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  • Simone Popperl (a1)

Scientists who study Dead Sea sinkholes come to know them in particular ways (as generalized hydrogeoloic phenomena, symptoms of a regional environmental crisis, or divine retribution) and at particular scales (from the distant orbit of Earth observation satellites, from digitally altered aerial photographs, and occasionally from the inside). Using ethnographic data gathered between 2012 and 2015 in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), Israel, and Jordan, I compare how groups and individuals study, think, and learn about Dead Sea sinkholes. The way hydrogeologic knowledge about these sinkholes is gathered and circulated helps define land around the Dead Sea as territory to be colonized. These scientific processes can nullify Palestinian claims to the Dead Sea, eliminate Palestinian people from Dead Sea landscapes, and marginalize Bedouin opposition to Jordanian government policies. I suggest that attention to “geologies of erasure” helps scholars to understand the scientific and political impacts of settler colonialisms on the collection of knowledge about changing natural environments in the Middle East and beyond.

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Author's note: I extend my sincerest appreciation to the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies at University of California, Irvine for providing funding for this phase of the project. I also thank the IJMES reviewers and editors whose comments greatly improved this article. Gratitude is also due to my many generous advisors, colleagues, and friends who read versions of this article at a variety of stages and whose relentless encouragement brought it to fruition. I am particularly indebted to Julia Elyachar, Valerie Olson, Eleana Kim, Jessica Barnes, Tessa Farmer, Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Caterina Scaramelli, Kali Rubaii, Naor Ben-Yehoyada, Bridget Guarasci, Justin Perez, Emily Brooks, Abdullah Al-Arian, and Sean Larabee. Everyone should be so lucky to have such an incredible intellectual community. All errors are mine.

1 Because the Dead Sea sinkholes in the oPt are all located within Area C where the Palestinian Authority exerts neither civil nor military control under the Oslo Accords, managing sinkholes is not part of the process for claiming land.

2 See for example Elizabeth Povinelli, Nigel Clark, Kathryn Yusoff, and others on theories of the geosocial, Stefan Helmreich on marine microbes and scientists’ fascination with them, and Valerie Olson and Lisa Messeri on how the extraterrestrial and interplanetary is constitutive of Earth-bound social worlds; Povinelli, Elizabeth, Coleman, Mathew, and Yusoff, Kathryn, “An Interview with Elizabeth Povinelli: Geontopower, Biopolitics and the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture, and Society 34 (2017): 169–85; Helmreich, Stefan, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2009); Olson, Valerie, “Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid Activism and the Making of an Environmental Solar System,” Anthropological Quarterly 85 (2012): 1027–44.

3 Jasanoff, Sheila, States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order (London: Routledge, 2004). Classic works in S.T.S. and Environmental Anthropology have shown that scientific objects are never just scientific, but rather socially coproduced. Sheila Jasanoff demonstrated how “the ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it”; ibid., 2. Like many other natural scientific objects of study, geological formations such as sinkholes do not simply exist a priori; rather, they are coproduced with other social and political actors, institutions, and phenomena.

4 Tsing, Anna, “Natural Resources and Capitalist Frontiers,” Economic and Political Weekly 38 (2003): 5100–106. Tsing describes frontiers as material and imaginative “projects in making geographical and temporal experiences” that render resources legible as resources that are extractible; ibid., 5100. Similarly, geologies of erasure can render territory into territory to be settled or colonized, bringing into focus the effects of knowledge produced in the context of settler colonial efforts to claim territory.

5 I use the term “colonial” to describe the power relations in which groups and institutions at the center attempt to bring heterogeneous communities in the periphery under their control. It has been well established that this describes the Israeli government's policies inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territories. See, for instance, Lloyd, David, “Settler Colonialism and the State of Exception: The Example of Israel/Palestine,” Settler Colonial Studies 2 (2012): 5980; Masri, Mazen, “Colonial Imprints: Settler-Colonialism as a Fundamental Feature of Israeli Constitutional Law,” International Journal of Law in Context 1 (2017): 120; and Pappé, Ilan, “Zionism as Colonialism: A Comparative View of Diluted Colonialism in Asia and Africa,” South Asia Quarterly 107 (2008): 611–33. It also describes the Jordanian monarchy's orientation to Bedouin communities living with sinkholes along the Dead Sea. See, for example, Salzman, Philip Carl, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004); and Shryock, Andrew, Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Jordan (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1997). On the Bedouin of the Lisan Peninsula, see al-Huwimal, Muhamma, al-ʿAshush, Khalid, and Nawasreh, Awad, Dirasat al-Aghwar al-Janubiyya: al-Ard wa-l-Insan (Amman: Fadhaʾat, 2013). On nomadic communities as colonial subjects, see Gilbert, Jérémie, Nomadic Peoples and Human Rights (New York: Routledge, 2014).

