Imagined Territories

Yonatan Mendel

  • Hollow 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.

Another example given by Weizman concerns the neighbourhoods built in East Jerusalem following its occupation in 1967. In 1968 the municipality ‘supported the tightening of the stone bylaw’ – a Mandate requirement to build in ‘Jerusalem stone’ – ‘and the use of stone cladding within the entire area annexed to the city’. The idea was that this would serve as evidence of a united city as well as securing its new, uncertain, legally unrecognised boundaries. Architecture once again played its political and security role.

Weizman shows that the settlements in the Occupied Territories were placed in strategic locations in order to achieve Jewish continuity on the one hand, and to destroy Palestinian continuity on the other. They were built with red roofs in order to distinguish them from Palestinian communities and surrounded by pines in order to acidify the soil and make the land unusable for Palestinian shepherds. Windows gave onto ‘the slope facing the threat’, the better to inform on Palestinian movements in compliance with IDF border-fortification practice, requiring a ‘defensible line’ to run not on top of a mountain ridge but at about three-quarters of its height.

Yet, while security was invoked as a reason for everything and anything, another process, ostensibly more ‘peaceful’, was taking place on the ground. A survey conducted in 2002 by Peace Now asked 3200 Jewish families from the West Bank and Gaza to justify their move to the Occupied Territories. A decisive majority, 77 per cent of the 270,000 settlers in question, stated that they moved for ‘quality of life’ reasons: bigger houses, rural lifestyle, better finance packages and so on. Only 20 per cent claimed that national-religious factors were decisive, while a mere 3 per cent said that ‘national security’ was uppermost in their minds. That a majority of settlers are motivated neither by security nor on ideological grounds tells us something about the huge role of non-security considerations in the settlements themselves. Large numbers of non-religious, non-nationalistic, left-of-centre voters live in the Occupied Territories – a fact that forces us to consider settlement not only as a state project, but as a thriving enterprise in which a variety of Israelis, for different reasons, carry out the mission of the state. Few, if any, regard themselves as living on occupied land, often because of the support they receive from the state and their ignorance about the pre-1967 borders.

Hollow Land is eloquent about the architectural chaos and confusion created by Israel in the Occupied Territories. National-religious settlers perceive their existence as the fulfilment of the Zionist goal of living in the land of the Bible. Weizman concludes that ‘the very thing that renders the landscape “biblical” or “pastoral”’ is the cultivation of terraces, olive orchards, the existence of stone buildings and the presence of livestock, all of which depend on ‘the very people whom the settlers would like to displace’. Here he puts his finger on a crucial question: where and what is Israel and where and what is Palestine? Both Palestinians and Israelis, he believes, see the two places as one and the same: an amalgam of the map of Israel and that of Palestine. Reading Weizman, I realised that I had never in my mind seen the map of Israel without the Occupied Territories. They are both part of ‘my’ geography. Though political geographers must have done so, I do not know a single Palestinian who will draw Palestine as a small rectangle on the left (the Gaza Strip) unconnected to a weird looking shape on the right (the West Bank). Maps like the two below – one of Israel without Palestine and the other of Palestine without Israel – should really have been included in the book.

Maps of Israel and Palestine showing them as separate entities.

While the Palestinian imagination still consists of aspirations, the Israeli imagination has, over time, achieved a kind of reality consistent with its ambitions, in what might – borrowing from Benedict Anderson – be thought of as its ‘Imagined Territories’. Israel’s insistence on building in the Occupied Territories forced it to take into account the existence of Palestinian villages and roads but as Weizman shows, Israeli ‘architects’ had then to reconcile their wish for Jewish continuity with their need to separate Jews and Palestinians, which was managed, as Sharon explained, by ‘a combination of tunnels and bridges’. The territories in the last decade have been subjected to Israeli architecture at its worst: roads carving Palestine from within, tunnels dug from below and bridges straddling it from above.

Weizman demonstrates how in many cases Israel has kept the main roads for itself, forcing the Palestinians to use tunnels under the roads or bridges over the tunnels. Travelling from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem via route 443, one takes a road which is part of Israel to cross an area which is part of Palestine. The Oslo Accords have meant that in some places ‘the tunnel and bridge are under full Israeli control, the valley below the bridge is under Palestinian civilian control, while the city above the tunnel is under Palestinian civilian and military control.’ Weizman writes that ‘at places where two road networks cross, a vertical interchange of bridges and tunnels will separate the traffic systems, and Palestinians from Israelis.’ Twenty-six such interchanges of vertical separation have already been built, another 19 are under construction.

