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Ben-Gurion University

Oren Yiftachel and Batya Roded
The paper analyzes the political geography of religious radicalism ('fundamentalism'),
arguing that such radicalism is closely related to ethno-national
conflicts in general,
and to the recent development of urban colonialism in particular. This aspect is rarely
discussed in the literature, which over-emphasizes 'civilizational wars', neoimperialism,
pre/post modernism and neo-liberalism. We develop a neo-Gramscian
and (post)colonial framework which differentiates between religious radicalism from
‘above’ and ‘below’, and focuses on the temporal and spatial dimensions of urban
colonialism. It highlights two related phenomena: (a) the typical
transformation of
relations between ethnocratic and theocratic mobilizations from mutual reinforcement
to intensifying conflicts; and (b) the propensity of state-supported urban colonialism
to generate counter religious mobilizations. These spiraling processes generate a
multitude of structural tensions grounded in the actual making of
globalizing urban
spaces. The discussion highlights the need to breathe material and political life into
abstract concepts of religious ‘fundamentalism’, and bring back state, development
and space as key factors in shaping group identity and relations.
To illustrate the argument, the paper analyzes the dynamics of
relations in the three sacred cities built on the footsteps of Abraham – the mythical
fathers of both Jews and Muslims -- Hebron, Jerusalem and Beer Sheva. It shows that
the state's 'ethnocratic' geopolitical policies remain the main (albeit not sole) cause of
religious radicalism. Accordingly, Hebron, where brutal Jewish 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 under Israeli colonialism, local religious radicalism is visible, but not
extreme. In the Beer Sheva region, where Bedouin-Arabs are citizens, while being
subject to marginalizing policies of internal colonialism, religious movements have
flourished, but have not radicalized.
Oren Yiftachel and Batya Roded
"You are a traitor, absolutely! A traitor to your nation, religion and country… a
traitor to the very reason your parents came here … Did you forget that this
place is written in the Bible as, ours not theirs." (Noam Arnon, speaker of
Hebron Jews to an Israeli soldier evacuating Jewish settlers from the central
Arab market; 7.8.2007).
"We have patience and Allah on our side; we have the Islamic Umma, from Pacific to Atlantic behind us; we shall get these invaders out one day; al-Chaleel belongs to the Palestinians, to the Muslims, but not to these criminal infidels" (Abd Al-Hai Arafah; Mufti of Hebron, 24 April 1969). Introduction:
Religious radicalism (often termed 'fundamentalism') has recently
resurfaced as a major force in shaping politics, space and violence. The hub of the current wave of religious mobilization lies in massive urban agglomerations, particularly at the rapidly burgeoning, impoverished and often informal urban margins of the global South, such as San Paolo, Mexico City, Baghdad, Johannesburg, Cairo and Istanbul. But these
mobilizations are intertwined with older waves of religious
politicizations, associated
with ethno-national urban struggles as found in Beirut, Jerusalem, Sarajevo, Belfast,
Ahmadebad, Nicosia or Hebron. This is vividly obvious in the above quotations,
where religion, nationalism and class overlap, to shape the political geography of
radical religious mobilization.
Our paper offers a first step in writing such political geography or religious
radicalism, which, we suggest, is closely linked to the depth of 'urban colonialism'.
Religious radicalism, whether state sanctioned 'from above', or an articulation of
resistance 'from below', is intertwined with the process of urban
colonialism, in which
colonized populations are racialized and humiliated and materially exploited. Based
on the experience of Israel/Palestine, and focusing mainly on Jewish spatial politics,
we suggest that these urban colonialisms set fertile grounds for the rise of religious
radicalism as part of the struggle between collective identities over urban space.
To illustrate the argument, the paper analyzes in brief the dynamics of ethnoreligious
politics in three key cities in Israel/Palestine, all bearing the symbolic footprints of Abraham – the mythical father of Jews and Muslims -- Hebron, Jerusalem and Beer Sheva. We show that the state's 'ethnocratic' urban geopolitical policies, and the associated nature of urban colonialism, remain the main (albeit not
sole) cause of religious conflict and radicalism. Our argument does not claim
universality, but is rather aimed at a 'meso' level of generalization, relevant mainly to
states forcefully promoting 'ethnocratic' projects. Hence, rather than seeing
Israel/Palestine as an exception, we wish to place it as an emblem – a hyper example
of processes underway in other cities and contexts.
