Politics of Verticality

by Eyal Weizman

1. Introduction to The Politics of Verticality.

None of us have a coherent mental map of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Architect Eyal Weizman explains why. We're missing verticality. In this series of articles and photo-essays, he paints the extraordinary, three-dimensional battle over the West Bank: from settlements to sewage, archaeology to Apaches.

2. Maps of Israeli Settlements.

Two-dimensional maps, fundamental to the understanding of political borders, have been drawn again and again for the West Bank. Each time they have failed to capture its vertical divisions.

In the understanding and governing of territories, maps have been principal tools. The history of their making relates to property ownership, political sovereignty and power.

But maps are two-dimensional. Attempting to represent reality on two-dimensional surfaces, they not only mirror it but also shape the thing they represent. As much as describing the world, they create it.

Geo-politics is a flat discourse. It largely ignores the vertical dimension and tends to look across rather than to cut through the landscape. This was the cartographic imagination inherited from the military and political spatialities of the modern state. Since both politics and law understand place only in terms of the map and the plan, territorial claims marked on maps assume that claims are applicable simultaneously above them and below.

From 1967 to the present day, Israeli technocrats, ideologues and generals have been drawing maps of the West Bank. Map-making became a national obsession. Whatever the nature of Palestinian spatiality, it was subordinated to Israeli cartography. Whatever was un-named ceased to exist. Scores of scattered buildings and small villages disappeared from the map, and were never connected to basic services.

A preoccupation with an ever-more-complete unveiling of the terrain was nourished by the expansive ambitions of the mapmakers. Each map was linked to a strategic plan - from Allon's (1967-70), through those of Drobless (1977), Dayan (1978-79), and Sharon (1981), to the different ones produced for Oslo (1993-99), and the one proposed by Barak in Camp David (2000).

In both the Oslo and the Camp David peace proposals, the intertwined patchwork of territories made it impossible to draw a feasible continuous boundary between Israelis and Palestinians without dismantling settlements.

It was only by introducing the vertical dimension, through schemes of over- and under-passes, that linkage could be achieved between settlements and Israel, between Gaza and the West Bank. These solutions did not reject the map as a geopolitical tool. Instead, they superimposed discontinuous maps over each other.

The horizon became a political boundary, separating the air from the ground. At the same time, another boundary - dividing the crust of the ground from the earth under it - has appeared. In the West Bank, the sub-terrain and the air have come to be seen as separated from, rather than continuous and organic to, the surface of the earth.

Traditional international borders are political tools dividing the land on plans and maps; their geometric form, following principles of property laws, could be described as vertical planes extending from the centre of the earth to the height of the sky. The departure from a planar division of a territory to the creation of three-dimensional boundaries across sovereign bulks redefines the relationship between sovereignty and space.

The 'Politics of Verticality' entails the re-visioning of existing cartographic techniques. It requires an Escher-like representation of space, a territorial hologram in which political acts of manipulation and multiplication of the territory transform a two-dimensional surface into a three-dimensional volume.

3. Hills and valleys of the West Bank.

Mountains play a special part in Zionist holiness. The settlers' surge into the folded terrain of the West Bank and up to its summits combines imperatives of politics and spirituality.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a territorial one, though fought out in three dimensions. More then anything else, it is defined by where and how one builds. The terrain dictates the nature, intensity and focal points of confrontation. On the other hand, the conflict manifests itself most clearly in the adaptation, construction and obliteration of landscape and built environment. Planning decisions are often made not according to criteria of economical sustainability, ecology or efficiency of services, but to serve strategic and national agendas.

The West Bank is a landscape of extreme topographical variation, ranging from four hundred and forty metres below sea level at the shores of the Dead Sea, to about one thousand metres in the high summits of Samaria. The conflict is played out in the mountainous region - and this has influenced its forms.

From the plains to the hills (and back again)

The settlement project in the West Bank is a culmination of Zionism's journey from the plains to the hills. That journey attempted to resolve the paradox of early Zionist spatiality - that, while seeking the return to the 'Promised Land', reversed the settlement geography of Biblical times.

Braudel's observation that "the mountains are as a rule a world apart from civilisations, which are urban and lowland achievement" suited the ancient geography of Israel well. The mountains of Judea became the breeding ground for an isolated form of monotheism; meanwhile the plains, inhabited by the Phoenician Philistines, the "invaders from the seas", gave birth to an integrated and progressive culture, set apart from the isolation of the mountain, close to the international road system and the seaports.

