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This is what you do

Hollow Land by Eyal Weizman, reviewed by Michael Kustow

June 1, 2008
7 min read

This piece began as a review of Eyal Weizman’s book Hollow Land, commissioned by the Jewish Quarterly, the leading Anglo-Jewish review of new writing and ideas, writes Michael Kustow. The JQ paid for it. Then I was asked if I minded if they held it over until the next issue, because of pressures of space. Time passed. I wrote asking if the piece was going to appear in the next issue, and offering to add a postscript. I was told the piece was now out of date. As long as Israel’s occupation continues, the piece is not out of date

The soldier

You are a member of the Israeli army and have to pacify a Palestinian refugee camp. You know such camps are the ‘hotbeds’ of your enemies. They know you are coming, and have already blocked the main roads into the camp. Although you could smash through their barriers, you know they have hidden in houses and rooftops, and will hit you with merciless sniper fire. You have to flush them out, without using the roads and alleys of the camp. You have to go into people’s homes.

This is what you do, as described by Eyal Weizman and his interviewees in this book.

You position your squad outside the house wall. Military intelligence will have already given you a computer model of the house – every Palestinian house in Gaza and the West Bank has been mapped digitally in three dimensions. Using explosives or a large hammer, you punch a hole through the wall and climb in shouting. It is important to shout. You may throw in a stun grenade before entering.

Aisha, a young Palestinian woman, describes what it feels like. ‘You’re sitting in your living room, where the family watches television after the evening meal … The wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after another, screaming orders. You have no idea if they’re after you, if they’ve come to take over your home or if your home just lies on the route to somewhere else. The children are screaming, panicking. Is it possible even to imagine the horror experienced by a five- year-old child as four, six, eight, 12 soldiers, their faces painted black, submachine guns pointed everywhere, antennas protruding from their backpacks, making them look like giant alien bugs, blast their way through the wall?’

The town planner

This is what you do if you are an Israeli town-planner intending to grab Palestinian land. You invent a new, constantly shifting legal terminology, masking your aims with sanitised words like ‘survey land’, ‘state land’, ‘security land’, all of which enable your nation to seize the land without recourse. You know that most Palestinians are too poor or intimidated to go to court to contest your actions. You dig out a land law of 1858 from the Ottoman empire. It states that if a farmer has not cultivated his land for three consecutive years, he forfeits ownership. Since you have cut off his water, he has not been able to farm the land, so – Jahweh be praised – another tract of earth to add to the Land of Israel.

The policeman

This is what you do if you are a Palestinian policeman on duty at a frontier checkpoint, regulating the movements of Palestinians. Sitting in front of a mirror, you take the applicant’s passport, examine it, put it into a drawer beneath your desktop. On the other side of the mirror, an Israeli security official takes the passport, runs it through computer checks and returns it with either a red label permitting the owner to enter or a white label refusing them permission to do so. This is what is known as ‘Palestinian autonomy’. The mirror is one-way, like the policy that erected it.

The architect

This is what you write if, like Eyal Weizman, a young Tel Aviv architect, you are against what your government is doing: ‘Temporariness is now the law of the occupation … temporary encirclement and temporary closures, temporary transit permits, temporary revocation of transit permits, temporary enforcement of an elimination policy, temporary change in the open-fire orders … The occupier is an unrestrained, almost boundless sovereign, because when everything is temporary almost anything, any crime, any form of violence is acceptable, because the temporariness grants it a licence, the licence of the state of emergency.’

You find yourself describing an Alice- through-the-looking-glass world, where everything is topsy-turvy, where a dozen different ‘master plans’ from competing generals or politicians or generals hoping to become politicians may disagree on details but all lead to the same destination: dispossessions of Palestinians.

The map

Eyal Weizman decided to fight this dispossession with his professional skills. Working with the human rights organisation B’Tselem, taking aerial photographs of the occupied territories, digging into municipal records and obliging the Israeli government to make public its master plans for settlement expansion and land annexation, he made a new map.

It showed the location and extent of every settlement, extended city limit and military base in Israel and the occupied territories. It charts every encroachment. It looks like a diseased lung.

This map is the basis of Hollow Land, Weizman’s calmly devastating account of the bent laws and shifting regulations, the tactically vague language, the rivalries between power-hungry generals and the sheer chutzpah which has enabled Israeli planners and regulators to get away with the takeover.

As a Jew, I am ashamed to see such ingenuity and energy, such high-tech jargon and theory poured into ever-more inventive ways of, forgive the expression, fucking up the neighbour. Is this what the spirit of Maimonides, Spinoza and Heine has engendered: a new wave of academicians of counter-insurgency, inverting the subversive insights of Foucault and Deleuze not to demystify power but to mask it? Is the work of the military analysts of Zion a testbed for America’s ‘war against terror’?

The exhibition

This is what happened to Eyal Weizman. In 2002 he and his partner Rafi Segal won a competition to design the Israeli pavilion at the World Congress of Architecture in Berlin. Their pavilion, they announced, would house an exhibition called The politics of Israeli architecture.

Drawing on Eyal’s maps and researches, it would be the first international display of the spatial form of the settlements in the occupied territories and the political and military policies that underpin the settlers’ ranch-houses and gardens and swimming pools on the West Bank hilltops – safe and comfortable ‘gated communities’ like those of South Africa or California.

Shortly before the congress, the invitation to Weizman and Segal was withdrawn by the Israeli Association of United Architects, and they were forbidden to distribute their catalogue. The association’s head said, ‘The association thinks that the ideas in the catalogue are not architecture. Heaven help us if this is what Israel has to show. As though only settlements … were built here … My natural instincts tell me to destroy the catalogues, but I won’t do that. I won’t burn books.’

Eyal Weizman moved to London, where he is now director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmith’s College. And he has written this scholarly and trenchant book. Apart from its capacity to arouse indignation, it is a wonderful read: well structured, sharply phrased (he speaks of the Palestinian Authority as ‘a prosthetic political system’), letting ‘the facts on the ground’ speak for themselves.

It shows how archaeology and geology have been used by these cowboys of the new frontier to pave the way for suburbanite settlers fleeing Tel Aviv for the good life at cut-price rates, and for religious zealots who, though they don’t recognise the State of Israel, hold onto every sanctified dunam (1,000 square metres) of that Land of Israel hailed and hallowed in the Old Testament.

Michael Kustow is a producer, playwright and biographer of Peter Brook. his book In Search of Jerusalem is due out this autumn.

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