The resurfacing of religion as a force of mass mobilization runs against the grain
of mainstream Western (universalizing) academic analysis, which has been preoccupied
in the post-war decades with dominant thinking of a linear state-centric modernization-assimilation. This was replaced in recent times by an overemphasis on
economic globalization, neo-liberalism and Americanization. These
frameworks – powerful as they indeed are -- are only partial in explaining the rise of religious mobilization. They typically overlook the immense power of territorial identity
politics in general, and to its grounding in urban space in particular. When religion does appear in mainstream scholarship and popular discourse, it
is portrayed as a '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. We show that 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). 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
Prior to expanding on our argument, let us deal with terminology. We prefer the
term 'religious radicalism' to 'religious fundamentalism', because the latter is laden
with popular derogatory meanings, fueled by the current neo-conservative 'war on
terror'; and by a secularist-leftist distain of religiosity. We feel 'radicalism' describes
well, and without bias, the intent of some religious movements to get 'to the root
(=radic)' of the social-cosmic order and to impose their own purified and absolute
world vision over pluralistic societies.
By 'ethnocracy' we mean a regime type whereby the state is appropriated by a
dominant ethno-national group, and is used to advance its own
'ethnicizing' political
and territorial agendas over contested space 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' (Bourdieu, 1991) and commonly elevate a theocratic 'order of things' in direct competition with other grids of modern societal organizations, such as democracy, civil society and in some cases nationalism.
In completing the introduction, let us sketch briefly the all important context for
our investigation – the political geography of Israel/Palestine (for the necessary depth,
see, among many others – Kimmerling, 2001; Don Yihye, 2001; Hilal, 2006; Rouhana, 2004; Yiftachel, 2006). The political geography of the land began to change
dramatically during the British Mandate period, with the massive arrival of Jewish
immigrants and refugees, fleeing persecution in Europe and (later) oppression in the
Arab world.
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 Judaism. But at the same time, it harbored deep seated, religiously-inspired
and even messianic concepts regarding Jewish salvation through a return to Zion – the
promised biblical land (see: Raz-Krakotzkin, 2002). Accordingly, it laid claim over
the entire 'Eretz Yisrael' (Land of Israel/ Palestine), between Jordan and the
Mediterranean Sea, while Arabs, who were the majority on the land, resisted the
Zionist project by establishing a fledgling Palestinian national movement. Tensions
between the two movements escalated and the British decided to leave. In 1947 the
Zionist movement accepted a UN partition plan which allocated 55% of the land to a
Jewish state, which was rejected outright by the Arab leadership. The ensuing 1948
war saw widespread ethnic cleansing, during which some two thirds of the Palestinians lost their homes and land, and were driven to regions beyond what later
became Israel's internationally recognized border, the Green Line (figure 1).
Following the war, Israel was established as an ethnocratic Jewish State (see
Yiftachel and Ghanem, 2004), and imposed ethnic rule within its sovereign territory,
now 78% of Israel/Palestine. Palestinians found themselves under the jurisdiction of
five neighboring states. Israel began a concerted project of internal colonialism,
known as the Judaization policy, and built over 500 settlements and cities in areas
previously inhabited by Palestinians, including Jewish Beer Sheva. The state brought
96 percent of its land under Jewish-Israeli ownership. Palestinian Arabs were awarded
Israeli citizenship, but were placed under military government until 1966, and were
subsequently marginalized and dispossessed by the nascent state.
The role of religion in state affairs was at that period relatively minor but still
significant – a division of power allowed religious authorities to preside over personal,
public culture and religious affairs, institutionalizing a permanent theocratic presence
in the annals of the Israeli regime. Religious parties participated in all government
coalitions, and renewed connection with world Jewry, which began to provide
financial and political support to the warring state, and strengthened the prominence
of the religious dimensions of the state through which these global connections were
In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza (including Jerusalem and Hebron), and continued its Judaization project by settling nearly half a million Jews
over the Green Line, that is, beyond its sovereign area. Here religious groups assume
greater importance, because the new territories, and especially the West Bank, are
dotted with sacred Jewish-biblical sites. Religious elements began a renewed colonial
push in the form of a massive settlement project, including Arab Jerusalem and
Hebron as key targets. Throughout the occupied territories (OT) Jewish settlers
retained their full citizenship rights, while Palestinians became
disenfranchised, and
subject to military rule. At the same time, Israel unilaterally annexed Old and East
Jerusalem to the Israeli Jerusalem municipality -- and began a massive effort of
Judaizing these urban areas (see figure 4). Due to the 'urban annexation', Jerusalemite
Palestinians received residency rights and Israeli ID cards (but not citizenship). Under
international law, East Jerusalem remains part of the occupied West Bank. 5
Source: Yiftachel, 2006, 74.
