. The environment projected out from PA enclaves on thirty percent of the land in all directions—including into the air above and into the subterrain below. The Accords projected environmental responsibility into Israel proper as well as into areas it “shares” with Palestinians in the occupied territories. As a consequence, Palestinian waste infrastructures are objects of concern not only to the Palestinian communities they are designed to serve but also to the Israeli state, to Israeli settlements, to regional neighbors and to foreign donors in far-flung offices who are concerned with “environmental security.” This dissertation investigates a series of multimillion dollar PA projects aimed at protecting what came to be called the “shared” environment through management of Palestinian wastes. In doing so it analyzes the tension between the insistence, on the one hand, that the PA govern “its” population within strictly defined borders as part of a hierarchical system of nested sovereignties in which Israel’s is the superior form, and the imperative, on the other hand, that this territorially-defined, officially interim government perform care for the territory’s longterm ecological future.

It tends to be taken for granted that Oslo produced a period of separation by enclosing the West Bank and Gaza and cleaving them off from Israel proper. Millions of West Bank Palestinians are no longer permitted to work in, travel through or even visit Jerusalem or Israel. Israel has prohibited Israeli citizens’ entry into PA areas of the West Bank. This allows PA areas to appear relatively autonomous—insofar as they are viewed as separate from Israel. But in a number of significant ways, Israel continues to control and to direct the daily experiences and future possibilities of West Bank Palestinians. Separation and control are thus equally accurate characterizations of Palestinians’ experiences post-Oslo. This dissertation contends that their particular combination in the post-Oslo period has allowed people living in the West Bank to experience PA governance as what, borrowing a term I heard there, I call a phantom state (shibih dowlah). Palestinians see the limits of PA autonomy vis-a-vis Israel and the PA’s many donors. The PA is specter-like: an appearance without stable material follow-through. People nevertheless treat the PA as a matter-of-fact, tangible part of their lives: as an address for appeal, requests and complaints, as a distinct entity upon which responsibility, blame and, very occasionally, even praise is bestowed.

Studies of garbage at the turn of the twenty-first century show that modern waste has the capacity to destabilize and to undermine political systems because of the risks it is perceived to pose and because of the difficulty of keeping it stable and contained. Unlike water, oil and electricity, waste is an infrastructural substrate whose flows should move out from inhabited areas rather than into them. As mobile, abject matter that perpetually threatens the environment, it requires constant monitoring. It is managed at regional scales. In the Palestinian context, waste therefore reveals some of the spatial-geographical complexities that render the treatment of separation and control as an either/or dynamic impossible to sustain. It also reveals the ways in which believing both separation and control to be true for the people experiencing them in combination means living, working and planning within a logic of constant contradiction. Waste is not the only infrastructural substrate that reveals the Mobius strip of separation and connectedness of the post-Oslo period. But waste and its infrastructures are uniquely useful for showing the impossibility and the partialness of a politics of separation more broadly in an emergent era of environmental securitization. This dissertation thus analyzes an incommensurable tension in what Achille Mbembe has called a “late-modern colonial occupation” that operates in the style of older forms of indirect colonial rule. That tension renders governance of people and territory both difficult and incoherent. It produces environmental hazards while seeking to eliminate them. And it performs major political displacements among colonized and colonizers alike.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Abu El-Haj, Nadia L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 5, 2015