By Sheikh Muzamil Hussain, Guest Contributor
The relationship between political will and the built environment is conspicuous and stands out most in turmoil-laden geographies. Architecture, beyond its primary function, can be perpetuated as a tool for occupation and dominance. Hollow Land, a book by Eyal Weizman published in 2007, navigates through the later proposition. Weizman has been an outspoken critique of Israel’s policies its occupation of Palestine and has written widely on the geopolitics of the Middle East.
The book specifically takes on architecture as an expression of occupation. It explains with precise detail the role of apartheid wall; a 100 km long and 13-meter-high edifice separating the Palestine and Israel, case of illegal settler colonies, constant invigilation of Palestinian lands through panopticon watch towers, in addition to architectural elements like color coding, detail of cladding and other features pertinent to domain of urban structure.
From demographic prism, the book discusses Israel’s intrusion into Palestinian cities and intentional changing of urban population thresholds to declare scarcely populated settlements as ‘towns.’ Wiezman sees geography, apartheid policies, and politics of domination buttressing each other. Each of the physical element on the ground, he argues is ‘there to express something, it’s just that we need to decode it.’
Architecture reverberates beyond its primary function. Weizman quotes from Lahav Harkov, a retired Israeli general about Israel’s becoming of ‘world champions of occupation’ and alluding that occupation is ‘an art form’. Over the years, Israel’s domination of territory in Palestine areas as demarcated by blue line drafted by the United Nations in 1948 has been constantly modulated and abused by Israel.
Palestine as of today is constituted of three areas: East Jerusalem, West Bank, and the south-west Gaza Strip bordering Egypt. First two were part of conflict from the start whereas the Gaza Strip came under the purview of domination lately in 1967 following the Six-day war. Israel not only successfully thwarted the conglomeration of Arab opponents but also won territory more than it originally had before the war.
The idea of Israel as land of Jews is based on idea of ‘people without land’ in first place. Not is that proposition unethical because it was realized at the cost of throwing out the local Palestinian inhabitants from their land, but also it is based on doubtful historical justification. Palestine as a geographical entity with local inhabitants precedes the advent of Judaism as socio-religious unit. Historical references of the region date back to 12th Century BC during the time of Egyptian King Ramesses II. Later figures like Herodotus, Aristotle, Ptolemy also wrote about Palestine. Nur Masalha’s book, Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History documents the topic is methodical detail.
The art of apartheid, Israel orchestrates in controlling the Palestinian lands is played out at three levels: the subsoil, the surface, and the air. Palestinian territories reserve the compromised sovereignty only at the surface level whereas the subsoil and air are controlled by the Israeli government resulting in a vertical apartheid. Oslo Accords of 1993 argued for the case that Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem should be connected by road, usually by flyovers surpassing the Israel land below. Projects of such nature would directly connect the masses of Palestine and the flyovers itself would act as facilitators. Israel, however rebutted the idea citing security issues. It remains ironical given how the Israel has constructed thousands of kilometers of road network, both above surface and underground disregarding sovereignty of Palestine.
Dozen tunnels cut through hollow lands of what was once Palestinian farmlands. The roads cut across Palestinian territories and decrease the commute time of Israeli citizens. The constructions are usually aimed to proselytize into Palestinian lands and at the same time to connect mainland Israel with illegal settlements. Israel under the policy of ‘Metropolitan Jerusalem’, enshrined in policies of government mandates Israeli authorities to expand the capital territory far and beyond and in the process engulfing Palestinian lands into its jurisdiction fold.
Settlements are the most aggressive tool used by Israel to induce control to grass root level in West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they permeate almost every tract of land, and the way they are planned in midst of Palestinian towns makes the local Palestinians vulnerable in many ways and at the same time enabling Israel to control more effectively. Ariel Sharon in 1998 remarked what could be attested as the policy of Israel since then; ‘to move, run, and grab as many hilltops as we can.’ It usually starts with the placement of few mobile containers on hilltop until it is captured in its entirety.
Language and Form of Design
It’s surprising how a building material can convey the language of occupation. Throughout its glorious as well as confrontational history, Jerusalem houses architectural sites of importance to Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions. Although the style may differ for each but there is a common denominator: the Jerusalem stone. The yellow tinted stone is available in abundance in and around the region.
