A Concrete Tent

Architecture and Occupation in Palestine

by Sophie Kasakove

Illustration by Pierie Korostoff

published March 11, 2016

Tranquil dwellings

Chapter 32, verse 18 of the Book of Isaiah reads, “My people will abide in peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings and in quiet resting places.” When British financier Moses Montefiore— a staunch promoter of Jewish “self-sufficiency”— built Jerusalem’s first exclusively Jewish neighborhood in 1860, he invoked Isaiah, calling the development Mishkenot Sha’anim—“Peaceful Habitation,” also translated as “Tranquil Dwellings.” But Jerusalem’s Jews were not convinced. To many residents of what would become known as the ‘Old City,’ the new neighborhood across the valley of Hinnom was dangerous: wild animals and thieves were said to roam outside its walls. Plus, the new neighborhood was far from the holy sites and its European-style streets too different from the Old City’s familiar winding alleys. 

However, conditions inside the Old City were worsening: by the mid-19th century, 15,000 Jews, Muslims, and Christians were crowded together within the walls, and disease was rampant. A massive cholera epidemic in 1866 motivated many to follow Montefiore into the spacious homes of Mishkenot Sha’anim, which he offered to Jewish residents free of charge. Montefiore and other proto-Zionists hoped that Jewish-only communities such as these would begin the process of Jewish colonization in Palestine. Montefiore imported red tiles from Marseilles to cover the terraced row-houses, leading residents to nickname the neighborhood tarbush—the Arabic name for a felt cap (usually red) worn by Arab men. A stone wall surrounded the neighborhood, with a heavy door that locked at night. It was reported that some residents would climb over the wall at sunset and wander across the valley to sleep in the Old City, whose walls were higher. 


The air becomes clear

A 1998 essay on Israeli architecture by Ran Shechori begins: “Wherever they settle, migrants tend to build the land of their origins.” Assuming this to be true, early Ashkenazi settlement architecture in Palestine reveals a people deeply confused about its origins. Settlements in Jerusalem’s neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Nahlaot, as well as Neve Tzedek and Neve Shalom in modern-day Tel Aviv, were built in the European style, which came to represent the idealized “home.” Jewish communal agricultural settlements (kibbutzim) were often built in this style as well—small, standardized white-walled houses with red roofs deliberately differentiated these communities from the more scattered layouts of nearby Arab villages. This differentiation was solidified by the exclusion of Arab Jews (mizrahim) from these communities. At the same time, other immigrants built in the “Oriental” style, featuring typical Arabic elements such as narrow, arched windows, a truncated dome-shaped ceiling, and biblical-style ceramics. Within these settlers’ discourse, Arab culture represented the conservation of biblical tradition, and the use of Arabic architectural elements represented a return of the Jewish people to its own land and ancient Mediterranean roots.

Both styles had their challenges: the European sloping roofs, designed for maximum insulation, proved less than ideal for the hot Mediterranean climate. At the same time, some European Jewish settlers who had once dreamed of integration into the Middle East came to reject both this dream and its embodiment in Oriental architecture after the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. Today, few remnants of Arabic-style architecture remain in Israel: Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi estimates that some 436 villages were destroyed in the War of 1948, with 70 percent completely razed. Although Oriental romanticism has been largely removed from the physical landscape, it lives on in Israeli geographical imagination. A settler wrote of the Yitzhar settlement in 1989: “As we rise and approach Yizhar, the air becomes clear. You reach the roof of the world and you imagine yourself in another place and time: young women walking barefoot…” A systematic unseeing— a Biblical scene disguising the violence below.


