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 wording of the current Middle East peace initiative, the roadmap, has managed perhaps unwittingly but clearly all the same to equate the transformation of the built environment with acts of organised violence. The action required from the Palestinians on a way to a final and comprehensive settlement of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict by 2005 is to undertake an unconditional cessation of violence, and dismantle the infrastructure of terror; while Israel must (freeze) all settlement activity and immediately (dismantle) settlement outposts .
Israel is to stop planning, constructing and populating then dismantle the settlements built by independent groups in breach of its own laws. The Palestinian authority is to prevent shooting, shelling and suicide attacks carried out by armed organisations, dismantle their infrastructures and arrest their masterminds. Although the document does not make it clear if it sees the activities of each side as comparable (or merely trapped in a cyclical sequence of causes and effects), never before was the work of architects and planners so clearly corroborated with those of terrorists.
Indeed, the human and political rights of Palestinians are violated not only by the frequent blows of the Israeli military, but by a much slower and steadier process in which the totality of the environment in which they live is configured around them as an ever-tightening knot.
In this process, the transformation of the territories occupied by Israel since 1967 became a parallel conflict, carried out with pencil lines on the drafting tables of military and civilian planners and architects. The West Bank as we know it today has come to be, not as a result of a collection of accumulated haphazard decisions of incremental politics, but as the spatial outcome of a strategic planning.
The design and construction of the security barrier through and around the West Bank is to complete the last stage in the Israeli project of territorial control.
It may appear that with the construction of such a border-like apparatus, Israel has finally surrendered to military contingencies and political pressures, thus transforming its entrenched territorial policies (how else could Ariel Sharon, the person who epitomises Israels settlement project, be the one finally to set a border through the heart of the land of Israel?).
But beneath the apparent change lies the same stubborn and implacable ideological regularity the use of apparently temporary security-architecture to create permanent facts on the ground, the rejection of borderlines as the limits of state territory, the preference for ever-flexible internal frontiers. This is, in short, the spatial legacy of Ariel Sharon.
Ariel Sharon thus guides the progress of the roadmap and the barriers path as two complementary processes: the former is the process of bringing forth a Palestinian state in temporary borders, the latter is in the process by which these borders will solidify unilaterally in both space and time.
With the construction of the barrier, the border between Israel and the Palestinians can no longer be understood as a single absolute and continuous line, but rather as a sequence of convoluted boundaries, security apparatuses, and internal checkpoints.
As a result, a permanently-temporary Palestinian state is in the process of being inaugurated. It will be fragmented in three dimensions and across the elements: scattered on a series of separated territorial islands, surrounded by and perforated with Israeli territory, without borders to the outside world, strung together by a series of tunnels and bridges spanning over or digging under Israeli territory, without control of its subterranean water resources or its airspace. All this is an implementation of the plan drawn up by Ariel Sharon as early as 1982.
This essay extends and connects with the general thesis set out in my 2002 openDemocracy project, The Politics of Verticality. It examines the process by which, after the expansion of Israels borders following the 1967 war, these borders have been dissolved and transformed: from being fixed fortified lines, laid out at the edges of the occupied territories, to fragmented and scattered inner frontiers across both horizontal and vertical dimensions.
So much of this process can be traced to Ariel Sharon. As chief of southern command of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) before the Yom Kippur war in 1973, where he rejected the effectiveness of linear fortification along the edges of the Suez Canal and conceived a defence system based on of a matrix of elevated strong-points spread throughout the depth of the Sinai desert; as a minister with various portfolios in a number of Likud-led governments where his location strategy for the West Bank was implemented by the seeding of the depth of the territory with civilian mountain-top settlements and outposts; as a politician who rode to power as prime minister following the collapse of the Oslo peace process, who now draws the meandering and splintered path of the barriers Ariel Sharon, more than anyone else, is the man who has shaped the spatial and physical environment in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes place.
This essay tries to trace the way in which Ariel Sharon imagines territory and practices space; it is in fact an attempt to look at his long lasting physical oeuvre, the one in which both Israelis and Palestinians must struggle to live as one architect looks at the work of another.
Israels pre-1967 borders were seen by the military as indefensible. The then foreign minister Abba Eban described them as an existential danger to the state no less than the Auschwitz lines. Israeli military strategy, conscious of the strategic inferiorities of Israels borders, was based on an oxymoron coined in 1959 by Yigal Allon, a Labour politician and a retired military commander: pre-emptive attack. This principle conceived an extensive use of Israels superior air power as a volumetric compensation for its planar inferiority.
