The architecture of Ariel Sharon

Sharon leaves behind a legacy of construction and destruction that has shaped today’s Israel and Palestine.

Ariel Sharon occupied a key role in the settlement expansion of Israel [AFP/Getty]

Whether in military uniform or in politics, Ariel Sharon’s time in power was characterised by construction and destruction frenzies that decisively shaped the physical realities in which both Israelis and Palestinians still struggle to live.

His legacy is not only that of a military man and a politician, but also that of an architect. Sharon, more than anyone else, has shaped the spatial realities of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Sharon emerged into the public arena as the leader of the notorious military squad named Unit 101 in the early 1950s. It was mainly engaged in terror attacks on civilians to extract “revenge” for Fedayeen attacks. Sharon was continuously promoted within the Israeli military’s ranks, willing to do anything his superiors wanted to carry out but didn’t want to be associated with. David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan merely needed to express some “wish” and Sharon would carry out the dirty work.

Born in Kfar Malal, an agriculture village of the labour movement in Palestine under the British mandate, Sharon has become the person most identified with the Israeli myth of the “frontier” – a zone that extended on both sides of Israel’s 1949 borders. This area, even before the occupation of 1967 transferred it to Israeli control, was kept permeable to raids in order to present the Israeli state’s territoriality as an incomplete project, which it remains to this day.

In the past half a century, there hadn’t been a boundary or a law that Sharon hadn’t broken or bulldozed through. His military operations crossed each of Israel’s borders, and his public behaviour transgressed every hierarchical instruction (he frequently disobeyed orders), and legal order (his flagrant disregard for civilian life broke both Israeli and international law) and fostered intolerance to all things perceived as “urban bureaucracy”.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dies

Sharon had grown to view the armed conflict with the Palestinians as an urban problem, and the rapid expansion of Palestinian cities and refugee camps as something that Israeli occupation forces would later call “the jihad of building”.

In 1970s he was given the task to “pacify” resistance in the refugee camps of Gaza. Sharon ordered military bulldozers to carve a grid of roads wide enough for tanks to be able to drive through the dense fabric of three of Gaza’s largest camps – Jabalya, Rafah and Shati – destroying nearly one thousand homes. The new routes created smaller neighbourhoods, each of which could be isolated by infantry units.

Sharon’s architecture involved not only destruction but also construction. The other major projects he undertook, besides the destruction of the camps, was an attempt to “pacify” the refugees by constructing and forcefully relocating a few thousand of them into Israeli-style social housing blocks next to major Palestinian cities. A few pilot projects were built north of Gaza, but these housing units themselves became centres of resistance. The project was abandoned and the housing largely since demolished in Israeli incursions.

His other construction project was the building of a matrix of land fortifications on the hilltops throughout the occupied Sinai desert. This matrix proved a flexible net that absorbed the Egyptian attack in the 1973 Yom Kippur/October War and provided the basis for Sharon’s counter attack over the Suez Canal.

The builder

Trumpeted after this war as the “saviour of Israel” (sometimes even as its “king”) he used the political capital to help the right wing Likud gain power. In the first Begin government of 1977, Sharon, too unpredictable and zealous even for Begin, did not receive the ministry of defence he craved for. As a minister for agriculture he was in charge of building settlements throughout the West Bank.

Here he translated the principles of the dynamic battlefield into civilian planning and erected the skeleton of Israel’s small settlement empire in the occupied territories. The aim of Sharon’s plan was to splinter and paralyse Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

In his hands the suburban red-roofed single family homes replaced the tank as the basic battle unit; houses were deployed in formation across a theatre of operations to occupy hills, to encircle an enemy, or to cut its communication lines. The result was an interlocking series of settlements, roads, barriers, and military bases that splintered the West Bank into several isolated Palestinian cantons, each around a major city, with the connections controlled by Israel. Sharon loved being photographed in construction sites, pointing at plans or with a map rolled under his armpit. In the hands of Sharon, architecture was the continuation of war by other means.

In the second Begin government he was the minister of defence and led Israel into the Lebanon war in 1982, in which 20,000 Lebanese people were killed as Beirut and the country’s southern coastal cities were reduced to rubble. Sharon wanted to construct a new Middle East in which Lebanon and Israel were allied and Jordan became a Palestinian state. Sharon eventually left his post when his responsibility for the Phalangist massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila was established by an Israel state enquiry.

Sharon’s architectural legacy

Permanent as the settlements may seem to both their occupants and to the people on whose lands they are built, for Sharon they were pawns that could also be rearranged as need arose in a constantly evolving battlefield.

Holding various minor ministerial portfolios when Likud was in power, or when in opposition during the Rabin/Peres government, he opposed any peace initiative. His influence on the settler movement furthermore meant that every time he suspected progress was being made, another settlement would pop up, threatening to derail the process. Other Israeli politicians have been using this trick ever since – as recent as a few days before his death, when the government announced that more construction in settlements would go ahead just after John Kerry’s visit to promote the political process.

In the early 1990s, the Oslo process converted the realities Sharon had established on the ground into the archipelago of isolated semi-autonomous Palestinian zones. But rather than seeing it as the validation of his strategy, he violently opposed the move and was the source of much of the violent incitement that preceded the killing of Rabin. Again, when he feared political progress, he called upon settlers to “move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements…”

When elected prime minister to “deal” with the second intifada in 2001, he fanned its fires and used the fire as a smoke screen to further reshape the “facts on the ground”. In 2002, he ordered the building of the wall upon and through Palestinian lands in the West Bank, while re-occupying and destroying the major Palestinian cities and camps in the West Bank. The “Hausmanisation” of Jenin was a repeat of his 1970s strategy in Gaza, with tank routes bulldozed out of the densely populated fabric.

Arafat’s compound in Ramallah was the only part left unoccupied. Recently it has been alleged that during this time he ordered the polonium poisoning of Arafat, his bete noire. He had the motivation to do this, having tried to kill Arafat many times before. In 2005, a few months before a stroke put him in a permanent coma, Sharon removed 7,000 settlers from Gaza, and simultaneously settled tens of thousands of others in settlements across the West Bank. Permanent as the settlements may seem to both their occupants and to the people on whose lands they are built, for Sharon they were pawns that could be rearranged as need arose in a constantly evolving battlefield.

Unlike his many fans believe, Sharon had not turned to peace. The wall and the evacuation of the ground settlements in Gaza are parts of the same national security logic of unilateral solutions that the settlements were – perpetuating and intensifying animosity and violence, rather than undoing them.

Sharon was a central figure in the making of the architecture of occupation, composed of the combined structure of outposts, settlements, military bases and the tunnels and bridges of ethnically divided roadways. This architecture, a result of a five-decade process that transformed the Israel/Palestine frontier by incessant acts of destruction and construction, could never provide the ground for a just solution to the conflict. 

Eyal Weizman is an architect, professor and director of the Forensic Architecture project at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London. His recent books include The Least of All Possible Evils (2011) and the co-authored Architecture after Revolution (2013).

Click through for a slideshow of scenes from Sharon’s life.