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Architecture as Military Strategy


The recent assumption of control in Gaza by Hamas may be more illusory than US media has represented it as. As Eyal Weizman makes clear in is fascinating and detailed book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, there are innumerable and often invisible security apparatus set up across the region that ensure almost absolute control of the region’s surface, airspace and subterranean acreage by the IDF and other Israeli security forces. The book, which takes the idea of an architecture of oppression written about by Mike Davis in his book City of Quartz and applies it to the paranoid security regime of Tel Aviv, is a tale of the intentional construction of a suburban security state. It is a state that provides an illusory reality of swimming pools and ranch housing for the occupiers and an increasingly barren, crowded life for the occupied.

Weizman is the Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College of the University of London, so he knows about architecture. His work with various NGOs and human rights groups in Palestine has given him the opportunity to observe Israel’s ongoing campaign to disconnect (if not eradicate) the Palestinians from their land. As his book makes clear, this campaign is not accidental, nor is it something that only began because of the armed struggle waged by Palestinians against Tel Aviv’s occupation. It is, in fact and deed, part and parcel of the Israeli project from its inception. Furthermore, this campaign has been waged in the military and architectural sphere in collusion with Israel’s imperial cohorts–primarily the United States and Britain.

By banning certain materials and the construction of abodes by certain elements of the existing population of Palestine, the Israelis have been able to not only push Palestinians from their ancestral lands, they have also been able to borrow their aesthetic methods to construct a Jerusalem and Israel that looks like a television version of the Old Testament. Meanwhile, in the Occupied Territories, the settlers have built (with millions of dollars worth of government monies) suburban subdivisions with walls that block out the villages and camps around them. At the same time, these suburban settlements serve a role similar to the US Army forts of the Old West. In other words, they provide surveillance points and advance groupings of troops to keep the occupied indigenous people under control.

It is this juncture of civilian architecture and military strategy that provides some of the most interesting aspects of Weizman’s work. A reader of US mainstream newspapers probably assumes that the Jewish settlers that set up their tents and trailers in the middle of a crossroads used primarily by Palestinians are acting alone and against the wishes of the Israeli government and military. Indeed, some folks probably even find these settlers lives to be slightly romantic, like the settlers of the Native American territories of North America. Yet, as Weizman, makes clear, things are not necessarily as they seem. In fact, many of these settlements are begun where they are precisely because their presence serves a uniquely military purpose. Which brings us back to those US Army forts set up across so-called Indian Territory in the American Old West. These settlements are as much military outposts as they are living spaces. They are not innocent developments made just for people who want to live in peace in the land of their religion.

Because of their situation under occupation, the Palestinians find themselves in a double bind. In order for them to maintain a hope of return, they must maintain their refugee status as defined by the United Nations. In order to do this, they must not build anything that can be considered permanent. Consequently, there is never a sense of permanence in Gaza and the West Bank. On the other hand, this temporariness allows Israel to take continuous “security measures” whose main purpose is to permanently expand the borders of the Israeli state. This was seen during the Oslo negotiations of the 1990s when settlers and the military continued to grab land while the negotiations continued. It is also present in the neverending incursions into Gaza and the West Bank by the Israeli military (despite the supposed withdrawal from Gaza in 2006.) Regarding those incursions, the Israeli Knesset is currently debating a bill that would declare Gaza a foreign entity. If passed, this law would allow the Israeli military to do whatever it wants to Gaza and its inhabitants and not owe them a schekel for reparations. Under the current status, Tel Aviv is supposed to pay the owners of the homes they destroy. Of course, this doesn’t happen too often , nor does Gaza have true independence. Yet, this bill would make everything Israel does legal (and without any legal repercussions), just like the expulsions of Jews carried out by the Nazis and the arrests of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

In what can only be termed a postmodern attempt to control all dimensions of space, the Israelis have constructed a multilevel system of roads, checkpoints and walls in and around the Occupied Territories. These roads are restricted to Israeli traffic and provide the travelers with a means to get from one settlement to another without ever having to see a Palestinian. Meanwhile, the construction of the so-called Apartheid Wall (by its detractors) often prevents Palestinians from tending their crops and visiting their family that happen to be on the other side of the Israeli-constructed barrier. Of course, in order to build the wall, the Israelis found it necessary to destroy any houses and fields that lay in the path they had determined for its construction. It is a path, by the way, that continually shifts according to the needs of the Israeli military and various commercial enterprises hoping to develop certain areas not currently on the Israeli side.

In addition to the Wall, the Palestinians find themselves waiting hours at roving checkpoints set up by the Israeli military, often for no apparent reason other than to remind the Palestinians of the Israeli’s control. Since the Palestinians can not use the Israeli roads, tunnels are dug under the roads so they can get from one point to another without setting foot on the road. Tunnels have also been dug by the Palestinians for the express purpose of getting past Israeli security. It is these tunnels that the Israelis destroy houses in Gaza to find. So. like the NLF forces in Vietnam during the US war on their country, the Palestinians have also turned to a subterranean network to wage their resistance. This has furthered the perception of a multidimensional battle–the postmodern conception of space referred to above.

Regarding postmodernism, Weizman points out that the Israeli theorists behind much of the recent construction in Israel and the Territories are students of such postmodern thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Guy Debord, whose concepts of non-linearity and critiques of postcolonialism have been turned on their head by the Israeli military and used to overcome the asymmetry of the Palestinian resistance and to reinforce the occupation of Palestinian lands. In short, the military has taken some of the principles of these social and cultural critics and reworked them to serve their needs.

Weizman’s text is a dense, yet readable work. While a familiarity with the Israeli occupation and its history is useful to one’s understanding of his claims, it is not essential. Nor is it necessary for the reader to be well-grounded in architectural theory. Fascinating in its detail and often alarmingly straightforward in its conclusions, Hollow Land lays bare the intelligent brutality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its architectural engineering. Furthermore, it reveals the nature of that occupation–a nature that can best be described by borrowing the title of a book written by Hannah Arendt about another type of engineering. What Weizman details within these pages is nothing less than a modern day example of what Arendt so aptly called “the banality of evil.”

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net




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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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