WALKING THROUGH WALLS
Frontier Architectures by Eyal Weizman
Across the 5,640 square kilometres of the West Bank and Gaza, one of the greatest spectacles of modern times is unfolding before a global media audience. The region is one of the most intensely analysed places in the world, consuming as much foreign news airtime as any of the major metropolitan centers of Europe and the US. The fact that the conflict has generated so much attention promoted its role as a ‘laboratory’ whose patterns are mimicked and reproduced across the globe, and such terms as the ‘Palestinization of Iraq’ or the ‘Shiite Intifada’ are used. If the Iraqi resistance was perceived to have been ‘Palestinized’, the American military was similarly ‘Israelized’, a perception held by both the Iraqis and the American military itself. When the wall around the American compound in Baghdad looks as if its components are leftovers lifted from Jerusalem, when ‘temporary closures’ are imposed on whole towns and villages by means of earth dykes and barbed wire, when large Iraqi regions are carved up by road blocks and checkpoints, when the homes of suspected terrorists are leveled, when Apache helicopters are used in civilian areas, and when ‘targeted assassinations’ are introduced, it is not only because these tactics have become elements of a shared military curriculum written by Israeli training officers. They spread through a process of mimicry in which the Occupied Palestinian areas function as the laboratory of the extreme in a new global policy of warfare.
Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada on 28 September 2000, and following international fashion, the Israeli military established several institutes and think-tanks at different levels of its command. They asked them to re-conceptualize the response of the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF), strategically, tactically and organizationally, to what came to be known as ‘lowintensity war’ — the primarily urban conflict it was engaged in with Palestinian and Lebanese guerrilla organizations.
Experience in developing new modes of urban fighting developed during ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, which was launched on 29 March 2002, after a series of suicide attacks on Israeli cities. The stated aim of Defensive Shield was to dismantle what the Israeli security establishment called the ‘infrastructure of terror’ located in the cities and refugee camps of the West Bank. The attacks targeted, and extensively destroyed, different Palestinian urban environments — the modern city of Ramallah, a dense historic city centre at the Kasbah of Nablus, an international holy city in Bethlehem, and refugee camps in Jenin, Balata and Tul-Qarem. These attacks were of significant interest to foreign military forces, especially the American and British as they geared themselves to the occupation of Iraq. In recent years hundreds of marine corps officers have been trained in Israel in urban warfare and targeted assassinations and in what the military crudely refers to as ‘population management’ — a term broad enough to incorporate the spectrum of military occupation, from the enforcement of extended curfews to the management of civil affairs.
Given the international outcry that followed the April 2002 destruction of the centre of the Jenin refugee camp, the Israeli military realized that it had to push its engineering corps to improve its ‘art of destruction’, which had apparently spun out of control. As a part of these efforts, in June 2002 two months after the attack on Jenin, the military began to upgrade a small mock-up town it called Chicago (in homage to that other bullet-ridden city). Located in the Tze’elim base in the Negev desert, this was to become the world’s largest mock-up oriental city erected since the filming of ‘Ben-Hur’. In fact the ‘urban’ history of Chicago goes back even further and has shadowed much of the history of the military operations that took place in the Middle East since the 1980s, reflecting changes in the imagination of the military force and in relation to cities. The history of Chicago could be understood by reference to the gradual transformation of its signified environment — those places upon which it had been modelled. The core of Chicago was built in the early 1980s as a small training site simulating a Lebanese village, at a time when Israeli forces were occupying Lebanon. It was extended into a larger urban environment to accommodate the training of special forces in their operation to assassinate Saddam Hussein in Tiqrit. The operation was aborted after several Israeli soldiers were killed in an accident. What had been a small Lebanese village was transformed into a section of an Iraqi town. During the second Palestinian Intifada, Chicago was further expanded to offer a blueprint for different types of Palestinian urban environment. It now includes an area called the Kasbah, a section simulating a refugee camp, a downtown neighbourhood with broad streets, a section resembling a rural village, a dense market area with narrow alleys, and urban outskirts. For special training sessions, and to make the site look realistic and alive, the military employs a stage-set designer normally employed in a well known Tel Aviv theatre to provide and organize the relevant props and effects.
