Architecture as a Weapon: Legibility and Uncertainty

13 במרץ 2012

 Seeing Like a State, Unseen Like a State

The Middle Eastern old city – the medina – comes up in the very first sentence of the second chapter of James C. Scott’s Seeing like a State, a chapter in which he deals with High-Modernist plans to make the city legible.[1] The medina’s look, he continues, “is the look of disorder”.[2] Scott then charts certain attempts – the Haussmannization of Paris chief among them – to make old, tortuous, byzantine cities more legible – that is, more streamlined, more orderly, more manageable.

Between 1853 and 1869, Baron Haussmann, then the prefect of the Seine, had cut, straightened and widened the Parisian boulevards; he overhauled the sewage system, added new rail ways, erected monuments and dislocated the City’s poor.[3] Behind the plan was a military logic: in the wake of the 1848 uprising, Louis Napoleon wished to make Paris more controllable; the wide boulevards were conducive to the deployment of large military contingents but less so to the erection of barricades.[4] The renovation of Paris also made it more hygienic, with air circulating more breezily, sunlight enjoyed more widely, and objected moving more briskly. As Scott notes, hygiene, security and commerce are interrelated: the poorer districts were more prone to disease and so more prone to revolution.[5] The Haussmannization of Paris, with its nexus of hygiene, security and commerce, serves as the blueprint for the reading of the colonial endeavours I am about to recount below.

First, we will turn to Jaffa circa 1936, where during the first months of the “Arab Revolt” the British Mandatory authorities cut two intersecting road through the flesh of the old city, passing the military operation as a “town-opening scheme”; then, we will be transported to the Gaza Strip in the 1970s, where a remarkably similar plan was executed in order to quell a Palestinian uprising, citing again a mix of hygienic and security rationales; finally, we will turn to the city of Jenin in the West Bank, where, during the second Intifada (2002), the Israeli army (IDF) haussmannized the local refugee camp, leaving it in ruin. This time, no hygienic excuses were given.

We will see how, despite the obvious differences between regimes, the oriental urban space has to be perennially bled and beaten into legibility. We will also remark on the pronounced difference between two bio-political authorities – the British Mandatory government and the 1970s’ IDF – which were concerned, however superficially, with the living conditions of their subjects – and the new millennial IDF that switched to thanato-politics, leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake while the care for its subjects is outsourced to international NGOs. We will approach these episodes through articles by the historians Dov Gavish and Nathan Bronn, who studied the British demolition of Old Jaffa, and the writing of the Architect Eyal Weizmann, who studied the IDF’s actions in the OT.

Legibility, however, is not the only governmental technique in the state’s arsenal. A slew of new research by young scholars studying Palestine’s occupation suggests that while the state strives to see its subjects clearly, it also strives to remain unseen and/or unfathomable in the eyes of its non-citizens, acting out the old voyeuristic fantasy of seeing without being seen. We will examine works by Eyal Weizmann and Ariel Handel who analyse the complex grid of roadblocks and checkpoints that checkers the West Bank, and how its Kafkaesque logic subjugates the Palestinians through randomness and obfuscation.

 Jaffa, 1936: Circulation and Circumlocution

The three-years-long struggle (1936-1939) between the Palestinians and the British Mandatory authorities, known as the “Arab Revolt”, broke out in the interstice between Tel-Aviv and Jaffa. In mid April 1936, a funeral of two Jews murdered in a Palestinian ambush turned into an ugly brawl. Soon, a general Palestinian strike was declared, and violence erupted, directed both against Jews and Britons. The port of Jaffa – a crucial entry point into Palestine – was shut down by strikers, and the old city of Jaffa, a motley mess of ramshackle houses and narrow alleys perched over the harbor, became a hotbed of insurgency.[6] Not two months passed and the British forces were already too afraid to enter the old city, or, due to snipers watching from the old city’s hill, re-open the port.[7] The British High Commissioner Arthur Wauchope was reluctant to send his troops into a bloody house-to-house combat, and facing dire economic and political consequences he had come up with a cleverer plan: to pave, under the guise of municipal work, two intersecting roads in Old Jaffa, which would allow the deployment of armed cars and large infantry forces.[8] To make to the ruse complete, official notices were dropped from planes down on Jaffa, notifying the locals about the upcoming demolition of unsanitary houses and advising them to leave promptly.[9]  On the 17th of June 1936, British forces laid siege on the old city while its denizens hurriedly left with the few belongings they could carry. The first phase of the operation was completed on the 18th; dozens of houses were demolished, making room for a rough path stretching from east to west.[10]

Unfortunately for the Mandate government, an appeal against the demolition was submitted to the Mandatory Supreme Court. The verdict given declared that there were no municipal by-laws allowing for demolition of houses due to sanitary reasons.[11] Adding insult to injury, the Court denounced the government’s rather clumsy attempt at spin-doctoring, comparing it to the Dickensian “Circumlocution Office”.[12] The Colonial emergency laws, however, allowed the High Commissioner to “pull down” houses for security reasons, and the appeal was rejected.[13] The second phase of the operation was completed on the 29th of June, with a road stretching south-north; 237 houses were torn down in toto.[14]



Figures 9 and 10: The Old City of Jaffa Before and After the Demolition.