When British colonized the Palestine in 1918, the aesthetically sensitive British builders saw the neglected plight of its cities. To them, the built form was mix of congested and haphazardly built houses lacking any sort of unifying appeal.
Determined to find a solution to the Jerusalem’s ‘overcrowding and unsightliness’, the British colonel Ronald Storrs invited influential British engineer, William Mclean to draw a development plan. He instructed to dismantle shackles and old torn out buildings. In the process, the British designers designated Jerusalem stone as mandatory cladding stone in order to achieve the ‘biblical outlook’. For Storrs, stone embodied biblical tradition and ‘Jerusalem literally a city build on rock’. Decades later the same archeological tradition and Jerusalem stone was invoked by the Zionist regime for propagandist purposes.
The 1968 Master plan of Jerusalem, keeping up with the earlier development plans singled out Jerusalem stone’s ability to render a ‘holy city image’ to occupied areas of extended metropolitan areas of Jerusalem. In course of time, certain planners and architects did stand up to challenge this notion due to the emergence of high rise and rising prices of stone but the Israeli government subdued all such voices. In last few decades, Israel’s builders have come up with affordable ways to just put 6-centimeter slates of stone instead of wholesome masonry but nonetheless the stone on the exterior remains the standard.
Topography has also had a huge influence on the occupation. Israel usually places its settlement colonies on the apex of hills. It helps the IDF to patrol the surrounding areas with three sixty degrees vigil. This principle is vividly explicated by the settlements. Apart from stone cladding, the law mandates the settlement buildings to have red colored roofs to help differentiate in case of air raids.
Israel has induced a sort of gentrification effect in Arab neighborhoods which eventually increases the property rates causing Palestinians to retreat to areas beyond ‘metropolitan Jerusalem’ which by law is a condition for Palestinians to acquire citizenship.
Once out of Jerusalem, these people are vulnerable to various kinds of human rights violations.
There are also efforts to constrict physical expansion of Palestinian urban areas. For example, the neighborhoods of Ramat Eshkol and the French Hill north of the old city were laid out to form an elongated arc that cut the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat from the Palestinian old city and the neighborhood of Seikh Jarah, which previously comprised a continuous urban area.
Appropriating the Archeology
Archeology possesses the power to dismantle whatever is seen as ‘non-original’. The Maghariba quarters and African quarters were razed overnight by Israel just after the 1967 war ended. David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel claimed in his memoirs that the Jewish right over Palestine is based on digging soil with our own hands. What he said referred to two practices that would establish and demonstrate Zionist right to the land.
Wherever the Zionists found traces of Hebraic past, they first reverted the names of places followed by demolition of whatever stood on it. Thousands of houses belonging to Palestinians were razed on the same principle. A year later after the 1967 war, Israeli government invited elite planners and architects from across the world for the cause. In one such project to revive the Hebrew past, Architect Louis I. Kahn was commissioned to construct Hurva synagogue on the same design it had existed before going into ruins. Somehow the project couldn’t find the light of the day, but several other projects returned to liveliness.
Resources and Amenities
Land presently under Israel lacks the natural reserves to sufficiently supply water to its residents. The mountain aquifer’s that supply 80% of the water into Israel are in West Bank. Israel cites Hebraic past disputing any authority of Palestine over the resources. Ironically the water, as well as the stone, is extracted from Palestinian lands and for compensation the Palestinians are returned with sewerage that Israel flows downslope to valleys around the West Bank hills. This has resulted in a health crisis for Palestinian people.
Over these years the number of settlers sit at a staggering number of around 7,50,000. The official policy asserts the ratio of Jews to Muslims kept at 78:22 but the actual numbers have always remained more than 22 percent for the Muslim population because of reasons like birthrate and dense neighborhoods.
The Palestinian neighborhoods like Muslim Quarters house at least twice the people of its capacity. The reason for over densification of the Muslim neighborhoods can be reasonably attributed to Israel’s vindictive razing policy which specifically target Muslim houses.
Unemployment is rampant and healthcare infrastructure in the state of no-existence. Palestinians have not only been snatched of their rights but they have also been made dependent at every conjecture.
Palestinians are queued like herds to enter premises which belong to them. In Palestine, violence is perpetuated with the help of architecture. The crime began on drawing board itself and as Weizman remarks, ‘It is architecture only that can rise above this.’
The author is an Urban and Regional Planner and alumnus of CEPT Ahmedabad.