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Ben-Gurion University
[BGU, Geography] About Israel's "Colonialism" in Oren Yiftachel and Batya Roded "ETHNOCRACY AND RELIGIOUS RADICALISM"

August 2008 


 D R A F T    Abstract

The paper analyzes the links between ethno-nationalism and religious radicalism, focusing on urban Israel/Palestine. It argues – contrary to most recent literature – that religious radicalism is closely associated with urban colonialism. The paper highlights the role of ‘ethnic religions’ in both promoting and resisting urban colonial projects. Theoretically, the paper notes the limits of state hegemony in colonial settings and the subsequent generation of religious mobilization from ‘above’ and ‘below’. It demonstrates the need to breathe material and political life into abstract concepts of regime structure and collective identities, and include state, development and space as key factors in the understanding of religious radicalization.
These dynamics are then explored in three ancient cities built on the footsteps of Abraham – the mythical father of both Jews and Muslims – Hebron, Jerusalem and Beer Sheva. It shows that the state's 'ethnocratic' regime is the main (albeit not sole) cause of religious radicalism, in tension with competing forces of (neo)liberalization and secularism. The empirical analysis also shows, more subtly, that the intensity of religious radicalism is linked to the relative depth of colonial relations, with notable differences between the three cities. In Hebron, where brutal militarized colonialism has oppressed the disenfranchised Palestinians for four decades, religious radicalism is at its peak. In Jerusalem, where marginalized Palestinians enjoy an ambiguous civil and economic status, urban religious radicalism is pervasive, but not extreme. In the Beer Sheva metropolis, where Bedouin-Arabs are formal citizens, while being subject to persistent internal colonialism, religious movements have flourished, but have not radicalized.






Oren Yiftachel and Batya Roded



During the last decade, a lively debate in the social sciences has focused on the changing nature of politics, focusing on ‘new’ forces such as globalization, ‘clash of civilizations’ and mass urban poverty as key factors in generating a new wave of religious ‘fundamentalism’ (see: Almond et al. 2003; Davis, 2006). This debate, however, has often overlooked both the on-going force of ‘old’ ethno-nationalist politics, and the spatial, mainly urban, settings in which the actual process of religious radicalization takes place. The present paper takes a step in filling the gap by exploring the political-geographic links between ethnocratic states, urban colonialism and religious radicalism.

Some definitions are in order: by 'ethnocracy' we mean a regime in which the state is appropriated by a dominant ethno-national group, and is used to advance its 'ethnicizing' political and territorial agendas over contested space, resources and power structures. 'Religious movements' are a form of societal organization, aiming to politicize and institutionalize a divine order based on sacred texts and traditions. Religious movements use their 'goods of salvation' and commonly elevate a theocratic 'order of things' in direct competition with other grids of modern societal organizations, such as democracy, liberalism, civil society, neo-liberalism and in some cases nationalism (Almond et al., 200; Bourdieu, 1991; LeVine, 2008)). 'Ethnic religions' are religious institutions, whose membership boundaries largely overlap a specific ethnic or national group.


The Argument

In a nutshell, we argue that the intensity of religious radicalism is often closely linked to the depth of 'urban colonialism'. Colonial relations are those based on (a) expansion, (b) exploitation and (c) hierarchical and coerced segregation. The urban scene is pivotal, as it combines both ‘old’ and ‘new’ types of colonial relations. The former alludes to expansion of an ethnic or national group into urban territories previously held by other collectivities. The latter denotes a process of large-scale (internal and international) urban migration, which creates ever-expanding pockets of informal development, within a neo-liberalizing spatial order (see: Bayat, 2004; Roy, 2005). In both types the upshot is a process of 'urban apartheid', where civil status is stratified and essentialized by ascribed origin, class and/or location. This order is partially institutionalized through the creation of long-lasting urban ‘gray spaces’.

In our age, many cities contain both ‘vectors’ of colonialism. As such, they form the focal point of material and identity politics, including religious radicalization.  Our theoretical argument focuses on the urban process in ethno-national states, in which liberalizing pressures interact with powerful ethno-religious narratives and territorialities. This is particularly pertinent for Israel/Palestine, in which various types of (internal and external) types of colonialisms coexist with a growing (neo)liberalizing and globalizing drive.  We therefore treat Israel/Palestine not as an exception, but rather as a hyper example of processes underway in similar geopolitical settings.

The political geography of Israel/Palestine is made of 'layers' created over the last century of colonialism and resistance. The various stages of Zionist colonization have created spaces with varying depths of on-going colonialism, as in Jerusalem, Hebron and Beer Sheva. This enables us to investigate the link between the depth of colonialism and the intensity of radicalism.



Figure 1: Urban colonialism and religious radicalism Israel/Palestine


Figure 1 illustrates the flow of our argument, which is elaborated in the following sections.  The right-hand column displays the core process of urban colonialism and religious radicalization, from ‘above’ and ‘below’. The overall argument, however, rests on the identification of three dialectics which operate concurrently as the main structural ‘engines’ of religious radicalism; they are:

a. Liberalism/theocracy: Most ethnocratic societies rest on close relations between ethno-nationalism and 'its own' ethnic religion; these relations tend to move over time from cooperation to tension, most explicitly expressed in the drive of religious elements to transform ethnocracy to theocracy through urban colonial projects; this takes place against other structural forces, such as liberalization and democratization which widen the chasm between religious and state agendas.

b. Radicalism from ‘above’/‘below’: urban colonialism generates escalating ethnic bidding with spiraling identity politics; ‘ethnic religions’ add an important ‘layer’ to the politics of identity of both colonizer and colonized, and add ‘thickness’ to the mobilizing narratives of expansion, domination or resistance.

c. Civil/Religious resistance: echoing the first dialectic, but emerging from a different power position, is the tension between various resistance strategies. These have crystallized in recent years into several main options: civic, ethnic and religious; and have often developed into polarizing minority politics.