The 1967 war implemented Yigal Allons strategy to the letter. Within six days the geopolitical balance of the Middle East was radically transformed, as Israel tripled the territory under its control. With complete control of the skies, the IDF was free to progress across surface, stopping and redeploying along clear natural barriers: the Suez Canal in the south, the Jordan river in the east and on the Golan Heights in the north.
The dramatic open landscapes of the Sinai desert, and the holy sites that were quickly unearthed from underneath the West Bank, fed directly into the nations mythic imagination. The lines of the previous international borders gradually dissolved with the welcoming in of the new lands. The sense of beleaguered claustrophobia that had dominated all aspects of Israel pre-1967 vanished in a national sense of euphoria. An unparalleled period of economic prosperity begun, due at least in part to cheap labour drawn from the newly-occupied Palestinian population of more than a million people.
But gradually the occupied territories grew too large within the national imagination. This creeping agoraphobia meant that the unfamiliar territories had to be studied, mapped and domesticated from within and that their edges, beyond which Israel had no longer any territorial claims, had to be fortified against the prospect of counter-aggression from the outside.
Points versus lines
In the project of fortification that ensued, one energised by growing hostilities along the new ceasefire lines, two geometric models of defence were explored: the principle of linear fortification and a matrix of strong points spread throughout the depth of a territory. Each of these alternative principles was derived from military vocabulary and had been employed in the fortification of the Sinai, where, during the war of attrition of 1970-71, the edge was under constant attack. But, as with many things Israeli, these military models turned into the planning concepts that later guided the nature and distribution of civilian settlement throughout the West Bank.
Under the Labour administration of Golda Meir, two Labourites Haim Bar-Lev and Yigal Allon were put in charge of fortifying the edges of the occupied territories on two different fronts. Bar-Lev, then IDF chief of staff, devised a series of linear fortifications along the ceasefire line with Egypt on the Suez Canal; Allon, then the minister of agriculture, devised and implemented what later became known as the Allon Plan.
This plan aimed to create and fortify a new borderline with Jordan. It marked out the locations of a series of agricultural outposts, to be settled by the Nahal Corps the settling corps of the IDF along the western bank of the Jordan rift valley thereafter termed the iron valley.
The Bar-Lev Line was the military counterpart of the Allon Plan. Both were the products of a similar doctrine, one that sought to establish a line of defence along the outer edges of the territory. It so happened that in both cases the edge was marked by a water line.
The Bar-Lev Line was an immense technical undertaking that demanded the shuffling of huge quantities of sand from across the desert to the bank of the canal. There, it was piled up to form a formidable artificial landscape composed of hardened sand ramparts above ground, and a parallel system of deep bunkers and communication trenches below it. Thirty-five fortified positions (Maozim) were spread out along the length of the canal at 10 kilometre intervals, overlooking the Egyptian positions across the water line on African soil from a mere 300 metres.
Ariel Sharon a popular and energetic general, a mythical military figure since the 1950s when his audacious deep cross-border retaliation operations earned him much fame with Israeli youth served between 1969 and July 1973 as the chief of southern command of the Israeli Defence Forces.
It was during this time that Sharon, always an overtly political general, broke with traditional military ranks as well as with his Labour-Zionist upbringing, and affiliated himself with the political right. Sharon was also the only general who dared challenge the logic of defence spelled out by the Bar-Lev Line.
He argued again and again in series of heated meetings with the General Staff that the army cannot win a defensive battle on an outer line , and proposed that the IDF should fight a defensive battle the way it should be fought not on forward line but in depth . Sharon held that the Maozim forced the IDF into static defence, offering sitting targets to Egyptian artillery, and should thus be abandoned.
Instead he proposed, and partially implemented, a dynamic system of point-based defence in depth composed of a series of strong points (Taozim) spread out on elevated grounds within the terrain on a series of mountain summits that dominated the canal plain. Between the Taozim and the canal he proposed to run mobile patrols, constantly and unpredictably on the move.
Before long the entire zone was enveloped in a frenzy of construction, mountain outposts were constructed and fortified to become command and long-range surveillance points, and a network of high-volume military roads was paved to connect them. At the time it seemed that every available building contractor in the country was making a good profit at the canal-side.
But then, at the first opportunity, Sharon was dismissed by Bar-Lev, and his plan remained uncompleted.