In similar mock-up sites, simulations have been designed by fun-fair, theme-park and filmset specialists. Action film directors are brought in to help military planners think up possible scenarios for complex urban fights. Soldiers, actors, civilians — and sometimes prisoners — simulate urban crowds. Special effects and ‘cold-fire’ systems, recordings of urban life, the sounds of planes, tanks and gunfire, and the revolting combination of smells from cooking, decomposing bodies, sewage and stagnant water are released throughout this and other mockup cities, to give military forces a ‘taste’ of the ‘urban mayhem’ of refugee camps and urban slums. Other military transformations that followed the 2002 attack on Jenin were manifest in the realm of technological development. In a military conference held in Tel Aviv in March 2004, an Israeli engineering officer explained to his international audience that thanks to the study of architecture and building technologies, at present ‘the military can remove one floor in a building without destroying it completely [sic] or remove a building that stands in a row of buildings without damaging the others ’. However exaggerated it might be, this statement testifies to a new emphasis placed by the military on what it perceives as the ‘surgical’ ability to remove building elements — essentially the engineer’s response to the military logic of ‘smart weapons’.
‘Smart weapons’ and ‘smart destruction’ provide the government with what one IDF thinktank called ‘military solutions to situations that were thought of as militarily unsolvable ’, and with them the possibility of acting just under the threshold of international sanctions. ‘Smart destruction’ may not be as devastating as the complete destruction of a city but paradoxically, if occupation forces are unable to enter refugee camps without destroying them, as they did in Jenin, and considering local and international opposition, they would be less likely to attack refugee camps, certainly not as often as almost every night as the IDF currently does. The quest to make war more ‘humane’ — embodied since the nineteenth century in different agreements on what constitute acceptable laws of war — may paradoxically result in making it more possible, more imaginable, more frequent, longer and thus more corrupting.
These tools of ‘lesser evil’ allow the government to attempt to resolve the situation it is facing without resorting to political negotiations. Indeed, at the beginning of 2006, Israel’s Chief of Staff Dan Halutz confirmed that the IDF has grown to see the conflict with the Palestinians as unresolvable and permanent. It has accordingly geared itself to operate within an environment saturated with conflict and within a future of permanent violence. In the absence of political ‘solution’ and the possibility for a decisive military result, the IDF sees its role merely in terms of ‘managing the conflict,’ keeping it on a flame low enough for Israeli society to be able to live and prosper within the conflict.
The attack conducted by units of the IDF on the city of Nablus in April 2002 as part of Defensive Shield illustrates some of these techniques of ‘lesser evil’. Its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, described it in sophisticated, almost architectural terms as ‘inverse geometry’. During the battle, soldiers moved within the city through 100 metre-long ‘overground tunnels’ carved out of a dense and contiguous urban structure. Although several thousand soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas were manoeuvring simultaneously in the city, they had so ‘saturated’ into the urban fabric that very few would have been visible from the air. Furthermore, they used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells or windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, sought to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involved a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare — a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.
Aviv Kochavi, at that time the commander of the Paratroop Brigade, explained to me the principle that guided the battle:
‘This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. ... The question is how do you interpret the alley? ...We interpreted the alley as a place we were forbidden to walk through and the door as a place we were forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place we were forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the door. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. ... I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win.... This is why we opted for the methodology of moving through walls... Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. ... I said to my troops, ‘Friends! ... If until now you were used to moving along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls! ’
If you still believe, as the IDF would like you to, that moving through walls is a relatively gentle form of warfare, an alternative to Jenin-type destruction, the following description of the sequence of events it involves might change your mind. To begin with, soldiers assemble behind the wall, and then, using explosives or a hammer, they break a hole large enough to pass through. Stun grenades are sometimes thrown through the hole, or a few random shots are fired into what is usually a living room of a private house occupied by unsuspecting civilians. When the soldiers have passed through the wall, the occupants are locked inside one of the rooms where they are made to remain, sometimes for several days, often without water, toilet facilities, food or medicine, until the operation is concluded. Civilians in Palestine, as in Iraq, have experienced the unexpected penetration of war into the private domain of the home as the most profound form of trauma and humiliation. A Palestinian woman, identified only as Aisha, interviewed by a journalist for the Palestine Monitor, described the experience:
‘Imagine it — you’re sitting in your living-room, which you know so well; this is the room where the family watches television together after the evening meal, and suddenly a wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after the other, screaming orders. You have no idea if they’re after you, if they’ve come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else. The children are screaming, panicking. Is it possible to even begin to imagine the horror experienced by a five-year-old child as four, six, eight, twelve soldiers, their faces painted black, sub-machineguns pointed everywhere, antennas protruding from their backpacks, making them look like giant alien bugs, blast their way through that wall? ’
To understand the IDF’s tactics in moving through Palestinian urban spaces, it is necessary to understand how they interpret the, by now familiar, principle of ‘swarming’, a term that has been a buzzword in military theory since the inception of the US post-Cold War doctrine known as the Revolution in Military Affairs. The swarm manoeuvre was adapted from the Artificial Intelligence concept of swarm intelligence, which assumes that problem-solving capabilities are to be found in the interaction and communication of relatively unsophisticated agents (ants, bees, birds, soldiers) with little or no centralized control. The swarm exemplifies the principle of nonlinearity in spatial, organizational and temporal terms, whereby the traditional manoeuvre paradigm, characterized by the simplified order of Euclidean geometry, is transformed, according to the military, into a complex fractal-like geometry. The narrative of the battle plan is replaced by what the military calls the ‘toolbox approach’, according to which units receive the tools they need to deal with several given situations and scenarios but cannot predict the order in which these events will actually occur.
