Oded Nir
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Eternal conflict
Sderot’s underground playground

This chapter is centred on a picture of a large children’s playground built in a bomb shelter in the Israeli town of Sderot, which borders Gaza. I first discuss the playground as a spatialized figure for ‘chronic time’ or the eternalization of the present in Israel: its construction signalling the replacement of any temporal narrative – that ends in peace or in death – with a permanent securitization. I contrast this image with two others: first, of the devastation of Gaza, to which the link is obvious. And second, of new real estate developments in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. I show that the increasing commodification of real estate in Israel (once wholly controlled by the state) and stagnating wages have made housing in many parts of Israel unaffordable for many Israelis, thus propelling state-subsidized construction of housing in the occupied West Bank. This, in turn, perpetuates the oppression of Palestinians and the state of eternalized, timeless securitization embodied in Sderot’s playground.

By now, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is over a hundred years old. Its origins can be traced to the Zionist settlement in Palestine in the late nineteenth century, driven by the development of capitalism in Europe. Despite Zionism's revolutionary ambitions, it resulted in the gradual dispossession and immiseration of the local Palestinian population. In 1948, following British withdrawal from Palestine, a war broke out between the Zionists and the Arab militaries of the neighbouring countries. In Palestinian memory, this war is called the Nakba, or the disaster: around 800,000 Palestinians were displaced by the Zionist forces, becoming refugees in their own country, or in neighbouring ones. In 1967, another war resulted in further displacement of Palestinians. Those who stayed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, conquered by Israel in 1967, are effectively still today under Israeli control. But they enjoy no citizenship rights, and are subjected to constant human rights violations. In 1987, the first Intifada (or armed resistance) of the Palestinian population erupted, against the prolonged Israeli occupation.

Figure 16.1 ‘Inside the Big Blue bomb shelter’. An image of the underground playground in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

The Intifada had forced Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. The purpose of the 1990s Israeli–Palestinian peace process aimed to end the conflict by creating a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. But the talks failed, and today the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel continues, with ever-growing Israeli restriction on what enters or leaves the Palestinian territories, which increasingly resemble a huge open-air prison, in which Israel employs ‘securitization’ tactics to neutralize Palestinian resistance or even its mere possibility. Efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict have all but died away since 2000. Indeed, peace has turned into Israeli violent pacification during this time period. The conflict thus turns eternal or timeless: peace as a possible resolution for it has disappeared; and we can only hope that the complete annihilation of the Palestinians is not considered a possible outcome, either.

Neoliberalism in Israel

But why has this absence of time from the conflict become acceptable to Israelis (assuming, of course, that Palestinians get less of a choice in the matter)? 1 To understand why timelessness comes to be attached to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, we would have to take a detour through the history of Israeli neoliberalization and financialization, and their relation to the conflict. As I hope to show, this relationship, which started as a contingent and accidental one, is today one of necessity: financialized Israeli capitalism necessarily entails the continuation of this conflict. The neoliberalization of Israel is usually traced back to the 1985 Economic Stabilization Plan. This latter programme, as many commentators note (Krampf 2018: 183–184; Shalev 1998: 126), provided the foundation for all that we know as the hallmarks of neoliberalization: concerted attacks on organized labour, privatization of state-owned industries and the gradual receding of the state from providing social services, allowing capitalist market forces to govern these more or less directly.

It is important to mention that it is not only the right that spearheaded Israeli neoliberalization: the Israel Labour Party had abandoned any serious commitment to the cause of labour by the 1990s. One should understand this abandonment of welfare-state politics as a necessity rather than a mere ideological preference. In his analysis of Israeli neoliberalization, Arie Krampf (2018: 200) echoes a truth already articulated by David Harvey's (2005: 5–38) study of neoliberalism: that the adoption of neoliberal reforms takes place when welfare-state policies are no longer effective in securing profits and the domination of the bourgeoisie as a class. Israeli welfare-state capitalism was brought to the brink of economic collapse before the adoption of the 1985 plan. The choice, even if it was never articulated by Israeli policy makers in quite these terms, was either to follow the neoliberal path dictated by the US or to abandon capitalism altogether. Israel, unsurprisingly, chose to try the former.

The story is usually portrayed as a success story, in which neoliberalization saved the Israeli economy. But it is here that the Israeli oppression of Palestinians becomes important as more than an external condition of Israeli capitalism. As Daniel Gutwein (2004) argued, neoliberal reforms put pressure on poor Israelis: securing better jobs and particularly a place to live became increasingly difficult as privatization advanced. The Israeli settlements in the territory occupied in the 1967 war – the Occupied Territories, as they came to be called – provided a temporary solution to this contradiction. Cheap housing, and government jobs, made the settlements attractive to the Israeli poor, who flocked to them. Thus, a certain welfare state continues to exist today in the settlements, as Amtanes Shehada (2017) argues. The entanglement of welfarism with the violence of settler colonialism is also touched upon by Randell-Moon (Chapter 14).

