Nathan Eisenberg

Chiraq in the Naqab


ISSUE 70 | SAFE | DEC 2016

The desire to make the terrain resemble the map is typical of military ambitions.

                                                                                —Eyal Weizman

Several miles outside of Rafah, a town doubling as one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) operate the Urban Warfare Training Center (UWTC) at Tse’elim Army Base. Built in 2005, the purpose of the training center is to simulate an urban environment in the middle of the Naqab desert for soldiers and special forces to hone their skills and tactical thinking. This context had become particularly urgent to the IDF in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, a period of generalized Palestinian insurrection and Israeli hellfire taking place largely in Palestine’s increasingly cramped cities and towns. The problematics of containing and managing the Intifada also confirmed and anticipated a paradigm shift in strategic thought regarding asymmetric and urban warfare, variously referred to as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) or Network Centric Warfare (NCW), that had been percolating among the upper echelons of Western militaries for some time. The existence of the UWTC reflects this general, shared interest: it was largely bankrolled with US aid, to the tune of $45 million, with the intention that sections of the US military and its allies will train there, learning tactics for Military Operations in Urban Terrains (MOUT). In the words of urban theorist Stephen Graham, it was explicitly built to “generalize the military ‘lessons learned’ from Israel’s regular incursions into Palestinian cities and refugee camps since 2002, and to make them available to the entirety of Israel’s armed forces as well as to the forces of friendly nations.” Notably, American soldiers have stopped there to skill up on their way to occupy the cities of Iraq.

The training center - one of the largest of its kind in the world - is often described as a small town unto itself. It’s primary nickname, ‘Baladia,’ is Arabic for ‘city.’ It sprawls over 7.4 square miles, with 472 complete standing structures, which are modular, modifiable and rearrangeable to simulate ‘any Arab city.’ It features mock-up mosques, ‘Middle East-style’ buildings, soccer fields and an open air market referred to as ‘the Kasbah,’ with Arabic graffiti decorating the walls and pre-recorded calls to prayer ringing out between the buildings. The population consists of “Arabized” Israeli soldiers, switching suddenly between ‘civilian’ and ‘enemy combatant’ to mimic the disorienting fog of an urban conflict, or rather, the precise colonial gaze in which the general populace is seen as a military target.

“We have the capabilities to create a realistic representation of where we’re most likely to fight. Give me 70 or 80 tractors for a month, and I’ll recreate the hills and topography of a Lebanese village,” boasts Brigadier General Uzi Moskovich, commander of Israel’s National Ground Training Center. He goes on, “It might not be politically correct, but we’re not pretending here. What looks like a mosque is a mosque. And our people will impersonate Arabs, not the Swiss.” The IDF’s insistence on dynamically representing a shifting but specifically Arab enemy is, of course, unsurprising. Whether Baladia is structured as ‘Hezbollahland,’ as it was in 2007 during the war with Lebanon, or modeled after the Palestinian refugee camp Jenin to reiterate lessons from a significant battle that took place there, the training center reflects Israel’s imperative to settle Arab lands, through, among other things, asymmetric warfare against the Palestinian population that it has encircled and preemptive strikes against neighboring states upon which it has encroached.

What is perhaps more surprising, but incredibly telling, is the Urban Warfare Training Center’s other nickname: Chicago. Though I could not find a story for the origin of this name in my research, it is a name that has apparently stuck as it is referenced in almost every account of UWTC that I could find. One could speculate that the base’s explicit, studied and expensive “urbanness” itself is what is being signified here, with ‘Chicago’ in the contemporary moment operating as a sort of limit case and specter of the violent and unruly urban interior, the vexing ‘urban warzone,’ a semiotic complement to the IDF’s own pitched urban battles, which it insistently views as domestic conflicts. This conflation hints at the processes common to the construction of American and Israeli sovereignty, via the forceful envelopment of their respective frontiers into internal zones, ghettos, camps and reservations, and the mutual constitution of such racialized spaces as ‘Gaza’ or the ‘West Bank’ and ‘Chicago.’ ’1

The thread revealed by this conflation is picked up by another semantic slippage, Chiraq, a nickname for Chicago’s Southside coined by black Chicagoans to describe the cumulative effects on their neighborhoods of poverty, structural exclusion and malign neglect and the mass disappearance of loved ones through imprisonment or gun violence. Originating from a song by Chicago rapper King Louie, and further popularized by rappers like Chief Keef and Lil Durk (all in the drill music scene), the term is self-explanatory and simple. Parts of Chicago are ‘like’ a warzone. The meaning of this insinuation is contested: at times invoked as a point of positive identity, branded on T-shirts; as an attempt to subvert the prevailing liberal boosterism of a gentrifying Chicago, drawing attention to the dire situation in some (de facto segregated) neighborhoods; or, as a dismissive pejorative, meant to cordon off sections of the city as unfortunate elsewheres. Like drill music itself, from which it is inextricable, the utterance ‘Chiraq’ is an ambivalent sounding from African Americans actively interpreting, or at least lending lo-fi definition to, their precarious urban experience, the hazards and thrills of post-industrial black market work, the adjacence of murder, cops and prison sentences, the alienation of being criminalized, left behind and having a war declared on them.