Both Gavish and Bronn regard the operation, dubbed “Operation Anchor” due to the shape of the roads (seen in fig. 10), as a case of a political ruse gone sour. I would like to suggest a more subtle approach. The hygienic aspect of the operation, the “opening-up” of the city, was mentioned in the correspondence leading to it, and more importantly, in its aftermath. On the 6th of July 1936, a week after the end of the operation, High Commissioner Wauchope sent a report to his superior, the colonial minister. Although by now it was clear that the operation was, legally speaking, a military affair, Wauchope keeps mentioning the sanitary aspect. It is worth quoting his reasoning:

"[…] the opening up and improvement of the Old City of Jaffa by the construction of one or more wide roads and the demolition of insanitary buildings was a task which would need to be undertaken so soon as funds could be made available and a suitable opportunity offered. This measure we held to be in the highest degree desirable for two distinct but both commendable objects: –

        i.            Increase of public security;

      ii.            Relief of unhealthy congestion and insanitary conditions."[15]

The old city, according to the High Commissioner, is a “nest” populated by outlaws.[16] The district’s architecture itself facilitates outlaw-ness:

"The old town […] is a warren of tortuous and narrow covered streets, where blind alleys and culs-de-sac make the operation of police or troops an extremely hazardous enterprise."[17]

It seems that for Wauchope spatial chaos beget social chaos; as Scott shows throughout his book, he was hardly the only official to think this way. At the heart of the matter here is circulation and congestion. The economic circulation in Jaffa is stuck because due to the strike no commodities are sent out the port, and due to the insurgency no scabs can get into the port. Old Jaffa, with its miasmatic alleys and precarious architecture is both a sanitary and a security threat; the opening up of the old city will allow the circulation of air, British soldiers, and eventually, commodities. If hygiene, security and commerce are inexorably linked, then Operation Anchor was not a military or a municipal procedure: it was both at once. As Scott shows when discussing the Haussmannization of Paris, for authoritarian High-Modernist regimes – and might we add, for colonial ones – there is no clear demarcation between those spheres.[18]

 Gaza, 1971-1972: The Sharonization of Gaza

In the wake of the 1948 war 200,000 Palestinian refugees fled to the Egypt-controlled Gaza strip, trebling its population.[19] Those refugees settled mostly in densely populated camps. In June 1967 the Gaza Strip was occupied by Israeli forces; David Maymon, who was appointed its military governor, described in a memoir the architecture of the Gazan refugee camps:

“From the bird’s-eye view the camps looked like a hodgepodge mass of buildings, separated only by the narrowest of margins. The spacious streets built in the 1950s became winding, tortuous alleys – less than a meter in width – covered in filth and awash with insalubrious sewage. For the outsider, moving from one building to another seemed like an impossible feat. Indeed, the locals found private, sometimes mysterious, pathways that linked windows and rooftops, and dug underground tunnels between their houses.”[20]

In 1971 the unrest in the camps turned into a sustained guerilla campaign.[21] Much like the British in Jaffa, the Israeli forces feared going into the camps, now fully controlled by Palestinians militants.[22] Ariel Sharon, one of the IDF’s most notorious generals, was appointed Chief of the Southern Command, which included the Gaza Strip, in order to deal with the uprising.[23] Between July 1971 and February 1972, Sharon initiated a strategy of “pacification” which included extensive curfews, lax rules of engagement and assassination squads.[24] Urban planning – or, rather, “creative destruction” – became a major part of the IDF’s tactics: in an attempt to make the camps more legible and controllable, Sharon sent bulldozers into the camps, cutting wide roads through the urban mass; some 1,000 houses were demolished.[25] The new roads, writes Weizman,

“[D]ivided these camps into smaller neighborhoods, each of which could be accessed or isolated by infantry units. Sharon also ordered the clearing of all buildings and groves in an area he defined as a ‘security perimeter’ around the camps, effectively isolating the built-up area from its surrounding and making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave the camps without being noticed.”[26]

But this was only the first part of Sharon’s plan. New neighborhoods for the refugees, located far from the camps and furnished with well-lit and spacious streets were planned; the rationale behind this plan was three fold: to disperse the refugees, making the organization of insurgency harder, to raise their living standard in order to ameliorate their anger and to make “terrorist-hunting” that much easier.[27]

The plan was only partially executed. The IDF found it to be too costly and opted instead to build a series of Jewish settlements that were strategically placed between refugee camps.[28] In a way this new strategy, named the “Five-Finger Plan” due to the shape of the five wedges the settlements drove into the Gazan territory, was a repetition of the tactics used inside the camps on a larger scale: to divide, disconnect and make manageable the refugees.


 Jenin, 2002: Time of the Bulldozer

Figure 11 and 12: scenes of destruction from the Jenin refugee camp, 2002.

In February 2001, almost thirty years after he “pacified” the Gazan refugee camps Ariel Sharon became the prime minister of Israel. By then the Oslo peace process had collapsed and the Second Intifada had erupted, in part due to Sharon’s own controversial visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif; one might ponder whether Sharon was elected as Head of State for the same reasons he was given command of Gaza: to “pacify” the Palestinians.[29] In April 2002, after a string of suicide bombings in Israeli Cities, Sharon launched a massive offensive against the Palestinian Cities of the West Bank.[30] The conquest of the Jenin refugee camp, which we are about to discuss, is perhaps the most abominable chapter of that campaign. In the refugee camps conquered before Jenin, the IDF had employed a tactic very similar to the one the Irgun fighters used in Jaffa: namely, burrowing holes into residential houses’ external walls, and then blowing holes through the buildings’ party walls, moving through rooms and from house to house, thus avoiding fighting in the streets.[31] This tactic, dubbed “walking-through-walls” by Eyal Weizman, had failed when the Jenin refugee camp was attacked, due to the Palestinian militants’ preparation, and the Israeli soldiers’, mostly reservists freshly re-enlisted, lack thereof.[32] The Palestinian insurgents, probably unwittingly, had also imitated the battle of Jaffa: after a week of fighting, on the 9th of April 2002, they managed to collapse a row of buildings on Israeli troops.[33] This proved to be a turning point in the course of the attack. The Israeli command pulled its infantry back, sending in instead armoured D9 Caterpillar bulldozers (fig. 13), which systematically tore down buildings, burying under them insurgents and, sometimes, innocent civilians (figs. 11 and 12).[34]

Figure 13: An Armoured D9 Caterpillar Bulldozer.

