This article centers two new media projects that imagine Palestinian decolonization, given the occupation of Palestinian land: news site Al Jazeera English’s 360-degree video tour of al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem and Palestinian grassroots organization Udna’s three-dimensional rendering of destroyed village Mi’ar. These digital texts reimagine Palestinian access to land as a community-driven and intergenerational project. In this analysis, access is formulated as a term that invokes the following: new-media analyses of the digital divide (or differential resources for obtaining new media across lines of race, nation, gender, etc.); disability studies’ notions of access as intimately tied to political power and infrastructure; and postcolonial studies’ criticisms of colonial access in tourism and resource extraction of the global South. The article brings together these discursive nodes to formulate an understanding of space that imagines decolonial futurity. This future-oriented political practice works toward a vision of Palestine determined by Palestinians, as opposed to limiting pragmatic wars of maneuver. This inquiry therefore is centrally concerned with the ways activists for Palestine employ immersive digital media to formulate and work toward an attachment to decolonial futurity that is both practical and utopian.
This article analyzes two digital projects that imagine Palestinian sovereignty with attentiveness to the significance of politics and space: first, a series of virtual tours of al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem, Palestine, produced by Al Jazeera English (AJE), and second, oral history videos of destroyed Palestinian village Mi’ar developed by the Palestinian group Udna. Through close reading of these two projects, I show that the producers use new media to facilitate what Eric Ritskes calls “fugitive futurities of decolonization, seeking futures beyond colonial constructions of the possible and the sensible.”1 I argue that the virtual tour of al-Aqsa compound and the oral history videos of Mi’ar recast ideas of access to land and space through both content and form. While these objects expand access to al-Aqsa and Mi’ar through digital dissemination, they advocate for a decolonial futurity that is geographically specific, collaborative, and subversive.
However, new media redraws lines of accessibility based on infrastructure. Since the Oslo Accords first allowed Palestinians to build information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, there has been a tension between the isolation and division of Palestinian land and the promise of communication technology to bridge distance. Various Palestine activist groups and nongovernmental organizations have worked toward this deferred borderlessness. For example, Miriyam Aouragh examined the Across Borders Project established in 1999 through Birzeit University that provided connectivity in various refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.2 Curfews and sieges limited the work of the Across Borders Project, particularly in Gaza. In 2000, a five-year campaign concluded with the successful establishment of the .ps domain for Palestinian websites.3 The .ps domain relied on 1967 borders to make sense of the campaign for a Palestine-specific web domain, effectively reterritorializing Palestine within particular understandings of indigeneity, return, and sovereignty. Efforts to connect Gaza with internet access are hampered by power outages and Israeli providers that service Palestinian companies.4 These are a sampling of projects that leverage new media to formulate alternative Palestinian geographies to combat the segmentation of Israeli settler colonialism.
Life in Palestine, however, prompts a rebuttal of techno-utopic understanding of technology as superseding geography. Rather than facilitate the bypass of territory, communication technologies re-mediate relationships to space. For Palestinians in the West Bank, for example, new media becomes another site where dispossession is apparent through the Israel’s refusal to allow infrastructural development near the apartheid wall. Though technologies work to facilitate access and mobility by providing a platform for near-immediate communication, new media is also predicated on logics of inaccessibility and immobility. There are geographies that are connected and those that are not, geographies with access to the cloud and geographies that are transformed by submarine communications cables and server farms—though these are not mutually exclusive spaces. The tension of in/accessibility is apparent in the projects this article centers, as in the objects Aouragh and other scholars have analyzed. What I propose is not the uniqueness of the digital projects I examine here but the opportunity digital representations provide for an alternative orientation toward technology that is attentive to the implications of new media’s disavowal of space while relying on infrastructure. This contradiction of in/accessibility, I argue, extends from hardware to software, from new media to the projects that use new media as a platform to represent and grapple with the politics of alternative Palestinian geographies. These limitations of form therefore impact the politics and content of digital imaginings of Palestinian futures. Digital projects regarding Palestinian sovereignty must grapple with the central tension of advocating for geographic specificity and rootedness on a platform representative of a digital culture that advocates for undifferentiated access as it redraws lines of accessibility.
Palestine has long been centered as a field of study within American studies, ethnic studies, and postcolonial studies. For many, endorsements in 2013 by the Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association of boycott, divestment, and sanctions represented the first time Palestine entered into academic conversation. Rabab Abdulhadi and Dana M. Olwan explain the significance of Palestine to American studies beyond 2013 in the introduction to a 2015 special forum in American Quarterly:
Palestine is not a recently found node for analysis or critique in the US academy but a crystallization of radical theorizations of power, dominance, and resistance that have sharpened the field, broadening the definition of what constitutes American studies and transforming it from one that glorifies the “founding fathers,” the myth of US exceptionalism, and the American miracle, as scholarship led by Native American and Indigenous scholars show, to a space of radical critiques of US Empire and settler colonialism.5
Abdulhadi and Olwan identify settler colonialism as the hinging philosophy of both Israel and the United States. Glen Coulthard and Leanne Simpson’s formulate settler colonialism as “a structure of domination that is partly predicated on the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ lands and the forms of political authority and jurisdiction that govern our relationship to these lands.”6 While the structural formations of settler colonialism differ in either state, myths around exceptionalism and divinely mandated land annexation demonstrate that settler colonialism is also a philosophy, one that connects Israel to the United States. The roots of this connection reach even further back to the primary texts of post-colonial theory. In The Question of Palestine (1979), Edward W. Said made a case for understanding the convergence of decolonization worldwide and the Palestinian struggle, with the creation of Israel in 1948 occurring only a year after Indian independence. His seminal text Orientalism begins with an exploration of his Palestinian identity as the foundation for his thinking regarding depictions of the East.7 Several decades later, Achilles Mbembe’s essay “Necropolitics” centered the occupation of Palestine to formulate late-modern colonialism as characterized by “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.”8 Said, Mbembe, Ella Shohat, Joseph Massad, Keith Feldman, and others take Palestine as a field of inquiry.9 In doing so, these scholars remedy what Amy Kaplan identifies as a failures of critical inquiry in American studies: the absence of culture from a history of US imperialism, the absence of empire from a study of American culture, and the absence of the United States from a study of postcolonial imperialism.10 When Palestine is centered in American studies, the ways the field has historically disavowed imperialism become untenable.