Having articulated the main axes in our argument, let us ‘travel’ now the scholarly landscape to give it more depth and scope.









Towards a Political Geography of Religious Radicalism

Sacred spaces are not separate from the powers of the state… sacred spaces are deeply connected to sovereignty or the ability of the state to control its boundaries and the meanings that are given to its important national sites (Friedland and Hecht, 2007: 33).

The resurfacing of religion as a force of mass mobilization runs against the grain of mainstream Western (universalizing) academic analysis, which has been pre-occupied in the post-war decades with dominant thinking of a linear state-centric modernization-assimilation-secularization. This was replaced in recent times by an over-emphasis on economic globalization, neo-liberalism and Americanization. These frameworks – powerful as they indeed are – provide only partial explanation to the rise of religious mobilization. They typically overlook the immense power of territorial identity politics and its grounding in urban space in particular.

When religion does appear in mainstream modernist scholarship and popular discourse, it is portrayed as a pre-modern 'dark horse', potentially harboring evil forces such as 'fundamentalism', messianic colonialism, 'Jihadism', and of course global terrorism. We take issue with such approaches which separate religion from the working of modernity and the modern nation-state. In our approach, religious radicalism often derives from the very identity projects instigated by the modern nation-states, and the social and economic conditions it has created. 

Hence, we suggest rethinking the taken-for-granted link between religious 'fundamentalism', globalization and 'civilizational wars' (See: Huntington, 1996; Almond et al., 2003; Davis, 2006). To be sure, globalization has had a major impact, not the least in shaping most of the political frameworks over the past two centuries, including nationalism, capitalism, economic colonialism and class action. However, we observe that most radical religious mobilizations have been tied to either national territorial struggles or to conditions of urban marginality, rather than to globally oriented campaigns.

Out theoretical approach is guided by a neo-Gramscian perspective, which highlights the links between systems of material and political domination, with issues of culture, class and identity (see Laclau, 1994; Hall, 1992). This perspective conceptualizes political regimes as seeking to construct a hegemonic status, in which the domination of a particular system of beliefs and values becomes a 'taken for granted truth. The ethnocratic and theocratic mobilizations, which are at the centre of our inquiry, are prototype hegemonic projects. At times these projects conflict (see: Lustick, 2002), but in other circumstances they may reinforce one another. We therefore reject the common distinction made in modernist scholarship between nationalism and religion, and see the relations between the two systems of meaning and power as complex and contingent.

We are also guided by (post)colonial thinking (see: Samaddar, 2005; Roy, 2007; Shenhav, 2007), to extend the neo-Gramscian framework in two principal ways. First, we note that hegemonic projects may be seriously challenged by the 'stubborn realities' of exclusion and oppression, in which the life of the subaltern Other are embedded (see: Bayat 2000; Chatterjee, 2004). In other words, and in contrast to mainstream liberal, or to critical Foucauldian perspectives, we discern a persistent presence of politicized groups falling 'outside' the nets of control cast by societal powers. Hence, the mechanisms of state cooptation and discourses of governmentality lack the capacity to incorporate these populations, causing long-term instability and challenge to state authorities.  Second, we introduce the critical importance of spatial processes to the construction and challenge of hegemonies (see: Massey, 2005). As shown below, these are not merely backdrops on which the drama of religious radicalism unfolds, but rather active factors creating the conditions for such drama.

Our analysis highlights a typical transformation of relations between technocratic and theocratic projects from mutual support to growing tension. We thus begin by illuminating the historical moment in which these relations are mutually reinforcing. We claim that in certain 'South-Eastern' (non-Western) regions of the world, following the imposition of state nationalism on a pre-existing web of affiliations, religion re-emerged as a supportive, yet subordinant, force within the ethno-national project. The winds of secularism which were carried with the diffusion of nationalism as a hegemonic political-institutional and spatial-mental order, pushed religion to the sideline. A new conceptual grid was popularized around an 'unbroken connection' between nations and 'their' land. In several regions, such as the Soviet Bloc, Europe and East Asia, the nationalist order totally replaced religion by a system of centralized anti-religious oppression. In others, such as the Middle East, South Asia and Eastern Europe, the national order became dominant, but the shadow of deeply rooted religious traditions remained close to the surface.

During the period of anti-colonial struggle and the associated nation-building project, some religions reappeared as instruments of the ethno-national projects. We conceptualize these as 'ethnic religions' -- reigned in to fortify the process of 'ethnocratic' nation-building, both in response to colonial power, and – equally importantly – against minorities who stake a claim to power and resources. Sri Lankan Buddhism, Zionist Judaism, Indian Hinduism, Palestinian Islamism and Irish Catholicism, are but a few examples. We use the term ‘ethnic’ in preference to ‘national’, to highlight the construction of ‘the nation’ under ethnocratic regimes. These constructions often work actively against the creation of a civic nation, and are often buttressed, as we shall see below, by religious myths, practices and institutions.

Here we need to pause and make some qualifications. First, we do not claim, of course, that religion is but a mere instrument of regime power. We acknowledge its existence as a major societal force with its own grids of meaning, aesthetics and politics, which can be studied from a variety of angles. Second, we naturally acknowledge the existence of a variety of powerful forces shaping religious radicalism, beyond the ethno-national geopolitics on which we focus (see: Finke, 2003; Juergensmayer 2004; Kong, 2001; Oommen, 1994; Ram, 1996). 

