A shared sense of space
Marlous Veldt explores the role of architecture in the Israel-Palestine conflict and speaks to those seeking to build peace in the Middle East
Travelling in what some call Israel and others Palestine is a dizzying experience. Between the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and the villages in the Jordan Valley lie cities and settlements that are as diverse as the people that build them. While a visitor might revel in the excitement of a new world around every corner, Israelis and Palestinians seek continuity in this place of contradictions. "You develop a mental map that excludes areas that may be closer to you and connect closer to areas that are further away," says Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect born in 1970. He says he used to feel very connected to the landscape of the West Bank and its people when he grew up. "We had a lot of social contacts with Palestinians and we would often go and visit them in Jericho or Hebron. I remember being in Akko [Arab city in Israel] with my family, seeing the Palestinian kids jump from a high rock in the sea. I so much wanted to be that kid, instead of sitting in a fish restaurant with my parents."
His idealised image of one continuous Israeli and Palestinian land changed when Weizman left the army and became a student. "My political consciousness and my ability to abstract space merged. I became interested in the performative aspects of architecture: not what it looks like, but what political system is embodied in the way a city or building is composed. In Israel and the West Bank, the political situation was creating an environment that I did not want to live in."
Everything is political in the land of Israelis and Palestinians. Architectural planning is not an exception. In fact it is one of its strongest expressions.
Rafi Segal (born 1967), a colleague of Weizman's, describes the political basis of Israeli architecture as 'absorbed modernism'. "Israelis feel they have to create everything from new. Only like this can you make something worthwhile. Of course this has to do with how you place yourself in the larger environment, between countries in the Middle East. Israelis see settling very much through its strategic, political aspects." But still, Segal maintains that "a lot of Israelis don't internalise the idea of where they actually live."
Many of the settlements' residents are unaware that their presence is illegal under international law, being civilian buildings on occupied land. For them these 'settlement cities' home to tens of thousands are suburban extensions to the urban centres of Israel: commuter bases for those who want to enjoy an affordable detached house surrounded by nature, while maintaining their jobs in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. They take the modernistic ideal of suburban living deep into the West Bank.
Visually striking examples of this 'artificial architecture', as Segal calls it, are the Israeli settlements in the hills of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, on or just beyond the Green Line that separates Israel from its 'Occupied Territories'. Built in monotonous blocks of white stone, they seem forced upon the rocky landscape. "It is the conception of suburban life taken almost one-to-one from the American model. You have to have a red roof; you have to have a green lawn. It doesn't matter if you're in the desert," says Segal.
In contrast, he sees the Palestinian attitude to space as "real and authentic". "I think it is visually very clear that people have been living here and that a foreign body came with a totally different attitude on how to inhabit the land." It is here, confronted with Palestinian reality, that Israel's 'settlement architecture' becomes an 'architecture of occupation'.
For Khalil Tofakji, head of the Mapping Department of the Arab Studies Society and involved in Palestinian-Israeli land negotiations, Israeli architecture is always an architecture of occupation. But he strongly rejects the claim that Palestinian living is 'ethnic': "In cities under Palestinian authority Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus we build ten, twelve floors, because we have no space. In villages everybody wants his home and his garden, like in Europe. Or Israel." He calls the notion that Palestinians want to live with their entire family in one room a lie. "Israel uses this argument to refuse us building permits." To him Israel's architectural planning regulations are aimed at one thing only: gaining control over as much Palestinian land as possible before a peace agreement is reached.
As a child, Tofakji had his own version of spatial continuity. "When I grew up I regarded Palestine as historical Palestine: from the sea to the river. I was born in Jerusalem in 1950, but before the Six Day War in 1967 I didn't see any Israelis. There was a wall between the eastern and western parts of the city." Through his intense dialogue with Israelis after 1967 Tofakji has accepted that others share the imagined place of his childhood: "What do you want to do, throw them in the sea; send them back to Europe? Maybe we are enemies, but in the end we are two people living in the same land." Continuity for him should now come from Palestinians having sovereignty over at least part of the land. "I now look for Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."
While the architecture of settling gives Israelis continuity, it has completely fragmented the spatial reality of Palestinians. Not only do settlements built on hilltops and brightly illuminated at night dominate their landscape; the infrastructure needed to sustain them has carved up Palestinian space into enclaves of control and coercion.
Bypass roads connect the settlements to Israel, allowing settlers to travel without entering Palestinian areas. These huge motorways often separate Palestinian villages from their urban centres and people from their farm land. The roads and all other Israeli infrastructure are surrounded by 'security zones' controlled by the Israeli military. They are closed to Palestinians.
In the Oslo negotiations Israel also gained effective control over the water beneath and the airspace above the West Bank. These 'politics of verticality' (Weizman's term) have locked the Palestinians in from all three dimensions.
The Israeli government claims that these measures are necessary to protect the safety of the settler population. But after studying all master plans of current and approved settlements for the Israeli human rights organisation B'tselem, Weizman and Segal conclude that settlements are not built in an 'architecturally rational' way that serves the residents but that they are first and foremost there to serve the conflict. The main objectives are security for Israel at large and expanding the amount of land under Israeli control. When the pair wanted to present their findings to the World Congress of Architecture last year, the Israeli Association of United Architects cancelled their stand on the grounds that it was not up to the Association to "take a political position".
Weizman and Segal are advocates of a daring 'one-state solution' that is becoming increasingly popular in Palestinian and Israeli academic circles. Unlike the religious extremists on both sides, they envisage a state which would cherish the diversity of its population. "You cannot reduce the space to Israeli and Palestinian," says Weizman. There are hilltop settlements, there are kibbutzim, Israeli towns, Arab towns, there are Arab villages in the plain, in the mountain, in the desert, Bedouins, Druze " He argues that to try and separate the land into homogeneous units would create discontinuity that is even more confusing than the current situation. It would also be its environmental death.
Planning for control is already causing environmental disasters that might well destroy the whole of Israel and the West Bank. The infrastructure needed to sustain separate units would exhaust the limited resources even more and make the land uninhabitable within decades, Weizman predicts. Responsible water and sewage management, a viable transportation system and sustainable agriculture should be important to any governing body, conflict or not.
Like the land, the problems are shared. "Pollution comes from Israel to the West Bank. Sewage from the West Bank to Israel. To solve the problems we need coordination and cooperation," says Tofakji.
He believes that small-scale agreements drawing on the laws of two sovereign states could be the answer to a question which national and international politics cannot solve. The settlers might even live as an Israeli community in Palestine, "like there are Palestinians living inside Israel," says Tofakji.
Whatever the political framework, all three agree on the positive effect technical cooperation could have on finding a political solution. "Specialists can speak very well together. It's the public that has been ideologically poisoned and is seeking conflict," Weizman explains. "I think that when you define the problem differently and disassociate politics from the organization of space you can get positive outcomes." Tofakji agrees: "If you build a municipality called Sulfit [Palestinian town] or Ariel [adjacent Israeli settlement] with Palestinians and Israelis together, not only do you solve the practical problems, you also build trust between people."
"We are doing it now in Jerusalem. In our meetings with Israel we discuss all issues like sewage, water and air. Jerusalem is the biggest problem, because we both claim it as our capital. If we start from there and expand the approach to the other problems, we will find a way out. The solution will not come in my generation, but it is necessary that we start."
A debate on Eyal Weizman's 'Politics of Verticality' can be found on the website openDemocracy