Dumpsters and Sewage: Ecologies of No-Man’s Land

Since the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel in 1967, great efforts have gone to eradicate the no-man’s land that separated the two parts of the city until then. Today, even residents will be hard pressed to point out to the exact spaces that kept Israeli and Jordanian forces apart. But if one knows what to look for, the contours of these sites are clearly marked: Large green metal dumpsters, piles of construction debris and scattered garbage function as quintessential signposts reading “Welcome to No-Man’s Land”.

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The historic no-man’s land surrounding Government House, south-east Jerusalem, Nov. 2014.

The photo above was taken during a recent research trip to Jerusalem, at one of the largest enclaves that made up the city’s no-man’s land. The 1949 Israeli-Jordanian Armistice Agreement stipulated the area around the British-Mandatory Government House as a de-militarized zone; the building was then used as the headquarters of the UN Truce Supervision Organization. After 1967, part of the no-man’s land was used for the expansion of one of Israel’s settlement-neighbourhoods, but a large portion remains very sparsely used. Not much is there aside from various security infrastructures used to police the adjacent Palestinian neighbourhoods- antennas, a border-police base flying a surveillance balloon. That, and the green dumpsters.

The 1949 No Man's Land in Jerusalem. Detail from: OCHA map:

The 1949 No Man’s Land in Jerusalem. Detail from: OCHA map: “West Bank Communities on the ‘Jerusalem’ side of the Barrier” July 2011

I’ve written here before about the ecological imaginaries of no-man’s land and its association with untouched environments that return to a “state of nature”. The uninterrupted state of flora and fauna enclosed in sites like Chernobyl, the Korean DMZ or the Rocky Mountain Arsenal are some examples of this “rewilding” of no-man’s lands. Yet the abandonment of 21st century no-man’s lands does not always result in the revival of natural habitats and their preservation. Quite the opposite.

The reference to a “state of nature” also points to the darker Hobbesian disintegration of basic structures of governance, and the consequential breakdown of physical infrastructures. As long as these spaces are devoid of permanent human presence, it is easy to slip into the sort of post-apocalyptic imageries of crumbling cities taken over by ivy. But when entire populations find themselves abandoned and enclosed – literally relegated to no-man’s land – the environmental consequences are far less pastoral.

Garbage piles up in the Kufr Aqab neighborhood of East Jerusalem (Photo: Mya Guarnieri, 972mag.com)

Kufr ‘Aqab, a Palestinian neighbourhood in north Jerusalem, is de-jure within the Israeli-defined Municipal boundaries, but the Separation Wall severed the neighbourhood from the city, leaving it trapped between legal and concrete boundaries. Whilst its residents pay taxes to Israel, the Jerusalem Municipality does not attend to any problems in the neighbourhood, including infrastructure. In 2000 for example residents paid some 100,000 dollars for installation of their own sewage system. According to The Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene group, the Municipality has ignored requests by residents for maintenance of the system. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction or access to the area, which leaves the sewage to flow, the garbage to pile up and the residents in limbo.

The ecologies of life in no-man’s land – beyond the degradation of environments, social fabrics and political agency – are sometimes best captured by the most farcical moments. In the absence of better solutions, eco-conscious residents often dispose of their garbage once they’ve crossed the checkpoint into Jerusalem. In an affidavit, one resident, Ahmad Sub Laban, describes a scene that illuminates the pervasive system that ties people and garbage in this political infrastructure of no-man’s land:

As usual, when I reached the checkpoint, an Israeli female soldier stopped me and searched the car. When she looked inside the car, she asked what the bag contained (referring to the garbage bag).

“Garbage,” I spontaneously answered in Hebrew, which I speak fluently.

“You cannot cross.” She told me.

I inquired about the reason. She said I could not cross the checkpoint with a garbage bag. I explained to her why I had brought the bag with me; that is, to keep clean the neighbourhood where I lived.

“That does not matter. You just cannot cross.” She replied.

The female soldier told me to return and not cross the checkpoint, but I insisted I would not go back. Then, I went to an officer with a higher rank, but he said I could not cross with the garbage bag “because we cannot examine it.”

“Am I garbage so that I examine garbage?” He said angrily and demanded that I go back.

After a prolonged argument with the security personnel of the checkpoint, Sub Laban was made to carry the garbage bag and discard it back on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. His wife and young son were forced to remain in the car in the interim. “I could have bowed my head and said alright, or argued and demanded my rights,” Sub Laban told Haaretz newspaper. “But I have rights, to be a human being who does not pollute his environment … The only thing that bothers me is that I don’t know what will take the fear out of my son’s head.”


Ahmad Sub Laban, in Kufr ‘Aqab (photo: Amil Salman for Haaretz)

The pollution and environmental degradation of 21st century no-man’s lands mark more than the political destitution of those enclosed in these spaces. Certainly, these are sensorial reminders of sovereign system that, in a deliberate manner, relinquishes its obligations toward populations and their ecological systems. Yet the fortified enclosure built around these no-man’s lands always fall short of containing what I have already termed elsewhere as the “excess of no-man’s land”, a quality that constantly spills beyond the strict demarcation of these spaces. This is not abstract conceptualization: think of the very palpable stench of sewage carried in the wind or the pollution of underground water aquifers shared by Jews and Palestinians.

In this urban-(geo)political metabolism, these visceral ecologies also inspire new forms of communal and individual agency, acts that are would otherwise seem completely banal. Putting a garbage bag in a bin, for example.

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