The principle of linear defence is to prohibit (or inhibit) the enemy from gaining any foothold beyond it. General Erwin Rommel, commander of the Wehrmacht defences along the Atlantic in 1944, asserted the core of this principle when he argued that the only chance to stop an Allied invasion force was to beat them at the waters edge. But as the Germans knew well after their experience with the supposedly impregnable Todt Line, when the line is breached even at one location it is much like a leaking glass of water rendered immediately useless.
By contrast, defence based on a network of points in depth relies on a matrix of interlocking strong points connected by physical and electro-magnetic links: roads and electronic communications. Each point can connect and communicate with any other, and each point overlooks and whenever necessary covers the other with firepower, thus creating an interlocking fortified surface.
When the defensive matrix is attacked it can become flexible and adapt to the fall of any number of points by forming new connections across the matrix.
The geography of nodes in a matrix cannot be conventionally measured in distance. Distance between nodes is not a measurable absolute but a relative figure that is defined by the speed and reliability of the connection that is, how fast and how secure can one travel between given points.
The network defence is a spatial trap that allows the defenders a high level of mobility while acting to paralyse any possibility for enemy movement. Jeff Halper explains how effective this strategy was in Vietnam where small forces of Viet Cong were able to pin down some half-million American soldiers possessing overwhelming firepower.
The Yom Kippur war
In 1973 the Bar-Lev line looked so steadfast that Moshe Dayan, then minister of defence, claimed that it would take the American and Soviet engineer corps together to break through [it]. But on 6 October 1973, it took the Egyptian military only a few hours to break through and overrun the in-destructible line.
In the end, the line that had stood up to two years of Egyptian artillery-fire throughout the war of attrition, succumbed to water. British-made high-pressure water cannons used the water of the Suez Canal to dissolve the hardened sand and melt the formidable artificial landscape into pools of mud.
The Egyptian military then set in motion ordnance systems surprising in size and scope. Some 100,000 heavily armoured troops were ferried onto the eastern, previously Israeli-controlled bank, and made their way through the ravaged landscape a few kilometres into the Sinai. Then, without encountering much resistance, but scared of entering the fortified depth of Israeli defences constructed only a few months earlier by Ariel Sharon, stopped progressing and dug themselves in, guns facing east.
Two days later, 8 October 1973, brought the most bitter defeat in IDF history, when waves of bewildered Israeli soldiers in an armoured counter-offensive broke against a dug-in Egyptian army equipped with previously unknown personal anti-tank missiles. That day, Moshe Dayan proclaimed that the Third Temple was falling. A shift of national consciousness occurred and a process began that forced Labour four years later, for the first time in the history of the state, out of government.
The war had broken out a few weeks before general elections set for 31 October 1973. Sharon, a candidate of the right, and Bar-Lev, by then a Labour party cabinet minister, both retired generals, were drafted as reserve commanders. Each stepped one step down the command ladder; Sharon receiving the armoured 143 Division (later known as the Likud Division) and Bar-Lev the overall command of the southern front. Old rivalries inevitably resurfaced as the glory-hungry generals used the war as an electoral asset.
Ariel Sharon realised that whoever first counter-crossed the canal to the Egyptian side would be crowned as the wars hero. On his relentless drive towards the line, Sharon allowed himself a large measure of autonomy, disregarding the orders of Bar-Lev, at times shutting off communications altogether, and at others pretending not to hear explicit orders screamed over the radio.
After suffering many losses, he succeeded in breaking a gap in Egyptian lines and established a bridgehead across the canal to African soil over which the Israeli army flowed onto the rear of the Egyptians, cutting off their supply lines and encircling the entire 3rd Egyptian army.
The Israeli counter-crossing of the canal created a bizarre stalemate. The two armies had switched sides across the water line and across continents. Such was the power of linear defence that it was crossed twice, in both directions, during a war lasting less than three weeks.
The Yom Kippur war ended in unprecedented public outrage. The heads of the general staff and of the Labour party rolled. But Ariel Sharon, the general who devised the defence strategy that deterred the Egyptians from progressing deeper into the Sinai, and successfully led the Israeli counter-crossing of the Suez Canal, was publicly perceived as the man who had saved the nation.
Even thirty years later, the story is kept alive. This summer, a few months ahead of the anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, the IDF was pressured to release its official historical account. It was completed a decade ago, but was shelved, largely because Sharon feared that its publication would undermine his popular image as the wars hero.
The Suez Canal is the place where Israels territorial ambitions and fears consolidated into physical form. The Israeli public could no longer believe in the idea that its borders are non-permeable from the outside. The debate around the construction and fall of the canals fortification and the trauma of the canal campaign became deeply etched in the national consciousness; and they were endlessly replayed and refought in slow-motion mode, this time on the hills of the West Bank.
