Ariel Sharon and the Geometry of Occupation... (part 2)

Eyal Weizman
9 September 2003

Ariel Sharon and the Geometry of Occupation:
strategic points, flexible lines, tense surfaces, political volumes

Part one: Border versus frontier
The post-1967 transformation of the occupied territories is the story of how Israeli military and civilian planning became the executive arm of geopolitical strategy. The Suez Canal battles of the Yom Kippur war in 1973 were a national trauma that returned the ‘frontier’ to the Israeli public imagination. The figure of Ariel Sharon is central to this process.

Part two: Architecture as war by other means
How does Ariel Sharon imagine territory and practice space? The settlements, the ‘battle for the hilltops’, and now the security fence embody his long-term territorial ambition: to combine control of the West Bank with physical separation of its populations.

Part three: Temporary permanence
The ‘barrier’ exemplifies the dystopian logic of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, where a fragmented, borderless, always-provisional territory refuses accommodation with security ambitions that seek definitiveness. There is no spatial-technical design solution to the conflict: it can only be political.


The enemy ‘within’

But the geopolitical reality of the 1980s and 1990s – after the terms of the 1978 peace agreement with Egypt were fulfilled, after the drying out of military assistance to the Arab states with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and after the first intifada began in 1987 – presented new dangers to the strategy. The challenges that the state faced arose less from a conventional attack by Arab armour from the “outside” and more from a disgruntled and restless Palestinian population located already “inside”.

Beyond their status as forward positions in the defence of the state from invasion, the settlements were used to allow the state to exercise the task of civilian control.

The centres and headquarters of popular resistance were deep within Palestinian towns and cities, especially the winding and impenetrable fabric of the refugee camps. These over-dense and under-serviced urban environments became in the eyes of the state the “habitat of terror”. The rapid urbanisation of the West Bank during the relatively prosperous 1980s was seen by the Israeli security establishment as the “jihad of building”.

Palestinian urban growth, fuelled by a rapidly increased population, “illegally” sprawled beyond the ‘blue lines’ that the IDF’s civil administration traced around them as planning boundaries. Cities swallowed towns, and towns villages, into an ever-thickening fabric of large continuously-built blocks along the main Palestinian traffic arteries, and especially along Route 60 – historically the most important Palestinian route, the one stringing all major Palestinian cities along the north-south mountain ridge. Urbanity became a Palestinian ‘weapon’ of retaliation threatening to undermine Israeli territorial control.

The way to contain these urban threats, from Ariel Sharon’s planner’s perspective, was by using more of the weapon of counter-urbanity – or more precisely, sub-urbanity. From the 1980s onwards, Sharon was using settlements as an antidote to uncontrolled Palestinian population growth, placing them as wedges that disturb the consolidation of large metropolitan centres – those most likely to form the cultural demographic and political basis of a viable territorial entity.

Beyond their status as forward positions in the defence of the state from invasion, the settlements were used to allow the state to exercise the task of civilian control. A continuous fabric of homes, industrial zones, and roads were knitted together to act as wedges separating the different Palestinian population centres.

Sometimes the objective of making the settlement act as a wedge was achieved by its very layout; in the case of the settlement-city of Ariel (the largest settlement in Samaria, coincidentally named after Ariel Sharon), it stretched itself long and thin in order to partially envelop the Palestinian city of Salfit and cut it away from the villages composing its regional economy.

The small red-roofed single family home replaced the tank as the smallest fighting unit. District regional and municipal plans replaced the strategic sand table. Homes like armoured divisions, were used in formation across a dynamic theatre of operations to occupy strategic hills, to encircle an enemy, or cut communication lines.

The location strategy employed for the West Bank was based on yet another basic military principle, one that states that the party to move faster across a battlefield is the one to win the battle. It acted to differentiate between the speeds by which Israelis and Palestinians could move across the terrain .

Traffic arteries are de facto separated across national lines: the six-lane bypass roads on which military vehicles and civilian vans can rush between settlements contrast with the narrow, informal dust-roads connecting Palestinian towns and villages. This slowing down of the Palestinian population is what Israeli journalist Amira Hass has called “the theft of time”.

The architectural research group Multiplicity demonstrated that it takes an Israeli driver ninety minutes to cross the West Bank from north to south, while the same journey takes a Palestinian driver eight hours – and this only on condition that the roads are open to Palestinian traffic.

The fixing of the Palestinian population as relatively stationary, and separated into isolated, immobile islands, makes them easily manageable and controllable.

Jeff Halper called the contemporary consequence of this strategic texture in the West Bank “the matrix of control” within this matrix the inhabitation of nodal points acts as on/off valves regulating movement according to identity, replacing the necessity for the direct presence of Israeli forces within Palestinian cities.

