A growing body of literature on Palestine and Israel focuses on the architecture of occupation. In her book, author Yara Sharif, calls it the “architecture of resistance” while analyzing how Palestinians navigate the matrix of walls and checkpoints across the occupied territories. Much of the literature focuses on the most visible and oppressive forms of what could be described as conflict architecture: the illegal separation barrier; the hundreds of cameras in Jerusalem’s Old City that have transformed an ancient quarter into a veritable zone of surveillance of Arab residents; and, among many other manifestations, the Jewish-only roads across the West Bank that expropriate and cut through Palestinian lands.
But what about the architecture on the other side of the occupation?
Adam Reynold’s and Danielle Spera’s Architecture of an Existential Threat (Lammerhuber, 2017) is a photographic exploration of shelters in Israel and settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories that can varyingly withstand conventional weapons and unconventional attacks. The authors do not steer the reader to any conclusions: there is no forced narrative of Israeli victimhood. They carefully distinguish between West and East Jerusalem so as not to inadvertently embrace Israel’s annexation of the latter. According to the authors, the goal is to let the “architecture spaces, the absent people, to communicate directly with the viewers.” In fact, they make it clear that the reference to an “existential threat” is a statement on how Israelis perceive their shelters, not how readers should.
An Israeli 1951 Civil Defense Law mandates that every citizen must have reasonable access to a shelter. In many cases, this means the “mamad,” a Hebrew acronym for Residential Sheltered Space, which is mass-produced, cramped and can be attached to a house or apartment. But larger shelters, public and private, proliferate throughout the country and adapt to the regional circumstances. For instance, after the 2006 war with Lebanon, the northern city of Haifa saw its shelters reinforced.
Many readers sympathetic to Palestinians may resent the very premise of the book as problematic. For an uninformed reader, it may appear to validate the argument promulgated by Israel and its partisans that the Jewish state, not the Palestinians, is the primary victim of unprovoked aggression. That would be a narrow viewing of the photographs. The photographs reveal how the Israeli political class normalizes the occupation, by simply managing the conflict with the Palestinians rather than address the source of the conflict.
The shelters, hidden in plain sight or transformed into mundane spaces, lessen public opposition to the occupation. If Israelis had to live with prominent and ugly shelters, then the reality and burden of the occupation would be more apparent. Although it may not have been a motivation in 1951, it would be naive to assume that Israeli leadership is not aware of the relationship between the aesthetic visibility of shelters and the role they play in maintaining the general indifference toward the occupation.
This aspect of normalizing the occupation in Israeli public psyche has created the world’s most inventive network of shelters. Israeli venues, such as Tel Aviv’s Habima National Theater, double as shelters; Habima’s underground parking garage has its own air filtration system and can accommodate 1,600 people. The Sammy Ofer Underground Emergency Hospital normally serves as a parking garage but in forty-eight hours can be transformed into a 1,000 bed hospital with oxygen tanks, electricity and water running through its concrete walls and pillars. Israelis have normalized these state-structures.
When the shelters first started popping up, they were meant for short-term usage. The local municipalities charged with overseeing the shelters opened them up to private businesses, and in turn, lessened the financial burden of maintaining these facilities. Israelis have turned shelters into everything from dance studios, fitness centers, and bars to synagogues and conference rooms.
Some Israelis would argue that the shelters represent a balance between normality and the security threat the country faces. But, that alleged threat—the very need for the shelters—is born out of Israel’s daily occupation and oppression of Palestinians. Rather than facing the harsh reality of the occupation, the shelters reinforce the nation’s intransigent refusal to remove its soldiers and illegal settlers from Palestine.
If Israel would match its defense capability with a genuine commitment towards peace with the Palestinians, the authors suggests, then the shelters would become obsolete. “We live in an unstable region, it is true,” says Israeli architect Ami Shinar, whose firm designed the Sderot train station as a rocket-proof shelter. “However, I strongly believe that we could spend much more effort and resources towards making peace with our neighbors, rather than spending endless billions on defense, active as well as passive.”