Book of the Month

Enclosure Palestinian Landscapes in a Historical Mirror

By Gary Fields
University of California Press, 2017, 424 pages, $29.95

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In the opening pages of his masterful study of dispossession in Palestine, Gary Fields tells readers of an encounter he had in 2004 with Ma’arouf Zahran, mayor of Qalqilya, who unwittingly helped the author frame the core idea for his book. In their conversation, the mayor used the term “enclosure” to describe the suffocating conditions imposed on Qalqilya by the concrete wall built around the city by the state of Israel, preventing farmers from accessing their lands and residents from moving freely on the landscape. In seeking a starting point for his study, Fields recalls how the mayor’s metaphor inspired him to cast his sights back in time to the dispossession of tenant farmers during the English Enclosures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and what Karl Marx described as the “clearing of people” from the English landscape. What we learn from Enclosure is that the cunning of English estate owners in taking control of the common lands used by farmers in England parallels the ruthlessness of English colonists in seizing land from Native Americans and the force used by Zionists in taking land from Palestinians. In this way, the three case studies of dispossession central to Enclosure are historical mirror images of one another.

In establishing this comparative frame, Enclosure argues that what has occurred – and what continues to occur – on the Palestinian landscape is but a recent chapter in a historically longstanding and recurrent story about dispossession and the making of exclusionary landscapes. Fields uses the term “enclosure landscapes” to describe such spaces of dispossession and exclusion, arguing that the enclosed landscapes of Palestine are part of a global historical geography of land conflict whereby groups with power and territorial ambitions covet and take control of land and property that belong to others. Consequently, Israel Zionists share a dubious legacy with English estate owners who seized the common lands used by tenant farmers, and English colonists who imagined Amerindian lands as neglected in order to justify taking them for themselves. One of the most fascinating findings in the book is how English estate owners, English colonists, and Zionists all used the same three instruments – maps, property law, and the built environment – as technologies to enclose and wrest control of land from groups already on the landscape.

Anchored by the Palestinian case, the three case studies constitute richly detailed narratives of land conflict. At the same time, these three cases reveal a singular story about power and territorial space. Fields argues forcefully that the process of enclosure, marked by the projection of power into the landscape, has three identifiable and generalizable outcomes: 1) the transfer of land from one group of people to another; 2) the clearing of people from the landscape; and 3) the establishment of new regimes of exclusion on land and across landscapes.

If there is a single protagonist who unifies all three cases within a common theoretical frame it is the towering Palestinian cultural theorist Edward Said and his notion of “imaginative geography.” Beginning with his pioneering work on colonialism, Said argued that those bent on seizing the land of others essentially re-invent notions of themselves as the rightful owners of the land they coveted. Enclosure shows how in all three cases, groups with territorial ambitions re-imagined the landscapes they sought by insisting that the land they desired was neglected, and by justifying themselves as the most able improvers of such “empty” land. This discourse of neglected landscapes and land improvement resonates across all three cases.

Although there are general comparisons of Palestinian dispossession with other forms of colonialism, the argument in Enclosure that links the Palestinian landscape to the exclusionary landscapes of the English Enclosures and the Anglo-American colonial frontier is boldly provocative and unique. Indeed, there is nothing quite like it. Enclosure is likely to raise new questions about Palestine as part of a broader global history of power and landscape. Nevertheless, at the very end of the book, Fields writes how, for English tenant farmers and Native Americans, enclosure has already become inscribed into the landscape. In Palestine, by contrast, power is being met by resistance, and therefore the story on the landscape is still unfinished and very much open to change.