Israel's Architecture of Occupation

Revolutionary Worker #1164, August 25, 2002, posted at

They are almost always up there, the settlements, dominating the plateau, challenging, provoking, picking a can spot the settlement on the hilltop, looming, threatening, dreadfully colonial.

From A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture

The strategy in Judea and Samaria at the time was to `capture ground': you capture as much area as possible by placing few people on many hills. The underlining political idea stated that the further inside the Occupied Territories we placed settlers, the more territory Israel would have when the time came to set the permanent international borders - because we were already there.

Architect Thomas Leitersdorf in
A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture

They want to say that architecture has nothing to do with politics, but architects and planners have always been the executive arms of the Israeli state, erasing the old cartography and trying to create their own on top of it.

Eyal Weizman, one of the creators of
A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture

At the end of July 2002--in the same week that Israeli armed forces dropped 1,000 pounds of laser-guided explosives from a U.S.-made F-16 on the Al-Daraj neighborhood in Gaza City--a cultural bomb exploded in the world of architecture. A catalog for an entry by the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) to the World Congress of Architecture in Berlin became the center of a storm of controversy when it was censored and suppressed by the leadership of the architects association--on the grounds that "the ideas in the catalogue are not architecture" and that it would damage Israel's image abroad by presenting "an anti-Israeli, one-sided presentation."

Created by two Israeli architects, Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman, the catalog, A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture , details through essays, photos, maps and documents how Israeli architecture and urban planning have been involved in the seizure of Palestinian land --from the days when the Palestinians were driven from their lands in 1948 to the Jewish settlements now dominating the hillsides of the West Bank. In a foreword note, Weizman and Segal describe their mission--to analyze how "the mundane elements of planning and architecture have been conscripted as tactical tools in the Israeli state-strategy."

Weizman and Segal were selected by the IAUA to develop its official entry in the Berlin congress, but when the catalog was done, IAUA president Uri Zerubavel, and 15 out of 20 council members, moved to suppress it; they confiscated most of the 5,000 copies and pulled the exhibition out of Berlin. Ironically, Uri Zerubavel himself has refused offers to design Israeli settlements in the West Bank--for "private political reasons"--but when it came to an international exhibition focussed on the settlements, which have arguably been a major feature of Israeli architecture, he balked.

"We were picked in a competition of 10 firms of architects," Uri Segal told the New York Times . "We suggested the theme and even mentioned some of the writers who would contribute to the catalog, so they knew ahead. But when they saw the whole work, they suddenly got cold feet and didn't want it." Esther Zandberg, the architecture critic of the liberal Israeli daily, Haaretz , accused the association of "harsh political censorship." "The catalog is a rare work in its power and importance for the community of architects and town planners in Israel, who usually separate `pure' professionalism and `dirty' politics," Zandberg said. "The catalog shows clearly that this option no longer exists."

Weizman and Segal managed to rescue about 850 copies of A Civilian Occupation ; and fortunately the publisher of the catalogue, Babel Publications, is planning to publish and distribute it internationally. One of the architectural editors for Babel noted that the catalog typified a "moral dilemma facing all architects." "Some who work for big corporations or large real estate operators create things just as monstrous as the architecture of the occupied territories," he said. "The catalog makes us think about the political dimension of all architecture."

A History of Civilian Occupation

A Civilian Occupation--and other work by Eyal Weizman, including a fascinating series of articles and photo-essays called "The Politics of Verticality"--offers an unusual perspective into the connection between architecture, urban planning, and politics--and specifically the colonization of Palestinian land by the Israeli state. "If you are an architect and you understand that the main manifestation of this conflict is through the landscape and the built environment," Weizman told The Guardian,"it is almost your responsibility to act vis a vis that. It would be bizarre now for me to engage just within a normal architectural practice in Israel, building houses and so on."

Behind the cover, where a red map of the West Bank evokes a pool of blood, A Civil Occupation is a unique journey in words and pictures, exploring the layers of this interconnection of architectural design and the aims of the Zionist power structure. Many of the photographs are disturbing and beautiful aerial shots which show the relationship of Jewish settlements to the Palestinian towns and villages of the West Bank.

