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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster


Israeli Settlements - Map by Leopold Lambert

“The Biblical Story of Navot: Legal Narratives for Land Takeover,” on The Funambulist (February 23, 2015)



Map of the Israeli settlements cluster between Bethlehem and Hebron / Download it here in high resolution (8.4 MB) (license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0)

I came back yesterday from three weeks spent in the Levant (Beirut, Palestine, and Amman) and Egypt (Cairo) both for the purpose of Archipelago and to deepen/complexity my vision of militarized cities/architecture. It should thus result in a series of articles that begins today. This first article allows me both to release one new map, as well as to associate my writings to the conversation I had with Dror Etkes, founder of the organization Kerem Navot, which monitors the Israeli settlements’ activity in the West Bank.

The reference to the biblical character Navot (aka Naboth) in the name of Dror’s NGO is far from innocent. As he explains himself in the podcast, in the Book of Kings, Navot is the owner of a vineyard situated near the Royal Palace of King Ach’av (aka Ahab). The later coverts this land and offers Navot to buy it from him. Navot refuses as he inherited the vineyard from his ancestors. When Queen Jezebel sees the King so upset not to be able to acquire the land, she promises her husband to take the matter in her hands. She then organizes a mock trial where Navot is accused to have cursed God and the King, which result in his execution. The ownership of executed men’s land returning to the King, the latter thus acquire the desired vineyard.

Beyond the essence of the land takeover this story introduces (and that draws a parallel to the situation Dror describes through his work), we have to insist on the legal process engaged by Jezebel to obtain the land. The King does not merely slaughter Navot to steal his vineyard, a legal narrative has to be invented to claim a legitimacy to this takeover. Such a weaponization of law has been continuously at work in the West Bank since its occupation by the Israeli army in 1967, as Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s film, The Law in these Parts (2012) particularly illustrates (see past article about it). For instance, we can evoke the Ottoman Mawat (waste) law that returns the ownership of a given land to the Sultan — in contemporary cases, the Israeli army — when the latter has not been cultivated for three years in areas sufficiently far from a village not to be able to hear its roosters. The reactivation of this law by the Israeli army allowed to expropriate a tremendous amount of hectares from their Palestinian owners, especially because, often, the agriculture of a land is prevented by the means of occupation themselves.

Here lies one of the many vicious loops practiced by the Israeli army: a legal fiction describes the conditions for a land can be legitimately seized to contribute to the occupation, and the occupation itself ensures that these conditions will be filled. Similarly, the use of the “security” purpose for the Israeli army to expropriate parcels of land finds its claimed legitimacy in its very act, since such land grabbing necessarily creates an antagonism that translates well in the security issues used as the justification of the takeover itself. Here again, the legal loop is complete, which allows the occupation to continue exercising its violence while self-convincing of its legitimacy. Although rarely, every now and then, the Israeli Supreme Court rules against its national interests, which has for effect to strengthen its own (in)justice, since the latter appears to always be able to rule against its army.

As Dror explains in the podcast, even though this official process of land takeover is facilitated, a substantial part of the Israeli settlements’ expansion in the West Bank is accomplished in an unofficial manner, and almost always retroactively legitimated by the Israeli government. Much of this unofficial land grabbing is exercised through settler’s agriculture as Kerem Navot’s 2013 report “Israeli Settlers’ Agriculture as a Means of Land Takeover in the West Bank” explains. With this map above, I attempted to show the three main means of territorial occupation by the Israeli settlers and army. While the darker areas shows the built part of the settlements, the intermediary blue zone illustrates the extents of settler agriculture’s land takeover. The lighter blue zone materializes Area C, under full Israeli control in agreement to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which parcels the 37% remaining part of the West Bank in an archipelago of islands where the Palestinian Authority exercises a relative control (see one of the many past articles about this topic). The region between Bethlehem and Hebron was chosen for its illustrative characteristics of such occupation of the land, in association to the other architectural means of the Apartheid: the Israeli so-called “separation barrier” (built and planned), as well as the various observation towers and checkpoints controlling the Palestinian population transiting between the various islands.

