Archive of Destruction



The present archive documents typical forms of damage to architecture and built environments caused by different types of weapons and modes of destruction. Its inspiration is the archive of photographs compiled by the Palestinian National Authority Ministry of Public Works and Housing in the aftermath of Cast Lead, which Eyal Weizman, in the last chapter of his book “The Least of All Possible Evils”, analyses as follows:


The Destruction of Destruction

In the spring of 2009 following the Israeli winter attack, the Gaza-based and Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing started compiling an archive titled ‘A Verification of Building-Destruction Resulting from Attacks by the Israeli Occupation’. This ‘book of destruction’ – as the archive was soon known – contained thousands of entries, each documenting a single building that was completely or partially destroyed, from cracked walls in houses that still stand, to those completely reduced to piles of rubble.[1] In reconstructing the course of events from the investigation of the trash and rubble left behind, this archive is another instance of forensic architecture. Both practical and political, its forensics is however outside the frame of international law.

A year later, in the spring of 2010, I had the opportunity to examine a few hundred of the entries. Each entry included a single, frontal-view photograph of a destroyed building. Each photograph displayed a catalogue number spray-painted onto the walls or onto the rubble itself. Sometimes, the building had been so badly pulverized that there was no longer any clear surface left to spray-paint the code on. Instead, the numbers had been jotted down on pieces of paper, cards or sheets of plastic and placed among the rubble or held up in front of the camera at the moment the photograph was taken (N3004-101).

Catalogue entries such as G10177-01, N30049-3, K1086-01, R1002-03 designate the location of each building. ‘G’ stands for Gaza City, ‘N’ for the northern sector of the Strip, ‘K’ for Khan Younis and ‘R’ for Rafah. The digits following the letters designate the relevant neighbourhood, road and plot. The classification is based on an area grid system that covers the entire Gaza Strip. Each existing and potential building site in Gaza – those ruined and those still intact – have thus been designated as a possible site of destruction. Each entry in the ‘book of destruction’ contained several other documents, detailing the size of the plot and the building, the type of construction – most commonly cast concrete frames with unrendered cinderblocks – and, when the municipality could get hold of them, plans of the buildings in question. Unable to avoid the temptation of exercising their authority even over the ruins, sometimes the ministry employees undertaking the survey noted that a destroyed building or an extension had been built without planning permission.

Significantly, each file also recorded how the damage to the building was inflicted. There were boxes to be ticked next to several pre-designated categories: ‘destroyed by armoured D9 bulldozers’, ‘bombed from the air’ (N2003-02, K6002-11); ‘shelled from the ground’ (N4005-02, R1002-03); ‘directly targeted’, ‘indirectly struck’ or ‘controlled demolition by explosives’. Other checked boxes described the state of the building: ‘reduced to rubble’, ‘partially destroyed’ or ‘still standing but dangerous and requiring demolition’. The archive also includes information about the use of the building – most often residential, sometimes of mixed use with a small shop or a workshop – and the names of the people that owned or lived in it. Each entry included the identity cards and telephone numbers of some of the building’s occupants. Many entries included photocopies of UNRWA (UN Relief and Work Association) cards, indicating that the buildings’ inhabitants were refugees supported by international welfare. Indeed, the destroyed buildings were mostly home to refugees who lived in the camps of Gaza or in the poor neighbourhoods that ring its cities. In Gaza, where 70 per cent of the population are refugees, the boundaries between camps and neighbourhoods are porous.