Let us proceed to make an analytical distinction between religious radicalism 'from above', and 'from below'. The former, on which this paper mainly focuses, is augmented – explicitly or more commonly implicitly – by the state's identity project, religious institutions often funct'ion as 'gate keepers' to screen out the 'wrong' groups from full membership and power, backed by legitimizing historical and mythical discourses. The latter ('from below'), is generally a form of coping with, and resisting, the oppression applied by the state or other powerful forces affecting people's deprivation and marginality. This often appears in the form of constructing counter-hegemonic religious discourses networks which stretch well beyond the nation's boundaries though the organizational grids of churches and Islamic movements (see: Davis, 2006; Finke, 2003; Ram, 1996). This analytic distinction illuminates both the forces generating radicalism and – critically – the active involvement of the state in producing its own radicalism, often overlooked in scholarly literature and media.


Religion and Ethno-national Expansion

The cooperation between ethno-nationalist and theocratic forces is highly pronounced when states are engaged in (external or internal) 'ethnocratic' colonial projects (see: Yiftachel and Ghanem, 2004). It may be so in development projects directing capital flow to the benefit of the dominant group (often through the exploitation of minority labor), in settlement initiatives claiming ethnic control over contested territories (McGarry, 1998; Newman, 1997); in the articulation of historical, archaeological and cultural discourses supporting expansionist territorial claims; or in the unequal governance systems imposed on certain regions. Examples of state colonial projects abound, among them the Sri Lankan Dry Area resettlement; the Russification of the Baltic States; the Malaysian 'new village' initiative aimed at dispersing Chinese to the South; the Judaization of the West Bank, Galilee and Negev; the bantustanization of Apartheid South Africa; or the English long-term exploitation of the Celtic fringe, to illustrate the process (deVotta, 2004; McGarry, 1998).

In such a context, religious frameworks 'ground' sanctity in space by providing a divine (and hence indisputable) narrative of territorial belonging. Isaac (1960) was among the first to write on the inherent spatialities of most organized religions, while Smith (2000) and Shilhav (1991) have shown how religious spatiality is often intertwined with the symbolic and geographical underpinning of ethnic nationalism. As elaborated by Cooper (1992), political power is often behind the delineation and sanctification of space, commonly using a strategic 'selection' of religious narratives and myths. Jackson and Henrie (1983) develop a hierarchy of spatial sanctity: at the top are sacred sites, followed by the national homeland as a sanctified 'geobody', and by specific historical sites reinforcing the collective story.  In cases of ethnic conflict, religious narratives tend to radicalize with the surfacing of new interpretations of sacred texts; the discovery of supporting archaeological findings; or the emergence of a new religious zeal to exclude 'less pure' groups from using the 'promised' or divine space (see: (abu el-Haj, 2001; Silberstein, 2001; Mann, 1999; Sibley, 1995).

Akenson (1992) shows convincingly how Protestants in Northern Ireland, Afrikaans in South Africa and Zionists in Israel/Palestine relied on ancient texts and narratives of selection, covenant and territory to justify oppressive forms of racism. In the case of sacred sites, religion provides the state a particular geography of salvation, which also functio'ns as a popular, strategic and emotional foundation for expansionism, as evident in the cases of Serbia and Kosovo; Zionism and the West Bank, and Sinhalese nationalism and the Sri Lankan Dry Zone – all harboring religious, as well as national significance.  As perceptively claimed by a recent study:

The political content of sacrality and the sacred content of power are essential to urban sociology… and to the analysis of religio-political conflicts. We must understand the sacred as a necessary constituent of power. Sacred centers are not only ideas or symbols, but act as moral sanction for denying the rights of the Other (Freidland and Hecht, 2007, 19).  

Further, the apparatus of the modern ethnocratic state conveniently uses religious categories and classifications to create social boundaries and prohibitions, with the aim of maintaining ethnic 'purity' and dominance. The case of the South African Apartheid state is well known, and part of the ability to justify racial segregation was rooted in a popular interpretation of Dutch Reform doctrines. Similarly, in ethnic states such as Greece, Armenia, Israel, Serbia and Iran, the state ranks religious identities, prohibits civil marriages, and allocates unequal resources to members of minority religions. Hence, ethnocratic and religious mobilization have often reinforced one another, to the mutual benefit of both state and church.



Cracks in expansionist identity politics

The argument is, however, more complicated. We wish to enter a temporal factor and highlight a further historical momentum, which exposes inherent tensions, if not long-term contradiction, between the logics of the ethnocratic state and religious mobilization. Such tension often emerges as a result of the previous cooperation between the two, as both 'camps' have used the mutual reinforcement to strengthen their social and political base, and develop rivaling long-term political projects. This tension has the potential to destabilize political systems, as seen in Sri Lanka, India, Sudan and Lebanon, to name just a few examples. Importantly for the current analysis, tension often rises in struggles over the production and management of urban space, as elaborated below.

There are two central and related elements to such tension. The first involves the meta-physical discourse of destiny. Ethnocrats, who form the mainstay of national and political leadership, set their goals in controlling a state apparatus. They play according to the contemporary political geographical 'rules of the game', namely that each nation can have 'its own' territory and people to control, but – equally important – only its territory and people. Given this caveat, ethnocratic elites attempt – with the aid of theocrats -- to maximize the control of their ethno-national group, whether vis-à-vis neighboring states (as in the case of border disputes or irredentist moves, such as in India, Israel or Cyprus), or vis-à-vis minorities within the 'their' states (see Mann, 2002; McGarry and O'Leary, 2004). 

At the same time, religious movements, now empowered by the state, continue to pursue their own future vision of ultimate destiny, redemption and salvation. These transcend the horizons of the modern state, and challenge its territorial, cultural and political limits. Theocratic visions abound, but they invariably aspire to lead the population towards a messianic cosmic order of total and global victory against the infidels; towards the end of politics and regimes as we know them. For theocrats, contemporary states are but a necessary and temporary step in the direction of ultimate salvation (see: Alemond et al., 2003).