Figure 1: Ethnic geography of Israel/Palestine, 2005 and Abraham footsteps Notably, in 2005, after two bloody Palestinian rebellions, Israel
evacuated the
Gaza Strip and for the first time willingly dismantled 25 Jewish
settlements in the area
it considers its historical homeland. Yet, the Judaization of Jerusalem and the West
Bank has continued unabated. In response to accelerating cycles of mutual violence
and terror, Israel erected a massive separation barrier ('the Wall'), which effectively
transfers 10 percent of the West Bank to Israel. In 2005, the barrier (and all Israel's
colonial settlements in the West Bank) were condemned as 'clear
violations' of
international law by the international court in The Hague.
Since 1948 the Israeli state has pursued a colonial project of expanding and
deepening Jewish control over all parts of the contested land and against the wishes of
local populations. However, we must analytically differentiate between the various
depths of colonization which have resulted from the gradual, incomplete and
contested imposition of Jewish rule. Where as in Hebron, the Jewish presence is based
on a heavily militarized occupation and settlement vis-a-vis rebellious rightless
Palestinians; in Jerusalem, the edge of the systematic and powerful colonial project is
somewhat blunted by the partial civil status of the Palestinians; while in the Beer
Sheva region, Judaization has been accompanied with the endowment to the local
Bedouin population of citizenship and some legal, political and urban development
rights. While the Judaization logic proceeds in all three cities and results in
conspicuous inequalities, we wish to argue that the variation of the political
geography of urban colonialism does make a significant difference, intra-alia for the
nature of urban religious radicalism.
This brings us to the issue of religious politics, mainly in the form of Orthodox
Jewish parties and groups. These groups have steadily increased their power base
within the Zionist state, particularly since the 1970s. This has been the upshot of
Israel's colonial push, which allowed religious group to claim a
'frontier' position in
the Zionist project, both discursively and physically. Later, intensifying Palestinian
violence 'confirmed' the religious narrative of the Jewish people in its perpetual
struggle against hostile nations. This further augmented religious political power.
Zionist ideology – which traditionally treated 'Jewishness' ambiguously, as
ethnic, national and religious -- became increasingly theocratic. The influence of
religious parties within the Israeli polity has increased, reaching a peak during the
1990s, with religious parties winning some 30% of the Israeli parliament in the 1996
elections. Since then a shift is discernable, and a growing chasm has developed
between orthodox and 'secular' (non-orthodox) Jews. The joint Zionist framework is
still holding the two camps together, their goal in containing what they construct as a
common enemy, but serious cracks have opened up since the mid 1990s. This is
reflected in growing cultural and geographic polarization, highlighted by the fact that
in recent years, nearly all West Bank settlers are Orthodox or
ultra-Orthodox, as
opposed to the 1980s, when the settlements had a far greater presence of non-
Orthodox Jews. At the same time, other portions of Israeli society have become
increasingly liberal, secular and globalized.
The tension 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 territorial question of controlling 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 (or radical nationalist) political elements, who vehemently oppose the
leaders' attempts to advance towards negotiations with the Palestinians, which
necessitate, in their eyes, relinquishing parts of the sacred homeland. 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
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 against Israel, 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. Following this brief political geographic description of the
Israeli/Palestinian context, let us now return to our theoretical
Towards a Political Geography of Religious Radicalism
Sacred spaces are not separate from the powers of the state; they are deeply
connected to 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).
We wish to advance several related theoretical arguments, inspired 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 are also inspired by (post)colonial scholarship (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 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
radicalism unfolds, but rather active factors creating the conditions for such drama.
Our argument begins by illuminating the historical moment in which the relationship between ethno-national and religious mobilizations 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
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 acknowledge of
course that there exist a variety of powerful forces shaping religious radicalism,
beyond the urban geopolitics on which we focus. And third, the literature on the rise
of religious movements account for a range of important factors relating to their
emergence, such as resources, organization, leadership, ideology and tactics.
Limitations of space do not allow this paper to discuss the vitally important
interaction of these factors with changing politics and geographies (see: Finke, 2003;
Juergensmayer 2004; Kong, 2001; Oommen, 1994; Ram, 1996).
At this stage it may be useful to advance and make an analytical
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, with religious institutions functioning 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 (see: Davis, 2006; Finke, 2003; Ram, 1996).
