In the Land of the Patriarchs: Design and Contestation in West Bank Settlements by Noam Shoked

Q&A with Noam Shoked on his book In the Land of the Patriarchs

Since capturing the West Bank in 1967, Israel has overseen the construction of scores of settlements across the territory’s rocky hilltops. The settlements are part of a fierce political conflict. But they are not just hotly contested political ventures. They are also something more everyday: residential architectural projects.

In the Land of the Patriarchs is an on-the-ground account of the design and evolution of West Bank settlements. In his new book, Noam Shoked shows how settlements have been shaped not only by the decisions of military generals, high-profile politicians, and prominent architects but also by a wide range of actors, including real estate developers, environmental consultants, amateur archeologists, and Israelis who felt unserved by the country’s housing system. In this Q & A, Shoked shares his perspective as a practicing architect and some of the challenges, insights, and critical shifts he observed during more than five decades of both conflicts and collaborations in the development of West Bank settlements.

Dr. Noam Shoked’s book In the Land of the Patriarchs publishes on September 19! Check out more titles in our Lateral Exchanges series edited by Felipe Correa, Bruno Carvalho, and Alison Isenberg here.

How did your career as a practicing architect contribute to your understanding of one of the most contested landscapes in the world?

My work experience as an architect was among the things that got me thinking about West Bank settlements in terms of architecture. Having grown up in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the settlements were a fairly abstract thing for me, something I heard about in the news. But the first architects’ firm I joined after graduating from Tel Aviv University had overseen a number of projects in settlements. Suddenly, I started thinking about settlements as something concrete, something that has a history and a spatial form. Admittedly, it also made me wonder what would I do if asked to work on a project in a settlement.

Later, while researching settlements, my work experience helped me avoid fetishizing the role of the architect and planning officials. It is sometimes tempting to imagine that such figures have a lot of power, that they make decisions independently, and these decisions are smoothly translated into built form. But things were more chaotic and capricious in the office and the construction site, and even more so once people moved in. There was a large gap between what was initially drawn on paper and what got built and then used. So I moved away from simplistic interpretations of the built environment as the direct product of the decisions of architects and urban designers. Instead, I combined design-related materials—interviews, plan drawings, and publications—with newspaper clippings, interviews with residents, and ethnographic observations. Together, these sources offer a more nuanced understanding of the unexpected path that abstract ideas go through in becoming built forms.

My work experience as an architect was also helpful when interviewing architects and planners. I was more familiar with their vocabulary, and with the experience of working with national planning agencies.

How did you choose the case studies you explore in the book—settlements Hebron, Ofra, Alfe Menashe, Betar Illit, and Pnei Kedem—and how do they represent the West Bank settlements as a whole?

These five case studies represent five different patterns of settlement design and construction. These patterns have evolved chronologically. Each grew out of the needs and demands of a different group of Israelis. The Jewish settlement in Hebron grew out of the desire of certain Israelis, especially religious Zionists, to settle in Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Ofra is the place where religious Zionists, seeking a form of modern-day pioneering, negotiated the principles of the community settlement (yishuv kehilati), a type of rural community of commuters that, starting in the late 1970s, was replicated across the West Bank. Alfe Menashe (which I explore alongside two other settlements) represents large suburban settlements that emerged in the late 1970s and early 80s, catering to Israelis who wanted to improve their housing conditions with no particular ideological motivation. Betar Illit, which was inaugurated in 1990, is the first city-settlement built exclusively for ultra-Orthodox Jews that succeeded in attracting tens of thousands of pious Jews. Pnei Kedem represents “unauthorized outposts,” small villages that began to mushroom in the mid-1990s without government permission, catering to many second-generation settlers. Over the years, some of these patterns have changed, resulting in some overlapping. Certain community settlements, for example, have adopted features common in large suburbs. None of these patterns constitutes a “pure” settlement type.

These five represent the main patterns of settlement design and construction in the occupied West Bank. Nevertheless, they do not represent all West Bank settlements. The political uncertainty surrounding the occupation, the loose enforcement of building regulations, and the sense of urgency among some settlers, have created an environment where change and uncertainty prevail. In recent years, for instance, a new settlement model has emerged: agricultural farms. Further research is likely to reveal even more patterns.

