Hagit tells us how she accessed the evidence she needed (about East Jerusalem house demolitions) in state archives, and how she analysed it to tell her story.
Hagit tells us next how she accessed the evidence she needed in state archives, and how she analysed it to tell her story. She soon discovered the potential of aerial photography as a powerful surveillance mechanisms and as a tool for control over its subjects. Through this she also discovered that house demolitions were only at the surface of the story, concealing a much more pernicious political story of fear and power.
What did you begin collecting... researching... looking at, to investigate the mechanisms of house demolitions?
It was fascinating for me. Obviously I was entering a terrain in which more things are unsaid than said, and it's a bureaucratic mechanism. It's supposed to be very hard to get the things you need to get, the interviews you need to get, especially if you're touching on such a politically sensitive issue. But through that process I realised that bureaucracy is porous, full of holes. You just need to be there if you want to have the opportunity to enter. It's not going to happen if you go through the formal paths, and that is what happened.
First, I interviewed this retired inspector that used to enforce the process of house demolitions. He actually told me at first that he was responsible for more than 800 house demolitions in Jerusalem. It was a total shock at the beginning. But while I was speaking to someone who I thought should be convicted in an international court for war crimes, he was also talking to me and I was talking to him in such a friendly way - we were feeling comfortable with each other! Because we're both Israeli and we inevitably have so much in common... a language, cultural references, and a shared crime that has not been prosecuted yet... The conversation seemed easy and comfortable. I felt like I was treading a thin line, because I didn't want to lie about my opinions and intentions but he, on the other hand, wasn't asking too much. We met and we had this really, really long conversation during which he told me a lot of things. He had me sign a contract to say I would not expose what he told me, so I couldn't really use it. But he told me one thing that got me forward - that the inspectors relied heavily on photography.
The people from the department I interviewed before I met him told me that I would definitely not be able to join the inspectors in their patrols of East Jerusalem and not even interview them or photograph what they are doing. I could only interview the head of the department. But when this retired inspector told me about the photographs, I approached it in a different way and I told them that I want to see the photographs they are taking and they gave me access. The photographs are part of an archive, which is an active archive, with files that are used in court. Therefore the archive is not normally open to public inspection. Yet they let me open the files, look at the pictures and copy them, maybe because I wasn't interested in a specific case and also because I was a student researching photography from an anthropological perspective. It sounded OK – and it was OK!
What did you find?
I went and sat in the archive for a few hours. They didn't really prepare any files for me. The worker in the archive just told me “here you have the files - you can sit and browse them.” I was sitting at this table where lots of files were laid out and most of them were of Palestinian houses. When I looked at the files, I started discovering photographs inside of them. I just copied them one by one as fast as I could because I didn't know when someone was going to say something and kick me out of there! I felt very uncomfortable on the one hand, but on the other I felt I was allowed a lot of freedom, more than I'd expected. People were very nice to me and they were very happy with the fact that I was interested in what they were doing. They weren't asking any difficult questions. Still I felt like this window of opportunity I got would end in a second. So I photographed something like 400 or 500 photographs. They just file all the photographs they have and they copy and copy the photographs, then keep all the copies inside the file so the same photograph is being worn out and the content gets more and more erased. But the copies are still there in the file acting as an evidence. So then I had my own archive of their photographs. It became my personal archive and I started examining the photographs and learning about their practices through it.
What did you do with this personal archive?
It all happened quite accidentally. I didn't think it would be so easy and I didn't think the photographs would be so interesting. I thought it would be but I didn't know in what way. It's a lot about your own imagination actually, because you're not sitting there with the photographers and you're not sitting with the people being photographed. You're looking at the photograph and you're using your own consciousness and knowledge to interpret this information. It's again another layer of interpretation.
I was writing my thesis on their practices - not only about the practices that you could see in the photographs but also the practices of the archiving process: what you could see inscribed on the photographs, the way they treated the photographs as evidence, the difference between the treatment of image and text in the files. I took all the photos in chronological order. I opened a file, took all the photographs and then opened another file so I knew which photograph belonged to which file - and I detected that some photographs didn't belong to the file they were found in. There were all kinds of mistakes and a lot of arbitrariness in the way they treated photographs, in spite of the importance of them and how much it helped them. In one place I found an envelope that read 'photos' and it was empty. Things like that suggested there was a lot of instability and undocumented movements of the file and its contents.