It would be naive to think that law can exist outside of its weaponization and the interests that foresee its use during its conception. However, the way legal narratives are being used by the Israeli government and army are particular insofar that, on the contrary of most national legislation, these narratives exercise their violence on a population that is fundamentally other than the one that conceives them. We powerlessly saw this legal weaponization in its extreme forms last summer during the siege on Gaza and the Israeli army’s constructed discourses of legitimacy through concepts of “human shields,” “previously warned inhabitants of a bombed building,” and “infinitely extensible no-go zone.” Even of this logic does not reach the same degree of violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the mechanisms that form a discursive legal justification of military takeover operate in the same manner.

The Two Faces of Ramallah - Map by Léopold Lambert for The Funambulist (2015)

“Constructing a Bubble: The Two Faces of Ramallah,” on The Funambulist (February 27, 2015)



“The Two Faces of Ramallah” / Download the map in high resolution (7.8 MB) (license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0)

I stayed in Ramallah a few weeks ago and was thus able to observe the amount of buildings that have been or are being built since my last two visits in Palestine (2008 and 2010). The argument that I would like to make throughout this text is that these recent developments are symptomatic of a chasm between, on the one hand, the Palestinian authority and the emergence of a bourgeoisie within the Palestinian society and, on the other hand, the rest of the Palestinian population and the refugees in particular. This chasm is particularly visible when experiencing the urbanism of Ramallah and a division we can generalize in defining it as separating the Northern-Western hilly part of the city from the Southern-Eastern one that will be the topic of the following article.

As the map intends to show, the Southern-Eastern part of the city is directly confronted to the occupation. Qalandiya checkpoint is the military passage that Palestinians with permits use the most to go to Jerusalem. The Area A corridor along which the most Southern part of the city is built — this includes the refugee camp of Qalandiya — and that extends to the checkpoint is also the only route to the Southern cities of the West Bank (Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho). The regular traffic jams along this road reminds us of the impossibility for the city to be relieved from this congestion between the apartheid wall and the limits of Area C, where the Israeli army exercises full control. Furthermore, when using this unique axis of communication, one cannot ignore the view to the Israeli settlements of Psagot (see photograph 14) and Kochav Ya’Akov (see photograph 15). Similarly in the North-East, Area C in general and the Israeli settlement of Beit El and its military basis in particular, constitute a solid barrier preventing the city to develop. These parts of the city, like every other Palestinian cities have no choice but to be visually and empirically confronted to the occupation on a daily basis.

The Southern-Eastern part of Ramallah is however different. A few years ago, its hills were almost untouched and only the far-away antenna of Dolev, a relatively small Israeli settlement (1,195 inhabitants) and the abandoned construction site in Ein Qiniya (see old article) were markers of human activity. In 2009, Salam Fayyad, then Prime Minister engaged an intensive program of economic/real estate development of Ramallah with the explicit condition of ignoring the occupation. In this regard, it is not innocent that the symbol of such program was the 28-floor-tall Palestine Trade Tower, a building with no other architectural identity than the classic indicators of illusory opulence, which opened in 2012. Before really engaging the architectural form of Ramallah’s development, let’s continue addressing the question of its aesthetic. The proper of urban aesthetic is to recount the vision of society proposed by the various actors of its buildings. An opulent aesthetic thus strikes us as particularly inappropriate in a society whose overwhelming majority of members suffer in one way or another of an occupation. However, sometimes the aesthetics of opulence is pushed to the extent that Palestinian new housing developments appear as extremely similar as the neighboring Israeli settlements. This is how, in 2012, I had written an article entitled “Architectural Stockholm Syndrome” about a particular Palestinian ‘settlement’ still in construction during my last visit in 2010. This development is now inhabited and further construction is now being conducted as the photograph below illustrate.

Aesthetic is fundamental in the way it construct our political imaginaries. Nevertheless, we should go beyond architecture’s appearance and also insist on the actual spatial characteristics of these new developments. Similarly to many places in the world, the emergence of a bourgeoisie within a society encourages its living urban space to be segregated from the rest of the city. What I call the Palestinian ‘settlementization’ constitutes an effort of the Ramallah bourgeoisie in this direction. A look at the group of buildings mentioned above, as well as another one, even more recent (see photo below) is certainly indicative of such an isolationist defensive agenda, facilitated by the topography as the Israeli settlements themselves have been instrumentalizing for decades. As if there was not already enough walls and gates in the region, these Palestinian settlements reinforce architecturally that against what they are supposed to struggle. On the Western side of the wall, Tel Aviv is well-known as “the Bubble,” in opposition to Jerusalem where the political antagonism is more tangible; in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority and the new bourgeoisie have also managed to create a bubble on the Eastern side of the wall.

