Saturday, July 11

Killing a city

The first time I heard this term, urbicide, was back when the Bosnian war was raging. Its a term reflecting the direction of utter violence on the city. I was reminded of the photographs of Berlin, Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the second world war for utter destruction. Here are some iconic photographs of Berlin.

And of Nagasaki:

And of Hiroshima:

You dont normally expect to see images of such devastation nowadays. But still it happens. See here for some photographs of Sarajevo.

But despite Sarajevo being in the doorsteps of Europe, we again saw another urbicide in Lebanon, aimed at those truly damned people, the Palestinians.



See the background to this conflict here. And this paper (from which I have shown the pictures above) which brought home the battle. I quote the abstract:

During the summer of 2007, Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon was the scene of a fierce battle between the Lebanese Armed Forces and a militant Islamist group called Fateh al-Islam. When Palestinian evacuees returned after the conflict, they found Nahr el-Bared utterly destroyed, houses smashed first by shells and bombs, then by vandalism and arson, possessions stolen and broken, offensive graffiti daubed on walls. I argue in this paper that the battle of Nahr el-Bared, and particularly the month of looting and arson that followed the battle, was a case of urbicide in a space of exception. The seemingly unrestricted destruction of homes, the theft of possessions and arson, went beyond any possible military necessity and became the deliberate and systematic erasure of the camp. This urbicide was made more possible by the very nature of the political spaces of the camp, which are in Lebanon but not of Lebanon, in which Lebanese sovereignty and law are not fully enforced, in which a whole range of non-Lebanese actors exercise political power outside the control of the Lebanese state. In these spaces of exception in which the rule of law is suspended, the looting, arson and vandalism took place without sanction. Palestinian homes and lives had become sacred in the sense that they could be destroyed without sanction, without recourse to legal redress, because there was no law.

Here’s a good clip of what the Lebanese Army did to the camp:


Some of the comments that Adam Ramadan makes are truly horrifying. I quote:

Nahr el-Bared was not the named target of Lebanese military action, nor was urbicide the stated aim. The war was against Fateh al-Islam, but that group quickly became conflated with Nahr el-Bared and Palestinian society (Neil Smith's (2001) analysis of the conflation of scales that allowed the events of 11 September 2001 to be seen as an attack on the American nation, and justifying an American attack on Afghanistan, is relevant here). Military actions against Fateh al-Islam blurred more easily with military actions against the fabric of the camp, while across Lebanon Palestinians were subjected to increased surveillance, stop-and-search procedures, and some even spoke of arbitrary arrests and torture. Indiscriminate shelling by the army hastened the evacuation of civilians which, in turn, allowed for more indiscriminate shelling. The Lebanese army sieged the camp for 16 weeks, shelling from the ground, firing air-to-ground missiles from helicopters, and ground troops leading seven assaults on the camp.13 In spite of this fierce siege, the Lebanese army was unable to win a fast and decisive victory against the well armed and well trained fighters of Fateh al-Islam, and army casualties reached 168 by the time the battle ended in early September. The camp was a hostage to the outsiders of Fateh al-Islam, and its houses and narrow alleyways provided the perfect terrain for the kind of urban warfare many of the militants might have experienced in Iraq. Driven to fear and fury by the deaths of so many soldiers by Fateh al-Islam actions, army actions were displaced onto the stones, the buildings, the streets and the infrastructure of the camp. And the state of exception in which the camp existed, coupled with Lebanese discourses of the camps as impenetrable security islands and threats to the Lebanese body, and Lebanese demographic anxieties, allowed a course of action that seemed to maximise the physical destruction of the camp. Particularly after the eventual defeat of Fateh al-Islam, when for a month the destruction continued with looting, arson and vandalism, Nahr el-Bared was erased by urbicide.

Martin Shaw (2004: 141) has argued that urbicide is a form of genocide, but I would not extend this argument to the case of Nahr el-Bared as there was no orchestrated or deliberate killing of civilians: “The deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group” (Oxford English Dictionary definition of genocide) did not occur. The camp was shelled widely in the first few days in spite of the presence of a very high and dense civilian population14 (perhaps this was “killing deliberately by mistake” – Amyreh, 2002, in Herold, 2004: 329) but there was an organised evacuation of civilians early in the conflict so that the army could freely target Fateh al-Islam fighters wherever they might or might not be in the camp. Most Palestinians from Nahr el-Bared were displaced to Beddawi, where they were forced to stay in improvised shelters, school classrooms, garages and storerooms, seriously disrupting not only the society of Nahr el-Bared but also that of Beddawi camp which had to host the displaced. And more than a year on, there is still no sign of the Nahr el-Bared being rebuilt, and this prolonged displacement is forcing Palestinians to choose whether to wait for the chance to return to Nahr el-Bared or to attempt to make a new life elsewhere in Lebanon or outside. Lebanon officially opposes Palestinian integration in the country, and unofficially encourages Palestinian emigration. When this agenda coincided with this battle against terrorists in a space without law, the result was urbicide and ethnic cleansing

This is what bewilders me, a son of a refugee myself, is this decades long dependency on being a refugee. These Palestinian refugee camps have constantly been kicked ferociously like Nabatieh in 1973, in Jisr el-Basha in 1976 and in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. These Palestinians have been betrayed by their leaders, their fellow Arabs, their allies (variously USSR, China, USA, you name it) and of course their enemy, Israel. The UN perpetuates their misery. Lebanon and Egypt make it difficult for them to live, breathe or prosper. And still they live on, in their ghettos and concentration camps. The New Jews indeed. And what a situation to be in.

See how the Lebanese celebrated after their victory over the Palestinians in the camp and the Saudi / other assorted terrorists of Fateh al-Islam.

And all this while the urbicide is quietly going on.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

How upsetting that no one's commented. This is quite a comprehensive post and despite my tendencies to think about such things as Urbicide, I never had encountered the term and hadn't even thought of the Nahr el-Bared camp in this context.

I have thought of Grozny, Beirut in 1982 and Sarajevo, but not of the Palestinians in Lebanon... at least not in this context regarding anything since 1990. Which I now see is silly of me. Such a shame the Lebanese army can't be motivated to even *TRY* to protect the country from the Israelis.

Don't get me started on my feelings regarding Lebanese nationalism (why do they like Israelis more than Syrians and Palestinians? Because they wish they weren't Arab, though they're happy to take money from Riyadh and Dubai) and why Sarajevo ended up in such a sorry state (Yugoslavia was stolen from the Yugoslavs and the nationalist leaders brainwashed their constituents in the West's interests).