New Book: Bulldozer Politics – The Palestinian Ruin as an Israeli Architectural Project

La Politique du Bulldozer - Léopold Lambert 2016

It has been a little while since I knew that two new books I wrote would be published around the same time. While the second one will exist in bilingual French/English version (more about it in the coming days), this first one, La politique du bulldozer: La ruine palestinienne comme projet israélien (Bulldozer Politics: The Palestinian Ruin as an Israeli Architectural Project) was just published in French by B2 Editions. Here is a translation of the index:

  • Introduction
  • July 22, 2014 in GAZA: The Ruins of the Continuous Siege
  • July 1, 2014 in IDHNA: Punitive Demolition of Homes
  • Interlude: Caterpillar D9 Bulldozer
  • April 10, 2002 in JENIN: The Bulldozer Used as a Weapon of War
  • July 1971 in RAFAH: The So-called “Pacification” of Gaza by Ariel Sharon
  • July 18, 1948 in LUBYA: The Palestinian Ruin and its Absence
  • Conclusion

Since there is no English version planned out, and that I used the arguments and some of the case studies in a paper presented at SOAS for the symposium “The Gaza Strip: History, Future and New Directions for Research” (October 2015) I propose to publish this shorter text here for non-francophone readers. In addition of the research specifically made for the redaction of the book, it draws on a few articles and maps written and drawn here for the last two years.

The book can be found in French bookstores that have an architectural theory section, as well as on B2’s website.

The Palestinian Ruin as an Israeli Architectural Project ///

In his book The Drone Easts with Me: Diaries from a City under Fire, Palestinian author Atef Abu Saif recounts the punctuation of his daily life by the systematic bombings of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army during the dreadful siege of the 2014 summer that killed 2,220 Palestinians and displaced more than 500,000.[1] Abu Saif describes how he and his relatives could not bring themselves to tell his 19-months old daughter, Jaffa, that the loud noises she was keeping hearing were, in fact, deadly bombs. Instead, they told her that the loud noises she could hear was her big brother Naem slamming the door, hence her scream each time an explosion occurs nearby: “the doooooooor!” In a city under siege, sound becomes the predominant relation to the outside reality. Abu Saif recounts how everyone in Gaza can now make the difference between the noise of a missile launched from a tank, a ship, a drone, an aircraft, or a helicopter. To the noise of the bombs, we need to add the voluntarily terrorizing noise of F16 aircrafts reaching the wall of sound, as well as the continuous droning of the Zannate (drones) and, of course, there is the sound of buildings collapsing, dreadfully crushing the totality of its objects and bodies that they contain.

The 51 days of war undertaken by the Israeli army against Gaza and its inhabitants in July and August 2014 constitute one of the most recent occurrences of a process of ruination of the Palestinian conditions of life that started in the late 1940s. This text is a fragment of a broader research about this historical process of ruination of Palestinian homes understood in a paradoxical constructivist architectural manner. By constructivist, I mean that we should distinguish a precise order behind the chaos of the ruins’ rubbles, an architectural process in which the ruin is understood as the final product of a cautiously design strategy.

Etzel Museum

Let us consider for instance the Etzel Museum situated in Manshieh between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. This building, designed as an homage to the infamous Sionist paramilitary group of the same name (Etzel is the Hebrew acronym to designate the Irgoun) consists in a clumsy modernist glass and steel architecture based on the foundation of a former Palestinian house, destroyed, with the rest of Manshieh in April 1948 – one month before the beginning of what the Israelis call “the Independence War” it ought to be noted. The architectural message of this building is clear: the modernist Israeli city of Tel Aviv dominates and replaces the archaic Arab city of Jaffa in a historical act described by the museum architects, Niv, Schwartz and Schwartz, as a territorial “liberation.[2]