What were some of the benefits and challenges involved in the participant-observation portion of your research?

I lived in the West Bank for a year, including about 10 months in Pnei Kedem, a settlement that was then considered illegal even under Israeli law. Participant-observation was somewhat imperative in this context. Due to its illegal status, much of Pnei Kedem’s history, like most other unauthorized outposts, was informal. It lacked an accessible archive; planning decisions were made by resident committees; and there was a prevailing sense of suspicion toward outsiders. I probably couldn’t have researched Pnei Kedem without living there.

Beyond this, participant-observation allowed me to challenge the master narratives of conquest, with their bird’s-eye view of politics, by adopting a view from ground level that takes into account the contingencies and contradictions by which the built environment is produced and inhabited. In the news we often hear about the political ideology that guided the establishment of places like Pnei Kedem, and about the messianic zeal of the settlers. By residing in Pnei Kedem, going on night walks with the settlers, dining with them on Shabbat, joining a local construction team, and taking part in resident committees, I could see a far less overdetermined reality. I learned about the settlers’ everyday life, about how difficult they found it to formulate a shared worldview, about their shifting attitudes towards the government, and about the haphazard process of making a home out of the isolated hilltop.

There were, of course, a number of challenges. One challenge was keeping an eye on the big picture. It was tempting to tell the story solely from my field notes. Everyday life on the isolated hill, surrounded by hostile communities, imposed its own narrative. But my notes couldn’t fully explain how this place existed without any official government support, or the structural conditions that prompted certain Israelis to move there. To get a broader picture, I therefore drew on legal and statistical reports, geographic surveys, and interviews with military attorneys.

Another challenge had to do with change. Since the settlement landscape is dynamic, some of my observations got old faster than I expected. Just a few months ago, when the book was already in production, the government legalized Pnei Kedem. I haven’t been there for a while, but this will probably cause significant changes.

Lastly, conducting participant-observation sometimes required developing empathy toward people I disagreed with, especially on political affiliation.

What were the most critical shifts you observed in researching more than five decades of both the conflicts and collaborations in the development of West Bank settlements?

Changes in the development of settlements were often linked to significant historical events. The most prominent among these events include the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that arguably led to the founding of Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”), a settlement movement. The 1977 elections saw the rise of the right-wing Likud party, which encouraged settlement expansion. The first intifada (Palestinian uprising) that broke out in 1987 made it clear to many Israelis that the Palestinians wanted independence. And the signing of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s made it more difficult for the government to establish new settlements. However, sometimes there was a gap between the historical event and the planning decisions, and then the implementation of these decisions on the ground. Political events may order history, but architecture and construction tend to be gradual and often messier.

How has the field of architecture impacted organized opposition to the military occupation of the West Bank?

I don’t think architects have had much effect on organized opposition to the occupation. At first, architects (like many other Israelis) didn’t always see the occupation the way we now understand it; some believed it would actually benefit the Palestinians. Later, once the negative effects of the occupation and the settlements became clear, many architects felt they couldn’t express dissent. Work in settlements was important for keeping their practices afloat, and in any case (one architect bluntly told me), if they declined a building commission, someone else—another architect, engineer, etc.—would take it. 

The first time I encountered a protest against the occupation by architects as a group of professionals took place in 1988: about a hundred architects signed a petition calling on design professionals to decline to work in settlements. The petition, which was aired in local newspapers, didn’t stop the construction of settlements, of course. Nevertheless, it joined a growing number of protest activities and groups condemning the Israeli occupation that mushroomed in the late 1980s. Together, these myriad dissenting voices helped to create a moral atmosphere in which some practices were considered acceptable and others were not. If there is any lesson in this anecdote it is that, on their own, architects cannot change the world; but they can exercise some power by forming alliances with other groups.

Noam Shoked is an assistant professor of architecture at Tel Aviv University. Before pursuing a career as a scholar of the built environment, he worked as an architect in Israel and the United States.