The relationship between American studies and digital humanities has also been called into question. Tara McPherson declares that “we must take seriously the question, why are the digital humanities so white? but also ask why American studies is not more digital.”11 McPherson draws the history of UNIX together with the history of racial formation to make the claim that “technological formations are deeply bound up with our racial formations,” with technological modularity gaining popularity alongside covert racism and color blindness.12 Therefore, it is imperative to answer Alan Liu’s call for cultural criticism in the digital humanities, to expand the theories and methods both of digital humanities and of American studies.13 What sort of work can be done when we take seriously mundane technological objects as enacting social processes and organizing social relationships, as proposed by Herbert Marcuse?14 How can American studies and the digital humanities come together to analyze such phenomenon as the Israel Defense Forces’ murder of Omar Sajadiyya when retrieving soldiers who strayed into a refugee camp due to a Waze navigation error,15 or Facebook suspending accounts of Palestinian journalists,16 and Hewlett-Packard outsourcing software development to Palestinians for cheap labor?17 Taking together Benita Parry’s materialist approaches to postcolonial studies alongside Siegfried Zielinksi’s media archeology, for example, can provide a productive entry point to bringing American studies, postcolonial studies, and digital studies together and allowing each field to transform the other.18
In March and April 2016, AJE posted on Facebook several virtual tours of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. The compilation, titled “Inside al-Aqsa: A 360-degree walking tour of al-Aqsa on a Friday,” provides viewers a tour of the holy Islamic compound al-Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, located in the UNESCO World Heritage site Old City in East Jerusalem.
The compound is an enclosed platform, with its western portion demarcated as the Jewish holy site of the Wailing Wall. Within the compound are two hallowed buildings: the Dome of the Rock and al-Qibli mosque.19 Muslims venerate the Dome of the Rock as the site where Muhammad ascended to heaven, and Jews honor the site where Abraham sacrificed Isaac. Al-Qibli mosque is noted by Muslims as the initial direction for prayer before Mecca. The wider Old City area also houses other holy sites for the Abrahamic religions (fig. 1).
The compound has been a continuous point of strife between religious groups even before the establishment of Israel.20 According to the UN partition plan for Palestine, two states were established for Jews and Palestinians (of any religion, except Jewish Palestinians that were incorporated into the Israeli state), respectively. Jerusalem was to be administered internationally due to its religious importance. In 1948, Egypt and Jordan came to administer East Jerusalem following Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands. In 1967, Israel annexed Jerusalem, including the al-Aqsa compound. Since then, the site has been a flashpoint for violence as Israeli archeologists tunnel under the compound and increasing restrictions are placed on religious pilgrims and tourists. More recently, al-Aqsa compound has been the site of strife during the Second Intifada.
In an email interview I conducted with AJE producer Megan O’Toole (February 10, 2017), she explained that recent conflicts around the compound motivated the project:
We initially decided to work on this project after watching violence escalate in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in late 2015. Much of the violence stemmed from the conflict over access to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Considering that there have been attacks on the Aqsa grounds in the past, along with ongoing calls to partition the site, we began discussing the need to document it as it currently stands, to ensure there would be a permanent record of how Aqsa looked before any potential changes were made or damage done.
The concerns about recording Haram al-Sharif’s current layout are well founded. The Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron that has been divided between Muslims and Jews since 1994.21 Given this precedent, O’Toole’s statement indicates that preservation and access are formulated in relation to social relations. The video compilation therefore aims to preserve Haram al-Sharif by providing a record of its architecture, but also works to disseminate access to a site many cannot visit.
The AJE team used two video recording systems to film the thirty-five-acre al-Aqsa compound (fig. 2). One ultra-high-resolution video was filmed with six GoPro cameras mounted together to capture 360 degrees around the viewing point. Three additional videos filmed with Ricoh handheld cameras in 1080p tour al-Qibli mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The AJE compilation provides access to a live-action video from the perspective of the camera that films a full 360 degrees around its center point. The Facebook platform for these videos allows a user to click and scroll to choose which angle to view. Simply put, the 360-degree videos are different from other videos only in that they accommodate a wider field of view and allow the user to navigate within that view. Such 360-degree videos function differently from other virtual tours of al-Aqsa compound. Most are low-quality YouTube videos recorded by tourists walking around the compound. Jerusalem.com offers cartoon-like three-dimensional renderings of al-Aqsa compound that are accompanied by a voice-over describing various buildings. Viewers can use their cursors to orient their line of sight within the AramcoWorld magazine archive of still panoramas. These 360-degree still images are also accompanied by a voice-over description.
AJE’s 360-degree videos of al-Haram al-Sharif can be viewed on a desktop computer or on a mobile device. The desktop versions of the virtual tour require the user to click and scroll upward, downward, and to the side with a mouse. The mobile videos allow users to swipe horizontally and vertically to orient their viewpoint, but they can also navigate by panning the device around their body. The narrator in the seven-minute GoPro video speaks in British English, directing the viewer and providing historical context for various sites around the al-Aqsa compound, such as the Dome of the Rock, al-Qibli mosque, ablution fountains, and school buildings. The Ricoh videos have no voice-over narration, last only a few minutes each, and focus on the interior of al-Qibli mosque and around the Dome of the Rock. There is some overlap in the sites covered between the 4k and Ricoh videos, but the different forms of engagement required for each video mitigate the repetition between clips.