There is no room here to elaborate on this important point, except to note that it often presents a serious challenge to the modern state, evident in urban politics and the daily discourses of religious communities. Here the cities of Hebron and Old Jerusalem are highly illustrative – both lying beyond the borders of the state of Israel, but yet constructed as 'essential' for the fulfillment of a Jewish religious salvation.  In such locations the embedded tensions surface into open conflict, between states and 'their own' religious movements. These tensions do not only revolve around territorial issues, but address a range of matters, affecting all spheres of human life, from the body, dress, neighborhood and urban landscapes, to issues of food, festivals and gender relations.

The second locus of tension tends to develop between theocrats and states around the construction of citizenship. States typically aspire for legitimacy – both internal and international – and hence construct a discourse of equal citizenship, supported by a legal and institutional apparatus. In practice, equal citizenship remains a theoretical and rarely implemented vision. Yet religious movements attempt to replace the discursive and regulative frameworks of equality by a hierarchical system of affiliations, based on religious doctrine and customs.

This has adverse consequences on a range of social markers, most notably women – traditionally marginalized and disempowered by religious doctrines; and minorities, either of different religions, and also those of the 'wrong' sects within the dominant religion. In that way, a major force within the regime attempts to undo a basic construct of the modern state – equal citizenship. When translated to the quotidian practices of government, the fracturing of citizenship ruptures the idea of the 'demos' – a body of equally empowered citizens. It therefore presents a long-term challenge to state legitimacy and stability.


The Urban

It is the urban setting which provides the last piece in our theoretical puzzle. By virtue of being the growth poles of most societies, urban regions are the site where group relations are 'concretized', through the intersection of state, global and local forces (Lefebvre, 1996). Urban dynamics regularly shape the distribution of material, political and symbolic resources, turning cities into hubs of political contestation, articulation and mobilization. In addition, as already noted, the urban scene is the meeting point of ethno-nationalist (‘old’) and the neo-liberal (‘new’) types of colonialism, making it particularly volatile to transformation of regimes of identities.

The modern urban scene, by its very dynamism, size and diversity, harbors a multitude of possibilities. On the one hand, the density and multiplicity of urban life enable movement and porosity across social and spatial boundaries, and a range of associations unimaginable in rural or traditional societies. Urban space has framed the development of liberalism, human rights movements and democracy, and continues to functio'n as a center for these mobilization in today's globalizing environment (see: Tajbakhsh, 2002; Katznelson, 1995).  On the other hand, precisely because of this potential mobility, it is in cities that we find severe forms of social control and surveillance, to combat the ‘danger’ of social mixing and political dynamism (see Wilson, 1995). 

Hence, a range of spatio-political control measures are often invented and implemented in urban areas, typically around housing segregation, uneven land allocation and municipal gerrymandering. In recent years, a rapid growth of the informal sector has surfaced in many urban regions, introducing ‘gray spaces’ to the urban fabric, where developments and populations are tolerated as part of the city, but are not fully incorporated or enfranchised (see, Marcuse, 1995; Robinson, 2006). In polarized cities, deep social (and ethnic) difference, growing economic inequalities and control mechanisms therefore create new colonial conditions. These ‘import’ a set of colonial dynamics to the city, including expansion, exploitation, unequal membership and racialized segregation.

Needless to say, there exist vast differences between different types of urban regimes, ranging between the rapidly expanding cities of the global South, the more stable metropolises of the North; and nationally contested, or religiously sacred cities. Suffice is to note that the urban setting often harbors ‘colonial-like’ processes of expansion, control, exploitation and segregation, and that it is the urban arena where ethnic identities are reshaped through the struggle for urban resources and control.

Importantly, it is in key urban areas imbued with great national, historical or religious importance that the theocratic agenda brushes most forcefully against the state’s civil and liberal and neo-liberal agendas. It is in the urban frontier where religious entrepreneurs attempt to move the ethno-nationalist project in a more theocratic direction. They do so by, typically, attempting to colonize existing or invented holy sites, seizing and developing ‘enemy’ space, constructing walls and staging provocative events, such as marches, holiday celebrations and street blockades. Through this spatial and political process, and the associated ‘radicalizing religious moves’, religious groups attempt to accumulate symbolic and political capital within 'their' ethno-nationalist project, at the expense of the excluded 'others', and in competition with liberal and democratic elements within their nation.

Finally, as can be seen from Figure 1, we suggest that religious radicalism often derives from spatial struggles within the ethno-nationalist project, as well as the material and political struggles between the dominant ethnic nation and ethnic and religious minorities. In cases where these forces persist over time, and they often do, we find a process of ‘negative dialectic’ operating along several axes, causing, intra-alia, the radicalization of religious politics. The polarization typically occurs in situations of protracted unresolved collective conflict, whereby religious agendas are gradually introduced to buttress the territorial and spatial struggles between rivaling groups. This is the birth of the most radical forms of religious mobilization, as evident in Beirut, Jerusalem, Hebron, Mumbai, Colombo, Baghdad, Ahmadabad and Belfast. With these dynamic relations in mind, we can turn to a brief analysis of the political geography of the three Abrahamic cities


The Geopolitics of Abraham's Cities

Abraham is the mythical father of both Islam and Judaism. The three cities examined here studded Abraham's constitutive Biblical journey through the Promised Land, marking its mythical early 'geopeity'. As such, the three cities possess similar urban religious-national significance. Abraham, according to the sacred texts, first settled in Beer Sheva, then traveled to Jerusalem for his son Isaac's sacrifice on Temple Mount --  the site where both the Jewish Temples and al-Aqsa Mosque were later built. Abraham, and his wife Sarah, were later buried in Hebron, so the narrative goes, on land purchased in full from local inhabitants. As shown below, while the three cities are located along a short 80 km route (figure 2), they are also set in different political geographical circumstances.