It didn't feel like an archive in line with the sterile understanding of what an archive is. But obviously this is an archive. The way people treat the materials, the mistakes they make, the way they use them to build a certain story, and the way they use photographs to frame this story to seem like an unequivocal truth, that was really fascinating for me. I did some work deconstructing the story the archive tells through the photographs, and the traces I could find on their surface. The inspectors are using them as a piece of evidence to prove a certain kind of crime (or supposedly a crime). But I told a different story. I told a story based on the fact that in the photographs you could see women and children in the house, that the inspectors came in the morning when the men were not there, so the inspectors had the liberty to enter without any warrants. They knocked on the doors and people didn't have the power to say no. And some people did say no - that I realised only later - but you could see on the photographs that people were standing there, letting them do what they wanted, and you could see lots of intimate photographs of bedrooms. And you know this was a traditional society, it was a religious society of religious women, while all these inspectors are men. You could see the way they treated the photographs as legal evidence by the way they filmed themselves. In front of any kind of an infraction they filmed themselves with a paper in their hand to prove that this was there. Like a human indicator in the photo, they stand next to their object using their bodies to “stabilise” the alleged objectivity of the evidence they wish to bring forth.
There was another method I used to hear about all the time. Because there are no postal services in East Jerusalem, they would just leave administrative or judicial orders on the houses. They would tape them up and often they would fall or disappear. So they document themselves taping the warrants on the outside wall, so people wouldn't be able to say “but we didn't get the warrant.” They know it can disappear, or get wet in the rain, and resident won't even know that a demolition order they had been recently received. Of course it's crucial that residents know about these warrants on time because they have limited time to appeal in court before administrative demolitions are executed.
How did this project unfold beyond your thesis?
After I finished my thesis I was invited to present it as an exhibition in the gallery of an organisation called Zochrot in Tel Aviv. I had to get the approval from the municipality of the people who took the photographs. So I went to the department, showed them my thesis and asked if I could present the photographs. I was terrified - I thought they would read it and say that I am showing things that they completely disagree with, and not let it happen. But they didn't! They just looked at it as if they were looking at a family album and they thought it was really interesting that all these photographs they created were now part of my academic work. So I got the approval to link it. I don't think they were stupid or anything, I just think it doesn't threaten them at all. They knew I was trying to convey the sensitivities and difficulties inherent in the situation in which they were working, they know that for the Palestinian people these were devastating situations, they were losing their houses. But they see themselves as law enforcers, and nothing more than that.
During that visit I was offered the chance to talk to the inspectors who took the photographs. That was an amazing opportunity to show them their own photographs and discuss it with them. I was trying to confirm all kinds of assumptions that I had. I got a lot of information from them about how they saw their role and what they were doing, and how they felt in the situation of a house demolition, how they used their cameras, what practices they have in order to create the “perfect evidence”, as they put it. How they perceived their photographic work, and how they got to know the areas they were responsible for.
Because they had a lot of photographs, I thought they were patrolling a lot more than they actually were. They actually patrol their areas every few months and take a lot of photographs. They try to take as many photographs as possible because the whole operation of going there is very difficult - they have to go with the police because it's considered a security threat for them to be there. It's a whole operation to organise it. So once they are there they try to get as much evidence as they can to use in their own office. And when they are in their office they have this GIS system and high resolution aerial photography through which they can collect information, create all kinds of layers of information and also monitor changes using the aerial photography. While I was sitting there with this inspector I observed how he travels through the aerial photography, and the Geographic Information System (GIS) he uses. And these guys are not professional GIS people. They use aerial photography because it helps them in their work and they developed their own skills while using it. He knew the area through aerial photography like we know our area where we live in - intimately - recognising houses, knowing the families that live in this house and that house, and really having the ability to orient himself in an amazing way that was very surprising for me. It got me thinking about this as a tool. A tool of control, a tool that gives him a lot of control over people that live in these areas. It got me thinking about how it could be used in a civil context.
The aerial photography gives them a whole encompassing vision of the area, together with the massive number of photographs they had been taking over years and years, because they were following the same houses over years and years.
The fact that they have accumulated all these photographs of the same houses (they have files that started in the 1990s of houses which they are still monitoring) gives them a lot of power. They get to know these people, they get to know the people around them. They construct files that are mapping the population there in detail. This detailed information goes further than purely issues relating to planning and building and becomes a powerful mechanism of surveillance that hovers from above, patrols on the ground and even enters inside the private house.