Picturing the map of the Occupied Territories, Weizman advises us to think in terms of the ‘Scandinavian coastline, where fjords, islands and lakes make an inconclusive separation between water and land’. To put it another way, Israel has established a country on the one hand, and a constellation of extraterritorial ‘islands’ surrounded by a Palestinian ‘sea’ on the other, as in the illustration below.

Map showing Israeli settlements in Palestine

If these imaginary territories have become reality, others, for example the Palestinian village of Bilin, near Ramallah, remain a dream that waits to be realised. In Bilin, the separation wall has expropriated 2000 dunams (nearly 500 acres) of Palestinian agricultural land for a future building programme. The Israeli Supreme Court justified the confiscation, stating that it would secure the life of future citizens in a future settlement. One could argue that the absurdity of imagined territories as a practical policy has penetrated Israeli society and is now seeping into Palestinian consciousness. Two different examples are given by Weizman, in Rafah and in the Jenin Refugee Camp. In Rafah, Palestinian militants tunnelled under the ‘Philadelphi Route’, a wide Israeli security corridor bulldozed through the middle of the town. A labyrinth of tunnels, in which one would need a compass to find one’s way, was constructed by Palestinian families wanting to pass from the Palestinian side of the city to the Egyptian side. They were later used for smuggling cigarettes, prostitutes, weapons and armed recruits. Apparently, Palestinians in Rafah managed to create a territorial passage to both sides of the city, under the feet of Israeli security.

The case of Jenin is more depressing. Residents in the refugee camp had to decide how to rebuild their streets, destroyed in the massive IDF campaign of 2002. While considering the renovation, the UNRWA head engineer Ahmad A’bizari claimed that the streets would have to be widened, at least to the width of a tank. Assuming that Israeli tanks were bound to be sent in again, A’bizari wanted them to access the camp without smashing houses and destroying infrastructure. Eventually, his engineering programme was accepted.

Control is surely the central theme of Weizman’s book. The fact that Israel has experienced seven wars in less than six decades and still does not have peace agreements with all of its neighbours means that people live with the feeling of constant threat. This feeling, justified or not, has made Israeli decision-makers very cautious in negotiation and loath to change the political status quo, whence, as Weizman shows, the need to reach agreements granting the Palestinians some control or sovereignty while retaining Israel’s right to have the final word. Architecture has played a key role in Israel’s policy of transferring authority, while keeping it in its own hands.

Israeli domination is clear at checkpoints on the West Bank, where soldiers decide if a Palestinian child, student, taxi driver or elderly woman can pass freely from one place inside Palestine to another, or enter Israel. In some cases – the Shaar Ephraim terminal, in the north-west part of the West Bank is an instance – the Israeli Ministry of Defence has decided that in order ‘to lessen the existing friction in the security checks, humanise the process and improve standards of service’, security will be privatised and civilians rather than soldiers will conduct all checks. This doesn’t allow Palestinians to take charge of their own security, or even establish a joint Israeli-Palestinian mechanism, but exchanges one system of domination for another, replacing Israeli soldiers with Israeli security men. Israel has always excelled at repackaging old practices.

Even when reaching agreements with Palestinians on international terminals, like the Allenby Bridge connecting the West Bank with Jordan or the Rafah Crossing connecting the Gaza Strip with Egypt, Israel has managed to create the illusion that Palestinians are in charge. At Allenby Bridge, as stated in Article X of the first Annex to the Oslo Accords, Israeli security agents would be separated from Palestinian travellers by tinted glass. According to Article X, incoming Palestinians would see only ‘a Palestinian policeman and a raised Palestinian flag’. They would also see a Palestinian police counter in front of one of several large one-way mirrors. The mirrors, Weizman writes, ‘were positioned so that Israeli security behind them could observe, unseen, not only the Palestinian passengers but also the Palestinian police personnel themselves’. The system works as follows: a Palestinian border policeman receives the passenger’s papers, examines them, then slips them into a drawer hidden behind the counter. The drawer is opened from the other side by Israeli security, who process the papers, deciding if the bearer can enter, and then return them with one of two coloured notes – one colour for permission, the other for refusal. George Bush described these solutions as ‘soft sovereignty’, but Palestinians must regard them as no sovereignty at all.

At Rafah Crossing following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Palestinians received the honour of another ‘soft sovereignty’. The agreement brokered by Condoleezza Rice states that Palestinians and Egyptians will run their common border, but the entire process of crossing from Egypt to Gaza or Gaza to Egypt will be overseen by Israeli security. According to the agreement, an advanced CCTV system sends real-time pictures to a Joint Control Room staffed by European observers and Israeli security. The cameras relay the face of each Palestinian standing in front of the Palestinian border police as well as images of X-rayed luggage to Israeli security, who can then call for a rescan, a bag search or a border closure. When Israel wants the terminal shut it forbids European observers to enter the control room, while according to the agreement, Egyptian border police must close their side immediately. Since the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in June 2006, the terminal has been closed 86 per cent of the time and since Hamas took control of Gaza in June, it has been closed altogether, leaving 5000 Palestinians stranded in Egypt. Does ‘soft sovereignty’ bring full sovereignty closer or refer it further away?