Identities, Space and Religion in Israel/Palestine

Prior to delving into the three urban regimes in question, we need to briefly outline the all important context of our investigation – the political geography of Israel/Palestine. Space does not allow an adequate analysis of the many forces, movements and actors which have radically transformed the geography of the contested land during the last century (for details see, among many others – Kimmerling, 2001; Falah, 2005; Hilal, 2006; Yiftachel, 2006). Instead, let us stress several key points.

In its early decades, the Zionist movement was mainly non-orthodox (often termed 'secular') and nationalist, and was seen by many as a rebellion against traditional Diaspora Judaism. But at the same time, it harbored deep seated, religiously-inspired concepts regarding collective redemption through a return to Zion – the promised biblical land (see: Raz-Krakotzkin, 2002; Shenhav, 2005).

The political geography of Israel/Palestine has been predominantly shaped by the evolving nature of Zionist colonization, in constant interaction with Palestinian resistance, and within the context of international (mainly European and later American) influence. We identify five main stages of Zionist colonialism, all working to enhance its main ethnocratic project – the Judaization of the Land of Israel (Palestine) between Jordan and Sea. The first stage, ending in 1947, can be termed ‘colonialism of survival’ during which most Jews fled to Palestine as refugees, before and after the Holocaust. In Palestine, organized by Zionism, they expanded their settled area through land purchase, while building national institutions, including armed forces, as foundations for a future state. The second stage, during the 1947-49 war, saw the establishment of the state of Israel and the onset of the Palestinian Nakbah (disaster) during which some two thirds of Palestinians were driven out of their land in an act of massive ethnic cleansing.

The third phase (1949-1967) was typified by internal colonialism, during which most Arab settlements within Israel were destroyed and their lands thoroughly Judaized. At the same time massive Jewish immigration, mainly refugees or forced migrants from Europe and the Arab world, settled the land in hundreds of new Jewish settlements, mainly on previously Arab lands. The fourth phase (1967-1993), following Israeli conquest of Gaza and the West Bank, saw state sponsored external colonialism in the occupied territories. Over 100 Jewish settlements were built, in breech of international law, hosting today nearly half a million Jews, including occupied Arab Jerusalem. During this period religion intensifies its influence over Israeli, and later Palestinian, politics. Much of the Jewish settlement of the Palestinian territories was driven by religious narratives of ‘return to sacred sites’, and this elevated religious political and cultural elements as standing at the forefront of the national project.

However, relations between the national and religious Zionist camps began to sour during the fifth and final stage (1993 - ) of ‘oppressive consolidation’. Since 1993 Israel has strategically retreated from the main Arab population centers including the self-evacuation of 24 Jewish settlements for the first time from areas considered the historical Land of Israel. While continuing its settlement project in the West Bank, Israel also built the separation barrier (‘the wall/fence’) supposedly for defensive purposes, while causing massive dispossession of local Palestinians. The limited territorial withdrawals therefore amount to a re-arrangement of the occupation, rather than genuine moves to trade land for peace (see: Falah, 2005; LeVine, 2008; Yiftachel, 2005). 

The current political geographic process framing Israel/Palestine can therefore be conceptualized as ‘creeping apartheid’, in which Jews control the vast majority of land and resources in Israel/Palestine and several Palestinian enclaves have been created, devoid of real sovereignty and resources. Under the overall Israeli regime, which in effect controls the entire space in Israel/Palestine, Jews are awarded full civil rights and protection as Israeli citizens, wherever they are. At the same time disenfranchised Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and to a lesser degree in Israel Proper (where Palestinians hold formal Israeli citizenship) are prevented from exercising full rights by the embedded racism of the ethnocratic Israeli regime (see: Lentin, 2008). This uneven situation is considered 'creeping' because it was never officially declared as an apartheid regime, and the severity of Palestinian oppression is never stable or fully predictable. The profound discrimination of the Palestinians is often justified as 'temporary' and is mainly linked to either security explanation or to what is often labeled as the 'legitimate' need of Israel to maintain its Jewish character (see Gavison, 2003).

Yet, beyond this general observation of an apartheid-like regime, we must distinguish between varying depths of Israeli colonialism, according to the changing legal and institutional arrangements.  Jewish control practices vary in their intensity in several key regions, especially Israel Proper, Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank, creating a stratified citizenship structure, in which Arab groups have varying ‘packages’ of civil rights in the different zones of the Israeli ethnocratic regime  (see Yiftachel, 2005).  While the Judaization logic underpins Zionist policies in all regions, we argue that the variation in the depth of Jewish colonialism and methods of control do make a significant difference to ethnic relations in general, and to the nature of religious radicalism in particular.

This brings us to the issue of religious Jewish politics. Over the years, Orthodox parties and groups steadily increased their power in the Israeli polity, particularly since the 1970s, mainly as a consequence of Israel's colonial push into the West Bank. This allowed religious group to claim a 'frontier' position in the Zionist project, through the actual construction of settlements and the supportive narrative of 'returning' to sacred Jewish regions. Later, intensifying Palestinian violence against Israel's colonial project 'confirmed' another central religious Jewish narrative portraying the nation in perpetual struggle against hostile enemies. This further augmented religious political power among certain Jewish publics (Cohen, 2005; Fischer, 2006).