I am trying to say something about the way they know the area and reconstruct it in their offices. It's not only about enforcing the law but also about knowing and placing things in relation to one another through still photographs and aerial photography. They don't really go there most of the time. They sit in their offices and they construct this whole story about the area and about these people, and this in turn directly affect these people's lives. That is what gives them a lot of power when they reach the places they monitor. The residents know that the inspectors have this power and knowledge about what they are doing, and what other people in the area are doing, and they don't really know if, where, when and how it's going to fall on them.
What is the impact of these demolitions?
House demolition is just the tip of the iceberg. The real thing is the mechanism behind this surveillance and the enforcement of the planning law. This mechanism is one of making people weaker and weaker politically, economically and socially. This is because house owners whose files are kept in this judicial archive are paying fines year after year, and the resulting income for the municipality is enormous. These people, who are not well off, to say the least, are paying unimaginable sums to the municipality – fines for building illegally, or taxes if they are trying to get a permit and in most cases not getting it in the end. This is one thing that I discovered when I met these women and they showed me packages of bills to pay, thousands of Israeli Shekels every month. And that was amazing to me, because I had never encountered such a relationship with the authorities. And these are people for whom often their house is the only thing they have.
The fact that they are paying so much money to the authorities is practically erasing any possibility of planning their future, giving their children education or any kind of support that they need in order to grow and develop. That is really a control mechanism - politically, socially, economically. It is a lot more encompassing and deep than the demolition of houses (there are about a hundred
B'Tselem's data shows home demolitions in East Jerusalem from 2004-2013.
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demolitions every year), but the mechanism of surveillance and enforcement of the planning law is reaching thousands and thousands of houses in East Jerusalem. Actually there is no Palestinian in East Jerusalem that is not experiencing it in some way or another.
Was this a breaking point in your research? Giving you a completely different take on the politics of what you were seeing?
I suddenly realised that yes, there are house demolitions and it's a terrible terrible punishment, but still it is hiding something a lot more complex. We can see the house demolitions - it's being photographed, it's being published (not everywhere but it is being published). But the fact that the municipality is squeezing the life out of these people in East Jerusalem is not photographed, not documented. This was an important discovery for me in my work.
This may be part of a systemic political approach. You create this dramatic moment of demolition because it works as a warning, it sustains the fear.
Would you say it happens regularly as a kind of memento mori? Is it there to sustain the threat so that the system is sustained?
I saw it as a way to divert attention from a bigger scheme. When you see East Jerusalem and you get to know the facts about building in East Jerusalem, you realise that the enforcement of the law is not working. It's not changing the situation, it's not making things any better. And yet they keep on using the same methods, so why are they doing it? Are they doing it because they want to enforce the ideas of modernistic planning? Is it based on a the assumption that such punishments would make these residents law abiding, and finally help to achieve a better planned city? If so, it certainly doesn't have an impact. Official it's being justified by the planning discourse and by framing Palestinians in East Jerusalem as people who resist Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem. It's an inaccurate representation of their reality because beyond all the politics and the political entities that try to run and control these spaces, these people want to live and grow so they have to build more houses. It's as simple as that. It's a human need that we can understand and it's obvious that the infrastructure and the planning procedures put in place by the Israeli authorities are not fulfilling the needs of the Palestinian population.
Is it a business model for the city?
No, it's not. It's about slowly transferring the people who are losing their houses to the other side of the wall. By leaving Jerusalem and going to the other side of the wall they are losing their rights and their land. They don't have full Israeli citizenship, it's only permanent residence. If they don't live in the city it can be revoked by the Israeli authorities. So it's pushing Palestinian presence away from Jerusalem and it's also an economic mechanism that brings in millions and millions of Shekels to the authorities' cash register. Between 2000-2010 the municipality income from fines was more than 200 million Shekels (over €40 million), while the budget for demolition was 18 million. It’s a lot of money, and on the other hand the Jerusalem municipality is encouraging people like me to build and buy a house in Jerusalem. They would pay me money to do that, a hundred thousand Shekels (around €20,000), if I buy a house in Jerusalem. So you can see how the money works in this system. You give extra privileges to one while you strip any rights from the other. And it's well known that people with privileges have a hard time giving up those privileges in favour of a desired political change.
First published on July 10, 2015