A Line Through Space, Through the Heart

I’m looking at a map (Collins International Maps, Middle East, 2008). I’m looking at this map for answers. I’ve just read Eyal Weizman’s book, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (Verso, London, 2007), and I’ve come to the map with questions I can’t formulate. On a section that has been printed in large-scale I find Israel and the countries that touch its borders: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Only Lebanon is smaller.

Yael Bartana is an Israeli video artist who lives in Amsterdam and Israel. Her work is in good part a response to a question. She says, “I am focusing on Israel in order to ask: what is this place where I grew up?” Francis Alÿs is a Belgian-born artist who lives in Mexico. He produced a work called The Green Line, Jerusalem, 2004-2005, referring to the first green line drawn as a result of the Armistice Agreement of 1949, and he began with a series of questions interrogating the political role and function of art. In the absence of clear answers, he said he would explore this axiom: “Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and Sometimes doing something political can become poetic.”

Bartana’s question–what is this place?–is as near as a heart can be in an investigation of home and, at the same time, is disinterested or distanced–the stance a documentarian or journalist might take in assembling research data.

Eyal Weizman is an Israeli architect and director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, London. He has, in Hollow Land, written a searing and cogent book that examines the occupied territories in the period from 1967 to the present. He explains that he has engaged architecture in two ways–in examining its role in designing and facilitating the structures of the Occupied Territories, and the complicity of architects in so doing, and in its conceptual application in conceiving systems, theories and understandings that allowed its use to be extended into social and political realms. The book assumes a critical distance in its tone and in its presentation of documented and irrefutable realities; Othello’s ocular proof is there. The facts need no emotional embellishments in order to provoke the reader to cry “stop” over and over again. But in this thoroughly researched book, with facts well supported, there is only a single voice. Where is the other one questioning why? Who is asking, how did all this come about? And how did it build, over more that 40 years, to what is now presented on the book’s pages?

In 1993, agreements reached through the Oslo Accord set in place a framework for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. There would be talking and consultations, and there was a will that resolution be found. But instead, since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Weizman says there has been a radical increase in violence and more devastation experienced by Palestinians in the region since the occupation began in 1967.

I read this book and was troubled throughout: by the concrete, uninflected accretion of facts, by the absence of a sensible, rational second voice, by the lack of humanity and moral conduct where no possible assertion could have offered an excuse, and by despair for a resolution of this conflict when, as Weizman points out, the practice appears to be a global contagion. This is a manner of thinking and a way of operating that was not unique to Israel and the Occupied Territories. Paralleling the increase in the 1980s of building settlements and the accompanying systems of defence, American cities, for example, began emptying, with the middle-class residents fleeing for their security to suburbs and gated communities, both, as Weizman notes, “setting themselves against the poverty and violence they have themselves produced.”

Focusing, in Hollow Land, on the Occupied Territories has allowed Weizman to at once amplify and narrow his scrutiny, using the conflict and Israel’s conduct as a “laboratory of the extreme.” He writes, “Perfecting the politics of fear, separation, seclusion and visual control, the settlements, checkpoints, walls and other security measures are also the last gesture in the hardening of enclaves, and the physical and virtual extension of borders in the context of the most recent ‘war on terror’. The architecture of Israel’s occupation could thus be seen as an accelerator and an acceleration of other global political processes, a worst-case scenario of capitalist globalization and its spatial fall-out.”

Clearly Weizman is cognizant of world situations; in the book he’s addressing Israel and seeing its activities as a “laboratory of the extreme,” but he is, I suggest, in spite of his apparent distance and the evenness of his presentation of facts, asking the same personal, interior, essential human question Yael Bartana asks: what is this place where I grew up?

