To Bulldoze a Cemetery


By Ayanna Dozier

“The colonized’s sector … is a disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people. You are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything. It’s a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together.”
–Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Everyone who has ever lived is a part of the earth. I have always found a terrible beauty in that fact; that the world we inhabit and all the aspects of it we take pleasure in, exist in such inescapable proximity to the bones of others. Across my artwork and writing, I have used cemeteries and graves to make my obsession with death known to others. I’ve interrogated the hidden presence of mass graves at public parks across the United States; for instance, the disinterment of the potter’s field that made the New Jersey Turnpike possible. I see how histories of free Black people, the unhoused, and those who exist at the margins of visibility in society, make up the desecrated cemeteries in our communities. This kind of erasure claims not just the land, but also the history of people who lived there, as if the area has always been vacant and available for colonial development.

While state-funded and for-profit cemeteries reflect the hegemonic memory of a nation, mass graves and other communal burial sites represent a record that often counters official documentation produced by institutions and the state. They tell a story of resistance, of an oppressed people, when all other evidence has been eradicated. It is by no accident, then, that most mass graves lie beneath pristine real estate developments of leisure and play. As artist Camille Billops once described, mass graves reveal that our treatment of the dead reflects our treatment of the living.1 This is especially true in cases of genocide.

With the escalation of Israel’s second Nakba in Palestine, images of the dead are being disseminated quickly and directly to the public via social media, depicting ethnic cleansing in real time.2 These images are a stark contrast to mainstream news reports that undermine, overlook, and outright deny mass death taking place.3 The razing of the Al-Faljua cemetery in Jabalia, Sabah, is one such example. While cemeteries and mass graves are of no physical threat to the Israeli state, they absolutely are a threat to the Zionist mission of that state to settle occupied territory and claim it as its own.4 To bulldoze a cemetery is to annihilate Palestinian presence and history on the land.

Destroying cemeteries is a weapon of genocide that specifically targets the collective memory of a culture­—what historian Ilan Pappe has described, with regard to Israel’s tactic, as memoricide.5 The destruction of the Al-Faluja cemetery, its full scope assessed via satellite imagery, as well as the razing of other cemeteries, are part of Israel’s ongoing desire to “settle” the land for development. It’s a tactic that works in tandem with mass murder and displacement.6 This settling writes a new history of ownership to fit the origin story of the nation-state of Israel, and anything that goes against the Zionist settler narrative must be destroyed, leaving only one “official” record.

Frantz Fanon reminds us in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that the settler-colonists makes history through epic destruction, with the belief that the land could not exist without them. He argues, “The colonist makes history, and he knows it. And because he refers constantly to the history of his metropolis, he plainly indicates that he is the extension of this metropolis. The history he writes is therefore not the history of the country he is despoiling, but the history of his own nation’s looting, raping, and starving to death.”

While we can and should acknowledge that other records exist outside of Western capital, for Zionist settlers the effort of memoricide is to make Palestine illegible to the West, to render it obsolete. This not only furthers genocide but thrusts support for the erasure of a nation that “didn’t exist” to begin with, in their eyes. Part of what fuels this justification is the 30-year history of British imperialism that helped destabilize the country and enabled Zionists to take the land.8 One of the founding narratives for creating a singular history for Zionists is that co-existence with Palestinians was and is not possible. Graves bear the records of different faiths, family lineages, migration tales, ethnicities of who existed, where and when, before the state of Israel.

Destroying a cemetery is not only a way to own space, but to market the area to tourists through redevelopment, with the building of parks, luxury resorts, and condos. In the United States, most of them (Washington Square Park in New York, or True Blue golf course in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, for example) are built on the mass graves of enslaved and murdered free Black folks and indigenous peoples from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.9 Obliterating spaces for the dead robs communities of sites for mourning while manufacturing an “irrefutable” history.10 As evidenced by the razing of the Al-Faluja cemetery, desecration is the key, not full disinterment, as the goal is to efface the presence of the cemetery.11 

The privatization of land that ensues also obstructs the public from further investigating history of a place. The grassroots artist-run collective based in Bethlehem, Dar Jacir, is working to exhume histories of Palestinian life before the Nakba, despite frequent encounters of aggression and attack by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).12 One of its founders, visual artist Emily Jacir, takes great pain to archive her ancestral family home in Bethlehem (the base of the collective’s operations), built in the late nineteenth century. Research and findings relayed by Dar Jacir show how property was seized and destroyed during and after the Nakba—disputing Zionist narratives that portray Palestine as unclaimed territory, virginal and barren, for their use.13 For the settler, “useful” is often defined according to the viability of commercial development.14 For instance, redevelopers have shared resettlement designs at conferences and across social media for what the “new” Gaza will look like “day one after the war ends.”15 These designs include larger buildings and monuments dedicated to their fallen soldiers. Elsewhere, IDF soldiers have posted TikTok videos boasting about the tourism Gaza beach will generate from surfers and the homes they will build there (one did so while proposing to his girlfriend against the freshly charred rubble of a bombed home with an Israeli flag held up by other soldiers).

