'Clean territory': urbicide in the West Bank

Stephen Graham
6 August 2002

In his openDemocracy project, the ‘politics of verticality’, Eyal Weizman demonstrates graphically just how central the construction of Jewish settlements and access roads are to Israel’s strategy for attaining three-dimensional control over the geopolitical spaces below, within and above the occupied territories.

But this strategy does not rest alone. It is combined with an equally important, and increasingly violent, parallel denial of the existential rights of the Palestinians to their own city-based modernity. This strategy is fuelled by the fears of Israel’s far-right military and political elite that the Zionist project is being swamped by uncontrolled demographic and urban growth amongst Palestinians (both within and outside Israel proper).

To invoke a term used by both Marshall Berman (on the collapse of the Bronx) and the architect Bogdan Bogdanovitch (on the deliberate cultural annihilation of Sarajevo and other Balkan cities), Sharon’s war is a strategy of ‘urbicide’; that is, the deliberate denial or killing of the city – the systematic destruction of the modern urban home.

The deliberate and systematic destruction of Palestinian urban settlements closely accompanies the construction of the gleaming spaces and networks of modernity of the settlements. It parallels the appropriation of land, water and airspace resources and the deepening structures and vistas of surveillance, which Eyal Weizman anatomises.

And it is intricately linked to the maintenance of biased planning, infrastructure and building policies and laws. These ensure that virtually all new Palestinian housing is constructed ‘illegally’ in cramped and poorly serviced conditions (which Israeli ultra-right-wing politicians, such as Effi Eitam, then proceed to revile as a ‘Jihad of buildings’ creating ‘uncivilised’ and ‘uncultured’ ‘terrorists nests’).

So, as well as pouring billions of dollars into creating the ‘facts on the ground’ of over 160 strategic Jewish settlements, a whole range of techniques – from planning and building law discrimination to forced demolition – are being coordinated to prevent ‘facts on the ground’ being created by Palestinian urban growth. This is despite the fact that the Palestinian population growth rate is the highest in the world.

House and city demolitions are linked to a broader strategy of destroying the landscape in the creation of settlements and mobility spaces that are supposedly less vulnerable to Palestinian attack. What is most striking in Palestine now is the violence wrought against the land, the terrain,’ writes Christian Salmon of the Autodafe writers collective (‘Sabreen, or patience’, accessed 18 April 2002).

This process is now being further intensified with the construction, from June 2002, of a massive 110-kilometre fence along a large part of the 1967 ‘Green Line’, on land forcibly taken from Palestinians. The fence will have a ‘buffer zone’ of several kilometres on the western side to be forcibly bulldozed of Palestinian settlements, structures and vegetation.

As Salmon continues, such policies mean that ‘houses are destroyed, olive trees uprooted, orange groves laid waste…to improve…visibility […]. The bulldozer one runs across at every roadside seems as much a part of the strategy in the ongoing war as the tank. Never has such an inoffensive machine struck me as being more of a harbinger of silent violence. The brutality of war. Geography, it is said, determines war. In Palestine it is war that has achieved the upper hand over geography.’

Warfare as urbicide: Jenin, April 2002

The most visible and notorious example of urbicide by bulldozer occurred in the centre of the Jenin refugee camp during the battle there in April 2002. This systematic bulldozing made a mockery of Ariel Sharon’s repeated claims over the previous month that Israel’s invasion of the occupied territories was aimed to destroy the ‘terrorist infrastructure’ behind recent Palestinian suicide attacks.

Sharon’s real purpose in the re-invasion of the occupied territories (which is ongoing) is to destroy the urban, civil and infrastructural foundations of the proto-Palestinian state. Urbicide is Sharon’s war strategy; his main purpose is to deny the Palestinian people their collective, individual and cultural rights to the city-based modernity long enjoyed by Israelis.

As suggested by the Israeli minister for Labor, Shaloumo Bin Azri, in May 2001, the objective is to ‘convert the life of Palestinians into hell’ through the ongoing destruction of infrastructure, the building of fences and ‘buffer zones’, and the strengthening of curfews and checkpoint controls to the point of ‘closure’.

Sharon’s war is thus a deliberate strategy to compel Palestinians to indefinite poverty. And it is succeeding. The World Bank recently found that 70% of Palestinians live below the poverty line of $2 a day and 30% of Palestinian children are chronically malnourished.

The politics of urbicide and demodernisation

The Israelis made dramatic efforts during the invasion of the West Bank cities of Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jenin to undermine the already slow modernisation of these cities (which today house the vast majority of the Palestinian people). Water tanks were systematically riddled with bullets. Electronic communications were bombed and jammed. Roads were dug up and ruined. Electricity transformers were destroyed. Computers were smashed, their hard disks stolen. Any cultural or bureaucratic symbol of the proto-Palestinian state was ransacked. Houses were bulldozed – some with their occupants still inside. Financial damage to infrastructure from the first major offensive alone has been estimated by donors at $361 million. (Giacaman, R. and Husseini, A., ‘Life and health during the Israeli invasion of the West Bank: The Town of Jenin’, 29 May 2002.)