In the analysis of the AJE videos that follows, I do a close reading of camera shots, audio, and editing techniques in analyses of frames and AJE marketing to argue that the format of the 360-degree video functions to reimagine the viewer’s relationship to geography, opening up questions around accessing Palestinian land. I employ close reading to understand 360-degree technology not just as a medium for representation and communication. As Lisa Nakamura argues, technology is “more than just a framing device; interfaces function as a viewing apparatus, and in many cases they create the conditions for viewing.”22 Therefore, my analysis takes new media not as mundane and transparent but as producing logics of viewing. I take into account viewers’ embodied and racialized experiences of looking to accurately analyze virtual environments that claim to be primarily experiential rather than simply visual in nature. My analysis foregrounds my experience as a viewer to emphasize the partial nature of viewpoint (and therefore gestures to the possibility of decentering vision as the primary avenue of experience) and to open up a space for varying encounters and therefore meanings related both to the central objects and to the practice of viewing itself.
My engagement with these AJE videos—as a second-generation Pakistani American Muslim from Silicon Valley who owns a smartphone, regularly engages with new media, and probably will never see al-Aqsa in person—differs greatly from, for example, that of a Palestinian refugee in Jordan or a Christian Zionist wheelchair user in New York. The social meanings of my embodied identities affect how I interact with technology built for unmarked (normative, white, and able-bodied) audiences, and my identities and experiences determine how I feel about the videos.
I first came across the compilation on my Facebook news feed when AJE posted the videos in March 2016. When viewed on a laptop, the Ricoh videos that cover the exterior and interior of the Dome of the Rock and inside al-Qibli mosque give a sense of almost being carried by the cameraperson. My body merges with the raised arm of the videographer; I can see people looking at me as my position dissolves into that of the camera. And I have a partial view of the Dome of the Rock and other buildings as if I am looking up at the structure myself but without the affordances of peripheral vision. The Ricoh videos are shaky and in a lower resolution (fig. 3), following the videographers’ movements around the compound. Sometimes the filmmakers would interact with people around them, for example, chiding some raucous youngsters, “Ya shabaab, shabaab!” (Hey kids!). Nostalgia and yearning tugs at me, as I am taken back to childhood Friday afternoon visits to the local mosque with my father. However, a disconnect remains as the vantage point of the video is a little higher than my real-life perspective. Also, a rupture of identification occurs when I navigate sideways to see the uncannily rendered image of the filmer’s hand holding up nothingness, as the camera that cannot capture its own presence. The moments where the video fails to account for the particularities of my body or when the camera reveals itself are jarring interruptions to my engagement with the videos. These interruptions gesture to the limits of technology in suspending embodiment for objective vision and experience.
In the super-HD 4k GoPro videos, I am not being transported by the cameraperson. Rather, the video fades to different scenes that I can navigate in. The shots are wide and beautiful, with full views of buildings and landscapes (fig. 4). The bright blue sky of Jerusalem is dotted with a few clouds. White-washed stone of the al-Aqsa compound contrasts brightly. The floor of the compound gleams spotlessly. A few children run through the arches and in front of domed buildings. Lush trees line the background of shots, and in the distance the viewer can make out the traditional stone homes of East Jerusalem. If I scroll until I am facing directly below the camera, I see the black spot of the camera mount’s base, over which the editors have pasted an Al Jazeera logo. The background audio remains unmuted, though mixed so as to not interfere with the voice-over. I can hear the wind, children playing, worshippers socializing. The noises around me in real-life similarly are in the background of my perception; I can vaguely hear the sultry vocalizations of coffee shop music that reminds me of my seated body in a Washington, DC, café even as my attention is fixed on the narrator’s description of a minaret overlooking the Wailing Wall.
Watching the videos on Facebook mobile is an entirely different experience. The risk of viewing these videos incorrectly is high. Without the Facebook application, I can use a browser to access the compilation but am led to a split-screen version that simultaneously shows me three unnavigable 120-degree frames rather than a single 360-degree scene. The only way to view the video “properly” on mobile is to encounter the video on my news feed (in March 2016 as the news feed is time sensitive) or to access it under Facebook’s “saved” feature. Once the videos are properly accessed, I am required to reorient my body when using Facebook’s 360-degree video technology on a phone. Panning the device upward, downward, left, right, I feel as though I am looking through a mobile pinhole with partial view of the landmarks before me, as again my peripheral vision is limited. The first time I viewed the compilation on my mobile device, I had forgotten that I could swipe on the phone to orient myself as well as pan in various directions. As a result, I both stood and sat as I twisted around to view the scenes before me, struggling to have my body conform to the requirements of the technology. I also made sure to lock the orientation of my phone screen so my display would not be switching between landscape and portrait mode. Using my mobile phone, I found myself noticing more details of buildings in the lower-quality Ricoh videos, such as the intricacies of the calligraphy on the exterior of the Dome of the Rock. Navigation was a smoother experience in the mobile versions, so my attention was not taken up by fumbling with the Mac tracking pad, which let me focus less of my attention on the clunkiness of a technology marketed as seamless. Additionally, because my perspective aligned with that of the videographer, the experience of viewing the Ricoh videos mimicked what I imagined my movement would be like if I were actually physically in the space of al-Haram al-Sharif, shaking with each step rather than fixed and panning smoothly. I noticed that the mobile video’s interpellation of my body made the process more involved. For example, if I raised my iPhone and angled it toward my apartment ceiling, I could see the top of the Dome of the Rock as if I stood before it. However, the contrast between viewing the compilation on a four-inch phone screen and a thirteen-inch laptop screen resulted in vastly different visual fields.