Migrating into Israel in the twentieth century, the Zionist movement, now itself an "invader from the seas", and dominated by a modern, pragmatic socialism, settled mainly along the coastal plains and fertile northern valleys, which suited its ideology of agricultural cultivation well. This spatial pattern would dominate the Israeli landscape until the political reversal of 1977, in which the hawkish Likud party replaced Labour in power for the first time.

The "civilian occupation" of the West Bank was a process that began in the deep, arid Jordan valley during its first ten years of Israeli rule under Labour governments (1967-1977). Fifteen agricultural villages were constructed under the Allon Plan, that emphasized "maximum security and maximum territory for Israel with a minimum number of Arabs".

As the political climate in Israel changed, the reconstruction of Zionist identity began. The settlements started a long and steady climb to the mountains, where isolated dormitory communities were scattered on barren hilltops; without agricultural hinterlands, they cultivated nothing but "holiness" on their land.

The settlements of the mountain strip, built during the late 1970s and early 1980s, shifted the expansion stimulus from agricultural pioneering to mysticism and transcendentalism. These settlements were promoted mainly by Gush Emunim (The Block of Faith), a national-religious organisation that was fusing "Biblical" messianism, a belief in the "Land of Israel", with a political thinking that allowed for no territorial concessions.

The climb from the plains to the hills coincided with the development of a feeling of acting according to a divine plan. It promised the "regeneration of the soul" and the achievement of "personal and national renewal", imbued in a mystic quality of the heights. Ephi Eitam, the retired general who is now the popular leader of the National Religious party, recently opposed any dismantling of these mountain settlements in these terms: "Whoever proposes that we return to the plains, to our basest part, to the sands, the secular, and that we leave in foreign hands the sacred summits, proposes a senseless thing".

Beyond the hard core of extremists inhabiting the mountain ridge of the West Bank, the majority of settlers built their home in the western slopes near the 1967 border. They went in search of a better quality of life, settling in green suburbs that belong to the greater metropolitan regions of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

What drew them there was the rhetoric of "living standards", "quality of life", "fresh air" and "open view". "All you can dream of" for a very affordable price - this pitch has a special appeal to first-time buyers. Settlers benefit from substantial government subsidies; for the price of a small flat in Tel Aviv, they can buy their own red-roofed houses and gardens.

Vertical Planning

Matityahu Drobless was appointed head of the Jewish Agency's Land Settlement Division in 1978. Shortly after, he issued The Master Plan for the Development of Settlements in Judea and Samaria. In this masterplan he urges the government to

… conduct a race against time… now [when peace with Egypt seemed immanent] is the most suitable time to start with wide and encompassing rush of settlements, mainly on the mountain ranges of Judea and Samaria…The thing must be done first and foremost by creating facts on the ground, therefore state land and uncultivated land must be taken immediately in order to settle the areas between the concentration of [Palestinian] population and around it... being cut apart by Jewish settlements, the minority [sic] population will find it hard to create unification and territorial continuity.

The Drobless masterplan outlined possible locations for scores of new settlements. It aimed to achieve its political objectives through the reorganisation of space. Relying heavily on the topography, Drobless proposed new highvolume traffic arteries to connect the Israeli heartland to the West Bank and beyond. These roads would be stretched along the large westdraining valleys; for their security, new settlement blocks should be placed on the hilltops along the route. He also proposed settlements on the summits surrounding the large Palestinian cities, and around the roads connecting them to each other.

This strategic territorial arrangement has been brought into use recently during the Israeli Army's invasion of Palestinian cities and villages. Some of the settlements assisted the IDF in different tasks, mainly as places for the army to organise, refuel and redeploy.

The hilltops lent themselves easily to state seizure. In the absence of an ordered land registry in time of Jordanian rule, Israel was able legally to capture whatever land was not cultivated. Palestinian cultivated lands are found mainly in the valleys, where the agriculturally suitable alluvial soil erodes down from the limestone slopes of the West Bank highlands. The barren summits were left empty.

The Israeli government launched a large-scale project of topographical and land use mapping. The terrain was charted and mathematised, slope gradients were calculated, the extent of un-cultivated land marked. The result, summed up in dry numbers, left about 38% of the West Bank in under Israeli control, isolated in discontinuous islands around summits. That land was then made available for settlement.

(The settlements research presented here forms the basis for a collaboration between Eyal and his partner architect Rafi Segal for the forthcoming exhibition in the International Union of Architects (UIA) congress in Berlin, July 2002- www.opendemocracy.net).

Index to the Politics of verticality
1. Introduction
2. Maps
3. Hills and valleys of the West Bank
4. West Bank settlements
5. Optical urbanism
6. The paradox of double vision
7. From water to shit
8. Excavating sacredness
9. Jerusalem
10. Roads - over and under
11. Control in the air