The Matrix of Control

The Japanese and East Asians have a game called “Go.” Unlike the Western game of chess, where two opponents try to “defeat” each other by taking off pieces, the aim of “Go” is completely different. You “win” not by defeating but by immobilizing your opponent by controlling key points on the matrix. This strategy was used effectively in Vietnam, where small forces of Viet Cong were able to pin down and virtually paralyze some half-million American soldiers possessing overwhelming fire-power.

In effect Israel has done the same thing to the Palestinians on the West Bank, Gaza and in East Jerusalem. Since 1967 it has put into place a matrix, similar to that of the “Go” board, that has virtually paralyzed the Palestinian population. The matrix is composed of several overlapping layers.

First is the actual physical control of key links and nodes that create the matrix of control é settlements and their extended “master plans;” a massive system of highways and by-pass roads (including wide “sanitary” margins); army bases and industrial parks at key locations; closed military areas; “nature preserves;” control of aquifers and other natural resources; internal checkpoints and control of all border crossings; areas “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” “H-1,” “H-2” and much more. These define the matrix of constricted Palestinian enclaves and effectively divide them from one another. They also give Israel control of key “nodes.”

The second layer of the matrix is bureaucratic and “legal” — all the planning, permits and policies that entangle the Palestinian population in a tight web of restrictions. These include political zoning of land as “agricultural” in order to freeze the natural development of towns and villages; a politically motivated system of building permits, enforced by house demolitions, designed to confine the population to its constricted enclaves, land expropriation for (solely Israeli) “public purposes;” restrictions of planting and the wholesale destruction of Palestinian crops; licensing and inspection of Palestinian businesses; closure; restrictions on movement and travel; and more. Although Israel is careful to present its policies as “legal,” in fact they are not. The failure to guarantee Palestinians the basic human rights provided by the Geneva Convention and other international covenants é upon which Israel has signed é is patently illegal. The extensive use of Israeli court system, which invariably rules against Palestinians, as a means of controlling the local population makes a mockery of the link between law and justice. All these confine Palestinians to isolated cantons, control their movement and maintain Israeli hegemony.

The third layer of the matrix involves the use of violence to maintain control over the matrix — the military occupation itself, including massive imprisonment and torture; the extensive use of collaborators to control the local population; pressures exerted on families to sell their lands; the undemocratic, arbitrary and violent rule of the Military Commander of the West Bank and the Civil Administration. What Israelis know of this system they justify in terms of “security.”

The average Israeli has no concept of this matrix, and so for most Israelis “peace” means simply giving up the minimum territory that would “satisfy” the Palestinians and ending “terrorism.” Average Palestinians are highly attuned to the presence of the matrix, since they hit up against it every time they move. But it is crucial to the achievement of a just and viable peace that the nature of the matrix as an integrated system of control be fully comprehended. The Palestinians can wrest 95% of the Occupied Territories from Israel, can oversee the dismantling of almost all the settlements and can establish a recognized state, but unless they effectively dismantle the “matrix of control” a viable Palestinian state will elude them. It is not control of territory alone that is important; it is identifying and neutralizing the key nodes of the matrix.

The structure and workings of the matrix é and especially its controlling nodes — are subtle and require careful analysis. Some of its control points are obvious. The “E-1” area of 13,000 dunums between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim that was recently annexed effectively cuts the West Bank in two and is antithetical to any notion of a viable Palestinian state. Still, Barak apparently promised the National Religious Party that the order would not be rescinded, and not much protest to that has been voiced. Other nodes are less obvious. The Israeli-conceived road system of Jerusalem and the West Bank, for example, converges in the area of Ma’aleh Adumim. Even if the Palestinian gain control of the surrounding region but leaves that one settlement, Israel simply has to declare Ma’aleh Adumim a “closed military area” in order to paralyze movement within any Palestinian entity. Even more subtle nodes of control exist elsewhere. Only a several meter-wide strip between Ramallah and Bir Zeit, just enough for one Israeli military jeep, is sufficient for controlling movement in that area. A narrow Israeli strip between Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, as well as similar slivers all over the West Bank, contribute to the matrix of control.

Settlements are crucial to preserving the matrix not so much because of the land they occupy, but because of the control mechanisms that necessarily surround them. Thus, while the settlements take up only about 1.5% of the West Bank, their master plans cover more than 6%. Add that that the supporting infrastructure of roads (by-pass roads, conceived in Oslo as being only minor roads connecting settlements, have become a major mechanism of control), of industrial areas, of military installations and other “security” arrangements, of checkpoints and so on, and it becomes obvious that leaving a tiny yet strategically-located settlement in place effectively nullifies the gaining of territory around it.

The only meaningful way to dismantle the matrix is to eliminate it completely. That means removing all the settlements from Palestinian territory, replacing closure and checkpoints by normal (and minimal) border arrangements agreed upon by both sides, and removing Israeli military presence to agree-upon security points on the external borders only for a limited period of time. But if this turns out not to be possible and an Israeli presence remains, it is imperative that it not constitute a matrix of control. Understanding the matrix and its workings is critical for Palestinian success in the negotiations. The very gap between Israel and Palestinian map-making abilities and uses is worrying. As an Israeli who seeks a just and viable peace between our peoples, I hope the Palestinian negotiating team utilizes all the expertise at its disposal to avoid concessions that will in the end leave Palestine little more than a Bantustan.

Jeff Halper (53) is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. He has lived in Israel since 1973.