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Disrupting the Flow of Normalisation: Confronting the Infrastructural Terrain of Gulf-Israel Relations
The following article first appeared in print in Salvage #10: The Disorder of the Future, our Spring/Summer 2021 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
On 13 August 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Israel announced their commitment to ‘full normalisation of relations’, with the United States acting as broker for the deal*. A month later, on 15 September, with the White House as backdrop and Israel and the UAE now joined by Bahrain, the ‘Abraham Accords’ were signed and brought into being. The performance was clearly staged to trigger nostalgia towards another key moment in Middle East politics almost thirty years earlier, when the Oslo Accords were signed by Palestinian, Israeli, and American leaders, in this same spot.
The text of the Accords, in which its signatories have promised ‘a vision of peace, security, and prosperity in the Middle East and around the world’, is not difficult to unravel. As many critics have already pointed out, Palestine is nowhere to be seen in this document (or in any other discussions enabled by the new agreements). Yet despite claims of a sudden betrayal, as argued in articles that accompanied the August announcement, the Accords in fact codify a long-growing shift in this direction. The political stakes underlying the Arab League’s Peace Initiative of 2002, in which the floodgates of capital flows, technological exchange and arms deals between Arab states and Israel depended on peace with Palestine and an end to Occupation, had already dissipated. With Bahrain hosting Israeli representatives at the launch of the US’ economic framework for its ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan – otherwise known as Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ – in June of 2019, this should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Nor should we have been surprised at the domino effect of these initial agreements, as Sudan (on 23 October) and Morocco (on 10 December), joined the fray.
As Moran Zaga demonstrates in their report, ‘Israel and the United Arab Emirates: Opportunities on Hold’, ‘normalisation’ has in fact been the watchword of the Gulf-Israel landscape for at least the past decade. Eli Podeh, in their article ‘Saudi Arabia and Israel: From Secret to Public Engagement, 1948–2018’, traces over a billion dollars a year being channelled from the Gulf to Israel (mostly for the purchase of security, surveillance and cyber technologies), even without official diplomatic or economic relations. These currents are part of a global normal, where Israel has been deemed an essential protagonist in regional capitalist, security and political relations. This ‘normal’ has generated a spotlight on Israel’s allegedly Western-friendly business and governing practices, its super-charged high tech and start-up industries, and – especially in the last few months – its ‘world-leading’ Covid-19 vaccination drive. It has also made its strangulation and colonisation of Palestinian life and space an acceptable price to pay for doing business with Israel. In a world fundamentally dependent on racialised enclosures, coercion and force to ensure capital is always flowing and always secure, Israel seems an ideal partner. This makes the checkpoints, walls, military raids and bombardments of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that it sustains (and which sustain it), seem essential and even legitimate – despite a chorus of alleged disapproval from the international community whenever Israel announces new settlement and annexation plans or kills hundreds of people in Gaza, as it did in May 2021. From this perspective, the violence of Israel has been ‘normal’ for a long time.
At the same time, the Middle East normalisation project feels like a harbinger of shifting terrain. There is something new and unnerving happening when, within twenty-four hours of the Accords ceremony, we watch Dubai Port World – the fourth largest port-terminal operator in the world, based at Jebel Ali Port in Dubai, the biggest container port in the Middle East – sign a series of memoranda of understandings with Israel Shipyards/DoverTower, whose investors have their hands in shipping, construction and energy infrastructure across the country. Or when we see GITEX’s massive Dubai-based technology trade show – which it calls the ‘showpiece of global technologies’ – host an ‘inaugural summit’ on the ‘future digital economy’ of the two countries.