 The bulldozers did not just raze buildings. They used the detritus to barricade certain streets and passages, creating anew the camp’s topography.[35] Weizman summarizes the results of the battle so:

“Inspection of the aerial photographs taken after the battle revealed that the destruction of more than 400 buildings, in an area of 40,000 square metres, was informed by the logic of military planning. This must be understood […] as the creation of a radically new layout for the camp. During the battle, the IDF widened the existing narrow alleyways and cut new ones through existing buildings in order to allow tanks and armoured bulldozers to penetrate the camp’s interior. An open space was cleared out at the camp’s core, where the new routes came together.”[36]

Unlike their predecessors in Gaza, the IDF officers in charge of Jenin did not concern themselves with repairing the damage they had caused. This was the job of UNRWA.[37] UWRA’s engineers tried use the opportunity to build wider streets and construct new, white and modern houses.[38] The architecture of the refugee camp, however, was always based on temporariness: its chaotic nature, ramshackle construction and general destitution amounted to a political statement – this is not home; home is elsewhere, in Jaffa, Haifa and Tiberias. The UNWRA engineers had tried, in good faith, to improve the life of the refugees but in the process had consolidated their status as a diaspora. Small wonder, then, that when a Palestinian insurgent saw the new respectable-looking homes in the center the camp he murmured: “We have lost the Right of Return”.[39]


 Before the Law

Let us now turn from legibility to illegibility and uncertainty; let us now change our interpretive grid from the Haussmanization of Paris to Kafka’s depiction of modern law in the parable Before the Law.[40] A man from the country, tells us Kafka, comes to see the Law – the Law being here a place rather than a concept. The doorkeeper refuses to let the man in; when the man asks if he might gain entry later the doorkeeper answers: “It is possible”. So the man waits and keeps asking for permission to enter, and keeps getting refused. Close to death, he asks the doorkeeper how come no one else has tried to enter the Law, and the doorkeeper answers with these reverberating words: “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”[41]

There are a few things we should take from the parable: first, the Law is spatial; secondly, it is personalized; thirdly, the man’s interface with the Law’s representative is seemingly cryptic and arbitrary; finally, the Law is designed to interpellate the subject – to turn one into a subject – and to do so through a failure. It is exactly the unavailability of the Law, the way the subject is excluded from and by the Law, that makes the subject a subject. All these Kafkaesque cruelties, I would like to argue, are present in the movement regime constructed by Israel in the West Bank; the roadblocks and checkpoints, to which we will now turn, constitute its loci of Law.



 House of Mirrors

Figures 14 and 15: the Qalandia checkpoint.

The Oslo Peace Process, ironically, introduced the Palestinians to a reality of constant closures and blockage. “Between 1994 and 1999, Israel installed 230 checkpoints and imposed 499 days of closures [in the Occupied Territories]”, Eyal Weizman informs us.[42] The fragmentation of Palestinian space has only become worse since the Second Intifada; an “extensive network” of manned and unmanned checkpoints, roadblocks, gates, dykes and trenches has been erected by the IDF in the Occupied Territories,[43] culminating in the “Separation Wall”, a discontinuous assemblage of barriers stretching 409 Km and separating the West Bank from pre-1967 Israel.[44] The network of barriers has cut the Palestinian space into about 200 separate territorial cells, which are accessible to Palestinians only through military checkpoints.[45] At the end of 2010, according to B’Teselem (an Israeli human rights NGO) there were 99 checkpoints and 505 other spatial obstructions fragmenting the West Bank.[46] The number of checkpoints, however, is in constant flux and sometimes an IDF jeep parked across a road can be construed as a checkpoint.

In the present section we will look at the major checkpoints, which are usually situated at the seam between prominent Palestinian territorial cells, or between the Occupied Territories and Israel. The major checkpoints are usually housed within huge hangers, surrounded by concrete slabs, barbed-wire and watchtowers. Weitzman describes the architecture of the checkpoint so:

“In most cases, the checkpoint had two sets of turnstiles with space between them. The first set was placed several tens of meters away from Israeli military positions so as to keep the congestion away from them. Soldiers regulate the pace of passage by using an electric device that controls the turning of the gates. One person at a time passes through at the push of a button.”[47]

Randomly, the soldiers would stop letting people through, and the unfortunate ones would get stuck inside the turnstiles. Apparently, the IDF has ordered the contractor who manufactures the turnstiles to cut the length of the turnstiles’ arms by almost half, so that the arms press against the trapped Palestinian, making sure there is nothing explosive on her person.[48] Just as the quiet swish of automatic doors at malls interpellates Western consumers as subjects, the arbitrary carouseling of the turnstile interpellates Palestinians.

Then, the Palestinian approaches an inspection booth, where she has to present her permits. The booth is encased in a bullet-proof glass so thick, it practically functions as a one-way mirror; thus, the Palestinian is seen but cannot see.[49] the IDF is slowly replacing human-operated inspection with bio-metric cards, making the Right to Passage personalized, literally, to the bone, and minimizing drastically the interaction between occupier and occupied; with computer terminals, no amount of arguing and supplication would do.[50]

The one-way mirror, according to Weizman, is an important feature of the checkpoints. In the Allenby Bridge Crossing, which connects the West Bank with Jordan, Palestinian officers conduct the inspection of travellers, while Israeli security personnel – Kafka’s secondary and tertiary doorkeepers[51] – watch the proceedings from behind a one-way mirror, ready to intervene at a moment’s notice.[52] What we have here is a classic case of Lacanian misrecognition: Just as the infant looking in the mirror overestimates her agency, the Palestinians, both travellers and officers, take part in the charade unfolding before the one-way mirror, acting as if they are in control of the situation.[53] The use of real mirrors is discarded altogether in the Rafah terminal, which connects Gaza and Egypt. Here, again, the terminal is operated by the Palestinian Authority, but is supervised, through CCTV, by Israeli officers and European observers situated in headquarters within Israel, who can order the Palestinian personnel to re-scan or apprehend suspects.[54]

