Facts on the Ground (2010)
in collaboration with Jessica Sucher
Early on during our time in Israel/Palestine, we climbed up to a lookout point in British Park and saw a lush green forest stretching out into the distance. It was the kind of sight that usually inspires awe and makes you feel grateful to those that had the foresight to preserve it. But within this park are the ruins of two villages that were home to Palestinians forcibly removed by Israeli troops in 1948. Since the villages are no longer visible, we photographed the pine forest that was planted to hide their remains and found it epitomized the misleading nature of the Israeli landscape.
There are ruins throughout Israel. Some are ancient sites dating back to Biblical times, but most of what you see today is more recent. They are the remains of over 400 villages destroyed by the Israeli military after forcibly removing 750,000 Palestinians from their homes during what Israeli textbooks refer to as “The War of Independence” and the Palestinians call the “Catastrophe” (al-Nakba). Their systematic destruction ensured that the exiled Palestinians did not have a place to return to, an act Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has identified as ethnic cleansing. The residents from these villages, along with their descendants, are now living as refugees or exiles throughout the world.
There is not usually much left of these villages--a cornerstone, or evidence of terraced farming, or more frequently cacti--but if you know what to look for, you begin to see them everywhere. The sites on which they stood have been purposely renamed. Many of the parks in Israel/Palestine, including British Park (named for the funders who donated money to the Jewish National Fund for its creation), were part of an intentional design to hide these ruins in benevolent, landscaped settings. The JNF, working together with Israeli government, planted fast-growing European pines to form these parks, simultaneously covering the ruins of the villages and creating a familiar landscape for the new, European immigrants. The Zionist expression “making the desert bloom” hides a dark history.
This is the narrative we found in Israel/Palestine repeatedly — the history that has been purposely buried is actually traceable in the land. We saw this in the ruins of villages, hidden in plain sight. We also saw it in the untended olive trees present throughout the West Bank. The trees look neglected, but they are a by-product of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. Israeli settlements, the Separation Wall, military checkpoints, and the segregated roads that criss-cross the West Bank have made countless olive orchards inaccessible to the Palestinian farmers who depend on them. These olive trees have been the main source of income for families that have tended them for generations, and their products, a leading industry for Palestinians. Palestinian ties to these trees run deep, and cutting off farmers from their orchards is a powerful strategy of symbolic and economic discouragement. These trees are beautiful in their untended wildness but their implication is devastating.
While the confiscated trees are a constant, sad feature of the Occupied landscape, the settlements are the main instrument used to impose, expand and cement Israeli control. The term “facts on the ground” is used to describe these housing developments that are intended to establish permanent Israeli presence in Palestinian territory, in effect negating Palestinian claims to their land. The scale of some of these projects is so vast and the ongoing construction so blatant, it’s difficult to reconcile that their existence is illegal under international law.
Whether the settlements are built in the style of North American suburbs, remote mountain outposts, or populous cities, their placement on the hilltops overlooking Palestinian villages in the valleys is menacing. This is both a symbolic and strategic maneuver, a policy of physical and psychological dominance. The settlements are now home to a half million Israelis and one of the main obstacles in any peace process. They are islands of concrete and asphalt and their influence stretches beyond the built structures, radiating out into the desert with circles of security fences, roads, and checkpoints. Their presence fragments the West Bank, making it nearly impossible for Palestinians to go to work or school, get medical care, or see their families. The Occupation strangles Palestinian life, making it all but unlivable, forcing those Palestinians who can to leave, and confining the rest in what can only be called ghettos.
For the majority of non-Palestinians, the dominant Israeli narrative invites one to look away from recent history and current policies of encroachment. We made the photographs in Facts on the Ground with a large format camera, which describes the world in precise detail and compels one to look at the landscape with great deliberation. The photographs stay away from the dramatic violence of the conflict that is frequently seen in the news, and reveal instead the enduring ways the Occupation has transformed the land. Being both American and Jewish, Facts on the Ground is a reckoning with our own nationalities and backgrounds. US foreign policy, ever favorable towards Israel, is one of the factors that legitimizes and enables the cruelties, small and great, that Israel inflicts on the Palestinian people. Being Jewish means that Israel, the Jewish State, performs these injustices in our name. The conflict in Israel/Palestine is often portrayed as timeless and deeply complex, a portrayal which actively discourages scrutiny of recent and current policies. And while the path to any future resolution will be complex, the history of the conflict and the methods of the Occupation are more blatant than many want to admit. They are stamped on the land.