We recognize of course that the distinction is malleable, and that circumstances
may change the 'above-below' positioning, as in the case of Iran or Afghanistan. Yet,
the distinction is helpful in illuminating 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 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 (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 (1992) 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 functions 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-a-vis neighboring states (as in the case of border disputes or irredentist moves, such as
in India, Israel or Cyprus), or vis-a-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. To illustrate the
ethnocratic-theocratic relations-cum-tension we may turn to an old Chinese fable:
On a cold stormy day, a lizard tries to get into a fox's warren for shelter.
Worried, the fox rallies a friend – the stork – to bring water in its beak, drop it at the
warren's entrance, and thus prevent the lizard from entering. In return the fox offers
the stork warm shelter from the storm. Once successful against the persistent lizard,
the stork suddenly realizes that if it continues to pour water, the fox too will be forced
out of the warren, and the stork will have it all for itself.
The fable's moral is about carefully calculating who is invited to one's home. For
our purposes, we can liken the ethnic state to the fox, the lizard to the neighboring
'enemy' or a minority of competing nationality, and the stork to religion. The fable
illustrates well the dynamic of allies becoming rivals, with a momentum of time and
power. It also shows how in such instances space becomes pivotal – with such
conflicts over 'home' being grounded within specific geographies of contestation,
most notably urban.
And the Urban?
Jerusalem is the city of all cities; it is not only divine, beautiful and holy, it is
also a vibrant, dynamic and very 'alive' as a city. Our purpose is not only to
resolve the urban conflict, but to keep Jerusalem's urbanity, prosperity and
multiculturalism (The Jerusalem Institute, Scenarios for Future Jerusalem, 2004).
The final part of our argument connects the above observations to the urban
scene. By virtue of being the growth poles of most societies, urban regions are the
point of encounter between diverse groups. It is there that 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 sites of political contestation, articulation and
But the modern urban scene, by its very dynamism, size and diversity, harbors a
multitude of possibilities. On the one hand, it enables movement and porosity across
social and spatial boundaries, unimaginable in rural or traditional societies. The
spatial proximity and the quotidian economic and political interactions between
groups often create new and dynamic identities and shifting cross-cutting coalitions
(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 control
measures are often invented and implemented in urban areas, typically around
housing segregation, uneven land allocation, municipal gerrymandering, uneven
investment in infrastructure, jobs and transport, as well as lack of recognition of
rapidly growing swaths of informal urban developments (see, Marcuse, 1995; Robinson, 2006). In polarized cities, deep social (and ethnic) difference, growing
economic inequalities and control mechanisms create new colonial
It is against these urban processes that we find the rise of religious radicalism.
Here, immigration, deprivation and regulative controls interact with national and
global powers . We contend that the deeper the 'footprints' of urban colonialism, the
more prevalent the rise of religious radicalism.
We define 'urban colonialism' as the management of urban regions according to
a colonial logic, whereby a dominant group controls the political space in order to:
(a) exploit the region's material advantages and labor force;
(b) impose a system of unequal membership based on a ranking of ascriptive identities and economic positions; and
(c) manage the urban region by restricting free movement and
Urban colonialism is a dynamic and inevitably contested process. In cases where
colonialism is highly institutionalized, as in Jerusalem, the regime may be defined as
'urban apartheid'. In most cases, such as Beer Sheva, urban colonialism remains a
process in the making, undeclared, and practiced through more subtle discursive,
material and regulative means.
But 'the urban' is still too vast a field to advance properly in our analysis. Hence,
it may make some additional analytical distinctions -- as 'navigation grids', rather than
strict dichotomies -- in the messy seas of urban political geographies. First, we should distinguish between cities that are subject to conflicts over territorial collective identity (national, ethnic), from those where the question of sovereignty has been settled (for the time being). Clearly, urban colonialism has a sharper, more volatile and more violent edge in cities such as Jerusalem, Beirut, Ahmadabad, Sarajevo or Colombo, where ‘the urban’ is closely intertwined with ‘the national’ as a site of struggle over sovereignty or ethnic self-determination. In such cases urban segregation is deeper and space becomes a zero-sum territorial resource, often subject to bitter struggle. This is different to the more fluid and porous situations in cities composed of massive, often informal, settlements, and where conflict arises out of economic and political deprivation. The struggle appears in such cities to be 'within', rather than 'between', national or ethnic collectivities. Another important distinction about 'the urban' should be made between holy urban sites to 'sanctified' urban areas. Holy sites are constructed by elites as key locations of memory and identity, promoted to serve the contemporary identity project.
Major holy sites may often form the basis for the growth of an entire urban area, as in
the case of the Vatican, Jerusalem or Mecca.