As studies by Weizman show, Israel has a great effect above ground on the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank but there is a continuing struggle for control below ground. Eighty per cent of the mountain aquifers supplying Israelis and Palestinians are located under the West Bank. However, 83 per cent of available water is used for the sole benefit of Israeli cities and settlements. At Camp David in 2000, when Ehud Barak negotiated the future of the Temple Mount compound with Arafat, Clinton favoured another ‘soft’ solution, giving Palestinians full sovereignty over the mosques on the Temple Mount, while Israel would have full sovereignty under the ground – an idea based on the assertion that the remains of the Temple lie beneath the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This proposal was rejected out of hand by Arafat and the negotiations ended. Israel was yet again unwilling to deliver full control and persisted in wanting some kind of hold, archaeological or even symbolic.

Before Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, a think tank called Alternative Team concluded that ‘whether or not we are physically present in the Territories’ – Israelis like to avoid the word ‘Occupied’ – ‘we should still be able to demonstrate our ability to control and affect them.’ It was an acknowledgment that Israel would retain control over Gaza even after it had pulled out, which is largely what won Sharon the popular support needed for the withdrawal. The ‘control’ in question was Israel’s non-secret weapon of targeted assassination, killing Palestinian militants by firing missiles from helicopters. Between September 2000 and the end of 2006, 339 Palestinians were killed from the air. Weizman points out that since the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, these ‘targeted assassinations have become the most significant and frequent form of Israeli attack’. Another Israeli technical innovation has been the launching of unmanned drones that can remain in the air around the clock. Israel is – and is perceived to be – in control, and has proved that it can leave Gaza without really withdrawing. All along, the ‘architects’ of Israeli occupation have ensured more or less absolute control of the Palestinian territories, whether an Egyptian-Palestinian terminal, a Jordanian-Palestinian crossing or a post-‘withdrawal’ strategy is involved. Who knows if this absurdity will one day bring Israel to envisage checkpoints on the Turkish-Syrian border or the Iranian border with Iraq, or start issuing permits to people wishing to enter or leave the Nahar al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon? Israel’s fear of losing its grip is at the heart of these ‘creative’ methods of control and of its current regional status as a pariah.

It’s a shame that Hollow Land is unlikely to be translated into Hebrew or read by Israelis. Weizman’s own experience shows that criticism of Israel is unacceptable: after he won a competition to represent Israel at an international conference, the invitation was abruptly cancelled. The fact that he was opposed to the settlements in the West Bank disqualified him. Hollow Land paints a desperate picture of a country driven by paranoia, awash with security and drowning in fantasy; and of planners and architects compounding this terrible situation. They are in his view greatly responsible for the ongoing crime of occupation, and play a prominent part in its elaboration, construction, renovation, whitewashing and cementing. Even as he points out the complexity of Israeli architecture in the Occupied Territories, he begs us to ‘consider whether the political road to partition is the right one to take’. Whatever ‘state’ survives the occupation will be ‘fragmented and perforated’, bounded along great parts of its borders by a separation wall that is, in effect, ‘constantly permeable and transparent from one side only’.

Elinoar Barzacchi is the former Chief Architect for the Jerusalem District at the Construction and Housing Ministry. Her best known project was the Maaleh Adumim settlement, built in the early 1980s. The settlement, located about three kilometres east of the Jerusalem municipal boundary, is Israel’s biggest, containing 32,000 people, with a projected growth to 71,000 in 2020. Its strategic location definitively separates the northern and southern parts of the West Bank and could sabotage the creation and functioning of a future Palestinian state. Barzacchi now looks back on her project and shows signs of regret. Today she is the head of Ir Amim (City of Nations), an Israeli NGO that deals with issues affecting Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and the political future of the city. ‘Essentially, had I known then what I know now, had we thought at that time about two states for two peoples, I say Maaleh Adumim should not have been established,’ she stated in an interview with Haaretz last year. Unfortunately, her troubled conscience is not going to change the architectural configuration in the Occupied Territories. Architects and planners have participated in the occupation with the enthusiasm, decisiveness and motivation of soldiers hurrying to the front line. A soldier’s doubts only begin to take shape after his return from the battlefield – and long after the damage has been done.