In addition, hospitals were bombed and medical equipment looted and wrecked. During the attacks, ambulances were prevented from entering the war zones, condemning many to a slow, avoidable death, as their blood, literally, seeped away. Those medical staff getting through were, in some cases, deliberately attacked and at least five were killed.

Numbers of civilian casualties are difficult to estimate, especially in Jenin. At the time of writing (6 August 2002) most reports estimate that at least 52 Palestinians were directly killed in Israel’s first Jenin attacks – at least 22 of these were civilians, including children and disabled people (see a Human Rights Watch report). In the Jenin operation, Israeli bulldozers levelled a 200 by 250 metre area, burying some civilians alive, and leaving over 4000 people homeless. The destruction is captured graphically in the photograph shown here.

Jenin destruction

Reports of the battle tell of Israeli soldiers carefully marking houses for demolition with blue markers from detailed maps. It is clear that the objective was the deliberate and wholesale removal of the core of the Jenin refugee camp, long seen by Israeli military leaders as one of the main areas for producing and equipping suicide bombers.

Since the demolitions, all attempts at rebuilding and removing unexploded ordinance have been blocked by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). As Jonathan Cook reported in the Guardian newspaper on 3 June 2002, ‘keeping the heart of the camp in ruins will make Jenin more accessible next time the tanks rumble in.’ Even since this was written, there have been many instances of such re-invasion.

The context: broader infrastructural warfare

The April invasion followed earlier efforts by Israel to destroy the developing infrastructure of the Palestinians – much of it financed, since the Oslo accord, by aid from Europe and the United Nations. In January 2002, Josep Pique, President of the EU Council of Ministers, complained that Israel had systematically bombed Gaza international airport, Gaza port and Palestinian television and radio transmitters, which together had received around $20 million in EU support. Under the guise of ‘destroying sniper hiding places’ the IDF have also destroyed many fields, olive groves, factories and greenhouses, adding to the economic effects of the bombings and tightening checkpoints.

bulldozer destroying buildings

Such destruction has occurred against a broader context of systematic infrastructural and planning biases, which have prevented the modernisation of Palestinian settlements in Israel and the occupied territories over the decades since 1967. At the same time, Israel has poured billions of dollars into building over 160 new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. These have been equipped with lavish, dedicated highways and electricity, water and telephone links that literally bypass the Palestinian neighbourhoods around them. Such policies have been deliberately designed to fragment and undermine the contiguity and coherence of Palestinian territory.

bulldozer destroying buildings
The destruction of the Gaza radio station by IDF D-9 bulldozers in 2001. (Click for bigger images)

Only when the lack of infrastructure threatens to produce wider problems for Jewish populations has the Israeli state invested systematically in modernising occupied Palestinian communities. On retiring, Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem between 1967 and 1993, made a startling admission: ‘For Jewish Jerusalem I did something in the past 25 years,’ he reflected. ‘For East (Palestinian) Jerusalem? Nothing! Sidewalks? Nothing! Cultural institutions? Not one! Yes, we installed a sewerage system for them and improved the water supply. Do you know why? Do you think it was for their good, for their welfare? Forget it! There were some cases of cholera there, and the Jews were afraid that they would catch it!’ (Israel–Palestinian Peacebuilding Program, ‘Jerusalem: Planning and Development’, 4 March 2002.)

‘For them there is nothing more important than their house’: the wider history of mass demolition

The deliberate destruction of settlements by Israel in 2002 is not entirely new. Sharon, who is nicknamed the ‘Bulldozer’, has a long association with its use as a weapon of war and intimidation. In 1953, forces commanded by Sharon levelled homes in the West Bank village of Kibya, killing 69 Palestinians, in retaliation for the slaying of a Jewish woman and her two children.

Sharon revealed the philosophy behind urbicide by bulldozer in an interview in the Ha’aretz newspaper on 26 January 2001. When asked what he would do about persistent Palestinian shooting into the new Jewish settlements at Gilo, south of Jerusalem, he replied: ‘I would eliminate the first row of houses in Beit Jela.’ And if the shooting persisted? ‘I would eliminate the second row of houses, and so on. I know the Arabs. They are not impressed by helicopters and missiles. For them, there is nothing more important than their house. So, under me you will not see a child shot next to his father [as was the case with Mohamed Al-Dorra]. It is better to level the entire village with bulldozers, row after row.’ (Jansen, 2001, 2.)

The current war, however, marks a shift from occasional and sporadic demolitions to the systematic and planned destruction of carefully targeted settlements for political and military reasons. An Israeli Chief of Staff claimed recently that ‘the Caterpillar D-9 [armoured] bulldozer [that is invariably used to do the destruction] is a strategic weapon here.’ (Harel, A., ‘This time, the chief of staff keeps his lips sealed’, Ha’aretz, 28 December 2000; Stein, Y., ‘Policy of Destruction: House Demolitions and Destruction of Agricultural Land in the Gaza Strip’, report by B’Tselem, 2002.)

