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Issue #1636      April 30, 2014

Boycotting the architects of Israel’s occupation

A nine-year-long campaign to hold Israeli architects responsible for their role in dispossessing Palestinians reached a significant stage on March 19. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) approved a call for its Israeli equivalent to be suspended from the International Union of Architects.

A Palestinian walks on his property overlooking the Israeli settlement Har Homa, West Bank.

This decision echoes an important precedent. In 1978, RIBA protested against apartheid in South Africa by severing its links with the South African Schools of Architecture.

While the campaign for an academic boycott of Israel has grown in recent years, the March 19 vote could be the first successful action against Israel’s professional institutes. This decision – the result of mobilisation by Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, backed by eminent architects and academics around the world – has put the spotlight on how Israeli architects assist the occupation in a most unethical way.

It is appropriate that the world body of architects takes action against the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA). Members of the IAUA have designed many of the settlements that Israel has built – and is continuing to build – in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as Israel’s apartheid wall.

These settlements are illegal under international law. Significantly, we are approaching the tenth anniversary of the International Court of Justice advisory opinion of July 2004, which declared Israel’s wall and the settlements unlawful. Architects facilitating these human rights violations and war crimes are thus a legitimate target of boycott.

Deeply political

Architecture is a deeply political profession, and Israeli architects operate in a hyper-political environment. One of Israel’s architecture schools is located in Ariel University, built inside the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank.

The charter of the International Union of Architects (IUA) reminds architects that they have an obligation to “thoughtfully consider the social and environmental impact of their professional activities”. It also requires architects to respect heritage and to help preserve it.

As designing settlements is a deliberate attempt to erase Palestinians’ heritage and dispossess them from their homes and land, members of the Israeli Association of United Architects have reneged on their obligations under the IUA Accords.

In 2005 and 2009, the International Union of Architects’ General Assembly approved a resolution condemning the construction of buildings and development projects on land that had been ethnically cleansed or illegally appropriated (“RIBA votes to suspend Israeli architects’ association from international body,” Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, March 20, 2014).

The Israeli Association of United Architects, despite numerous appeals, has not paid any attention to those decisions. Logic dictates that it should be suspended from the international body for architects until it starts complying with that body’s ethical codes and international law, and when these illegal projects end.

In August this year, the World Congress of the International Union of Architects will take place in Durban, South Africa. It is vital that participants take this action against Israeli architects over the role they play in designing the infrastructure of occupation and apartheid, and the “Judaization” policies in occupied East Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Naqab (Negev) and Palestinian neighbourhoods in cities within present-day Israel.

Selective outrage?

This decision by RIBA has been met with orchestrated fury by the pro-Israel lobby and media. The usual accusations of “singling out” Israel and anti-Semitism were trotted out, and the enumeration of all the world’s different atrocities compared with Israel’s “model democracy” in the heart of Arab Middle East. A boycott of RIBA being used as a venue for bar mitzvahs was also suggested.

Top-level British politicians and two famous American architects have vilified RIBA for its principled stance. But a letter signed by top architects, academics and cultural figures to support this courageous action by RIBA, asking it not to bow to the intimidation and accusation of anti-Semitism, was publicised widely.

After the vote took place, the Israeli Association of United Architects called on British Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene. They recalled that he had spoken against boycotts of Israel during his visit to Jerusalem earlier this year, though he also condemned the accelerating settlement construction (“Israeli architects ask David Cameron to block RIBA boycott,” The Jewish Chronicle, March 27, 2014).

Michael Gove, the UK’s education secretary and an avowed Zionist, has accused RIBA of “selective outrage” (“Gove’s reaction to the censure of Israeli architects involved in illegal construction in the West Bank was to be expected,” The Independent, April 9, 2014).

His allegation is ludicrous. Our initiative wasn’t in response to a small sample of misdemeanours by Israeli architects, but to their general practice.

Gove and his colleagues in the British government have ensured that Israel is treated with impunity despite its routine abuses of human rights and flouting of dozens of United Nations resolutions.

Eyal Weizman, a courageous Israeli architect whose books A Civilian Occupation and Hollow Land expose how many of his peers were assisting Israel’s illegal acts, has delivered a strong riposte to our critics. In a statement for The Architects’ Journal, he writes that the attacks on our initiative “wilfully invert perpetrator and victim, divert the discussion from the ongoing suffering, theft and violence enacted through the architecture employed in the context of Israel’s occupation and close an avenue for a better and more hopeful future.”

Duty to speak out

Michael Mansfield, a British barrister who was a key adjudicator in the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, was among numerous distinguished figures to support the RIBA motion. “There can be no doubt about Israel’s flagrant disregard for international law,” he stated. “The ICJ in 2004 made it clear that everyone had an obligation to help end this illegal situation.”

Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop, once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Architects of conscience have a duty to speak out when members of our profession in Israel are assisting the gross injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians. We cannot remain neutral.

The Electronic Intifada

Next article – Rana Plaza: One year on, no justice

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