The power of ‘Chiraq’ comes from its naming of Southside as an exceptional zone in a state of emergency rather than merely a collection of living spaces seamlessly integrated into the rest of the city, and by extension, the rest of the country. It calls the constitutive bluff of post-racial Amerikkka. No less interesting is how it does so, relying on an implicit equation between ‘Iraq’ and a warzone as such. ‘Iraq,’ of course, is an elsewhere that the average American famously couldn’t locate on a map but was invaded by America nonetheless. Stephen Graham writes, “Programmes of organized, political violence have always been legitimized and sustained through complex imaginative geographies.” He traces how such an “imaginative geography” was constructed in the early years of the War on Terror, in which the securitized, nostalgic ‘homeland’ was opposed to the threatening ‘terror nests’ of the Orient. Described as dense, medieval and lawless, ruled through shows of force by strongmen motivated by ancient sectarian hatreds, yet depicted in the media as essentially empty building compounds and infrastructure, completely devoid of life, awaiting American ‘shock and awe’ precision strikes, the discourse during this path to war framed perceptions of Iraq as a place inherently prone to violence and Iraqis as effortlessly killable (in terms of both logistics and ethics).

For these places, and how their respective state powers treat them, are largely defined by the construction of the resident populations as disposable, an inherently racialized sorting mechanism. In fact, the process of racialization - the complex entanglement of (gendered) bodies, cultural history, relative social valuation and differential exposure to violence and privation - is inextricable from settler-colonial and capitalist projects of making use of those populations deemed subaltern or making disposable those deemed to be surplus. White supremacy systematically marks populations, at the level of their bodies, behavior and cultural forms, with ‘stigmata’ or ‘hieroglyphs’’2 that adhere to them and follow them throughout life as they navigate the bureaucratic machinery of society. It determines, in terms of statistical aggregates, where their homes are, how they access resources and when and what kind of violence is inflicted upon them. These imaginative geographies, from Chiraq to ‘Chicago’ to occupied Iraq, racialize bodies as a function of spatializing social death, zoning certain areas and the people residing in them as disposable according to distinct but interrelated logics.

Palestinians are figured as existential threats to the security of Israel, which puts them at the intersection of two racializing assemblages. Their indigeneity makes them inherently problematic for the whitened Ashkenazi enclave’3 that the state of Israel has constructed, subjecting them to systematic land theft, daily terror and ethnic cleansing. The comprehensive erasure of Palestinians, an offshoot of the colonial legacy of disappearing indigenous peoples, is summed up by Amiram Levin, an Israeli arms dealer and former head of the Israeli army’s northern command, who commented at an arms industry conference that most Palestinians “were born to die—we just have to help them.” This imperative is compounded by the Orientalist perception of the fact that they are an Arab and majority Muslim people, a perception which sees them as terrorists, future potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers and supporters. The connection between the label of ‘terrorist’ and anti-colonial struggle in the Middle East is deep, its use to Western powers to discredit resistance evolving from the first ‘Arab uprisings’ against the Ottomans in the First World War to the present day. However, the discursive work of the ‘War on Terror’ has been to depoliticize the already loose category of ‘terrorism,’ scrubbing its history in order to depict it as an eschatological threat, a timeless ‘clash of civilization.’ These conjoined assemblages work in lockstep as Palestinian resistance to the dispossession of their indigenous lands and the suppression of their political autonomy as a people is refracted through the prism of national security and counter-insurgency, warranting military incursions into their lives.

In Chicago, as in any place where members of the African diaspora live in the aftermath of slavery, black people and blackness itself is subject to a criminalization regime, the residue of slavery’s legal and institutional transition to the penal system. Criminalizing discourse, in American cities in particular, is widely deployed against many communities of color or poor communities, but operates specifically through vicious anti-black antagonism. This racializing assemblage traces an arc, among many other waypoints, from runaway slave patrols and Black Codes, which outlawed non-subjugated blackness, to COINTELPRO and the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, as the American state sought to decapitate black power movements, to gang injunctions and stop-and-frisk, which seeks to disrupt the free association and daily public life of black kids. ’4 The rise of the prison-industrial complex and the bulking of law enforcement in every jurisdiction, outgrowths of this anti-blackness, are fundamental to the apartheid system in which spaces of exclusion like ‘Chiraq’ emerge.

