Ariel Sharon and the Geometry of Occupation... (part 3)

Eyal Weizman
4 September 2007

...strategic points, flexible lines, tense surfaces, political volumes

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.


Part Three: Temporary Permanence

From security measure to political fact

The government maintains that the principle that guides the path involves “temporary and urgent security considerations”, not political ones, and that the barrier is not and will not become a permanent border.

The claim for the “temporariness” of the barrier describes it as an instrument of contingency in a temporary state of emergency. But it is precisely the transient nature of Israeli unilateral actions across the frontier of the West Bank that renders them most effective in terms of the occupation.

In their book Bad Days, Israeli philosophers Adi Ophir and Ariella Azoulay noted that the occupation perpetuates itself through ever-new seemingly “temporary” facts, and that it is the “temporality” of conflict that allows the occupation to continue permanently.

Barriers are indeed different than borders in that they do not separate an “inside” and an “outside” of a sovereignty-based political and legal system, but merely act as contingency apparatuses to prohibit movement across a territory. Throughout Israeli history, though, the state always preferred to use temporary security arrangements as a way to create permanent political facts on the ground. If Sharon gets his way, the barrier will be transformed from a temporary security measure to a permanent political and material fact.

It is precisely the transient nature of Israeli unilateral actions across the frontier of the West Bank that renders them most effective in terms of the occupation.

Currently the barrier is still “flexible” – capable of incorporating more political pressures into its very path. The barrier construction in the central zone may still be altered or delayed, depending on local or foreign political pressures, until an initial territorial phase of the political negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians and the US on the temporary borders of the Palestinian state will reach some conclusions. If they do.

Sovereign islands

“The more forces there are in the vicinity of a line, the more complex is its path”. The modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky set thus the basis for the formal organisations of lines across a canvas in his book Points and Line to Plane. “When the force field around a line contains intense contradictions the line can no longer maintain its graphic coherence and shreds into fragments and discontinuous vectors”.

Ariel Sharon recently made public his intention to extend the barrier from being only in front (west) of Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank to being also behind (east) of them and run through the Jordan valley, thus fully encircling and completely surrounding the Palestinian areas.

Under this outline, more than half of the total territory of the West Bank will remain under Israeli control – namely, the two strategic north/south strips of the Jordan valley in the east and the meandering strip next to the Green Line in the west. They would be connected via Jerusalem and other east-west arteries.

The resulting layout will repeat almost exactly the ‘H’ pattern envisaged in Sharon’s 1982 plan, as if nothing in the intervening years – neither the Oslo process nor the “roadmap” – have altered his long-term vision.

Instead of a promise for separation embodied within this border-like device, the barrier will complete a project of containment. Not only will the Palestinians be surrounded on the surface of the land, Sharon will keep effective sovereignty on the mountain aquifer below their feats and on the airspace above their heads. This will wrap the Palestinians figuratively and physically from all directions.

The Palestinian state will effectively become a series of unstable pockets, completely surrounded lest they expand, within a Zionist body-politic that will cover all the territory between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river.

The archipelago of isolated territories around the Palestinian cities that remain, initially under IDF control, will gradually turn into what will become the “Palestinian state within its temporary borders” – the one the “roadmap” has as its objective. The Green Line, which the Palestinian government would like to see as its border with Israel, is 350 kilometres long, but the total length of barriers projected to be constructed between Israel and the Palestinians stretch to more than 1,200 kilometres.

In this geographic arrangement, the Palestinians are simultaneously inside and outside: landlocked inside a complete territorial envelopment, without any border save the very long and fragmented one to Israel, but – recalling the apartheid-era South African Bantustans – outside the Israeli state system.

Enclaves and exclaves

Within both Israeli and Palestinian parts of the West Bank, there will be islands or enclaves belonging to the other zone. A line separating Israelis and Palestinians has become geometrically impossible, unless large settlements are removed – something that the Israeli government is incapable of doing. Thus, a few hundred thousands of Palestinians will be left within the Israeli side, while almost the same number of Israelis, in remote settlements and military installations, will remain in pockets of “special security zones” within the Palestinian areas.

To protect these settlements and reassure their inhabitants, a sequence of fortifications identical to those composing the primary barrier is being laid out in enclosed circuits around them. The barrier has ceased to be the single and continuous line; like splintered worms taking on renewed life, it curls around isolated settlements and along the roads connecting them.