The archive tries to clear up the chaos and confusion of the after-attack by organizing the rubble into clear categories. But the reading of these images overspills the classifications under which they were filed. In her reading of photographs of violence and destruction, Ariella Azoulay commented upon the way in which details, accidentally recorded in photographs, could challenge the classification logic intended by the archive makers.[2] Indeed, the ‘book of destruction’ offers glimpses onto daily realities in Gaza, and the consequences of its domination by Israel. Some photographs show families inhabiting a house still destroyed: having nowhere else to go, they have sealed the gaps between the broken slabs with blankets and nylon sheets, living in and among ruins (N3004- 94). Some photographs show people posing in front of the ruins that were their homes (N4022-050, N3004-111). Are they attempting to mark their ownership, their subsequent dispossession and physical survival beyond the life of the building they lived in? Some other photographs show a small gathering of people around sites of destruction (G1014-07). Azoulay also explained that ruins often generate ad hoc public spaces – sites around which people assemble.[3] The visible ruin plays a major role in the public display of the facts of domination and violence; it demonstrates the presence of colonial power even when the colonizer is nowhere to be seen. Before Israel left Gaza in 2005, it demonstrated its control over the enclave by the displays of power that are its settlements. In 1980, as minis- ter in charge of settlements, Ariel Sharon made sure his order was understood when he said he wanted ‘the Arabs to see Jewish lights every night 500 metres from them.’[4] After the Israeli military relocated to the Strip’s perimeter and destroyed the settlements, inaugurating an era of colonialism without colonies, the destroyed buildings in Gaza – standing like monuments, unrepaired, unrepairable – became the most significant means for the visual affirmation of its domination.

The draft for the future ‘book of destruction’ has been presented as the Israeli military’s ‘book of targets in Gaza.’ It is a thick blue folder which was passed at the start of 2011 from the outgoing chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who presided over the destruction of 2008–9, to his successor in a grotesque ceremony. ‘There is something symbolic in the transition today of all days,’ said the outgoing military chief, ‘which is why I want to hand over something I carry with me all the time: the updated book of targets’.[5] This book also contains a biography of certain buildings in the enclave: information about their structure and construction, who lives in them, what they are used for, what should be done to them and how.


The logic of the ‘book of destruction’, according to its makers – Dr Ibrahim Radwan, the Minister for Public Works, and his director of urban planning, Mohammed al-Ostaz – is that of a property-damage survey, a practical way to account for the necessary work of reconstruction and its cost. But the archive testifies, rather, to a different reality: the impossibility of undertaking any major program of rebuilding. The entries on the survey are from April and May 2009, three to four months after the destruction took place, but many of the ruins are left unrepaired still. Two years prior to the attack, the importing of cement and other vital construction materials into Gaza had been banned. These materials were classified by Israel as ‘dual-use construction materials’ suspected of being used equally to build bunkers and reinforce tunnels. Without these materials, the Palestinian ministry could not oversee much more than the documentation of the destruction inflicted by Israel’s invasion. This it did thoroughly.

Reporting from Gaza in Spring 2009, Peter Beaumont of the Guardian was the first journalist to come across the strange catalogue numbers etched onto the ruins ‘fetishistically in blue and green’ and traced them back to the ministry. ‘Like exhibits in a museum, every house, school and hospital that has been turned into rubble is noted in this book of destruc- tion’.[6] Charges of ‘fetishism’ seem to haunt the practice of forensics. This is perhaps because forensics is tuned to the ‘object quality’ of history and its different modes of reification, and because it deals with the protocols and technologies by which objects speak. By invoking the term, Beaumont might have meant to underline the way in which the focus on structures and ruins might mask the story of the war’s human casualties. His empathy, responding to a similar instinct of many in the human rights world, is understandable. He went on to find some of the people affected and to retell their stories. But shattered concrete and cinderblocks can reveal something different from the human testimony he gathered. In its impersonal bureaucratic logic, with its surveyors’ maps, diagrams, photographs, and captions, and the patterns, repetitions and differences in destruction they reveal, the archive helps capture the relentless magnitude of Gaza’s destruction in a different way.

The description and quantification of these crushed buildings functions similarly to the statistics that open W. G. Sebald’s The Natural History of Destruction, on the Allied destruction of German cities in 1945: ‘31.1 cubic metres of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic metres for every inhabitant of Dresden’;[7] they are the grounds for a historical, political and cultural interrogation of the bombing.

