Vertical Disintegration

Vertical Disintegration

A new take on Israel/Palestine: Could Israel’s architecture be the solution to the insoluble disputes?


In 2002 Israel began building a fence, ditch and wall combo between its internationally recognized territory and the Palestinian West Bank, arguing this was the best way to protect Israel’s heartland from Palestinian suicide bombers. In fact, the barrier was a desperate last-minute attempt to resolve a thorny security problem of Israel’s own making. Ever since the late 1970s, Israel’s aggressive colonization project had exponentially increased traffic flows across the Green Line, making it all but impossible to separate legitimate from clandestine travelers. Many of the 400,000 Jewish settlers travel across the Green Line daily, as do thousands of occupation soldiers. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem has given tens of thousands of Palestinians Israeli identity cards, allowing them to cross the line at will. Until recently, there were dozens of potential crossing points, as well as long stretches of unguarded frontier. As a result of these and other Israeli policies, the boundary between “Israel” and “Palestine” had almost disappeared, enormously complicating efforts to filter out suicide bombers. The barrier was thus built to stanch a self-inflicted wound, creating an impregnable obstacle to channel all travel between Israel and the West Bank through a few heavily policed gates.

Many liberals oppose the effort, arguing that since it does not faithfully follow the Green Line, it is a de facto land grab in advance of an Arab-Israeli accord. The wall divides many Palestinian communities in two, cutting Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and will eventually leave 250,000 Palestinians stranded on the wrong side. Yet many occupation opponents view the project more positively, arguing that it is tangible proof of Greater Israel’s demise.

The optimists’ logic is simple. For years, Israel banned any sign of separation from Palestine, erasing the Green Line from official maps and instructing young Israelis that the Land of Israel stretched to the river Jordan. In 2002, for the first time, an Israeli government led by redoubtable hawk Ariel Sharon reversed course, building a borderlike structure that signals, perhaps, the end of the settlement era. Palestinian suicide bombers appeared to have accomplished in just two years what decades of political protest and diplomacy failed to do.

Eyal Weizman, the author of Hollow Land, believes the optimists are wrong. He says Ariel Sharon never conceived of the wall as a dividing line between Palestine and Israel but rather as the last line of defense in a permanent Jewish control matrix stretching across the West Bank. Weizman is a young Israeli architect whose studies of the “architecture of occupation” have won him renown in some quarters and notoriety in others. He has a keen eye for design, space and structure, bringing a refreshingly new perspective to a topic hitherto ruled by journalists, historians and social scientists. The result is one of the most original books on Israel to appear in years.

To reach his pessimistic conclusions, Weizman returns to a bitter debate between Israeli generals after the 1967 war, when IDF troops squared off against Egyptian forces along the Suez Canal. The dominant school of thought, led by then-Chief of Staff Haim Bar Lev, wanted a massive, linear, trench-and-wall barrier along the Israeli side of the canal. The plan was to build with sand, hoping that when Egyptian artillery rounds landed, the barrier would be further compacted. This scheme was opposed by Sharon, then a popular young general, who argued that linear fortifications were passé; a single breach of the line, Sharon warned, would trigger the entire front’s collapse. Instead, he advocated a matrix-like system of “defense in depth” composed of multiple hilltop fortifications stretching back for miles. Engineers would build roads linking smaller front-line forts to larger rear bases, creating a dense thicket of defensive hubs rather than a single brittle line. (The Gaza Strip, which has descended into internal war, was never integral to Israel’s long-term planning. Home to hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants, the Strip is essentially a fenced-in prison where rival gangs battle for control. The “disengagement” has made it easier for the Israeli government to transform it into a military frontier like Lebanon.)

Bar Lev won the debate but his linear fortification almost lost the war. In October 1973, Egyptian engineers melted his barrier with powerful jets of water, sending columns of tanks crashing through the breached line. As Sharon predicted, the Israeli front collapsed, but at the last moment Sharon and others reversed the tide, leading an armored charge across the canal that cut Egyptian armies off in the rear. In large part because of this humiliation, Bar Lev’s Labor Party fled government in disgrace four years later, ceding power for the first time to an insurgent right-wing bloc led by Menachem Begin and his religious allies.

