Gaza rubble is forensic evidence

One of the many Palestinian homes destroyed by Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza. (Matthew Cassel)

With the $4.5 billion in pledges made by international donors at the Sharm al-Sheikh conference this month, the humanitarian focus in Gaza will begin to shift, looking forward at clearing rubble and rebuilding anew. But before any reconstruction can start, much emergency relief work still needs to be done and humanitarian workers and medics won’t be the only ones trawling through the rubble.

A small army of architects and urban planners working with Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, are poised to enter Gaza and examine the mounds of rubble and half-standing buildings that remain in the strip. They believe that in Gaza’s broken remnants lay the clues to what shape Israeli military practice is likely to take in the future.

One of the few tactical advantages Palestinian militants have in the face of Israel’s military might is an intimate knowledge and command of their own architecture and urban space. Traditionally, the maze-like streets, alleys and thickly-packed, high-rising buildings of the Palestinian refugee camps have played to the favor of militants in the camps in times of conflict.

This was evident during a battle in 2007 at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon between the Lebanese army and Islamic militants who had infiltrated the camp and used it as a base. The Lebanese military apparatus was unable to negotiate the camp’s topography and it took over three months of heavy shelling from the hills overlooking the camp to do away with the militant group that was estimated to number under 1,000. Why? One reason is because the militants (most of whom were not in fact Palestinian, or from Lebanon) had co-opted the methods by which Palestinians have traditionally manipulated their own camp architecture and space for defense purposes during times of siege.

“The [Palestinian] camp is an urban neighborhood but it is also a single building — it is contiguous,” says Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect, academic and author of Hallow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. “This contiguity of the structure allows a certain movement across it that is not possible in other urban environments.”

When under attack, many Palestinian refugee camps can deploy a system of trap doors, hallways, rooftops and holes through walls, connecting apartments and buildings across the camp. The camps militants use this system to command full control of the camp from the inside, and advantage over the aggressor outside.

But when the Israeli army infiltrated the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin in the West Bank in 2002 by breaking through walls and proceeding to dominate the camp internally, it was clear it had been taking notes. So to keep ahead, the Palestinians have to innovate further. In this way, warfare between Israel and enemies such as Hamas and Hizballah is a kind of tactical conversation of which Gaza is merely the latest utterance.

“There is an asymmetry in power — fire power, political power, military power — and that asymmetry is always compensated by the ingenuity of the weak,” says Laleh Khalili, a professor of Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

During the summer war between Israel and Hizballah in 2006, this ingenuity took the form of underground caches and bunkers where Hizballah managed to withstand intense Israeli bombardment for 33 days. By the time Israel launched its attack on Gaza last December, the subterranean had become the new, dominant front in the conflict.

“Hamas has disappeared underground and Israel controls the sky,” says Weizman. “The more dominance they have of the sky, the more the Palestinians master the subterranean.”

The internal permeability of the Palestinian camp, once a strong defense strategy for the Palestinians, has been effectively neutralized by Israel’s appropriation of the tactic in their own ground offensives on camps. This has meant that the Palestinians have had to push the envelope to stay ahead and they have done this by extending what was once an aboveground network of passages beneath the surface of the camp.

The camps in Gaza have extended underground, not just in the form of the tunnel lifelines to Egypt at Rafah, but in a sophisticated network of bunkers, control rooms and hideouts at inland refugee camps like al-Shati and Jabiliya. This is the latest puzzle the Israeli military has to solve in its ongoing cat-and-mouse game of war tactics with the Palestinian militants

How close they are to solving it may become clearer once the architects and urban planners working with B’Tselem are allowed to reenter Gaza. The teams will undertake a “forensic” survey of the rubble, taking photos, discerning patterns of destruction, and creating 3-D reconstructions of areas and buildings. The survey will result in a report in the coming months and its findings may offer some indication as to how Israel is adapting its game to the new subterranean logic of Palestinian resistance. Since Israel has not yet developed technology to discern this logic, the Palestinian militants remain one step ahead — for now.

Don Duncan is a freelance print and radio reporter and videographer. Originally from Ireland, he has lived and worked in several countries including Afghanistan, France, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Spain, the United States. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished with the author’s permission.