The Palestinian state will effectively become a series of unstable pockets, completely surrounded within a Zionist body-politic over all the territory between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river.

It is a condition of double enclosure. Settlements are fenced in for self-protection while Palestinian towns are enclosed from outside to prohibit security threats from leaking out. With this arrangement, the traditional perception of political space as a contiguous territorial surface, clearly delimited by continuous borders, is no longer relevant.

If the relation between the length of a border and the surface of the territory is an indication of the amount of “security” present, then the folds of the barrier line and its separate shreds place “security” measures deep throughout the terrain. Similar to the way in which the fjords, islands and lakes along the Norwegian coast create a whole zone across which water meets rock, the barrier’s folds and twists create an ever-present high-friction zone where civilian populations are jammed against “security” apparatuses.

With this fragmented geography in mind, Sharon finally merged the two extremes that defined Israel’s relation to its edge. Trying to articulate defence in depth with a line, he simultaneously created the line of a “border” and the deep conflict space of the “frontier”.

The paradox in the fact that it is finally Ariel Sharon that set the borders of the state can thus be resolved. The barrier is not a defeat of his geo-strategy, based on the historical rejection of the setting of a permanent border. For in its convoluted path, the one inscribed in the logic of his strategic thinking, the barrier is the direct and logical consequence of his free frontier mentality, which seeks to blur the borders of the state, rather than fix them.

The territorial concessions embedded in the plan are based on nothing but an acknowledgment of the Palestinian demographic advantage. Sharon is aware that considering current population growth, there will be a Palestinian majority in the combined territories of Israel/Palestine by 2020. He has thus acted to cut out the Palestinian demographic centres from the legal and effective responsibility of the Israeli state.

The consolidation of lines so convoluted and discontinuous into such expensive material presence will however not end the occupation but rather offer the means to indirectly consolidate it. Israel will go on being a borderless society, left in a perpetual state of fermentation and uncertainty in its identity, with the inconsistent behaviour and self-destructive impulses that define, in the words of Israeli architect Zvi Efrat, its own “borderline disorder”.

Hollow land

When the barrier is completed and the temporary-permanent security measures outline the border of a permanent “Palestinian state in temporary borders” scattered on landlocked sovereign islands, yet another territorial paradox will have to be resolved.

The fragmentation of jurisdiction across the surface will not be compatible with Sharon’s public pledges that (with the implementation of the “roadmap”) he will carve out a “contiguous area of territory in the West Bank that would allow the Palestinians to travel from Jenin [the northernmost city in the West Bank] to Hebron [the southernmost] without passing any Israeli roadblocks.”

When the bewildered reporters objected, based on the fact that the proposed path of the barrier will enclose these cities and set them apart in separate territorial envelopment, and asked how contiguity and fragmentation could be resolved, Sharon responded, probably with one of his famous winks, that this will be accomplished by “a combination of tunnels and bridges”.

This type of continuity, Sharon realised in 1996 when (as minister of national infrastructure under Benjamin Netanyahu) he inaugurated the first apparatus of vertical separation – the ‘tunnel road’ – can be achieved not on the surface but in volume.

The tunnel road connects Jerusalem with the southern settlements of Gush Etzion and further, with the Jewish neighbourhoods of Hebron. (Photograh: Daniel Bauer 2003)

The tunnel road connects Jerusalem with the southern settlements of Gush Etzion and further, with the Jewish neighbourhoods of Hebron. To accomplish this it performs a double contortion: spanning as a bridge over a Palestinian cultivated valley, and diving into a tunnel under a Palestinian suburb of Bethlehem.

The Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti describes it as the crashing of three dimensions into six: three Israeli and three Palestinian. Both the valley that the road spans, and the city it dives under are, according to the Oslo agreement, areas under limited Palestinian sovereignty; thus the physical separation of traffic arrangements is mirrored by a political one – the city above is under Palestinian limited sovereignty while the road below it is under full Israeli sovereignty.

By introducing the vertical dimension, in similar schemes of over and under-passes, linkage could be achieved between the different territorial islands and the last territorial paradox of the frontier be resolved. Israeli/Palestinian roads and infrastructure will connect settlements/Palestinian towns while they span over or under Palestinian/Israeli lands.