This may explain the miltary’s fascination with the spatial and organizational models and modes of operation advanced by postmodern and post-structuralist theories. Indeed, as far as the military is concerned, urban warfare is the ultimate postmodern form of conflict. Belief in a logically structured and single-track battleplan is lost in the face of the complexity and ambiguity of urban reality. Civilians become combatants, and combatants become civilians. Identity can be changed as quickly as gender can be feigned: the transformation of women into fighting men can occur at the speed that it takes an undercover ‘Arabized’ Israeli soldier or a camouflaged Palestinian fighter to pull a machine-gun out from beneath a dress. According to a Palestinian fighter caught up in this battle, Israelis seem ‘to be everywhere: behind, on the sides, on the right and on the left. How can you fight that way? ’
From the military point of view, the city is a social /physical obstacle that must be reorganized before it can be controlled. ‘Design by destruction’ increasingly involves planners as military personnel in reshaping the battleground to meet strategic objectives. As urban warfare increasingly comes to resemble urban planning, armies have established research programmes to study the complexity of cities and train their own urban practitioners.
Shimon Naveh, a retired Brigadier-General, directs the Operational Theory Research Institute, which is located in the IDF Academy of Staff and Command in Tel Aviv. The institute trains staff officers from the IDF and other military forces in ‘operational theory’ — defined in military jargon as laying somewhere between strategy and tactics. Naveh summed up the mission of his institute, which was founded in 1996: ‘We are like the Jesuit Order. We attempt to teach and train soldiers to think.’
According to geographer Stephen Graham, a vast, international ‘intellectual field’, which he refers to as a ‘shadow world of military urban research institutes and training centers ’, has been established over the last decade in order to rethink military operations in urban terrain. The expanding network of this ‘shadow world’ includes schools, urban-research institutes and training centers, as well as mechanisms for the exchange of knowledge between different military forces, such as conferences, workshops and joint training exercises. In their attempt to comprehend urban life, soldiers take crash courses so as to master topics such as urban infrastructure, systems analysis, structural stability, building techniques, as well as a variety of theories and methodologies debated within contemporary civilian academia. Indeed, the reading lists of some contemporary military institutions include contemporary avant-garde writings on urbanism and architecture, psychology, cybernetics, and post-colonial and post-structuralist theory. Furthermore, according to urban theorist Simon Marvin, the military-architectural ‘shadow world’ is currently generating more intense and well-funded urban research programmes than all university programmes put together.
Some of the theories currently used by the military are to be found in texts from around the student revolution of 1968. At that time ‘revolutionary’ strategy meant challenging the built hierarchy of the capitalist city and breaking down distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, use and function, replacing private space with a ‘borderless’ public surface, dismantling the rigid rationalism of a post-war order, escaping ‘the architectural strait-jacket’, and liberating ‘repressed human desires’. While such theories were conceived in order to transgress the established ‘bourgeois order’ of the city, in the hands of the military, these tactics are projected as the basis for an attack on an ‘enemy’ city.
On the basis of such theoretical models, the military perceives of its actions as a discourse between sides. Every military action is also conceived of as an act of communication. Threats are the most effective and common form of such communication. The economy of threats operates only when violence is restrained to some degree, and when the potential for escalation still exists. Communication exists, in fact, in the gap between the damage the militarycan inflict and the damage the military does inflict. For this reason, even in wars that we have been taught to think of as ‘total’, the sides hardly ever used their full destructive capacity against their military enemy. In the economy of the low-intensity conflict, hit-and run raids are projected as the ‘lesser evil’, the more moderate alternative to the devastating capacity that the military actually possesses and will unleash, no doubt, if the enemy exceeds the ‘acceptable’ level of violence or breaches some unspoken agreement.