Although the Etzel Museum recounts the Sionist conquest over the Palestinian presence, it does not deny the latter. One other aspects of this research however insists on the double ruination process undertaken by the State of Israel against the numerous Palestinian villages that were evicted from their inhabitants in 1948. Many of these villages’ homes were dynamited shortly after their eviction leaving an important amount of ruins on the territory that Israel then claimed as its own. Nevertheless, these ruins constituted an architectural testimony to both the past Palestinian presence on this land, and the conditions in which the State of Israel was founded. The latter therefore undertook the destruction of these ruins starting from 1949 in order to avoid “superfluous questions,” as the official terminology of the Minister of Foreign Affairs accounted in a 1965 ordinance.[3] In several cases, forests founded by the Jewish National Found were seeded and grown over the remaining stones of these villages. Before 1948, the JNF used to collect money in the Jewish diaspora to buy land to Palestinian owners; the foundation of the State of Israel made this Zionist project obsolete and the JNF then continued to collect founds in order to grow forests in an effort of “Europeanization” of the Israeli territory.[4] The ruins of Palestinian villages like Lubya near the Sea of Galilee were thus covered by a multitude of trees within forests sometimes named after the country of its donors – South Africa in the case of Lubya, as Mark J. Kaplan and Heidi Grunebaum’s film, The Village under the Forest (2013) depicts.

Heidi Grunebaum Still from  The Village under the Forest by Heidi Grunebaum and Mark J. Kaplan (2013)

The majority of the Gaza population being composed of refugees from 1948, we can get a sense of the serial destruction that these families have no choice but to experience through time. Their homes in historical Palestine were first dynamited, the remaining ruins were later bulldozed, sometimes hidden in engineered forest, and the last sixty-seven years in Gaza have provided many occasions of destruction of their new home, during the three last dreadful sieges in particular.


When is a House a Home

As Eyal Weizman describes in his original lecture, Forensic Architecture (2010) now turned into a research council at Goldsmiths, bombings themselves are less the cause of death of Palestinians in Gaza, than the collapse of architecture they trigger.[5] This distinction might appear fastidious, particularly regarding such a poignant question; however, it is an important distinction to understand the modus operandi of the Israeli army and, in doing so, to present an accurate and precise description of its accountability for its attacks.

The bombing of housing buildings in particular illustrates well the strategy behind these dreadful attacks. While for many people in the world, the notion of home can be associated to a certain degree of safety, Gaza inhabitants cannot benefit from such a luxury. On July 13, 2015, local journalist Mohammed Omer reports the daily terror of the siege through a poignant tweet: “Most difficult moment for a father: split his children in all corners of the house or all in one corner and die together?[6]” Here again, the architectural component of this tragic thought is far from being innocent. The Israeli army has acquired an unprecedented expertise in the destruction of buildings – Weizman’s lecture describes the cautious design of so-called targeted assassinations, the explosive use, the part of the building targeted, etc. – and its bombardments and the legal accountability in which they result should be understood through their damning degree of precision[7].

In its rhetorical fight to legitimate its action, the Israeli army explicitly contests the notion of home for Palestinians of Gaza: “When Is a House, a Home?” (July 2014) pretends to ask a poster created by the propaganda service of the Israeli army to be spread on social network. The poster shows a form of architectural section of a building divided into six rooms, three of which use the common codes to represent a home (a bedroom, a living room, an office), while three others represent what is described as a weapon storage, an operation room and a command center through drawings that we would characterize as ridiculous, if they were not implying the dreadful reality of the bombings.

The strategy behind this kind of posters is to contribute to a manufactured legal narrative in which the Palestinian armed resistance is using the civilian population of Gaza as “human shields,” in order to somehow legitimize what the military sense of euphemism calls “collateral damage.” This rhetorical tactic is not new, since it was already used during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and it has provided useful talking points for Western governments to back the Israeli action since then. The fact that the presence of civilians in building designated as military targets does not stopped the army to bomb them should however show the absurdity of such a claim or, if anything, its obsolescence. Similarly, the validity given to this pseudo-legal narrative does not seem to take into account the impossibility for Gaza inhabitants to flee from the Strip – an inventory of the totality of bombings during the summer 2014 by OCHA shows that no areas in the entire Strip has been spared.

