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UK architects, planners and other construction industry professionals campaigning for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.

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Tuesday
Jul222008

Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh

Taking you home: "Palestinian Walks"
Lora Gordon, The Electronic Intifada, 21 July 2008

The travel memoir fills our shelves with vicarious adventure. It leads us down the roads we will never travel and feeds us at tables where we will never sit. Who needs ordinary life? We want our chutes down Niagara; we want our treks up Everest. More than anything we want our journeys into ancient and exotic worlds.

With such dreams in hand did 19th-century Western travelers visit the Levant (present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Jordan) in search of the biblical "Holy Land." Thus they came, saw and recorded their fantasy and their disappointment, and bound them together into a beautiful canon of half-truths and outright lies that first helped shape popular perception and finally were used to help justify the colonization of Palestine.

Who could imagine "a land without a people" without William Thackeray's vivid depiction of Palestine as "parched mountains, with a grey bleak olive tree trembling here and there; savage ravines and valleys paved with tombstones -- a landscape unspeakably ghastly and desolate ..."?

Who would have felt inspired to "make the desert bloom" without Herman Melville's description of "Whitish mildew pervading whole tracts of landscape -- bleached-leprosy-encrustations of curses-old cheese-bones of rocks -- crunched, knawed, and mumbled -- mere refuse and rubbish of creation ... all Judea seems to have been accumulations of this rubbish"?

Yet, these accounts also compelled Raja Shehadeh, founder of the human rights organization Al-Haq, to provide a counter-narrative, in Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape. "The accounts I have read do not describe a land familiar to me," Shehadeh writes, "but rather a land of these travelers' imaginations. Palestine has been constantly reinvented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants."

European, and later Zionist colonizers, traveled to Palestine looking for ancient Israel. Many wrote travelogues that silenced Palestinian history, says Shehadeh, and paved the way for the Jewish state to take control not only of the land but also of Palestinian time and space.

But here is a travel memoir that crosses no continents, only hills and valleys; that searches for recent present rather than distant past, and celebrates the real and the ordinary in order to debunk the imagined extraordinary. Its title ironically evokes the map-filled travel guides of tourists visiting natural parks. But Shehadeh's text runs counter to the world of maps, containing, he reveals, not a single walk. Rather, this is an account of six sarhat, the plural of sarha, or to wander.

"A man going on a sarha," he writes, "wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would qualify as a sarha. Going on a sarha implies letting go. It is a drug-free high, Palestinian style."

The text itself resembles a sarha, meandering from the hills of Ramallah, to Shehadeh's family history, into Palestinian history, and finally the foreboding present. Waist-deep in wildflowers, readers wade through a land that tells its own stories. We learn that Shehadeh's family belonged to one of the five founding clans of Ramallah 500 years ago, but left farming life for urban Jaffa. In 1948 they were expelled and much of the family found itself back in Ramallah, displaced urbanites who rarely visited the city's surrounding hills. Not until returning from law school in London did Shehadeh, preoccupied by "Israel's long-term policies toward the Occupied Territories," begin to wander out of the city of his birth.

Shehadeh writes: "The hills began to be my refuge against the practices of the occupation, both manifest and surreptitious, and the restrictions traditional Palestinian society imposed on our life. I walked in them for escape and rejuvenation." Foreign to the hills, he at first got lost, but finally he "began to have an eye for the ancient tracks ... and for the new, more precarious ones, like catwalks along the edge of the hills, made more recently by sheep and goats in search of food and water." The sarha finally proved more natural than urban navigation: "I found myself to be a good pathfinder even though I easily got lost in cities."

Shehadeh takes us through rich passages as he perches on a large rock, tests his lungs running up a hill, or rests to take in a view:

"All you can see are hills and more hills, like being in a choppy sea with high waves, the unbroken swells only becoming evident as the land descends westward. This landscape, we are told, was formed by the tremendous pressure exerted by tectonic forces pushing toward the east. It is as though the land has been scooped in a mighty hand and scrunched, the pressure eventually resulting in the great fault that created Jordan's rift valley, through which runs the River Jordan. ... Its surface is not unlike that of a gigantic walnut."