Zionist ideology traditionally treated 'Jewishness' ambiguously, as concurrently ethnic, national and religious. But over the years, the influence of theocratic interpretations of Zionism within the Israeli polity has increased. This was reflected in the growing support of Orthodox political parties which peaked during the 1990s, to some 30% of the Israeli Jewish electorate, stabilizing in the last two elections at around 25%. Since then a shift is discernable, and a growing chasm has developed between polarizing orthodox and 'secular' (non-orthodox) camps, with the latter developing a greater affinity with Western, liberal and globalizing culture (see Ram, 2007). The joint Zionist framework is still holding the two camps loosely together in the discourse of 'one nation', and through the joint project of containing a common 'Arab enemy', although serious cracks have opened up between the two camps (Grinberg, 2007).




Figure 2: Ethnic geography of Israel/Palestine, 2005 and Abraham footsteps

Source: Yiftachel, 2006, 74.


The conflict between 'secular' Jews (70-75% of the Jewish population) and their Orthodox counterparts has now become one of the most volatile issues in Zionism -- with the question of colonizing Palestinian space at its very heart. In this vein it is highly illustrative that the fall of the last five Israeli governments was caused by religious (in combination with radical nationalist) political elements, who vehemently opposed the leaders' attempts to 'relinquish’ parts of the sacred homeland to the Palestinians. The most notable event was the 1995 assassination of Itzhak Rabin by a religious Jew, which derailed peace efforts at the time. Yet, all four Prime Ministers to follow – Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon were toppled, or critically weakened, by nationalist-religious elements of Israeli politics, in response to what they perceived as tempering with the sanctity of religious-national space.

A process of religious radicalization has also occurred among the Palestinians in recent times, with even greater intensity and venom. The PLO was for years the most secular national movement in the Arab world, and has maintained a relatively democratic representation of political factions among the nation. Not one member was religious (Hilal, 2003).  Since 1994, Fatah was the main force behind the establishment of the nascent Palestinian Authority (PA) which received limited autonomy in governing about 40 percent of the OT, or 10 percent of historic Palestine, presiding over 50% of Palestinians. The institutional design of the PA followed a relatively typical structure of a secular government and a supporting legal and military apparatus (Hilal, 2003; Ghanem, 2000).

During the 1980s, however, the influence of a new wave of Middle East Islamism, in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, lack of development and widespread poverty, and Israel's brutal measures in putting down Palestinian resistance, created fertile grounds for the emergence of Hamas – the hard-line Islamic resistance movement, and several allied small religious factions. In only two decades Hamas became the most dominant force in Palestinian politics, using a mixture of Islamist and nationalist rhetoric, and launching a campaign of unprecedented violence and suicide terror, while condemning all Palestinian maneuvers towards peace (and therefore recognition of Israel) as treason (. Hamas won the 2006 PA elections, and attempted to co-govern with President Abbas of Fatah. In June 2007 the Hamas took total control of Gaza in a bloody act of civil violence.  As a result, Abbas fired the Hamas-led unity government, and the Occupied Territories now 'boast' two Palestinian governments – Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank (Sayigh, 2006).

Let us now turn into the three cities in question, and investigates the evolution of their religion and territorial politics.


Hebron: Militarized Religious Utopia

Due to the location of the sacred Abraham's Tomb, Hebron (Hevron in Hebrew, al-Chaleel in Arabic) was considered one of the four 'holy cities' for pre-Zionist Judaism. A small Jewish minority lived within the predominantly Arab city since the 16th Century, until Jews were evicted following a 1929 riot, in which 67 Jews were killed. Following the 1948 war Hebron was annexed to Jordan.

Hebron is the only West Bank Arab city (outside Jerusalem) in which Jews settled. The first group of religious Jews invaded an empty building shortly after Israel's conquest of the West Bank, in 1968. This began four decades of an urban colonial project, which received state protection.  To date, it managed to attract some 7,500 Jewish settlers to the city and the abutting Kiryat Arba town  (Swiesa, 2003; OCHA, ( 2005, which enjoys full Israeli citizenship. While the city's 140,000 Palestinian residents were placed under military rule, with no political rights to affect Israeli policies governing their own city.

With expanding colonization in parts of the Old City of Hebron, and a construction of large scale housing in Kiryat Arba, ethnic relations polarized. A violent nadir was reached when in 1994 a Jewish settler massacred 29 Muslim worshippers inside the sacred Abraham's Tomb (B'Tselem, 2007).

Source: B'tselem, 2007

Figure 3: Hebron and Kiryat Arba; Jewish settlement in the city of Hebron


In May 4, 1999, the Wye Agreement saw the city partitioned; the eastern part placed under ('temporary') direct Israeli control over 35,000 Palestinians, while the western part vested with the Palestinian Authority (PA) as 'Area A' (under tight Israeli control). For the city's Arabs, both parts, economic condition has been severely hampered by the occupation regime of road blocks, closures and curfews, and a tight control over building construction.

It is not surprising then that under such colonial settings, religious radicalism has thrived to intense levels, both 'from above' and later 'from below'.  During the 1980s, and increasingly during the last decade, the radical religious discourse has taken centre stage, portraying Hebron as a place the 'covenant' between God and nation is fulfilled, through the sacred deed of settling the Land of Israel (a euphemism to the Palestinian territories).  The city has become a site for on-going pilgrimages – organized tours and mass festivals.

Local politics have reflected this change. In the 2006 elections the shift to a theocratic agenda became increasingly clear with 77% of residents voting to religious parties.  This was mirrored on the Palestinian side, with Hamas polling 59%, winning its strongest political showing in the Palestinian 2006 elections (Jerusalem Media and Palestinian Centre, 30/1/06).

During the last four decades Hebron has represented an extreme case of religiously and nationally motivated colonization which explicitly attempted to push the boundaries of the Zionist regime from ethnocracy to theocracy. The multiple dialectics created in Hebron well illustrate the political geography of radicalism, bringing to sharp relief various dimensions of conflict: between settlers and state; between settlers and the Palestinians; between parties within each side.