Sanctified urban areas, on the other hand, are those created through the empowerment of religious movements in marginalized urban areas. These are the work of contemporary religio-political entrepreneurs, who often impose a religious order on a pre-existing urban landscape, typically in terms of the nature of street life, commerce, dress code and a moral public order. These are more dynamic and
expansive than holy sites, though less steeped in spatial and historical sanctity. What
interests us particularly in this paper is first type - where religious radicalism ‘from
above’ advances colonialism, which over time generates a counter movement of
religious radicalism ‘from below’. Again, the two are not mutually exclusive, but
present different core dynamics in the shaping of religious radicalism. Here our argument is beginning to synthesize: 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 agenda. This is where the attempt is made to make the ethno-nationalist project more theocratic, by promoting and then colonizing new, old 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 other elements within their nation.
At the same time, cities are the centre of globalizing economic
where elites reside in close proximity to marginalized laborers, the unemployed, the
informal and the illegal. In many contested cities this creates a double movement,
whereby conflict is exacerbated by both religious-nationalist radicalism and economic
segregation. Religious and radical nationalist groups often agitate against urban
minorities, through development, planning or housing initiatives, while the political
economy of globalizing urban development typically deepens the deprivation of the
same groups, already weak due to their 'outsider' status. These have spawned
phenomena such as ghettos, informalities and 'floating' populations, for whom
organized minority religions offer security and meaning in this urban turmoil.
It is here, as depicted in Figure 2 that we find the political geography of
religious radicalism, born out of both the spatial struggles within the ethno-nationalist
project, and 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 from ‘above’ and ‘below’.
The polarization typically occurs in situations of long-term 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 and Belfast.
Figure 2: Urban colonialism and religious radicalism Israel/Palestine It is beyond the scope of this paper to sketch the rich details of the process of ‘religiosation’, whereby frameworks of identity are imbued with religious significance and redemptive zeal, often as alternatives to state-induced or globalizing trends.
Suffice at this stage is to point to good research on the subjects which highlights the
process, both among the state-sanctioned groups occupying 'the frontier' (see: Ram,
1996; Eldar and Zertal, 2004; Bartholomeusz and de Silva, 1998; Winslow 1984), and
among the resisting weaker groups who search for empowering frameworks to help
them cope with urban colonialism, and prepare the ground for their own political
ascendancy (see: Budeiri, 1995; Hatina, 2005; Davis, 2006).
At this stage, with our argument fully outlined, we can turn to an examination of
the three cities, highlighting the political geographical forces at work, and focusing on
the depth of urban colonialism and religious radicalism. Given space limitations, we
shall only have room to sketch the dynamic political geographies of the three, and
highlight one illustrative issue in each city.
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 1), they are also set in
different political geographical circumstances.
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 in one of the first waves of anti-Zionist violence. Following the 1948 war
Hebron was annexed to Jordan.
Shortly after Israel's conquest of the West Bank, in Passover 1968, the first
group of religious Jews, led by Rabbi Levinger, invaded an empty city hotel in
defiance of government orders. This began four decades of an urban colonial project,
which has often run against the grain of Israeli policy, but nevertheless received state
protection. To date, it managed to attract some 7,500 Jewish settlers to the city and
the abutting colonial Kiryat Arba town (see Figure 3), (Swiesa, 2003; OCHA 2005 )
which enjoys a 'city' status in Israel's local government structure. It is the only West
Bank Arab city (outside Jerusalem) in which Jews settled. During the last four
decades Hebron has represented an extreme case of religiously and
motivated colonization which explicitly attempted to push the boundaries of the
Zionist regime from ethnocracy to theocracy.
The settlers' rhetoric in the early years of settlement mixed religious promise for
a Jewish Abraham's city, nationalistic claims to control the entire Land of Israel and
personal claims to retrieve Jewish property lost in 1929. Religious Jews occupied
parts of the city in persistent challenge to the Government's attempt at a more
'strategic' or 'rational' colonial policy which would avoid direct confrontation within
Arab cities (Newman, 2001). The settlers remained, however, full Israeli citizens,
deep in the occupied West Bank, and received on-going, and highly costly, military
protection. In 1967 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 Jewish colonization in parts of the Old City of Hebron, and the
construction of large scale housing in Kiryat Arba, relations between the two ethnic
communities polarized. A violent nadir was reached when in 1994 a Jewish settler
massacred 29 Muslim worshippers inside the sacred Abraham's Tomb.