The global War on Terror has cemented a transnational bloc of Western capital, centered in the US but extending to its network of client states, whose cycle of accumulation is guaranteed by an interlocking security apparatus. This process has multiplied the war fronts, from openly declared wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to arming factions in Libya and Syria to drone assassinations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, not to mention the French invasion of Mali or the Saudi decimation of Yemen or the offense against Boko Haram in Nigeria, or the usual long game of diplomatically and materially equipping dictatorships, juntas and liberal democracies against whatever regional “destabilization threat” seemingly requires artillery and surveillance. The Iraq war itself is a crucial anchor to this overall regime, an initial cover for the revamped coordination of coalitional forces that also set new precedents in the interpretation and implementation of international law regarding conflict. Iraqi life had to be collateralized for this profitable military build-up to commence, devalued as an externality to the geopolitical calculations of empire. Over 250,000 Iraqis have died from violence related to the war to date.

The entwinement of these disparate assemblages - the collateralization of Iraqis, Afghans and any civilians living at the hard edge of imperial war, the marginalization to the point of annihilation of indigenous people to make ‘lebensraum’ for settlers, the state-sanctioned demonology of Muslims residing in MENA based in colonial archetypes of the ‘uncivilized Orient,’ the criminalization of black and brown people in the trans-Atlantic derived from the commodification of their bodies that is so fundamental to capitalism - is articulated when the IDF trains American special forces at ‘Chicago’ or when the Chicago Police Department requests more federal funding by citing statistics about ‘Chiraq.’ This indicates how these assemblages operate through similar and shared means: spatial zoning, gated access to capital, discursive othering and infrastructures of mass killing, among other components. This systematic marking of bodies is parcel with the diffuse project of making the world safe for whiteness, of securing the enclave or the colony, that has persisted throughout the colonial era and depends on the militarization of lived space, ranging from such things like the ‘lawfare’ of explicit and de facto redlining in residential areas to the transfer of military weaponry to local police departments. Palestine, Iraq and Chicago are all occupied territories, forged from genocide, differently manifested and perhaps at different points along partially shared historical trajectories. The triangulating conflation presented by the cross-referential nicknames speaks to the underlying material linkages between these sites, situating the respective projects in a common network of exchange through which techniques of control are circulated.


As already noted, American troops trained at the Urban Warfare Training Center in order to better understand how to fight an (Arab) enemy in an (Arab) urban environment in Iraq. Cross-training (with traveling training experts and combat simulation suites), coordinated intelligence- and data-gathering and practices of military knowledge sharing (through training manuals, conferences, think tank symposia, ‘academic’ journals and strategy magazines) have helped consolidate, in secret and in the open, a dynamic security apparatus composed of military branches, intelligence agencies, paramilitary special forces, mercenary firms and, significantly, domestic law enforcement. Much attention is rightfully paid to the arms industry, but the military-industrial complex also operates, transnationally, through edtech, ’5 consulting, seminars, trade fairs and professional instruction.

The IDF in particular has capitalized on decades of ‘innovation’ and knowledge production from its experience maintaining Israel’s policies of apartheid and annexation, particularly its focus on counterinsurgency. Occupied Palestine, especially the cities of the West Bank during the Second Intifada, is considered a ‘laboratory’ for understanding the dynamics of active insurgency, heavily administered occupation and asymmetric warfare in urban terrains. IDF actions are considered, due to the extreme and somewhat unique circumstances, something akin to tactical field work, if not outright experiments, in militarized social control. ‘Operation Defensive Shield,’ a series of raids on Palestinian cities beginning in 2002, “were keenly observed by foreign militaries, in particular those of the USA and UK, as they geared up to invade and occupy Iraq,” writes architect Eyal Weizman. Stephen Graham recounts a surreal experience in which he and several colleagues were invited to attend a conference on urban geography hosted by the University of Haifa, “in late 2001,” realizing once they arrived that the conference was “one of an ongoing series where practitioners of state urban warfare exchanged practical tips on fighting wars and on counterinsurgency operations in cities. … We were amazed to discover that US, Israeli, and British ‘experts’ in this emerging field of urban warfare were such close friends that they seemed to constitute a transnational social body, orchestrating the intense exchange of technology, experience, training, and expertise between the three nations.” ’6