6 Niemi, Tina, Ben-Avraham, Zvi, and Gat, Joel, The Dead Sea: The Lake and Its Setting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

7 Qumsiyeh, Mazin, Mammals of the Holy Land (Lubbock, Tex.: Texas Tech Press, 1996).

8 Yecheli, Yoseph, “Response of the Groundwater System to Changes in Dead Sea Level,” in New Frontiers in Dead Sea Paleoenvironmental Research, ed. Enzel, Yehouda, Agnon, Amotz, and Stein, Mordechai (Boulder, Colo.: The Geological Society of America, 2006), 113–26.

9 Gvitzman, Haim, “Groundwater Hydrology and Paleohydrology of the Dead Sea Rift Valley,” in New Frontiers in Dead Sea Paleoenvironmental Research, 95112.

10 Niemi, Ben-Avraham, and Gat, The Dead Sea.

11 Norris, Jacob, Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development, 1905–1948 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

12 Nicoletti, Claudia and Hearne, Anne-Marie, Pillage of the Dead Sea: Israeli's Unlawful Exploitation of Natural Resources in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (Ramallah: al-Haq, 2012).

13 Norris, Land of Progress.

14 Nawasreh, Awad, “al-Athar al-Jiyumurfulujiyya li-Inhisar Mustawa Sath al-Bahr al-Mayit” (PhD thesis, AlZaim AlAzhari University, Sudan, 2013); Niemi, Ben-Avraham, and Gat, The Dead Sea.

15 Niemi, Ben-Avraham, and Gat, The Dead Sea.

16 Nawasreh, “al-Athar al-Jiyumurfulujiyya”; Yechieli, Yoseph, Wachs, Daniel, Abelson, Meir, Crouvi, Onn, Shtivelman, Vladimir, Raz, Eli, and Baer, Gideon, “Formation of Sinkholes along the Shore of the Dead Sea: Summary of the First Stage of Investigation,” GSI Current Research 1 (2003): 16.

17 See Norris, Jacob, “Toxic Waters: Ibrahim Hazboun and the Struggle for a Dead Sea Concession, 1913–1948,” Jerusalem Quarterly 45 (2011): 2542; and Norris, Land of Progress. See also Novomeysky's own account: Novomeysky, Moshe, Given to Salt: The Struggle for the Dead Sea Concessio (London: Max Parrish, 1958). The privately held company that has inherited the Dead Sea Concession is Dead Sea Works Ltd, a division of Israel Chemicals.

18 Klein, Micha, “Water Balance of the Upper Jordan River Basin,” Water International 23 (1998): 244–48; Zeitoun, Mark, Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian–Israeli Water Conflict (London: I.B.Tauris, 2008), 46.

19 Hammami, Rema, “Qalandiya: Jerusalem's Tora Bora and the Frontiers of Global Inequality,” Jerusalem Quarterly 41 (2001): 2951.

20 In a recent YouTube video, Israeli geologist and sinkhole expert Eli Raz quotes this figure as 6,000. He notes that “there are sinkholes in other places in the world, but nowhere do they spread as fast as here.” “Great Big Story, Sinkholes in the Salt Land,” video, 4:51, posted 16 August 2017,

21 For several of these accounts, see Levy, Eyal, “The Dead Sea: From World Wonder to Sinkhole Nightmare,” Jerusalem Post, 5 September 2015, accessed 7 October 2017,

22 Clousson, Damien and Karaki, Najib Abou, “Dikes Stability Monitoring versus Sinkholes and Subsidence, Dead Sea Region, Jordan,” in Land Applications of Radar Remote Sensing, ed. Holecz, Francesco, Pasquali, Paolo, Milisavljevic, Nada, and Clousson, Damien (Rijeka, Croatia: IN TECH Books, 2014).