“Settlers seeking other settlers” tourism has its own economic industry. During my teenage years, I was locked in with Christian Zionism through my evangelical church, “The Potter’s House/The Door Christian Fellowship.” Through a partnering organization, Friendship Tours to visit Israel were made available to the congregation. The “holy tour” was an eight-day trip, during which Israeli guides gave sermons by the holy sites of the Bible, such as the site of “Simon the Tanner” in Old Jaffa. Of course, no mention is made that Jaffa was targeted during the Nakba and many homes were bombed with people still inside to make this “scenic” stop of this “ancient tour” possible.16 “Holy tours” bear a great resemblance to the tours of South Africa during apartheid, which were promoted or proposed to white American Southerners.17

It may seem queer to bring Western Christianity into all of this, but I can attest from personal experience that Western Christianity’s influence is one of the reasons why Zionism is so pervasive in the States. Within U.S. Christian fundamentalists’ and evangelicals’ broad support for Israel’s “right to defend oneself” lies a sinister agenda powered by Christian Zionism’s unique form of anti-Semitism. Many Christian Zionists see the support of Israel as not just the conquest of Palestine, but of the Middle East, one that follows the expansion set out by the World Zionist Organization conference of 1919 (and biblical passages of Genesis 17:8) that map the borders of Israel over all of Palestine, southern Lebanon, southwestern Syria, and significant parts of western Jordan and Egypt’s Sinai. Christian Zionist support is not born from love or regard for the Jewish diaspora or in combatting anti-Semitism (if so, white supremacy would be targeted) but is rooted in the self-serving Biblical belief that Jewish settlers are merely holding the land for Christians to reclaim, and that the Great Tribulation, wherein God disciplines the nation of Israel, (read: Israel submits and commits to Christianity) will establish an earthly kingdom for God’s followers there.18 For all Zionist talk of how holy the land is, the desecration of said “earthly kingdom” and unrelenting tyrannical violence prove otherwise. The settler hates the land. The settler only concerns himself with the epic odyssey of destroy and conquer.

As all accounts of settler-colonialism are interconnected to larger histories of Western imperialism and colonization, I would be remiss to not name the displacement concurrently occurring in Africa, namely in Sudan and the Congo. While these accounts are not the subject of this essay, they point to the deterritorialization of Africa that historically has set a template for the destruction of indigenous communities elsewhere. While the context differs, the razing of Al-Faljua cemetery reminds me of the 2019 film by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, This is not a burial, It’s a Resurrection. Its plot hinges on the ongoing displacement of a landlocked village in Lesotho, Africa, that is to be resettled for the construction of a dam that will wash away the village where protagonist Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo) and her relatives live, including the cemetery where her ancestors rest. The fight to preserve the burial site is a battle for remembrance when settler “progress” necessitates displacement.

The film closes with the cemetery being dug up as the army breaks ground to build the dam. Mantoa confronts the soldiers while stripping her clothes off to meet her death, joining those she has spent her life fighting for. But that is not the end. The film is an account from the perspective of a future diaspora population, existing in a liminal cinematic space. They tell Mantoa’s story and speak of their dead, who have literally been washed away from their land. Storytelling honors the dead and claims the site of their death as sacred ground. No, it is not an equal match against a machinic arm of capitalist necrophilia that fetishizes death for its own redevelopment plans; but storytelling, and its attendant rituals of remembrance and ancestral veneration, deny the state any authority of officiating the history of a land and people through erasure. Storytelling, for and of the dead, is a way for us, those still living, to survive in an inhumane world governed without regard for the sanctity of life.

At this moment, in Gaza, bodies are not being buried at any official site. The dead lie in rubble They are in the streets. You die anywhere. That was Frantz Fanon’s statement about life in occupied land: Condemned to die without the right to a life.19 The cemeteries of Gaza mark the greater global intersection (and influence) of capitalism and the settler-colonial regime. That the same tactics we saw in South Africa and Turtle Island, in what is now claimed as North America, are being employed by a different region with a different cultural history is not only terrifying but speaks to the hegemony of capitalism and settlerism writing history.

To bulldoze a cemetery is to deny that site as ever existing while pumping fuel from its beds to build something new. Whose fossil fuel will power these futures, I wonder? Justice is a temporal battle and one that implores us to not forget the dead. The dead continue to bear witness. They are, and will remain, our record-keepers.



Endnotes

1. Camile Billops, Owen Dodson, James Van Der Zee, Harlem Book of Dead (New York: Morgan & Morgan, 1978).

2. See Nur Masalha, The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory (New York; London: Zed Books, 2012). The first Nakba was the violent displacement of nearly 1 million Palestinians and depopulation of communities to establish the nation of Israel. As upwards of 2 million Palestinians will likely be displaced (with more than half of them already displaced) from Gaza, describing this escalation of genocidal attacks by Israel as a second Nakba feels appropriate as the “resettlement” of the Gaza strip has routinely been addressed as the “endgame” by the Israeli administration as I discuss later in the essay.

