Siege on film

Two new films about sieges in later modern war…. tragically not the contradiction in terms you might think.

The first is a documentary about Syria, For Samawhich won the prize for Best Documentary at Cannes this year (and has garnered a host of other awards, including the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs Festival).

Here is G. Allen Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle – and, given my work on the Assad regime’s systematic attacks on hospitals and medical care you will see why this is so important to me:

The civil war in Syria is horrific, is killing innocent civilians and is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. It could make you lose your faith in humanity, and who could blame any residents there if they did?

And yet, out of the ashes of conflict comes “For Sama,” a remarkable documentary  … about a doctor struggling to care for civilian war casualties in a makeshift hospital in the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo, his journalist wife who documents it, and their infant daughter.

It is hard-hitting and graphic — some scenes cause you to look away. Yet it’s also loving and warm, a remarkable blend of reporting, cinema verite and essay not to be missed.

Waad Al-Khateab, who sent footage and reports from Aleppo to Channel 4 in London, also shot much personal footage. She and British filmmaker Edward Watts, who is credited with her as director, shaped the footage into the story of her family in the form of an essay. Her narration speaks to her daughter Sama — an explanation of why she and her husband Hamza stayed instead of taking her to safety.

“I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did,” Waad says.

The answer is they believe in freedom and humanity. Waad began covering the outbreak of civil war as a student in 2011. Hamza is a doctor who must save every life he can. “This is our path, this is our life,” he tells Waad.

The bulk of the film takes place in 2016, when constant bombing by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad— which include Russian aircraft — turn much of the city into rubble. The dead and wounded number in the thousands.

So there are intense, bloody scenes in the E.R., where lives are lost and saved. Meanwhile, Sama is being raised with the constant sound of exploding bombs. Waad does her best to comfort and raise her.

The family loses their beautiful home in the shelling, and eventually Hamza’s hospital is also destroyed (Assad’s forces specifically targeted places such as hospitals). Hamza and his team locate a building that would not be on Assad’s maps that would be suitable as a makeshift hospital — and home, as they will all live there — buttressed by thousands of sandbags as buffer against bombs.

Teo Bugbee in the New York Times adds:

“For Sama” provides a coherent account of a humanitarian crisis from the perspective of the wounded and displaced.

But just as crucially, and perhaps more compellingly, al-Kateab’s reflexive filmmaking provides an uncannily relatable example of the mundane experience of war. Profound bravery exists alongside profound ordinariness; friends still gather for dinner, they still tell their children bedtime stories, they still have to cook and clean and sleep.

The activists of this film, including al-Kateab herself, don’t speak in the language of philosophers or politicians. Their quotidian aspirations — to build a garden, to send their children safely to school — demonstrate the brutality of the government’s response, but they also invite viewers to picture themselves in the shoes of these modest political dissidents. Unselfconsciously, “For Sama” prompts audience members to ask themselves: How long would you defy tyranny if your world was coming down around you?

You can find a conversation with the film-makers here and (especially) here, and more reviews at the Intercept here and from the great Roger Ebert here.

The second film is Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell’s Gaza:

It’s hard to imagine anybody living a normal life in the Gaza Strip. Frequently labeled as the world’s largest open-air prison, it makes an appearance on news reports every time a confrontation erupts between Israel and Hamas. From TV sets thousands of miles away, this tiny piece of land has been reduced to an image of violence, chaos and destruction. So what do the people do when they’re not under siege?

The Gaza which is seldom seen is ordinary, everyday Gaza, a coastal strip which measures just twenty-five miles by six and which is home to an eclectic mix of almost two million people. Gaza cannot be understood in a purely political context or by analyzing tragic sound bites during conflict. It can only be understood by immersion, by living amongst its people and by recognizing and exploring its rich social diversity and cultural subtleties.

 

GAZA will introduce the audience to the surprising and the unexpected, the unfamiliar stories that portray its true face. It takes an atypical approach to finding out what makes this remarkable place tick as it introduces to the world extraordinary stories of everyday characters leading ordinary lives.

