3. Hills and valleys of the West Bank

Eyal Weizman
24 April 2002

New settlements photoessay

Mountains play a special part in Zionist holiness. The settlers’ surge into the folded terrain of the West Bank and up to its summits combines imperatives of politics and spirituality. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a territorial one, though fought out in three dimensions. More then anything else, it is defined by where and how one builds. The terrain dictates the nature, intensity and focal points of confrontation. On the other hand, the conflict manifests itself most clearly in the adaptation, construction and obliteration of landscape and built environment. Planning decisions are often made not according to criteria of economical sustainability, ecology or efficiency of services, but to serve strategic and national agendas.

The West Bank is a landscape of extreme topographical variation, ranging from four hundred and forty metres below sea level at the shores of the Dead Sea, to about one thousand metres in the high summits of Samaria. The conflict is played out in the mountainous region – and this has influenced its forms.

From the plains to the hills (and back again)

The settlement project in the West Bank is a culmination of Zionism’s journey from the plains to the hills. That journey attempted to resolve the paradox of early Zionist spatiality – that, while seeking the return to the ‘Promised Land’, reversed the settlement geography of Biblical times.

Braudel’s observation that “the mountains are as a rule a world apart from civilisations, which are urban and lowland achievement” suited the ancient geography of Israel well. The mountains of Judea became the breeding ground for an isolated form of monotheism; meanwhile the plains, inhabited by the Phoenician Philistines, the “invaders from the seas”, gave birth to an integrated and progressive culture, set apart from the isolation of the mountain, close to the international road system and the seaports.

Migrating into Israel in the twentieth century, the Zionist movement, now itself an “invader from the seas”, and dominated by a modern, pragmatic socialism, settled mainly along the coastal plains and fertile northern valleys, which suited its ideology of agricultural cultivation well. This spatial pattern would dominate the Israeli landscape until the political reversal of 1977, in which the hawkish Likud party replaced Labour in power for the first time.

The “civilian occupation” of the West Bank was a process that began in the deep, arid Jordan valley during its first ten years of Israeli rule under Labour governments (1967-1977). Fifteen agricultural villages were constructed under the Allon Plan, that emphasized “maximum security and maximum territory for Israel with a minimum number of Arabs”.

As the political climate in Israel changed, the reconstruction of Zionist identity began. The settlements started a long and steady climb to the mountains, where isolated dormitory communities were scattered on barren hilltops; without agricultural hinterlands, they cultivated nothing but “holiness” on their land.

The settlements of the mountain strip, built during the late 1970s and early 1980s, shifted the expansion stimulus from agricultural pioneering to mysticism and transcendentalism. These settlements were promoted mainly by Gush Emunim (The Block of Faith), a national-religious organisation that was fusing “Biblical” messianism, a belief in the “Land of Israel”, with a political thinking that allowed for no territorial concessions.

The climb from the plains to the hills coincided with the development of a feeling of acting according to a divine plan. It promised the “regeneration of the soul” and the achievement of “personal and national renewal”, imbued in a mystic quality of the heights. Ephi Eitam, the retired general who is now the popular leader of the National Religious party, recently opposed any dismantling of these mountain settlements in these terms: “Whoever proposes that we return to the plains, to our basest part, to the sands, the secular, and that we leave in foreign hands the sacred summits, proposes a senseless thing”.

Beyond the hard core of extremists inhabiting the mountain ridge of the West Bank, the majority of settlers built their home in the western slopes near the 1967 border. They went in search of a better quality of life, settling in green suburbs that belong to the greater metropolitan regions of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

What drew them there was the rhetoric of “living standards”, “quality of life”, “fresh air” and “open view”. “All you can dream of” for a very affordable price – this pitch has a special appeal to first-time buyers. Settlers benefit from substantial government subsidies; for the price of a small flat in Tel Aviv, they can buy their own red-roofed houses and gardens.

Vertical Planning

Matityahu Drobless was appointed head of the Jewish Agency’s Land Settlement Division in 1978. Shortly after, he issued The Master Plan for the Development of Settlements in Judea and Samaria. In this masterplan he urges the government to

… conduct a race against time… now [when peace with Egypt seemed immanent] is the most suitable time to start with wide and encompassing rush of settlements, mainly on the mountain ranges of Judea and Samaria…The thing must be done first and foremost by creating facts on the ground, therefore state land and uncultivated land must be taken immediately in order to settle the areas between the concentration of [Palestinian] population and around it... being cut apart by Jewish settlements, the minority [sic] population will find it hard to create unification and territorial continuity.

The Drobless masterplan outlined possible locations for scores of new settlements. It aimed to achieve its political objectives through the reorganisation of space. Relying heavily on the topography, Drobless proposed new highvolume traffic arteries to connect the Israeli heartland to the West Bank and beyond. These roads would be stretched along the large westdraining valleys; for their security, new settlement blocks should be placed on the hilltops along the route. He also proposed settlements on the summits surrounding the large Palestinian cities, and around the roads connecting them to each other.

This strategic territorial arrangement has been brought into use recently during the Israeli Army’s invasion of Palestinian cities and villages. Some of the settlements assisted the IDF in different tasks, mainly as places for the army to organise, refuel and redeploy.

The hilltops lent themselves easily to state seizure. In the absence of an ordered land registry in time of Jordanian rule, Israel was able legally to capture whatever land was not cultivated. Palestinian cultivated lands are found mainly in the valleys, where the agriculturally suitable alluvial soil erodes down from the limestone slopes of the West Bank highlands. The barren summits were left empty.

The Israeli government launched a large-scale project of topographical and land use mapping. The terrain was charted and mathematised, slope gradients were calculated, the extent of un-cultivated land marked. The result, summed up in dry numbers, left about 38% of the West Bank in under Israeli control, isolated in discontinuous islands around summits. That land was then made available for settlement.

(The settlements research presented here forms the basis for a collaboration between Eyal and his partner architect Rafi Segal for the forthcoming exhibition in the International Union of Architects (UIA) congress in Berlin, July 2002).


This 270 degree panorama shows the Israeli settlement on a hill overlooking the Palestinian village in the valley (a large-scale version is available onsite)

Index to the Politics of verticality

  1. Introduction
  2. Maps
  3. Hills and valleys of the West Bank
  4. West Bank settlements
  5. Optical urbanism
  6. The paradox of double vision
  7. From water to shit
  8. Excavating sacredness
  9. Jerusalem
  10. Roads — over and under
  11. Control in the air
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