3. Alasdair Soussi, “Why the Media Fails to Cover Palestine with Accuracy and Empathy,” Al Jazeera, March 17, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/3/17/why-the-media-fails-to-cover-palestine-with-accuracy-and-empathy.

4. Settlerism defines the colonial policies of genocide that to extract land and resources from a people that deems their erasure and displacement as necessary to the mission of owning land. Settlerism is what made the nation-states of Canada, the United States, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and so many others possible. See Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (New York: Haymarket Books, 2015).

5. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2006).


6. Nader Durgham, “Israel-Palestine war: Palestinians appalled by Israeli razing of Gaza cemeteries,” Middle East Eye, Dec. 16, 2023, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/israel-palestine-war-appalled-razing-gaza-cemeteries. Other cemeteries include the St. Porphyrius Church cemetery in Gaza City and Al-Shuhada cemetery in the northern town of Beit Lahia.
7. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 14-15.

8. Fayez A. Sayegh, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine (Beirut: Palestinian Liberation Organization, 1965).

9. See also how Black towns were razed or flooded as evident with Tulsa, Oklahoma and Oscarville that now lies at the bottom of Lake Lanier in Atlanta. Jameelah Nasheed, “Lake Lanier: The History of a Black Town Enduring Racism, and Mysterious Deaths,” Teen Vogue, Aug. 18, 2023, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/lake-lanier-deaths-history-black-town#:~:text=Today%2C%20only%204.9%25%20of%20the,the%20creation%20of%20Lake%20Lanier.

10. Ayanna Dozier, “From the Records of Loss: The Cities of the Dead Project,” Race + Space McGill Architectural Blog, May 19, 2021, https://www.mcgill.ca/race-space/article/week-27/records-loss-cities-dead-project.

11. Although more reports are being unearthed that some bodies are being mutilated, this bears a striking resemblance to the type of setter-colonial violence of desecrating bodies in the United States. See Jeremy Diamond, Muhammad Darwish, Abeer Salman, Benjamin Brown, and Gianluca Mezzofiore, “At least 16 cemeteries in Gaza have been desecrated by Israeli forces, satellite imagery and video reveal,” CNN, January 20, 2024, https://edition.cnn.com/2024/01/20/middleeast/israel-gaza-cemeteries-desecrated-investigation-intl-cmd/index.html.

12. Charlotte Jansen, “As Israel is rocked by protests, a West Bank cultural centre seeks to ‘represent the Palestinian struggle’” The Art Newspaper, June 5, 2023, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/06/05/as-israel-is-rocked-by-protests-a-west-bank-cultural-centre-seeks-to-represent-the-palestinian-struggle and Hakim Bishara, “Artist Emily Jacir’s Bethlehem Arts Center Ransacked By Israeli Army”Hyperallergic, May 18, 2021, https://hyperallergic.com/646833/artist-emily-jacirs-bethlehem-arts-center-ransacked-by-israeli-army/

13. Pappe, 261-63.

14. Roger Sheety, “Stealing Palestine: A Study of Historical and Cultural Theft,” Middle East Eye, July 14, 2015, https://www.middleeasteye.net/big-story/stealing-palestine-study-historical-and-cultural-theft.

15. Rachel Fink, “Netanyahu’s Likud Ministers, Far-right MKs to Attend Israeli ‘Gaza Resettlement’ Conference,” Haaretz, January 24, 2024, chttps://www.middleeasteye.net/news/israel-palestine-war-appalled-razing-gaza-cemeteries.

16. Nur Masalha, The Palestine Nakba, 59; 78.

17. See South African adverts in the 1970s and 1980s that advertise tourism to South Africa with a Confederate flag alongside the South African flag with the following description, “No matter where you are in South Africa you’ll discover how it’s possible to live with all the comfort and civilization of the 20th-century … and still leave unspoilt the primeval splendor of a continent as old as time itself.”

18. See the book of Daniel, chapter 9, verse 24 and Revelation chapter 20, verse 4-6. See also the sermons and lectures of Billy Graham for examples of this rhetoric.

19. Armando Garía, “Freedom as Praxis: Migdalia Cruz’s Fur and the Emancipation of Caliban’s Woman,” Modern Drama 59, no. 3 (2016): 344.




Ayanna Dozier is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker-artist and writer. Across performance, experimental film, writing, and photography, her work remixes personal memory to examine power, trauma, death, and sex within interpersonal relationships and by the state. She is currently an assistant professor of communication, with an emphasis on film, at the University Massachusetts, Amherst and is the author of Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope (2020).



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Founded in 2020, Three Fold is an independent quarterly based in Detroit that presents exploratory points of view on arts, culture, and society in addition to original works in various media, including visual art, literature, film and the performing arts. We solicit and commission contributions from artists, writers, and activists around the world. Three Fold is a publication of Trinosophes Projects, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.