Forensic Investigations of Designed Destructions in 2014 Rafah, Gaza



The editorial line of The Funambulist owes a lot to the work that Eyal Weizman has been undertaking since 2003 in the novel approach to architecture that it has been allowing through books such as Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007), The Least of All Possible Evils (2011) or The Conflict Shoreline (2015, in collaboration with Fazal Sheikh). It seemed therefore only fair that this conversation with Weizman recorded in London on February 22, 2017 is fully transcribed on eight pages here. In 2013, he founded Forensic Architecture, a research agency at Goldsmiths, University of London, gathering architects, artists, filmmakers, and authors to investigate geopolitical crimes in which architecture or territorial components can be approached as witnesses and evidences. Although the agency’s investigations involves a variety of geographies (Guatemala, Syria, Serbia, Pakistan, etc.), this conversation mostly focuses on Palestine in general, and Rafah, Gaza in particular.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: There already have been plenty of interviews in which you explain in what the work of Forensic Architecture consists; I will therefore redirect readers to these conversations as complements to this discussion. What I’m interested to talk about here is the idea that, behind the apparent chaos of the debris of destruction, there is a strong order and strategy that we might not be able to see without investigating, which is the essence of what Forensic Architecture is about. Could you tell us how the concept of “designed destruction” might address the genealogy of Forensic Architecture? How does it involve the fact that, as you write, so many victims of bombardments die from the building collapsing, rather than from the bomb itself — which influences how bombs are designed to compromise buildings in a very specific way? Could you tell us your thoughts about the notion of designing an attack in the same way one would design an architectural project?

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A residential building bearing the marks of military fire or tank shells / Courtesy of Forensic Architecture (2017)

EYAL WEIZMAN: I think that the problem of design, whether it is design by destruction or by various infrastructural or construction problem, is a problem of governance: the governance of people in space. We need to understand that the city is an apparatus of government. And, to operate as an apparatus of government, it has to always change. So we can speak about the way in which we can read power — a power diagram — from an image or plan of a city as it exists or emanates from squares or around boulevards. But what interests me always is that the act of governing space is the act of transforming space. And in a sense, it is an anti-panopticon model of thinking because in the Foucauldian panopticon — an almost classic example of the relation between power and space and subjectivation — the space exists. It is a static space in which relations of power inhabit in particular ways, making use of the physical characteristics.

I was always interested in thinking about governing in space as space in movement, space in transformation. The moment power operates in space is the moment it transforms it. Because, of course, when you have an understanding of power as that which comes through continuously rearticulated force fields, no existing static shape can contain the flux of forces. Therefore, space and the space of the city has to be continuously transformed. The moment in which power operates is exactly the moment of the cut of a street or a pathway through slums or old medieval neighborhoods, or an act of constructing something. Then the diagram of power will change and transformation will have to come again. Therefore there is no immediate ontological division between construction and destruction. We’re speaking about the political plastic as a category that includes both construction and destruction. It is really the way in which political forces slow into form. So this is one way of looking at the scale of the city: the shaping of the city through cutting forms through it — cutting squares through it, cutting boulevards through it, cutting networks of nodes that connect in circulation systems through it — is an act of government. By design, it includes simultaneously construction and deconstruction. It is simply the reorganization of matter across the surface of the earth.

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A European Pléiades image of Rafah: Forensic Architecture located incidents, cameras, and cones of vision / Courtesy of Forensic Architecture (2017)

With the increased precision of munition for remote fire-at-a-distance, like “smart bombs” or “smart drones,” the problem of design by destruction is somehow articulated not so much as a question of the urban but, instead, as a question of the building itself. It goes down to the scale of the building, and through various sets of transformation — the logic of violence from the 19th-century haussmannization to bombings in Iraq, Gaza, Syria — starts submitting itself, not only to the question of governing a particular population on the local level, but is interested in political and governmental issues that are global. The global or universal dimension comes to be applied through principles of international law and human rights. So the minute this comes into consideration, you start having other forms of calculation that are articulated under two fundamental principles of destruction remotely in war by power. The first is distinction. Are you bombing civilians or military targets? And then in between them there are also gray areas that the military would say are of dual use, right? Every bridge in the city that is civilian infrastructure could be declared as dual use because the military could also use it, and, effectively, the lawyers would authorize its bombing. The second principle is proportionality, and that is to do really with calculation. This is really where a certain logic that I have written about as the logic of the lesser evil [The Least of All Possible Evils, 2011], enters into the calculation for attacks, in which a certain balance, a certain set of limits needs to be articulated. The calculation has to do with the question of life and death, with a certain necroeconomy.