Even more disturbing is the pervasiveness of public discourse pointing to the easy connections to be made between these two ‘islands’ of security, stability and accumulation in the Middle East, and thus the importance of building a bridge across the desert landscapes that separate them. Using Koby Huberman’s 2020 Fathom article on the ‘UAE-Israel deal’ as an example, the comparisons between the countries range from their similar gross national products (about $400 billion), their innovative and entrepreneurial spirits, even their ability to make the desert bloom; and of course, their shared ‘geo-political and geo-strategic objectives’, in which the threat of Iran and ‘its proxies’ must be contained and neutralised. Woven into these assessments is a trembling kind of excitement – even salivation – at the economic opportunity afforded by the Accords. New markets, new collaborations and new partners are suddenly jumping at the bit, desperate to sign the next partnership. And the shiny agro-technologies and security systems that Israel has built and tested on Palestinian land and people have found seemingly boundless investment capital in the Gulf.
Over the past decade (at least), Israel – which famously calls itself a ‘villa in the jungle’ – has been slowly re-imagining and then selling itself as a ‘Gateway’ between the east and west. These efforts reference an alleged return to the country’s roots as a channel for (imperial and extractive) flows between Europe, Asia and Africa, and the oft-romanticised heyday of the British Mandate’s positioning of Haifa at the helm of West Asian and North African oil, shipping and rail pipelines. There is a new Chinese-administrated automated container port being built in Haifa Bay and a newly inaugurated railway line linking it to the edge of the Jordanian border (and the Sheikh Hussein Bridge and Customs Gateway). Both have been advertised by Israel’s foreign ministry as part of a ‘safer, faster, cheaper’ alternative – via a still-to-be-built Jordanian land-bridge – to the Persian Gulf, contrasted with the Suez Canal route, which currently monopolises maritime transits through the Middle East. The reach of newly inaugurated physical infrastructure is furthered by a growing industry of Maritime technology entrepreneurs who are contending with the shipping industry’s calls for new digital solutions. Israel’s tech expertise is being bent towards electronic block chain bills of lading, transparent shipping operations and cyber-security protections. The digital and material terrains are then brought together, managed and made workable by an expanding community of customs brokers, freight forwarders and logistics hubs, which take up office space in Haifa, Herzliya and Tel Aviv.
The explosion of trade and transport infrastructures in Israel was triggered by what has become a global obsession with logistics and transit corridors, and the desperate need to secure the more than 80 per cent of global trade that physically travels via maritime routes. This project reached fever pitch in 2013 when China launched its 10,000 km ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative (now known as the Belt and Road Initiative/BRI), a linked chain of land and sea lanes across Europe and Asia that has since been stretched to rethink an entire planet of physical and financial circulations. As Martin Danyluk’s work on ‘Capital’s Logistics Fix’ explains, just-in-time production methods – which see movement as key to profitability and, therefore, slowness and stillness as waste – intersect with inherently unequal divisions of labour and consumption in order to move goods from one end of a disaggregated global supply line to the other at hyper-speeds. Traversing existing (and inevitable) ‘holes’ and ‘gaps’ in the line requires incredible coordination, management and control, alongside an endless array of material, technical and legal interventions. It also makes the physical movement of ‘stuff’, as Deborah Cowen notes in The Deadly Life of Logistics, acutely vulnerable to obstruction and failure. These vulnerabilities – usually hidden in the immense project of making global mobility work – registered with abrupt clarity during the first months of Covid-19 enforced lockdowns, when certain food and medical supply chains, stretched thin and far, broke down or were threatened with disruption.
Resilience – and securing resilience – is built into logistics planning. Preserving and protecting a particular route requires considering and insuring against risks, potential circuit-breaks, and multiple possible alternatives. As Charmaine Chua argues in ‘Containing the Ship of State’, the geographic rationale of the global logistics industry is not movement but containment. To ensure the right things, people, and capital move – and keep moving at all costs, as required by the rapacious needs of capitalist circulation and accumulation – others need to be enclosed and immobilised. Thus, when a port is built, it inhabits and facilitates a far-reaching network, often reshaping and reorienting movement, security, even life, around its needs.
