The role of architects in the Israeli occupation
With the settlement freeze over, international architects must take action to end illegal construction in the West Bank
Abe Hayeem, 4 October 2010
In deciding to back the boycott of Ariel theatre in the West Bank, Frank Gehry, the Canadian-American architect of Guggenheim fame, joins a growing body of professionals who are making a stand against the illegal settlements. Ariel, a quintessential illegal settlement, is continually expanding to fit the over-generous boundaries staked out over Palestinian land, choking the development of Palestinian villages nearby. Its new state-funded cultural centre, 20 years in the construction, is due to open in November.
Architecture and planning are instruments of the occupation, and constitute part of a continuing war against a whole people, whether as a minority within Israel’s green line, or in the occupied territories. Since this involves dispossession, discrimination and acquisition of land and homes by force, against the Geneva conventions, it can be classified as participation in war crimes.
Arbitrary planning laws are not enforced in the many illegal projects built by settlers, and major development plans are implemented without complete approval. Areas owned by Palestinians are simply declared to be green areas, making their presence there “illegal”.
What can one say about the Israeli architects who follow the state’s policies and aims yet deny that their role is political? Despite all the evidence of illegality under international law and breaches of human rights in the land grabs, house demolitions and evictions, Israeli architects and planners continue their activities. They cannot claim that they do not know: there have been plenty of calls for them to stop.
More of the illegal projects that have been built over the last four decades are ready to go now that the recent settlement freeze has ended – with no sign of resistance or protest from the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA). This applies not only to ultra-Zionist architecture firms but mainstream architects of international repute such as Moshe Safdie and Shlomo Aronson. Safdie has been responsible for the now notorious Plan 11555 for the extreme nationalist settler movement Elad that has, in effect, been given control of Silwan, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
The International Union of Architects (UIA) has already taken note that Israeli architecture and planning in the West Bank is contrary to its professional ethics and codes of conduct. After Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine raised this issue at the UIA council meeting in Brazil in July 2009, the UIA issued a statement saying:
“The UIA council condemns development projects and the construction of buildings on land that has been ethnically purified or illegally appropriated, and projects based on regulations that are ethnically or culturally discriminatory, and similarly it condemns all action contravening the fourth Geneva Convention.”
With settlers now celebrating the prospect of thousands of new housing units being built in the West Bank, Israeli architects will continue reaping the bonanza of a housing boom that has continued for decades. Writing in Haaretz earlier this month, Esther Zandberg, the paper’s architecture correspondent, said:
“Trends and world-views seep in from the other side of the Green Line and impact on architecture in the rest of Israel more than architects are willing to admit. A protest by established architects within the community, figures with a reputation and influence, could lead to a protest movement that will draw many, restore to architecture its confidence in itself and its values, and may also make its own contribution to the end of the conflict over the land. Architects? Protest? Peace really can happen.”
The international solidarity movement has decided that the best way to change Israel’s behaviour is to take actions against Israeli companies and institutions in order to put pressure on the government there. Last year, as the result of a campaign led by APJP, Pacbi and universities in Europe, Spain disqualified architecture students from the “Ariel University Centre of Samaria” (sic) from a competition to build a solar house in the Solar Decathlon in Madrid. “Spain acted in line with European Union policy of opposing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land,” a Spanish official said.
Since little seems forthcoming from the Israeli architects’ body, despite appeals over the last decade, the responsibility falls on architects worldwide and the UIA to press for action to end this complicity, and defend the ethics and humanity of their profession.