11. Control in the air

Eyal Weizman
1 May 2002

Control in the air photoessay

Now and in the final settlement proposals, Israel holds control of the airspace over the West Bank. It uses its domination of the airspace and electromagnetic spectrum to drop a net of surveillance and pinpoint executions over the territory.

Airspace is a discrete dimension absent from political maps. But it is a space of utmost importance – cluttered with civilian and military airways, allowing a vantage observational point on the terrain under it, denying that position to others.

Complete control over the West Bank’s airspace is currently exercised by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). In Camp David, Israel agreed to the concept of a Palestinian state, but demanded sovereignty over the airspace above it in the context of a final resolution.

The height to which the sovereign space of a country extends has been debated extensively in different UN committees. It was finally set as the maximum height a jet-powered plane reached – as defined in Garry Powers’ famous U2 reconnaissance flight at about sixty thousand feet over the Soviet Union, the altitude at which he was downed by an SA-2 heat guided missile near Sverdlovsk on 1 May 1960.

That latitudinal datum became thereafter the sovereign ceiling above which “free space” begins. The “Positive Control led Airspace” (the band in which most commercial airliners travel) ranges from eighteen thousand to sixty thousand feet, and is regulated by a series of national ground air traffic control systems.

The first appearance of ‘flying machines’ late in the nineteenth century caught the attention of Futurist writers. They imagined air traffic to inaugurate a new era of worldwide transportation, a world of “total mobilisation” and of universal character. They proposed the “freedom of the air”, analogous to Grotius’s “freedom of the seas” centuries before, according to which aircraft should be as free to fly the “international skies” as ships cruise the high seas.

But the analogy with freedom of the high seas was rejected for airspace following the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, where the potential devastation of air power was first realised. That potential was dramatised further for Americans by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The vulnerability of the sky prompted them to further protect this new geopolitical soft belly.

Article 1 of the 1944 Chicago Convention led to the confirmation of national control of airspace, reaffirming the sovereignty of each country above its territory, and turning international airspace into hundreds of “no entry” zones. It was only after the first space launches in 1959 that the concept of “open skies” was finally accepted for outer space.

So, international law affirms the continuity between the ground and the sky. To bypass this continuity, a new definition of boundaries in airspace had to be invented for the Israeli- Palestinian situation. It was proposed that the sovereign ceiling of the emerging Palestinian state be significantly lowered, to include only architectural construction and low-flying helicopters. The upper layers were to remain in Israeli control.

The Israeli claim for sovereignty over Palestinian airspace started with the Oslo Accord. In the clauses concerning the electromagnetic sphere and airspace, the Accord states that “All aviation activity or usage of the airspace… shall require prior approval of Israel”.

During the permanent status negotiations in Camp David, Israel demanded the “use of the airspace and electromagnetic space and their supervision”. With control of the electromagnetic spectrum, Israel could continue to regulate radio frequencies and other communications in both states. With its control of the skies it could use the airspace over Palestine as training grounds for its Air Force. In return, the Palestinians were offered a special aerial corridor through Israeli airspace between Gaza and the West Bank.

The storm

The outbreak of hostilities in the recent Intifadah introduced the airspace for the first time as the site of war with the Palestinians. “Do we want to transfer the war to the sky? To rockets [fired on Israeli cities] and anti-aircraft missiles?” asked Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, when questioned if Israel should fortify unilaterally behind a protected border on land. But it was too late. The war of the skies has already broken out. Besides the latest invasion of Israel into Palestinian areas on land, the actual day-to-day policing of the Occupied Territories is done primarily from the air.

Occupation of the skies gives Israel a presence across the whole spectrum of the electromagnetic field, and enables total observation. The airspace became primarily a place to ‘see’ from, offering the Israeli Air Force an observational vantage point for policing airwaves alive with electromagnetic signals – from the visible to the radio and radar frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The West Bank must currently be the most intensively observed and photographed terrain in the world. In a ‘vacuum-cleaner’ approach to intelligence gathering, sensors aboard unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), aerial reconnaissance jets, early warning Hawkeye planes, and even an Earth-Observation Image Satellite, snatch most signals out of the air. Every floor in every house, every car, every telephone call or radio transmission, even the smallest event that occurs on the terrain, can thus be monitored, policed or destroyed from the air.

Since the beginning of the recent hostilities, the Israeli Air Force has put in thousands of flight hours, gathered piles of information through its complex network of different airborne reconnaissance platforms, and put it at the disposal of different intelligence agencies.

These eyes in the sky, completing the network of observation that is woven throughout the ground, finally iron out the folded surface and flatten the terrain. From the air, everything can be watched – if you have the right kind of access.

Amongst the techniques of aerial interpretation is a process of ‘hologrammatisation’. Two simultaneous images are captured from a double lens camera onto two plates. Then, when the prints are viewed through special spectacles, the different shades and colour on the images turn into higher and lower buildings, to hills, mountains and valleys. The specialised scrutinising gaze of the analyst transforms the two-dimensional prints into a three-dimensional simulation, allowing him carefully to identify targets or precisely assess the impact of previous raids.

This precise intelligence, a near absolute knowledge of the terrain and of movement of persons in it, coupled with the ability to deliver precise destructive force, has empowered Israel to wage a new kind of warfare: ‘surgical’ killings administered from above.

During 2001 Israeli Air Force conducted 5,130 sorties over the West Bank and Gaza in the context of the conflict. This included six hundred flight hours in assault helicopters, which fired five hundred missiles at Palestinian targets, with about a third of the missiles achieving the forty-five aerial “targeted killings,” in which Palestinian militants were liquidated.

Most missions are built up in the air, where satellite, reconnaissance plane and helicopter gunship complete each other’s task. As the attack helicopter is on its way to the suspected area, live intelligence about the target’s location, intentions and destructive potential is transferred as radio and image data.

The Apache gunship, equipped with a sophisticated electro-optical array of precise target acquisition technology, travelling fast and low, detects, identifies and acquires the target, then fires a Hellfire missile into most often a Palestinian’s vehicle. At other times, ultra-violet paint splashed by collaborators on the roof of a car marks the target for the pilot to destroy.

The aerial policing and execution of Palestinians within their cities was made possible by the integration of these technological advances. And the act of their liquidation is now subject only to will.

If the horrific potential of iron bombing already exhausted the imagination, in this next step of warfare, armies could target individuals within a battlefield or civilians in an urban warfare. Summary executions can be carried out after short meetings between army generals and politicians working their way down ‘wanted’ men lists. This kind of aerial warfare is so personal as to set a new horizon for the horror of war.

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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