The example that I give is that when the US military entered into Iraq, it wanted to finish the war, really, on the first day, it wanted to kill all the heads of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein and his sons and Hassan al-Majid and others. But these people were all hiding in high rise or high density parts of town, and the bombing needed to keep to a certain proportionality. The proportionality calculation led to a command to the air force planners to design the bombing in such a way that it would not exceed the death of 29 civilians. Regardless of whether its 29 or 30 or 42, a threshold is being drawn between necessary sacrifice and excessive killing. Of course, the sacrifice of the government of other people, not their own, not people they are accountable for. But that led to another form of calculation. The bombs themselves become agents of design, and start sculpting out buildings, removing floors and parts of buildings, several roofs, etc. in a way that the problem of destruction is no longer a binary one — yes or no, that building needs to go or remain — but, rather, about calculation, proportionality, and shape.

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Salam Othman (left) and Jamal Abdou (right), former detainees at the Syrian prison of Saydnaya, reconstruct the architecture of the prison based on their memory. Courtesy of Forensic Architecture (2017)

Material proportionality is the kind of design allowing of principles of international law to sculpt out the ruin. The ruin itself becomes a product of a certain juridical calculation. To know how to do, bombers needed to learn something of architectural principles. They needed to know urbanistically how many people entered this building at particular hours of the day or night, how it is held, how much glass there is on it and how this would interact with explosives. Now the disturbing thing about all that is that the person that was in charge of this calculation for the US military in the run up to the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 was a man that later became one of the first forensic architects. I’ve actually entered into this arena of forensic architecture through the deepest and darkest critique: this art is a dark art; it is an art of assassins. This guy, Marc Garlasco, has developed forensic architecture or a breeding of buildings. Later he was a human rights analyst at the time of the Goldstone Report [in Gaza] in 2009. He knew how to analyze the ruin and to see in it the fossilized history, because he was a targeted assassin. And that paradox that the reading and analysis of something is derived from, that kind of depth has inspired me to develop forensic architecture as a critical practice, not simply as a set of tools and techniques that one can easily apply without deep questioning.

LL: Following up on what you called earlier a necroeconomy and addressing one particular investigation that Forensic Architecture as a collective research group at Goldsmiths, University of London, has been leading: could you tell us what happened on August 1, 2014 in Gaza?

EW: 2010 was the beginning of Forensic Architecture, emerging with the deepest critique of forensic architecture articulated in article in Radical Philosophy, less than a year after the end of the war. Four years later, after writing a this critical essay, we end up in the shoes of Garlasco, the person that has done the analysis in 2009 — we now do it.

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At European Pléiades image satellite captures a rare snapshot of a city under attack.
Courtesy of Forensic Architecture (2017)

In this article, I went through various problems in forensic architecture, one of them being the implication, somehow, in the Goldstone Report that relied on the analysis that human testimony is silenced by material reading, by reading of buildings; that a building would speak so that the human witness would remain quiet. It was already articulated in 2010. 2014 was only five years later, but it was a different space juridically, technologically, and politically. Juridically, in the April leading up to that attack, Palestinian civil society has been successful in forcing the PA, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to all sign and ratify the Rome Statute. The International Court operates very slowly, it’s very inefficient and ineffective, but it operates through a shadow, and certain shadows started to be cast on Gaza.

It has influenced to a certain extent both Palestinians and Israelis during that war. Technologically, during that war, whereas there were smartphones and cameras in 2009, they didn’t have the level of penetration they had in the summer of 2014. There were just a lot of cameras. Whether it was because of the ICC or other things, people started photographing around them continuously, just photographing everything they saw happening, sometimes risking their lives to do it. So the kind of evidence that we had — unlike Garlasco, we were not allowed in. Garlasco did a classic archaeology of the ruin, a haptic archaeology of the material, of the concrete — consisted in 7,000 clips and images that came out of a single day in Gaza: August 1st. It’s a very different kind of evidence: a video clip that somebody shoots is something that is between evidence and a testimony. Firstly because when people shoot, the also speak; so you always have language and vision. Second, they are very personal. They come from a particular perspective. They are records — both of the persons that have taken them and the object that has been taken. Every camera records from both sides: they record the thing that the lens is aimed at. And through the movement, the smudges, and the blurs, they record also the person that has taken them, although they are not photographed. But looking at blurry and fastly-drawn images is like looking at an object through a semi-reflective glass. You see both the subject and the object simultaneously, superimposed, one on the other.

