LONDON — Since 2011, tens of thousands of people have disappeared into a vast network of prisons and detention centers run by the Assad regime in Syria. Many are taken to Saydnaya military prison, 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Damascus, where they are brutally tortured or murdered.
The prison is hidden from journalists, human rights groups and organizations like the United Nations. So how does one raise public awareness of a government-run institution, where torture and human rights violations are the norm, but which is like a black hole as far as the international community is concerned?
The answer? Reconstruct a cyber version of it, says Israeli architect Eyal Weizman. Weizman is at the center of an architectural virtual model, “Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison,” that was published in mid-August on the Amnesty International website.
The model has recreated the physical spaces of the horrific building and the trauma that has taken place within it by using in-depth interviews of five former detainees of the prison and sophisticated technological tools.
“The necessity for the project came about because there are no photographs of the prison and architecture modeling is a great conduit to memory,” the 46-year-old Israeli explained to The Times of Israel in his London office.
The project is a collaboration between Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths University, London, where Weizman plays a central role.
The agency provides architectural research and evidence for international prosecutors and human right groups in places like Guatemala, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Yemen, Mexico, Somalia, and Germany.
“Because violence and war has become such an urban phenomenon,” says Weizman, “architecture has something unique to contribute in understanding and unpacking these instances of violence.”
Weizman was born in Haifa and lived in Israel for the first 23 years of his life, after which he moved to the UK where he studied architecture. Currently, he lives in London, where he is a professor of Architecture at Goldsmiths University. His work focuses predominately on the relationship between politics, architecture, systematic violence, and colonization.
“By looking at the architecture of settlements, roads, roundabouts, or prisons, we can read the economic, political and military influences that have shaped them,” says Weizman.
In a book he published last year entitled, “The Roundabout Revolutions,” Weizman looked at how popular Arab revolts that spread throughout countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, all began similarly — in roundabouts in urban areas.
What’s the common link that connects a revolutionary spirit to this one circular architectural design?
According to Weizman, the roundabout emerged in the early 20th century as both a symbol of metropolitan architecture and as a mechanism of self-regulation.
In the West, when roundabouts first appeared in cities, they were conceived as a utilitarian apparatus, says Weizman. In colonial administrations, however, roundabouts began to be seen as a symbolic space, he says.
For authoritarian regimes, the roundabout has a very subtle advantage, says Weizman. It’s a space — simply through the process of its design — that ensures people cannot gather in large numbers.
“A roundabout is a place where people are cut away from the city by a wall of speed. This is the opposite of a square, where the state designates a place for people to gather and assemble, sometimes for ceremonial and demonstration reasons,” he says. “Therefore your presence in a roundabout subverts the order of the city. Because you can put the city under siege by taking over a single point. A roundabout is usually at the center of many different trajectories of movement, and if you paralyze it, you send shock waves back.”
Weizman is unapologetic in “sending shock waves” regarding his views on the State of Israel, which he heavily criticizes in much of his work. Israeli architects, Weizman argues, have been taught much of what they know from the “brutal” British.
“The British, who were brutal colonizers of much of the world, showed Israelis how to use architecture as a strategic weapon in controlling a population,” he says.
Archeology has been particularly important to the formation of Israeli identity, since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, says Weizman.
‘Archeology has been used as a way to make claims and create legitimacy for settlements’
“In the early years of the Israeli state, archeology was very politicized. And it’s been used as a way of finding the alibi for the Jewish return,” he says. “In the West Bank, for example, archeology has been used as a way to make claims and create legitimacy for settlements. Or in Hebron, too, where archeological elements that were found and dated from the Iron Age — or any other period that could be claimed as Jewish — were taken over, and under the excuse of them being heritage sites, were taken from their owners. And then settlements were built on top or right next to them.”
Among other activist activities, Weizman is a former board member of B’Tselem, a controversial far-left NGO which aims to change Israeli policy in the West Bank through documenting human rights violations.
Was there a particular moment in Weizman’s life where he decided — as an Israeli citizen — to challenge the legitimacy of the Israeli state and question its democratic credentials?
“It’s never a moment,” Weizman answers, rather cautiously. “A political formation is a complex and gradual process,” he adds.
The expat Weizman says he finds far-left critical voices like his own to be a minority in Israel.
“Well obviously the people who are critical of the colonial and brutal regime of domination that Israel has inflicted on Palestinians since ’48 and the areas occupied since ’67 are a minority,” he says. “Otherwise the situation would be very different.”
