The promised land

Israeli town planners hoped to entice people to "instant cities" in the desert hills, but instead cr

A fundamental ambiguity lies at the heart of all programmes of colonial settlement: settlers claim to be civilising the abandoned wilderness, yet they simultaneously feel the need to arm themselves against the dangers that lurk around them, threats which suggest that others, however invisible, are already in possession of the same apparently empty fields and will fight to remain. From its earliest phase, European expansion overseas developed new legal doctrines to challenge native claims to the land, and new weaponry to clear them off when the law would not do. Zionism, which aimed to match the "people without land to the land without people", was no different. The prefabricated "wall and tower" Jewish settlements of the 1930s dotted the landscape of the British Mandate of Palestine with sandbagged huts, barbed-wire fences and watchtowers. "One hand on the plough, another on the sword" was the slogan that summed up the attitude of the inhabitants, though rifles, and later machine-guns, turned out to be more useful. These warrior agriculturalists - too well educated, too deracinated to be peasants - brought with them ideological components of European colonialism, in particular a sharp sense of superiority over the indigenous population, pride in their modernity and their civilising prowess, and a mystical and highly romanticised identification with the land itself.

Yet the pull of the land is always most powerful at the level of rhetoric. It is hard to make the demographics of colonialism work, because settlement on the land has never appealed to many. The British had to ship out convicts and beleaguered religious minorities to their colonies. Not even the impoverished braccianti of the Italian south were willing to emigrate in sufficient numbers to make sense of the fascist conquest of Ethiopia in 1936. In the Upper Chaco in Paraguay, 19th-century colonisation was spearheaded by Nietzsche's mad sister, who returned before long, leaving behind a legacy of Guarani-speaking blond-haired villagers. Nor were the Jews any different. Although Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century, it was not - in terms of migration flows - an attractive option until Hitler made it one. A mere 3 per cent of all Jewish emigrants from Europe settled in Ottoman Palestine before the First World War, 15 per cent before 1932.

If the US, Germany, France and Argentina were more attractive than the Holy Land, it was because the impoverished pogrom-fleeing Ashkenazim wanted, first and foremost, a life in the city. They had had their taste of country ways back home and most of them were not attracted by the mendacious ruralism being churned out by "back to the land" propagandists. What did Theodor Herzl - that Budapest-born Habsburg dandy - know of the land, after all? Even those Jews who migrated to the Ottoman Arab provinces opted for the city life. At first, they settled in Jaffa. But in 1909 the new urban settlement of Tel Aviv was laid out next door, and this example of "urban colonisation" rapidly emerged between the wars to challenge the mainstream Zionist line - itself influenced by contemporary German romantic nationalism - that the only healthy form of communal life was on the land. In 1917, the new town had 3,000 inhabitants; in 1921, the year of the first serious violence between Jews and Arabs, it had 12,800. By 1937, thanks to the Nazis, it had 140,000 and had become "Berlin by the sea", a Jewish city that overshadowed and outnumbered its Arab neighbour and contained more than half of all the Jews in Mandate Palestine. It was ironic that Palestine's Jewish minority should have been mostly city folk, while its Arab majority remained dispersed throughout villages and small towns.

Ruralism is the modernists' fantasy option: modernity, if one is serious about it, means not happy farmers and abundant harvests - existing in some never-never land of ever-buoyant global grain prices - but cities and industries, the motors of modern economies. One of the problems for 20th-century European nationalism was that its ruralist imagery could never match the urban realities required for powerful modern economies and, above all, powerful all-conquering armies. This has been the problem of Zionism, too.

Thus, after 1948, the Israeli state found it could not take the pull of the land for granted. For the first time in history, it became the main target for Jewish emigration: nearly 600,000 European Jews arrived in the next three decades, as well as three-quarters of a million Jews from the Arab lands. Yet these newcomers, too, had no particular desire to go back to the land. The leaders of the new Jewish state needed to entice, if not actually force, people into new settlements, especially in militarily strategic areas: immigrants were packed straight off to "development towns", as the desert hills bloomed with tin prefabs laid out in neat straight lines.

It was the usual 20th-century historical irony: much of the land Israel had painfully and bloodily conquered, and depleted of its original population, turned out to be undesired by its own Jewish citizens. Since market forces had already left most Israelis in Jerusalem and along the coast, nationwide state planning aimed to decant more than half into entirely new dispersed provincial towns. Combining Stalinist modernism, Bauhaus-Nazi ideas of decentralisation and the English garden town ethos, Israel's urban planners made the country the world's first laboratory for a total transformation of the national built environment. Settlement may have been a dirty word in international diplomacy; but read the discussions of the civil servants of the Jewish Agency's Land Settlement Division, for instance, and all is out in the open.

A Civilian Occupation started out as the catalogue for an exhibition of Israeli architecture at an international architects' congress. The idea behind it was to explore what role Israeli architecture had played in the Middle East conflict. Unfortunately, the main Israeli architects' association (IAUA) decided to withdraw its sponsorship, the exhibition was cancelled and the catalogue pulped. Thanks to the initiative of the publishers, however, this revised version of the work, handsomely illustrated with photos, maps and settlement plans, allows us to see what attracted the ire of the IAUA and to appreciate the close relationship between architecture and politics in contemporary Israel. It is enough to look at the photo of Ariel Sharon's private Negev ranch, built amid palm, olive and cypress trees in a reworked version of the inter-war "wall and tower" paradigm, to see how powerfully the settlement traditions survive.

After 1967, Sharon urged another generation of young settlers to seize the mountain summits, and messianic gun-toting visionaries charged up the slopes, bulldozers, electricity cables and government subsidies following behind them. Down in the Western Hills, dormitory towns with fine "biblical" views took the overspill from the cities, ringing Jerusalem to complicate any eventual peace deal while offering enhanced "quality of life" for the lucky suburban residents. "A motored system is being developed that will make it possible to travel quickly and safely to the Tel Aviv area and to Jerusalem on modern highways, bypassing Arab towns," runs a Brooklyn sales brochure. Aerial photos show new hamlets following the contours of the slopes, rows and rows of new detached houses clustered around the central facilities and connected to one another by new arterial roads. Their planned and inorganic character, like a militarised Milton Keynes, is easily compared with the gentler and more haphazard outlines of the Arab towns and villages they usually overlook.

This entire programme has been driven by a combination of state security doctrines and huge public-private subsidy. Architects and town planners are told where to build and then have to cope with climatological and environmental implications as best they can. Potential residents can be attracted out to the new garden suburbs just outside Jerusalem easily enough: the benefits in terms of price and space are obvious. But the mountain-tops, the Gaza Strip and the eastern settlements nearer the border with Jordan are a tougher marketing proposition. Not every settlement works, even when swimming pools are provided. Thomas Leitersdorf, an architect interviewed in the book, contrasts the vast new town of Ma'ale Edumin east of Jerusalem, which "took off" thanks to solid government backing, and the failure of Emanuel, planned as a new town for young ultra-Orthodox couples, whose initial success did not last long before rising prices and the lack of landscaping drove buyers away. Leitersdorf, a man who creates "instant cities", churning out several thousand apartments in a few years, admits that he admires the beauty of the Arab villages. But this is a purely aesthetic judgement. So far as he is concerned, architects do not influence politics. Fortunately for us, the authors of this fascinating book disagree.

A Civilian Occupation: the politics of Israeli architecture, edited by Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman, is published by Verso

Mark Mazower is professor of history at Birkbeck College, London

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Way out