The dubious usage of the legal concept of “human shields” is however not the only weapon in the rhetorical arsenal of the Israeli army’s legal corps. Another component of this legitimizing narrative involves the idea according to which a civilian warned of the imminent bombing of the building where (s)he lives can no longer be considered as such if (s)he refuses to flee from the area. This is how the Israeli air force developed the so-called “knock-on-roof” tactic, which consists in the preliminary use of a low-explosive bomb on a building that will be destroyed minutes (sometimes seconds) later. The amount of time allocated to a family to flee its home – the actual bombing usually intervenes a minute or two after the warning shot – sometimes in the middle of the night, is barely relevant here, since the legal status of civilian could not possibly be stripped from anyone simply by a warning shot, or sometimes by a phone call.

GazaEvolution of the “No-Go Zone” during the 2014 siege on Gaza / Map by Léopold Lambert (2014)

A third pseudo-legal maneuver consists in the designation of “no-go zone” within Gaza, where anyone is considered to be legitimately killable. The “normal” condition of Gaza – the very notion of normalcy constitutes a rhetorical violence in itself – involves a 100-meter wide kill zone along the Israeli border of the Strip punctuated with remote-controlled machine gun towers. On July 22, 2014 this zone was temporarily thickened to reach a 3-kilometer width, and thus including a considerable amount of houses within it. 25% of the Gaza population (450,000 people) was consequently displaced not to be situated in an area that was going to be abundantly bombed – let us insist on the fact that no area of the Gaza Strip was spared from the bombings. As of today (October 2015), an important part of this displaced population is still homeless, since the Israeli blockade, backed by the Sisi administration in Egypt, has prevented any cement bag to be imported into Gaza.


Sharon gaza 1971

In 1969, Ariel Sharon who is recognized as instrumental in the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula two years earlier is named at the head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command, and thus in charge of the Gaza Strip that was also invaded in 1967. The resistance of the PLO is particularly active in the following years and, on January 2, 1971, Sharon is asked by Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defense, to implement a counter-insurrection against it. Sharon’s memoirs, although necessarily dubious, are particularly useful to understand his strategy in the matter.[8] His descriptions of his analysis of Gaza have a lot in commons with 19th-century Western orientalist writers:

I was waking up at dawn and leaving with only a snack and a bottle of water, accompanied by my chief of intelligence and my chief of operations, I was exploring a given sector. Day after day, systematically, I thus inspected each square meter of each refugee camp and each orangery. Since my childhood, I knew that the Arab farmers’ methods were different from ours. I was now observing their work with a new interest.[9]

The idea of Sharon walking by himself in Gaza and reflecting in the contemplation of Palestinian farmers is somewhat amusing in its orientalist self-romanticization. Throughout his description of these months of counter-insurrection, he is cautious to depict the latter as a simple policing operation barely affecting the daily lives of Palestinian civilians. This operation is however massive in its scale and the way Sharon interprets Gaza in an architectural and geographical manner is particularly interesting for our argument here. One of his first strategic gestures is purely diagrammatic, but like the work of architects, its consequences are drastic: he in fact traces a grid on the map of Gaza and establishes 1,500×1,500 meter squares, whose control he then attributes to his officers. He enjoins the latter to know as absolutely as possible the physical dimension of their attributed square, spotting every single element (a dead tree, a lemon tree in an orange field, a chopped off palm tree, etc.) as a potential meeting point for fugitive PLO member. He, as well, describes a certain form of forensics, in the cautious production of knowledge of a colonized territory following a given attack by the Palestinian resistance: he evokes the search for underground shelter’s ventilation pipes, the naught ropes used by Israeli soldiers to measure Palestinian homes from the inside and outside to spot potential “fake walls” hiding an extra room, as well as the little ladders regularly used to suddenly look inside Palestinian yards.