Knock on the roof

The picture of her brother-in-law is just where I remember it, slipped between the mirror and its frame. Miri adjusts her sunglasses in the mirror. Do you know what ha-kesh ba-gag means? she asks me. Roof-knocking. I’ve heard of it, I tell her, but ask her to tell me what it means. I’m always scared to tell Miri that I know things. In 2008, Miri was serving her twenty-second and final year as a commander in the Israeli Defense Forces (the IDF). That year, the IDF launched what is known in Hebrew as Operation Cast-Lead and in Arabic as the Gaza Massacre. In a stated attempt to stop rocket fire into Israel and weapons smuggling into the Gaza strip, IDF forces attacked police stations and military targets, as well as administrative and community centers in densely populated areas. Before dropping a live bomb on a civilian building, the IDF would fire a low-explosive ‘teaser’ bomb or missile onto houses to warn inhabitants of a coming attack, a practice they called roof-knocking. Miri was part of the team that designed the system, she tells me and asks: Now, what other army in the world does that? What other army goes to such lengths to protect its enemy? 

I could ask her where else these civilians had to go. I could ask her if the minutes between the warning bomb and the real bomb were always enough time for parents to gather all of their children and get them to safety. I could ask her if part of the intention or, at the very least, an effect of roof-knocking, is to change the legal designation of a victim from a ‘non-combatant’ to a voluntary ‘human-shield,’ or even a ‘combatant,’ within minutes—turning civilians into legal military targets and reducing the official casualty count. Instead I nod, sip my coffee. Miri adjusts her sunglasses in the mirror on her way out. 



For decades, the red slanted roofs of Israeli settlements scattered the hilltops, and the flat white roofs of Palestinian villages lay in the valleys between them. This pattern still dominates the view, but now red roofs are scattered across the villages in the valleys, as well. Haifa-born, London-based architect and writer Eyal Weizman attributes this development to the “urban euphoria” of the Oslo years—a real-estate boom in Palestinian cities fueled by “wealthy returnee elites.” The neighborhoods built by these Palestinians on the peripheries of existing cities and towns resembled Israeli settlements in more than just roof design—the concentric, enclosed layout responds, French theorist Sylvain Bulle argues, to “the anxieties that drive the middle class everywhere to seek privacy and security away from the congested and potentially dangerous city centers.” Further, the slanted roof demonstrates that a family has the means to build out instead of up: one of the prime functional uses of the Palestinian flat roof is to provide a base for upward house expansion as the family grows (you can tell if a family is awaiting grandchildren by the sight of exposed beams on the roof). 

However, it seems that the red roof may in fact be more than just a status symbol. In the September 2014 film The Architecture of Violence, Weizman claims that the red roof is in fact a military strategy: “The red roof is something mandated by law because this allows the military to navigate the landscape—understand what’s ours, what’s theirs, what’s friend, what’s foe, where we can bomb and where not.” In his book, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, Weizman clarifies that the red roof was recommended to settlement councils by the military as part of “the settlement planning bylaw” in the 1980s. He adds that, in light of this military directive, the Palestinian use of the red roof can be understood as an attempt at camouflage. This argument was echoed by Finn Erik Thoresen, Chairman of Norwegian People’s Aid, as well as in a 2012 article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and was publicized in an article in the Guardian titled “What can ‘forensic architecture’ reveal about the conflict in Gaza?” The claim spurred outrage from the Zionist press, with critics arguing that their examinations of both Israeli or Palestinian law revealed no mention of roof-building. The Guardian amended its article to remove any mention of mandatory red-roofs. 


Water tower

This “camouflage” can only hide so much. A Palestinian home can be easily distinguished from a Jewish one by the multiple black water towers covering every roof— huddled in clusters, or even stacked in layers. Israeli settlements, which are connected to Israel’s water utilities services regardless of their location within the Occupied Territories land, either have small white storage tanks or no water towers at all. Amnesty International reports that Palestinians receive only 20% of the water collected in aquifers within West Bank territory, which are controlled by Israel, leaving 113,000 Palestinians in some 70 villages and communities completely disconnected from the water network. Additionally, Palestinians are forbidden from drilling their own wells without acquiring permits from the Israeli authorities, which is a difficult and often unsuccessful process. Through a range of legal mechanisms, the Israeli government has prohibited Palestinians from building on an estimated 70% of Area C (the land under the administrative and security control of the Palestinian Authority). Anything built in these areas, whether a house or a well, is subject to destruction by the IDF. Since the beginning of the Occupation in 1967, the Israeli government has destroyed over 28,000 structures belonging to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Consequently, almost a million Palestinians do not have access to the average daily usage amount of 60 liters of water set by the World Health Organization. 