 Time Bandits

In a brilliant essay, Israeli scholars Neve Gordon and Dani Filc show how the systematic destruction of social security nets in Gaza has led Gazans to put their trust in the metaphysically failsafe Islam, thus contributing to the political ascension of the radical-Islamist party Hamas. Gordon and Filc focus on the rather mundane issue of health insurance, and how a healthcare system allows one to plan ahead; when one cannot plan ahead, they claim, society falls back on religious fatalism, allowing fundamentalist organizations like Hamas to take over.[55]

The epidemic inability of Palestinians to plan ahead even the most quotidian activities is the subject of the present section. According to Ariel Handel, the existential uncertainty that plagues Palestinian everyday life is not an unplanned by-product of four decades of military rule; it is a major governmental technique used by the Israelis to disrupt any form of Palestinian resistance.[56] Handel maps the movement regime created by the IDF in the West Bank. To reiterate, the West Bank is divided into hundreds of territorial cells by a melange of physical obstacles, and movement between those cells is controlled by checkpoints and roadblocks. The cells are usually connected to just one other cell, creating a “train car” effect, where a Palestinian who wants to travel to a village in a different cell might have to take a detour through three different cells, because that is the only route possible.[57] Even if one is willing to make the detour, the checkpoints might be randomly shut down, or if the soldier – usually a 19-year-old teenager – in charge is having a bad day, she might decide to not let the traveller through; the worst case scenario, of course, is finding a new checkpoint where yesterday there were none.[58]

The most pronounce effect of this movement – or circulation – regime, is the inability to plan ahead. Although the physical distance between point A and point B is a constant, the amount of time it takes a Palestinian, who has to rely on taxis, who has to travel with different kinds of permits, and who is dependent on the goodwill of the soldiers she meets, is markedly different from the amount of time it takes a Jewish settler, who can drive on a Jews-only highway built on expropriated Palestinian land, to get to the same place.[59] Time, in other words, is relative to ethnicity.

Thus, the Palestinian who dares to venture out of her locale spends most of her time on the road, a “placeless place” as Handel puts it; the road, post 2000, has become the quintessential Palestinian place.[60] The economic and social implications of spending a one’s day moving circuitously from place to place are devastating.[61] In fact, the only sector of the West Bank economy that became relatively prosperous since 2000 is the food-services “industry” which caters to Palestinians waiting in checkpoints.[62] The movement regime that confines Palestinians to their cities and villages and makes any kind of traveling a Swiftian adventure is an incredibly banal and cost-effective way to destroy a society.

[1] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pp. 59-60.

[4] Ibid., p. 61.

[5] Ibid., p. 62.

[6] Dov Gavish, “Mivtza Yaffo 1936 – shipoor koloniali shel pne ha-‘ir [Operation Jaffa 1936 – A Colonial Renovation of the City], in Eretz Israel, Vol. 15 (1983), p. 69 [Hebrew]. Hereinafter abbreviated as: Gavish, “Operation Jaffa”.

[7] Ibid., p. 67.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Nathan Bronn, “Ha-tov shebanetzivim mool sone hayehudim – hasichsuch ha-gadol bein ha-natziv ha-elyion Wauchope ve-zkan ha-shoftim MacDonnell al reka harisot yaffo [the Best Commissioner Vs. the Jew-Hater – the struggle between High Commissioner Wauchope and Chief Justice MacDonnell in Light of the Demolition of Jaffa]”,in Mechkarey Mishpat, Vol. 1 (2009), p. 307 [Hebrew]. Hereinafter abbreviated as: Bronn, “The Best Commissioner”.

[10] Gavish, “Operation Jaffa”, pp. 67-68.

[11] Bronn, “The Best Commissioner”, pp. 344-345.

[12] Quoted in: Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest: Reading in Zionism and the Palestinian Problem until 1948, (Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987), p. 347.

[13] Ibid., pp. 345.

[14] Gavish, “Operation Jaffa”, p. 68.

[15]  Public Record Office (P.R.O.), CAB 24/263, "Situation in Palestine. Palestine Chief Justice's Comments on Jaffa Demolitions.", p. 2.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Scott, Seeing Like a State, pp. 59-63.

[19] Anonymous, “A Gaza Chronology, 1948–2008”, in Journal of Palestine Studies , Vol. 38, No. 3 (Spring 2009), p. 98.

[20] David Maymon, Ha-terror shenutzach [Terrorism Defeated], (Tel-Aviv: Stimatzki Press: 1993), p. 28 [Hebrew]. Hereinafter abbreviated as: Maymon, Terrorism Defeated. The translation is mine. Compare this excerpt with Scott’s writing about navigating the medieval city and the modernist’s bird’s-eye view: Seeing Like a State, pp. 53-57.

[21] Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land, Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, (London: Verso. 2007), p. 69.

[22] Ibid., p. 69.

[23] Ibid., p. 68.

[24] Ibid., p. 70.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Maymon, Terrorism Defeated, pp. 110-112; Weizmann, Hollow Land, p. 70.

[28] Weizman, Hollow Land, ibid.

[29] Yoav Peled, “Dual War: The Legacy of Ariel Sharon”, in Critique, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2006), p. 198. Sharon was nicknamed “The Bulldozer” by his supporters.

[30] Ibid., p. 200.

[31] Weizman, Hollow Land, pp. 192-195; see, also, section 1.4 of the present paper.