Territory and territoriality are central issues of Weizman’s book, and he argues that how space is negotiated and what spatial technologies and practices are applied to that negotiating are shaping. If it weren’t so drastic and desperate, some humour might be extracted from a recounting of the discussions around the Oslo Accord. Weizman reports that in 2002 Ron Pundak, a key proponent of the process, explained to Weizman how a three-dimensional grid of tunnels and roadways through the occupied territories would work in a practical manner to portion off and divide a territory, which was in fact not divisible. Over and under, the means of transport would go. This dissection could also be applied to Jerusalem’s Old City. At the Camp David talks in 2000, President Clinton suggested, Weizman writes, that partition would have a practical application in vertically dividing contentious buildings. The ground floor and basement would be entered from the Muslim Quarter and belong to the Palestinian state, and the upper floors would be entered from the Jewish Quarter and belong to the Jewish state. More like British drawing room farce than serious answers, these solutions point out how entangled in obscured reasoning and language the approach to the crucial situation has become.

Think of the surveillance necessary to observe and secure borders drawn in three-dimensional space. Think of the attenuation of resources and, before that, of the mind-set and intention to devise and implement such controls. Think of the fragile ledge and the precipice below with no sure ground on which to place a sole or plant a garden. The land is divided, ownership contested. Strengths are uneven and tensions ensue. Aggressions and retaliations follow. Walls go up, tunnels go under, rockets are fired above. Who controls the water beneath, who controls the crossing points, who blows up restaurants and buses? And what is done to stop it all? What Weizman describes in the book’s introduction is a disruption of the natural order. Out of this comes chaos. He says, “Revisioning the traditional geopolitical imagination, the horizon seems to have been called on to serve as one of the many boundaries raised up by the conflict, making the ground below and the air above separate and distinct from, rather than continuous with and organic to, the surface of the earth.” The territory of Palestine, mined and tunnelled, traversed, bisected and surveilled, is referred to by Weizman as a hologramized hollow land. Hence the book’s title.

What conciliations can be found in such a space not able to be inhabited by anyone? He lists the contested spaces, beginning with the water in the aquifer, then archaeological traces of earlier habitation, then he moves across the rippling and striated surface topography and concludes with the now militarized space above. Since 1967 this vertical and horizontal space has been sectioned off, divided and fragmented. Thinking three-dimensionally invites a willingness to enter space and imagine it. As an architect, Weizman posits a building as a graspable model for the proposed separations negotiators could consider. Something complex, he suggests–like an airport with entries and departures on different, segregated levels, and security checks and controls with long corridors funnelling movement. But a country isn’t a building, not even one with operations as complex as an airport. He despairs, as he begins his vertical analysis of the history of Israel and the Occupied Territories, of finding a political solution to the partition of the two states.

I read no contesting point of view, find no mention of justification or rationale for deeds done, actions taken. There must be some. Still, no one can act morally on someone else’s behalf; each is responsible for their own actions and each moves outward from their own locus. Weizman’s list of wrongdoings is systematic, chronological, changing as the book proceeds only technologically and tactically, and then only in kinds of response and not intent.