The Battle for the Hilltops

Ariel Sharon, fearing the reversal of his spatial practices, was reluctant to implement his 1982 plan gradually. He believed it was important “…to secure a presence first and only then build the settlements up”.

He therefore acted to lay out the entire skeleton of the project, seeding the area with small outposts, some hardly more than footholds, composed of tents or mobile homes – knowing that each of these outposts, once establishing itself as a fact on the ground, would grow to become a fully-grown settlement.

Defining in advance his policy regarding the West Bank barrier, Sharon advised settlers not to build fences around settlements but rather around the Palestinians: “if you put up a fence, you put a limit to your expansion”.

At the beginning of 1983, after the Kahan inquiry into the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps had found Sharon indirectly responsible, he was out of government and his influence on the settlement project was thereafter exercised through an active role in the political opposition.

In this light, the current scenes of removal and repositioning of the “illegal outposts” – small ad hoc settlement seeds put up by independent groups in breach of Israeli law – in the context of the “roadmap” can be understood in the context of Sharon’s skeleton strategy.

On Jewish settlement outpost by the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, (Milutin Labudovic, 2002)
On Jewish settlement outpost by the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, (Milutin Labudovic, 2002)

Soon after it took power in 1992, the Yitzhak Rabin government stopped issuing permits for the construction of new settlements. In response Ariel Sharon, leading the ferocious opposition to the 1993 Oslo accords, announced the “battle for the hilltops”; he urged young ideological and religious settlers to “move, run and grab as many hilltops as possible” and replace the suburban culture of the settlements with a renewed sense of frontier in order to stop any further territorial concessions.

In the decade since then, these settlers have established over 100 “temporary” outposts on the remaining strategic hilltops beyond the boundaries of settlements, with a total population not exceeding 1000 . Their aim is to secure the areas in a way that allow them to challenge any proposal for territorial compromise, or at least change the trajectory of any proposed border – if one has to be set – to Israel’s permanent advantage.

The settlement of M’aale Edummim, Jerusalem region (Milutin Labudovic, 2002

The settlers inhabiting the outposts, the so-called “youth of the hills”, are rarely beyond their teens. Their way of life, represented both by the layout of outposts (a series of mobile homes or adaptable ship containers organised in a circle) and by their preferred method of transport (horseback) seems at times influenced by the iconographies of the 19th century American frontier reproduced in countless Hollywood Westerns. Indeed, in contrast to the suburban economy of the settlements, the outposts seek biblical self-sustainability based on shepherding, manual labour and agriculture.

This apparent naivety hides the fact that, with their potential for immediacy, mobility and flexibility, these outposts are the perfect instruments of colonisation. The prefabricated homes allow for quick, overnight deployment on the back of trucks or (in case where a road is not available) even by helicopter.

Another home arrives in the West Bank

The prefabricated rigidity of the single element allows for an immediate urbanism, based on patterns of quick repetition and distribution. The seed of mobile homes may then be free to transform and develop into a ‘mature’ settlement as conditions allow.

In the context of the “roadmap”, Israel is committed (in principle) to “immediately (dismantling) settlement outposts erected since March 2001”. The government’s acts of “dismantling” today are as revealing about the precision of the settlements’ location strategy as any past decisions regarding the establishment of new settlements.

Most outposts spring up again immediately after being removed. Evacuation on the back of trucks means very often relocation, sometimes even to a more strategic location.

Most outposts spring up again immediately after being removed. Evacuation on the back of trucks means very often relocation, sometimes even to a more strategic location. Sharon himself has already announced that the government intends to permanently remove only those outposts which are not in locations that he regards as strategically important.

The timing of Ariel Sharon’s return to power, this time as Prime Minister, is not surprising. It occurred after the collapse of Labour’s peace project in Camp David on July 2000, and in the beginning of the second intifada which itself followed Sharon’s provocative visit to the vicinity of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. When a series of suicide terrorist attacks on Israeli cities reignited the politics and geography of fear, security and territorial planning fused together, and with the construction of the barrier the final and decisive round of territorial conflict in the Israeli/Palestinian history seems to have arrived.

The removal of an outpost (Kafri)
The removal of an outpost (Nir Kafri)

The barrier

Points and lines are synergetic systems – the distribution of settlement points across the surface of the West Bank called for complex set of lines both to connect (roads) and to protect (barriers). The latter are concretised by a series of long and interlocking mechanisms: barbed wire, ditches, dykes and checkpoints.