The continuation of a kind of welfare state in the settlements is why, in the 1990s, the great majority of the Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories were non-ideological, a fact that puzzled the Israeli Left but did not send it looking for the economic determinants. It is important to emphasize that this persistence of the old within the new – of welfare state within the greater neoliberal logic of Israel – is similar to what is usually called in Marxist criticism uneven and combined development (UCD) (Warwick Research Collective 2015). UCD is a useful concept to understand the ways in which capitalism develops outside its European centres. This development does not follow the same linear pattern in these new locales: older social orders or forms are preserved alongside the most advanced capitalist forms of production. The reasons for these confusing combinations are usually straightforward: the preservation of an older social form becomes a condition for the newer capitalist development. For instance, in some cases agricultural slave labour could be the only source of income for establishing a profitable, completely modernized factory – and so the result is the preservation of older forms alongside new ones. It is in this sense that the preservation of the welfare state in the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories was necessary, if Israel was to start playing according to neoliberal rules: the economic safety it provides to the poorer part of the Israeli population makes possible implementing neoliberal form on a greater scale.

It is precisely this argument about the way in which the Israeli occupation ‘solves’ temporarily the contradictions of capitalism in Israel that provides us with the real necessary connections between the conflict and capitalism. Other arguments, such as the one tying Israeli capitalism's arms trade, or profits from the occupation itself (if they can indeed be calculated) are much weaker. For the latter, in our liquidity-driven age, seem to imply that a different ‘investment strategy’ on the part of Israeli capitalism would make the conflict itself resolvable, without touching the very structure of the economic system. According to this line of argumentation, if Israeli capitalists would only invest in fair-trade coffee and Amsterdam real estate, instead of putting their money into guns and the occupation, Israeli–Palestinian peace would naturally follow. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the way in which cheap land in the territories temporarily resolves the pressures exerted by neoliberalism on poor Israelis. As such, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict cannot end without abandoning capitalism, or at least radically changing the way in which it is structured.

One must give this argument about the necessity of the Israeli occupation for the existence of capitalism its full political and historical weight. It means that the standard understanding of peaceful resolution in Israel–Palestine, the establishing of a Palestinian State alongside Israel, is no longer a realistic option after so many years of massive Israeli settlement in the West Bank. This situation makes a one-state solution – having Israelis and Palestinians share the same state with equal rights – a more realistic one, despite the fact that there is currently no political force that has made it its goal (although see Abunimah 2006). It is important to emphasize that as Israel annexes, formally or informally, more and more West Bank land, the existence of the single state is factually becoming a reality, despite how unpopular it is. That the one-state option is something that the bourgeoisie on both sides denounce also makes it a possible banner for the working class. It should be clear that supporting a one-state solution does not mean that one abandons anti-capitalism: the seemingly bourgeois demand for the equality of anyone living in the speculative single state becomes deeply anti-capitalist, since the existence of Israeli capitalism, as I have tried to show above, depends precisely on the ability of the Israeli state to violate the rights of Palestinians.

The Israeli occupation of Palestine, and continued oppression of Palestinians, becomes a condition for the existence of neoliberal Israel. This neoliberalization is usually associated with the 2003 reforms made to the financial market (Gottfried 2019: 104–5). One should see these reforms as a reminder that nationalization – the state taking ownership of assets and enterprises that it does not own – is not something neoliberals shy away from, when it serves their purposes. In 2003, the Israeli state nationalized the huge pension funds owned by the General Organization of Workers – which unites almost all labour unions in Israel – only later to sell them to Israeli banks. This proved to be the opening move for the increasingly more immediate and direct relation of Israeli citizens to the financial market: the movement of the stock exchange and financial indicators are now watched much more closely than anything else in trying to plan for the future.

Financialization and managing the future

It is here that time itself begins to emerge as something strongly influenced by this growing dependence on the market. The relation between privatizing pensions and the way time is imagined is not too difficult to find. As Hadas Weiss puts it, ‘financialization … links savings directly to the market. It therefore bypasses political negotiation of expensive guarantees. Workers’ fortunes on retirement become a factor of market performance’ (Weiss 2015: 512; Levi Faur and Mizrachy 2016). Thus, if pensions were once a matter of a nation's responsibility for its citizens’ future, to be decided upon through public institutions and political intervention, it is precisely the national temporal imagination that is eroded as the financialization of pensions advances.