[32] Ibid., pp. 201-202.

[33] Ibid., p. 202.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., pp. 202-203.

[36] Ibid., p. 203.

[37] UNWRA is the UN’s relief and work agency.

[38] Weizman, Hollow Land, pp. 203-204.

[39] Ibid., p. 205.

[40] Franz Kafka, “Before the Law”, in Parables and Paradoxes, (New York: Schoken books, 1946), pp.61-79.

[41] Ibid., p. 65.

[42] Weizman, Hollow Land, p.143.

[43] Ibid., p. 146.

[44] See:

[45] Weizman, Hollow Land, p. 146.

[46] See:

[47] Weizman, Hollow Land, p. 151.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Kafka, “Before the Law”, p. 61.

[52] Weizman, Hollow Land, p. 140.

[53] See: John Muller, “Lacan’s Mirror Stage”, in Psychoanalytical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1985), pp. 233-252.

[54] Weizman, Hollow Land, p. 153. One might be reminded here of the parable in Benjamin’s first Thesis on the Philosophy of History, where a “little hunchback” is operating a chess-playing automaton dressed like a Turk. Not surprisingly, the illusion of the Grandmaster Turk was supported by a “system of mirrors”. See: Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), p. 253.

[55] Neve Gordon and Dani Filc, “The Destruction of Risk Society and the Ascendancy of Hamas”, in The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Adi Ophir, Michal Givoni and Sari Hanafi (eds.), (New York: Zone Books, 2009), pp. 457-486.

[56] Ariel Handel, “Where, Where to, and When in the Occupied Territories: An Introduction to the Geography of Disaster”, in The Power of Inclusive Exclusion, pp. 181-182.

[57] Ibid., p. 185.

[58] Ibid., p. 188.

[59] Ibid., p. 187.

[60] ibid., p.191; and compare with the freedom the jeune cadre associated with being on the road: Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies, Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge: MIT press, 1996), p. 54-55.

[61] Handel, “Where, Where To, and When”, p. 193.

[62] Weizman, Hollow Land, p. 148.

Architecture as Art: Projects and Projections

13 במרץ 2012

 Whitewashing Tel-Aviv

The architect Sharon Rotbard begins narrating the story of Tel-Aviv in medias res, in July 2003, when UNESCO recommended that Tel-Aviv’s “White City” – a small area in the centre of the city built mostly during the 1930s – would be included in the organization’s list of world heritage sites.[1] The decision was the most pronounced effect of a discourse that began taking shape in the early 1980s with an exhibition called “White City”, which told a story of an artistic migration from the Bauhaus school in Dessau/Berlin to Palestine, in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. The Jewish students of the school, forced to leave Nazi Germany, came to Tel-Aviv, then a sleepy petit bourgeois town, and transformed it by building the “White City”, a collection of modernist, chalk-white houses.[2] In the following years, this story will be retold many a time in newspapers, advertisements and municipal campaigns.[3]

But as Rotbard shows, the story is little more than an invented tradition.[4] The Art historian Michael Levine, who curated the “White City” exhibition, later recanted his own simplified version, asserting that the “White City” was an agglomeration of many influences beside Bauhaus: Le Corbusier, Erich Mendelsohn, and the “International Style”.[5] Furthermore, Levine acknowledged that the Bauhaus teachers themselves resisted any attempt to define a Bauhaus “style”.[6] Rotbard deconstructs the urban legend even further: some of the Jewish students who had studied in the Bauhaus school became prominent architects in Mandatory Palestine, but not in Tel-Aviv: loyal to the school’s socialist orientation, they worked mostly in the rural cooperated settlements, the Kibbutzim.[7]

Why, then, did the “White City” become synonymous with Bauhaus? The linkage between Tel-Aviv and Bauhaus had some precedents in the architectural discourse of the 1960s and 1950s, but the connection coagulated during the 1980s. In 1977, for the first time in the history of Israel (and of the Zionist settlement in Palestine), a right-wing party, the Likud, came to power. The Labour-oriented, Ashkenazi (i.e., European) elite was shaken to its core; one former minister quipped, after hearing of the election’s results, that rather than the government, “the people should be replaced”.  The Likud party had come to represent the Other (Jewish) Israelis: the oriental, the religious, the poor; it had come to represent black Israel. The “re-discovery” of the “White City”, Rotbard contends, was the old elite’s reaction to the Likud’s ascension.[8] The return to Bauhaus was a return to Europe, to an occidental, pristine, uncomplicated, modernity.[9] Now that the barbarians were at the gates of the polis, Ostjuden who immigrated from Galicia and Russia began feeling homesick for a Germany that was never their homeland.[10]

The story of the “White City”, then, is not a story of urban preservation but of reconstruction. What is being reconstructed here is the city’s image that is being projected onto those white houses, and that image is continually reconstructed in response to social and political changes.

 The Sandblasted City

 the future homeowners of Achuzat Bayit, 1909.