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Computer modeling of the site and event of the strike in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, on October 4, 2010 with a survivor of the attack. /
Courtesy of Forensic Architecture (2017)

So we had these kinds of bits of evidence, which were very different from what Garlasco had to work with. The architecture here also operated in a very different way because we were asked to look at a particular incident of an economy of life and death, which was one day in the Gaza war — 24 hours, 7 am on August 1st to 7 am on August 2nd — in which a certain kind of tragedy unfolded. And that is to do with the Israeli command called “Hannibal Directive.” It is designed for the army to avoid the capture of one of their comrades when he or she is captured by the resistance. Before they are taken in and out of the battlefield, the army is allowed to rescue and, to a certain extent, kill that soldier as a better option to them being taken. The reason for that is precisely that economy which unfolds the minute that the captive is being taken.

Now the history of the Palestine conflict has one of the greatest dramas that always unfolded around it about hijacking or capturing or kidnapping, depending on the terminology in a situation. In the beginning it was civilians in the very famous plane hijackings. Then when Israel went into Lebanon it started to be soldiers. But the aim was always that when you capture a person from Israel, you force Israel into a recognition that speech would acknowledge: you are here as a subject. I can speak to you. I must speak to you. And Israel would always say, we would never negotiate, we would never recognize you. They did not even recognize the captured Palestinian fighters as legitimate fighters;  they were tried as criminals, and they had no chance of being released because they were mostly tried for life. The only way to release them was to capture an Israeli. But when an Israeli was captured, another economy emerged, and that’s a prisoner exchange economy. So it started with several dozens for one, then several hundred for one, and then more than a thousand for Gilad Shalit. In an economy of human value that seemed to reflect slavery, when you trade in lives, reminds you of, you know… Are you saying an Israeli life is worth a thousand Palestinian lives? No, but who puts this economy? It’s the Palestinians who put the economy on their way to break an economy of inequalities.

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A collage of photographs shows the aftermath of the Israeli air strike on al-Tannur, in Rafah. / Photograph by Al Mezan Center for Human Rights (2014) extracted from the Forensic Architecture & Amnesty International “Black Friday” Report.

LL: Specifically, what particularly interests me here is the economy of lives. We might think that, back then, Hamas got “a great deal” for Gilad Shalit, because they obtained for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to be liberated. The implicit component of this deal is that one Israeli life equals 1,027 Palestinian lives. So we have the very definition of racism operating in front of us; that one life is not equal to another life. What’s really remarkable in the case of Black Friday and the Hannibal Directives that you have been examining is that it is not just one life equals one life — it’s not ‘just’ 29 acceptable civilian deaths to justify one general of Saddam Hussein being assassinated by the US army for instance — it is actually the proportion of acceptable Palestinian civilian deaths, in order to kill — not to save — an Israeli soldier for him not to be kidnapped. So there’s a double perversity in this economy — what you have called a necroeconomy earlier. Could you tell us more about this act of killing?

EW: So, how do you kill a captured soldier? Now, obviously, if you are a resistance fighter, you would take it into the heart of density. You would try to disappear in a crowd. The crowd is something that cannot be bombed by any standard for international law. So the proportionality calculation also had to shift at that moment. When you have proportionality you calculate necessity versus adverse effects. And you say, if there’s great necessity, we can— to make it simple— kill more people, kill more civilians for it. If it’s less important, we can kill less. The military necessity can only be articulated vis-a-vis military threat by international law. But the Israelis completely skewed the proportionality principle here by saying, actually, if Palestinians take a soldier and finally would be trading in the soldier for a thousand more Palestinians, then there will be a bigger risk for Israel in the future for which we are allowed now to kill more Palestinian civilians. The minute the Hannibal Directive starts, the proportionality calculation shifts: it’s no longer X civilians that the military is willing to risk and kill, but it’s (n)X or many times X. But the absurd part is that the calculation of proportionality is articulated in relation to something that the Israeli government could simply say, well, we don’t want to exchange. Now what’s behind the Hannibal Directive is that the army doesn’t trust Israeli society. Israeli society is very averse to keeping its prisoners in Palestinian hands, which is another dimension of racism — it’s as if they were held by cannibals or savages. The army would bomb and kill civilians and the soldier so that Israeli civil society would not be able to pressure the government to order the military to release Palestinian prisoners in a trade. Effectively, it is an act between the government and the military, and no one else. This is because the military itself or the government could simply say, that person should stay and we’ll release one-to-one. I think that this is where the proportionality gets completely ridiculous: in this case, it is a political calculation about future risks influencing a calculation of ammunition.