The situations cited that follow are just a partial list but difficult nonetheless. We hold justice in high regard. The courts administer it. Without law, there is chaos. In 1907 the Hague Convention established principles for the conduct of occupying armed forces, the rights of civilians living in those circumstances and the obligations of the armed forces to them. Land could be requisitioned for reasons of security but not permanently seized. Its use was temporary; title, therefore, was not transferred. In 1972, for reasons asserted as tactical, and defended in court as insuring security, Ariel Sharon, the Chief of the IDF’s Southern Command, apparently acting without precise orders from government, implemented a series of actions in an area in Gaza called the Rafah Salient. The plan was to take the land for habitation by settlers and thereby also disrupt plo supply lines. The land, however, was not empty. It was occupied by a tribe of 5000 Bedouins. Described by Gershom Gorenberg in his noted book on the development of settlements in the decade following the Six-Day War, the Bedouins had almond, olive and peach trees and some small strips of wheat, and nearer to the coastal area where more ground water was available, they planted crops. They owned herds of sheep and goats, and while some lived in tents, most housed themselves in tin shacks and concrete dwellings. Sharon ordered the orchards destroyed, the wells blocked and the people deported. Residents of a nearby kibbutz, expressing outrage, hired a lawyer on behalf of the tribal elder to defend the Bedouin’s rights. In the Israeli High Court of Justice, Sharon claimed security as cause. While the matter was still before the court, Tel Aviv architects working with planners were commissioned, in secret, Weizman writes, to prepare plans for constructing the port town of Yamit in the Rafah Salient. Promoting the project in advance and filled with enthusiasm for its realization, planners had produced design brochures to guarantee its success. Before the courts might learn that the outcome of their decision had been anticipated, the brochures were seized by soldiers. Unaware, the High Court of Justice decided in Sharon’s favour. Weizman notes similar outcomes on like matters brought to the HCJ. While a state’s need for security is understandable, what is its status and finally how secure is it when the operations of the courts are overridden by government or when claims of security mask other intentions? Without transparency and disclosure, any engagement between parties is doomed.

Impelled by commitment to the principle of settlement building in the West Bank or delighted by the opportunity to design, plan and construct an entire small city with few restrictions or constraints, architect Thomas Leitersdorf worked with the Likud government in 1978 in secret, Weizman writes, to construct the city of Ma’Ale Adumim, near Jerusalem on the upper slopes of the Judean Desert in the West Bank. The site was selected by Ariel Sharon as ideal for its location overlooking the road connecting Jerusalem to Jericho and Amman, Jordan. Peace negotiations with Egypt were underway, and one of the conditions of the talks was that no more settlements be constructed in the West Bank. The project, then, was to be completed as covertly as a project of this size could be, in record time and without the delays of tendering or consultation. On land that is still, 44 years after the Six-Day War, identified as occupied territory and distinguished on my Collins International Map by a broken line that on the key indicates “Disputed international boundary or alignment unconfirmed” rather the solid line, “International boundary,” Israel continued to build solid houses with all the attendant infrastructure.

In a section of the book he calls “Optical Urbanism,” Weizman talks about visual control. He says at night the Jewish settlements are brightly illuminated while the Palestinian settlements show a pale yellow light, or none, preferring the protection of invisibility. Constant surveillance wears like a stone grinding against a stone; the intention of the wearing is to finally internalize Israel’s visual domination. In an article in November 2003, in the daily newspaper Haaretz, journalist Emmanuel Sivan quoted Ariel Sharon’s having said, while flying over the occupied territories, “Arabs should see Jewish lights every night from 500 metres.” I’m asking, as I read, how is this not inflammatory and provocative? Sharon was speaking about a territory whose occupation is still being disputed.

It’s easy to say from the comfort of my Canadian home that I intensely want safety for the Jewish state and from it–fairness and moral conduct.

Frontier myths are irrepressibly appealing. If situations carry the fatigue of failure, it’s always possible to strike out for new territories; it’s a notion the United States consistently adheres to. The maverick who leads the charge and risks leaving what’s known is admired, charismatic and cheered on. He crosses borders, refusing to acknowledge boundaries, and reads them as permeable or elastic, contingent. We need myths to reinforce our identity; we engage them to buttress our sense of ourselves and because we want dreams. The myth of the frontiersman that Ariel Sharon embodied made him and the forces he led effective and highly functional. His operations in 1953, as the commander of Special Commando Unit 101 in the West Bank, vividly represent the tactics and effects of military activity in their full horror. Weizman includes with his own, the comments of Israeli sociologist and professor Adriana Kemp on the ultimate effects of these operations. “By turning the frontier into a mythical space and ‘border transgressions…into a symbolic practice and a spatial ritual,’ it signified the fact that the borders of the Israeli state were liquid and permeable, presenting its territoriality as a still incomplete project.”