But it’s not just militaries seeking education. Since 9/11, American police chiefs and high-ranking officers have traveled to Israel for taxpayer- or privately-funded’7 ‘counterterrorism’ training seminars, under the Law Enforcement Exchange Program, for instruction on the ‘history of Islamic fundamentalism,’ protest suppression and crowd control, among other things. Beyond classes, they go out on midnight police patrols, observe bomb squads and visit surveillance command centers and border checkpoints. These are eagerly-sought, high-status trips attended by the white-knuckled captains of municipal police, university security, transit authorities and sheriff’s departments, an estimated 9,000 representatives over a span of 15 years. The influence of such an exchange is hard to track, but apparently somewhat substantial. DCPD Cmdr. Cathy Lanier raved about it, saying, “No experience in my life has had more of an impact on doing my job than going to Israel.” Ralph Morten, of the LAPD bomb squad and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, has used what he learned in Israel to give over 1,000 trainings that have reached upwards of 25,000 police, fire and military personnel, by his own estimate. The trips drew some attention when it came out that St. Louis County police chief Tim Fitch, who oversaw the brutal repression of the August 2014 Ferguson uprising that deployed some Israeli crowd dispersal favorites like LRAD sound cannon, had attended in 2011. Though US law enforcement officers have run similar programs with security forces in such places as Northern Ireland, Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the Israel program is perhaps most highly revered.

Upon returning from one of these trips, Terrance W. Gainer, chief of the US Capitol Police Department, proclaimed that “Israel is the Harvard of antiterrorism.”

Regular rank-and-file police officers are also afforded the opportunity to train with the IDF, along with (para)military squadrons from all over, in ‘readiness exercise’ events, such as Urban Shield, an annual interagency war games and weapons expo hosted in the Bay Area that “[tests] regional integrated systems for prevention, protection, response and recovery in our high-threat, high-density urban area.” Funded by the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a Department of Homeland Security program to coordinate security forces in major population centers and logistical hubs, Urban Shield has in the past brought together police departments from all over the Bay Area, as well as Dallas, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and others, with federal agencies like the FBI and DEA, teams from every branch of the US military and the Mexican Federal Police, French National Police and security agencies from the Kingdom of Jordan, Bahrain, South Korea and Israel. The teams participate and compete in 35 scenarios across a 48 hour period, taking place in a variety of simulated and co-opted urban, rural, infrastructural and industrial environments throughout the Bay Area, that “[range] from Active Shooter/Immediate Action Team scenarios to detecting radiological devices or materials.” Their performance is assessed by expert observers from military and police agencies within the US, as well as Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, Taiwan, Israel or other nations depending on the year. This is accompanied by a trade fair with hundreds of security and tech vendors selling everything from heavy artillery to ‘nonlethal’ riot control weapons to surveillance devices.

Urban Shield is organized and trademarked by Cytel Group, a security consulting firm specializing in “creating secure, prepared and resilient regions” and ensuring “coordination, cooperation, collaboration, and focused effort throughout entire government structures, as well as private and non-government organizations, to reduce risk and increase security.” It’s flagship is Urban Shield, which it has replicated in Austin, TX, Boston and the Kingdom of Jordan, with proposed plans to bring it to Brazil in the coming years, but it also offers consulting and comprehensive policy review and drafting that promises to guide governments and security agencies in coming up with procedures that integrate public and private organizations, across jurisdictions and across capabilities. The intent is to fill in gaps in the spectrum between police, military, security and emergency response groups, blurring the lines between them all at an institutional level, something otherwise referred to as militarization.

Cytel Group, Urban Shield and the Law Enforcement Exchange Program are merely a few nodes in a growing industry that seeks to integrate and consolidate security operations. The formal distinction between the military and the police is being drastically eroded in what can be considered a global build-up of state and corporate arsenals. As ‘conflict’ increasingly becomes a structural feature of the geopolitical, interoperability is marketed as the solution to managing and containing it, to facilitate the smooth, uninterrupted accumulation of capital, mired as it is in the bloody externalities it generates. But we must attend to the work that this formal distinction has historically performed, reifying the role of the state in ‘protecting’ its citizens and the concept of citizenship itself, as populations are positioned ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ a given nation. Rather than simply encompassing a smooth territory, a nation-state forms a network of exceptional zones, across which mobility is channeled by bordering elements of various types and people are subject to different regimes of inclusion and exclusion. National entities are porous and contingent and the various armed wings of the state have mutated according to whatever instabilities threaten it. The military and the police should be understood as co-evolving martial forms, responding to common problems of population control but adapted to different scales and polity formations. In this era, when communication technology has multiplied the possibility for imagined communities across space, when climate change is permanently altering our shared habitat, when the smoldering fallout from global struggles against colonialism is reigniting, the immanent links between the police and military are being intensified, consolidating a transnational security apparatus adequate to the mission of maintaining occupations and enforcing enclosures all over the crumbling, urbanizing world.