On that first sarha in 1978, we stumble accidentally onto Shehadeh's uncle's old qasr, a stone hut long abandoned: "It was as though in this qasr time was petrified into an eternal present, making it possible for me to reconnect with my dead ancestor through this architectural wonder." We meet Abu Ameen, who rejected the family's city life to raise his family in this house while supporting himself as a stonemason. Reflecting on the slow erosion of these lands under settlement construction, Shehadeh wonders what his uncle would think to see it now. "Would his spirit be brimming with anger at all of us for allowing it to be destroyed and usurped, or would he just be enjoying one extended sarha as his spirit roamed freely over the land, without borders as it had once been?"

Unlike the accounts of travel writers past, Shehadeh's hills are full of people, not only the ghost of his uncle but also the plaintiffs he represents in court who seek to preserve their land from settlement use; old men meditating and young boys running around; the negotiators of the Oslo Accords who return from abroad with Yasser Arafat to rule the country, and the politicians who rise to challenge them.

Each sarha walks us through different and multifaceted aspects of Israel's occupation, from the draining of the Dead Sea to irrigate settlement lands, to the concrete "poured over these hills" to support Israel's expanding industrial zones, to the wall that not only isolates communities but also destroys their land and livelihood. Over time, the hills, robbed of simplicity, contradict themselves. They provide solace only next to grief, freedom only coupled with imprisonment, and sanctity never without danger. Finally, we find the hills that once provided Shehadeh with an escape from occupation have been transformed into its quintessential landscape, and Thackeray's and Melville's dreary accounts have been fully realized into the Jewish-only settlements that claimed them as inspiration. In this upside-down land, Shehadeh gets lost in a fearsome labyrinth of settler highways, and dodges bullets as Palestinian security forces shoot from a distance.

Honest, haunting and heartbreaking, this travelogue hits close to home while transporting us not only into Palestine's telling geography, but also into our own daily paths, making us question how they, too, shape our lives.

Lora Gordon lives in Chicago, where she studies journalism at Northwestern University and works at a community health center.


Related Links
Saturday
Jan262008

Destruction as Cultural Cleansing

from Building Design 

3 February 2006

A new book examines how attackers use the tactical eradication of architecture.

The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War
Robert Bevan
Reaktion Books, HB, 240pp £19.95

"The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then you have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was."
Milan Kundera, The Book Of Laughter and Forgetting.

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Jan132008

Lines in the Sand

Interview on the book - A Civilian Occupation - The Politics of Israeli Architecture

Edited by Eyal Weizman & Rafi Segal    

 Verso Press


 

Lines in the sand



Israeli architect Eyal Weizman won a competition to represent his country at an international conference. But the invitation was abruptly cancelled when it was discovered that his work criticised Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank. He talks to Esther Addley about the politically loaded nature of planning in the region

Thursday July 25, 2002
The Guardian


Eyal Weizman smooths out his map across his enormous desk and turns expectantly for a response. He knows it's impressive, just as he knows it's bewildering. The product of 11 months' labour in collaboration with the human rights organisation B'tselem, the Israeli architect has produced his own cartographic representation of the West Bank, with every settlement and every settler road, each expropriated field and each Palestinian village to which it once belonged, all marked in different shades of blue, brown and green. The midnight blue smudges, the settlement areas, he calls "the stains". The occupied Palestinian area resembles nothing so much as a sickly pockmarked kidney.
 

It is extraordinarily detailed, almost unfathomably so, and that is partly Weizman's point. If you thought the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was fiendishly complicated, he is saying, you are wrong: it is much more complex than that. And intentionally so. "Complexity was always a propaganda technique of Israel. Whenever you speak to an Israeli politician and you say, 'Well, why don't you retreat', they say, 'Oh, it's far too complex'. So the territorial aspect of the conflict has become very much the domain of experts, and that was what Israel wanted. If you are not an expert, everything you argue they can tell you, 'Oh, it's unfeasible.' Whereas we want people to understand, we want to make it as clear as possible."

