Sitting in a plastic chair on an Israeli bluff overlooking Gaza, Oren Weizmann cheered as large convoys passed on the highway below. Weizmann, a psychology student from Sderot, the beleaguered desert city one kilometre from Gaza, was blowing off stream after a rocket fired from Gaza landed just 300 meters from where we were standing in his hometown.
“We stand behind our army,” the young Israeli said, gesturing to the camouflage-hued traffic passing below. “The fact that they are in the city actually makes me feel safer. “
After five days of living in a war zone, Weizmann and his neighbors, both in Sedrot and Gaza, were used to the constant clamor of tanks and rockets, convoys and ambulances.
The escalation in Mideast violence, dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense” by the Israeli military, ended with a shaky ceasefire last Wednesday. Its effects on the geopolitics of the post-Arab Spring Middle East remain to be seen. But while pundits argue about the resurgence of Hamas or the wisdom of launching a military campaign at a time of great regional instability, the latest round of fighting has demonstrated the deeply intertwined nature of civilian and military infrastructure in Israeli and Palestinian cities. Urban areas were able to transform for war so quickly, in some cases overnight, because they were built with war in mind.
One consequence for this style of construction is that the line separating civilian and military infrastructure, in both Israel and Palestine, is blurred sometimes past distinction. Even in peacetime, residents of both nations live in a war zone, albeit one that is sometimes very well disguised.
Israel has a long history of progressive urban development, an extension of early colonial-Zionist ideals imported from Western Europe in the 19th century. From the Haussmann-inspired boulevards of central Tel Aviv to the concentration of Bauhaus architecture, Tel Aviv was designed to encourage citizen interaction with the city. But underlying the openness of Tel Aviv, and of all major Israeli cities, is a philosophy more suited to an army base in Iraq than a population center in a functioning democracy. Known as the "Wall and Tower" approach, this model creates defendable communities which function simultaneously as bases for military infrastructure and civilian use. Tel Aviv is certainly no exception to this rule.
As Tel Aviv took shape in the sand dunes north of the ancient city of Jaffa, city planners understood quickly that the city would need to accommodate a nascent Israeli military that every day was preparing for war with neighboring Arab nations. Officials earmarked large swaths of land inside the municipality boundary for the nation’s robust defense ministry, now a sprawling campus of communications towers, bunkers and helicopter landing pads.
As the state came into being in the 1950s, the city of Tel Aviv grew around this military nerve center. Today, three towering skyscrapers (one housing one of the country’s largest malls, Azrieli Center Mall) sit across the street from the high walls of the defense ministry. Inside the ministry, soldiers busy themselves with everything from operating the drones that dominate Gaza’s skies to spying on Iranian communications. They sometimes pop out for a coffee in one of the many cafes that lines the streets around the compound.
The ministry’s high walls have even become prime real estate for billboard advertisers looking for maximum visibility. For many in Tel Aviv, the Kirya, as it is known in Hebrew, is simply another urban landmark. The true purpose of the building — headquarters for one of the world’s most powerful military machines — is seldom considered.
In recent years, the commercial neighborhoods near the Kirya have become a destination for tech start-ups. In areas once reserved for industry, small companies are opening offices, dragging along with them new espresso bars and chic lunch spots.
(Not new at all are the public bomb shelters. Discreetly tucked between boutiques and offices, set back behind lush foliage, these shelters were opened last week for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War.)
It’s not only the bomb shelters that hide in plain sight. Slick ad campaigns selling this new Tel Aviv don’t picture the thousands of Israeli soldiers who flood the city every day. Last week, professionals clad in skinny jeans, playing with iPhones, gave up seats on crowded commuter trains to soldiers, armed with M16s and hefty backpacks. Had the same number of armed Hamas militants clogged the public areas of Gaza City, it is likely that Israeli air strikes would have dropped a bomb.
In the Occupied Territories, the towers and walls are far more obvious. Civilian settlements in the West Bank, some with more than 20,000 people, serve the dual function of military bases and home to Israeli settlers. The headquarters of Israel’s military government, for example, is located inside the Israeli settlement of Beit El. With modern, red-roofed houses, Beit El feels like a Southern Californian bedroom community — as long as you ignore the large concentration of military vehicles and barracks. In other settlements, such as Halamish, located just 45 minutes from Tel Aviv in the central West Bank, schools are found next to warehouses storing high-tech weaponry. Determining what is civilian and what is not has become a tricky business.
But at first glance, the most profound example of this city-as-battlefield paradigm is Gaza. With virtually no place to hide, militants have used schools, public areas and buildings as launching pads for warfare on Israeli civilians.
During the last war in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli military, large parts of the urban environment were flattened and civilian infrastructure was repeatedly targeted for aerial assault. Over the course of three weeks, civilian apartment blocks as well as government ministries and football stadiums were levelled, leaving only haunting images of rubble. As the dust settled on that campaign, the United Nations claimed, in no uncertain terms, that Operation Cast Lead resulted in “a massive destruction of livelihoods and a significant deterioration of infrastructure and basic services” for Gaza’s cities.
Given the extent of destruction already wreaked upon Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, it is hardly surprising to note that Gazans have not raced to rebuild large parts of their urban environments. Despite the injection of over $400 million in Qatari money just a few weeks ago, there are no signs of massive rebuilding efforts in Gaza. People have seemingly resigned themselves to the fact ¬¬¬that their urban environment has been and will continue to be shaped by successive Israeli air and sea assaults. As Israeli architect and author Eyal Weizman noted in a recent London Review of Books column, the Hamas government now keeps an archive of destroyed infrastructure in Gaza nicknamed the “Book of Destruction.”
“We will learn more about the way Pillar of Defense was conducted when, over the coming weeks, it becomes possible to start reading the rubble,” Weizman wrote.
It’s not only in the contested cities of the Middle East where war has a footprint. Military demands, from surveillance technology to anti-terrorism defenses, are beginning to play an important role in shaping the urban environments of Western cities. From New York to London, the built environment is being adapted for challenges posed by decentralized forms of terrorist warfare. Bollards are rising around public buildings, cameras turning on in the street.
Israeli and Palestinians cities provide a look into the future of this type of urban planning. It is a future where 50,000 soldiers can transform a city into a military base overnight, and where guided missiles can destroy interior ministries and basic civilian infrastructure. If anything, Operation Pillar of Defense has shown that when the line dividing civilian and soldier is blurred beyond recognition, the consequences are disastrous for all.