Eyal Weizman's "Hollow Land"

Decolonizing Architecture

According to Eyal Weizman, concrete can function as a weapon just like rockets and tanks. In his book "Hollow Land" the Israeli examines how architecture and politics influence each other in the Middle East conflict. Sarah Mersch presents the book

​​Architecture is not apolitical, says Eyal Weizman. To be precise it is not the result of politics, but its medium. And in the case of the Middle East conflict, it is also a medium for occupation – a medium used by the Israeli government to enforce its interests.

Weizman's book runs the gamut from the architectural style of Jerusalem, through the military strategy of Ariel Sharon, the construction of checkpoints and the architecture of Jewish settlements, to the tunnel complexes in Gaza. In an impressive analysis, the author outlines just how decisive a role architecture plays in Israel and the Palestinian territories in acts of repression, military decisions and security policy.

Weizman says that through architecture, an ideology becomes a reality. And this reality facilitates land settlement and expropriation. "The destruction of Palestinian refugee camps and cities and the building of settlements are complementary implementations of politics in a spatial context," says the architect, who has been examining the role of architecture in the region for almost ten years – initially for the Israeli NGO "B'tselem", and now as director of the Centre for Architectural Research at Goldsmith's College in London.

When building materials become a weapon

When the Israeli army attacked the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank early in 2002, Palestinian fighters initially had the upper hand. Many Israeli soldiers died in the clashes because they did not know their way around the complex network of alleyways in the camp.

Whereupon the Israeli army decided to use bulldozers to cut seven open strips through the city. This was the first step towards total destruction of the camp. When the Palestinians rebuilt Jenin after the Israeli troop withdrawal, the streets were made wider – in fact, wide enough to allow an Israeli tank to pass through.

photo: AP
Open strips through the city – an Israeli tank in the newly-constructed, wide streets of Jenin

​​It was a way of ensuring that houses would not be destroyed in future attacks – and at the same time, it made the Israeli army's job easier. It was the Muslim Red Crescent, the pendant to the Red Cross organization that led the construction project with funds from the Gulf.

The reconstruction of refugee camps is often paradoxical, says Weizman, because the Palestinians want the camp to retain its temporary character. "It should not become a city, because as a camp it upholds the right of return," he says.

Weizman believes that Gaza will soon experience the same problems as Jenin. "How can you provide for decent living conditions if you don't build a proper city, but rather a refugee camp whose existence is temporally limited?" he asks.

An unwitting cog in the occupation machine

In his book, Weizman argues that every concession made to the Palestinians along the course of the Israeli West Bank barrier, and every improvement of the situation at checkpoints is, at the same time, a step towards the recognition of Israel's dominance, towards normalization.

An Israeli politician recently accused aid organizations of betraying Israel, says Weizman. The claims were countered by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who said that aid organizations are in truth the most important law enforcement officers.

Eyal Weizman (photo: Edition Nautilus)
Eyal Weizman is an architect and director of the "Centre for Research Architecture" at the University of London. He works with various human rights organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories

​​"It can happen that human rights organizations unwittingly become a cog in the occupation machine and that their actions bolster Israeli military interests. We have to increase our awareness of this paradox situation," warns Weizman.

Just as the reconstruction of refugee camps often follows a paradoxical procedure, Weizman also sees a paradox in the design of Jewish settlements. They are usually located in strategically advantageous positions on hilltops, visible from far away and immediately recognizable from their typical red rooftops.

Settlers are obliged to report any suspicious movements to the military immediately – they are a part of the security apparatus. But take a look at a prospectus for one of these settlements, and the aim is not to support the military, but primarily to gain an unimpeded view of the Holy Land – the Palestinian territories. The settlers are caught up in a paradoxical situation, argues Weizman.

This is because the main motivation for moving to a settlement is to recreate an authentic Biblical existence on the land, an existence that is embodied by the Palestinians, the very people that the settlers want to drive away. "At the same time, the Palestinians often view settlement architecture as an icon of modernity and luxury, and are starting to imitate the style," says Weizman.

The paradox role of architecture

"Hollow Land" is packed full of frequently paradoxical examples of the role of architecture such as these. It is a complex book about an even more complex conflict. But "Hollow Land" succeeds in its quest to open the reader's eyes to how the Israeli government is using architecture to enforce its occupation policy.

photo/image: Edition Nautilus
"Wearisome attempts to constantly find an even more complicated way to separate states": reconstruction of the course of the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank

​​The book focuses precisely on a little-known aspect of the Middle East conflict – one that can actually be seen on every street corner.

Eyal Weizman is currently working together with Palestinian colleagues on research into how the settlements might be utilized in future if the settlers were to leave. Their project is called "Decolonizing Architecture".

They are looking at ways of converting the settlement buildings and finding new utilization possibilities that break from the old structures of dominance and control. In the past, buildings left behind by colonial rulers were often simply taken over by the new government. "The prison remained the prison, the administration the administration and the post office, the post office," says Weizman.

Too enmeshed to separate again

In this way, the same hierarchical structure was maintained on a spatial level, just as it had been in place before independence. To avoid such a scenario in the Palestinian territories in future, an alternative use for the buildings should be considered, says Weizman.

But we are still a long way off such a scenario, and Weizman does not believe that the complex structure that has formed over the decades of the conflict can simply be separated into two parts. The region that encompasses Israel and the Palestinian-controlled areas is just too small – and much to complex, he says.

"These wearisome attempts to constantly find an even more complicated way to separate states show that it's just not possible," the author says.

A classic example of this was Bill Clinton's proposal for Temple Mount at the Camp David negotiations. Under his plans, Israel would have gained sovereignty over the Western Wall, and above it – separated by a 1.50-metre UN zone – would have been the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Mosque, only accessible via a bridge that would have led over Israeli territory and through Israeli airspace.

The plan was never realized, to Eyal Weizman's great relief. "A common future is Palestine's only future," he says.

Sarah Mersch

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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