Eternal sunshine of the spotless refugee camp

An examination of collective memory in the Occupied Territories

Eyal Weizman’s book Hollow Land examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through an architectural lens. He frames the conflict not just as a struggle that happens to take place within and among cities, but rather as a struggle over the architecture of urban space itself—that buildings, roads, and other city structures are, in fact, themselves participants in the conflict.Weizman 218. He begins by providing an illustrative example—the formation of the Israeli settlement of Migron around a newly constructed cellphone tower. Ostensibly, the antenna was built as a matter of public safety after Israeli settlers complained to the military about bad cell reception when travelling between Jerusalem and already established settlements in the West Bank.Weizman 1–2. However, the attendant physical and social infrastructure needed to power and guard the antenna also provided the means for other families to build homes and, eventually, to form a new outpost. Continues Weizman: “The energy field of the antenna was not only electromagnetic, but also political, serving as a center for the mobilizing, channelling, coalescing and organizing of political forces and processes.”Weizman 2. That is, the antenna was not a neutral structure, but a means to reorganize space to the benefit of Israelis and to the detriment of Palestinians—to transform de jure Palestinian land into de facto Israeli territory. In essence, according to Weizman, this example illustrates the weaponization of urban design as a means to capture territory.

In another work exploring urban design, Maurice Halbwachs introduces the concept of collective memory, his term for the relationship between a city’s physical form and its inhabitants. This relationship centers around the idea that the very design and placement of a community’s buildings, roads, and open spaces are infused with the community’s ideals and worldviews at the time a structure or space is built. Connected to the group’s concepts, these structures then function as collective memories for future inhabitants—so long as they continue to stand, the ideas which are held within their very structure will be remembered as well. As Halbwachs puts it, “[w]hen a group has lived a long time in a place adapted to its habits, its thoughts as well as its movements are in turn ordered by the succession of images from these external objects.”Halbwachs 3. Roads and monuments remind a populace of the ideals of those structures’ creators.

More importantly, however, they function as regulatory agents within the community: with group members living among and within the materialized worldviews of their forefathers, the community conforms to these habits of thought. It “yields and adapts to its physical surroundings. It becomes enclosed within the framework it has built.”Halbwachs 2. Rendered as long-lived as brick and stone, a city’s collective memories constrain and order thought just as their material manifestations constrain and order physical movement.

Applying Halbwachs’ idea of collective memory to Weizman’s thesis yields a peculiar result: if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mediated through the organization of urban spaces—where the construction and demolition of buildings changes both the political as well as the urban environment—then the conflict, by extension, also changes the mnemonic environment. Within Halbwachs’ framework, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes a fight over not just political and spatial control, but for the region’s collective history: whose historical habits and ways of thinking are to be remembered, whose memories are to shape present and future generations, and whose are to be forgotten. However, such an examination, in turn, reveals the limitations of Halbwachs’ architectural theory of collective memory.

Given the nature of the conflict, it is necessary to properly distinguish between simple history and collective memory, for history has been, from the very beginning, central to the conflict’s intractability and oft-used as justification for actions by one side against the other. Returning to the settlement of Migron, its inhabitants claimed the site to be that of the biblical town of the same name.Weizman 2. Though excavations unearthed nothing older than Byzantine artifacts, the area was nonetheless named Migron, and its (unfounded) biblical history used as justification for some early attempts at settlement—before the construction of a cellphone tower served as a more expedient excuse for permanent infrastructure.Weizman 2.

While the settlers did appeal to historical memory, this is merely an example of claiming present sovereignty based on past ownership. Collective memory, on the other hand, is the regulation of mental thought by the physical environment—how a “group’s image of its external milieu and its stable relationships with this environment becomes paramount in the idea it forms of itself.”Halbwachs 2. That is, according to Halbwachs, collective memory—the shape and form of the urban environment—governs the way a group conceives of itself and others. It is not merely a remembrance of one’s past, but the regulator of current thought.