GAZA depicts a people plagued by conflict but not defined by it and as we journey through the physically broken and battered landscape, we let our cast of characters speak for themselves. Through them we gain a nuanced understanding of what life is really like for its citizens and by extension, grow and foster a rare familiarity and affinity with this truly unique place, as we build towards a tender portrait of a beleaguered humanity.

 

More here and here and (especially) here.

I’ve written about siege warfare in an extended series of posts (here, here, here and here). You can find my posts on Gaza by using the GUIDE tab (above), and I really recommend Ron Smith‘s excellent work on siege warfare in Gaza: Healthcare under siege: ‘Geopolitics of medical service provision in the Gaza Strip’, Social science and medicine 146 (2015) 332-40; ‘Isolation through humanitarianism: Subaltern geopolitics of the siege on Gaza’, Antipode 48 (2016) 750-759; ‘Israel’s permanent siege of Gaza’. Middle East Report 290 (2019) here

Landscapes of intervention

An excellent new edition of Middle East Report (290) on The New Landscape of Intervention; full download details here.

The concept of intervention brings to mind foreign military actions that violate a sovereign jurisdiction. This issue of Middle East Report identifies other, increasingly prevalent, ways in which the lives of people in the Middle East are being shaped by forces beyond their borders. In a context of increasing US retrenchment and neoliberal globalization, powerful states and transnational actors intervene across the region in a variety ways—under the guise of humanitarian assistance, democracy promotion or border security—as well as through new methods like urban planning, infrastructure development, crisis research and health deprivation—what might also be called biopolitical interventions. Even as the 2000’s saw the return of traditional forms of imperial intervention—with the US deployment of military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in pursuit of a quixotic and unwinnable war on terror—there are increasingly new forms of intervention that must be understood, assessed and mapped.

Contents:

The New Landscape of Intervention – The Editors
The Globalized Unmaking of the Libyan State – Jacob Mundy
Iraqibacter and the Pathologies of Intervention – Omar Dewachi
The Shifting Contours of US Power and Intervention in Palestine – Lisa Bhungalia, Jeannette Greven, Tahani Mustafa
Urban Interventions for the Wars Yet to Come – Hiba Bou Akar
The Palestinian McCity in the Neoliberal Era – Sami Tayeb
Humanitarian Crisis Research as Intervention – Sarah E. Parkinson
The UAE and the Infrastructure of Intervention – Rafeef Ziadah
Israel’s Permanent Siege of Gaza – Ron Smith
Border Regimes and the New Global Apartheid – Catherine Besteman

A museum without borders

Following from my previous post – the same issue of Radical Philosophy (2.03) includes an excellent essay on ‘The Palestinian Museum‘ at Birzeit by Hanan Toukan.

It opens with a series of sharp questions about the very idea of such a museum:

How are we to think about a museum that represents a people who not only do not exist on conventional maps but who are also in the process of resisting obliteration by one of the most brutal military complexes in the world? What is, and what can be, the role of a museum in a violent colonial context compounded by the twin effects of imperialism and capitalism? Whom does the museum speak for in such a context? And what can or should it say to a transterritorial nation while physically located in a supposed state-to-be, that has no real prospect of gaining control over its land, water or skies through current international diplomatic channels?

Hanan’s discussion is framed by four issues:

First, the convoluted, bureaucratic and deceptive nature of the Oslo Peace Process and the new phase of colonisation that it inaugurated in 1993. This predicament, which has been described as one of living in a ‘postcolonial colony’ is largely defined by the paradox of living in a state without sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza under the guise of a diplomatic process leading toward a two-state solution. Under this regime, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), established in 1994 as an outcome of the now unpopular Oslo Peace Accords, did not gain full sovereignty for itself or the Palestinian people it‘represents’. Rather, it became the middleman of the Israeli Occupation, managing security and repressing Palestinian dissent on behalf of Israel through its own internal military and intelligence apparatus, helping to intensify Israeli colonial strategies of spatial segregation and economic control. At the same time, despite its increasing unpopularity the PNA has continued to act as the internationally recognised representative of a state-to-be in international diplomacy. This role has necessitated its participation in cultural diplomacy and top-down identity formation in an attempt to rebrand the image of Palestinians as non-violent and modern global citizens residing within the 1967 borders – processes that are key to understanding how and why the Palestinian Museum has, from its inception, had to think about representing the story of the Palestinian people outside the limits of the diplomatically sanctioned, yet now probably defunct, two-state solution.