23 Two recent collections have showcased this work. See Mikhail, Alan, ed., Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Davis, Diana and Burke, Edmund III, eds., Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2011). A key example of this work in the Jordan Valley comes from Samer Alatout, “Hydro-Imaginaries and the Construction of the Political Geography of the Jordan River: The Johnston Mission, 1953–56,” in Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa, 218–45.

24 Diana K. Davis, introduction to Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa, 1–22.

25 Edmund Burke III, preface to Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa, ix.

26 See Toby Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010); Mitchell, Timothy, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (New York: Verso, 2013); and Vitalis, Robert, America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006).

27 Davis, introduction to Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa.

28 Ibid.

29 On environmental orientalism, see Davis and Burke, Environmental Imaginaries. Toby Jones's account of how “American scientists served Saudi political power in the building of an authoritarian political system, one that used science and knowledge and technology and the environment as means to shore up centralized Saudi dominance” helps evidence the geological nature of this entanglement; Jones, Desert Kingdom, 5. Conceptually, geologies of erasure highlight not only that geological knowledge production and political goals are inexorably linked, but also the specific instances of disenfranchisement, erasure, and negation that result from this linkage.

30 Povinelli, Elizabeth, Geontologies: A Requium to Late Liberalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016). Povinelli's recent work defines geontopower as the mechanism that perpetuates a distinction between life (bios) and nonlife (geos), which indigenous communities can experience as a “strategy of governance.” Dead Sea sinkholes present an extreme case of these dynamics, in which scientists wield geontopower for political ends.

31 A growing trend in posthumanist anthropology considers the agency of nonliving things. See Cruikshank, Julie, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2005); Crutzen, Paul J., “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (2002): 23; and Kirksey, S. Eben and Helmreich, Stefan, “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2010): 545–75. Some of this work has been criticized for failing to address the political stakes of environmental crisis. I aim to focus explicitly on the pragmatic and political effects of power structures as they manifest in the production of knowledge about the nonliving natural environment. For an excellent example of thinking in this vein, see Lyons, Kristina, “Decomposition as Life Politics: Soils, Selva, and Small Farmers under the Gun of the U.S.–Columbia War on Drugs,” Cultural Anthropology 31 (2016): 5681.

32 Stoler, Ann, McGranaham, Carol, and Perdue, Peter, eds., Imperial Formations (Santa Fe, N. Mex.: School of Advanced Research Press, 2007). See also Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).

33 Orpett, Natalie, “The Archaeology of Land Law: Excavating Law in the West Bank,” International Journal of Legal Information 40 (2012): 344–92.

34 Kelly, Tobias, Law, Violence, and Sovereignty among West Bank Palestinians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

35 Hammami, Qalandiya.

36 Tawil-Souri, Helga, “Colored Identity: The Politics and Materiality of ID Cards in Palestine/Israel,” Social Text 107 (2011): 6797.

37 Sudilovsky, Judith, “A Fatal Legacy: Clearing Land Mines Scattered along Israel's Borders,” Jerusalem Post, 5 October 2016, accessed 20 February 2017,

38 See, accessed 20 February 2017.

39 Chatterjee, Partha, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993). In the context of Palestine, see also Davis, Rochelle, Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010).

40 Niksic, Orhan, Eddin, Nur Nasser, and Cali, Massimilano, A World Bank Study: Area C and the Future of the Palestinian Economy (Washington D.C.: World Bank Publications, 2014).

41 Wolfe, Patrick, “Settler Colonialism at the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8 (2004): 387409.

42 I have given Dr. Raed and all other interlocutors pseudonyms. I use his honorific and his given name in this article in keeping with the Arabic-language custom of referring to people with doctorates as “Dr. [First name].”

43 Benson, Richard and Yuhr, Lynn, Site Characterization in Karst and Pseudokarst Terraines: Practical Strategies and Technology for Practicing Engineers, Hydrologists and Geologists (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Imprint Springer, 2016).