Jerusalem: the Conflicting Embodiment of Two Ethnocracies

Jerusalem ('Yerushalayim' in Hebrew; 'al-Quds' in Arabic) and particularly the Old City, and within it Temple Mount, are the epicenters of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. These small areas are also constructed as signaling the deepest attachment of the two nations to their homeland. It is here that Judaism and Islam frame and 'ground' identities around particular places, thereby fueling the two national movements with strong sense of geopeity.

The city's biblical past tells of a Temple built on the Mount as the central place of worship for the Jews. It signals a 'golden past' for the construction of the modern Zionist narrative.  Islamic myth sites Muhammad's ascent to heaven from the same Temple site, and has long held Jerusalem as one of Islam's most holy places. Since the 1920s it became a center of the Palestinian quest for sovereignty and its designated capital city. To complicate matters further, Jerusalem is where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, making the city one of the holiest places for Christianity.

Due to its global significance, the 1947 UN partition plan designated Jerusalem as a 'corpus separatus', to be governed by an international entity. In 1948 Old (East) Jerusalem was captured by Jordan, and its 3,000 Jewish residents were forced out. Following the 1967 war, Israel annexed 70 Km2 from the West Bank, including the 6Km2 Jordanian city of Jerusalem, and a host of nearby territories and villages, creating a large metropolis. The Moslem holy sites remained under the management of the Waqf.

Over four decades Israel conducted a massive project of Judaization, with the settlement of some 190,000 Jews beyond the Green Line (that is, illegally, in occupied territory, now titled 'Jerusalem').  This was accompanied by large scale land confiscation from local Arabs thereby producing highly conspicuous gaps between the well-developed and serviced Jewish development and the largely impoverished and under-serviced Arab neighborhoods. Segregation remains very high, and movement across ethnic boundaries quite rare.

 Source: Middle East Report N°44, 2005, 19.

Figure 4: The new Jewish neighborhoods/settlements around Jerusalem;          Jewish settlement in the sacred basin


Over the same period, the Arab population more than doubled reaching 240,000 in 2006. Israeli and Palestinian towns and villages, on both sides of the extended city boundary, were functi'onally incorporated to the metropolis through expanding urban development. At present the Jerusalem metropolitan population is estimated at 1.3 million.

Within the city boundaries, Israeli-Jews enjoy full citizenship rights, while Palestinians (Jerusalemites) hold 'Israeli resident' status only which separates them from West Bank Palestinians, and entitles them to a range of welfare and mobility privileges. Despite self identification as Palestinians, their political status has remained in limbo – being neither Israeli citizens, nor fully Palestinian. They have been eligible to participate in Jerusalem municipal elections, but have largely banned them.

Religion has obviously played a central role in shaping the political geography of Jerusalem, beyond the holiness; the city's population traditionally had a high proportion of Orthodox Jews (see Dumper, 2002; Khemaissi, 2005; Benvenisti, 2002; Yiftachel and Yacobi, 2002).  The main point for this paper is to discern the link between the depth of urban colonialism and the level of religious radicalism. The latter has increased during the last decade, although not to the levels seen in Hebron. The reason behind this, we argue, is the imposition of somewhat 'softer' urban colonialism, and the associated mobilizations both 'from above' and 'from below'.

Let us elaborate: Since the 1970s, electoral patterns among Jerusalemite Jews have generally reflected a nationalist and religious leaning, illustrated by the 1984 national elections when Likud received 34.2%, the group of religious parties 38.5% (about twice the national figure). In city elections the situation was even starker, with Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties receiving 44% and 47% in 1998 and 2003, respectively.[1]

In parallel, Hamas has risen rapidly to political dominance, winning 47% and 4 of six Jerusalem seats in the 2006 elections, and using the existence of the holy sites to mobilize large groups of Muslims to special events and regular pilgrimages.  Hamas often builds on the early connection of Palestinian nationalism to Islam, by scorning at the failure of secularist mobilization to secure a state, and by emphasizing 'return to the roots'. Here, glorification and control of the holy city and its sacred sites provide a route to national and personal salvation, embodied in the popular slogan "Islamic is the solution".

The Oslo process deliberately avoided dealing with Jerusalem. As such, a process of 'creeping apartheid' – an increasingly institutionalised yet undeclared political order – has taken root in the city. The main urban control methods used by Israel were severe, but somewhat softer than in the West Bank. These have shaped relations between Palestinians and the City more than state or Islamic terror (Margalit, 2005).

But the conflict over the city continued to polarize and turn local populations more religious. In recent years, the job of Judaizing Arab Jerusalem has been carried out almost entirely by ultra-orthodox Jews, either families or small radical groups, who settle in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, using highly charged 'redemptive' religious rhetoric.

Among the Palestinians too, messianism has been increasingly prominent, and is carried out often by external groups. A notable case is the 'northern' branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel Proper. The group also actively and openly mobilizes for the Arabization of Old Jerusalem. The two groups exemplify the inseparable connection between cities such as Jerusalem and overlapping fields of power and identity, which propel the forces of religious radicalism in the city.


Beer Sheva.

Beer Sheva (Be'er Sheva' and Bi'r Saba'a in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively) is mentioned in the bible as Abraham's first place of residence in the Promised Land. The city was rebuilt only at the beginning of C20th by the Ottomans. During the 1948 war, Beer Sheva was captured by Israel; some 80% of Arabs of the Naqab region (Negev) were driven out, leaving only 11,000 who were concentrated in a special military controlled zone known as 'the Siyyag' ('the fence'). This group was awarded Israeli citizenship.

