By Ahmad Barclay and Dena Qaddumi
This article was originally posted on opendemocracy.net as part of the Cities in Conflict Series.
The establishment of the village Bab Al-Shams (“gate of the sun”) on 11 January 2013 represented a new evolution in the unfolding patterns of spatial resistance in Palestine. Conversely, the response of the Israeli state – to evict the village within 2 days of its founding – suggests nothing extraordinary, save its underscoring of the continuity of Israeli practices of colonisation across historic Palestine. Media reports initially depicted Bab Al-Shams as mirroring tactics by Israeli settlers to establish illegal outposts and thereby create ‘facts on the ground’. Whilst the comparison is not unfounded, it fails to contextualize the actions politically, which necessitates an examination of the broader conditions of spatial appropriation and resistance operating in Palestine.
On Spatial Colonization
The transformation of the Palestinian landscape as a result of Zionist colonization from the early 1900s has been well documented. After the 1948 War, and the displacement of over 80% of the Palestinian inhabitants from the territory that would become Israel, this transformation was magnified. It necessitated practices of both construction and erasure; as new Jewish communities were being established and populated across the new state in accordance with the Israeli National Plan of 1950, so abandoned Palestinian villages were razed to the ground and concealed through the planting of pine forests. These actions exemplify a logic of spatial appropriation, through ‘civilian occupation’ and the physical transformation of natural landscapes, which continues, in essence, to this day.
The military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 provided the opportunity to expand the theatre of Israeli colonization. The military occupation soon evolved into a civilian one, driven initially by government-sponsored Jewish settlements in the Jordan valley and East Jerusalem. Further, religious settler groups such as Gush Emunim emerged, pushing for Jewish-Israeli settlement throughout the newly conquered territories.
The establishment of Israeli settlements and their continued growth have become emblematic of a political and legal system that is first and foremost subservient to colonial logic. The Green Line has been employed selectively; acting on the one side as a ‘sacred’ border to legitimise the colonisation within ‘Israel proper’, whilst Palestinian land on the other side oscillates between legal definitions of ‘occupied’, ‘disputed’ and ‘annexed’, depending on its strategic value. The recent attempt to move towards ‘legalising’ Israeli outposts – although they are considered illegal by every relevant international legal authority and Israel’s own Supreme Court – is indicative of this reality. In this context, the mere act of appealing to Israeli courts in the OPTs is seen by many to have the effect of legitimising and ‘normalising’ an unlawful reality.
Urban Control – From Jerusalem to Nazareth and Ramallah
At the urban scale, spatial appropriation assumes particular forms, dependent on a locality’s demography and its political and legal status. East Jerusalem is perhaps the location where this ‘Judaisation’ of space is most severe and apparent. It is promoted by the Jerusalem Municipality, whose political target of a 70/30 demographic split between Jewish and Palestinian residents is met through a complex regime of discriminatory zoning, refusal of construction permits, house evictions and demolitions, revocation of residency permits and the de-facto redrawing of the municipal boundary by way of the separation wall.
Similar practices are applied throughout historic Palestine, where the obsession with consolidating Jewish territorial presence while marginalising any ‘Arab’ presence permeates. In the West Bank, Palestinian localities are confined to Areas A and B, with their expansion circumscribed by the temporary lines of the Oslo era, and by the construction of Israeli settlements and a myriad of ‘closed military zones’. Inside Israel, Palestinian cities and villages have long been encroached upon by legal mechanisms for the expropriation of land. Meanwhile the so-called ‘mixed cities’ in Israel enact policies similar to those in Jerusalem, which promote Palestinian impoverishment and outward migration.
Palestinian Space Until Cast in Concrete
Notably, it increasingly seems that continuing Israeli military control and physical transformation of natural landscapes is no longer deemed sufficient to supplant the ‘Palestinianness’ of the land itself. Thus, Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank (and previously Gaza) has been overwhelmingly rendered in concrete ‘facts on the ground’. Meanwhile, the tragi-comic drive to ‘develop’ the ruins of Lifta (the most iconic remnant of the Palestinian Nakba) into luxury condos seems to evidence a deeply ingrained fear of the re-emergence of the ghosts of its Palestinian past.
