"What is this architecture of control and how does it work?" - An Excerpt from The Least of All Possible Evils

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A topographical model of the Beit Surik area with different possible walls. In red is the route built by the government, in blue is the “lesser evil” line. Note that the blue line crosses the green line. Photo: Eyal Weizman, 2008.

The announcement that Forensic Architecture has been shortlisted for the 2018 Turner Prize is hugely welcomed. Despite the recent and ongoing ICA exhibition, the FA collective are not necessarily the standard definition of what an artist, or  capital-A art, is. Eyal Weizman, one of the founders of the Goldsmith’s FA group, is the author of Hollowland: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation and The Least of All Possible Evils: A Short History of Humanitarian Violence. Both books probe questions of the weaponisation of architecture, and how in reflection, all expressions of power are in fact architectural. To challenge and question these structures is the task of forensic architecture.

In their work that has spanned massacres in Latin America, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, extrajudicial murder in German, the patterns of bombings in Gaza in 2015, the reconstruction of a renowned torture site in Syria from the first hand accounts of those who were released, as well as the groundbreaking work with those who witness the fire at Grenfell Tower, the Forensic Architecture group have explored new ways of uncovering the truth of events from, amongst others, images caught on mobile phones, reconstructions, witness accounts, GPS signals, time studies, sound recordings. Their inclusion on the Turner shortlist challenges the boundaries of what is art, but also art’s role in holding power to account in contemporary society.

In this extract from The Least of All Possible Evils, Weizman offers new ways of looking at how Israel has asserted control over Palestine beyond military aggression and policing. Dominance can be ensured through infrastructure, access, land ownership, even the flows that permeate below the soil of the territory. Understanding these relationships, often considered outside standard politics, is to construct anew the architecture of power.

What is this architecture of control and how does it work? In the early 2000s when I started my research into the formation of this territorial system, I approached the challenge as every architect might approach an analysis of a complex building: I drew a cross section through it. An architectural cross section cuts through the visible layers of a building – facades, internal walls, floors – to expose the structures, systems, and infrastructure that run through them – columns, beams, air ducts, plumbing, electricity or information systems – as well as the relation between floors and rooms.

The section revealed the depth of Israel’s colonial project, because, like a building, the ‘architectural project’ of the occupation was arranged in layers. The Oslo Accords of the mid 1990s – which promised an incremental pathway to reconciliation but ended up providing the skeleton of the existing geographical system of domination and control – divided the territory into three principle political floors: the surface, landlocked pockets which were handed over to Palestinian control; the subsoil, including water and mineral resources; and the airspace above Palestinian areas, which was left in Israeli hands, primarily those of its air force.

But territorial stratifications get even more complicated. Israel’s primary legal apparatus for land grab: an Ottoman land code from the mid-nineteenth century conceived to encourage agricultural cultivation after a great series of droughts and famines across the empire by promising farmers permanent tenure over any land they cultivated and threatening to take land away if they didn’t. A contemporary reading of the logic of this law helped the state take legal control over all uncultivated lands, which were located primarily on the barren hilltops leaving only the lower cultivated valleys in Palestinian hands. In these hilltops, also important for territorial control, Israel could now ‘legally’ implant the settlement. This meant that the two national populations became intertwined and intermingled everywhere across the terrain.

This fragmentation into settlement hilltop islands over Palestinian valley enclaves necessitated a further degree of three-dimensional complexity: a mesh of separated roadways that could connect islands to islands and enclaves to enclaves. This completely divided the movements of Jews and Palestinians in three dimensions without the two ever crossing, or crossing only minimally.

A Jewish-only road network, the ‘apartheid roads’ started connecting the hilltop settlements with bridges that span over Palestinian fields and with tunnels that burrow underneath Palestinian towns. This type of infrastructure has in recent decades been greatly extended and currently comprises a full third of the total length of roadways in the West Bank. In the last decade, as armed confrontations in the West Bank subsided, some military checkpoints were removed, allowing Palestinians freer movement between their villages and towns. But this movement was undertaken on a separate and tattered road network that, when- ever crossing the Jewish network of highways, bows and bores underneath them. While the Jewish road network leads everywhere to Israel, the Palestinian road network is truncated on all sides by walls, checkpoints, and military zones.

