Imagined Territories

Yonatan Mendel

  • BuyHollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation by Eyal Weizman
    Verso, 318 pp, £19.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 1 84467 125 0

Being the son of an Israeli civil engineer I never believed I would one day write something about architecture. My father would come back home with many boring black and white sketches, and I realised as a child that I would not become an engineer. He tried to teach me the differences between engineering, architecture, design, contracting and surveying, but he was not sure I understood them, and quite frankly he was right. Yet as Eyal Weizman explains, architecture is more than just sketches; architecture is what we see, architecture is everywhere. Focusing on the Occupied Territories, Weizman takes his readers on a tour of the visible and invisible ways in which Israel implements its control over Palestinians. This journey leads from the streets of Jenin to the view over Gaza from an Apache helicopter and on through the subterranean tunnels in Rafah. It is a landscape of many colours: from red roofed settlements, through the green pine trees surrounding them and up to the black one-way mirrors of the Allenby border crossing into Jordan, which allow Israeli security agents to monitor Palestinians in transit without themselves being seen. There are many methods of navigation: a bridge over a road over a tunnel-road, or a Jewish highway through an ocean of Palestinians. Architecture is not only everything and everywhere, but also everyone. The Israeli political leadership, settlers, judges, army officers, security-men – even architects – have a part in the shaping of houses, roads, windows, cladding and angles, to facilitate the complex mission of occupying the Palestinian territories.

Weizman studied at the Architectural Association in London. Currently the director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, he has taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and been a practising architect in Israel, with projects related to the arts and human rights. Hollow Land is about Israeli architecture in the Occupied Territories, beginning with the massive settlements in Jerusalem, going on to the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank and looking finally at the ‘creative’ measures taken by Israeli planners, including the military, to render the occupation more ‘comfortable’, ‘human’ and ‘effective’. According to Weizman, architecture is much more than the way a building looks or the materials used in its construction: it is grand design and it begins when groups or individuals act in a space – ‘space’ being comprehensively defined to include anything that has a territorial dimension. ‘Acting’ in space might take the form of targeted assassination from the air and extends to the control of areas underground.

Israeli building projects in the Occupied Territories, also known as the settlements, owe their existence to, and draw much of their character from security needs. As Weizman shows, there are religious, messianic and political dimensions to the settlements, but security is paramount. Starting with the creation of rural settlements in 1948, he writes, the IDF drew up security principles designed ‘to prevent infiltration or the return of Palestinians to their lands’, and instructed planners to devise ‘a compact and dense layout, in which homes were located no more than 30 metres apart.’

Later in its short history, when Israel began to build beyond its borders, security was again a justification. Ariel Sharon, head of the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Settlements and a future ‘architect’, said in 1977 that ‘a thin line of settlements along the Jordan would not provide a viable defence … The vital strategic issue was how to give depth to the coastal plain … The answer was to build a [network] of urban, industrial settlements.’ Likud had just won the election and as a result of Israel’s failure to predict the imminence of the 1973 war, the settlements were designated ‘good for security’, though the truth is that the army spent the first days of the Syrian assault evacuating settlements in the Golan before it could proceed with military operations. After the 1973 war, new settlements were portrayed as a ‘defensive system designed to help protect the state from invasion, a precaution against another surprise conventional war’, while the task of the settlers was, in the words of High Court Justice Alfred Vitkon, ‘to investigate and report Palestinian movements’ and to ‘monitor them and inform the authorities of any suspicious movements’.

A single settlement only marked the beginning of a ‘securing’ project: it was not enough in itself. Logic required that more settlements be built around it. Then, in order to secure the newly established blocks of settlements, a secure network of roads was needed to run between them, but in order to secure the roads, more settlements needed to be constructed along them. Which is not to forget the Wall that is needed to secure Israelis from the Palestinians, as well as securing the army patrols that secure the fences around the settlements, which secure the roads that altogether, in a bizarre way, secure Israeli citizens living in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Beer Sheba. This evolving master-plan, which begins with placing civilians in the front line and ends with layer upon layer of security to secure security, ignores the crucial fact that the settlers and settlements were the central cause of security threats and a major incitement to Palestinians. In other words, the security imperative is one of the greatest threats to Israel’s security.

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