However, these methods described in his memoirs clearly operate in an effort to minimize the description of the destructive part of this military operation. The massive demolition by bulldozers in Rafah’s refugee camp, which destroyed more than 2,500 houses and displaced more than 16,000 people, are depicted by him as a simple enlarging of the narrow streets of the camp’s dense urban fabric. The bulldozer, although far from exclusive in the Israeli army arsenal, has been instrumental in the history of ruination of Palestinian homes. The bulldozer Caterpillar D9 in particular, has been customized by the Israeli army since its creation in 1954 and systematically used in the numerous wars in which Israel has been engaged since then. Its use to increase the width of refugee camps in Gaza in order to provide enough space for tanks to circulate is particularly interesting to include in a broader history (past and future of 1971) of urban transformative means of counter-insurrection.

While acknowledging the specificity of the historical context we can, for instance, associate the figure of Sharon with the one of Thomas Robert Bugeaud, Marshall of the French army between 1843 and 1849 (date of his death). Bugeaud was instrumental to a new military doctrine on both sides of the Mediterranean, since he was first involved in the end of the colonization of Algeria, then in charge of the country’s “pacification,” and that he took part in the counter-insurrection in Paris in 1834 and 1848. After the 1848 revolution, he wrote a small manual of counter-insurrection in a urban context for his fellow officers. Entitled La guerre des rues et des maisons (The War of Streets and Houses), this pamphlet interprets the architectural component of the city as an instrumental dimension of the insurrection and counter-insurrection and, as such, can be manipulated to gain a military advantage.[10] The French demolitions of half of the Casbah of Algiers between 1830 and 1860 certainly attest of this understanding – the urban battle for decolonization in the 1950s will later confirm its importance – as does the Hausmannian transformations of Paris and their digging of numerous new boulevards in dense proletarian areas during the Second Empire, between 1852 and 1870. Insurrections being more likely to be advantaged by a dense and complex urban fabric, these cities were architecturally modified to make them more controllable for the imperial power and its army. In this regard, it is not innocent that the new streets created in the Rafah refugee camp in 1971 were nicknamed “the Sharon Boulevards.”

In the more specific history of the Israeli army tactics, the 1971 “urban” operation in Rafah can recall the one in the Jenin refugee camp in 2002 during the Second Intifada. In only a few days, the customized bulldozer Caterpillar D9 of the army demolished 140 houses and damaged more than 200 others, in an effort of increasing the width of the camp’s street to allow the army tanks and other vehicles to penetrate inside its dense urban fabric where the Palestinian resistance was partially operating. Here again, one of the richest testimonies of such an operation comes from one of its protagonists, in the person of Moshe Nissim, simple bulldozer conductor who spent 75 straight hours behind the wheel of his D9, half naked and drinking whiskey, demolishing systematically and indiscriminately Palestinian homes.[11] In this example as well, the reconstruction is as interesting as the destruction, since the UNRWA specifically rebuilt streets wide enough to accommodate the potential return of Israeli tanks as Eyal Weizman describes in Hollow Land.[12] Also described in the latter volume is the 2002 Israeli operation in the Nablus refugee camp in which the soldiers’ tactic that consisted in going from house to house through their walls, recalls without doubt the ones described by Bugeaud in his manual.

Political Cartography of RafahPolitical Cartography of Rafah / Map by Léopold Lambert (2015)

This destructive 1971 counter-insurrection led by Sharon should not be seen as a punctual short-sighted operation. Another aspects of the latter advocated by Sharon to the Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, and the Prime Minister, Golda Meir, consists in cutting the Palestinian cities of the Gaza Strip by implementing Israeli settlements between them. The first settlement was built in 1970 and six others will be built in the following eight years. The double destructive-constructive function of Sharon as a military architect is here expressed at its best. Demolitions will later continue: in 1982, after the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from the Sinai, Sharon who was then Minister of Defense, orders the destruction of 300 Palestinian homes along the border to ensure a thick militarized line between Gaza and Egypt. Between 2001 and 2004, the Israeli armed bulldozers destroy more than 2,500 Palestinian homes in another counter-insurrection efforts; the Prime Minister’s name of the time is Ariel Sharon.


