“All theory, dear friend, is gray,” said Goethe, “but the golden tree of life springs ever green.” In the world of Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, the opposite is true: Theory erupts in technicolor, while life is still stuck in black and white. It is hardly surprising, then, that in Weizman’s world, when theory and reality collide, the former always comes out on top.
Weizman is an Israeli architect who lives in London and manages the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmith College. He is also a left-wing radical who spends a considerable amount of time and energy exposing the alleged wrongdoings of the State of Israel. He has, for example, served on the board of directors of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, since 2008, as well as participated in a project titled “Decolonizing Architecture,” which seeks to assist the residents of the Palestinian villages of Beit Sahor, Bethlehem, and Beit Jalla to utilize more effectively the territories freed from Israeli presence. His book Hollow Land, published in 2007, is part and parcel of these political activities. Taking as its subject “the transformation of the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967,” it focuses on “the geographical, territorial, urban, and architectural conceptions and the interrelated practices that form and sustain them.” In over 300 pages interspersed with photographs, Weizman attempts to explain how “mundane elements of planning and architecture have become tactical tools and the means of dispossession”—in other words, how the Israelis have succeeded in subjugating the Palestinians through the calculated use of space.
Weizman marshals a wide array of evidence in support of his thesis. No aspect—however seemingly insignificant—of Israeli-Palestinian relations escapes his notice, and no association seems too strained. In the introduction, for example, Weizman recounts the story of the foundation of Migron, a Jewish outpost located five kilometers north of Jerusalem, as a stronghold that slowly formed around a cellular antenna, remarking that “the logic of cellular communication seems oddly compatible with that of the civilian occupation of the West Bank.” Later, he describes the settlements as a form of “vertical” control over the Palestinian population, on account of their frequently being perched on elevated areas overlooking Arab villages. He also offers a creative interpretation of the one-sided mirror at the Allenby crossing into Israel from Jordan, insisting that it serves as an attempt to trick the Palestinians into thinking that they are the masters of their own destiny—a kind of illusory sovereignty meant only for show.
The list goes on: Former prime minister Ariel Sharon is presented by Weizman as a predatory general/architect who orchestrated not only the construction of the settlements, but also the “design undertaken by destruction” of the Palestinian refugee camps, and both the security fence and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip represent, in Weizman’s telling, a paradigmatic shift from a method of control based on Israeli presence in Palestinian territories to one that seeks to dominate these areas “from beyond.” Weizman, it should be mentioned, thankfully avoids the usual trap of presenting Israel as a monolithic entity. Instead, he portrays it as a collection of governmental and sub governmental entities fighting amongst themselves, each promoting its own agenda with the assistance or opposition of the others—almost all of them, it goes without saying, being fundamentally malevolent.
This grab bag of speculations is firmly grounded in modern critical theory. Indeed, throughout the book Weizman cites such neo-Marxist, post-structuralist, and post-colonial heavyweights as Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Edward Said, and Adi Ophir. Yet if the book’s radical appeal ensures its admission into the post-Zionist canon, its theoretical baggage inevitably weighs it down. Indeed, its barely concealed biases and distortions would irritate any reader, whatever his politics.
Yagil Henkin is a military historian and a fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center.