Waste Siege

This weekend, I read Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s recent book Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (2020). It’s a pretty remarkable book that documents the role of waste in the life of Palestinians and the role that it plays in the way various authorities exert power in Palestinian territories. Her work is based on years of ethnographic work in Palestine where she got to know people from all walks of life, social positions, and responsibilities and situates their experiences at the intersection of the growing field of discard studies and the anthropology of infrastructure. Because this is at the periphery of what I study, I can’t really offer a thorough or critical review of the book, but I found so much of it useful to think with, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least highlight a few areas where Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s approach influenced stimulated my own thinking.

1. Waste and Violence. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the book was Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s argument that the control over waste constituted a key element in the political relationship between Palestine and Israel. While I had understood superficially the complex network of jurisdictions that made up Palestinian territory, Stamatopoulou-Robbins demonstrated the way that various authorities tasked with managing and governing these jurisdictions used the flow of waste – from waste water to construction waste and household trash – to exert control over the lives of Palestinians living there. Not only does Israel prohibit the exporting of most waste from Palestinian Territories, but they also control in many cases the development of infrastructure designed to handle waste effectively. This level of control over the movement and flow of waste informs the the richly detailed case studies presented in the book which consider both macro level issues, such as the complexities associated with efforts to build waste-water treatment plants and landfills, and personal issues such as the impact of construction debris which cannot be removed from isolated settlements on the lives of residents. True to its title, Stamatopoulou-Robbins makes a compelling argument that the control over waste (as well as its attendant infrastructure) represents a major aspect of Israeli control over the lives of Palestinians.   

2. Waste and Value. One of the most interesting aspect of Waste Siege was that despite the overtly political aspects of the control over waste in Palestine, Stamatopoulou-Robbins demonstrates that Palestinians nevertheless continued to exert agency in certain aspects of how they deal with waste. For example, she documents the role of rabish, used goods imported (and often smuggled) into Palestine from Israel and re-sold, in Palestinian consumer culture. While Palestinians continue to value the practice of shopping and acquiring new things as a way to shape their identities, the perception (and to some extent, reality) that most of the new goods available to Palestinians are of suspect quality hangs as a specter over their consumer culture. Stamatopoulou-Robbins argues that because Palestine cannot control its imports, that poor quality goods (often associated with China) are dumped on Palestinian consumers. In contrast, Israeli control over their own ports and import processes appears to ensure that Israeli consumers have access to better quality goods. Whether this is true or not (and it is clearly more complex than this simple summary implies), it adds value to rabish goods imported from Israel despite a persistent cultural bias against buying used things and a distaste for purchasing goods cast off by Israelis.

Stamatopoulou-Robbins also explores the prohibition against discarding bread which Muslim and Christian Palestinians consider a religious offense. This results in bags of bread being tied to the outside of trash tips and any other convenient, semi-public place from fences to window grates and tree branches. By doing this, Palestinians make the discarded bread available for the needy or anyone else who might have a use for it. At the same time, it is clear that the supply of discarded bread exceeds the need for it and this results in any number of subtle ways through which bread enters the waste stream.

3. Waste and the Environment. Stamatopoulou-Robbins is likewise compelling when she discusses the role of solid waste treatment and the politics of the environment in Palestine. Because Israel has made it very difficult for Palestinian authorities to develop their own waste treatment infrastructure, they either dispose of waste and waste water in the ground, which threatens what water table, or release it toward Israel in surface flows which prevents Palestinians from reclaiming and reusing waste water for agriculture. Israel’s control over the fresh water infrastructure, including prohibiting wells in much of the territory controlled by Palestinian authorities, means that Palestinians must rely on Israel for water, but the lack of adequate sewage treatment (and persistent barriers to its development among the overlapping and competing jurisdictions present in Palestinian Territories) means that their practices nevertheless influence access to clean water in the region. The balance between using the flow of waste as a source of control (and even resources) and the need to protect access to fresh water for Israelis and Palestinians alike has nudged both sides toward efforts to create infrastructure the accommodates the realities of the environment. This kind of negotiation offers a particularly tangible example of how infrastructure and the environment function as agents in political negotiations and complicates the how the waste siege impacts both communities.

The observations that I offer here only scratches the surface of this nuanced and sophisticated book and probably doesn’t do Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s research or the wider body of literature that she engages justice. At the same time, having dipped my toes into discard studies in some of my own work, it’s hard to imagine a better place to start than Waste Siege. Check it out!

2 Comments

  1. Thanks. Pretty amazing book it seems

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  2. Thanks, yeah. Fascinating, and it’s all, in my view, basically true. But there is a limit to the (hostile?) outsider’s perspective, I mean, to me, I did not learn anything from your summary that I did not already now from working in that country and visiting the territories. But just an example of the limitations of (Greek leftist? take), religious Jews also have taboos about throwing away bread. Another kind of insider would have seen things differently. The context of all this is a geopolitical struggle, obviously, so these things also take on different meaning when you zoom out. I personally find it atrocious that wastewater plants don’t exist in the West Bank. It strikes me as something that shouldn’t be used as leverage, but then, I guess that is the nature of siege? Thank goodness I am not under siege or besieging.

    If you are interested in a “critical Zionist” perspective on some of these same issues, I highly recommend the work of Alon Tal — also works at Michigan State, part time — treats the same issues, not archaeologically, though, but also not as an outsider without a stake: https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&sxsrf=ALeKk01ERVafekJOrJtJDWU0YsbGGxe21Q:1615915071957&q=inauthor:%22Alon+Tal%22&tbm=bks

    Reply

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