Hostilities have since continued, and it is estimated that during the last seven years some 123 Palestinian residents and 9 Jews were killed
(B'Tselem, 2007).
In May 4, 1999, the Wye Agreement saw the city effectively partitioned; the
eastern part placed under ('temporary') direct Israeli control, while the western parts
vested with the Palestinian Authority (PA) as 'Area A' – with autonomous control. In
2002, following a wave of Palestinian terror aimed at ending the on-going occupation,
Israel reinvaded the city. Today, Hebron is governed by the PA but under tight Israeli
control, the level of which depends on Israel's self declared 'military considerations'.
The political geography of Hebron can thus be portrayed: a brutally colonized
and occupied city, with municipal autonomy for the city's Arab western parts.
Economic development has been severely hampered by the occupation regime of road
blocks, closures and curfews, and a tight control over Arab building construction.
Since 2000, the economy of Arab Hebron, like the rest of the OT, has seriously
deteriorated, with parts of the region reporting unemployment higher than 50%, and
near subsistence level of existence (OCHA, 2006). The Jewish part has remained well
developed, due to near full employment and generous state subsidies that are available
to Israeli citizens only.
It is not surprising then that under such colonial settings, religious radicalism
has thrived to intense levels, both 'from above' and later 'from below'. The discourse
of Jewish settlers has accordingly evolved over the years. During the 1970s it mixed
religious, nationalist, and secularist components, led by the writings of Elyakim
Ha'etzni, and later by his son Nadav – two of the city's prominent figures. The main
argument was that Hebron is the ultimate frontier of Zionism, and retreat from the city
will signal the fall of the entire settlement project. During the 1980s, however, and
increasingly during the last decade, the radical religious rhetoric 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 (Eretz Yisrael) (now a
euphemism to the Palestinian territories). The city has become a site for on-going
pilgrimages – organized tours and festivals frequented by tens of
thousands of (mainly orthodox) Jews every year, especially around the Jewish holidays.
Source: B'tselem, 2007
Figure 3: Hebron and Kiryat Arba; Jewish settlement in the city of Hebron Local politics have reflected this change. During the 1970s and even 1980s,
nationalist parties polled fairly well in Hebron and Kiryat Arba. However, in the last
2006 elections the shift to a theocratic agenda became increasingly clear with 77% of
residents voting to one of Israel's four main religious parties – Mafdal, Gush Leumi,
Agudah and Shas. This was mirrored on the Palestinian side, with Hamas polling
59%, and winning all nine seats in the Palestinian 2006 elections
(Jerusalem Media
and Palestinian centre, 30/1/06
This was Hamas's strongest political showing, overshadowing even the landslide
victory in Gaza.
The multiple dialectics created by the violent Jewish settlement 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 Palestinian
national movement; and between Islamic Palestinian groups, mainly
representing the city's poor and refugees, and the more secular and middle class
Palestinian mainstream.
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
conflict. These small areas, not surprisingly, 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 two Temples built on the Mount as the central
places of worship for Israelite and Judaic communities. The temples signal a 'golden
past' for the construction of the modern Zionist narrative. 'Zion' concurrently means
Jerusalem and the entire homeland (much like al-Sham, or Masser, denoting Damascus/Syria and Cairo/Egypt, respectively). Islamic myth sites
ascent to heaven from the same Temple site, and has long held Jerusalem as one of
Islam's most holy places. Its Arabic name, 'al-Quds', means simply 'the holy'. 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
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 urban Judaization, with
the settlement of some 180,000 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 (Figure 4).
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 functionally incorporated to the metropolis through expanding urban
development. This process saw the rise of informal development mostly in the Arab
sections. At present the Jerusalem metropolitan population is estimated at 1.3 million,
nearly twice the population of the Old City.
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
voted in small numbers (14-16%) in Palestinian National elections, although polling
booths were placed outside the city by Israeli decree. They have also been eligible to
participate in Jerusalem municipal elections, but have largely banned them,
considering the city government to be an illegitimate, colonial body. Several key
Jerusalemites have participated in the Palestinian government, including the late
Faisal Hussaini, Hanan Ashrawi and Ibrahim abu-Tur.
Religion has obviously played a central role in shaping the political geography
of Jerusalem, not only because of the high concentration of holy sites, but also
because the city's population traditionally had a high proportion of Orthodox Jews.