The AJE virtual tour of al-Aqsa interpellates my body differently than panoramic stills or animated renderings of the compound. The 360-degree video as a form functions in a manner opposite to kinetosis or motion sickness; the viewer’s body is at rest, but the aim is for visually perceived movement to mimic the “real” experience of navigating al-Aqsa. AJE, in contrast, does not want its viewers to feel as though they are in the space of al-Aqsa, because being at the compound also entails interrogations and restricted access. Only Muslims are allowed at the mosque within the compound, except during specific visiting times. They are screened by Israeli authorities that often have a less-than-thorough knowledge of Islam. Tourists have reported easily routing around the Muslim requirement by memorizing a short chapter from the Qur’an or donning a hijab.23 Other forms of restriction target Palestinians specifically. Often, Palestinian men under age forty are not allowed in the compound. Access is regularly limited to Palestinian residents of the immediate areas surrounding al-Aqsa.24 Israeli officials have also banned individual East Jerusalem residents from entering the compound for weeks at a time.25 Metal detectors manned by Israeli soldiers have also been installed at entrances and throughout East Jerusalem as of October 2015.26 Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel are allowed limited movement through identification documents, checkpoints, Jewish-only roads, and blockades. An additional making-of article posted on the AJE website describes the news site’s motivation for the project: “By virtue of its location in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem, al-Aqsa Mosque compound is not accessible to all who may wish to visit. With this in mind, Al Jazeera decided to create a virtual tour that would allow viewers to explore the compound through a high-definition, online experience.”27 AJE poses the terms explore, high definition, and experience against the inaccessibility of al-Aqsa. Generally, these terms are used by companies promoting 360-degree video or virtual reality. However, within the context of Israeli occupation, the valences of these terms shift away from naive and aspirational. Visiting the compound “in real life” would involve the possibility of detention and strip search at Ben Gurion Airport or the Allenby crossing, Israel Defense Force raids on worshippers, and settler violence. The AJE compilation, however, circumvents the real by not including these experiences. In this way, the compilation is unlike other 360-degree videos that aim for authenticity.
The compilation mixes genres of experiential marketing and video documentary, aspiring to provide access to a site where change across time is centered as a concern alongside restricted access to movement. AJE’s compilation archives a particular moment within the history of al-Aqsa, a peaceful day sometime in spring 2016 to be replayed across media devices again and again. Digital curation and circulation render the compound as historic artifact, belonging to the past, even as the snapshot of 2016 al-Aqsa is theoretically documented as record beyond the moment of digital recording. While a photograph might freeze time within the camera’s frame, a 360-degree video allows viewers to repeat time. The same picturesque Friday can be viewed again and again (until technological obsolescence). The repetition of this calm afternoon functions as a utopic longing for Palestine to continue to exist in this peaceful moment. However, the threat of conflict looms for the producers and the viewers in the disconnect between the viewers’ knowledge that the captured moments do not continue indefinitely even and their capability to replay the videos.
In these videos of al-Aqsa compound, the space is represented as both navigable and inaccessible. I can move into al-Qibli mosque and around the Dome of the Rock as a digital, disembodied, and unmarked subject, safe from Israeli restriction of movement. I am able to tour the buildings and landscape without interruption. However, because my point of view is fixed as the center point of the camera, unlike in a virtual environment, where I can move through the compound at my own velocity, my access to al-Haram al-Sharif is limited. By virtue of the technology used to film the site, I am reminded of the limits of my digital presence, of my physical distance from the space of al-Aqsa. This distance is largely the reason for my desire to view AJE’s videos besides the novelty of interacting with the software, as I imagine I would not be compelled to view the compilation if I could easily venture to al-Aqsa compound myself. Distance or inaccessibility predicates mediation, defined by Eugene Thacker as “those moments when one communicates with or connects to that which is, by definition, inaccessible.”28 The technology works by allowing me to be somewhere I cannot be. AJE’s compilation provides an intimate experience that is coconstituted by the knowledge that one is not actually inside the compound, whether because of distance or Israeli restriction. The videos work against Israel’s differentially disseminated access to movement and space; viewing the compilation functions as an intimate experience only because of Israeli occupation. Therefore, al-Haram al-Sharif is simultaneously opened and blocked from me, leaving disconnect and rupture in my identification with the space of the compound.
Witnessing al-Aqsa compound in the vacuum of a single peaceful Friday also reveals normalizing logics of recognition. My identification with al-Aqsa is in part predicated on my identity as a Muslim. AJE’s videos draw a global Muslim audience by centering a religious site on a holy day (Friday). In doing so, the videos fall within religion-based understandings of Israeli occupation. Al-Aqsa is leveraged as synecdoche for Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Palestine itself; the compound acts as a stand-in for and apex of Israeli apartheid, the site where Palestinian/Muslim identity is most threatened. The tension between virtual accessibility and geographic inaccessibility, therefore, is centered first on Muslim identity and second on Palestinian indigeneity in the AJE videos.29 The choice of site reinforces religion-based understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in some ways obfuscating the mechanisms of Israeli settler colonialism.
The medium attempts to recast viewers’ orientation to Jerusalem. In an email interview I conducted with the AJE producer, O’Toole explains that the response to the videos, viewed over a million times, has been “phenomenal,” as Palestinians in diaspora and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have written in to AJE the producers praising the compilation for allowing access to a site many Palestinians cannot travel to. At the same time, access to these videos is fraught. Digital consumption is determined by infrastructure, and infrastructure in Palestine is determined by Israeli policy.30 The development of ICT in the OPT is subject to cyber-colonialism, a term coined by Helga Tawil-Souri and Miriyam Aouragh to refer to the role of the digital in “reinforc[ing] a world of contact and influence between radically asymmetrical powers.”31 The territorial fragmentation of post-Oslo Palestine resulted in an infrastructure dependent on Israeli networks. The Palestinian Ministry of Tele communications and Information Technology argues that Israel polices and occupies Palestinian ICT by refusing Palestinian access to frequencies, preventing the installation of infrastructure along the apartheid wall, and regular interruption of radio and television operations.32 Additionally, the costs of going online for Palestinians is relatively high; in 2010, low-bandwidth dial-up access in the West Bank cost $10–20 per month, while the average Palestinian wage was an estimated $120 per month.33 Palestinians living in refugee camps also face financial and infrastructural barriers to reliable internet access.34 Therefore, within the context of colonialism, the flow of information from Qatar-based AJE to Palestinians in the OPT and diaspora is interrupted and fraught.