Unashamedly of the Israeli left, the 31-year-old, who also lectures at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, says he set out to critique the policy of illegal settlements not primarily with moral or legalistic arguments, but having reached his conclusions from architectural examination. "If you are an architect and you understand that the main manifestation of this conflict is through the landscape and the built environment, it is almost your responsibility to act vis a vis that. It would be bizarre now for me to engage just within a normal architectural practice in Israel, building houses and so on."

That reluctance, however, is where the trouble began. Earlier this year, along with his partner in his Tel Aviv practice, Rafi Segal, Weizman won a national competition to curate the Israeli stand at the World Congress of Architecture, a biannual event taking place in Berlin this week. Their exhibition, The Politics of Israeli Architecture, undertook the first detailed examination of the spatial form of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, examining how their physical layout is informed by the politics behind them. The catalogue to the exhibition is illustrated with scores of unsettling, but quite beautiful, photographs of settlements taken by the architects themselves while overflying the whole region. It also contains detailed blueprints for the layout of settlements, documents explicitly called "masterplans" by their creators and supposedly in the public domain, but which the pair had to threaten going to the Israeli courts in order to be able to see.

No one at the Congress will see them, however. Earlier this month, Weizman and Segal's stand at the WCA was abruptly cancelled by the Israeli Association of United Architects. Uri Zerubavel, the association's head, told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz last week, "The association thinks that the ideas in the catalogue are not architecture. Heaven help us if this is what Israel has to show. As though only settlements... were built here... My natural instincts tell me to destroy the catalogues, but I won't do that. I won't burn books."

The association has insisted, however, that Weizman and Segal stop distributing the catalogues immediately. (They have refused and it will be published by Babel in Tel Aviv next month.)

The architects insist that the IAUA knew the content of the exhibition, but concede that the material it contains is potentially controversial. "We realised that we could understand the processes of human rights violations not only in quantified space that has been taken, in statistical terms, but that it is the very form and layout of settlements on the urban level, and their positioning within the terrain on a territorial level, that is in breach of basic human rights."

But how can a small town full of civilians infringe people's human rights? "If you look at the layout of settlements, they are always built on hilltops. People know that, but they may not realise that they also are built in rings, over the summit, in a way that generates territorial surveillance in all directions. I began to understand that these are urban-scale optical devices, and every design move in them is calculated to enhance vision." Only by looking at the original architectural plans, he argues, would one register something so simple as the fact that each house is built with its bedrooms innermost, its living quarters facing the vista.

"The planners always speak about the view as pastoral and biblical, almost in a romantic sense. They speak about the terraces and olive groves and stone houses, which are obviously created for them by the Palestinians. The Palestinians are almost like the stage workers who create a set, but they then have to disappear when the lights come on." But it is not only the Palestinians' rights who are infringed, he argues. "The army also uses the eyes of the civilian settlers, almost hijacks them, to generate territorial surveillance. There is almost an illegal use of civilians to generate supervision of another part of the civilian population."

The more Weizman tries to elucidate his understanding of the way the space of the occupied territories has been partitioned during the conflict, the more difficult he is to follow. In a series of articles entitled The Politics of Verticality, the architect has argued that the division of territory along vertical as well as horizontal planes - the only way the two communities can put into practice their demands for entirely separate sovereignty over the same space - makes the West Bank and Gaza, crucially, a disputed three-dimensional volume rather than two-dimensional area. Even where the Palestinian Authority was nominally given sovereignty of the surface of a section of the territories under the Oslo Accords, he points out, Israel retained sovereignty of the airspace and the subterrain. "So they had to come up with bizarre and insane projects like tunnels and bridges, so an Israeli road would go under a town that the Palestinians have sovereignty over, meaning that the international border is in section. Architecturally, planning-wise, it's entirely unfeasible, and it makes no sense. "

But such a definition, surely, makes all planner maps obsolete, even his own? Weizman agrees, describing the current situation as "Escher-like, a territorial hologram". There are six dimensions at play in the West Bank, he says, three for the Israeli space and three for the Palestinian. "It creates a totally dystopian and weird space. It becomes so intense, it just collapses."

