In April 2002 the Israeli Defence Force bulldozed a 40,000 square-metre area in the centre of the Jenin refugee camp in the Northern West Bank. A UN report estimated that some 52 Palestinians were killed in the attack, about half of them civilians. In a detailed investigation, Human Rights Watch found that several civilians, including a disabled man, were crushed to death in their homes, because Israeli forces failed to allow relatives time to help them escape; others were used as human shields by the advancing Israelis. Operation Defensive Shield left 140 multi-family housing blocks completely destroyed, 1,500 damaged, and some 4,000 residents homeless, out of a population of 14,000.footnote1 During the operation, lesser demolitions were also carried out in Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah. Destruction of material infrastructure and cultural and administrative facilities was also widespread.
Such actions made a mockery of official Israeli claims that the IDF’s operation was designed purely to dismantle the ‘terrorist infrastructure’ behind Palestinian suicide attacks, which had left scores of civilians dead on the streets of Israel’s cities. The evidence suggests rather that its real purpose was to take advantage of the favourable context of America’s global ‘war on terror’ to destroy the urban foundations of a proto-Palestinian State. Learning from setbacks in Lebanon in the 1980s, the Israelis seem to have targeted, as IDF analyst Dov Tamari put it, ‘the social infrastructure, the welfare infrastructure, out of which combatants have grown and on which their families rely’. The appropriate term for this strategy was coined, more or less simultaneously in the early nineties, by Marshall Berman and a group of Bosnian architects: ‘urbicide’, or the deliberate wrecking or killing of the city.footnote2
The weapon that dominated Operation Defensive Shield was the D-9 armoured Caterpillar bulldozer. Weighing 60 tons and ‘built or retrofitted with steel armour plates, tiny bullet-proof cabin windows, special blades and buckets optimized for concrete demolition and a powerful asphalt-ripper in the rear’, the D-9 has been deliberately designed to plough through built-up Palestinian areas with impunity. An Israeli Chief of Staff has made no secret of the fact that ‘the Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer is a strategic weapon here’.footnote3 Yet urbicide by bulldozer is only one element in a four-pronged geopolitical and military strategy.
Firstly, the demolition of houses and cities is linked to a broader transformation of the landscape, designed to reduce the vulnerability of the growing archipelago of Jewish settlements and highways to Palestinian attack. ‘What is most striking in Palestine now is the violence wrought against the land’, writes Christian Salmon of the Autodafe writers’ collective:
Houses are destroyed, olive trees uprooted, orange groves laid waste . . . The bulldozer one runs across at every roadside seems as much a part of the strategy in the ongoing war as the tank. Never has such an inoffensive machine struck me as being more of a harbinger of silent violence. The brutality of war. Geography, it is said, determines war. In Palestine it is war that has achieved the upper hand over geography.footnote4