In the years following the 1993 signing of the first Oslo Accord, which was intended to mark the beginning of the end of the conflict over Palestine, it became increasingly difficult for Israeli settlers to obtain official permits to establish official settlements in the West Bank. As a result, settlers resorted to increasingly sophisticated methods of piracy to help the government — which, unofficially, was keen to see settlements established but could not be seen to be helping in their foundation — bypass its own laws and international commitments.
– Eyal Weizman, The Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007), page 1
At the level of theory, this book is about de/reterritorialization in a literal, material sense. Politically, it’s about specific strategies and tactics deployed by the Israelis in order to dominate the Palestinians. I read some blog posts about this book a couple of years ago, but only just got around to reading it myself. It’s appallingly superb.
There’s no way to do justice to Weizman’s detailed research and dense documentation in a blogpost. The text, like the Palestinian territory which is its subject, is complex and intricately layered, tracing the paths by which the occupiers and the occupied continually confront, undermine, and override each other. The consistent message is that the stronger faction prevails, even in the deployment of strategies and tactics that presumably give the underdogs a fighting chance against hegemonic power. In the most compelling examples, Weizman shows the Israelis not just using the structural characteristics of the natural and built environment to assert their will, but actually inverting the affordances and meanings of those physical features.
Topographically, the Occupied Territories consist largely of fertile valleys and rocky barren hills. The Palestinians, farmers and herders, live mostly in the lowlands. The Israeli occupiers have penetrated this landscape not by pushing the farmers out of the valleys but by establishing suburb-like gated communities on the hilltops, taking advantage of loopholes in the tax laws in order to gain possession of the land. Occupying the higher ground at strategic loci throughout the territory gives the Israelis an interconnected network of defensible vantage points distributed across the landscape, from which they can keep the Palestinians under perpetual surveillance. The convolution of walls and fences delineating Palestinian space works its way around the hilltop settlements, ensuring that the Israelis continue to control the heights.
Purportedly to enhance the Palestinians’ sense of ownership over their territorial boundaries, the Israelis built a series of border checkpoints visibly manned by Palestinians. However, behind one-way mirrors were Israeli security forces. Those who wish to cross the border pass their papers to the Palestinian staffers at the counter, who then slide the papers through a slot to the Israelis hidden behind them. It’s the Israelis who make the actual approved/denied decisions.
Even in that patchwork geography which the Palestinians control, the Israelis control the subsurface and the airspace. The Israelis siphon off more than 80% of the water from the aquifer located under the West Bank. The skies are populated by a fleet of drone aircraft, which conduct surveillance as well as unmanned bombings and targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders.
Just as the interior boundaries between Israeli and Palestinian space are fluid and permeable, so is the external boundary between Israel and Egypt. Israel replaced its traditional Bar Lev line of border defense with a network of military emplacements positioned inside Israeli territory. When in the 1973 war the Egyptian army surged across the border, the Israeli Defense Force converged behind the advancing Egyptians, cutting off their supply lines and their retreat route.
The debate between the two different military doctrines of territorial organization — linear fortifications and a network of strongholds laid out throughout their depth — recalls comparisons made by Antonio Gramsci between the ‘war of position’ and ‘war of manoeuvre’, with similar political patterns. For Gramsci, the shift from the former to the latter implies an erosion in political hegemony… The political ‘war of manoeuvre’, by contrast, exists according to Gramsci as a multiplicity of non-centralized and loosely coordinated actions that aggressively compete with the power of the state. In local terms, the breaking of the Bar Lev Line seemed to have turned the former into the latter.” (Weizman, p. 77)
Maybe Weizman’s most compelling and terrifying illustration of Israeli deterritorialization of the Occupied Territory is the 2003 attack on the West Bank city of Nablus:
“Soldiers avoided using the streets, roads, alleys, and courtyards that define the logic of movement through the city, as well as the external doors, internal stairwells and windows that constitute the order of buildings; rather, they were punching holes through party walls, ceilings and floors, and moving across them through 100-metre-long pathways of domestic interior hollowed out of the dense and contiguous city fabric… This form of movement is part of a tactic that the military refers to, borrowing from the world of aggregate animal formation, as ‘swarming’ and ‘infestation.’ Moving through domestic interiors, this manoeuvre turned inside into outside and private domains to thoroughfares. Fighting took place within half-demolished living rooms, bedrooms and corridors. It was not the given order of space that governed patterns of movement, but movement itself that produced space around it. This three-dimensional movement through walls, ceilings and floors through the bulk of the city reinterpreted, short-circuited and recomposed both architectural and urban syntax. The tactics of ‘walking through walls’ involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but as the very medium of warfare — a flexible, almost liquid matter that is forever contingent and in flux.” (p. 186)
Israeli (and US) military intelligence experts acknowledge that they adapted these tactics from guerrilla fighters, including the Palestinians themselves, as well as from radical and poststructural theorists like Marcuse, Gramsci, Debord, Deleuze & Guattari, and Agamben. Decision-making is decentralized; individual soldiers are regarded as intelligent agents in their own right. Networked together, the intelligence distributed across the “swarm” exceeds what could possibly be available to any centralized command and control function. In a sense this is free market theory tactically applied to the military, but with the “invisible hand” of an emergent and unplanned order replaced by the shared strategic mission of defeating the common enemy. Weizman quotes from an interview he conducted with Israeli Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi:
“This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion — after all, it must be bounded by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret it as a place, like every architect and every town planner does, to walk through, or do you interpret it as a place forbidden to walk through? That depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him. This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do. This is why we opted for the method of walking through walls… Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing.” (p. 199)