Weizman's conclusion gainsays most diplomatic thinking: he argues that the dream of two discrete states carved side by side is now unworkable. "It makes no sense to have an iron curtain or a concrete curtain between Israel and Palestine and have two nation-states. Even if you build tunnels and bridges, and partition the airways and the subterrain, what do you do with Jerusalem? Somebody calculated that you need 64km of wall in Jerusalem alone to partition Israelis from Palestinians, and 40 tunnels and bridges to join the different areas. This is an ecological and planning nightmare, and it is a nightmare for the economy of Jerusalem. It is nonsense. It is the ideas of politicians who don't understand territory or architecture or planning."

So what possible resolution can there be? Weizman's solution, fittingly, is a planners' one. New maps need to be drawn, he argues, which illustrate the two parties' geographical, ecological and infrastructure interdependence, emphasising the importance of such factors over political outlines. His hope is that this would eventually create a "functional integration" which would, in time, come to supersede political myth-making. "Obviously it sounds like a totally wacko idea now, but I am a real believer in this kind of bureaucracy. There needs to be a process set in motion for an incremental functional union.

He knows that such a plan requires the complete abandonment of the Zionist project on the Israeli side, and of Palestinian national aspirations? It is far away but I think it's not that weird."

"People in Israel don't really understand the political use of space [in the West Bank], they don't really understand where things are." That was one of the reasons behind his determination to create a more accurate map, he says, and to present the full detail of the settlement layouts, before he was silenced. "They want to say that architecture is nothing to do with politics, but architects and planners have always been the executive arms of the Israeli state, erasing the old cartography and trying to create their own on top of it."

· The politics of verticality is published on www.opendemocracy.net

Friday
Jan112008

Sovereignty by Stealth - Review of Hollow Land

Sovereignty by stealth

http://www.newstatesman.com/200801100043#reader-comments 

Ben White

Published 10 January 2008

Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation
Eyal Weizman Verso, 288pp, £19.99

Last year, I experienced at first hand Israel's new-look occupation. Intending to cross into Israel from the northern West Bank, I arrived at the Jalama checkpoint expecting the usual token passport check. Instead, I was told that it was forbidden for me to use this particular crossing point. For six hours I sat under the watchful eye of two soldiers, making calls to the British consulate, which, in turn, called various Israeli military officials.

During my extended visit, I had plenty of time to observe my surroundings. One of the new "terminals" that Israel has built, Jalama is on the "Green Line", but there are others that lie well inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). These new checkpoints are built like international borders, with metal detectors, turnstiles, winding passages and the disembodied voices of security personnel.

The occupation's architecture has undergone a number of fundamental changes in recent years. The entrance to Bethlehem is now marked by a terminal, a towering concrete wall and an Israeli sign that reads "Peace be with you". Palestinians travelling within the West Bank now pass through the equally substantial Qalandiya terminal. East Jerusalem, meanwhile, is divided by the contorted loops of the Separation Wall.

This architecture of occupation is thoroughly analysed in the Israeli-born architect Eyal Weizman's Hollow Land. The study takes us to the heart of a conflict which has always been about land, where "the mundane elements of planning and architecture have become tactical tools and the means of dispossession". Behind the headlines, the reality on the ground (as well as above and beneath it) continues to be reshaped daily.

Many new arrivals and even resident Israelis are unable to see where Israel proper ended and where the occupation began. This is especially true in occupied East Jerusalem, where the architecture of the annexed settlements has been used to "blur the facts of occupation". It is also true for other settlement blocs that often serve as commuter towns for cities such as Tel Aviv.