Second, ‘ongoing Israeli colonial practices of cultural exclusion and military domination’ that materially limit the space within which it was possible for the museum to emerge [when I see images like the one above, from Frieze, I can’t help but think of Eyal Weizman‘s wonderful work on the optical geometry of Israeli occupation] – and third, closely and crucially linked, the restrictions imposed (and to some degree subverted) by ‘the European museum’s western-centric yet universalising mission of acquiring, conserving and displaying aesthetic objects as part of the project of constructing nation-states and indeed modernity itself.’

And finally, ‘the wave of state-supported building and renovation of museums and other art institutions underway largely in the Arab Gulf states but also in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and to a lesser extent Jordan, from which the Palestinian Museum is arguably set apart by virtue of its status as an institution representing a transterritorial and stateless nation.’

As should be obvious from even these brief passages, the essay’s reach extends far beyond the museum itself.

Googling military occupation

A new report from the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, Mapping Segregation: Google Maps and the Human Rights of Palestinians, adds another dimension to contemporary discussions about the weaponisation of social media (and, not incidentally, about Google’s claims of social responsibility).

The report outlines the restrictions imposed by the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank on Palestinians, and compares three cartographic apps: Google Maps, Maps.me and Waze.  The focus is on what is missing from their digital maps – the misrepresentation or erasure of Palestinian villages (though illegal Israeli colonies are clearly marked) – and the cartographic attenuation of the all-too-real restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.  For example:

On routes within the West Bank, Google Maps prioritizes directing users through Israel rather than through the West Bank, even if this adds considerable distance to the journey. The drive from Ramallah to Nablus through the West Bank usually takes 45 minutes, however when using Google Maps, the journey takes a long route through Israel and takes 4.5 hours. In contrast, the shortest route from Ramallah to Bethlehem takes the driver through Jerusalem, which is inaccessible for Palestinian West Bank ID holders. Whenever a route passes through the West Bank, Google Maps shows two warnings on the route description: “This route has restricted usage or private roads” and “This route may cross country borders” and fails to highlight Israeli settlements or checkpoints. Google Maps is unable to calculate routes within Palestinian rural communities, or to and from Gaza, displaying the message “Sorry, we could not calculate driving/walking directions from x to y”. The app offers the option to “add a missing place” and edit information, but this “might take some time to show up on the map” as they must be reviewed first.

More from +972 magazine here.

If you haven’t done this before, try putting “Palestine” into the search box on Google Maps: the report discusses that too.

‘The Bomb and Siege Routine’

I’ve been on the road – I’m in London now for more archival work at the Wellcome, after a wonderful conference on “Drone imaginaries” at Odense – but I hope to post the next essay in my series on siege warfare in Syria shortly.  It will address medical care under siege – a continuation and extension of my wider work on ‘surgical strikes’ on hospitals and medical facilities (see for example here: more under the GUIDE tab) – but in the interim here is a short post from Jonathan Whittall at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF Analysis; also at al Jazeera here) on the ‘bomb and siege routine’:

Medicine and medical workers have also been sucked into the violence. This can be seen in the attempts by the Syrian government to control the provision of healthcare in opposition-held areas by denying humanitarian access, threatening or arresting medical staff, and damaging or destroying medical infrastructure.

Early on in the conflict, medical facilities went underground, forming the beginning of a network of field hospitals such as the ones I visited in Homs. The international backers of the Syrian armed opposition on their part imposed stringent sanctions on the Syrian government which contributed to the decline of the government healthcare system.

As the war raged on, we saw indiscriminate bombing and shelling that did not differentiate between civilian and military targets. In some cases, civilians were considered military targets based on the fact that they had remained in areas controlled by groups designated as “terrorist”.