Draped over water towers, hung between rooftops, running along balconies, the wires connecting homes up and down the road stretch to meet a single electricity pole. Like water, electricity in the West Bank is provided by an Israeli state-owned company. The Israeli government has made the Palestinian Authority responsible for making payments to the company but the on-going Occupation makes fulfilling these demands impossible. In February 2015, Israel’s electricity company briefly reduced the power supply to over 700,000 Palestinians in two Palestinian districts in the northern West Bank after claiming the power debt to be $490 million. As a result, some areas of the West Bank are not connected to the electricity grid at all. In an effort to supplement this system of unreliable dependency, many Palestinians have attempted to develop their own electricity infrastructure, building solar panels on rooftops and in farms. Many of these structures are faced with demolition orders almost immediately after construction. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is currently facilitating the construction of four solar farms on settlement land which will connect to Israel’s grid, each costing approximately $6 million to construct. Settlers will be getting a cut of the profits. 


The Landscape 

The streets of the Aida refugee camp are too narrow for the cab to enter, so the driver parked outside the entrance to the camp. Omar emerged in a colorful sweater and spoke to the cab driver as if they were life-long friends. We drove up a curving street on the edge of the Bethlehem neighborhood of Beit Jala and came to a stop behind a row of cabs, bumper-to-bumper and honking loudly. Omar suspected that one of the cars up ahead was being searched. We got out of the cab and walked the rest of the way up the hill, arriving at an outdoor bar where fairy lights hung low over picnic tables filled with young people (nearly equal parts Palestinians and white foreigners), who shouted to hear themselves over the American-style blues band. We brought our beers over to the table furthest from the music, perched above the wide expanse of shadowy hills. Omar and his friends used to come here to escape the cramped streets of the camp, before it was a bar. They called it The Landscape—the only place in all of Bethlehem, or maybe in all of the Occupied Territories, he laughs, with a view unobstructed by red roofs. He pointed out across the valley. It’s hard to tell now that it’s so dark, but during the day you can see the sea from here, he said. I asked him if he was sad that it wasn’t just him and his friends’ place anymore. It wasn’t ours then either. 


Condition of exile 

In 1948, the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem began as an aggregation of tents, which housed 3,400 Palestinians from an estimated 45 destroyed and depopulated villages in Israel. Families waited to return to their stolen homes, keys hung around their necks, but in the meantime the tents were weak and needed to be reinforced with vertical walls, later substituted with concrete shelters. Today 13,000 people live in Dheisheh, in roughly the same ½ square kilometer their grandparents lived in. The camp appears as a structurally cohesive piece of the urban fabric of Bethlehem. The only clear marker of the camp’s entrance is a giant metal revolving door, left over from the fence that surrounded the camp before it came under the control of the Palestinian Authority in 1995— an enforced suspension. 

Up the hill from Manger Square, above rows of unfinished concrete structures with exposed beams sits a tent, with sleek sloping walls of concrete, ten feet high, open on either side. The tent is a project of Campus in Camps, an educational program based in Dheisheh that provides Palestinian refugees with the “infrastructure and intellectual space to transform theoretical discussions of ‘space’ and ‘agency’ into practical, community-driven interventions.” The tent is a gathering space for communal learning—it hosts cultural activities, a working area, and an open space for social meetings. It embraces, the founders write, “the contradiction of an architectural form emerged from a life in exile.” The concrete tent rejects the common belief among residents of the camp that to build is an act of acceptance, of normalizing the condition of exile, or that living in miserable conditions brings them closer to Return. The tent asserts that the achievements of the present are not an impediment to Palestinians’ right of return, but a step towards it— that the refugee is not just a victim, but an architect of history. 


SOPHIE KASAKOVE B’17.5 thinks the walls are too high.