Thus, if Halwbachs is correct, changes to an urban environment should actually produce changes in the worldviews of its inhabitants. And, indeed, such an example can be found in Weizman’s text: after the large-scale destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin—the result of a multi-day battle between the Israeli Defense Forces (idf) and Palestinian combatants—the un rebuilt the camp, using the mass destruction as an opportunity to install higher-quality homes, widen the streets, and replace inadequate water and sewage systems.Weizman 203–205. “It is in this context that we can understand a statement made by one of the members of Jenin camp’s popular committee who, after seeing the un’s newly built… permanent-looking homes…, declared: ‘we have lost the right of return’.”Weizman 205. While in theory the camp’s inhabitants were still refugees living in a temporary camp, their actual homes being some plots of land in what had become Israeli territory, in practice—after the loss of the buildings that encoded in their very structure the temporariness of Jenin and their replacement with permanent infrastructure and homes—they were no longer displaced persons; they had become residents of Jenin. A change in the urban environment (even an externally produced one) resulted in a change in how the group conceived of itself.

It also appears, then, that Israel’s strategy of what Weizman calls “erratic occupation”—where the physical environment of the Occupied Territories is “unpredictably and continuously refashioned”—should result in just this same sort of outcome.Weizman 5. In essence, through the lens of collective memory, this strategy’s end result is the reorganization of Palestinian tradition and self-identity to the benefit of Israel; it is a means to excise from the group’s collective memory knowledge of its own ways of life and to deny its members “the support of the tradition that recommends them and gives them their unique reason for existence.”Halbwachs 4. In other words, erratic occupation becomes more than just a tactic to sow confusion or keep Palestinian militant groups off-balance, but a way to fundamentally alter Palestinian self-image.Weizman 5, 198.

Interestingly, this loss of Palestinian collective memory may also help to explain how Israeli settlers see themselves. Weizman describes their self-image to be that of frontiersmen—as people staking out virgin land—when in truth, they act more as colonizers or conquerors.Weizman 4. But with the land being constantly reshaped and shaken of many of its Palestinian traditions and customs, perhaps it ceases to be, in the minds of Israeli settlers, foreign territory, but in some sense truly becomes virgin land, free to be settled and fashioned with Israeli concepts. Thus, as Weizman puts it, “the mundane elements of planning and architecture… become tactical tools and the means of dispossession.” Weizman 5. But not just, as Weizman identifies, because of the political effects—it is also through the wearing away of Palestinian collective memory and its replacement with an Israeli counterpart.

Thus, Weizman’s text offers up several corroborating examples of Halbwachs’ thesis. However, the very existence Hollow Land—and, more importantly, the conflict it seeks to describe—demonstrates the limits of this argument. If urban space does indeed provide a people with “their unique reason for existence,” then it follows that its complete destruction, or the people’s exile from it, should result in the total obliteration of their collective memory.Halbwachs 4. However, while it is no doubt true that urban structures are neither neutral players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor unimportant in the continuity of a people and their traditions, the very existence of this conflict makes clear that familiar spaces and buildings cannot be the sole provider of existential meaning—for, despite a diaspora lasting several thousand years in what should have been a complete divorce between a space and its people, Jews retained enough sense of group identity and tradition to eventually launch a nationalist Zionist movement, one which has given birth to both the state of Israel and the modern conflict seen today.

In the end, Halbwachs’ argument provides some insight into the present struggle—viewed through his theoretical lens, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be seen as a struggle not just for spatial or political control, but for mnemonic control; however, it also demonstrates the limits of Halbwachs’ claims. Were they completely true, there would be no conflict, for there would be no Jewish people. Likewise, while it is undoubtedly true that the architecture of the Occupied Territories can be a means to reorganize how groups see themselves and relate to one another, it cannot be said—as Halbwachs asserts—that the only resting place for a community’s soul is in their land, for even a people exiled can still remain a single people. Even a people forced from their homes, whose land is routinely redrawn and reshaped, can retain their traditions and self-identity.