What the government refers to as the “seam-line obstacle”, the Israeli public as the “separation fence”, the foreign media as “the wall” and the Palestinians “the apartheid wall” is a complex barrier composed of a sequence of fortifications measuring between 35 and 100 metres in width that is in the process of being constructed through the West Bank. It is designed to separate the Jewish settlements and their supportive infrastructure from the Palestinian population.


What to call it?

There is multi-purpose confusion regarding the semantics of how to describe the barrier. The Palestinians use the term ‘wall’ hoping to equate it in European minds with the Berlin Wall, a barrier that was composed in effect throughout most of its length as a fence. The Israelis use the term ‘fence’ hoping to minimise awareness of the scale of the barrier and make it appear more domestic and benign.

When talking to former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, President Bush termed the barrier ‘a wall’, and with Ariel Sharon ‘a fence’.

It must be noted that from the military perspective, a fence allows one to see and shoot through while a wall may allow an ‘enemy’ to assemble and prepare for crossing undetected.

In this series, following the terminology set by B’Tselem, I prefer to use the term ‘barrier’ which I find to be the most precisely descriptive of the nature of the grand fortification system.


The main component of the barrier is a touch-sensitive, “smart”, three metres high electronic fence, placed on a 150 centimetre-deep concrete foundation (to prevent digging under it), topped with barbed wire (to prevent climbing over it), and monitored day and night by video cameras and even small radars.

How a barrier is made
How a barrier is made

Stretched along the east side of the fence (facing the bulk of the West Bank) are a patrol road, a three-metre deep trench, and two barbed-wire fences. West of it (towards Israel proper) are a trace road – where footprints of intruders are registered, a patrol road suitable for armoured vehicles and some more barbed-wire fences.

At some places, when the barrier nears a Palestinian town, the tactically required see-through (and shoot-through) fence solidifies into an eight-metre high bullet-proof wall; watchtowers with firing posts are placed at intervals of a few hundred metres along it.

The main component of the barrier is a touch-sensitive, “smart”, three-metres high electronic fence, placed on a 150 centimetre-deep concrete foundation topped with barbed wire

Other positions utilise enhanced natural barriers, like fifty-metre high artificial cliffs cut into the mountain rock. Seven control gates for Israelis and nine for Palestinians are planned in order to allow people in and out of the enclosed area, and some twenty-six “agricultural gates” will serve Palestinian farmers whose lands are on the other side.

This monumental system of fortification has an estimated per-kilometre cost of about $1.5 million.

The barrier as a wall
The barrier as a wall(Nir Kafri, 2002)

The barrier is constructed from north to south in several separate phases. The first stage, about 123 kilometres along the northern third of the West Bank, became operational in July 2003. South of it, the central area of the seam-line is currently mapped from the air; ten planning offices are labouring over alternative paths. But while uncertainties regarding the path of the barrier still exist due to a variety of political pressures, large tracts of land have already been seized for “temporary military needs”.

In November 2000, in the wake of the collapse of Labour’s political project at Camp David, and a little more than a month after the second intifada began, the then prime minister Ehud Barak decided that if the political borders between Israel and a Palestinian state could not be agreed upon, he would set them out unilaterally.

The barrier as a fence(Nir Kafri, 2002)

Ehud Barak approved a plan to establish a linear barrier, roughly corresponding with the Green Line, composed of a series of ditches and dykes and aiming to prevent the passage of motor vehicles into Israel. Labour, propagating the idea of unilateral separation along a fortified line, has since lost two elections.

Ariel Sharon, whose strategic doctrine still saw the West Bank as a defensible and national frontier, wanted by contrast to avoid being the one to set a borderline through the heart of the Land of Israel. He insisted – up until the day he appeared to have changed his mind – that “the idea [to build the barrier] is populist.”

However, on 14 April 2002, two days before the battle for Jenin was concluded and with all other major Palestinian cities firmly in his hands, Sharon “surrendered” to the demands of the Labour ministers in his government, as well as to growing public pressures. Amid fear of suicide attacks carried out by infiltrators from the West Bank, and awareness that not a single attack had been carried out from fenced-off Gaza, Sharon demanded a “security fence”, and announced the coalition government’s decision to establish the barrier.

In a context where the IDF occupied the entire West Bank, and with the Palestinian Authority all but destroyed, the decision to set up the barrier was not seen by the government as necessarily separating “them” from “us”; it rather marked across its two sides different degrees of occupation, corresponding to the gradient of Israeli military tolerance.

What started as the brainchild of the left was continuously revised and “improved” by the Sharon government. The line Sharon has drawn was very different to Labour’s. It is to be a feat of great geometrical complexity and technical sophistication – the last of Sharon’s territorial gestures, the one to finally solidify, in both space and time, his territorial strategy.