Backed by a growing and increasingly messianic settler movement, Begin, always a champion of the Greater Israel idea, assumed power with a burning desire to colonize the West Bank. As minister in charge of the effort, Sharon was given enormous leeway and vast funds. Previous governments had constructed a thin thread of Jewish settlements along Israel’s Jordan border, but Sharon treated this effort with the same disdain he had expressed for Bar Lev’s Suez line. Instead, Sharon imagined a civilian version of his “defense in depth” plan for the West Bank, including a dense matrix of civilian and military posts scattered across Palestine’s heartland. His dream became reality in the 1980s and early ’90s, when the West Bank buzzed with the sound of Israeli bulldozers. Urban planners worked hand in glove with settlers and soldiers, flooding Palestine with dozens of attractively priced all-Jewish neighborhoods. And while builders placed civilian homes rather than tanks on Palestine’s hilltops, their design, as noted by Weizman’s architect’s eye, followed a military logic, with concentric circles, fences, searchlights and patrol roads. “The outward-facing arrangement of [hilltop] homes,” he writes, allow settlers to look down on Palestinian villages and towns, transforming the West Bank into “an optical matrix radiating out from a proliferation of lookout points/settlements scattered across the landscape.” He quotes Ha’aretz‘s Gideon Levy, who claims most Palestinian homes “can spot the settlement on the hilltop from their windows.” Although the settlements are inhabited by Jewish civilians, they have been integrated into the military’s ongoing efforts to pacify Palestinians. No wonder, then, that they so often serve as targets for attacks by Palestinian militants.

In 2002 Sharon appeared to have suddenly slammed on the brakes, building a linear wall close to the Israeli border in an operation that would have made Bar Lev proud. What happened? Did the leopard really change his spots?

No, Hollow Land claims, suggesting that the wall’s appearance and surrounding media hullabaloo have been misleading. The barrier has in fact “ceased being a singular, contiguous object,” Weizman writes. Instead, it has become a series of “separate shards, fragments and discontinuous vectors. Like a worm sliced into segments each assuming a renewed life, the fragments of the Wall [now]…curl around isolated settlement blocs and along the roads connecting them.” Each of these “depth barriers,” as Israeli officials term them, have their own sensors and fortifications; they are mini-Walls of their own.

Thus, for example, 50,000 settlers living in four key West Bank settlements–Ariel, Emanuel, Qedumim and Karnei Shomron–now reside in walled, extraterritorial islands situated deep within Palestinian space. But since public debate has focused on the wall’s visible, linear components, these and other depth barriers, Weizman says, remain “largely invisible to international criticism.”

The wall’s main north-south component is slated to encompass fifty-five Jewish settlements on its Israeli side, leaving more than 100 on the Palestinian side. Some of these are being transformed into self-contained forts, but others are being connected to the main barrier with protected roads. Few will be willingly abandoned, serving instead as hardened strong-points within Sharon’s original West Bank matrix. If this plan comes to fruition, the north-south barrier will become the last line of defense between Palestinians and Israel, rather than the first point of contact between Israel and a new Palestinian state.

Yet this plan seems to defy logic, since, as Weizman observes, Israel under Sharon and others has repeatedly promised the United States, the Europeans and its own citizens that it will permit the creation of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state. All that is required, Israel’s leaders say, is for the Palestinians to set their own house in order. Still, the settlements slice the West Bank beyond recognition, and Israel gives no indication of dismantling them. How, then, can it promise to create a viable Palestinian state?

It is here that Hollow Land makes its most powerful contribution, offering a vision of the conflict that only an architect could have provided. Israeli planners, Weizman claims, no longer think of the West Bank in two-dimensional terms; instead, they have re-imagined the land as a multilayered system akin to an architect’s project model. In this “hollow land,” Weizman predicts, Israeli planners plan for Jews–and eventually Arabs–to go about their business in vertically separate worlds. Palestinian “contiguity,” in this scenario, will be a three-dimensional affair based on flyovers, tunnels and bridges. “A new way of imagining space has emerged,” Weizman explains. “After fragmenting the surface of the West Bank by walls and other barriers, Israeli planners started attempting to weave it together as two separate but overlapping national geographies–two territorial networks overlapping across the same area in three dimensions, without having to cross or come together.”