Gaza disengagement

In August 2005, the Israeli army’s bulldozers undertake the demolition of three thousand buildings in the Gaza Strip. This time, those are not Palestinian buildings but, rather, they constitute the totality of the twenty-one Israeli settlements that had been constructed on Palestinian territory. This demolition was conducted following the unilateral decision of the Sharon government to “disengage” the Israeli civil and military presence in Gaza.  Sharon’s role of Prime Minister was the last one of a rich political career following his military one, and we can recall his role as Minister of Defense in 1982 when he also forcefully evicted the Israeli settlers and demolished the settlement of Yamit situated a few kilometers inside the Sinai Peninsula when the occupation of the latter was terminated.

Although the dismantling of the Israeli settlements in Gaza could, at first glance, appear as beneficial to the Palestinian population, the reality is more complex for various reasons. We can find the first one in the absolute isolation that Gaza has to endure, which thus becomes the potential target of massive bombardments like the ones we witnessed in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014. Another reason has to do with the demolition itself. For a while, the Israeli government had claimed to be interested to sell the settlements to the Palestinian Authority but had set a prohibitive price preventing any possible transaction to occur. Only the settlements’ numerous agricultural green houses that had been bought by donations raised by James Wolfensohn (then President of the World Bank) were planned to be transferred to Palestinians. Aware of this agreement, the settlers however destroyed them so that the Palestinian population would not benefit from it.[13]

When the Israeli army finishes withdrawing on September 12, 2005, it leaves behind itself a multitude of debris, many of which are toxic.[14] Only the synagogues of the twenty-one settlements were left intact, thus engineering the televisual spectacle of some Palestinian youngster vandalizing them. We find here an additional tactic of ruination: the manufacturing of an ideological spectacle based on the symbolical demolition of a cultural building.

Ten years later, it is still easy to recognize the marks of the Israeli settlements on the ground of Gaza. Similarly to the argument presented by Eyal Weizman to describe the photographs of Fazal Sheikh in the Negev, we can talk of the earth as “photographic surface,” that is a surface that bears the trace of its successive occupations.[15] We can conclude this text with another photograph that bears the trace of the Israeli cautious process of ruination of the Palestinian infrastructure. In 2015, when one would look at the aerial photographs of Gaza provided by Google Earth, one could not ignore the gigantic cloud of smoke escaping from the unique power plant of Gaza bombed by Israeli aircrafts on July 29, 2014. Whether the choice for this photograph was intentional or not is irrelevant here; what matters when it comes to Gaza and the daily process of ruination to which it is subjected, is the continuous coincidence of the crime and its photographic evidence.

[1] Atef Abu Saif, The Drone Eats With Me. Diaries from a City Under Fire, Manchester, Comma Press, 2015.

[2] See Sharon Rotbard, White City / Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2015, p.130.

[3] Aron Shai, “The Fate of Abandoned Arab Villages in Israel, 1965-1969,” in History and Memory, vol. 18, n°2, “Home and Beyond. Sites of Palestinian Memory,” fall-winter 2006, pp.86-106.

[4] See Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, London: Oneworld Publications, 2007.


[6] MohammedOmer (@Mogaza), Twitter, July 13, 2014.

[7] See Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, London: Verso, 2012.

[8] Ariel Sharon and David Chanoff, Warrior: An Autobiography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

[9] Ibid., 298.

[10] Maréchal Bugeaud, La guerre des rues et des maisons, Paris, Jean-Paul Roger, 1997.

[11] See Tsadok Yeheskeli, Yediot Aharonot, “I made them a stadium in the middle of the camp” on, 2002.

[12] Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, London: Verso, 2007.

[13] See Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza: A History, London: Hurst, 2014.

[14] Weizman, Hollow Land, 2007.

[15] Eyal Weizman & Fazal Sheikh, The Conflict Shoreline, Berlin, Steidl, 2015.

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