Israeli military strategies in the urban environment are in fact a mere continuation of many of the procedures and processes that have been part of urban military operations throughout history. The defenders of the Paris Commune, much like those of the Kasbah of Algiers (as seen in Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers, which has long been a part of the US military curriculum), Hué, Beirut, Jenin and Nablus navigated the city in small, loosely coordinated groups, moving through openings and connections between homes, basements, and courtyards, using alternative routes, secret passageways, and trap doors. (They were later to inspire the movement of security forces — through ceilings and walls — in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film ‘Brazil’.) Similarly, the idea of walking through walls, as Israeli architect Sharon Rotbard insisted, has been reinvented in almost every urban battle in history and in response to local conditions. In Palestine it might first have been used during the April 1948 battle for the occupation of Jaffa undertaken by the Zionist Irgun. Jaffa’s northern neighborhood, Manshiya, was cut off by Irgun using so-called ‘over-ground tunnels’ carved through the city’s contiguous built fabric. Explosives were planted within the tunnels and they were blown up.
The technique of moving through walls was first recorded in writing in Marshal Thomas Bugeaud’s 1849 military manual, La Guerre des Rues et des Maisons, in the context of antiinsurgency tactics used in the class-based urban battles of nineteenth-century Paris. ‘Are the barricades too strong to be broken down by the tirailleurs [light infantry soldiers usually drawn from France’s colonies]? Then one enters into the first houses that line either side of the street, and it is here that the detonator is a great advantage because it quickly achieves the goal. One climbs up to the top floor and systematically blasts through all the walls, finally managing to pass the barricade.’ On the other side of the barricades and a decade later, Louis-August Blanqui wrote this micro-tactical manoeuvre into his Instructions pour une prise d’armes. For Blanqui, the barricade and the mouse-hole were complementary elements employed for the protection of selfgoverning urban enclaves. This was achieved by a complete inversion of the urban syntax. Elements of circulation — paving stones and carriages — became elements of stasis (barricades), while the existing elements of stasis — walls — became routes.
Beyond their reality as physical places, the territories and cities of Israel and Palestine constitute a conceptual basis for the understanding of other geo-political problems. Given the transfer of the technology, mechanisms, and spatial strategies of the Israeli occupation to other corners of the globe, together with the mimicry of the techniques of resistance to that occupation, it appears that the objects, spaces and structures it produces should be understood as part of a complex language, a language we need to be able to translate in order to critique. The images taken by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin could indeed be seen, simply, as a part of a site specific survey of the artefacts, objects, buildings and landscapes produced by the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but more subtly they could be read as partaking in a global economy of performative images. Images of war and conflict could be seen as performative in the sense that they are able to create the conditions that replicate the events they have themselves portrayed. Wars are both physical conflicts and conceptual imaginary systems, whose categories are reproducible. The ghost-town of Chicago represents Middle Eastern cities but trains soldiers to make ghost-towns out of living cities. The seemingly benign objects — a guitar, a watermelon, a pot of paint, a can of beer — are nothing but camouflaged bombs. The targets depict not Arab terrorists nor guerrillas but ‘Arabised’ Israeli soldiers. The seemingly natural pine forest is not an innocent landscape but an active agent in the national conflict, marking the erasure of the vestiges of the stone walls and hedges of Sabra cactus that testify to the past presence of Palestinian villages. Similarly, the images taken from IDF strongholds overlooking the Lebanese border contain a sense of foreboding ambiguity. They survey a pastoral landscape that is a battlefield-to-be. The desert landscape photographed from the hilltop settlements is seen as both an aesthetic resource and a strategic advantage. A process of translation must transform that which is being seen. The stone houses of Palestinian villages, the olive terraces and the dusty roads, for the supervision of which the settlements were installed, are understood as components of the biblical and pastoral holy land. A constructed way of seeing has cast topographical features as national metaphors. Topography turns into sceneography — seeking to re-establish the relation between terrain and sacred text. Through this ambivalence afforded by vision, strategy becomes indistinguishable from the will to know, and intelligence gathering fuses with biblical scholarship. The ambiguities captured in these photographs are perhaps some of the most clear manifestations of the contradictions that exist within the Zionist ideology.
Conflicts relate not only to the destruction of space but also to its interpretation. No longer merely the site of war, the city and the landscape are its medium and finally its apparatus. This implies that it is never enough to see and to document space. By turning spaces into language, territories into models, this book indicates the possibility of a crucial and complex project of translation.
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