Every Palestinian town and village has thus been fully enveloped by Israeli space in three dimensions. If Palestinians want to drive out of their enclaves, they encounter a fence, a wall, or an Israeli checkpoint. If they want to dig a well they need Israeli permission to pierce into its subterranean volumes, and face sanctions if they don’t. If they want to fly – a question that is largely theoretical given that they are not permitted an air force nor a national airline – they need Israel’s permission to enter into the airspace over their very roofs.

In Gaza, this three-dimensional partition organizes the frontlines of the armed struggle. Enclosed on the surface and unable to face the Israeli air force that continuously hovers above, Palestinian military efforts move in two directions along the vertical axis: they have retreated into the subsoil, where there are under- ground command centers, cross-border tunnels, and rocket-launching sites; and into the airspace through which these rockets travel.

If this system of volumetric separation were to be described in terms of a building, it would most closely resemble an airport with separate inbound and outbound corridors, splintering infrastructural ductworks, multiple passport control points, and security checks that direct some passengers on hustle-free paths through luxury shops to anywhere in the world, and others toward long queues, invasive security checks, and detention rooms that are sometimes separated from the luxury shops merely by a single floor or wall. Following this metaphor, Gaza would be the largest of the detention rooms. From it, those incarcerated might be able to see the people shopping on the other side, but are invisible to them (while being hypervisible to their security forces). The more these detainees try to resist or break out, the less provisions, water, and electricity these security people allow in.

I have previously called this layered political structure ‘the politics of verticality’. Throughout the last decade, this evolving and elastic territorial architecture has hardened into a permanent mechanism of separation and control. Verticality has become a form of apartheid. The word should in fact be synonymous with it.

Other layers of separation could be revealed by extending the section line downward across different geological layers. A section through these layers exposes the political logic of Israeli apartheid in the same way that seismological cracks help geologists examine hidden layers of rock. Recently, some scientists have proposed that our geological era should be referred to as the Anthropocene, a time in which humans have become the dominant force in shaping – destructively and dangerously – the very material composition of the planet. It is not only that the natural layers of the earth – deposits, minerals, and rocks – should be regarded as proper geological strata, but that the geology of the earth might also include artificial strata such as structures and buried infrastructures, asphalt, toxins, concrete, and mechanical transportation systems, including tens of thousands of satellites that form a permanent layer of aluminium forever circling the planet. If the concept of the Anthropocene helps us think about geology politically, we might also reverse its proposition and think about politics geologically.

The political geology of Palestine starts in the deep subterranean aquifers, buried under layers of aggregate soil and rock. The partition and use of the waters of this interconnected set of underground lakes, most of it under the West Bank, reflects the extent of inequality exercised on the surface. The Oslo Accords allocated 80 per cent of this resource for the benefit of Israel. As a result, average water consumption in Israel is more than four times that of the West Bank and Gaza. In recent decades, over-extraction of groundwater from Gaza’s sole aquifer led to its permanent salinization, destroying the strip’s single water source.

Another geological stratum is archaeology. The buried remains of the land’s historical occupants should be the subject of impartial scientific study. But the settler colonial logic of the Zionist project uses archaeology to construct an alibi for the Jewish ‘return’ and the claim that its indigenous rights are more fundamental and prior to those of all others. In this book, I have outlined the way ideologically motivated archaeology across Palestine, aimed at the remains of its biblical past, has discarded other archaeological strata (especially the long succession of Muslim periods from the seventh to the twentieth century) and organized the mode of occupation on the surface right above them. One excavation, which began in 2008, powerfully embodies this logic. It took place right under Silwan, a small Palestinian neighbourhood just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Promoted by settler associations and starting without proper permits, it searched for elements of ‘King David’s era’ Jerusalem by boring tunnels through a hillside beneath homes in the neighbourhood, without informing the residents or securing their consent and refusing to stop despite their explicit protests and several attempts to halt it in court.