44 See, for instance, Gutierrez, F. et al., “The Origin, Typology, Spatial Distribution and Detrimental Effects of the Sinkholes Developed in the Alluvial Evaporite Karst of the Ebro River Valley Downstream of Zaragoza City (NE Spain),” Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 32 (2007): 912–28.

45 Nawasreh, “al-Athar al-Jiyumurfulujiyya.”

46 Among Nadia Abu el-Haj's “multiple and diverse forms” of colonial knowledge is knowledge about the natural world gathered in the service of colonial governance and expansion. Colonial orientations to settlement in “empty” places like the Dead Sea produce a particular social, racial, and environmental politics that affect scientific knowledge production, economic approaches to natural resources, and ideas about political legitimacy and responsibility; el-Haj, Abu, Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 6. Tomaz Mastnak, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff demonstrate the historical longevity of the idea that knowledge of the natural world is key to colonial expansion, identifying it in the writings of Francis Bacon. Bacon believed mankind lost its knowledge of nature and dominion over animals at the same time with the Fall; Mastnak, Elyachar, and Boellstorff, “Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (2014): 363–80. See also Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2002). More generally, social studies of the environment tend to take knowledge about the material world as paramount to the question of how communities interact with their environments. See, for example, Pritchard, Sara, Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011); and Fortun, Kim, Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

47 Google Maps and Google Earth are notoriously unreliable and inaccurate, especially outside of North America and Western Europe, and especially in the oPt, and Google acknowledges as much. In section 14.2 of the Google Maps APIs Terms of Service, Google specifically states that “its subsidiaries and affiliates, and its licensors and their suppliers, do not represent or warrant to you that . . . the service will be accurate or reliable”; “Google Maps APIs Terms of Service,” 23 January 2017, accessed 10 November 2017, In section 2.6.16 of the Legal Notices for Google Maps/Google Earth and Google Maps/Google Earth APIs, the Israel-specific notice regarding the company “Mapa – Mapping and Publishing Ltd,” which provides data for Israel and the oPt, reads “Mapa is not responsible to you for the mapping data and does not make or give to you any representations or warranties, express and implied, in connection with the mapping data, including, but not limited to, the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usability of the mapping data”; “Legal Notices for Google Maps/Google Earth and Google Maps/Google Earth APIs,” 17 December 2015, accessed 10 November 2017,

48 InSAR, or interferometric synthetic aperture radar, compares two radar images of the earth's surface taken at time intervals from days to years. It began to be used widely in the 1990s and is now employed to monitor and study deformations as small as a centimeter due to magma flows, earthquakes, moving ice sheets, and much more. See Pritchard, Matthew, “InSAR, a Tool for Measuring Earth's Surface Deformation,” Physics Today 59 (2006): 6869.

49 In closed military areas, he must go through the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an IDF unit.

50 I have dropped the honorific “Dr.” in reference to David both because he asked me to do so, and because doing so is reflective of the relative informality of many Israelis in the academy. In Arabic-speaking contexts, the honorific is preserved.

51 “Armed Forces Personnel (% of Total Labor Force),” accessed 1 November 2016,

52 Kark, Ruth and Frantzman, Seth J., “Empire, State, and the Bedouin of the Middle East, Past and Present: A Comparative Study of Land and Settlement Policies,” Middle East Studies 48 (2012): 487510.

53 Bālūʿa also means cesspool, sewer, drain, and the kitchen sink. Related words from the root ba-lam-ʿayn include “to swallow, swallow up, gulp down.” Wehr, Hans, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic: (Arabic–English), ed. Cowan, J Milton (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. 1979), 89.

54 Carol Palmer, Waleed Gharaibeh, and Lucine Taminian, “The Politics of Development in Ghor al-Safi, Jordan,” Thimar: Research Collective on Agriculture, Environment and Labor in the Arab World, 16 July 2014, accessed10 November 2017,

55 Pritchard, Confluence.

56 Choy, Ecologies of Comparison; Tsing, Friction.

57 Fortun, Advocacy after Bopal.

58 Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992). As Mary Louise Pratt wrote, “While subjugated peoples cannot readily control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what they absorb into their own and what they use it for”; Ibid., 7.

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