Flexible lines

If, as architects know well, the direction and path of a line is the sum total of the force field of pressures that is applied to it, the barrier can offer the clearest diagram of the principle of political and social pressure moulded into form. The paths taken by the barrier line reflects a momentary balance of all the vectors of influences on it.

As the path of the barrier “snakes” southwards, it goes through a process in which political pressures on either side of the proposed structure start reinforcing each other, and in a principle of “positive feedback” the barrier makes ever more radical twists and turns, pushing ever deeper east of the Green Line.

As the barrier neared their region, settlement councils started applying political leverage for the path to “loop around” and absorb them into the western (Israeli) “inside”. Appearing to be wary of settlers’ pressure, but actually using it as an excuse to perform what was planned in advance, the government sought to include as large a number of settlement points as possible, and leave as few Palestinians as possible within the Israeli side of the barrier.

The settlers initially resisted the idea of the barrier that will cut parts of the West Bank from Israel proper, but once they realised they could not stop its construction, opted to try to influence its route.

As the path of the barrier “snakes” southwards, it pushes ever deeper east of the Green Line.

A particularly strong outcry came from the settlement of Alfei-Menashe, a relatively wealthy suburban community. According to the first phase northern path, authorised in June 2002, this settlement found itself left “outside”. The local panic about being “abandoned”, mediated through political pressures and ultimatums from right-wing ministers, managed to force a revision of the path and the stretching out of a long loop to incorporate the settlement back “inside”.

As a result, the Palestinian towns of Qalqiliya and Habla, a few hundred metres apart as the crow flies, found themselves surrounded on all sides by the barrier’s extension, and the connection between them now swelled into a corridor twenty kilometres long.

Habla / Qalqiliya
Habla / Qalqiliya

The path of the barrier was complicated by another series of external influences. Following pressure by government ministers from religious parties, the path of the Jerusalem envelopment (the Jerusalem metropolitan part of the barrier) was stretched a few hundred metres southwards to include an old archaeological site believed to be the Biblical-era tomb of Rachel. Ten other archaeological sites, including one complete Egyptian city, were discovered during the digging works along another part of the barrier and in some cases the path was changed to bring them back “inside”.

The desire to match the path of the barrier with sub-surface interests meant the incorporation of the water extraction points of the mountain aquifer, while the desire to serve Israel’s aerial interests meant the appropriation of areas located closely beneath the landing paths of international flights.

It seems that the only consideration absent from the vectors of push and pull are those relating to the human rights and daily life of the Palestinian residents of the area. Along the whole length of the built and proposed paths, Palestinian villagers will be cut away from their farmland and water sources.

The human rights organisation B’Tselem estimates that the barrier would negatively affect the livelihood of at least 210,000 Palestinians, and irreversibly damage the economic prospects of a Palestinian state.

The central phase of the barrier path, now under planning and revision, is more strategically and politically sensitive than the built-up northern part. In this phase the barrier is supposed to mediate through the densely populated regions close to the metropolitan region of Tel Aviv. There the largest numbers of settlers are located, built densities are high, and settlement real estate is relatively expensive.

The settlement of Ariel
The settlement of Ariel

Israeli pro-capita gross domestic product (GDP) is twenty times larger than that of Palestinians; the economic disparity between the two groups is higher then between any two other neighbouring populations worldwide. In the central region, where upper-middle class suburbs crowd against impoverished villages, the economic contrast is even more extreme.

It is not yet clear what path the barrier will take through this region – none of the speculative maps published by the many organisations monitoring the construction of the barrier are similar; neither the Israeli army nor the government has made its plans public, and each revises them as pressure mounts and ebbs.

In July 2003, the government announced its intention to include a particularly intrusive fold, stretching deep into the very heart of the West Bank, to incorporate the settlement-city of Ariel (population 17,000).

Unlike the construction of the northern part, the construction of the central part did not catch the Palestinian organisations off-guard. Together with Israeli-Palestinian members of parliament and peace organisations, they managed, sometimes risking their lives in perilous demonstrations along the path, to put the barrier and its path at the top of the international agenda, considerably delaying its construction.

European leaders demanded cancellation of the project, Tony Blair proposed delaying it and American officials proposed physical re-routings of the map. The American administration was particularly “worried” by the loop designed to encapsulate the settlement of Ariel, and even threatened reducing loan guarantees as a penalty if construction goes ahead.

Sharon responded that the barrier will go ahead as planned. The government has authorised a budget of almost $200 million, but the eventual route is still unclear. Although construction has begun in the Ariel region, it may be in order to encircle this large settlement city so that it can be left behind like a fortress island.

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