Hospitals have regularly been hit. This is the new norm. We no longer know if they are struck accidentally or intentionally or destroyed as part of a general rampage of violence. Either way, the infrastructure that sustains life is being eliminated….

From Syria to Iraq and from Yemen to Gaza, the armies and their backers use the trump card of the “fight against terrorism” as the ultimate justification for any atrocities committed against civilian populations under siege.

Indiscriminate bombing is never acceptable, no matter who the enemy is. Nor is targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. Humanitarian supplies must always be exempt from the military tactic of siege.

The wounded and civilians wishing to escape the violence must always be allowed safe passage. The civilians who stay behind do not become legitimate targets. Providing treatment to patients – both civilians and wounded combatants alike – is never an act of “terrorism”, nor is it a form of support for “terrorism”. It is a legally protected act of humanity.

Symmetries in warfare

 

As I read (too) many alt.left commentaries on siege warfare in Syria for my continuing series of posts, and the work of journalists and writers I once admired, two questions keep circling:

(a) If, like me, you are suspicious of many of the claims advanced by the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies – often with good reason – why do you not extend the same critical examination to the claims advanced by Syria, Russia and their allies?

(b) If, like me, you are appalled at the violence wreaked on Palestinians in Gaza by Israel with the active support of the United States and its other allies, why are you not also appalled at the violence wreaked on Syrians by the Assad regime with the active support of its allies?

The Dis/Appeared

A note from Ian Alan Paul – I’ve noticed his Guantanamo Bay Museum before, but he’s produced a host of other interesting projects too – brings the welcome news of his experimental video The Dis/Appeared: 25 Notes on Colonial Regimes of Perception:

“The Dis/Appeared” (2018) is an experimental video essay that examines the totalizing imposition of colonial perception in contemporary Palestine. The project theorizes the Israeli state’s establishment of perceptual regimes that confine the colonized to the liminal thresholds of view, never allowing Palestinians to entirely appear or disappear but instead perpetually rendering them dis/appeared. Through narration and a montage of images that are at once ordinary and unsettling, the video essay gives an account of settler-colonial instantiations of power while also proposing a tactical repertoire to be taken up against colonial rule. The project was produced over the course of 2017 while the artist was living and teaching in the West Bank of Palestine, and is the first part of a series of films, installations, and texts that examine the conjuncture of coloniality, governmentality, and memory in global contexts.

You can view it here (33 minutes) and download the script here.

A sample that really doesn’t do justice to the project and its artful exploration of colonial visuality:

Never entirely in or out of view but perpetually detained in the spectral thresholds between the two, Palestinians are made to be both apparent and transparent, signal and noise, conspicuous and concealed, evident and obscure, appeared and disappeared. Because Palestinians cannot decidedly and finally appear within view, Palestine can be perceived as a pristine landscape, a blank slate, an untouched surface, entirely vacant of Palestinians and inviting of ever-expanding Israeli settlements and colonization. Because Palestinians cannot decidedly and finally disappear from view, they remain perpetually available for increasing intensities of Israeli oversight, management, surveillance, policing, and control. If Palestinians manage to escape from the thresholds of Israel’s colonial regime of perception, the subsequent recognizability or clandestinity, transparency or secrecy, are all perceived by Israel as pure hostility.

To escape from view as a Palestinian is to be viewed as a fugitive threat. The proliferous destruction of civilian architecture in Gaza is preemptively and retroactively justified with claims that enemy combatants and weapon caches are being hidden inside of them, every bomb destroying the conditions for life and the conditions of concealment with the blinding exposure of its blast. Inversely, to enter into view as a Palestinian is to be viewed as an invasive enemy. In the West Bank, Palestinian demonstrations filled with cameras, banners, portraits of martyrs, and flags are made to vanish within toxic obfuscating clouds of tear gas. Attempting an escape from the view of Israel is to be marked as a hostis and fugitive in need of surveillance, capture, and elimination, while entering into Israel’s view is to be marked as an invader and as an infiltrator in need of exclusion, eviction, and expulsion.