The genre of the AJE videos gestures to a reformulation of access to al-Aqsa compound. In the context of a Western audience, the 360-degree videos function alongside other virtual tours such as Popular Science’s 360-degree film of Times Square or Visit Dubai’s 360-degree tour of the city.35 The subset of 360-degree tour videos within the entertainment genre follows the format of a guided walking tour, with narrators explaining sites and sounds of various locales. These tours bring new-media formats to the long history of US and European bourgeois travel. Like colonial travelogues, virtual travel acts as what James Clifford identifies as cultural comparison, recalling colonial ethnographers’ fieldwork studies of native Others.36 For example, below is a section from Face-book engineering director Maher Saba’s announcement of the platform’s 360-degree video rollout:
Our goal at Facebook is to connect you with the people and things that matter, every single day. . . . In the future, imagine watching 360 videos of a friend’s vacation to a small village in France or a festival in Brazil—you’ll be able to look around and experience it as if you were there. . . . It’s early days, but we’re excited about the possibilities for 360 video and hope it helps people explore the world in new, immersive ways.37
Saba’s statement indicates to the ways new-media formats liberate the genres of bourgeois travel and colonial ethnography by disseminating access to faraway locales. Experiencing the colonized and their geography, a luxury of the wealthy, anthropologists, soldiers, and colonial officers, becomes accessible to those without the means to travel. However, new media redraws and recreates lines of privilege based on access to ICT infrastructure; only those with the ability to stream in high quality can enjoy the 360-degree videos that give glimpses into French villages and Brazilian festivals. The tension of in/accessibility is disavowed in techno-utopian narratives about new media as seen in Saba’s statement.
Saba’s account also gestures to the mythology of liberatory disembodiment supposedly facilitated by new media. The myth finds its force in multiculturalist assimilation models of liberation that gained popularity since the 1990s, temporally correlated to the development of the World Wide Web. While Saba does not explicitly embrace disembodiment, he implies that vision and perspective are technological capabilities that are transferrable, objective; you can experience a friend’s trip as if you were there yourself. The perspective of the camera, a version of the videographer’s viewpoint, becomes an access point for the scene. Theoretically, anyone can visit that small village in France or experience a festival in Brazil. However, a disability studies understanding of access centers embodiment and power to illustrate that perspective is always partial, situated, and subjective.
The problematic of access gestures to the limits of understanding immersion as prompting identification with a subject. Immersion refers to the category of highly visual absorption. The state of mental concentration is a determining factor in the authenticity of virtual presence and experience. Immersion is generally used to describe developer intentions and does not have any agreed-on components. At the same time, the term is deployed as an objective category evacuated of concerns around embodiment, engagement, and interpellation. Media theorist Kara Keeling thinks through immersion and identification as engagement with a medium that requires particular modes of viewing and knowing that users consent to at a bodily level.38 Viewers’ interaction with an object is formulated by the way they inhabit their body. The infrastructure of 360-degree videos assumes that I can disengage from my body, that the suspension of disbelief needed to identify with the perspective of the camera is one merely of removing myself from my embodied identities. It assumes that I have access to this seemingly transferrable, disembodied, objective perspective that is the imagined property of universalized normative bodies.
While the genre of the 360-degree videos functions as a techno-utopian gesture to global interconnectedness predicated on disembodiment, the AJE videos do attempt to call attention to embodied identity. The videos only briefly mention the lack of access to al-Haram al-Sharif the producers work against. The videos are paired with an article titled “Who Are the Guardians of al-Aqsa?,” a piece that provides interview material from Palestinians who are prevented from setting foot in the compound due to Israeli restrictions.39 The juxtaposition between the cold gaze of the camera and the viewer’s knowledge that said viewpoint is inaccessible works on two levels: first, digital access in the form of global tourism videos functions as a normalizing process for occupation by providing select populations a glimpse into a site that Palestinians cannot access, reproducing the logics of selective accessibility apparent in Israeli colonialism; and second, the tension between virtual access and geographical inaccessibility gestures to the process of Palestinian racialization. Simply put, the technical perspective of the camera brings to light that disembodiment is the only way many populations like Palestinians in diaspora can access al-Haram al-Sharif.40 The compilation turns immersion inward, revealing the contradictions of the concept to illustrate the inaccessibility both of al-Haram al-Sharif and of disembodied, objective, transferrable vision. The serene scene offered in the wide, beautiful shots acts as a present, attainable utopia within the grasp of the viewer. The videos borrow the form of Orientalist panoramic detail that implies rational, universal vision in its alienated, expansive, and elevated perspective.41 This panoramic vision that is possible only virtually alludes to the impossibility of apolitical access to Palestine, laterally gesturing to the Israeli-induced urgency of preserving and disseminating access to al-Aqsa.
The second set of objects in this inquiry is titled Udna, or “we return” in Arabic, a project created through the collaboration of various Palestinian organizations in Israel proper: the Arab Association for Human Rights, the Association for the Defense of the Rights for the Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel, Baladna Arab Youth Association, and Israeli ally group Zochrot. The project addresses the practicalities of the Palestinian right of return, delineated by UN General Assembly Resolution 194, adopted in December 1948: “Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” The right of return is a central point of contention between Palestinians and Israel. For example, Israeli and US delegates at the 1991 Madrid Conference demanded the exclusion of all reference to UN Resolution 194 in the proceedings.42 Additionally, Israeli government officials have expressed concern that the right of return poses a “demographic threat,” an “impossible fantasy” that would allow 11.6 million Palestinians to live in a land occupied by just 6 million Jewish Israelis, in the words of Benjamin Netanyahu.43 While many debate the feasibility of the right of return, Udna project members aim to take tangible steps toward the seemingly impossible resolution to Israeli colonialism.
