Tag Archives: Eyal Weizman

Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation

Hollow Land - Eyal WeizmanThis book is an investigation of the transformation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967. It looks at the ways in which the different forms of Israeli rule inscribed themselves in space, analysing the geographical, territorial, urban and architectural conceptions and the interrelated practices that form and sustain them. In doing so, it provides an image of the very essence of Israeli occupation, its origin, evolution and the various ways by which it functions.

Hollow Land is masterfully done as well. It is not a history or a detailed look at the current situation, but incorporates both into a study that instead does what Weizman calls ‘probing the various structures of territorial occupation’. His discussion of these structures is chronological, corresponding to different periods of occupation. It reads almost more like science fiction than Joanna Russ, who I was reading at the same time. It does not so much call upon Foucault or Deleuze and Guattari as exemplify them, and give them terrifying real world application. It is amazingly grounded and engaged, though the initial language put me off the tiniest bit. You think it will be theoretical and agonizingly abstracted from an unjust reality, but it is the opposite. There is so much here that makes you think about space and its connection to power and politics and war, but I personally am almost afraid to use it, as the situation it describes is unparalleled. The only thing I can relate it to is the murder and complete dispossession of Native Americans in the US and Canada. To relate it to less risks mocking the desperate violence and injustice of the occupation of Palestinian lands.

I am fascinated by the idea of elastic geographies, the way that borders and boundaries shift and change, the way that inside and outside are blurred. The State certainly has a level of power, but such boundaries are elastic because contested thus the actions of multiple actors comes into play:

‘Because elastic geographies respond to a multiple and diffused rather than a single source of power, their architecture cannot be understood as the material embodiment of a unified political will or as the product of a single ideology. Rather, the organization of the Occupied Territories should be seen as a kind of ‘political plastic’, or as a diagram of the relation between all the forces that shaped it.’

Spatial organization as a diagram of operating forces — a very cool way to think about space and power. He says elsewhere ‘The architecture of the frontier could not be said to be simply ‘political’ but rather ‘politics in matter’. This is a perfect connect to Lefebvre (who is never mentioned or cited — so many insights here appear to emerge organically from the subject, but in reviewing the notes and bibliography I found some absences rather curious), especially when he says things like

The various inhabitants of this frontier do not operate within the fixed envelopes of space – space is not the background for their actions, an abstract grid on which events take place – but rather the medium that each of their actions seeks to challenge, transform or appropriate.

Space is both the object of struggle and its product, it is both shaped by and shapes struggle.

I confess I did not know a great deal about the details of Israel’s occupation. While not written as a history, this gives you an incredible depth and breadth of view into the situation. It also challenges you to question liberalism itself, and joins in the growing body of literature critical of both liberal reform and foreign aid (and the ways these so often go together). He writes: ‘The history of the occupation is full of liberal ‘men of peace’ who are responsible for, or who at least sweeten, the injustice committed by the occupation. The occupation would not have been possible without them.’It also looks at the neoliberalisation of discourse: ‘Indeed, the bureaucratic infrastructure of the Oslo process sought to replace an ‘occupation’ with ‘management’. … In this way, Israeli-Palestinian interactions, which by the standards of international law were still performed within the framework of belligerent occupation, were depoliticized into a smilingly neo-liberal ‘service economy’, a mere business transaction.’ there is also the effort to make the situation seem a ‘natural’ rather than ‘political’ one, and the resulting policy effects:

‘Recasting the crisis in terms of ‘humanitarian politics’ was itself a political decision by the European and American donor countries; in doing so, they effectively released Israel from its responsibilities according to international law and undermined their own potential political influence in bringing the occupation to an end.’

The dallying of the IDF with radical and critical theory through their Operational Theory Research Institute (OTRI) was mind-boggling. That it came bundled in a chapter explaining the new Israeli practice of blasting their way through the walls of civilian homes to move around the refugee camps made it more sinister. Being a refugee is terrible enough, but for armed men to come blasting through your wall without warning? Terrifying. Pitched battles took place in living rooms, and people lived with these holes after the conflict, covering them over with shelves and etc. It all came to pieces in the end but wow. Here is Weizman to Naveh, one of OTRI’s directors:

I then asked him, if so, why does he not read Derrida and deconstruction instead? He answered, ‘Derrida may be a little too opaque for our crowd. We share more with architects; we combine theory and practice. We can read, but we know as well how to build and destroy, and sometimes kill.’

They go to look at Deleuze and Guatarri, rhizomes and war machines. Weizman continues

When I asked him if moving through walls was part of it, he answered that ‘travelling through walls is a simple mechanical solution that connects theory and practice. Transgressing boundaries is the definition of the condition of “smoothness”.’

Thus critical theory was divorced of moral content and socialist ideals, stripped down to its ability to disrupt and used both against the Palestinians as well as in power struggles within the Israeli military, allowing it to reinvent itself. Terrifying.

There is the banality of architecture and building construction with brutal consequences:

According to testimony from Machsom Watch, the tight turnstiles ended up causing more harm and chaos. ‘People got stuck, parcels got crushed, dragged along and burst open on the ground. Heavier people got trapped in the narrow space, as were older women and mothers with small children.’45 It is hard to imagine the cruelty imposed by a minor transformation of a banal, and otherwise invisible architectural detail, ostensibly employed to regulate and make easier the process of passage.

So much of interest around defining public and private, making and unmaking subjects, examining defense (against outside forces) as opposed to security (guarding from the enemy within). There is just so much in Hollow Land, I may well read it again.

My only (small) critique is that while Weizman emphasizes the multiplicity of actors responsible for the creation of space in the occupied territories, the role of Palestinian struggle only really emerges in the last chapter on Evacuations. Even where he emphasizes the ways in which Jewish settlers followed their own logics (to counterproductive results at times) and stated outright that Ariel Sharon didn’t mastermind the settlement process, the rest of the chapter (and perhaps the book) seems to prove that his finger was literally in every pie. In spite of its desires to the contrary, there is still some sense of overwhelming power and force that the last chapter doesn’t quite manage to overcome. Where are the points where hope is possible? Though I admit, given Israel’s latest round of assassinations and bombing of the Gaza strip even now, hope seems very far away.

[written back on November 6, 2012]