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Reading Palestinian Landscape through History, Modernity and Occupation

by Cristina Bronzino

Compasses Magazine

The reading of a landscape leads off with identifying and understanding the signs that human activities engraved on the land over time. Those sings are determined by natural and human factors, including the way of dwelling, working and living in a certain environment.

When these factors change, their resulting traces will be different. In such perspective, landscapes can be interpreted as a mirror of historical events and people’s evolution within a certain place, a sort of observation lens to read the course undertaken and to critically frame past or present issues. The possibilities of reading and interpreting landscapes are even wider if considering the concept set forth by the European Landscape Convention extended to the whole territory, including not only areas of outstanding beauty, but also everyday areas and degraded ones.

Palestinian territories display a succession of layers corresponding to alternating historical events, so that different landscapes are recognizable: the traditional one, resulting from a long-lasting coexistence and mutual conditioning between man and nature, that of an uncertain modernity and, upon these, the impetuous signs produced by the ongoing conflict. The diverse relations man has established with nature and the functions he has attributed to it are contained and revealed by the forms of those landscapes.

Among the UNESCO world heritage sites in Palestine, Battir, south of Jerusalem – land of olives and vines – is classified as a cultural landscape, recognizing the deepness and spirituality that characterized the mentioned man-nature relation. The dry limestone walling of olive tree terraces underlines the hills morphology and the products of rural life – land use, ancient irrigation systems, water pools, pathways, olive oil presses, watchtowers and human settlements – appear fully integrated within the forms of nature, in terms of materials, colours and functions. The landscape here represents an actual synthesis of the organic evolution happened through a mutual exchange between human activities and environmental characteristics, merged into a specific identity and sense of place. The measured scale of man workings characterizes all the Palestinians historic landscapes, rural, hilly, coastal, desert and urban ones. Architectures, from the humblest to the most impressive examples, are fully integrated within natural forms. In urban settings, the same values characterize small villages as well as major cities: nature absorbs their orography and morphology creating an organic structure, while the harmonious use of materials, forms and proportions, which reflect a specific life and community system, gives homogeneity to the urban and built fabric.

The ongoing conflict, that for the past seventy years has employed urban planning and architecture as the main war tools, is based on a system that the Israeli anthropologist and activist Jeff Halper defined as «the matrix of control». The system employs juridical, bureaucratic and spatial tools, among which there are the separation wall, settlements, bypass roads and, at a smaller scale, physical barriers of different kinds, for the purpose of manipulating and de-structuring the territory. Such devices dramatically differ from the previous heritage in terms of functions and intervention modalities, reversing the man-nature relation from integration to domination.

The separation wall is a barrier made of electronic fencing and concrete panels eight meters high dividing Israel from the West Bank; today, about 460 kilometers are completed, more than half of the total foreseen length of 700 kilometers, of which almost all within the West Bank. Such a structure causes various impacts: by fragmenting the territory, people are divided among them and from their land. Consequently, identity is undermined when roots, memory and culture are obliterated. The wall cuts and degrades landscape and urban forms: structural components are ignored and overturned; sites characterized by exceptional values, like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, are altered in their profile, spatial relations, visual characters and cultural values.

The settlements play a double annexation and containment role; their forms are determined by domination purposes, rather than land use. Hills’ morphology is neglected and overtaken; settlement characteristics are those of a military outpost; architectural typologies are disconnected from local materials and climate. Bypass roads – for exclusive usage of settlers – pursue objectives that are not compatible with the surrounding landscape. Settlements and bypass roads imply environmental and cultural costs, with permanent effects; structures do not integrate within the landscape, but display an act of force, alienating man-made products and resulting in disorientation and weakening of the sense of the place.

The impact of the matrix of control upon the old city of Jerusalem appears dramatic under every point of view: social, economic, cultural, visual and symbolic. Divided into two parts since 1949, disfigured by the construction of the Jerusalem envelope – the separation wall that encloses East Jerusalem separating it from the West Bank – the city has lost its multiethnic and multi-confessional vocation which was impressed in its historic urban fabric and in its districts related to diverse religious communities. The landscape that used to surround the Old City is nowadays made of settlements and barrier walls that run inside and outside urban quarters, defacing in a permanent way unique historic and cultural values. South of East Jerusalem, the wall cuts and erases the historic route – travelled by pilgrims over time – that connects Jerusalem to Bethlehem, obstructing even the mutual view between the two cities that are as physically close as deeply united by history and vocation. The schizophrenic layout of the barrier wall follows separation and annexation reasons: the Rachel Tomb, a monument characterized by a significant historical and cultural importance, is annexed by a contorted and artificial wall path. The site, once distinguished for a discreet balance in forms and proportions within the surrounding environment, is today humiliated and devalued, being totally cut off from Bethlehem.

The same instruments of control are found, at the urban scale, in the case of Hebron, an ancient city connected to the figure of Abraham and recently inscribed into the UNESCO world heritage list; Hebron is interested by the presence of settlements inside its historic center. The urban structure is the typical Levantine one, organized through urban filters that, from the central poles represented by the mosque and the souk, rules mobility and access to residential areas not by the use of physical barriers, but through the form of buildings, the streets proportions and the shading conditions. The need for growing intimacy given by the social system also corresponds to climate control necessities. The matrix of control intervenes precisely upon the historic characters of the city, parceling these out through city settlements, buffer areas, the opening of new roads for exclusive usage of the settlers, consequent urban closures, check points and watchtowers. Again, settling modalities respond to opposed logics compared to the existing ones, because the military aim prevails. Buildings are erected and secured on the sites of ancient structures, and, because of the need of controlling and overlooking, functional and dimensional out-of-scales are generated compared to the historic urban profile of the city. Buffer areas create places of decay and abandonment. New exclusive roads are obtained by joining in a straight line the selected settlements and demolishing historic built portions that are found on the way; in order to prevent access to these roads, a myriad of urban closures including bars, wire meshes, cement blocks, metal bins and others are placed on the merging public streets, re-planning urban mobility. The urban organism is broken and re-organized differently, causing disorientation and destruction of a site that finds in the relation between built fabric and mobility a clear identity component.

The Old City of Hebron, as well as the other Palestinian UNESCO world heritage sites and the Old City of Jerusalem, is inscribed on the UNESCO WHL in danger, to underline that the ongoing occupation threatens the very characteristics for which the property was inscribed on the WHL. Such condition is shared by the whole Palestinian heritage and landscape, characterized by human scale and deep relation with nature, thus appearing as more fragile and vulnerable against the pressure of a conflict which employs territorial organization and destruction of identity as a main tool.

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