The project began in 2012, and members participated in various seminars, including a tour of the ethnically cleansed village Ma’alul and city Tabariyyah (Tiberias). Following the tours, the sixty participants developed and workshopped models for returning to the two locations. The organizations also provided oral history training and historical lessons on the Nakba, or 1948 Catastrophe of ethnic cleansing. Then participants were divided into eight groups with third-and fourth-generation descendants from the destroyed villages of Iqrit, Safuriyya, Mi’ar, Ma’alul, al-Lajjun, al-Birwa, al-Ghabisiyya, and al-Majdal/Asqalan. The groups worked with generations of internal refugees from each town to create models for return. The projects were presented at a culminating event in an-Nasira (Nazareth) and at the third International Conference on the Return of Palestinian Refugees in al-Shaykh Muwannis (Tel Aviv). The projects and culminating events worked toward building an inter-generational community that facilitates the continued struggle for Palestinian return. Haifa-based Baladna director Nadim Nashef explained, “The combined activities of these villages during the summer of 2013 represent the most significant movement in the struggle for return since the years following the Nakba. . . . The youth’s energy, enthusiasm and innovative approaches, has resulted in a grassroots, youth-led movement unprecedented in the history of activism for the right to return.”44 While the project groups focused their efforts on local internally displaced Palestinians, the collaboration of the various organizations involved in Udna facilitate the circulation of Udna initiatives beyond each community. Many of the Udna groups received international attention for their work. In January 2016, independent media nongovernmental organization Israel Social TV released several Hebrew-narrated video interviews of Udna project members. The al-Ghabisiyya model was featured in the Israeli online publication +972 Magazine.45 A Haaretz article headlined the al-Lajjun project with the title “A Utopian Arab City in Israel? Turn Left at Route 65.”46 Al Jazeera Arabic posted excerpts from the al-Lajjun model on its YouTube channel,47 and its English-language counterpart featured the Udna group from Iqrit.48 While available on various platforms for a potentially wide audience, the Udna videos are also disseminated through community events in the West Bank and are primarily for circulation within the local displaced Palestinian communities.
The groups used a variety of media for their projects. Notably, the Udna Ghabsiyya and Iqrit groups participated in return by hosting summer camps in each village, inspiring community members from Kufr Birim to do the same. The Iqrit members moved into the village’s abandoned Roman Catholic church, remaining despite the destruction of property and threat of eviction from the Israel Land Authority. Three of the Udna projects used three-dimensional virtual modeling to reimagine the right of return as reality. Udna al-Ghabisiyya and al-Lajjun are presented on Israel Social TV in two separate videos: the first features the three-dimensional models of each respective village, and another presents oral history accounts from elders and reflections from second-and third-generation refugees. This section of the essay centers on the work of Udna Mi’ar, the only group whose oral history research, interview footage of village descendants, and visualizations of Mi’ar are presented in one video on the Zochrot and Israel Social TV websites.
While I present arguments in this section that could feature other Udna initiatives, I find the synthesis of elements in Udna Mi’ar’s work as most demonstrative of Palestinian activists’ use of animation software and cross-genre media production. Oral history and digital animation are paired seamlessly in a project of decolonial futurity, defined by Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua and Noenoe Silva as an orientation that decenters “formal processes for decolonization under international law but instead aims higher to imagine and enact transformation beyond states and capitalism.”49 The Udna video provides a plan for Mi’ar’s future that is imagined as an intergenerational reclamation of land, but also practices of healing and remembrance from decades of Israeli occupation. Udna Mi’ar provides an understanding of access that is not limited to geography. Instead, the group imagines accessibility in relation to cultural identity and history.
The Udna Mi’ar video begins with a young woman vocalizing mournfully as the video cuts to different scenes: a lone tree in a field of brown shrubbery, large trees planted in the dirt, stone rubble from a building amongst spiky desert plants. The camera passes over a plot of land with rubble and dead plants covering the earth to an elder wearing a suit and ghutrah sitting on a stone. The music pauses, and the man introduces himself as Ahmed Hussein Abdul Hadi Shahadeh, born in 1933 and living in Mi’ar until the Nakba. Shahadeh and another interviewee, poet Yousef Saeda, recount the village’s ethnic cleansing in 1948 as a black-and-white photo collage accompanies the narration; Israeli brigades massacred forty residents and destroyed many homes, and then again a month later when Israeli troops expelled the rest of the villagers.
Produced by Baladna, the video features Arabic-language interview footage and shots of the land where the village once stood.50 As the history of Mi’ar is told, the landscape is superimposed with digitally rendered buildings. “Here was the mosque, and there was a big yard in front of the mosque. Over here was the door,” Shahadeh explains to a young Udna Mi’ar member, Shadi Akri. He gestures to rubble on the ground as the adhan, Islamic call to prayer, plays over his recollections. The camera then faces away from the two to the clear blue sky and brown and green desert shrubbery. The adhan continues as bright green bushes, stairs, gray stone walls, and a minaret materialize. Trees grow from saplings to lush verdure. Birds soar in the distance. The accompanying narration seems to contextualize the digital rendering as a representation of Mi’ar’s past. However, the gradual fading in of the building and the shrubbery’s accelerated growth also implies that the animation displays a time lapse of Mi’ar’s future construction. Rather than featuring a time lapse of the destruction of Mi’ar, the superimposition of buildings blurs the timeline of Mi’ar’s existence. The virtual rendering allows the Mi’ar mosque to be represented past its material life but also imagines a tangible future that circumvents the material and political limitations of Palestinians seeking return. The structure appears digitally despite Israeli blockade and occupation, despite Palestinian unemployment and poverty. The digitally rendered buildings (fig. 5), provide testimony to both Mi’ar’s Palestinian past and its Palestinian future.
However, the Udna members preface the projects as not utopian, wishful, or acts of mourning. The genre of the Udna Mi’ar video lends itself to this claim. The digital renderings mimic the genre of construction project proposals. Unlike other media such as watercolor paintings or sketch drawings, the digital renderings shy away from artistic imaginings to insist on the practicality of the group’s plan for return. The proposal genre asserts that decolonial futurity is not just a wish, that decolonization is not a metaphor.51 “Hopefully we will return”—participant Najwan Taha’s wistful statement is paired against Akri’s pitch: “We expect the number of inhabitants to be about nine to ten thousand while the village numbered a thousand in 1948. In my opinion this village will be unique because of its great location with its view over the coastal area.” The video juxtaposes the melancholy of collective memory that is inscribed into the space of Mi’ar in oral history testimony against a sort of construction bid for Mi’ar. The Udna Mi’ar group insists on the importance of memory to the practicalities of return.