On Spatial Resistance
In an effort to disrupt and weaken the spatial aspects of the continued Israeli colonisation of historic Palestine, a range of oppositional practices have emerged, centred on individual and collective agency. These practices of ‘spatial resistance’ act in various ways to challenge the Israeli spatial regime, and can be conceptualized broadly into four modes: spatial analysis, advocacy, critical speculation and physical intervention, summarised as follows:
Spatial Analysis involves research to expose the present spatial reality and the mechanisms of spatial domination that construct and maintain it. Further, it identifies potential sites for intervention.
Advocacy consists of legal and/or political campaigns to raise awareness and directly challenge the structures of spatial power, both from inside and outside of the political/legal system.
Critical Speculation is the creative application of knowledge of specific facets of the spatial conflict to assert alternative narratives of the present and future, whether through design, film, literature or other creative means.
Physical Intervention employs the concrete act of building, or the physical occupation of strategic sites, to directly challenge the structures of spatial power.
Bab Al-Shams: Towards a New Model of Spatial Resistance
The establishment of Bab Al-Shams represents an innovation of previous embodiments of spatial resistance in its simultaneous employment of elements from each of the four modes outlined above. Beyond the physical intervention in the act of construction itself, the selection of E1 as the site for the village exhibited a level of strategic spatial analysis. Not only had E1 made international headlines just weeks earlier when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced plans for the construction of new settler homes there, but it also represented a site of geographic and legal consensus as ‘Palestinian land’, even within liberal Zionist and US political discourse.
Further, the founders of Bab Al-Shams selected a site within E1 where they could offer documentary evidence of Palestinian private ownership, and went to the effort of obtaining express permission to occupy the site by its owner. In anticipation of being evicted by force, they employed legal advocacy by seeking an injunction from the Israel High Court. Since the site was clearly on private land – even by Israeli measure – the court granted a 6-day stay of eviction and, crucially, insisted that the Israeli government had to present legal grounds for any eviction.
A coordinated international advocacy campaign in the form press releases, social media activity and nominated spokespeople resulted in prominent and nuanced coverage of Bab Al-Shams in mainstream news outlets across the world, and the striking of a particularly strong chord in Arabic language media.
In spite of these measures, Netanyahu personally ordered the eviction of Bab Al-Shams within 48 hours of its establishment. That the action induced such a direct and immediate response from the highest level of government is revealing in itself. That Netanyahu’s intervention so starkly ignored the Israeli justice system, offered evidence to the world of the court’s position as little more than a veneer of legal legitimacy, ultimately submissive to Israel’s colonial policies and practices. Thus, the appeal to the courts did not serve to legitimate its authority; but rather to expose its absurdity.
It is in this particular dimension that the much-vaunted parallel with Israeli outposts is also revealing. Whilst the Israeli courts occasionally order the eviction of settler outposts, over 100 such communities continue to occupy hilltops across the West Bank under the active protection of the Israeli military, and alongside 124 permanent ‘legal’ settlements.
Looking Forward: Bab Al-Shams as Critical Speculation
Foremost, Bab Al-Shams represents a concrete physical intervention towards the re-appropriation Palestinian space and re-invigoration of Palestinian agency, whilst exposing the duplicity of Israel’s colonial practices to a global audience. Bab Al-Shams can be positioned within an existing web of direct-actions that have emerged and garnered attention over the past five years. These include the on-going struggle of the people of Al-Araqib against eviction from their land in the Negev, and the return of internally displaced Palestinians to the village of Iqrit in the upper Galilee.
Such actions physically re-assert a Palestinian right to space and also induce an Israeli response on the ground, in the court and in the media. A new condition is created whereby spatial resistance is enacted as a proactive strategy, directly challenging the assumptions of Palestine as a space permanently fractured by, or entirely lost to, Israeli colonisation.
Just days after the eviction of Bab Al-Shams, as if to signal the propagation of a new wave of spatial resistance, news broke of another new village constructed in the West Bank, named Bab Al-Karama (“gate of dignity”).
Ahmad Barclay is an architect and environmental designer based in Beirut. He is co-founder of arenaofspeculation.org, and previously worked with DAAR. His academic research has focused on practices of ‘spatial resistance’ in Palestine.
Dena Qaddumi is an architect, urbanist and co-founder of arenaofspeculation.org. Her writing is primarily concerned with how social movements engage with urban space and how this process creates new avenues for citizenship formation.