In the ensuing decades Israel invested a great deal of effort Judaizing the previously Arab Naqab (Negev) region, with a combination of deeply ethnocratic land, development, housing and planning policies. Israel appropriated nearly all Bedouin land (with about five percent of the region still under dispute), built ten new Jewish towns and about 100 rural Jewish settlements. Here, Jewish immigrants were housed, wrapped in a glorifying national and planning discourse of 'settling the frontier'.

In the 1970s, Israel began to implement an urbanizing planning strategy for the region's Bedouin Arabs, attempting to concentrate them into seven modern towns immediately surrounding, but not included in, the Jewish Beer Sheva. This policy relocated about half the Arabs of the south (some 85,000 in 2007; mainly those with no land claims), with the (significant) lure of modern infrastructure and prospects of modernization. However, despite some development, the towns became known for their marginality, unemployment, deprivation and crime (abu-Saad and Lithwick, 2004).

The other 80-85,000 Bedouins have remained on their claimed land, in some 45 shanty towns and villages. A land conflict has developed with the state denying their indigenous land rights, declaring them 'invaders' to their own historic localities. In an effort to force them to relocate, the state has prevented the supply of most services, and has regularly launched house demolition campaigns (see: Yiftachel, 2004). Levels of poverty, mortality and crime are among the highest in Israel/Palestine, and create a metropolitan geography of stark ethno-class contrast with the neighboring, well serviced, Jewish localities.


The Beer-Sheva metropolis has therefore come to resemble many Third World cities with a range of peripheral informal localities, suffering severe poverty and deprivation. This is reflected in the nature of religious politics. Unlike Hebron and Jerusalem, Jewish (internal) colonial policies in the Beer Sheva region were only rarely couched in religious terms, using instead discourses of modernization. City politics have been dominated for years by the centrist and nationalist parties. Religious parties occupy five of the 25 city council seats, but they rarely pursue radical religious demands.




Figure 5: Jewish and Bedouin settlement in the Beer Sheva region


Yet recently, religion has become more prominent. Sovereignty itself is not contested; therefore, religious politics have mainly emerged 'from below' as a 'weapon of the weak' (Scott, 1996). The Islamic movement, for example, has effectively mobilized Bedouins, whose Islamic religious practices were traditionally weak. Naqab Islamic organizations the more moderate 'southern' branch, increased their political support, currently holding the mayoral position in five of the seven Arab towns, and in the 2006 national elections it won the support of 55% of Naqab Arabs.  

 Among the Jews too, the main expression of religious politics has been 'from below' with the emergence of the Shas movement, representing the lower income Oriental Jewish classes, and holding four Council seats. Shas has a low link of its religiosity to urban colonialism.

Notably, inter-communal violence, so visible in Hebron and Jerusalem, has been rare in Beer Sheva and less confrontational. Nevertheless, religion does play an increasing part in recent Arab campaigns in the city, especially around education and places of worship. The latest such issue revolves around the renowned Beer Sheva Ottoman mosque. Despite constant demand, the city refuses to open it for Muslim prayer. Although in a recent appeal, the Israeli high court ruled in favor of opening the mosque for 'Arab cultural uses' (Adalah, 2005). 

This is a reminder that in spatial conflicts typical of urban colonialism and contested identity politics, religion is rarely far from the surface. The process of polarization and radicalism, which has led to massive mobilization and widespread violence in other regions, has so far remained quite dormant in Beer Sheva. Religious politics have begun to make their mark, but have not as yet radicalized.


- - - - - - - - - - -


Table 1 provides a comparative overview of key factors in identity politics of each city, highlighting the structural link we observe between the depth of urban colonialism and religious radicalism.  The table also illustrates the dynamics of these relations – in all three cities levels of religious radicalism are rising, as a response to on-going urban colonial projects. This observation may provide a useful starting point for further research which would identify colonial processes in cities in other states and regions, and evaluate their impact on identity politics in general, and religious radicalization in particular.


Table 1: Overview of Urban Colonialism and Religious Radicalism

(% - percent voting of combined religious parties in the last elections)



Arab Citizenship

Depth of Ethnocratic Colonialism

Level of Religious Radicalism ‘from above’

Level of Religious Radicalism ‘from below’







Very High (increasing)





High (increasing)


Medium-High (increasing)


Beer Sheva



Low (increasing)


Medium (increasing)



Final word…


Identity politics are central to today’s social science inquiry, as are terms such as globalization, liberalization and fundamentalism. We attempted to show above that these concepts must be understood as embedded within material processes and politics, without which they remain as empty signifiers. As shown above, the hegemonic systems of control – ethno-nationalism, globalizing capitalism and increasingly politicized religion – intersect through the 'thick matter' of making and changing cities. It is in such cities that new forms of appropriating and racializing colonialisms are being ‘produced’, and form a critical foundation for religious radicalism, both 'from above' and 'below'. 

But rather than rely on these macro processes as 'given', scholars are urged to 'breathe life' into the details of urban spaces and configurations of power, rights and identities. As shown in the cities of Hebron, Jerusalem and Beer Sheva, the interaction of these forces is framed through campaigns around sacred or sanctified spaces, which in turn give rise to different types of urban regimes, and varying levels of colonial control. These we suggest, provide insightful clues to the rise and nature of religious radicalism, leaving us to reflect on the wise words of the Late Hebrew poet, Yehuda Amichai:





… We are all Abraham's children

But also the grandchildren of Terach, Abraham's father.

And it's now perhaps time for the grandchildren to do

To their father what he did to his,

Break his statutes and idols, his religion and faith,

But this too will be the beginning of a new religion.




Please see original article for References and Illustrations  http://www.wilsoncenter.org/news/docs/OrenYiftachel.doc


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