Likewise, writing about the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Sharon Sliwinski noted the power of detailed representations of destroyed buildings to generate political identification across borders. The series of copper engravings of the ruined city, produced by the French artist Jacques-Philippe Le Bas in a patient and careful survey undertaken in 1757, circulated widely throughout Europe and the Americas. They were part of what constituted ‘the first modern mass media events in which subjects throughout Europe became spectators to a distant catastrophe . . . helping inaugurate a secular notion of human suffering as well as thoughts about its prevention.’ It seems as if the universal notion of the ‘human’ – as much as the question of political rights – could be as effectively captured in the representation of ‘non-human things’.[8]

In Palestine, in his poem ‘The House Murdered’, Mahmoud Darwish also pointed to the house as the most potent object-witness to Palestinian history. In it the crushed glass, iron and cement ‘all scatter in fragments like beings’: they are the prism through which both private life and common history can be interrogated. ‘The house murdered is also mass murder, even if vacant of its residents. It is a mass grave for the basic elements needed to construct a building for meaning.’ In the aftermath of destruction, says Darwish, objects yield up their stories. He also provides a list of secondary witnesses:

‘stone, wood, glass, iron, cement . . . cotton, silk, linen, papers, books . . . plates, spoons, toys, records, faucets, pipes, door handles, fridges, washing machines, flower vases, jars of olives and pickles, tinned food . . . salt, sugar, spices, boxes of matches, pills, contraceptives, antidepressants, strings of garlic, onions, tomatoes, dried okra, rice and lentils . . . rent agreements, marriage documents, birth certificates, water and electricity bills, identity cards, passports, love letters . . . photographs, toothbrushes, combs, cosmetics, shoes, underwear, sheets, towels . . . Our things die like us, but they don’t get buried with us!’[9]

Gazans have been living in and among ruins since at least the early twen- tieth century. Accounts of rubble in Gaza, generated from the destruction visited during the battle fought between the British ‘Egyptian Expeditionary Force’ under the command of General Allenby and the Ottoman army in March 1917, can be found in diaries and correspond- ence of British officials such as Charles Robert Ashbee of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1920s, and in those of British District Commissioners until as late as 1938.[10] The wars of 1947–9, the military incursions of the 1950s, the 1956 war, the 1967 war, the 1972 ‘counter- insurgency’ in the refugee camps of Gaza, the first intifada of 1987–91, and the waves of destruction brought about during the second intifada of the 2000s, have each piled new layers of rubble on top of those produced by their predecessors. It is sometimes hard to tell them apart.

When a building, however poor and simple, is destroyed, its representational value is no longer in its façade, but rather in its broken structure now revealed. The ‘book of destruction’ can also be read as an archive of materials and construction techniques, which themselves reveal something of the history and economy of the area. The images in the archive reveal the fast and rudimentary building technique typical of refugee homes; the relatively low quantity of cement in mortar composition. Refugee homes are structural frames, temporary in as much as they are never completed – they are never-ending construction sites. Their fragile structural skeletons easily succumbed to the steel and explosive hauled at them.

For Israel, refugee homes represent more than piles of materials and human waste to be ploughed through. While the Arab states, and even possibly a Palestinian one, might be accepted as fierce but conventional enemies, only the refugees have a moral and historical claim against the Israeli state that was established in 1948 on the ruins of their society. The war on refugees is an ongoing form of violence that seeks not only to destroy refugee life and property but also to restructure ‘refugeeness’ – that feature of Palestinian political identity. This kind of war is undertaken both by destruction and reconstruction – and attempts to make the refugee problem disappear by architectural means. Israeli military destruction in refugee camps is often followed by attempts at development, programmes for ‘proper housing’ and urbanization.

In 2010, the same power that destroyed Gaza sought to supervise its reconstruction. In the wake of its assault on the international flotilla that set out to deliver supplies to Gaza, Israel eased the siege, allowing in some construction materials. The Israeli military’s ‘humanitarian coordination office’ informed international agencies that they needed to obtain its approval for every construction project, however. The power of Israel to affect the reconstruction is exercised by regulating the entry of steel, gravel and cement through the terminals in the Gaza perimeter fence.[11] It gave approval mainly for internationally funded projects – also approved by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the Hamas government’s political opponents.

