February 1, 2003
Lay of the Land
A new map of the West Bank reveals a troubling phenomenon: urban sprawl as human-rights abuse.
You would have a hard time finding an architect in East or West Jerusalem, Ramallah, or Tel Aviv not armed with a map. Sometimes it is a private mental image of the places he or she knew before the landscape was divided, but more often it is a literal map indicating demographic changes or the Israeli line of control’s movement during the past half-century. Israeli architect Eyal Weizman is no exception. Designed for the human rights group B’tselem after a year of site visits and helicopter reconnaissance, his map documents the material reality of the West Bank with painstaking accuracy. Rendered in color-coded splotches are the boundaries of Palestinian and Israeli habitations in the territory occupied by Israel since 1967—and the plans for further colonization. It’s a graphic illustration of a struggle waged as much in bricks and mortar as with bombs and machine guns.
From the country’s 1948 inception the Israeli program was a straightforward one: to build a Jewish state in an area where the vast majority of the population was not Jewish; and architecture and planning, in tandem with the advance of soldiers and tanks, played a central role. Over the years the plan hasn’t changed much, but the map has—dramatically. Given the hell-or-high-water pace of demolition and construction in the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, B’tselem urgently needed a document that presented both the precise boundaries of existing Israeli colonies and an accurate picture of what was in store for the near future. And it needed someone who could explain the map not in terms of statistics or ideology but in the language of planning and design.
“What B’tselem wanted to understand was how the way that space is organized reflects on issues of human rights,” says Weizman, sitting in his Tel Aviv office overlooking the Mediterranean. “For that reason they wanted to collaborate with an architect.” Weizman was the natural choice for the job: at the time he was doing research on the West Bank colonies with his partner Rafi Segal for the Israeli exhibits at the Venice Biennale and World Congress of Architecture—the latter censored in the final hour for being “too political” by the Israel Association of United Architects.
With the help of B’tselem’s researchers, Weizman collected the master plans of more than 150 settlements in the West Bank—an unprecedented task—and compared them with CIA satellite images and photographs shot during aerial sorties. The resulting map starkly documents how the settlement of a mere two percent of the West Bank has cut the territory into a meaningless patchwork of isolated enclaves. “It was very clearly stated in the master plans for the whole West Bank that you need to bisect the area,” Weizman explains, “to put wedges in between the Palestinian cities to shrink their economy and create forced emigration. The other thing was not to allow the formation of a Palestinian state, not to allow contiguity between the enclaves.” Indeed traveling anywhere in the West Bank, it’s difficult to avoid the realization that its Judaization, as colonization is often called, is being massively accelerated, as evidenced by the construction cranes and frames of modern apartment houses rising from nearly every hilltop.
“Human-rights organizations normally deal with fast processes—military incursions, illegal arrests, assassinations, torture,” Weizman says. “We were looking into slow processes and saying that the concept manifests itself most clearly in the processes of encroachment, growth, and sprawl, both in the design and approval and in the way matter is organized—the very orientation of the house and the windows with the landscape. There was a careful process of strategic design that pushed the civilian population into the occupied territories to achieve geopolitical objectives.”
To a great extent colonization of the West Bank is being accomplished in much the same way the suburbanization of America was achieved: through highway construction, regional planning ordinances, and the provision of irresistible economic incentives. “A new Jewish immigrant from America or Europe can come here and basically get a no-money-down mortgage on a house at preferred interest rates,” says Fred Schlomka, an activist for the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition, which provides assistance to Palestinian families whose houses have been bulldozed. “The price tag is probably about half of what a home would cost in a similar community inside Israel.”
Through his research Weizman also ducumented a type of planning he describes as the “politics of verticality.” “They managed to seize all the hilltops,” Weizman says, “leaving the valleys in between them in Palestinian hands. It’s almost like you have a model of the terrain and you cut a section at say six hundred meters, and everything that’s above is Israeli. What was created was an incredible fragmentation of the terrain into two systems that work across the vertical axis.”
Even Palestinian architects tend to marvel at the success of the project in paralyzing the entire West Bank, as they reflect with bitter sadness on the consequences for their community and the landscape, forever disfigured by highways carved directly through hills and villages. “The cultural loss from this destruction has been tremendous,” says Nazmi Ju’beh, professor of architecture at Birzeit University and codirector of Riwaq, a Palestinian architectural conservation group based in Ramallah. “It is not just the homeland of certain people that you are destroying—not just the private houses of certain families—but also the landscape. Some of these villages go back thousands of years. You can change your name, you can change your religion, you can change your identity, but your relationship to the land you cannot change.” Ju’beh, who grew up in the Old City and now lives on the outskirts of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, is condemned to pass through several military checkpoints to travel to and from work—that is, when the Israeli Defense Forces are not imposing round-the-clock curfews, as they have frequently done since the reoccupation of the West Bank late last June. All roads in and out of the eight cities turned over to the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo agreement have remained barricaded with concrete highway dividers and barbed wire, turning them into massive prisons. Meanwhile, the population of Israeli colonies there has doubled in the space of a decade.
Even as terrorists’ bombs explode across the valley, ground-breaking for new colonies in the West Bank is announced with great antiterrorist fanfare. Tanks and bulldozers roll in and knock down buildings, orchards, olive groves; armored personnel carriers unload men, guns, supplies. A security post is established; soon a new city will flourish. The local villagers are employed to build the new city or have to leave to find work, becoming refugees. As the city engulfs nearby Arab villages, all entrances and exits are controlled. From time to time opposition groups fight against American-made tanks and helicopters with hand-me-down rifles; there’s sniper fire along the suburban highway. But for the most part the gates of the new community are well protected. Housing is cheap, views are scenic, and a local bus takes you on a smooth ride to the nearest metropolis each day for work.
“Israelis are news addicted,” Weizman says. “They listen to the news once an hour. But nobody could draw you a map if you asked where Nablus is in relationship to Jerusalem. The idea is to give them a tool to understand the consequences of what Israel has done. Look at this map: everything in blue here is an Israeli occupied area. It’s a project with incredible effects.”
The word architect is often used broadly in political contexts, but the politicians referred to as the architects of the Oslo accords were plainly dealing with problems that belong as integrally to planning and design as to politics. The current map of the West Bank shows unmistakably how the idea of a two-state solution on which the agreement was premised has been undermined systematically through modern architecture and planning. It’s an invaluable corrective to the widely broadcast bewilderment at the current level of violence, which in a very real sense is a consequence of bad architecture.