Consider Weizman’s assertion that Israel has decoupled Palestine’s land surface from the air and ground beneath. The Israeli government views aerial supremacy as crucial to its military edge and considers Palestinian aquifers vital for its standard of living. Thus Israel has limited Palestinian authority to the surface, trapping a thin Palestinian sliver between two thicker Israeli wedges. Yet since Israel will never withdraw entirely from the West Bank without first defeating its powerful settler lobby, even this wedge-like entity will not likely emerge any time soon. But even this vision is overly optimistic, Weizman says. For the real Israeli plan is to build two vertically segregated transportation networks that will shuttle Jews and Palestinians between their communities in splendid, ethno-national isolation.

To illustrate this point, Weizman describes the bridge-and-tunnel combination Israel built in 1996 to connect Jewish Jerusalem with its Hebron-area settlements. To maintain the artery’s all-Jewish nature, Israeli engineers tunneled underneath the Arab town of Beit Jalla, the surface of which, according to the 1993 Oslo accord, is under exclusive Palestinian authority. Construction crews then elevated other sections of the road on tall pillars, sending Jewish vehicles soaring above Palestinian valleys. The bridges and tunnels themselves are under Israeli control, creating a layered stack of sovereignties. One day, lawyers may designate the point of contact between Jewish bridge and Palestinian surface as an international border.

In a particularly fascinating chapter, Weizman reports that this thinking helped shape US diplomatic efforts. In 2000 President Bill Clinton used verticality to try to broker an accord over Jerusalem’s Old City, where Islamic holy sites, surrounded by their Jewish equivalents, present negotiators with overwhelming challenges. Using input from an Israeli architect, Clinton proposed Palestinian sovereignty over the surface of the Islamic Haram al-Sharif, coupled with Israeli sovereignty over the ground beneath, including the Jewish Temple Mount, and the air above. The Palestinian land patch would be connected to adjacent Arab neighborhoods–which themselves are partially surrounded by Jewish homes–by a pedestrian bridge elevated on pillars sunk in Israeli territory. The Palestine-Israel border, in other words, would flip from horizontal to vertical and then back again.

Although this may have been a laudable attempt at conflict resolution, as Weizman makes clear, most Israeli efforts to reorganize Palestinian space are not so well-meaning. The settlement effort, for example, has brutally transformed the West Bank’s landscape, using violence, theft and displacement to get the job done. Israel’s military is also deeply involved in spatial “re-imagining,” often to devastating effect. In 2002, Weizman reports, Israel’s campaign to reoccupy the West Bank’s densely packed Palestinian refugee camps and neighborhoods foundered in mazes of narrow, winding and stoutly defended alleyways. In response, Israeli commanders creatively reconceptualized Palestinian urban space, “walking through walls” by blowing holes in the sides of Palestinian homes, inserting infantry teams into the openings and sending them burrowing further inward with sledgehammers and explosives. “This space that you look at,” the commander of one such operation explained to Weizman in an interview, “is nothing but your interpretation.” While Weizman does not say so explicitly, this statement illustrates much of Hollow Land‘s overall thesis. Israel never accepts physical or geographic constraints as givens, using force, creativity and financial resources to “build facts on the ground” and bend the environment to its will.

To be sure, some readers may view Weizman’s analysis as excessively bleak, arguing that a more benign application of Israeli spatial creativity could help end the current impasse. In their optimistic moments, Israeli planners envision Palestinians and Jews flowing smoothly through the same West Bank envelope, peacefully driving in separate but secure transportation networks. Neither community will suffer further displacement, and each will pursue its own interests in harmonious isolation. In this appealing scenario, Weizman notes, the West Bank has been reconstructed to resemble a modern airport, with separate inbound and outbound corridors securely shuttling different passenger categories from one place to another. This vision is enormously seductive, using verticality to resolve insoluble disputes. Yet Weizman remains skeptical, arguing that the entire concept is ultimately a futile scheme to “separate the inseparable.” No Israeli architectural design, no matter how creative, can ever untangle the Gordian population knot Israel has created through colonization.