The whitewashing of Tel-Aviv goes back even further than the 1930s. The myth of Tel-Aviv is a myth of an immaculate conception, of a city that sprang, like an Aphrodite scrubbed fresh, from the sandy dunes north of Jaffa.[11] That myth is supposedly buttressed by an iconic photograph (fig. 2), taken on the eleventh of April 1909, when the lots of Achuzat Bayit, the neighborhood that would later become Tel-Aviv, were allocated to its future residents.[12]  The photo shows a crowd of people, the soon-to-be homeowners, surrounded by sand and hills; Jaffa and the Jaffans are nowhere to be seen. This photo tells Tel-Avivians everything they need to know about their city: that it was not, like settlements elsewhere in Israel/Palestine, built on stolen land; that the land it was built on was barren and uncared for; that they built it themselves, without the help of local workers, a bunch of “students and lawyers mixing the cement”, as one Tel-Avivian artist put it.[13] The photo presents a community that is at once autochthonic, born of the sand – and hence not colonial – and, on the other hand, an epitome of the Zionist desire to breathe life into the desolate, empty land.[14]Herein lies an oxymoron that pits autochthonism against modernization: in order to justify the reclamation of the land the settlers have to picture it as desolate. Alas, its desolation marks the land as particularly Arab, for it only became arid as a result of years of Arab neglect. But since the land is markedly Arab and the settler is markedly other than Arab – Jewish, European, Modern – the settler cannot be autochthonic. Thus, a vicious cycle is set in motion, where the disavowal and acknowledgement of Arab presence alternate and disrupt each other: the land is empty, but it is empty because it is neglected by its inhabitants; conversely, the land is neglected by its indigenous inhabitants, and so must be emptied of them.

The truth behind the birth of Tel-Aviv is much more mundane; hardly an Aphrodite, Tel-Aviv grew out of Jaffa more like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead. The Historian Maoz Azaryahu, who wrote a book about the myths of Tel-Aviv, reminds us that Achuzat Bayit was planned as a suburb of Jaffa, to be populated by affluent Jews who wanted to get away from noisy, dirty and increasingly inhospitable Jaffa;[15] it was not even the first Jewish neighborhood to be built outside Jaffa – Neve Tzedek was established in 1887 and was followed by Neve Shalom, Mahane Yosef and others.[16] Why, then, was Achuzat Bayit/Tel-Aviv, rather than its older sisters, declared as the “first Hebrew city”? According to Rotbard, it was that famous photo that made the establishment of Achuzat Bayit such a pivotal moment; the photo encapsulated in an iconic fashion the myth of the city born out of the empty dunes.[17] The Historian Mark LeVine offers more grounded reasons. The founding fathers of Achuzat Bayit, he asserts, wanted to create a space where Zionists could nurture and practice their nationalistic values without unwarranted interference; they wanted to keep Jewish capital in Jewish hands and they wanted to build a settlement that would “bolster Jewish national prestige“.[18] From its inception, Achuzat Bayit was specifically imagined as modern, clean and Jewish.[19]

The plot of land that would become Achuzat Bayit was known as ‘Karem al-Jabali’ (the orchard of the Jabali family); the name itself suggests that the land was not empty or unused.[20] The construction of the new neighborhood was halted temporarily when local Bedouins claimed they were cultivating the vines in the plot.[21] Those locals were evicted – and perhaps paid off – but nomadic shepherds who used the land for grazing kept harassing the new residents.[22]

The insistence that Achuzat Bayit was built using Jewish labour is not supported by contemporary accounts: the homeowners found the Jewish builders to be too expensive and resorted to using Arab labourers who demanded less money and were more experienced.[23] In 1910 the neighborhood’s name was changed to Tel-Aviv (translated literally as Spring Hill); the name, as Azaryahu remarks, was previously used as the title to the Hebrew translation of Theodore Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland.[24] The new name, the Jewish neighbors thought, reflected better the feat of erecting“magnificent buildings on the wilderness of sand.”[25]

 Jaffa’s disavowal by the Zionists was so entrenched, that it is almost completely absent for thedrawings of Nahum Gutman, the quintessential Tel-Avivian artist (figs. 3 and 4). Rotbard shows that if Gutman was aiming for verisimilitude, the Jaffan neighborhoods of Manshiyya and Kerem Hateymanim[26] should have been positioned between Tel-Aviv and the sea.[27] Jaffa only appears as a dark silhouette in the upper left corner of figure 4.

 The Painting on the Wall

Gutman’s drawing were not the only instance of Zionist art wishfully erasing Arab presence. In2000, almost a century after the establishment of Tel-Aviv, a wall was erected to the south of the Jerusalemite neighborhood of Gilo. Since the beginning of the second Intifada, Palestinian snipers from the adjacent Beit Jala neighborhood had been shooting at the denizens of Gilo, injuring some of them critically. The Israeli Ministry of Security had erected a wall to protect the Giloites, who in turn found it to be an eyesore and took to defacing it.[28] The municipality then commissioned artists to decorate the wall with an “artistic replica of the disappearing view”.[29] The Artistic community in Israel, strongly self-identified as leftist, had refused to collaborate with the municipal authorities.[30] Finally, a group of Russian immigrants, too poor and marginal to afford the moral high ground, was commissioned.[31] The immigrant artists had compunctions, but they also felt that the painted wall might raise the spirits of the residents of Gilo.[32] The painting on the wall, seen in figure 5, is of the very same landscape that the wall hides, sans the Palestinian neighborhood. “The wall”, writes W.T.J. Mitchell “is precisely an erection of a blind spot in the landscape, but a blind spot […] that conceals itself with a veil of illusory transparency […]”.[33] That the actual Palestinian neighborhood is visible from the Israeli side, as figure 5 clearly shows, should alert as to the fact that the wall is not a blind spot, as Mitchell contends, but rather a third eye, a chakra of seeing beyond the real: what is projected onto the wall is a fantasy of disappearance, of an ethnic cleansing that cannot be executed due to realpolitik and must exist, for now, only in the realm of art.[34]

The Palestinian neighborhood Beit Jala is not, however, completely absent from the painting on Gilo’s wall. As Mitchell notes, the painting does show distant mosques. The mosques, Mitchell writes, are a reminder, “a comforting acknowledgment of what and who will have vanished, a kind of melancholy recognition of disappearance that is the central aesthetic emotion of the romantic picturesque”.[35] The mosques, in other words, are a remnant, a mnemonic device of a victory yet to be achieved, a victory that, because Israel is a self-proclaimed western democracy, can only be desired and enjoyed like a dirty little secret, sublimated through art.