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Synchronization of various media’s metadata based on one particular strike and its subsequent plumes.
Courtesy of Forensic Architecture (2017)

So this economy has many levels to it, but it shows to what extent violence today is a result of calculations. But since the event happened in an incredibly dense urban area, that kind of evidence became crucial because everybody started taking photographs. Somebody took a photograph of some tanks going. Somebody took a photograph of some civilians running away. Somebody took a photograph of smoke. Another of a building that was burning. Another of a car that was destroyed, etc. You needed to piece all that together because we needed to create and present a situation that is not the classic situation that you have in analysis of Israeli violence against Palestinians. It’s happening in an inverse world, a world upside down, by which the Palestinians tried to save an Israeli soldier and the Israeli army tries to kill an Israeli soldier, in doing so, kills many Palestinian civilians and resistance fighters.

LL: On that case, something I find particularly interesting has to do with the broader way Forensic Architecture operates at a judicial level as a provider of proof in some international trials, and how the status of artists and architects and filmmakers is being charged against them as a non-valid expertise. Yet, part of the way you manage to reconstitute what happened on this dreadful day of August 1, 2014 was specifically by using artistic methods. I’m thinking here of the bomb plumes and how you actually used a technique of nineteenth century representation of clouds to understand how a cloud actually is the same in another video. There’s actually an artistic expertise that can be used in this context. Could you please address that?

EW: Yes. First of all, although everyone dealing with forensics understands the power and necessity of aesthetic operation both in looking at images and materials — aesthetics in the sense of sensorium — and also in the ways your present and represent material later in court, we also know that to present truth or fact in court, if you refer to word “aesthetics,” you’ve already lost. Because aesthetics is mainly understood as trickery or something that is fictional and not really the truth. Of course, we know how hard it is to produce and how important aesthetics is in this production. When you are not allowed to enter the “crime scene,” and that the evidence you have are 7,000 images and clips, image practitioners are incredibly important. When it is buildings or vegetation that you need to look at, remote sensing experts or vegetation indices are very important. If it has to do with testimony, documentarians are extremely important. There is a necessity to pull together multidisciplinary groups that can deal with a wide spectrum of aesthetic relations: of memory, of image, and of matter. To each one of those material substances there is a different set of aesthetic operations that are in place.

The particular thing that you refer to with the plumes was that our necessity was really in looking at this flood images, the first thing is to say where and when each one was taken. The only way to understand a narrative through so many images is not to look at any image in isolation, but to look at the relationship between them in time and space. Where is that in relation to this? So we try to locate them by matching them with a perspective that we build in 3D. And we tried to establish the time by shadow analysis. But we couldn’t do that because sometimes the shadow was too far. Then we realized that we were looking at the wrong half of the images. Like here, your cover of the recent The Funambulist has a half sky in it; sometimes it’s just simply a backdrop, but we understood that in the sky, there was the physical clock that we were looking for. We could sink up the entire battle by looking at and mapping the clouds. For this, we needed, not a very sophisticated and contemporary meteorology, which is all modeled and computerized, but an analog meteorology of Luke Howard and John Ruskin, of a painter like Constable, and others who are constructing all sorts of ways to triangulate clouds in the sky in order to build their perspective of landscape painting. For us, it was in order to actually map a dynamic landscape of cloud transformation in the air. We can time every image so that if we see two images that have the same cloud, we say, okay, this is at the same time. Of course, the clouds that we are talking about are not meteorological. They are bomb clouds, but they behave like meteorological clouds. They are continuously transforming themselves, even though they are anchored in one space.

LL: I heard you once saying that they are pulverized buildings, pulverized architectures.