This description of the new building developments in Ramallah intends to show that their architecture is the symptom of a broader political problem. There is a Palestinian political and economic elite that develops itself despite — we might want to go as far as saying “thanks to” — the occupation. The current prospects in view of the creation of a Palestinian state will do nothing else than crystalizing this hierarchy, as it is doubtful that the higher social classes renounce the wealth they accumulated during the fifty years of the occupation. When considering the hypothetical conditions that would determine this new state, we could envision the sale of the Israeli settlements to this same elite, most of which won’t find any problem living in these comfortable citadels. The racial apartheid will have then be replaced by a social one and architecture will continue to enforce its segregative function if we do not reinvent it.

Hebron Hebron

“Hebron: Occupied Palestine at the Scale of a City,” on The Funambulist (March 3, 2015)



Download the map in high resolution (14 MB) and its close-up (2.1MB) (license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0)

This article is the third dedicated to Palestine in the form of a cartographic, photographic and textual account of my recent trip there. This particular one can be complemented with one of the five “fragments of the Apartheid landscape” discussed on Archipelago with Alex Shams. The question of the largest city of the West Bank, Hebron (563,000 inhabitants in its extended area), has been already brilliantly addressed by Raja Shehadeh for the thirteenth Funambulist Paperin October 2011. This present article will therefore not repeat Raja’s words, but rather complement the map presented above and the keyed photographs included below.

Hebron is the only city in the West Bank whose center is not fully under the control of the Palestinian Authority (Area A). A provision in the 1993 Oslo Accords divided the city in two parts, adding to the surrounding Area C another zone under full Israeli control in the very center of the old city. This area is called H2, in opposition to H1 that covers the Western part of the city and that is under the Palestinian Authority control. The reason for such a urban partition is that about 850 Israeli settlers are effectively living in the old city, sometimes directly above Palestinian houses. The city is sacred both for Islam and Judaism, since Abraham and his wife Sarah are believed to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs, under the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque where, in 1994, an American settler, Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in prayer and wounded 125 others. The mosque is only accessible through checkpoints for Palestinians (see close-up map and photograph 11) as part of a urban complex where settlers can freely navigate and where most areas are strictly prohibited to Palestinians.

Many streets have been completely blocked and only accessible for non-Palestinians through military checkpoints (see photograph 2 for example). Many Palestinian stores have been closed down by the Israeli army (one street in particular is now known as “Ghost Street,” see photographs 9 and 10) and the remaining merchants had to setup a net above their heads not to be affected by the regular attacks by the settlers living above them. This longitudinal cluster of Israeli settlement in the old city of Hebron does not function as an island in a Palestinian sea. It is more of militarized peninsula emerging from a largest area, also under the Israeli army control and where the large expansive settlement of Kiryat Arba and its agricultural land takeovers, prevent any direct communication between the Eastern neighboring towns and Hebron itself.

The situation in Hebron thus reproduces the same Apartheid territorial mechanisms than anywhere else in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem; yet, it concentrates these mechanisms at the scale of a city. Prohibited areas are not only inaccessible for Palestinian vehicles like they are in other parts of the region, but more immediately for Palestinian bodies within the city itself. The violence thus remains territorial but, just like in the direct vicinity of the Apartheid wall in Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Qalqilya and Tulkarm, this violence affects the body in an immediate manner, through the various architectural Apartheid apparatuses, as well as through the presence of the Israeli soldiers. A significant part of the city (about a fourth of it), is situated in H2, thus under the policing of the Israeli army. For the people living in these areas, the Oslo Accords did not change anything or, rather, since then, the military presence in their neighborhoods acquired a form of legitimacy to carry their usual home raids and arbitrary arrests. Although I have been repeatedly calling against the creation of the State of Palestine for which the Palestinian Authority is currently lobbying (see past article), there is no doubt that the population of Hebron in particular would grandly benefit from such a scenario that would end the immediate violence of their daily experience of the city.