In May 2006, the Israeli army evacuated a military fortress strategically located on one the highest hill at the southern edge to the Palestinian city of Beit Sahour in the Bethlehem region. The fortress, located on the line-of-water-divide that separates the arable lands of Bethlehem from the desert of the Dead Sea, has functioned to stop the city’s expansion eastwards and to control the travel of its inhabitants towards the desert. Most houses near the camp were destroyed throughout the last years of the Intifada by random shots of tank shells and gunfire. Floodlit at night, with searchlights constantly scanning the area, the base was caught in an “endless day” confusing its diurnal rhythms.
The evacuation, unexpected and thus far without a stated reason –perhaps because of a change in the military’s tactical disposition–, was itself a violent operation: at night dozens of tanks rolled into town, raising a “curtain of steel and dust” that was meant to mask the evacuation, but in fact awoke and alerted to it all the inhabitants of Beit Sahour. In the morning the fortress was empty. A few hours later Palestinians stormed the buildings and took over whatever could be recycled.
The military history of the hill precedes the occupation. It was initially set up as a base built by the British Mandatory army during the Arab revolt. After 1948 it became a military base for the Jordan Legion, and since 1967 it became an Israeli military base. As part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, an agreement was signed between the municipality of Beit Sahour and the central government of Yasser Arafat, guaranteeing that in case of Israeli evacuation, the fortress would not be used by the Palestinian police but instead handed over to the municipality for public use. Upon gaining control of the site, the municipality developed a master plan that endowed the hill a set of public functions: a hospital, a park, a restaurant, and a garden. The park has already been constructed on one of the hill’s slopes.
In spite of the evacuation, the summit was still designated by the military as off-limit for Palestinians. The view from the summit was actually denied because it was the only point from which a new settlers’ approach road was visible – and not any approach road, the approach road to the settlement where Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann resides.
On the summit several concrete buildings formed the heart of the fortress. Throughout the Intifada the Israeli military had piled sand and rubble in a giant circle around the buildings. This rampart had eventually grown taller than the buildings, to the extent the hill appeared like a crater of an artificial volcano, and the buildings, damaged and evacuated, like edifices of ghost town, abandoned after some mysterious disaster.
The hilltop is furthermore singular in the overall setting because it serves as a transitory refuge for some of more than five hundred million birds on their seasonal migration between north-eastern Europe and east Africa on their journey over the Syrian-African crack, during the autumn and spring. The flocks tend to land in the same places, usually elevated sites with grassroots they identify. The hilltop of Oush Grab is on a “bottle neck” of the routes of starlings, storks and raptors that use the Jordan valley’s Jerusalem mountains as their travel path. Twice a year for a few days each autumn and spring, tens of thousands of these birds land on the hilltop and its close surroundings. Around them a rich micro-ecology of small predators and other wildlife gathers. The scene is at once breathtaking and terrifying, the inhabitants of Beit Sahour now joke that the flocks of migrating birds are the real reason behind the military evacuation.
Revolving Door Occupations
Since their evacuation, the remains of the fortress have become a principal site for confrontations between settlers, the Israeli military and Palestinian organizations. Members of our office have been directly involved in these confrontations as well. Beginning May 2008, hard-line religious settlers attempted to use the emptied buildings to establish a new outpost. Outposts, in effect nuclei for suburbs/cities, are usually built around knots of existing infrastructure. They believed the location of the fortress and its surrounding rampart, might lend themselves to the establishment of an environment that suited their strictly regimented and security-obsessive way of life. Although the military declared the summit a closed zone, nearly every week settlers attempted to occupy it, hold meetings inside the buildings, make some repairs and raise the Israeli flag. On the other hand, Palestinian and international activists, including members of our office, also occupied the site and confronted the settlers. Obviously, Israeli soldiers intervene to protect the settlers. Competing graffiti, painted respectively by one group, and erased by the other, testifies to this “revolving door” occupation. Our proposal for the re-use of this site is an intervention into the contentious political struggle for the hilltop.
Given the competing claims for the site, and the active militancy they inspire, our intention was never to renovate and convert the base to suit another function (after all – if the settlers would come back – we would have done their job!), but rather accelerate the processes of degradation, disintegration, overgrowing It was an architectural project for obsolescence, in short, its ‘return it to nature,’ overpowered by fauna and flora.. In the first stages, we propose to use various forms of partial substraction–perforating the external walls in the different buildings within the ‘crater’, with a series of equally spaced holes. The holes form a pattern that unites the buildings visually. The environmentalists and zoologists of the Palestine Wildlife Society expect these holes will be inhabited by some of the smaller-sized migratory birds, as well as some of the local species throughout the seasons. the landscape around the fortress will be transformed by re-routing and re-shuffling the fortified rampart enclosure, burying the buildings in the rubble of their own fortifications.
This approach is moreover meaningful at the level of law, as we are staking a legal claim for this site against the military’s civil-administration and settler organizations. In association with a legal aid group, we are not raising this claim on behalf of people –this might already be a futile task in the present context of the occupation– but rather on behalf of nature and the rights of the birds , on behalf of the ecology of the site, and protection of migratory birds’ right to nest during their seasonal journeying. Thus our scheme and models double up thus as documents for the legal strategy. Criminal proceedings involving animals were handled with utmost seriousness as far back as the epoch of medieval legal authorities (hundreds of animals found guilty were executed by hanging). The legal department of the Israeli military is presently undecided as to how to deal with such legal challenge.
This text is a part of the project Decolonizing Architecture www.decolonizing.ps by London/Bethlehem Architectural Studio of Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, Eyal Weizman.
Oush Grab design team: Mario Abruzzese, Jiries Boullata, Sara Pellegrini, Francesca Vargiu
Decolonizing Architecture was originally conceptualized and its pilot stage produced in dialogue with Eloisa Haudenschild & Steve Fagin partners in Spare Parts, a division of the haudenschildGarage.
Decolonizing Architecture has been selected by ARTFORUM as one of top ten most important art projects of the decade.