EW: The clouds are actually everything that the building was. They are composed of brick, plaster, wood, glass, building remains, human remains… all of that becomes this cotton wool that exists in the air for eight to ten minutes. In a sense, one could think about it as architecture in gas form. If you like, that is the form of destruction. You can look at the hard ruin on the ground, but in this project we were looking at the soft, temporary ruin in the air. But, I have to say that the architecture of bomb clouds represent something fundamental about all architecture — except for the fact that we needed the tools of blob architecture and parametric design in order to understand the interaction of air and pressure with form. They are the extreme case of the temporariness of elasticity of the relationship between force and form. Clouds are the manifestation of political plastic that I started to speak about at the beginning. All buildings are temporary. Politics operate on the form by their continuous transformation. Here you have a form that is a diagram of the forces around it. When we sync up the sky, we simply inverted the entire landscape and looked at a part of the earth. What was very distinct in this investigation was that the civilians were interviewed. The anchors in their memories were the bombs. They were telling us the stories from underneath those clouds. To a certain extent, then, the clouds brought matter — the building, material, image as in the videos and satellite images and photographs of the clouds — and memory. It is like a hinge that connected all the elements of forensic architecture together: matter, media, and memory. In a certain sense, they become almost a heideggerian object that pulls the worlds together, the thing that brings them together.

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Computer modeling of the site and event of the strike in Mir Ali, North Waziristan / Courtesy of Forensic Architecture (2017)

LL: This gives me a good segue towards my last question, which looks more generally at what Forensic Architecture as a collective is doing. I am inspired by the beginning of your introduction in the book Forensis, which is the notion of prosopopoeia, i.e. “the speech of things.” How do you make buildings speak but, also, how do you make speech become buildings, which is also something you do at Forensic Architecture with  translation from Arabic or Urdu to an architectural language. Could you address that as a conclusion of this conversation?

EW: I think that there has been a certain misunderstanding that somehow plagues our history. It seems like we have replaced the human with the materiality of the object. I see by your question that you don’t understand it in that way, but I wanted to make it clear that, for us, forensic architecture is a move that always exists between subject and object. Forensics animate the object and objectifies the subject. It creates a certain zone between them that is part human, part nonhuman. This is the gray area in which we operate. It does not interest us simply to look at objects, and we do not feel that we have something to contribute in simply speaking about the memory of the subject. For us, the fertile zone is that ambiguity, where skulls and buildings start to speak, and when people start to remember through engagement with objects — whether they are material objects or buildings; whether they are animated, digital, or physical; whether it is by looking at images or looking at maps. What has happened between the piece of evidence that never speaks for itself and the person, either the expert or the witness, that is somehow pulled into the object and then something else happens. This is the area in which we operate: this kind of overlap between object and subject. You put it very beautifully when you said prosopopoeia operates in two ways. Prosopopoeia, as a Greek rhetorical principle, operates both in the animating of material objects, making them speak. On the other hand, this inverse prosopopoeia allows the creation of an object through speech.

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Courtesy of Forensic Architecture (2017)

The problem with forensic architecture — this increasingly occupies an enormous part of our bandwidth — is creating evidence from memory, creating evidence from testimony. Very often, governments would restrict counter-forensics of their work. If they could, they would restrict the flow of images, but they cannot. In Gaza, for example, what they managed to restrict is access to the materiality of the ruin. They did not manage to restrict access to the media and memory. We could even remotely communicate with people. Sometimes the Assad regime in Syria is able to restrict both media and material evidence. Remember the three categories: material, media, and memory. What you’re left with is only memory. How do you use memory to construct architecture? And how do you use architecture to induce memory? These are two processes we do when we work with people who have experienced something. On the one hand, we build a model together, and it is participatory practice by which the witnesses and sometimes victims would build a model of where they’ve been. What is much more interesting for us is how the process of building something, how the very mundane measurements — of floor tiles, hatches, doors, heights, ceilings, level of moisture, sound — can, all of a sudden, trigger memories that were otherwise repressed. Witnesses to trauma might remember a lot of things before a traumatic moment and after, but there’s something about violence that is also an erasure of memory.

Violence operates on memory in very unpredictable ways. Architecture can sometimes, and sometimes not: it’s an indeterminate process. But it increases the possibility for recollection to occur. If somebody builds, nevermind walks through a rendering of space, but actually builds that space… sometimes at the moment where somebody describes the size of tiles and how many tiles were in a room, a memory of a form of torture that was extremely repressive or hard, was articulated. It all of sudden returned. Another witness that we asked to model a door, simply by the measurement of the door recalled the form of torture that was otherwise inaccessible. Again, this prosopopoeia and inverse prosopopoeia bring us into architecture. I believe, fundamentally, this is what architecture is: a zone that is between object and subject. Obviously, that zone between object and subject can be captured and inhabited by media. If you remember, media, subjectivity, and the object mix together. That is what we believe is the fundamental component of architecture and, in that sense, forensic architecture.

Transcript by Amrit Trewn / Find the audio version of this conversation online in “‘Forensic Investigations of Designed Destructions in 2014 Rafah, Gaza”” on