Much of the occupation's architecture is a message to the Palestinians. Once, viewing the West Bank colonies, Ariel Sharon remarked that "Arabs should see Jewish lights every night from 500 metres". Indeed, from Bethlehem's restaurants, the view is of the ever-expanding Har Homa settlement, while Palestinian farmers across the West Bank look up from their valleys at the red-roofed houses on the hilltops above.

One of the photographs in Hollow Land is especially striking. At the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, Palestinians wait in line for their papers to be checked by Palestinian Authority policemen. Behind a two-way mirror, however, Israeli agents are at work, vetting every traveller. With this sovereignty charade central to the Oslo peace process, occupation infrastructure replaced "the necessity for the physical presence of Israeli forces within Palestinian cities". Israel can appear to be ceding territory generously while "still dominating the Palestinians physically, collectively and politically by remotely controlling their movements".

Back at the Jalama checkpoint, weary Palestinian men passed through as I waited, returning from work inside Israel. The new aspects of the occupation's infrastructure are often defended as examples of Israel's "humanitarian" concern despite the country's security dilemma; Weizman, however, notes that "the 'humanitarian' rhetoric of the current phase of the occupation is part of a general attempt to normalise it". In fact, "cases of colonial powers seeking to justify themselves with the rhetoric of improvement, civility and reform are almost the constant of colonial history", he argues.

Inevitably, the architects themselves end up under the spotlight. The question of their complicity and moral responsibility is a controversial one. Weizman, like the members of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, believes that those "design and construction professionals involved in projects that appropriate land and natural resources from Palestinian territory" are "complicit in social, political and economic oppression", in "violation of their professional ethics".

Critics of this position complain that Israel is being singled out unfairly, that such a campaign "politicises" a technical profession, and that the situation is too complex for "simplistic" blame to be apportioned. The Israel Association of United Architects, for example, claims it is "not for professional associations to weigh in to political debates" and that the decision by some Israeli architects to accept commissions in the OPT is "a matter of personal conscience".

While constructing the occupation's infrastructure constitutes an obviously political act, describing it as such apparently amounts to unacceptable politicisation - as does pointing out its con sequences for the Palestinians. That's according to Daniel Leon, chairman of British Architect Friends of Israel, who, in a letter to the Financial Times in August, commended an alternative approach of "mutual understanding through dialogue" more befitting the "complicated" political and physical realities.

In its detailed breakdown of the three-dimensional occupation, and faithfulness to the reality in Palestine/Israel, Hollow Land in fact suggests that ultimately, all the construction in the OPT - the bridges, tunnels, terminals, roads, colonies and walls - will be in vain:

At a time when "separation" between Israelis and Palestinians seems to be the only game in town, experiencing and analysing the architecture of occupation suggests that equitable, sustainable partition may be an impossible task.

Monday
Nov052007

Hollow land by Eyal Weizman - Verso Press

Behind the Wall, Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times, August 4 2007:
 
Hollow Land is more like an extraordinary new drawing than a conventional piece of architectural literature. It is a document that allows you to see a physical landscape overlaid with politics, sociology, religion and history, as if one were using architectural x-ray specs. It posits the contemporary urban war zone with its cocktail of violence, media, politics and extremism as the ultimate postmodern environment. It is also the most astonishing book on architecture that I have read in years. Eyal Weizman analyses the use of architecture in his homeland, Israel, as a hugely sophisticated political and cultural tool. Although the new security wall may seem like the primitive construction of a nation bereft of political solutions, Weizman looks deeper, above and below the wall, high into the sky and into the formerly impenetrable world of avant-garde architectural theory as adopted by the Israeli army. The book is effectively a section cut through the area, revealing a series of layers and territories, each manipulated by the Israeli authorities. He explores the one-sided porosity of those borders, passable by settlers but not by Arabs. He looks at how inland archipelagos have been created by the cordoning off of settlements within Arab territories. He examines the use of archaeology to justify Jewish settlement in some areas while fragments of ancient Islam are trodden over and left in the rubble.

Click to read more ...