Review rating: 4/5
Fredrik Meiton approaches the Zionist colonisation of Palestine from an industrialisation angle in his book "Electrical Palestine. Capital and technology from Empire to Nation" (University of California Press, 2019). The study traces the plans of Pinhas Rutenberg to electrify Palestine and how the implementation of these plans played upon a purportedly non-political project to endorse and justify the formation of a colonial Jewish state in Palestine.
Rutenberg, a committed Zionist, is described by the author as having laid the infrastructure foundations for Israel. Planned since 1919, the laying of the grid in Palestine was the first step towards urbanisation which elicited different reactions from the Jewish settler-communities and the Palestinians; the latter coined the slogan "Rutenberg's lampposts are the gallows of our nation."
Combining history and analysis, Meiton makes the point that the 1917 Balfour Declaration necessitated tangible implementation in order to determine the outcome of the 1948 Nakba. The dispossession of Palestinians is therefore discussed as a result of capitalist and technological development which in turn shaped societal dynamics and contributed to the first manifestations of inequality between Jewish settlers and the indigenous Palestinians.
"To many Palestinian Arabs," writes Meiton, "electricity had not only technological properties but also political ones: whatever else electricity was, in the context of Rutenberg's monopoly network, it was also Zionist."
To this effect, the author acknowledges Rutenberg's efforts to merge Zionism and electrification with campaigns in Europe that focused upon the colonial approach to land as "undeveloped estates and estates which can never be developed without imperial assistance." By focusing on development, the British Foreign Office, which was in agreement with Rutenberg's plans, was able to support the colonisation of Palestine from a "constructive imperialism" framework, although its benefits would be largely directed towards the Jewish settler communities.
As the settler population increased in accordance with the building of the electricity grid, Winston Churchill defended Rutenberg's project by eliminating the political implications, stating that electrification would, "without injustice to a single individual, without taking away one scrap of what was there before, would endow the whole country with the assurance of a greater prosperity and the means of a higher economic and social life."
Meiton claims that Rutenberg's project allowed the British to claim "a neutral posture in Palestine." This must be seen against the unfolding backdrop of the opposition of the Palestinian masses to the grid and how Rutenberg, in collaboration with the British, separated politics from technology to limit the effects of Palestinian resistance against this colonial project. Jaffa's population is identified as the centre of resistance; its residents refused the grid due to it being "prejudicial to their national and political rights."
However, with settler colonisation increasing in order to continue the electrification project, Palestinian claims became sidelined through the emphasis on technology and development, which was the premise utilised throughout the stages from plans to implementation of the grid.
The author also shows how the colonisation of Palestine, which is generally tackled from the historical and collective memory approach, was rooted in premeditated discriminatory language which differentiated between Jews and "non-Jews". This was not isolated rhetoric; the electricity grid, distribution and consumption was heavily in favour of the Jewish settler colonies. Meiton mentions how Palestinians were deprived of functional irrigation systems until the end of the British Mandate, while electrical power gave rise to agricultural development in Jewish settlements.
Electricity, therefore, became a source of ethnic discrimination. "While these political dimensions of the allegedly apolitical power system became more visible, the power company intensified its efforts to minimise its political profile, an endeavour with its own messy politics," says the author.
In discussing the UN Partition Plan of 1947, Meiton shows how the grid determined border delineation. Under the pretence of prioritising economics separately from politics, it was decided to adjust the borders "so as to keep all high tension mains on Jewish territory."
From this space, Meiton argues, it is possible to view the electrical grid as setting the foundations for "a Jewish national space, a frame for Jewish-Arab relations and a powerful model of economic development."
The book brings to the fore the capitalist enterprise upon which it was possible to colonise Palestine politically, economically and socially. Colonisation is a rationalised argument bringing together these three factors at the expense of the indigenous population and, as Meiton shows, it does not happen solely on an ideological framework. Ideology necessitates a practical implementation that can be manipulated according to the exigencies of the colonial power and its associates.
For Palestinians, explains Meiton, the struggle against their territory's electrification suffered against this combination. While Palestinians viewed their struggle in purely political terms, Zionism had managed to lobby different actors to support its project and thus contribute to diverting the focus away from politics to economics. This was a form of politics in its own right; he describes it as "a technocapitalist programme whose root metaphors were of a piece with Britain's colonial vision."
Meiton also makes the point that the planned inequality leading to colonisation had existed since the drafting of the Balfour Declaration. British depictions of Palestinians were in concordance with Zionist planning and aspirations. Prior to 1948, Jewish settlers were availing themselves of 90 per cent of the generated electricity, a fact to be taken into consideration when analysing the colonial process through an infrastructure and development lens.
The book shows clearly how the promotion of purported neutrality was instrumental in facilitating the colonisation of Palestine. Uneven development is a consistent theme throughout, made all the more visible by Meiton's analysis of the motives behind the ideology, with the latter usually taking precedence in research. More importantly, it clearly identifies other complexities which Palestinian resistance found itself up against; the Zionist attempts to manipulate politics and economy into distinct categories is a crucial point which also contributed to inequality manifesting itself in the dynamics of Palestinian anti-colonial struggle.