I have so far argued that, first, Israeli neoliberalism is necessarily dependent on the continuation of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians (barring some radical reorganization). But the second point, about the growing dominance of finance in the Israeli economy, already has to do more concretely with issues of temporality and our sense of historicity. The latter term, borrowed from Fredric Jameson, designates our ability to map our individual everyday experience onto some larger historical movement.

Here the details of financialization in Israel become important: not only pensions (or their absence) and their obvious bearing on one's future are relevant, but also other forms of the penetration of finance into everyday life. Even if in comparison to other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, household debt in Israel is not very high, the rise of indebtedness since the early 2000s is dramatic (Shami 2019). Israelis increasingly rely on loans to survive, with real wages stagnating in the last several decades, and real estate prices climbing steadily, despite small corrections here and there. The programmes devised to lower real estate prices, put forth by the Israeli government, have largely failed to produce the desired effect. Critical empirical research on the connection of finance in Israel to real estate does not exist. But it would not be too speculative to imagine that capital increasingly relies on rent extraction for financial profits in the Israeli case (Tz'ion 2020).

And so housing construction becomes increasingly driven by financial speculation: new construction is not about producing homes useful to citizens but, rather, about the construction process itself and its products as profit-generators. One should notice the contrast between this financialized housing market and a different Israel time, in which the construction of housing was a matter of national planning and goals, executed by government order. One can even remember the days when the military was in charge of paving roads and infrastructure projects (but also of cultural ones, like education!), when large segments of the system of production were relatively autonomous from market forces. This contrast is instructive, because it immediately brings out the sense of time that animates the previous era, in which one's everyday activity is related to some imagined social whole and its future. Being involved in government-planned construction projects, or voting for a government that builds houses that you could easily buy or rent, meant that one could imagine oneself participating in the realization of a collective project. This sense of one's own relationship to history in the making is of course completely absent from the current situation, in which new construction is dominated by the impulses of finance capital. 2

To draw more directly the connection between capitalist financialization and a sense of timelessness: the increasing penetration of the market into every realm of life in Israel is precisely what generates this timelessness, which as I have argued, applies also to the current state of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It should be clear that the very attempt to imagine and create the future through economic activity is not in itself problematic. In capitalism, debt and credit make possible future-oriented projects that competition would otherwise make impossible (Dienst 2011). For example, a loan to build new infrastructure, like fibre optic cable, is needed long before the use of this infrastructure can generate any profit. It is the way in which such future making takes place within contemporary capitalist finance that becomes problematic. As Max Haiven (2011: 108) puts it,

what is fundamentally new about today's financial markets is their sheer complexity and speed, which have produced the preponderance of streamlined ‘investment vehicles’ that broadly fall under the heading of ‘derivatives’: intricate commodifications of risk made up of ‘securitized’ fragments of potentially tens of thousands of separate speculative investments and bets. Unlike more straightforward securities (like stocks and bonds), derivative products do not represent ownership or debt obligations so much as promises to buy or sell the rights to other securities at some point in the future. As finance accelerates, promises pile atop promises and fragments are rebundled to such an extent that the original property they ostensibly represented is lost in the ether.

As such, the original use value of a thing is lost in the bundling and rebundling of commitments, predictions and intentions codified into the derivative. Derivatives are themselves attempts to think historically: a condensed grouping of predictions and commitments about the future. Or, as Haiven (2011) puts it, following LiPuma and Lee, derivatives are themselves ‘strategies of representation’, or so many attempts to generate a sense of historicity. Yet, as Jameson (2015: 121) argues, derivatives fail to do just that precisely because of how quickly these predictions change, each derivative projecting ‘futures which are ephemeral, one-time effects much like postmodern texts; futures which are each one of them events rather than whole new dimensions or elements’. Thus, contemporary financialization becomes synonymous with an absence of historical imaginary and a sense of time that relates together individual experience to some larger, non-immediately accessible, past and future.

Endless war and the underground playground

My argument so far has interpreted the eternal present of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict – the fact that the possibility of its end has been removed – as originating in the growing financialization of Israeli capitalism. At this point, I can finally touch on the picture of the playground which opens this chapter. The playground is in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which has been the target of Palestinian small missile attacks (in response to murderous Israeli operations in the neighbouring Gaza). This is not simply an indoor playground. It was built underground, so that the town's children can play without fear of being hurt. Thus, what is truly monstrous about the playground in the picture is that is treats the violent conflict as a natural phenomenon, one that has no beginning and no end, but that is, rather, a constant nuisance that must simply be tolerated. Outside, war might be going on, but playing can continue (unperturbed?) underground.