(The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, also known as the “Partition Plan,” called for the separation of British-ruled Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Accepted by Jews in Mandate Palestine, it was rejected by Arabs across the Middle East, sparking Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, which resulted in some 700,000 Arab refugees. Later, during the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli counterattacks against Syria and Jordan saw Israelis capture land, including East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.)
Despite feeling like a minority in his own country, Weizman does move back and forth between the UK and Israel on a regular basis, he says. Primarily because he has an architectural studio and art residency program based in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem.
The studio is home to a group called Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), in which Weizman plays a prominent role. It explores the possibilities of combining “conceptual speculations, pragmatic spatial interventions, and collective learning,” all of which take place in what the organization calls “structures of domination.”
These “structures of domination” include evacuated military bases, refugee camps, uncompleted Israeli governmental structures, and the remains of destroyed villages in the West Bank.
One of Weizman’s most well-referenced books is “Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation.” First published in 2007, it’s an investigation of the transformation of the West Bank since 1967.
The key to understanding West Bank architecture, Weizman believes, is the idea that the structures within it are not rigid or fixed. Instead, Weizman argues, they are elastic and in constant transformation.
Examples of these fluid-elastic-architectural and political structures in motion, he says, include separation walls; barriers; blockades; road blocks; checkpoints; and special security zones.
“When things are fixed — when you know what the law is, or where a border runs to, or where divisions are articulated physically — you can place an order over that space,” says Weizman. “When you have chaos, however, you do not know what is legal or illegal, or what jurisdiction applies to this person or that person. Or what land belongs to whom. So the system of rule-through-chaos runs together with elasticity.”
This elasticity always operates in one direction, Weizman believes: toward where the Israeli settlements expand.
Most Jewish expansion in the West Bank is in what is labelled “Area C” by the 1995 Oslo Accords. Today, there are some 150,000 Palestinians and almost 400,000 Israelis living in Area C, which encompasses some 60% of the West Bank. In cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, Area C is overseen by the Israeli Civil Administration.
The Levy Report, commissioned in 2012 by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy, concluded that the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Israel regards as “disputed territory,” does not breach international law. It affirmed the legality of approved Jewish settlement on state land, but upheld the policy that building on private Palestinian land is illegal.
Although the Levy Report was never formally adopted by the Israeli government, according to a February 2016 report (Hebrew) released by far-left Israeli human rights NGO Yesh Din (There is Law), the government is informally implementing it — by retroactively legalizing existing settlements, among other steps — in what the organization calls a “clear change in policy.”
The Israeli Supreme Court is the arbiter for disputes of land ownership. Additionally, while accepting the need for Israel’s West Bank security barrier, built as an anti-terrorism measure during the Second Intifada to prevent suicide bombers crossing into Israel, the court has frequently ordered sections of it to be rerouted closer to the pre-1967 lines in response to Palestinian appeals.
The barrier is a network of fences, concrete walls, trenches and closed military roads that will extend 712 kilometers (442 miles) when finished, separating the West Bank from Israel, taking in an estimated 7 percent of the West Bank. The original route took in about 15% of the West Bank.
“Here the walls — or other mechanisms of division — divide and structure up the area,” Weizman says. “It’s this kind of ambiguity that has allowed Israel to solidify its rule.”
‘The single family houses with one garden and a red roof are distinct from the refugee camps, villages, and towns of the Palestinians’
Weizman cites the occupation of the West Bank in particular as a planning structure that “emerged out of chaos.”
Architectural structures in Israel have a heavy physical reality, says Weizman. But they also have their own separate language too, he believes.
“It is between those two tools that Israeli settlements have been built,” says Weizman. “On the one hand [settlements] communicate alienation. So Israelis say we are not like you, we live in single-family houses with one garden, and a red roof. These are distinct from the refugee camps, villages, and towns of the Palestinians.”
“Other times, however, there is a blurring of the border going on,” says Weizman. “This has been effective in places like Jerusalem especially, where the Israeli colonies in the city — that is the neighborhoods built on occupied and stolen Palestinian land — needed to blend in, and pretend to be native, organic, and indigenous to the land.”
Weizman claims Israeli construction in the West Bank is not only in breach of international conventions and law, but the architectural and planning methods by which these settlements were implemented have directly and negatively impacted the lives of Palestinians — most notably post-1967 as Israeli settlements expanded.
“Buildings, neighborhoods, settlements, roads, and other bits of infrastructure were laid out [in settlement areas]. Now, these could have served a public regardless of race and nationality,” says Weizman. “Or, they could be used to create cantons and bisect Palestinian areas: envelop them and create material damage there,” he continues.
“This is what we have seen: human right violations and war crimes undertaken by [Israeli] architecture and architects,” charges Weizman.
— The Times of Israel and AFP contributed to this report