Hollow Land

Photo by Ekaterina Izmestieva

Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation
By Eyal Weizman
Verso, 2007

In 1692, the brilliant and eccentric English astronomer Edmund Halley formally presented his fantastical theory that the world was hollow to the Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society of London. This idea — which predated Halley’s predictions about the orbit of his namesake comet — postulated that the earth was a hollow shell within which were four inner concentric shells, each with its own magnetic pole, each rotating at its own speed, and each separated from the others by its own special layer of atmosphere.

Halley’s hypothesis, known as the hollow earth theory, has provided fodder for science fiction writers, conspiracy theorists, adventure-seeking travelers, mystics, pseudoscientists, and crackpots throughout the ages; greats such as Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Thomas Pynchon were inspired by it, as were lesser luminaries such as the creators of Indiana Jones and the Transformers: Cybertron cartoon series. Two centuries after it was definitively debunked by science, the theory is a lingering source of romantic possibility for those who trouble to ponder the earth’s composition.

But it was not pseudoscientific speculation that led Israeli architect Eyal Weizman to write a book named for and inspired by Halley’s hollow earth theory; it’s the grim multidimensional reality of Israel’s occupation and separation policies in the Palestinian Territories that serves as the subject of this engrossing, provocative work.

Weizman, an architect and director of the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmith’s College, focuses on the June 1967 War and Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza. The work, as painstakingly layered as the geographical entity he attempts to deconstruct, explores the myriad ways in which the Israelis have transformed “the fabled land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River into a three-dimensional space” — a hollow land, as it were, via barriers, tunnels, walls, overpasses, and aerial bombardments.

Beginning at Jerusalem — the location, according to Weizman, of the “first significant urban transformation of the Occupied Territories” — Hollow Land describes how archeology, architecture, and city planning were used to consolidate and legitimize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. The culprits were mostly military men and government officials such as Sharon, but also well-meaning “liberal men of peace,” including, in one instance, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who participated in a 1968 conference to “unite” Jerusalem. Through fascinating, if sometimes recondite, asides, we learn how the transformation of Jerusalem from divided to united city was achieved not only through well-documented policies of expulsion and land-confiscation, but also — primarily — through lesser known rules and regulations devised and implemented (or, as Weizman would say, inflicted upon Jerusalem’s Palestinian population) by the civilian officers, city planners, and architects of the municipal government.

From Jerusalem, Hollow Land proceeds outward and upward to the hilltops of the Occupied Territories on which the earliest settlements were built; it then dives deep underground where the battle for precious water resources is fought and where archeological excavations are conducted to further cement and legitimize Israel’s hold on the territories. It resurfaces to examine the latest mechanisms of control — the checkpoints and the wall — and how these earthbound obstructions are circumvented by Palestinian militants (via under- ground tunnels) and Israeli soldiers alike. These chapters form the core of the book and are the best developed; they’ve all appeared in slightly different form elsewhere, as parts of studies published by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and, more famously, as chapters in the catalogue Weizman coedited with Rafi Segal to accompany the 2002 exhibition ‘A Civilian Occupation,’ an examination of the planning history of Zionism. (The project was commissioned, and subsequently banned, by the Israeli Association of Architects.)

The book’s hitherto-unpublished sections are the most remarkable, but also less robust. In what is perhaps the oddest but most compelling chapter, we’re treated to a lengthy explanation of how postmodern avant-garde theories on urbanism and architecture have influenced the way certain elite Israeli army practitioners regard, use, and move through space. In Weizman’s telling, the direct manifestation of this influence is the new counterinsurgency technique of “walking through walls”—through the walls of civilian homes — in crowded Palestinian urban areas, bringing the battle against Palestinian militants into the homes and private spaces of all Palestinians.

The final chapter of Hollow Land takes us up to the last, and highest, dimension in this multilayered space — the air, yet another theater of battle, a base for the Israeli policy of targeted assassinations of “wanted” Palestinian militants via aerial bombardment, which, like the “walking through walls” tactic, are responsible for large-scale devastation and injury to Palestinian civilians.

Unlike most of the vast literature that exists on the subject of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 (covering the political, legal, economic, social, and psychological aspects of the occupation), Weizman’s book is, by intention, narrow in scope. By focusing only on what he calls the “architecture of the occupation,” Weizman is able to select certain events and turning points from the last four decades of endlessly spiraling tragedy and confrontation to fit his theme of colonization via architecture, ignoring others entirely.

This reduction is, as stressed by Weizman in the introduction, a deliberate and deeply personal choice, for he aims, in writing this book, to focus attention on (among other things) the culpability and complicity of his own profession. And yet it may make the book appear, to the unconvinced or uninitiated reader, uncomfortably narrow and, ironically, for a work obsessed with dimensions and space, even one-dimensional. The criminals in Hollow Land are all, by Weizman’s dispensation, architects of some sort; the tools chosen for the perpetration of their crimes are all architectural; and the criminals are all from one side. This may strike some readers as unfair, and, worse, untrue.

However, in a field much too crowded with general, often lazy, polemics, Weizman’s book is a refreshing exception: narrow where others are broad; dense instead of diffuse; learned and concrete rather than incoherent and uninformed. While it makes, at times, for tedious reading, there is virtue to this approach, and Hollow Land ought to be read, pencil in hand, by all those who wish to learn about the multiple dimensions of the Israeli occupation, even by those — particularly by those — who feel there is nothing left to learn.