The Likud came to power two elections later, in May 1977. Ariel Sharon was appointed minister of agriculture, and took over the ministerial committee in charge of settlement. This was an influential and powerful portfolio in an administration of politicians that had become accustomed to a permanent role in the political opposition and were utterly inexperienced in governance.
Sharon seized his opportunity to devise a new location strategy for settlements in order to turn the West Bank into a defensible frontier and consolidate Israeli control of the occupied territories. Having successfully demonstrated the shortcomings of the Bar-Lev Line, he now moved against the second of the Labour defensive lines, the Allon Plan.
Seeking to implement the lessons of the Sinai campaign, Sharon claimed that: a thin line of settlements along the Jordan would not provide a viable defence unless the high terrain behind it was also fortified . Consequently, he proposed to establish other settlements on the high terrain [and] several east-west roads along strategic axes, together with the settlements necessary to guard them.
Labour had traditionally conducted its state-building policies almost entirely through the construction of settlements. Before the creation of the state, as Sharon Rotbard has written, it used the Tower and Stockade cooperative settlements to mark and defend Israels future borders. After its creation, prime minister David Ben Gurion laid out the so-called organic wall composed of a string of development towns inhabited by immigrant communities, mainly Jews from the Arab states, along the states new borders.
But after the 1967 war, Labour was indecisive about what policy to take with regard to the new territories and was unable to reinvigorate its past pioneering energies; thus it pursued its settlement policies with far less enthusiasm and vigour.
Instead it was Sharon, the Labourite turned Likudnik, and Gush Emunim, the national religious and messianic organisation, who managed to revitalise the pioneering ethos of Zionism. They saw in the depth of the West Bank a sacred territory and a defensible frontier, a border without a line, across whose depth a matrix of settlement could be constructed.
The artificially-created Green Line, Israels internationally-recognised 1949 border, was deeply repressed, and the borders became fluid and elastic again, pulled out to incorporate every new settlement.
After the Yom Kippur war, linear fortifications were no longer trusted and the sense was to fortify the entire depth of the terrain. Thus the open frontier replaced the rigidity of the line and blurred the distinctions between a political inside and outside; or, in the words of the Israeli sociologist Adriana Kemp, it blurred the difference between the political space of the state and the cultural space of the nation a difference hidden by the hyphenated concept of nation-state.
In a famous syllogism, Lenin once described strategy as the choice of points where force is to be applied. Points have neither dimension nor size; they are mere coordinates on the X/Y-axis of the plane and on the Z-axis of latitude. In Israel, the settlement location strategy is based upon a close reading of the terrain and a decision made with the precision of acupuncture regarding where effort should be concentrated.
The fact that the word settlement means in Hebrew a point on the ground, and sometimes simply a point (nekuda) is indicative of a planning culture that considers the positioning of a settlement less in terms of its essence, than in terms of its strategic location.
Because settlements are autonomous and separate points on a matrix, a reliable communication had to be established between them.
In 1982, few months before his invasion of Lebanon, Sharon, then minister of defence, published his Masterplan for Jewish Settlements in the West Bank Through the Year 2010 later known as the Sharon Plan. In it he outlined the location of more than a hundred settlement points, placed on strategic summits, and marked the paths for a new network of high-volume, interconnected traffic arteries reaching also into the Israeli heartland.
Ariel Sharon saw in the formation of continuous Jewish habitation a way towards the annexation of the areas vital for Israels security. These areas he marked onto the map attached to his plan in the shape of the letter H. The H-Plan contained two parallel north-south strips of land: one along the Green Line containing the West Bank from the west, and another along the Jordan valley, accepting the presence of the Allon Plan to contain the territory from the east.
These two strips separated the Palestinian population centres, organised along the central spine of the West Banks mountain ridge from both Israel proper and from the (much relieved) kingdom of Jordan. Between these north-south strips Sharon marked a few east-west traffic arteries the main one connecting through Jerusalem, thus closing a (very) approximate H. The rest, some 40% of the West Bank, separate enclaves around Palestinian cities and towns, were to revert to some yet undefined form of Palestinian self-management.
The settlements, relying on their own weapons, ammunition and military contingency plans, were to form a network of civilian fortifications integrated into the IDFs overall system of defence, serving strategic imperatives by overlooking main traffic arteries and road junctions in their region.
The role of settlements as observation and control-points promoted a particular layout for their urbanity. The (sub)urban layout of a mountain settlement is concentric; its roads are stretched in rings following the topographical lines closing a complete circuit around the summit.
