Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes comprises photographs and essays documenting the separation barrier that divides and encloses Palestinian land. The new book, edited by Olivia Snaije and Mitchell Albert, has a foreword by Raja Shehadeh in the English edition and by writer and Palestinian Ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar in the French edition. It includes photos by Noel Jabbour, Raed Bawayah, Kai Wiedenhöfer, Taysir Batniji, Raedah Saadeh, Steve Sabella, and Rula Halawani, as well as essays that reflect and comment on the wall. In an indeterminate space between photojournalism and fine art photography, the project raises many questions about what it means to perceive or experience such an architecture of population control, as well as the appropriateness of standard aesthetic and political categories for interpreting the images it contains.
In 2002, the Israeli state began constructing an enormous wall closing off the occupied West Bank. For more than a decade, this barrier has continued to expand, consolidating the ghettoization of the Palestinian people and limiting their access to resources, as well as their capacity to return to the areas taken in 1948. As the book reminds us, this barrier is four times the length of the Berlin Wall and twice its height, violating international law in addition to resolutions of the United Nation’s Security Council. While it was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, Valentina Azarov of Al-Haq pointed out that “Israel has yet to be held to account for its widespread and systematic violations of international law, including the continued construction of the Wall,” without notable consequences in its relationship with the United States or the European Union. On November 3, 2013, Al Jazeera reported Israel’s decision to build an additional wall across the border with Jordan, complementing the one being built on the Egyptian border – completely surrounding the West Bank as well as Gaza.
Palestinians have suffered three great national traumas. First, the Nakba (disaster): the initial foundation of the Israeli state on Palestinian land and the resulting wave of refugees. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the June 1967 War was the second, sometimes referred to as the Naksa (setback). The third is the apartheid wall that resulted from the failure of the Second Intifada. The official justification for the barrier is security; the need to prevent terrorist attacks that would threaten Israeli lives. However, rather than following the borders delineated in the United Nations partition plan, the wall follows an erratic course, which appropriates more land for direct Israeli control and disrupts the natural growth and circulation of the population in the West Bank. One of its effects is to render the notion of any autonomous Palestinian state absurd.
Between August 2010 and May 2011, I lived in Ramallah and taught at Al-Quds University. The university is located in Abu Dis, near Al-Azariya, where Christian tradition indicates that Lazarus was raised from the dead. It is also immediately adjacent to the separation barrier. Ten years ago, the wall even threatened to cut the university in two. Non-violent activism by students was necessary in order to maintain even the basic spatial integrity of the campus. I lived with this wall for nine months, I traveled alongside it and it occupied my peripheral vision and that of the students for the entirety of my employment in Palestine. The wall is a nuisance and eyesore; it is a scar in the natural landscape and the social body. It is congealed theft, and an act of violence that affects all 13,000 of the students of AQU as well as the other two million inhabitants of the West Bank.
In his work Hollow Lands, Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect and urbanist, analyzed the barrier in terms of its creation of a “mutual extra-territoriality.” Cutting off Israeli settlers as well as Palestinians, the effect is to deeply imbricate the settlers among the Palestinian population by a variety of innovative means. Among other mechanisms, a network of tunnels links the settlers in the West Bank to Israel, while Palestinian villages are isolated and stranded. This intertwining of mutual exclusive forms, alterations in the way that space and territory are regulated, is novel and unique in the history of colonization projects. Unlike the traditional bifurcation of apartheid policies, the Palestinian context hosts a variety of new experiments in multiple interdictions and permissions. As an anthropologist of colonialism, Nicola Perugini writes that “such notions as occupation, national sovereignty, borders, territory, law and strategy lose their – let’s say – ‘traditional’ pertinence and relevance in the Israel-Palestine laboratory, as they are constantly re-shaped by their exceptional and elastic political constitutivity.” The wall, from this perspective, is symptomatic as well as productive of a drastically novel approach to population control and management, not merely confining relatively autonomous Palestinian territory but rather pervasively determining human possibilities by means of control of geographical space.
In addition to comprising a kind of archive of thoughts and documentation of the wall and its place in the Palestinian life-world, Keep Your Eye on the Wall is a beautiful “coffee-table” book. As such, it dares to ask whether we might derive an aesthetic experience from such an artifact. Many of the photographs included, such as those of Noel Jabbour and Kai Wiedenhöfer, are quite appealing as color landscape photography. Their depiction of the interaction between artificial structures and natural environment, as well as urban and rural topography, evokes the celebrated work of Andreas Gursky or the manufactured landscapes of Edward Burtynsky. However, by depicting the barrier and its environs artistically, the book even leads us to consider whether the wall can itself be contemplated as if it were a work of art. How can we see this object as an aesthetic phenomenon, even possessing some of the quality of beauty? However perverse this perspective, one could certainly see the separation barrier in conversation with a variety of developments in the production of art around the world. For example, the barrier could be said to carry with it the qualities of density and minimalism that one finds in Richard Serra’s installations, or the gritty, rudimentary qualities of Arte Povera. The spectator can especially see in the cryptic graffiti that covers so many sections of the apartheid wall similarities with the scratched, painted, cracked surfaces created by Antoni Tàpies, the great Catalan painter. To aestheticize the wall, however – to see it as an object of contemplation rather than a wound – seems to provide a warrant for its existence and to implicate the spectator.