It is precisely in this sense that this underground playground can become a clear figure for the sense of timelessness and non-relation to history that is the result of financialization. Where Stork (Chapter 17) describes how children and young adults come to manage their educational futures in relation to a logic of investment, here children's experience of play is shaped by a derivative logic that detaches financial decision making from any particular imagined future. The playground is abstracted from its socio-spatial context, so that its existence is no longer a good index of social peace – much like the failure of the derivatives to project a stable future. It is easy to see how the playground-bunker contrasts with the way we usually imagine playgrounds: in our filmic imaginary, playgrounds are places in which social relations are negotiated. They bear the gaze of the watchful mother, but also of the creepy attacker, hidden in plain sight; the interaction between kids always standing in for the truth of adult interaction. And, after hours, it turns into the non-place of illicit interactions. It is crucial that playgrounds open up to the urban syntax that surrounds them. Constantly in the background, the city or town that surrounds a playground provides a ‘totality effect’, an ‘everything else’ or otherness that allows the represented subject matter in the playground to stand as a useful reduction of the unrepresentable social whole (Jameson 2016: 64–87). Sderot's bunker playground, in contrast, is abstracted from its social surrounding presents and ceases to function as the locus of diachronic social mapping.

Thus, here the reading of the playground itself as part of the ‘text’ that is a city once again encounters timelessness. The abstraction of the bunker-playground is an abstraction: a removal from some social time, from a historical trajectory. As I have tried to demonstrate, this absence of time and the possibility of resolution, or what Eric Cazdyn (2012) calls the time of the chronic, that one keeps encountering, is precisely the unseen results of the financialization of Israel.

Further resources

Gutwein, D. (2006) ‘Some comments on the class foundations of the occupation’. Monthly Review Online, 16 June. https://mronline.org/2006/06/16/some-comments-on-the-class-foundations-of-the-occupation/ (accessed 2 September 2022).

Haiven, M. (2011) ‘Finance as capital's imagination? Reimagining value and culture in an age of fictitious capital and crisis’. Social Text 29(3): 93–124.

Weiss, H. (2015) ‘Financialization and its discontents: Israelis negotiating pensions’. American Anthropologist 117(3): 506–518.

Works cited

Abunimah, A. (2006) One Country. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006.

Cazdyn, E. (2012) The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Dienst, R. (2011) The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing against the Common Good. London: Verso.

Gottfried, S. (2019) Contemporary Oligarchies in Developed Democracies. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gutwein, D. (2004) ‘Hearot al hayesodot hamaamadiyim shel hakibush’ [Some comments on the class foundations of the occupation]. Teoriya ubikoret 24: 203–11.

Haiven, M. (2011) ‘Finance as capital's imagination? Reimagining value and culture in an age of fictitious capital and crisis’. Social Text 29(3): 93–124.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jameson, F. (2015) ‘The aesthetics of singularity’. New Left Review 92: 101–132.

Jameson, F. (2016) Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality. London; New York: Verso.

Krampf, A. (2018) The Israeli Path to Neoliberalism. New York: Routledge.

Levi Faur, D. and Mizrachy, I. (2016) ‘The making and remaking of Israeli citizenship via credit ranking regime: With special emphasis on minority and dis-privileged groups’. Jerusalem: Barriers Towards EU Citizenship. https://zenodo.org/record/582901 (accessed 2 September 2022).

Shalev, M. (1998) ‘Have globalization and liberalization normalized Israel's political economy?Israel Affairs 5(2–3): 121–155.

Shami, L. (2019) ‘Household debt in Israel’. Jerusalem: Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. http://taubcenter.org.il/wp-content/files_mf/householddebtinisrael2019eng16.pdf (accessed 2 September 2022).

Shehada, A. (2017) ‘Dokh mekhkar: Medinat harevakha shel hamitnakhlim’. Teoria Ubikoret 47: 203–222.

Tzion, H. (2020) ‘Hayavim luknot dira: Kah shavarnu si behekefei hamashkantaot’ [Must buy an apartment: This is how we broke the record in mortgage levels]. Ynet.Co.Il, 1 February. www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5669511,00.html (accessed 2 September 2022).

Warwick Research Collective (2015) Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World Literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Weiss, H. (2015) ‘Financialization and its discontents: Israelis negotiating pensions’. American Anthropologist 117(3): 506–518.


1 See chapters by Samaniego and Mantz (Chapter 20), Styve (Chapter 21) and Ly (Chapter 12) on non-linear experiences of time that arise out of the entanglement of colonialism and finance.
2 Compare this to the way debts were engineered in order to sever the relationship between Indigenous people and land, and to convert that land into private property, in other settler colonial contexts discussed by Comyn (Chapter 4) and Cordes (Chapter 5).
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The entangled legacies of empire

Race, finance and inequality


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