 Vertical Domination

The sublimation of violence through art delivers us back to Jaffa, where a remnant of a victory already achieved was turned into a museum.[36] In April 1948, during the civil war between the Palestinians and the Jews, a Jewish right-wing militia, the Irgun, conquered the Jaffan neighborhood of Manshiyya. This northernmost Palestinian neighborhood burrowed itself into the body Tel-Aviv – or, rather, Tel-Aviv wrapped itself around Manshiyya as it expanded west- and southward.

During the Civil war phase of the 1948 war (November 1947-May 1948), Palestinian and Zionist militias clashed in the interstitial no-man’s-land between Manshiyya and Tel-Aviv. The Tel-Avivians did not care for Manshiyya; “a thorn in the flesh of Tel-Aviv” they called it, a “cancerous tumor”.[37] Then, a few weeks before the establishment of the state of Israel, Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader, realizing that soon all Jewish militias will be incorporated into one Jewish army, decided that he needed a military achievement in order to consolidate political power.[38]  Manshiyya was chosen as the site of the attack. The battle itself is fascinating: the Irgun fighters, vastly outnumbered and underequipped, used explosives to burrow into buildings, avoiding the streets that were controlled by Arab fighters.[39] The Irgun fighters also erected makeshift barricades, made out of sandbags – sand being, apparently, the quintessential Zionist material – that allowed them to cross streets unharmed; the result of that improvised construction was a modular, serpentine system of barricades-cum-thoroughfares that could be adjusted on the spot in response to changes in the battle.[40] Finally, rather than shoot at the Arab defenders, the Irgun fighters used explosives to topple down building on their fortified outposts.[41] Manshiyya was conquered, and a few days later Jaffa surrendered to the Zionist forces.[42] The result of the tactics employed by the Irgun was what Stephen Graham and others have termed Urbicide – the killing of a city.[43]

But, miraculously, Manshiyya did not flatline just yet; after the war, with the Arab inhabitants gone, Jewish immigrants desperate enough to live amidst the debris and squalor squatted in the ruined buildings. It took the Tel-Avivian municipality over a decade to evict them and raze the neighborhood. [44] The detritus that was once Manshiyya was pushed by bulldozers into the sea, creating an artificial coastline, and on that new land a park was built; in 1978, forty some years after Nahum Gutman had wished it away in his paintings, Manshiyya was gone.[45]

In the park built on the ruins of Manshiyya, called “The Conquerors’ Park”, stands a peculiar building (fig. 8). Its lower half is made out of what was left of an Arab house, built in stone and adorned with ornamental arches. The upper half is an ultra-modernist rectangle, made out of aluminum and glass.[46] The building houses a museum dedicated to the conquest of Manshiyya. The power-relations between the modern(ist) conqueror and the oriental conquered are all too clear: the Zionist part hunches over, dominates the Palestinian part. The metaphor is so obtrusive, so raw, that rather than exemplifying architecture-as-art, the building verges on becoming architectural pornography.

For Rotbard, the Irgun museum, a building that houses memory, is an artifact of willful forgetting, of erasure.[47] I would like to suggest, however, that like the Peqoud’s Ishmael, the sole survivor nestled in his own coffin, this Arab ruin could be coaxed to testify to its own destruction. The need of the conqueror to display his conquest curtails the possibility of a complete erasure. The very difference needed to signify the distinction between the victor and the vanquished – the difference between stone arches and cubicle glass, in our case – makes sure of that. One man, said Hannah Arendt, always survives to tell the story; I would like to argue that buildings are able to do the same.

[1] Sharon Rotbard, ‘Ir levanah, ‘Ir shchorah [White City, Black City], (Tel-Aviv: Babel, 2005) [Hebrew]. Hereinafter abbreviated as Rotbard, White City, Black City.

[2] Ibid., p. 18.

[3] Ibid., pp. 28-33.

[4] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (ed.), The Invention of Tradition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[5] Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 36.

[6] Ibid., p. 40.

[7] Ibid., p. 48.

[8] Ibid., P. 54. That the agriculture-oriented elite was concentrated in metropolitan, Bourgeois, Tel-Aviv is one of the many paradoxes comprising the city’s tale.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., pp. 55-56. Ashkenaz, the word that would come to represent all Jews of European descent (who were mostly concentrated in Eastern Europe) was the medieval Jewish name of Western Germany.

[11] Ibid., p. 78.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., pp. 73, 85.

[14] Ibid.

[15]Maoz Azaryahu, Tel-Aviv ha’ir ha’amitit, mitographia historit [Tel-Aviv – The Real City, A Historical Mythography], (Sde Boker: Ben-Gurion University Press, 2005), p. 29 [Hebrew]. Hereinafter abbreviated as: Azaryahu, The Real City. Mark LeVine reports that Jewish construction in Jaffa was sometimes met with Palestinian violence. See: Overthrowing Geography, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the Struggle for Palestine, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 48.

[16] Rotbard, White City, Black City, pp. 83-84; LeVine, Overthrowing Geography, p. 60.

[17] Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 84.

[18] LeVine, Overthrowing Geography, p. 61.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 64.

[21] Ibid., p. 69.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 71-72.

[24] Azaryahu, The Real City, p. 33. Theodore Herzl was the progenitor of “political Zionism” and in his novel Altneuland he set a blueprint for the Jewish state. The Hebrew translator, Nahum Sokolov, was a prominent Zionist leader and a journalist. His translation is, however, rather convoluted: “Tel”, or hill in Hebrew, has a specifically ancient connotation; “Aviv”, or spring, is supposed to convey regeneration; hence, an “old-new” land.

[25] Levine, Overthrowing Geography, p. 72.