This aspect has been covered by numerous studies, and need not be repeated here (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: the first two decades of colonial Judaization in Jerusalem were
driven mainly by non-Orthodox ('secular') Jews, most notably Jerusalem's mayor for
three decades, Teddy Kollek. His was a prototype ethnocratic project – using the
historical and nationalist 'weight' of Jerusalem to expand Zionist development and
territorial gains. Since the 1970s, electoral patterns among Jerusalemite Jews have
generally reflected a right-of-centre 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) and Labor a mere 12.6 percent (less than half
nationally). In city elections the situation was even starker, with Orthodox and ultra-
Orthodox parties receiving 44% and 47% in 1998 and 2003, repsectively.1 The Oslo process, which divided Hebron, deliberately avoided dealing with Jerusalem. It was considered one of the issues left for permanent
settlement negotiations (which never eventuated). As such, a process of 'creeping apartheid' – an increasingly institutionalised yet undeclared political order – has taken root in the city, with no formal political geographical changes since 1967. The two Palestinian intifadas staged a record number of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. But importantly for this paper, most Arab terrorists (10 of 13 attacks) came from outside the city. These attacks wreaked havoc in Jewish Jerusalem during the mid 1990s and the 2001-2002 period, with some 63 people falling victims to suicide bombing during the first period and 83 during the second. Israel has also used widespread violence and state terror to preserve its dominance, killing some 13 Palestinians in 2001-2 and 75 Palestinians in Jerusalem during the corresponding period (B'tselem, 2007; Cohen, 2007). But violence in Jerusalem remained, to some extent, a national, rather than an urban issue. The main urban control methods used by Israel were severe, but somewhat softer than in the West Bank, revolving mainly around issues of municipal and land policies. These have included widespread land confiscation, denial of
planning rights, economic deprivation and house demolitions. These have shaped
relations between Palestinians and the City more than state or Islamic terror (Margalit,
1 http://www.knesset.gov.il/history/heb/heb_hist11_s.htm
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 religious Jews, either ultra-orthodox families buying new
apartments in rapidly developing Israeli colonies at the edge of the city, or by small
radical groups, who settle in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. Two such groups,
Atteret Kohanim (Priests' Crown) and El'ad -- Ir David (City of David), have received
most of the recent attention, those being mainly young, ultra-orthodox and nationalist
("Hardalim") groups, using highly charged 'redemptive' religious rhetoric. The
religious shift is also noticeable electorally: in the 2006 elections orthodox and ultraorthodox groups vote rose to 24 seats (24 % of the Jewish vote), while
non-religious parties declined to 76%.2
Source: Middle East Report N°44, 2005, 19.
Figure 4: The new Jewish neighborhoods/settlements around Jerusalem; Jewish settlement in the sacred basin
The separation of Jerusalemite politics from the general national and international hype about the city is of course impossible. In this paper we are less interested in the latter, focusing more on religious politics in the city, and less on the range of global and national religious groups who are mobilized around the sanctification of Jerusalem. However, two 'external' groups should be mentioned, as they feature heavily in the daily working of the city. The first is the notable Jewish Orthodox messianic group, Ne'emanei Har Habayit (Temple Mount Loyalists) which is constantly mobilizing to allow Jews to pray at the Temple Mount and also aspire to build a synagogue there. Their proposals are often debated by city administration,
2 http://www.knesset.gov.il/elections17/heb/results/Main_Results.asp 20 religious courts and state government, and during the Peace David summit (2000)
Israel even submitted a formal proposal to build such a synagogue. 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, which has planned an effective mobilization and expansion campaign around the slogan 'al-Aqsa fee chatar' (al-Aqsa in Danger), and has been coordinating renovations and redevelopment of the Temple Mount site for the last decade. The group, led by controversial Sheikh Raed Sallah of Um al-Fahem,
uses its Israeli mobility rights to attend on-mass al-Aqsa Friday prayers, which are
often closed to West Bank Arabs. 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. 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. This is not entirely new in Palestinian politics, which during the 1920s and 30s were dominated by Jerusalemite elites who often mobilized support through the use of religious
institutions (such as the high religious post of the Mufti, who became the defacto leader of Palestinian nationalism (in the absence of other institutions). 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".
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. It is believed the city was abandoned in the seventh century AD, and was rebuilt only at the beginning of C20th by the Ottomans. The 1947 UN partition plan included Beer Sheva under Palestinian sovereignty, but the city was captured by Israel and since has remained within its sovereign territory. During the 1948 war, some 80% of Arabs of the Naqab region (Negev) were driven out, mainly into Gaza, Egypt, the West Bank and Jordan, 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 (Figure 5).