The multigenre video practices what Faranak Miraftab calls insurgent planning: a communal practice that elides the neutralizing forces of inclusion by centering historicized consciousness as anticolonial praxis.52 Rather than advocating for equal inclusion of Palestinians in Israeli nation building, Udna Mi’ar makes the case for centering memory and situatedness in planning practices. Like the al-Ghabisiyya and al-Lajjun simulations, the structures in virtual Mi’ar feature neotraditional architecture, blending the aesthetics of 1948 with the sleekness of modern architecture “to soften the shock of returning to a completely foreign place.”53 The school buildings virtually reconstructed by Udna Mi’ar feature ivy-covered glass-paneled walls, and the residences feature brightly colored multistory units with steel staircases and balconies. The architecture becomes what Eyal Weizman defines as forensic architecture, “a mode of public address, a way of articulating political claims” that is attentive to aesthetics as the way things relate to other things.54 The buildings do not mimic Israeli settlement high rises or Spanish-style suburban single-family homes with red-tiled roofs that sit atop hills. For Mi’ar refugees modern construction does not mean development in the image of colonial (post)modernity. Rather, the architectural details in the Mi’ar videos make the claim of Palestinian futurity that is attentive to the village’s history. As Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, “The peasant as citizen keeps looking like a relic of another time, although we know that he belongs squarely to the same present as that of the modern citizen. The challenge is to reconceptualize the present.”55 Similarly, the temporality of the refugee is characterized by segmented, repetitive, scattered, and continuous waiting for return. The circularity of waiting contrasts against development and planning’s narrative of teleology, of striving toward and achieving modernity. As Eric Tang argues, the temporality of the refugee contrasts with the liberal expectation of an event—for Tang’s interlocutor, the crossing of a border—as a moment of liberation.56 Rather, the movement and temporality of the refugee are mundane and repetitive, lacking a transfigurative moment that understands trauma as teleological, as leading to the moment of liberation that ends refugee time’s circularity.
Instead, the Udna Mi’ar members display the present, the current landscape of a destroyed Mi’ar and the enduringness of trauma from 1948, as inseparable from the past narrated in Shahadeh’s oral history testimony. The past and present are then displayed alongside the future, as secondary schools and parks are digitally rendered onto today’s landscape with narratives voiced over the scene. The trauma specific to Mi’ar’s geography is memorialized in the digitally rendered architecture through public art and architecture, such as a sculpture of a key in the city square that represents the right of return. Baladna director Nadim Nashef explains the centrality of memory to Udna’s efforts: “Far from forgetting their roots and historical injustices, the latest generation of Palestinians inside Israel are showing their dedication to their right of return.”57 The future of Palestine is inextricable from its past, as evidenced by the oral history used to plan a vision of Mi’ar’s future.
Just as the Udna group members provide testimony in the forms of oral history and urban planning, the buildings imagined as part of Mi’ar’s future provide testimony. Weizman explains that objects “articulat[e] public and political claims for justice that are grounded in the material, built-up world.”58 This object-oriented testimony is a form of historical method, “asking what is necessary to know and show in order to tell history today.”59 The digitally rendered structures also provide testimony, accompanying the Palestinian elders that relay their stories. The stone debris scattered through the village testifies to Palestinian rootedness and Israeli violence. The neo-orientalist building aesthetics reference Palestinian indigeneity but relate to the environment that has been changed through Israeli settler colonialism.
If we understand access as intimately tied to political power and infrastructure, we can see that a building can facilitate empowerment just as aesthetics and built structures can facilitate disempowerment and inaccessibility. These planned future Palestinian homes are built in the image of traditional Palestinian homes, demonstrating that return is not just about having access to land. Rather, return implies access to Palestinian identity and history. This access comes in the forms of proximity to ancestral land as well as expression of Palestinian indigenous identity. Therefore, the aesthetics of these planned buildings provide a way to relate to and access Palestinian identity across temporalities.
However, the future imagined in the Udna Mi’ar video is not determined by Israeli systemic disenfranchisement of Palestinian refugees.60 The video does not frame waiting for return as a utopian longing, a melancholic mourning, or an inactive state of compliancy. Rather, the precarity and indeterminacy of waiting are partially circumvented through the digital animation. The medium is leveraged for community building across multiple generations of displaced Mi’ar Palestinians that argue for memory and identity persisting beyond the expelled generation. The imaginings of Udna Mi’ar reflect the politics of a subset of Mi’ar refugees, given that the group comprises internally displaced Palestinians. Therefore, the virtual rendering of one imagined future acts as a continuation and catalyst of additional conversation regarding return. As sovereignty continues to be withheld and deferred from Palestinians, the Mi’ar video counteracts hopelessness through an almost tangible rendering of Mi’ar’s future.
The larger Udna project’s segmentation in imagining return is notable in that refugees did not come together to reconceptualize Palestine as a whole. The group’s separate projects do not aim to normalize the segmenting force of Israeli occupation. Rather, the small groups specific to each destroyed village indicate attentiveness to the significance of space that those who decry the right of return dismiss. Orientalist and Zionist thought flattens the significance of space.61 The discourse of Zionist colonialism empties Palestine of significance to its native peoples, prefacing arguments that Palestinians can live in other Arab lands, including nearby Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. “I am an Arab Palestinian from Mi’ar, the land where my ancestors are buried,” Shahadeh narrates over shots of Mi’ar second-and third-generation refugees. “My slogan: za’tar spice, bread, and oil. On my land it is farmed.”
The specificity of place in each Udna video recalls Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s call for a mode of representation to reorder the Zionist imaginary.62 The partitioning of Palestinian lands is not undone but reoriented, “deploy[ing] hybrid, broken, fragmentary forms to rein-scribe a Palestinian presence on the map.”63 The practice of mapping segmented Palestine is a communal one. While the AJE videos are meant to be viewed individually and therefore reassert infrastructural development of ICT as predicating access, the various screening events of Udna videos (in each village, al-Nasira, and Shaykh al-Muwannis, as mentioned before) formulate experiencing and accessing Palestine as a collective and community-building practice. Individualizing access imagines proliferation as the antidote to differential access. However, communalizing access and experience allows for specificity to be reasserted. The video serves to preserve memory and act as a tool in creating a realizable future, as it is used to foment collective organizing for return as a practical project.