[26] Manshiyya was a Muslim neighborhood; Kerem Hateymanim (in Hebrew: the Yemenites’ Orchard) was a mixed neighborhood, populated by oriental Jews, Gypsies, Egyptians and Afghans. See: Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 84.

[27] Ibid., p. 130-136.

[28] W.J.T. Mitchell, “Christo’s Gates and Gilo’s Wall” in Critical Inquiry, Vol.32, No. 4 (2006), p. 588.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., pp. 589-590.

[33] Ibid., p. 590.

[34] The wall was taken down in 2010. The same residents that demanded its erection in 2000 campaigned to have it pulled down a decade later; the snipers stopped shooting and the wall did not agree with the middle-class facade that the locals were trying to cultivate. They had, however, only good things to say about the painting on the wall. See: Ma’ariv (online edition), 13.8.2010,  Omri Meniv, “Hasart homat hamagen be-Gilo: hatoshavim megivim be-regashot me’oravim [The Wall in Gilo is being Taken Down: The Residents Respond with Mixed Feelings]”, accessed 27.12.2011.

[35] Mitchell, “Christo’s Gates and Gilo’s Wall”, p. 590.

[36] On the “museumification” of indigenous architecture see: Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), pp. 299-301; Yair Paz, “Shimur ha-moreshet ha-adrichalit ba-schoonot ha-netushot le’achar milchemet ha-atzma’ut [preserving the architectural heritage in the abandoned neighborhoods after the War of Independence], in Cathedra, Vol. 88 (1998), pp. 95-134 [Hebrew]; Nurit Alfasi and Roy Fabian, “Preserving Urban Heritage: From Old Jaffa to Modern Tel-Aviv”, in Israel Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2009), pp. 137-156.

[37] Menachem Begin, Ha-mered [The Revolt], (Jerusalem: Achiasaf Press, 1965), p. 433 [Hebrew]. Begin would later become the leader of the Likud and in 1977 the prime minister of Israel. See above, p. 5.

[38] Yaakov Peleg, “Ha-ma’aracha ‘al Yaffo ve-‘al svivoteyha [The Battle of Jaffa and its Environs]”, in Alon Kadish (ed.), Milchemet ha-atzma’ut diyun mechudash [The War of Independence, a New Debate], (Tel-Aviv: Ministry of Security Press, 2005), pp. 397-398 [Hebrew].

[39] Ibid., p. 410.

[40] Haim Lazar, Kibush Yaffo [The Conquest of Jaffa], (Tel-Aviv: Shelach Press, 1951), p. 171 [Hebrew].

[41] Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 183.

[42] Ibid., p. 186.

[43] See: David Campbell, Stephen Graham and Daniel Bertrand Monk, “Introduction to Urbicide: The Killing of Cities?”, in Theory & Event, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2007), accessed online in HTML format, 27/12/2011.

[44] Tel-Aviv incorporated Jaffa in 1950.

[45] Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 231.

[46] Ibid., p. 235.

[47] Ibid., p. 239-240.

Architecture, Space and Colonialism in Israel/Palestine, 1909-2011

13 במרץ 2012


The present paper is concerned with architecture as a venue of colonial power. We will examine scholarly literature which explicates how architecture facilitates or disrupts colonial rule by expanding or limiting one’s possible actions. Thematically and chronologically, we will concentrate on the Zionist colonization of Palestine, which we will divided into two distinct phases: in the first phase, taking place between the 1880s and 1948, the Zionist colonial campaign was conducted by a network of non-statist organizations purchasing land from local landowners; from 1917 it was carried on under the auspices of the British Empire, which was given a mandate to manage Palestine by the League of Nations. Thus, Palestine was both imperialized and colonized: it was incorporated into the British Empire, but the settlers colonizing it were not Britons but East European Jews. The Colonization of Palestine culminated with the 1948 war which erupted after the British withdrew from the country, and which ended with a sweeping Zionist victory. The State of Israel was established, covering most of Mandatory Palestine’s territory, including regions allocated by the UN to a Palestinian state that never came to be. During the war, some 700,000 Palestinian refugees fled or were driven out of the country, most of them settling in the Jordan-controlled West Bank and the Egypt-controlled Gaza Strip.

The second phase begins with the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 war, and has yet to have ended. This time around the Zionist colonization of the West Bank and the Gaza strip was a state-driven affair: to this date the State of Israel has settled about 500,000 people in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.[1] The land on which more than 200 settlements were built was expropriated from its Palestinian inhabitants.[2] More land was expropriated to accommodate a complex skein of roads and military zones used to protect the settlers from Palestinian violence.[3]

The present paper is divided into two parts which tackle the the two phases described above. The first part begins, chronologically, in 1909 with the establishment of Tel-Aviv, the “First Hebrew City”. It is concerned with the way the architecture of Tel-Aviv was used to construct a mythical narrative about the Zionist reclamation and modernisation of Palestine. Discussing the work of Sharon Rotbard, Mark LeVine and other scholars who have studied the history of Tel-Aviv and the adjacent mixed city of Jaffa, I will show that the erasure of the Palestinians and of Palestinian architecture was an integral part of that narrative.

The second part deals with the Israeli military rule in the Occupied Territories (OT) since 1967. Using both James Scott’s insight about legibility as a governmental technique and Franz Kafka’s insight about randomness and uncertainty as a governmental technique, I will discuss recent works that analyse Israeli actions in the OT as aimed at increasing the state’s ability to see its subjects, and the subjects’ inability to see and comprehend the state. We will examine the way Israel uses destruction to “legibilize” the Palestinian urban space, and how the checkpoints which carve up the OT are used to disorient and incapacitate the Palestinians.

[1] See: B’Tselem, “Settlements and Land”,

[2] See: B’Tselem, “Land expropriation”,

[3] Ibid.