We must consider Israel’s new transit terrain as part of the technological and security landscape that it has already sold to the world. For example, alongside the building of the HaEmek Railway and the Chinese-administered Haifa Bay Port, Israel’s border technologies have become increasingly sophisticated (and thus marketable). At the same time, as Riya Al’Sanah and Rafeef Ziadiah demonstrate, its defence systems are deemed ‘cutting edge’ – and thus a fixture of defence budget wish lists – and its policing tactics, while infamous, are also generated, depicted and encountered as enviable. The scale of the production, circulation, and profits of its security-tech industry bear this out: Israel is the world’s eighth largest arms exporter. Between 2015 and 2019, arms sold by the Israeli government and private companies made up 3 per cent of the global total. Moreover, as Al’Sanah and Ziadah also point out, in 2019, its tech companies raised over £6.4 billion in capital funding, the majority of which went to companies developing Artificial intelligence and cyber security software. As this image of Israel’s security fortress circulates in logistics circles, the surrounding arena is already cast as dangerous, threatening, disruptive; something to be contained, controlled and bypassed. Against a backdrop of Africans and Asians, framed as pirates in the Red Sea and Houthi rebels (supported by Iran) in the Straits of Hormuz, Israel’s ‘Gateway’ is meant to feel like a secure bet.
While it is clear that the Abraham Accords did not revolutionise the Middle East’s infrastructural terrain, its ‘green light’ to front-line relations with Israel has opened the floodgates. What had previously felt slow-moving, cautious and under-the-radar, has now been injected with speed and steroids. On 7 December 2020, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the chairman of Dubai Port World, was quoted in a Times of Israel article saying that the initial estimation of UAE-Israel bilateral trade could be worth $5 billion. Israel’s ‘Export Institute chairman’, Adiv Baruch, was then cited in a Globes article claiming that within a year, ‘the value of trade between Israel and the UAE would reach at least $1 billion’, adding that the real value was the UAE enabling access to markets that had previously been closed to Israel.
These statements make it seem as if trade just happens, things just flow, capital just moves and any attempt to get in its way is futile. Yet, beneath the veneer of seemingly unstoppable and uninterruptible movement, are politically driven practices to connect Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council states, as well as the global trade arenas each of them command. The same Globes piece articulates this point. In it, the chairman of one of Israel’s biggest banking conglomerates, Bank Hapoalim, explains that the financial and regulatory ground needs to be prepared, the business community needs to build trust, and interlocutors need to get to know how each side works and does business. These things don’t just happen. Israel doesn’t just become ‘normal’. It needs to be made normal – and the channels that will make it normal still need to be generated, then managed, controlled, protected, secured, and entrenched.
For example, it is not by divine fate or accident that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan (a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family) bought a 50 per cent stake in Beitar Yerushalayim, one of Israel’s most infamously racist, anti-Arab – and most popular – football clubs. Instead, as we saw in a series of media on the topic in December 2020, the deal was negotiated via a long-standing UAE-Israel business connection. We can further assume that this intervention was performed as part of concerted efforts to make Israel a normal part of the UAE’s everyday – through media discourse, leisure life, trade, and now football.
‘A startling social experiment’, as Zev Chafets called it in their piece for Bloomberg, given that Beitar’s new owner claims to be coming to Israel ‘not just for profit but to change hearts and minds’. And vice versa, to make the UAE and the opportunities it opens in the region (and well beyond it), a normal part of Israeli life. Coinciding with the spectacle of Beitar’s new partnership – along with the racist graffiti it triggered from fans – was Washington’s approval for the sale of fifty advanced stealth F-35 fighters to the UAE (a $23 billion arms deal, as disclosed in Al Jazeera the same day). Perhaps less visible, but just as present, is the new pipeline agreement, in which oil from the UAE will be pumped through Eilat (which borders the Red Sea) and on to the Mediterranean and European markets via an old pipeline that once connected Eilat to Iran. The project, worth $800 million, will be managed by a new joint Emirati-Israeli company, known as the RED-MED land bridge.