Weizman does not systematically support his pessimism, but it takes little imagination to figure out why he might be so inclined. For starters, Palestinians remain deeply suspicious of Israeli intentions, fearing that anything short of full withdrawal will turn into a trick. Fears of bad Israeli faith are not idle ones. In the 1990s, after all, Israel used the Oslo interregnum to double its settler population, arguing it was “thickening” existing colonies rather than building new ones. To be sure, Palestinians did agree at Oslo to the creation of a tunnel/bridge structure between the West Bank and Gaza, but they would likely oppose expansion of this concept to their entire country. According to Weizman, for example, Clinton’s Jerusalem plan was rejected outright by Yasir Arafat and his aides, who viewed it as an unacceptable infringement of their rights. They feared, it seemed, that Israel and the United States were using verticality to play them for suckers. To a population long controlled by Israeli self-interest, three-dimensional plans must seem like deception rather than creative diplomacy.

More important, perhaps, Palestinians remain bitterly opposed to Jewish settlements, built as they are on strategic hilltops that dominate their surroundings, monopolize scarce resources and physically partition their land. Armed settlers have provoked much strife, and few Palestinians would accept a plan that left these Jewish forts in their midst. Nothing in the history of Israeli occupation, moreover, suggests Israel would ever invest the necessary effort to build a proper Palestinian transportation system. “Separate but equal” rarely works, and the Jewish bridge-and-tunnel network is likely to remain far superior to its Palestinian equivalent. Two worlds have already emerged, Weizman writes, explaining that “one is an upper-land–the land of the settlements–a scattering of well-tended hilltop neighborhoods woven together by modern highways for the exclusive use of its inhabitants; the other, Palestine–crowded cities, towns, and villages that inhabit the valleys between and underneath the hills, maintaining fragile connections on improvised underpasses.” No matter what Israeli planners tell the public, this inequality is likely to persist for years to come.

Would all this hold true even if vertical reconstruction were underwritten by billions of international dollars and much diplomatic goodwill? Weizman does not say, but even this rosy scenario does not seem promising. Although some Palestinians might be comforted by international peacekeepers and World Bank investments, a layered stack of sovereignties would still be encumbered by endless potential flashpoints. Each flyover or bridge would become a target for militants, and each tunnel would become a potential deathtrap. The vertical system, Weizman argues, is a “bewildering and impossible Escher-like territorial arrangement,” a fragile fantasy that will not stand the test of time. It is architectural theater masquerading as political solution, not a real, workable compromise. The smoothly functioning airport is not likely to emerge; instead, a vertically reconstructed West Bank will probably become a Mad Max nightmare, with Palestinian and Israeli gunmen blasting each other’s vehicles from above and below. Horizontal partitions may be unimaginative and boring, but if there is no real will to live together, they can probably do a better job of separation. Yet since even a partial Israeli withdrawal is unlikely, the conflict will likely splutter and flare for years.

Like some Palestinians and Israelis, Weizman appears disenchanted with partition, sensing that a shared binational state may offer the best long-term solution. He does not explore this notion in much depth, however, and offers little evidence that it will become practical anytime soon.

The book’s prognosis is thus desperate and gloomy, but Weizman supports it with prodigious documentation, rare interviews and a remarkable eye for the politics of design. His chapter on Jerusalem’s architectural bylaws, for example, is a masterpiece of political analysis, noting that after the 1967 occupation, Israeli planners sought to integrate Jewish settlements visually with the rest of the city by using traditional Palestinian materials and designs. The “Jerusalem stone” that builders are now legally bound to use comes in fact from Palestinian quarries. Its price, however, puts it far beyond the reach of ordinary Palestinians. Jewish construction thus uses Palestinian land, materials and designs to build homes destined for exclusive Jewish use, and the irony of all this is impressive.

Another arresting chapter focuses on the use of postmodern urban theories by cutting-edge Israeli security analysts. Military officers have been assigned hard-core theoretical texts to get a better handle on the chaotic structure of Palestinian militancy, spurring new military methods, including the “walking through walls” approach to urban warfare. Critical theory, Weizman warns, is easily “subsumed and made operative” by officials in power.

Weizman’s architectural approach makes Hollow Land a tonic for even the most jaded observers of the Israel-Palestine tragedy, including those who fear nothing truly new can ever be written about the Middle Eastern conflict. The book’s prognosis is not uplifting, but the quality of its analysis is truly exciting.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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