Searching for Justice in Palestine’s Geography

By Benjamin Sacks

Gaza Strip. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Gaza Strip. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

The State of Israel and Gaza militants are currently engaged in yet another violent struggle. As I write, the Israeli military is announcing that Hadar Goldin, a 23 year-old soldier captured by Hamas, had died. Separately, United Nations officials in Gaza report that a ‘health disaster of widespread proportions is rapidly unfolding’ there as the three week-old conflict rages on without any ceasefire or even serious negotiations in sight. This most recent flare is little different from previous struggles between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and unfortunately will not likely be the last time the two sides will clash.

It is now well understood that decisions made in the years leading up to Israel’s creation set in motion many of the current divisions between the Israelis and Palestinians. The infamous secret Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916 split the post-war Middle East into French and British administrative sectors, formalized in the subsequent League of Nations mandates of 1922. In the Second World War’s aftermath, Britain experienced considerable, often violent strife from Israeli settlers in their mutual efforts to negotiate the timetable and terms for the establishment of an independent Jewish state. Writing in a 1951 Geographical Journal article, Sir Clarmont Skrine recalled that the State of Israel was born on 15 May 1948 in the ‘midst of [tremendous] strife between Jew and Arab [factions]’ over what lands each would take ‘on the margin between “the desert and the sown” [the Fertile Crescent]’ (p. 308).

In the most recent issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Reecia Orzeck (Illinois State University) examines one of the most contentious aspects of the Second World War period in Palestine. Heeding long-standing calls both within and outside of academic geography to ‘engage more closely with the normative’ (p. 345), Orzeck explored the British implementation of the Land Transfer Regulation scheme in 1940. She accomplished this through an erudite and exacting investigation into how British, Jewish, and Palestinians understood ‘justice’ and concrete, albeit differing notions of ‘geographical imaginaries’.

Justice in a geographical sense, according to Orzeck, is the incorporation of moral, ethical, or judicial concerns and theory into geographical knowledge and analysis. In essence, this means that spatial study should incorporate legal and moral concerns as much as economic or political perspectives. Although renowned geographers Andrew Sayer, Michael Storper, and David M Smith all noted the coming trend as early as the late 1990s, the shift failed to occur and the geopolitical world radically changed in the first decade of the 2000s. Concerning Palestine, she argues that historical, contemporary, and social ‘geographical imaginaries’, or culturally-accepted paradigms about the world’s physical and cultural space,

[C]an play an important role in popular assessments of the justness of particular policies and practices, and that assessments of what constitutes a just policy can change as a result of changing geographical imaginaries (p. 348).

Both Britain and the League of Nations had promised Palestinians and Jews their own states in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence (1916) and the Balfour Declaration (1917), respectively. But increasingly complex legal promises and confusion led to outbreaks of violence between Palestinians and Jews in the late 1930s and during the Second World War. Ultimately, in 1940 the British divided the Mandate into three land-available zones: ‘A’, for transfer to Palestinians; ‘B’, for transfer from Palestinians to Palestinians; and ‘C’, unrestricted land transfers. According to British geographical imaginations, this would permit Palestinians the opportunity to maintain control over traditionally Arab lands and properties, while allowing Jews to right to purchase and transfer lands in other sectors. But, as Orzeck explains, the Jewish community understood this agreement different. In their geographical, or spatial imagination,

In zone A, Jews could not purchase land; in zone B, Jews could purchase land but not from Palestinians; and in zone C, Jewish land purchases were unrestricted (p. 349).

This, of course, soon resulted in a significant clash between British officials seeking to organise two states, the Jewish Agency, who believed that they had been promised opportunities to obtain Palestinian land, and the Palestinians themselves, who saw their newly-approved gains being immediately threatened.

60-world2Israel says missing soldier is dead‘, BBC News, 2 August 2014.

books_iconClarmont Skrine, ‘Economic Development in Israel’, The Geographical Journal 117.3 (Sep., 1951): 307-26.

books_icon

Reecia Orzeck, ‘Normative geographies and the 1940 Land Transfer Regulations in Palestine‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39 (Jul., 2014): 345-59.

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