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,
The other 80-85,000 Bedouins have remained on their claimed land, in some 45
shanty towns and villages (Figure 5). A bitter land conflict has developed with the
state denying their indigenous land rights, and as a result 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, including roads, electricity, clinics and
planning, 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 old city
The well of Abraham 2 Km
The mosque
Figure 5: Jewish and Bedouin settlement in the Beer Sheva region
The Beer-Sheva metropolis has therefore come to resemble many Third World cities with a well developed modern urban core, and 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, despite the biblical
significance of the place, using instead discourses of modernization, national (Jewish),
territorial control, 'proper planning', and 'law and order'.
The Bedouin Arab challenge to Jewish hegemony is represented through repeated moral panics over demographic and territorial dominance, over crime and 'primitivism', but very rarely over religious issues.
Politically, the composition of the Beer Sheva City Council too has remained
quite stable in terms of religious parties, hovering around the 20-25% mark for the
last two decades (25% last municipal elections – 5 out of 25 council members). The
relatively low profile of religiosity also reflects the conspicuous presence of Russian
speaking immigrants to the city, which now outnumber all other Jewish groups, and
are known for their secularism. City politics have been dominated for years by the
centrist and nationalist Labor, Likud and recently Kadima parties. In the last two local
elections a Labor-affiliated mayor won power, while Likud remains the largest party
in national elections. Religious parties occupy five of the 25 city council seats, but
they rarely raise biblical-related issues, or pursue radical religious demands.
Yet recently, religion has become more prominent. In a similar fashion to cities
of the global South, and being a region where sovereignty itself is not contested,
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 religious practices were traditionally quite removed from formal Islam,
through effective social and educational campaigns. Since the 1980s the landscape has
become dotted with mosques, previously rarely seen in Bedouin localities. Naqab
Islamic organizations are affiliated with the more moderate 'southern' branch, and
have rapidly increased their political support, currently holding the mayoral position
in five of the seven Arab towns, while in the 2006 national elections it won the
support of 55% of Naqab Arabs (running jointly with a traditional Arab United List).
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 been more concerned with
material services and education facilities, than linking their religiosity to urban
It should also be mentioned that inter-communal violence, so visible in Hebron
and Jerusalem, has been rare in Beer Sheva, with only four people
estimated to have died on 'national grounds' during the last two decades, as compared to hundreds in the other two cities (B'tselem, 2007).
Continuous urban colonialism apparent in the Beer Sheva region, while less confrontational than Hebron and Jerusalem, generates its own politics. 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
and architecturally significant Beer Sheva mosque, built by the Ottomans to serve the
region's population. Despite constant demand, the city refuses to open it for Muslim
prayer, with a powerful councilor of the ruling coalition, Eli Bokker claiming that,
"the region has dozens of mosques in Bedouin localities and towns, and Beer Sheva is
now a Jewish city, with the right to protect this urban character" (Eli Bokker, 2005).
As a result, the Mosque has been lying idle for decades, and is now in an advanced state of architectural deterioration. In a recent appeal, the Israeli high court ruled in favor of opening the mosque for 'Arab cultural uses' (Adalah, 2005). Despite the latest ruling, the city is steadfast in its refusal, and has now condemned the building as too dangerous for human use. While the most vocal voices against opening the mosque were members of the nationalist Likud and (the mainly Russian)
Yisrael Beitenu parties, Jewish religious parties have also joined the choir, with
Yaacov Margi, a Beer Sheva Shas leader claiming:
"If implemented, this high court decision could be the last nail in the Beer
Sheva coffin… we have been increasingly surrounded by Bedouins from all sides, and now they attempt to penetrate the heart of our city by opening their mosque… Let us never forget – Beer Sheva was the first Jewish city; this is where Abraham's wells are still in existence after 4,000 years. We should continue and drink the wisdom of our Tora like the water from these wells, and remember that one of these wisdoms is to never, but never, let the Amalek [hostile nations, O.Y.] raise their heads!".3
Margi's statement 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
Instead of conclusions:
Students of religious politics are urged to incorporate the political geography of
urban colonialism. As shown above, the hegemonic systems of control – ethnonationalism, globalizing capitalism and increasingly politicized religion – intersect through the 'thick matter' of making and changing cities. It is there that new forms of
appropriating and racializing colonialisms are being produced, as the 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 which emerge in different
types of sacred or sanctified spaces, and give rise to different forms of dominations
and counter-mobilizations. These we suggest, provide insightful clues to the rise and
nature of religious radicalism, as also depicted in 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.
3 Sheva (urban newspaper), 12.4.2005.
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