Consequently, and hand-in-hand with the planned completion of the barrier, plans are under way to transform Route 60 – the main north-south traffic artery connecting all major Palestinian cities – into an elevated construction placed on stilts allowing for Israeli east-west routes (those making the H plan) to pass undisturbed underneath it. At the point where these roads cross, sovereignty will be divided along the up/down axis of the vertical dimension.

In the West Bank, bridges are no longer merely devices engineered to overcome natural boundaries or connect impossible points. Rather, they become the boundary itself. Indeed, a new way of imagining territory was developed for the West Bank. The region was no longer seen as a two-dimensional surface of a single territory, but as a large “hollow” three-dimensional surface, within which the West Bank could be physically partitioned into two separate but overlapping national geographies. Within this volume, separate security corridors, infrastructure, over-ground bridges and underground tunnels are woven into an Escher-like space.

With the technologies and infrastructure required for the physical segregation of Israelis from Palestinians along complex volumetric borders, it furthermore seems as if this most complex geopolitical problem of the Middle East has gone through a scale-shift and taken on architectural dimensions. The West Bank appears to have been reassembled in the shape of a complex building with its closed-off enclaves as walled spaces and its bypasses as exclusive security corridors.

Yet because borders and the technologies necessary to maintain them have become so incredibly expensive and complex, the politics of separation will soon be completely and utterly exhausted as a viable alternative.

The obsessive drive for an excessive territorial-based “security” has produced its own hermetic logical chain. It started with the making of a line of settlement along the Jordan valley, then continued with the seeding of strategic settlement-points across the depth of the territory, then with an attempt to collect all points within separate and convoluted barrier lines. This resulted in the breaking-up of the surface into separate islands and enclaves, which brought about the necessity to overcome this fragmentation with volumetric transport lines – a classically Talmudic reduction to absurdity.

Because borders and the technologies necessary to maintain them have become so incredibly expensive and complex, the politics of separation will soon be completely exhausted

The “politics of verticality” that described the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian areas as the three-dimensional wrap has not collapsed with the construction of a two-dimensional barrier. The barrier is but the surface component in an occupation that continues underneath the surface – in the effective Israeli control of the water aquifers under Palestinian areas and in Israeli sovereignty over the airways and electromagnetic fields that will allow constant Israeli air force control above the territory.

The volumetric technologies of separation might well be geometrically creative and “interesting” in planning terms; but in essence they are the very familiar and traditional, absolute and hermetic borders, here disguised within the Trojan horse of spatial radicalism.

Exhausted by its effort to eradicate a unified Palestinian polity by military means, Ariel Sharon’s territorial policies are without doubt aimed at its elimination by territorial means. There clearly exists a direct relationship between the coherence and continuity of space and the ability to govern and control it. The proposed territorial form of the Palestinian political space – dispersed within a fragmented area, with the connections between its separate territorial islands subject to Israel’s will – will prohibit the chance for a united Palestinian political order to emerge.

The attempt to imagine a spatial-technical design solution to the conflict – one based on barriers, tunnels and bridges – has thus reached its most extreme and dystopian manifestation. It is too complex to offer security, (unless the entire resources of the state are constantly drafted to maintain and service its length), too aggressive to offer the appearance of a just solution, and too expensive to be economically viable on the long run.

It is, in short, the architectural product of fear, serving nothing but the Israeli public’s psychological need for a real object, rather than a belief in an abstract process, to provide protection. But inevitably in the consequential loop of the self-fulfilling prophecy, the barrier will keep on justifying itself in producing the very threats from which it professes to defend.

Against the endless search for the form and mechanisms of “perfect” separation comes the realisation that a viable solution does not lie within the realm of design. If a resolution of the territorial struggle of the century is seriously proposed in this bizarre manner, perhaps the only counter-proposal is not for more planning “creativity” of the Ariel Sharon type, but for a non-territorial approach based on principles other than partition.

The West Bank: fencing around the barrier

If we dare look at the ‘Holy Land’ as a densely-inhabited environment of quite modest proportions (it barely exceeds the London metropolitan area), one that needs to address some very urgent problems of infrastructure, environment, transport and housing as well as those of citizenship and rights, we realise that the partition path is the wrong one to take.

The essential condition for the practice of equitable straightforward planning and development is not a further play of identity-politics in complex geometry – but the formation of a single democratic, non-discriminatory and non-ethnic state based on mutuality, equality and fundamental political and human rights across the complete borders of Israel and Palestine.


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