Certain philosophers of aesthetics have reflected on this dilemma. For example, Jacques Rancière commended the photographs of Sophie Ristelhueber, who attempted to evoke the effects of the occupation photographically by a markedly different approach than that taken by the Keep Your Eye on the Wall project. Pointedly avoiding the temptation to record images of the barrier, Ristelhueber instead photographed the rudimentary barriers placed by the Israeli Defense Forces on country roads, from a distance, so that they are nearly naturalized. The effect is to produce a slight discrepancy in the expected view of the landscape, a minor disruption of the expected, instead of the comparatively grandiose spectacle that the wall embodies. In her essay, “Oppressive Beauty: Against Aestheticizing the Wall,” included in the new book, Malu Halasa relates an anecdote: An elderly Palestinian man told a well-known graffiti artist to “go home,” because painting on the wall only served to beautify it.
One of Noel Jabbour’s photos depicts two children with a wheelbarrow near a hovel, while the wall looks down on them oppressively. In block capitals, an English-speaking visitor has emblazoned on the wall, “WE ARE NOT ENEMIES BUT FRIENDS [LINCOLN].” The effect, for me, was a record of the extraordinary condescension of some visitors, who act as if a message of peace and acceptance of Palestinians were some great deed, occurring as it does as something less than a balm to the immiseration of the populace. Christine Leuenberger relates that in 2007, two street artists, JR and Marco, stuck huge photos of Palestinians and Israelis on opposite sides of the wall, so that Palestinians would see the faces of Israelis and vice versa, in order to “bring people to see how similar they are.” To me, this is humanism made so simple it is crass. It constructs a false symmetry, as if the wall were the product of a foolish misunderstanding, rather than the outcome of an enormously sophisticated enterprise of theft and ethnic cleansing. Thankfully, these photos are not included in the book.
Many of the photographs that appear in Keep Your Eye on the Wall are quite striking and present starkly alluring textures and images, particularly those captured by Steve Sabella and Taysir Batniji. However, while Batniji’s photos of Gaza walls, marked with eroded posters of martyrs, are haunted by the human architecture of resistance, Sabella’s seem to erase the presence of human life in favor of geometrical and structural compositions. Indeed, Sabella writes, “During my visit to Jerusalem in 2012, I had the impression that a sense of surrender pervaded the lives of Palestinians. They seemed to perceive life under occupation as normal.” While the occupation of Jerusalem has certainly become normalized over the near half-century since it began, I found myself reacting against his claim of Palestinian resignation. Perhaps for Sabella, who is Palestinian himself, the wall has become something that can be contemplated, a part of the history of his people that now simply exists, and perhaps by presenting it in painterly, dispassionate images it loses a certain power. While I found many of the photos in this book upsetting, I think that a traditionally aesthetic standpoint toward the wall, a disinterested interest, is particularly horrifying because it occludes something that was always obvious to me every time I looked at the wall, which was its manifest injustice.
Throughout the book, there are moments that the wall appears too static, imposing and impermeable. I found a lack of witness to the gaps and even the fragility of the structure. There seems little evidence of soldiers, checkpoints, settlements, refugee camps or the other evidence of dynamism or vulnerability in the territorial apparatus that the Israeli state has constructed. For example, one can find photographs of Palestinian students breaching the wall in Abu Dis, breaking holes in it large enough for people to climb through, on October 3, 2013. A month later, 972 Magazine documented Palestinians in Bir Nabala and Rafat smashing holes in the wall with hammers and axes or cutting the fenced areas with wire-cutters. In Keep Your Eye on the Wall, Kai Wiedenhöfer has taken a photo of a graffiti painting of a hole in the wall, revealing blue skies, but to me the holes that have been made in actuality are much more beautiful than this image.
This project is a powerful endeavor, and creates a tangible and powerful collection of images and thoughts on this particular neo-colonial structure. The photographs and reflections that it contains spark immediate recall in anyone who has experienced the wall and its effects firsthand, and has significance in communicating an awareness of its tangible existence and its ramifications for readers who approach it from a greater distance. At the same time, it presents a certain stimulus or provocation for thought rather than a summation or thesis regarding the ongoing existence of such a management and constriction of lived space. A great deal of further thought and research should be devoted to the question of how to capture such a process without an undue complicity in its existence.
In the months I spent in the West Bank, I witnessed regular clashes at Jaba’a checkpoint on the way to work. These signs of ongoing militancy are largely absent from Keep Your Eye on the Wall, although they have been documented by photographers such as Eloïse Bollack and others. This can give the volume something of a static quality that is pensive and reserved, but misses some of the real instability of the situation. The volume produces a gap between contemplative images and the rather more frequently disseminated images associated with photojournalism. However, I wonder if this distinction is necessary. It seems to me that the wall is not simply an object but almost a machine. The checkpoints that cross it (like the famous Qalandia), and the soldiers who patrol it, are themselves manifestations of the separation barrier; it can only be captured or understood as a process, one that can be mercifully, if briefly, interrupted.
Andrew Ryder is Postdoctoral Associate of the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh. He has written numerous articles on Continental philosophy, modern literature, and Marxism. He is presently finishing a book manuscript, titled Irreducible Excess: Politics, Sexuality, and Materialism.