Palestinian Studies

2014 Workshop

Omar Jabary Salamanca

PhD Candidate, Ghent University

Hooked on Electricity: the Charged Political Economy of Electrification in the Palestinian West Bank

In February 2012 a group of Palestinian activists set up a grassroots campaign against the Jerusalem District Electricity Corporation (JDEC), a Palestinian regional utility company that distributes electricity to the central West Bank region. As part of the campaign the group organized a series of sit-ins and demonstrations in front of the company's headquarters in Ramallah to protest the recurring increase in electricity prices in a context of growing crisis and unemployment, intermittent frozen salaries, closure and prolonged colonial dispossession.

These protests rendered visible a realm of techno-politics that usually remains invisibly embedded within wires and meters. In protesting against the rising electricity prices in the occupied territories, the highest in the Arab world, the activists effectively brought attention not only to the latest Palestinian Authority attempts to reform and corporatize the electricity sector but also to a broader colonial legacy of electric dependency. A dependency which lasts to this very day with Israel providing up to 86% of the electricity consumed in the Palestinian territories.

Taking these protests as an entry point, this paper investigates the ways in which the ‘roll out’ and governance of electricity infrastructures comes to matter socially, politically, economically and spatially both symbolically and as a set of materials. An interdisciplinary and historized analytical focus on how these ‘large technical systems’ are constructed and governed in the Palestinian West Bank offers a powerful way of thinking about electricity as a complex assemblage of actors, agents and processes that connect to, and drive, much debated processes of colonialism, modernity, statecraft and uneven development. More specifically, the essay investigates the spatial configurations and path-dependency logics underpinning the development and governance of these infrastructure networks. The interest here is not so much in electricity per se but rather the entangled nature of settler colonialism and neoliberal development– their shared genealogy  – and how this relationship is being contested today.

To explore the intricacies and complexities of electrification in the West Bank the paper advances a settler colonial perspective that brings geography related scholarship on infrastructure together with critical development and political economy studies. Drawing on extensive fieldwork, interviews, archival research, and development reports, the paper looks at current Palestinian attempts at privatizing the electricity sector against the background of a long and neglected colonial history of Zionist electrification that progressively grounded contemporary conditions of dependency-cum-dispossession. In doing so the paper highlights not only how these processes induce the impoverishment of the Palestinian population and a weakening of the anti-colonial struggle but also points to the possibilities that struggles around electricity offer to open new spaces of political engagement.

The paper begins laying out a theoretical discussion about what electrification can tell us about the spatialities of settler colonialism and processes of global capitalist accumulation and actually existing neoliberal development. Secondly, the paper locates the foundations of today’s inequalities and dependency in the British mandate period, and more specifically on the decades following the 1967 occupation. In doing so the paper explores the contested genealogy of colonial electrification and the infrastructural development policies that define it. Thirdly, the paper looks at the ways in which the World Bank led electricity reform is operationalized and rationalized in the post-Oslo era. This illustrates how the ongoing neoliberal reform is taking root, particularly at the municipal level, and most importantly with negligible consideration of the embedded inequalities that have characterized the electricity landscape since the early days of Zionist settler colonialism. The paper concludes highlighting how a close look at electrification provides a powerful site to explore how processes of colonial fragmentation, socio-economic inequality and dependency are produced and contested, as well as how they can become sites of negotiation, tension and struggle.

This study is part of a book project that deals with a broader political history and geography of electrification in Palestine. One that seeks to redress the neglect of electrification in existing accounts about Palestine where the development and governance of these power networks are largely marginal and often feature as passive residues of different historical–political processes. Indeed, electrification, like water, has been since the early days of the British Mandate a crucial site of contestation and a key factor in determining the history of the region. The main objective of this research is thus to document, analyze and produce an alternative history of Palestine in which electrification and the development of electricity grids play a central role in directing, organizing and shaping space and everyday life. To do this I trace the genealogy of electricity from the colonial past to the present. This study does not propose, however, a history in the conventional sense. Rather, it is a punctuated narrative of successive projects of electrification that are shaped by changing socio-political and economic configurations and transformations in control over electricity.

By expanding and deepening the focus on electrification, this research seeks to address the shortcomings of my current dissertation, which has ended up incorporating some of the biases and limits of what I call the ‘school of occupation studies’. That is, a trend towards studying occupation as an ontological category that imposes its own spatial and temporal boundaries and is often considered as distinct from the larger structures of Zionist settler colonialism. In effect, the occupation lens is a powerful symbolic and material signifier that enforces, and takes for granted, the fragmentation of the Palestinian polity representing its populations as isolated and analytically separate. The study of infrastructure is thus ideal for these socio-technical assemblages are constituted within a broader array of histories and geographies that exceed rigid spatial and temporal boundaries, both literally and conceptually. In doing so I hope to contribute to recent efforts to revitalize and unsettle Palestine studies through reclaiming paradigms like settler colonialism or approaches such as political economy that have largely fallen into disuse. Moreover it is an attempt to challenging the recurrent exceptionalism that frames Palestine as it tries to reconnect Palestine to the regional and global context and forces that shape it, and of which it is an integral part.

Omar is an urban geographer. His research lies at the intersection of urban studies, settler colonialism, political economy and Middle East studies. He is concluding a dissertation project that looks broadly at the histories and geographies of large infrastructure networks (roads and electricity) as an entry point to explore spatial modalities of settler colonialism and uneven development in the occupied Palestinian territories. In particular he studies the ways in which the materialities of infrastructure are co-produced and governed and how they advance and sustain political and socio-economic segregation, dependency and inequality in practice. He is also interested in the geopolitics of aid and development, critical geography, politics of violence, state theory and geographies of resistance and solidarity in the Middle East and beyond.

Omar is the co-editor with Mezna Qato, Kareem Rabie and Sobhi Samour of a special issue on ‘Settler Colonialism in Palestine’, published by the Settler Colonial Studies journal (2012) in addition to other scholarly and journalistic publications. More recently, he co-edited with Linda Tabar a special issue titled ‘After Oslo: Settler Colonialism, Neoliberal Development and Liberation’, submitted to Development and Change. He is an editorial board member of Antipode, a journal of radical geography, a member of the steering committee of the International Critical Geography Group, and program coordinator of the Belgian Eye on Palestine Arts and Film Festival.

In 2014 he will join the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University for two years as a Marie Curie Post-Doctoral Fellow.