Debt Spacing. Bonds, violence and endurance in Ramallah, Palestine – Middle East Monitor

“Debt is about borrowing in the present and repaying in the future. In both cases, it is the future that is at stake when debt is seen as a political issue.” Christopher Harker’s ethnographic study “Spacing Debt: Obligations, Violence, and Endurance in Ramallah, Palestine” examines in depth how Palestinians living the daily consequences of Israeli colonialism, colonial violence, and military occupation manage the stresses of debt and its impact in terms of perpetual social crisis.

While the book focuses on debt in Ramallah from 2008, the author gives a detailed timeline of debt through Palestinian history beginning with the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate in terms of dispossession of the Palestinian people of his land. It is in recalling the Nakba of 1948, during which 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly removed from their land, that Harker notes how Ramallah was affected in terms of demography due to the influx of Palestinian refugees who paved the way for its transformation into the current city. Despite its importance, both politically and economically, due to the illusory state-building that the PA and the international community promote, Ramallah is indebted to other cities for its basic needs.

After 1967, the author notes that Israeli settlement expansion was a tactic to prevent Palestinians from claiming sovereignty, while the Oslo Accords further entrenched Israel’s settlement expansion and military occupation, forcing Palestinians to perpetual dependence under the banner of economic peace. The altered landscape due to settlement expansion, land theft and fences for Palestinians has exacerbated deprivation for the people, while the 1994 Paris Protocol determined Israel’s absolute control over imports and Palestinian exports. While the occupied West Bank, through the Palestinian Authority (PA), has garnered some semblance of prosperity, increased humanitarian aid and international donor dominance has helped subsidize Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.

Harker explains the debt in terms of “the Israeli state as the main colonial force shaping Palestinian life and land, the future nation-state of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and international donors.” Furthermore, the influence of Israel’s colonial expansion and settlements is also evident in Ramallah’s own network of exploitation, bureaucracy and urban planning; the latter pointed to by Harker through the example of Al Reehan on the outskirts of Ramallah and which mimics Israeli settlement buildings, described in the book as embodying “the colonizer’s vision of economic peace”.

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In this political context, Palestinians continually strive to make their own living, perpetually embroiled in the realities of debt. Harker’s interviews with Palestinians living in Ramallah and Um al Sharayet illustrate how people are trapped in their need to survive, and how this affects social and economic relations. Taking loans from banks makes Palestinians more vulnerable to poverty, while the financial institutions themselves wield power over people’s wages, forcing various forms of deprivation, from travel to meeting relatives, social gatherings or entertainment.

The increase in Palestinian debt is juxtaposed against the context of Palestinian de-development for which Israel is primarily responsible. Harker’s research goes beyond typical descriptions of Palestinian economic hardship to portray what he calls “a slow-moving violence” that permeates people’s daily lives. Debt is a slow-moving form of violence for Palestinians – it is barely recognized despite its contribution to deteriorating conditions for Palestinians as they face the brutality of the Israeli occupation, as well as the economic inequalities fueled by PA corruption and bureaucracy

Harker writes, “Israeli settler colonialism played a powerful role in creating the conditions under which finance emerged and became concentrated in Ramallah.”

Far from the most prominent manifestations of Israeli colonial violence, the political structure put in place by Israel and the PA has encouraged endurance among Palestinians. Harker constantly mentions endurance throughout his book in the context of debt. While debilitating for families, debt is also a means of ensuring survival, even if, conversely, the nature of colonial violence and the Palestinian Authority’s indebtedness through donor aid have destroyed the political independence of the Palestinian people.

The debt of Palestinians to anchor themselves in their space in occupied Palestine, in this case Ramallah, is also endurance in the face of a colonial entity that seeks to displace the indigenous population and replace it with settlers. However, as Harker notes, “debt promises a better present as a substitute for a political future of national liberation and an end to occupation”, showing that decolonization is still a necessity for the Palestinian people.

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