The outward-facing arrangement of homes orients the view of its inhabitants towards the surrounding landscape in which national interests main roads, junctions and Palestinian urban areas, compose a part of a picturesque panorama. The essence of this geometric order, as Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman have written, is to produce panoptic fortresses optical devices on an urban scale, laid out to generate observation, spatially and temporally, all round.
The high ground, on which settlements were located, thus offers the strategic assets of self-protection and a wider view. But beyond being employed militarily, the urban layout of vision also serves an aesthetic agenda: it allows for contemplation over a pastoral landscape evocative of history, one in which biblical scenarios could be easily imagined and participated in, at least visually. All this feeds the national mythic imagination, giving settlers the sense of foundational authority based on long historical continuity.
In the early 1980s another of the construction frenzies that are indicative of Ariel Sharons closeness to executive power had began. The Biblical heartland of the West Bank became overlaid by the two symbiotic and synergetic instruments of security: the settlement observation point and the serpentine road network, the latter being the prime device for serving the former, the former overlooking and protecting the latter.
Sharon realised the double potential of emerging messianic-religious impulses: to settle a mythological landscape and to facilitate the desire of the middle classes to push outside of congested city centres to populate his matrix of points with civilian communities. Unlike Labours agricultural settlements of the Kibbutz and the Moshav, the new community settlements were in effect dormitory suburbs of closely-knit social groups composed mainly of national-religious-professional middle classes.
Architectural organisation and aesthetics were conscripted in order to create uniform communities as well as to establish the states control of its territories. Uniformity of architectural taste was imposed through the repetition of a small variety of single and double, family house-and-garden structures. Beyond responding to middle-class suburban aesthetics, the adorning of settlement homes with red roofs, served a further military agenda identifying these sites from afar as Israeli.
The fact that the inhabitants had to seek work outside the settlements made them rely on the roads to connect them with the employment centres in the metropolitan areas around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, within Israel proper. This was similar to the way that the American suburbs developed as an offspring of pacified second world war construction technology, and especially around the system of interstate highways, developed to serve the integrated industry of the American war economy.
Israeli suburbia made perfect use of the system laid out for mobile defence in depth. The massive system of fifty highways together with a modern matrix of infrastructure became effective instruments of development merging the needs of a sprawling suburbia with national security and political ambitions to push ever more Israelis into the West Bank.
Sharon and the engineers, already experts in military defence works, and now building for civilian communities, had to become urban planners. Sharon got tremendous satisfaction seeing how everything was moving forward, how drawings on a map were every day becoming more of a reality on the ground.
His planning decisions, however, were not made according to professional criteria of economical sustainability, ecology or efficiency of services, but were guided by a strategic agenda focused on spatial manipulations. Planning under Sharon shed any pretence to facilitate the social and economic improvement of an abstract public and manifested itself fully as the executive arm of the strategic and geopolitical agenda of the Israeli state.
Architecture and planning were thus used as the continuation of war by other means . Just like the tank, the gun and the bulldozer, building matter and infrastructure were used to achieve tactical and strategic aims. It was an urban warfare in which urbanity provided not the theatre of war but its very weapons and ammunition. It was a war in which a civilian population was drafted, knowingly or not, to supervise vital national interests as plain-clothes security personnel.
Who is Eyal Weizman?
Eyal Weizman is an architect based in Tel Aviv and London. After graduating from the Architectural Association in London, he worked with Zvi Hecker in Berlin on several projects, and is now in private practice. Amongst the projects done in partnership with Rafi Segal, are the rebuilding of the Ashdod Museum of Art (opened June 2003), a stage set for Itim Theatre Company (premiered at the Lincoln Centre in July 2003), and a runner-up proposal for the Tel Aviv Museum competition.
The exhibition and the catalogue A Civilian Occupation, The Politics of Israeli Architecture which Eyal Weizman edited/curated together with Rafi Segal were banned by the Israeli Association of Architects, but were later shown at the Storefront Gallery for Art and Architecture (New York, February 2003 ), and in Territories at the Kunst-Werke (Berlin, May 2003).
Eyal taught architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and at the Technicon in Haifa. He has conducted research and a map-making project for the human rights organisation Btselem on violations of human rights by architecture and planning in the West Bank .
He is developing The Politics of Verticality, first published on openDemocracy into a PhD thesis, a book and a film. Eyals previous books are Yellow Rhythms (010 Publishers, Rotterdam) and Random Walk (AASF London).