Since 1967, over 7000 Palestinian homes have been bulldozed in the occupied territories, usually for ‘building without a permit’. Given that biased planning decisions ensure that almost all applications for a permit are refused, this ‘illegality’ is easily constructed. More recently, large numbers of houses have been bulldozed – in acts that are, in many cases, technically war crimes – to improve IDF surveillance over Palestinian spaces (from checkpoints and Jewish settlements), to create ‘buffer zones’ which reduce the exposure of Jewish areas and roads from attack, and as a form of collective punishment after Palestinian violence. Most recently, the policy has extended to the demolition of the homes of relatives of suicide bombers.

Such bulldozing is also far from random. It is closely integrated into the ‘politics of verticality’ and the wider geopolitical strategy. Demolitions, confiscations and occupations overwhelmingly occur in strategic areas, and back up the wider use of settlements and access roads to undermine any contiguity in Palestinian territory.

Jad Isaac, Director General of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, argues that, ‘it is important to see where the [bulldozed] houses are located and why. It’s not arbitrary. These sites are meticulously selected. They are for the bypass roads or new zoning for the settlements, to increase Israeli control.’ (Smith, C., ‘Under the Guise of Security: House Demolitions in Gaza’, Middle East Report Press Information Note 63, 2001.)

‘Cleaning territory’ by ‘erasure’: the bulldozer as existential denial

Above all, the shift to urbicide by bulldozer reveals an Israeli denial of the facts of the inevitability and necessity of Palestinian urbanisation. It represents a collective denial of the existential rights of Palestinians to living space. And it is the end result of a widespread series of discourses that demonise Palestinian urban and demographic growth.

Interviews with IDF personnel involved in the bulldozing reveal a striking obsession with uncluttered, unbuilt geographical territory (that lends itself to surveillance, Jewish occupation and military control). In 1998, for example, David Bar El, deputy head of Israel’s civil administration, said, ‘if we don’t keep this territory clean, at the end of the day there will be an irreversible facts on the ground that will reduce our “manoeuvring space”’. In this equation, Jewish and IDF-surveilled equals ‘clean’; Palestinian occupation, presumably, equals ‘unclean’.

Fuelling urbicide: wider Zionist fears of Palestinian urban and demographic growth

The Israeli shift to deliberate urbicide by bulldozer must be understood as one result of a deepening antagonism amongst Israel’s right-wing military and political elites against the natural demographic and urban growth of the Palestinian people. They see rapid and spontaneous Palestinian urbanisation and demographic growth, within both Israel and the occupied territories, as the Palestinians’ major long-term strategic ‘weapon’ in shifting the demographic, geopolitical and military balance against Israel.

Nowhere else in the world are two populations with such contrasting demographic and fertility profiles found so intermingled. Israeli Jews born in Europe are barely replacing their population (at 2.13 babies per family); Palestinians in Gaza have the highest demographic growth in the world (7.73 babies per family). (Fargues, P., ‘Fertility as a political weapon in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict’, Population and Development Review, 26/3, 2000.) Some forecasts suggest that by 2020 Jews will constitute just 42% of the population to the west of the river Jordan. By 2050, the population of the West Bank and Gaza is projected to almost quadruple to nearly 12 million.

Sharon and his military leaders worry that such Palestinian urbanisation and demographic growth – largely unplanned and poorly serviced by infrastructure – is now undermining the viability of the Zionist state itself. Such growth overwhelms efforts by Israel to support the in-migration of Jews both into Israel itself and the new settlements (a balance further tipped by growing out-migration of Jews from Israel because of the growing incidence of suicide bombs).

The fast-growing, labyrinthine Palestinian cities of the West Bank and Gaza also challenge Israel’s military omnipotence. Such places help Palestinian fighters avoid surveillance, detection and capture – even when Apache helicopter gunships buzz overhead, occasionally killing alleged Palestinian fighters (with those unlucky enough to be in the vicinity succumbing as ‘collateral damage’). Places such as the Jenin refugee camp are commonly dehumanised as ‘terrorist nests’ in the right-wing Israeli media.

As we saw with the death of 13 Israeli soldiers in Jenin on 9 April 2002, as fighting terrain, such places tend, to some extent, to negate the superiority of high-tech Israeli over low-tech Palestinian forces. Whilst new Israeli tactics have, again, allowed them to continuously occupy Palestinian cities with fewer casualties, Palestinian cities expose Israeli soldiers to the risks of snipers, ambushes, booby traps and homemade bombs. They also inhibit the traditional military tactics of invasion and occupation because tanks, when they can get in at all, are very vulnerable to attack.

Hence the shift to mass demolition as Israel’s preferred strategy of getting tanks into the centre of the Jenin refugee camp – a place they could not otherwise enter. The demolitions were the brutal reaction by Israeli politicians and military planners to the deaths of the Israeli soldiers. But they were also a response to the fact that many Palestinian fighters sought refuge within a built environment whose very existence implicitly challenged Israel’s military omnipotence over the whole geopolitical space of ‘Greater Israel’.

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