The underground works, a haphazard collection of improvised tunnels fortified with tonnes of steel and concrete, were recently inaugurated by dignitaries including the city’s mayor, who ceremonially stated: ‘When you stand in the City of David, you see layer after layer of foreign conquest, but when you come to the bedrock, there you find the Jewish layer.’ His conflation of geology (bedrock) and archaeology (Iron Age ruins) – false for there being a millennia of earlier inhabitations in Jerusalem – was used to make a crude political point: ‘after other countries’ leaders visit here they will no longer have any doubts about who owns this city’. But the excavation has also connected between the separate strata: cracks, originating inside the mountain, started moving up through geological and archaeological layers towards the surface, appearing and disappearing as they find their lines of least resistance, cutting through streets, homes, a school, and a mosque, some of which had to be abandoned. Digging for the ruins of ancient Jewish archaeology thus produced a layer of contemporary Palestinian ruin.

Indeed, in many places beneath the pavement of Israeli towns and universities, under the fields of Zionist villages and hillside forests, there is a layer made of the rubble of Palestine destroyed in 1948. The destruction has not ceased and Palestinian rubble is still piling up. It is made of homes, bulldozed for being built without permits in places where no permits are ever given to Palestinians. It is made of the bombed out buildings and greenhouses of Gaza and the improvised structures of the Bedouin villages of the Jordan Valley and the Negev. There is rubble across Palestine and everywhere people can be seen picking through its fresh top layers, where their homes stood, searching for something to salvage.

This layer of building rubble is directly related to the high-tech strata of the airspace and the electromagnetic spectrum occupied by the airforce. Since this book was first published, this layer has undergone a profound transformation. Domination from the air, which was largely exercised by manned jets and helicopters on short designated missions, is now increasingly enforced by overlapping swarms of unmanned drones on long missions. Hovering continuously over Palestinian towns and villages, they maintain a menacing, malevolent presence. The sound of their propellers’ engines is the continuous backdrop of Palestinian daily lives. These aerial platforms have rotated the geography of colonization by 90 degrees: the ‘Orient’ is no longer beyond the horizon, but now directly underneath it. ‘Aerially enforced colonization’, based on the drones’ ability to maintain a perpetual ‘surveillance and strike’ capability, is an economically efficient alternative to the otherwise onerous and expensive tasks of colonial policing in the dense urban mazes of the Gaza strip. The availability of this form of control was central in convincing the Israeli leadership that territorial withdrawal from the strip could be possible without compromising Israel’s overall domination. Hunter algorithms, programmed to follow patterns of behaviour, are programmed to learn the art of suspicion and violence in the same way that school children across our region currently do.

Cross sections through the layers of terrain reveal the politics of verticality to have an architecture composed of layers of radically different kinds – natural and artificial, material and immaterial, low- and high-tech – one equally composed of archaeology and drones. When something is said to have an ‘architecture’ it is tempting to imagine there is a single design team in charge, but the architecture of occupation was conceived at different periods by different people. That it has a layered structure laminated together into a unified and effective apparatus is because it was conceived under the ideology and practice of settler colonialism. The layering of democracy (for Israelis and Jews in the West Bank) and military dictatorship (in the areas between settlements) also makes this form of apartheid more resilient because it enables its apologists to deny its total nature and concentrates criticism on a different part of it every time. These different parts under criticism can then be compared to similar or equivalent practices in other places. Archaeology is politicized in other countries, drones are employed elsewhere, and other countries still divide their water unequally, etc. There is nothing inherently different, only that here these layers are woven into a complete system. However, this layered arrangement is rarely grasped in its totality; each layer is presented as a haphazard, often merely functional solution to a separate problem. A patch over patch, implemented stage by stage. One layer makes sure hilltops are seized by the state for the construction of settlements; another, annexes land along the roadways that connect these settlements (for their security); another, restricts building (only in and around Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods) in the name of environmental regulations for clean air, green areas, and natural reserves, or because the military needs live fire training areas (always next to Palestinian places), or because there are archaeological sites under these Palestinian areas, or, most effectively, to restrict access to underground water. It is the perceived separation between these layers that makes the politics of vertical apartheid so effective and resilient, and moreover an attractive model for other countries that seek form of population control.