Julia Tierney
Last updated: 1 March, 2015

Urbicide, or Israel’s economic and infrastructure war against Palestine

"Even in this moment of relative peace, when neither Hamas rockets nor Israeli airstrikes are raining down on each other’s civilians, there is still a war being undertaken, though subtly by economic restrictions and infrastructure debilitation," writes Julia Tierney in a thought-provoking essay.

Welcome to Gaza. “The locals like it so much they never leave (because they’re not allowed to). Nestled in an exclusive setting (surrounded by a wall on three sides and a line of gun boats on the other). Watched over by friendly neighbours (in 2014 Operation Protective Edge destroyed 18,000 homes).” 

These words from Banksy’s video on Gaza were one of several news stories from Palestine this week. On Monday and Wednesday, for about one hour, the Israeli Electric Corporation cut power to the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin. On Wednesday, the media retracted their story that Israel had intentionally opened dams and flooded Gaza. It was actually heavy winter rains compounding the problems of poor drainage and a population still homeless because Israel bans the import of concrete

ALTHOUGH its military incursions make headlines, Israel’s economic and infrastructural control over Palestine is a war by other means. Restricting imports, rationing electricity, suffocating the economy and refusing to pay taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority are essential to the occupation and ensuring the impossibility of a two-state solution.

“The locals like it so much they never leave (because they’re not allowed to)”

Without denying the corruption endemic to the Palestinian Authority, there is broad-based consensus, even from the World Bank, that the restrictions Israel has imposed are the single most significant impediment to Palestine’s economic development. Because Israel controls its borders, the Palestinian Authority depends on their transfer of custom’s revenues, which comprise two-thirds of domestic revenue and 40 percent of their recurrent expenditures. But Israel started withholding more than $100 million in monthly tax revenue in early 2015 after the Palestinian leadership applied to join the International Criminal Court. 

So when the West Bank is almost $500 million in debt, and the Israeli government claims it had no authority over the decision of the state-owned electricity company to cut off power, then it is not difficult to trace the logic from the deepening tensions over Palestine’s international recognition to Israel’s entrenching occupation. 

There is a deceit when Michael Oren writes in the Wall Street Journal that more than 90 percent of the Palestinian population enjoys de facto sovereignty. Instead, the West Bank is divided into three discontinuous territories of tiered sovereignty: Area A containing most of the urban population under full Palestinian security and civil control; Area B covering peri-urban areas under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security; and Area C comprising 61 percent of the West Bank’s territory over which Israel exercises full civil and security control. Less than 1 percent of Area C is accessible for Palestinians, but 68 percent is reserved for the Israeli settlements, thus fragmenting Palestinian territory such that although Israeli soldiers do not patrol their major cities there is not even the façade of sovereignty. 


BUT IT IS in Gaza where Israel’s economic and infrastructural war is most stark. During last summer’s Operation Protective Edge the Israeli airstrikes destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, leaving its population of 1.8 million people in the dark and paralyzing the water supply and sewage treatment pumps. Around 90 percent of Gaza’s water is undrinkable and 75 percent of its (partially treated or untreated) wastewater flows into the Mediterranean. There is no doubt that Hamas could invest more in environmental management but with the Israeli blockade in place since 2006 it has been difficult to import the diesel fuel to keep the electricity on and the treatment facilities running. Egypt is also complicit in the blockade by destroying the tunnels that bring weapons but also essential goods and materials that Israel blocks because of their dual use. 

Just as Israel’s destruction of Gaza confounds the distinctions between military targets and civilian infrastructure, so too do the restrictions on dual use items blur boundaries between necessary security and intentional devastation. Although Israel claims it no longer occupies Gaza, its Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) regulates what is allowed in, and ensures that Gaza’s exports are not allowed out. The dual use items have both benign and potentially harmful uses, which at one time according to Haaretz, meant that shampoo was permitted but conditioner was banned, and plain processed hummus was ok while hummus with pine nuts was off-limits.

“It is in Gaza where Israel’s economic and infrastructural war is most stark”

The Israeli human rights organization Gisha (Legal Center for Freedom of Movement) released a document from 2008 detailing the minimum number of calories necessary, by COGAT’s calculations, to keep the population of Gaza alive, but barely above malnutrition. Totaling the different caloric needs of men, women and children, translating this into the number of trucks to transport the food and subtracting what could be produced in Gaza, the idea was, in the words of an advisor to Prime Minister Olmert, “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Or in the Guardian’s interpretation, “The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government.” 

Israel’s actions amount to urbicide, which is described as “the deliberate wrecking or killing of the city.” The term urbicide was first used in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s to draw attention to the violence against both human beings and the built environment. Amid the massacre of civilians at Sarajevo’s outdoor market, the destruction of the bridge at Mostar and the shelling of the stunning city of Dubrovnik, urbicide, in the words of a former mayor of Belgrade, was “the intentional attack on the human and the inert fabric of the city with the intent of destroying the civic values embodied within it.” 

In the West Bank there has been urbicide of the bulldozer with the construction of the settlements, and in Gaza it has been urbicide by de-modernization with the targeting of the electricity, water and sanitation infrastructure of the city. Across the fragmented Palestinian territories urbicide has operated by calibrating the electricity current, calories and other bare necessities in ways that undermine their existence and could be argued also fuel further hostilities. Even in this moment of relative peace, when neither Hamas rockets nor Israeli airstrikes are raining down on each other’s civilians, there is still a war being undertaken, though subtly by economic restrictions and infrastructure debilitation. Meanwhile, Gaza’s untreated wastewater not only floods its own streets but flows back to Israel’s beaches via the currents of the Mediterranean.