The multimedia, mixed-methods projects of Udna include Mi’ar’s community video screenings of oral history accounts, Iqrit’s illegal dwelling in the last standing building of the town, and al-Lajjun’s musical and poetry performances. Together, Udna projects envision decolonial fugitive future but also a pragmatic, grassroots, immediate plan to achieve that future. Israeli settler colonialism is framed as a mere roadblock rather than an insurmountable obstacle to Palestinian sovereignty. This is not to say the Udna projects disregard the reality of Israeli colonialism. Rather, the rhetorical immensity of occupation is bypassed in these representations and initiatives. Destroyed Palestinian towns are reframed as accessible. In the animated renderings of Mi’ar, walls become surmountable. In the return to Iqrit, a depopulated village homes local youth. Return to Palestine is both a virtual, imagined future and a planned, substantive present.
The title of this article, “Postspatial, Postcolonial: Accessing Palestine in the Digital,” draws from liberatory rhetoric that paints digital networks as accelerating the obsolescence of borders. Fred Turner explains that, in light of the 1980s US culture wars, New Communalists popularized a political consciousness that rejected direct action and instead looked to techno-utopian solutions to the decade’s havoc.64 The vocabulary developed by this cultural formation invested in collaboration, characterizing people as bits of data networked in a global village. However, as internet access is predicated on infrastructure, socioeconomic divides along racial, ethnic, and national lines are reified through the very technology imagined to undo these divides. Additionally, while technologies erode the sovereignty of nation-states, such as in the domino-like effect of protests during the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa that began in 2010, states develop modes of control to reassert the boundaries of the nation. The network has been redeployed to combat the very threats it poses to the sovereignty of the nation-state, as exemplified by the military doctrine of “network-centric warfare.” As Turner writes, the internet’s roots in US-military-developed ARPANET signal the salience of nation, borders, and space that the global village disavows.
The article title also riffs on the forgetfulness practiced by imperialist nations in the postwar era, a forgetfulness that works to redirect blame for poverty in the global South away from a history of colonization. Postcolonial studies scholars assert that the liberation of occupied nations means not the end of colonialism but the development of new iterations of subjugation.
Therefore, I bring together the myths of postspatiality and postcolo-niality to think through the affordances and limitations of digital activist representations of Palestine. Centering new media in this theorization furthers postcolonial studies’ assertion of the continued importance of space even as capitalist alienation present in techno-utopianism occludes and disaggregates materiality from virtuality. The force of AJE’s and Udna’s videos is not the virtual nature of access, nor is it the discarding of geography’s importance. Rather, the virtual—already dependent on the material—calls for a reimagining of the material. These videos reemphasize the specificity of space and indicate the ways new media facilitates understandings of space through in/access.
In these new-media projects, the virtual is used to gesture to an imagined Palestine that territorial fragmentation occludes. My reading of AJE and Udna advocates for not disembodiment and a lack of fixity but, rather, the centrality of space both to digital networks and to fugitive futurity. As Christian Sandvig argues, “The internet was celebrated by referring to the possibility of placelessness. . . . The state of indigeneity, in contrast, is a continual assertion of place and an affirmation of identity.”65 The concept of access indicates mediation is the central feature of dispossession. Both new media cultures and settler colonialism aim to circumvent spatial specificity. While leveraging the language of neutralizing difference for the aim of inclusion, both new media and settler colonialism reframe universal access as liberatory. Returning to Coulthard and Simpson’s theorization of settler colonialism as entailing “forms of political authority and jurisdiction that govern [Indigenous] relationship to these lands,”66 we can see the intervention of an alien authority within the context of Israeli settler colonialism. Israeli authority structures the relationship between Palestinians and Jerusalem and the 1948 destroyed villages. Drawing attention to this mediation hence draws attention to geographical inaccessibility, and therefore to the continued importance of space to decolonial imaginaries. In thinking of dispossession and mediation in conversation with one another, we can highlight the concepts of access and loss as a through line. The loss experienced because of Israeli colonialism gestures to the possibility of access. This access is not the universalizing access of popular computing culture but access as a politics of nonnormalizing integration of difference, a politics of anticolonial memory, and a politics of future-oriented decolonial practices.
In sum, this article centers the content and form of new-media projects that reimagine access in order to envision decolonial futurity. The central tension identified for these digital projects is between (a) the projects’ advocacy of geographic specificity as central to Palestinian sovereignty contrasted and (b) digital culture’s aim of surpassing space for undifferentiated access in a networked global village even as information communication technologies rely on the transformation of space through infrastructure, including towers and cables. This problematic of in/accessibility highlights the importance of geography, embodiment, situatedness, and memory to Palestinian futures.
For more works that center Palestine, see Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine; Massad, “The ‘Post-Colonial’ Colony”; and Shohat, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements.
Parry, Postcolonial Studies; and Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media.
The location filmed for the AJE videos is Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount, a compound that houses al-Qibli mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Al-Qibli mosque is also colloquially called al-Aqsa mosque. The entire compound is also often referred to as al-Aqsa. For continuity, this article refers to the entire compound as al-Aqsa compound or Haram al-Sharif, and al-Qibli mosque and the Dome of the Rock as structures within this compound.
For more information on preservation within the context of Palestine as it relates to Islamic sites, see Davis, “Conserving ‘The Ottoman(s).’ ”
AJE’s choice to create this compilation for its English-language platform also indicates the videos’ alignment with tourism as a genre. The audience can be understood as primarily a Muslim international one that is invested in seeing a holy site. We can also understand the audience as the wider international community interested in Palestinian rights or Islamic architecture, perhaps from the global North particularly, as the video is not limited to or inclusive of Arabic speakers. Lastly, O’Toole’s interview highlights the response of Palestinians in the OPT and in diaspora, demonstrating the producers’ investment in a Palestinian audience for the compilation. In sum, the question of audience complicates the genre of the AJE videos and their purpose. The recasting of space and geography as accessible within the context of Palestine, however, gestures to the future-oriented decolonial ethos of the project.
For an extended inquiry into architecture, memory, and trauma, see Tumarkin, Traumascapes.