The task of mapping all of these filaments is far beyond the scope of this essay. But, by exploring sites in the global archipelago of police and military simulations, the strategic study of battles that have become doctrinal canon and the urban design theories that treat human inhabited spaces as quagmires, I hope in the coming sections to trace a skeletal diagram that can hint at the whole structure. Through all of these activities, Western states are administering an imagined geography, placing people in a racialized hierarchy of being which reproduces colonial relations and puts much of humanity into an abject position of devalued life. Subalterns, subordinate others, are flattened into a teeming multitude of killable bodies; Chiraq is in the Naqab, but it’s also in Ferguson, Baltimore, Gaza, Yemen, Honduras and any sacrifice zone where bare life is both the effect of and justification for paramilitarized violence.

As I write this, days after the social contradictions of America have metastasized into electoral victory for the fascists,8 I can hear police helicopters buzzing around the skies over Oakland in an attempt to completely surround the people who have taken to the streets in grief, anger, solidarity and a willingness to assert the validity of their existence and political imaginations. This sound, and this scenario, are entirely familiar to me and attests to the normalization of the use of police for social containment. The power to define the norm is key to maintaining a hegemonic narrative through which settler-colonial regimes can legitimate themselves. Their history is just that—settled. This essay is one small attempt to counter this ongoing, perpetual process, to unsettle history and oppose any narratives of inevitability, to denature the paramilitarized present, to remember that the enemy has us surrounded but, by design, we surround them too.


1 I place the names for these living, inhabited places in quotes here to reference them as they are seen by occupying forces, as impenetrable fortresses of otherness, and to emphasize the contingency of the colonial gambit underlying their existence.

2 These terms following the work of Alexander Weheliye and Hortense Spillers, respectively, and the general analysis of ‘racializing assemblages’ and its relationship to militarization very much influenced by Afropessimist and black feminist scholarship. The esotericism of the terms is meant, I think, to estrange our common sense about how phenotypic differences set racial groups apart.

3 Much has been written about how Judaism and Jewish diasporic identity has been deployed, constructed and changed through Zionism, including its subsumption into whiteness and the valorization of a specifically Ashkenazi (European) majoritarian lineage over Mizrahi or Beta Israel Jews.

4 It should be noted that this history has had a profound effect on non-black people of color as well, in particular Latin American communities. However, statistically, black Americans bear the brunt of this assault.

5 There is a massive immersive video simulation industry, with significant overlap with the video game industry, for tactical training for US soldiers. These simulations, like the Urban Warfare Training Center, are often simulacra of Orientalized cities for cadets to practice invading, though efforts have been made to accurately render real spaces, such as ‘Urban Resolve 2015,’ a training game with 20 sq km map of Jakarta, Indonesia, featuring 1.6 million buildings and 109,000 mobile vehicles, combatants and civilians. Whole industrial zones have cropped up to cater to the military’s insatiable need for virtual training: Orlando, FL alone has over 100 training simulation firms, rivaling Disney as a local employer.

6 He continues, “We were nauseated at the bellicose technophiliac masculinities, where systematic repression and state killing were portrayed in glossy PowerPoint slides with a palpable sense of fascination, even excitement. … Fueled by a paranoid sense that global urbanisation is somehow working to undermine the technoscientific, disciplinary, and killing abilities of imperial nation-states, military urban specialists, such as those who attended the Haifa event, are helping to rethink radically how the United States, the other Western powers, and Israel wage war.”

7 Specifically funded by the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish institute for National Security Affairs and the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. This should go without saying, but this promotion of the IDF and exchange of repression tactics is not something orchestrated by ‘the Jewish community’ as such. American Jewish organizations are often actually lobbying groups for Zionism (which should not be equated with Jewishness) and are tasked with maintaining the close strategic relationship with the American military-industrial complex that the State of Israel requires to continue its occupation. In this case, these groups are selling Israel’s expertise and value to the project of militarizing American law enforcement.

8 Fascists don’t take power in a vacuum, as I hope this essay will suggest. Authoritarian statecraft, (white) nationalism and biopolitics co-emerge and pattern each other. The election-cycle platitude about not letting “Trump get the nuclear codes” begs the question of what kind of system would empower any authority to singularly determine use of such weapons. Same goes for registries of Muslim-Americans, which have existed (mostly uncontested) in the US since the 1980s. The state apparatus is built to track, manage, terrorize, incarcerate and cleanse populations.