Sharon Rotbard, an architect and university lecturer, writes that from the late 1930s the architectural model for kibbutz settlements was the "homa umigdal," or "wall and tower"-- which combined "fortification and observation." Zvi Efrat traces the development of a major plan led by Arieh Sharon, who was a member of the Bauhaus school of architecture before he fled Germany after the war of 1948. "The pressing national task assigned to Sharon and his team of planners," Efrat writes, "was providing temporary housing solutions for the masses of new Jewish immigrants and settling the country's borderlands, in order to stabilize the 1948 cease-fire lines, prevent territorial concessions and inhibit the return of Palestinian war refugees."

After the 1967 war, when Israel seized the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza, new strategies were applied to the occupied territories.

Eyal Weizman and Uri Segal describe three waves of "civilian occupation." From agricultural settlements to establish a "security border" in the Jordan Valley in the late '60s; to settlements built on the mountain ridges where religious groups believed they were re-occupying biblical lands of "Judea and Samaria"; to the wave of settlement in the early '80s which lured people from the high-priced housing of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Segal and Weizman trace how architectural forms related to waves of settlement in Palestinian lands underwritten by the Israeli government.

One of the key architectural features of the West Bank settlements are the hilltop locations which Weizman and Segal analyze in depth. The hilltop locations provide "sightlines that function to achieve different forms of power: strategic--in its overlooking of main traffic arteries; control--in its overlooking of Palestinian towns and villages; and self-defense--in its overlooking of its immediate surroundings and approach roads."

"If you look at the layout of settlements, they are always built on hilltops," Weizman told The Guardian of London. "People know that, but they may not realize that they also are built in rings, over the summit, in a way that generates territorial surveillance in all directions. I began to understand that these are urban-scale optical devices, and every design move in them is calculated to enhance vision."

"The planners always speak about the view as pastoral and biblical, almost in a romantic sense," Weizman says. "They speak about the terraces and olive groves and stone houses, which are obviously created for them by the Palestinians. The Palestinians are almost like the stage workers who create a set, but they then have to disappear when the lights come on."

The Archaeologyof Occupation

Eyal Weizman views this problem in different dimensions.

Weizman has analyzed what he calls the "politics of verticality": an in-depth study of how the architecture of occupation in the West Bank operates on different levels--from the control of `bypass roads' connecting Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel to control of the hilltops by Jewish settlements to the horror of Israeli Defense Force control of West Bank airspace.*

"The landscape and the built environment became the arena of conflict. Jewish settlements-- state-sponsored islands of `territorial and personal democracy,' manifestations of the Zionist pioneering ethos -- were placed on hilltops overlooking the dense and rapidly changing fabric of the Palestinian cities and villages. `First' and `Third' Worlds spread out in a fragmented patchwork: a territorial ecosystem of externally alienated, internally homogenized enclaves located next to, within, above or below each other.... New and intricate frontiers were invented, like the temporary borders later drawn up in the Oslo Interim Accord, under which the Palestinian Authority was given control over isolated territorial islands,' but Israel retained control over the airspace above them and the sub-terrain beneath."

In one essay called "Excavating Sacredness," Weizman examines how "modern Israel tried to fashion itself as the successor of ancient Israel, and to construct a new national identity rooted in the depths of the ground." The material traces of "biblical archaeology," he writes, "took on immense importance, as an alibi for the Jewish return."

It is not clear what political conclusions Weizman and Segal draw from their work. In an interview with The Guardian , Weizman raised questions about the feasibility of a two-state solution-- however he did not spell out his views on how the horrors of the Zionist state and the colonialist settlements could be decisively ended nor did he explore how the rights of the Palestinian people would be addressed.

But, from many different angles, the contributions of these architects shed new light on how the Zionists have "created facts" and the undeniable justice of Palestinian claims to their homeland. Looked at from our proletarian internationalist perspective, their work points to the need for a radical new solution that could bring about a democratic secular Palestinian state. Perhaps this is why the censors moved against it. Sadly A Civilian Occupation did not reach the World Congress of Architecture, but it cannot be prevented from reaching the world.

*The full text of "politics of verticality" is available on

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