“Debt is about borrowing in the present and repaying in the future. In both cases it is the future that is at stake when debt is thought about as a political problem.” Christopher Harker’s ethnographic study “Spacing Debt: Obligations, Violence, and Endurance in Ramallah, Palestine” takes an in-depth look at how Palestinians living the daily consequences of Israeli colonialism, colonial violence and military occupation navigate the constraints of debt and its impact in terms of perpetual social crisis.
While the book focuses on debt in Ramallah from 2008 onwards, the author gives a detailed chronology of debt throughout Palestinian history starting with the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate in terms of the Palestinian people’s dispossession from their land. It is through mentioning the 1948 Nakba, during which 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their land, that Harker notes how Ramallah was affected in terms of demography due to the influx of Palestinian refugees which paved the way for its transformation into the current city. Despite its prominence, both politically and economically as a result of the illusory state-building that the PA and the international community promotes, Ramallah is indebted to other cities for its basic needs.
Post 1967, the author notes that Israeli settlement expansion was a tactic to prevent Palestinians from ever claiming sovereignty, while the Oslo Accords further entrenched Israel’s colonial expansion and military occupation, forcing Palestinians into perpetual dependency under the banner of economic peace. The altered landscape due to settlement expansion, land theft and barriers for Palestinians exacerbated deprivation for the people, while the 1994 Paris Protocol determined Israel’s absolute control over Palestinian imports and exports. While the occupied West Bank, through the Palestinian Authority (PA) garnered the semblance of prosperity, the increased humanitarian aid and domination of international donors contributed to the subsidising of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine.
Harker explains debt in terms of “the Israeli state as the primary colonial force shaping Palestinian life and land, the would-be nation-state of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and international donors.” Furthermore, the influence Israel’s colonial expansion and settlements is also evident in Ramallah’s own web of exploitation, bureaucracy and urban planning; the latter pointed out by Harker through the example of Al Reehan on the outskirts of Ramallah and which mimics Israeli settlement buildings, described in the book as embodying “the colonizer’s vision of an economic peace.”
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Within this political context, Palestinians are continually striving to make a life of their own, perpetually intertwined with the realities of debt. Harker’s interviews with Palestinians living in Ramallah and Um al Sharayet illustrate how ensnared the people are in their need to survive, and how this affects social and economic relations. Taking out loans from banks renders Palestinians susceptible to further poverty, while the financial institutions themselves wield power over the people’s wages, forcing various forms of deprivation, be it travel to meet relatives, social gatherings or entertainment.
Increasing debt among Palestinians is juxtaposed against the context of de-development in Palestine for which Israel is primarily responsible. Harker’s research goes beyond the usual depictions of Palestinian economic hardships to portray what he terms “a slow violence” which permeates throughout the people’s daily lives. Debt is a form of slow violence for Palestinians – it is barely acknowledged despite its contribution to deteriorating conditions for Palestinians as they contend with the brutality of the Israeli occupation, as well as the economic inequalities fostered by the PA’s corruption and bureaucracy
Harker writes, “Israeli settler colonialism has played a powerful role in creating the conditions in which finance has emerged and become concentrated in Ramallah.”
Away from the more prominent displays of Israeli colonial violence, the political structure enforced by Israel and the PA has fostered endurance among Palestinians. Harker mentions endurance consistently throughout his book in the context of debt. While debilitating for families, debt is also a means of ensuring survival, even though, conversely, the nature of settler-colonial violence and the PA’s own debt through donor aid has obliterated political independence for the Palestinian people.
Palestinians’ debt to anchor themselves within their space in occupied Palestine, in this case Ramallah, is also endurance against a settler-colonial entity that seeks to displace the indigenous population and replace them with settlers. However, as Harker notes, “debt promises a better present as a replacement for a political future of national liberation and the end of the occupation,” showing that decolonisation is still a necessity for the Palestinian people.