Boundaries and borders, however they shifted, were used to divide and splinter populations. Walls to hive off a secure space or interrupt transit, and tunnels built to avoid confrontations, confirmed Weizman’s hollow land, which effect extended, of course, to the adjacent areas as well–a wall having two sides, confusing notions of who was inside and who outside. The territories were intersected, traversed and friable.

For both sides in the conflict, beginning with the second Intifada in 2000, the terrain shifted to the urban, the targets became each other’s cities. Weizman talked with Shimon Naveh, co-director of otri, the Operational Theory Research Institute, in 2005, one of the think tanks established by the IDF to respond to the new urban settings. This new warfare, as he described it, is postmodern in nature. “Decisions to act must be based on chance, probability, contingency and opportunity, and these must be taken only on the ground and in real time.” Producing soldiers who can think and respond to the circumstances of the moment is the goal of an organization like OTRI where the required reading list includes theorists who were re-thinking ideas of space: Deleuze, Guattari, Beatriz Colomina, Bernard Tschumi and Guy Debord. “We have established a school,” Naveh said, “and developed a curriculum that trains ‘operational architects.’”

Rethinking spatial dimensions in the contained setting of a narrow labyrinth of alleys meant entering and boring into an increasingly close and interior “theatre of war.” Now the stage was domestic and the city spaces were hollowed out. Players in the conflict–soldiers–punched holes through ceilings, walls, crossed bedrooms and sitting rooms to remain invisible and employ tactics of surprise. Using descriptive language associated with the study of animals and insects, the soldiers were swarming, their actions an infestation. Weizman writes, “This three-dimensional movement through walls, ceilings and floors through the bulk of the city reinterpreted, short-circuited and recomposed both architectural and urban syntax.” The city was now conceived, he added, “as not just the site, but as the very* medium* of warfare.”

When an opportunity of help in reconstructing broken cities or setting in place essential infrastructure is seen by the recipients as a loss of “the right of return,” the escalating fever generated by this sustained, protracted conflict makes any resolution appear beyond reach. Weizman says it is referred to as the “humanitarian paradox.” It is an intransigence that makes a reconcilable, liveable present an illusion. Space is indeed upturned when an offer of aid is read only pejoratively as pacification or as acceding to the oppressor.

Weizman is contemptuous of the “winners” in an uneven operation. The distaste he expresses is evident when he says that the victory of an organized, highly trained and powerful military is short lived and poor gain. It only temporarily conceals what he describes as “the very impasse and long-term futility of this strategizing, the political stupidity, the military crudeness and the waste of life and dignity.” His disappointment in, and distaste for, the way Israel has conducted itself is profound. Outside of the issues of morality only genuine care provokes such a deeply felt response.

Unwilling to be overtaken by the futility of the idea inherent in the humanitarian paradox, he looks to the operations of Médecins sans Frontières as a possible model where there is an understanding that, as practitioners in volatile settings, they have access to information not available to anyone else. In circumstances where they are compelled to both “bear witness” to the truth of a situation and to provide professional services, Weizman says architects working in conflict zones could also bear professional witness to what he identifies as crimes conducted through transformation of the built environment in which they were in some way complicit. He looks to the group ICAHD, Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, which protests the destruction of Palestinian houses and then rebuilds them, that notes and comments on bureaucratic obstructions to planning and building and conducts research assessing architectural practice itself, becoming its own form of radical critical practice. “Its methods,” he says, “show that research produced from within architecture, can itself become architecture.”

I haven’t read a book that has troubled me more. It might be prideful to say that Israel has always been held by the rest of the world to a higher level of moral conduct and that these expectations were justified. This is why the litany of actions and misdeeds that fill this book are so disturbing. My expectations for the country remain high. We can begin in a notional and actual way on foot, like Francis Alÿs, to retrace a path that winds and loops and connects two states, where sometimes the political can be poetic. That line through space can seam the heart rather than cleave it in two.

Volume 30, Number 1: Production

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #117, published March 2011.

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