For refugees, camps were shelters for the reconstruction of personal and social life, but were also seen as sites of great political significance, the material testimony of what was destroyed and ‘all that remains’ of more than four hundred cities, towns and villages forcefully cleansed through- out Palestine in the Nakba of 1947–9.[12] This is the reason that refugees sometimes refer to the destruction of camps as ‘the destruction of destruction’. The camp is not a home, it is a temporary arrangement, and its destruction is but the last iteration in an ongoing process of destruction.[13] This rhetoric of double negation – the negation of negation – tallies well with what Saree Makdisi, talking about the Israeli refusal to acknowledge the Nakba, has termed ‘the denial of denial,’ which is, he says, ‘a form of foreclosure that produces the inability – the absolutely honest, sincere incapacity – to acknowledge that a denial and erasure have taken place because that denial and erasure have themselves been erased in turn and purged from consciousness.’[14] What has been denied is continuously repeated: Israel keeps on inflicting destruction on refugees and keeps on denying that a wrong has been done – as testified by its denial of the find- ings of international reports on the Gaza war and its inability to accept responsibility for the destruction it causes. The destroyed village of 1948 and the destroyed camp of 2009 stand thus on a historical continuum of ongoing destruction and denial. The ‘book of destruction’ documents the ongoing Nakba; it is a ‘single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble . . .’

What form of practice is called upon by the ‘destruction of destruction’? Does it designate salvation and the beginning of return? Or is it simply a call for the removal of the dust and rubble, for cleaning up and starting all over again?

With camps understood as the destruction of that which was already destroyed, forensics – the hermeneutics of this rubble – is faced with a more complex, double-edged challenge. It is not simply tasked with uncovering past events and the way destruction has occurred, but with the means of evaluating future works. This forensics must look simultaneously forwards and backwards: connecting the destruction of the present – the rubble piling before our feet – to a longer and ongoing history of destruction and displacement thus far denied; and also, pragmatically and practically, with evaluating the necessary works needed for reconstruction and their cost. Both these perspectives are eminently political; they are different from each other, but their power is in being practiced simultaneously.[15]

The predominant conceptual frame by which refugee camps are understood is one in which every physical improvement at present is a potential threat to the provisional nature of the camp. Urbanizing the camp, making it permanent, might sacrifice the ‘right of return’ to which its temporariness otherwise testifies. But a new generation of Palestinian scholars and architects – Ismael Sheikh Hassan and Sari Hanafi in Lebanon, and Nasser Abourahme and Sandi Hillal in Palestine prominent among them – have attempted to challenge the conceptualization of refugee habitats as mere repositories of national memory.[16] The stronger the camp, they argue, the better the chances for it becoming a political space, a platform on which refugees’ political claims could be articulated and the struggle continued. In Nahr el Bared in Lebanon after its destruction by the Lebanese army in 2007 and in the camps of Gaza and those of the West Bank that shouldered much of the burden of ongoing resistance and paid its price, they worked with refugee communities and UN agencies to pick up the rubble, to design and promote programmes for camp improvement and upgrading – but not just any programmes or any plans. The plans they struggled for resisted all attempts to remove refugees from the area of the camp and to dispere them in new neighbourhoods. For those that remained in the camp, and for those that live just outside it, they sought to reinforce the camp as a vibrant living space with community services and political institutions. An improved camp with open access, public spaces, functioning institutions, updated physical and communication infrastructure and better homes, is not a negation of the right of return but rather a tool for its reinforcement. Such a camp could provide a platform for political mobilization. This point of view rejects both the accommodation to an unjust political reality and the politics du pire that seeks to maintain misery and invest it with political meaning. The reconstruction of Gaza, when and if made possible, might mean the arrival of some international organizations and state donors with a multi- plicity of agendas and the means to pursue them. Facing this well-meaning aid, refugees will have to adopt a delicate process of navigating between poles. Homes must be rebuilt, infrastructure laid out, camps and life improved, not instead of but rather in order to support political rights and the continuous struggle to achieve them. This will surely still be much less than perfect but it is certainly not the choice of the lesser evil.