These exchanges are continuing to scale up. In April 2021, the United Arab Emirates’ Mubadala Petroleum – a subsidiary of the Mubadala Investment Co, a sovereign wealth fund with $232 billion in assets – signed a billion dollar memorandum of understanding for a 22 per cent stake in Tamar, one of Israel’s offshore gas fields.
This, then, is already our new normal. A world of unhindered exchange, in which capital circuits, travelling at hyper speed, flow from Israel to the Gulf, from the Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean, from Israel to the Asian continent, from the Middle East to Europe. Moreover, as politics and geography are made to converge, the everyday and more spectacular violence Israel performs on Palestinian people and lands is intended to become more difficult to see, and thus challenge. This violence is deemed increasingly necessary and legitimate, because as infrastructure is made ‘critical’, movement needs to be secured, and channels cannot be interrupted. Israel’s violence spreads well-beyond the carceral lines of the Israeli state, as its coveted tech can now be seen on full display at one of the world’s largest trade shows. Israeli technology proliferates because Israel has a proven track record of controlling threats and erasing disruptions.
However, these geographic, political and economic corridors are still unfinished, still visible and incomplete. As I said, it takes agency and action to make Israel ‘normal’. It also takes agency and action – via solidarity, collective praxis, and endless work – to frame relations with Israel (and its incarceration of Palestine) as uncomfortable, unacceptable and illegitimate. To work against the flow of Middle East/Gulf – and global – ‘normalisation’, it is necessary to understand how it is happening, who are its protagonists, the material relations that underwrite its legitimacy, and the infrastructure that makes it concrete. It also requires recognising that the old normal – the liberal, racial, carceral order of things – was no less violent for Palestine and Palestinians.
In May 2021, as I edit this piece for publication, we are witness to yet another upsurge in Israeli brutality, with at least 243 dead, nearly 2000 injured and tens of thousands displaced, due to aerial bombardments in Gaza. Outside this spotlight, over a thousand Palestinians living within the Green Line (Israel ‘proper’) were arrested after riot police descended on peaceful protests, generating ‘security’ and ‘order’ with rubber bullets, water cannons and stun grenades. At least a dozen Palestinians have been killed in protests in Israel or in the West Bank, while families in Sheikh Jarrah, in Jerusalem, continue to be threatened with eviction orders and Gaza continues to be under siege – the ceasefire announced on 21 May doesn’t change any of this. At the same time, grassroots mobilisations have surged across Palestine, as part of a unity movement consolidating resistance ‘from the river to the sea’ and around the world. To quote Noura Erakat, a Palestinian activist and assistant professor of law at Rutgers University, these movements make clear ‘the status quo is unacceptable’. There should be no going back to normal.
But I write this only days after Josh Breiner reported in Haaretz (one of Israel’s daily newspapers) that the police used remote-control drones to drop tear gas on some of the West Bank protests: a wider adaptation by Israel’s defence industries of experiments initiated against Gaza’s ‘March of Return’ protests along the Israel-Gaza border, three years ago. I suspect there are already new bidders and buyers who see another showcase (and laboratory) for Israel’s security tech-industry, instead of the bodies of Palestinians on the ground.
* Thanks to Nivi Manchanda and Elian Weizman for reading initial drafts and sharing their wonderful insights. This article was written based on research supported through the ESRC New Investigator Grant ES/S01439X/1: From Walls to Corridors: The Global Logistics of the HaEmek Railway, 2019-2022 and in collaboration with partners at the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, in Nazareth and Eilabun.
Sharri Plonski is a lecturer in international politics at Queen Mary University of London. She is a product of multiple transgenerational colonialities that link the practices of conquest, empire, settlement and migration in Eastern Europe, Palestine, Canada and the UK. Her work, which is concerned with settler colonial relations, anti-colonial struggles, border dynamics and material infrastructures, is primarily anchored in the case of Palestine/Israel and its regional and global relations. She is also fascinated by trains, and has spent several years thinking and writing about one (as a PI on an ESRC New Investigator Grant); in particular, its political and material relations to colonial and capitalist infrastructures.