In late October 2000, the intifada was in its then bloodiest throes. In his offices in Stockholm harbor, architect Alexis Pontvik followed the news from the Middle East with growing disquiet but little surprise. What perhaps would have been his most prominent project to date had already been stowed in a large steel drawer, but he had pored over it often enough to understand the frustrations that eventually came to a boil in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was already grinding to a halt in 1999, when the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA) commissioned Pontvik to redesign Erez checkpoint in Gaza, a transit terminal for tens of thousands of Palestinians then working in Israel, for whom it also became a daily site of humiliation, and symbol a of their dependency on the Jewish state.

On one of his field trips, Pontvik accompanied the daily human traffic through the terminal. Inching towards Israel, he remembers most vividly the silence: “It was early in the morning, 10,000 people stood there crammed together, and the only sound was the brushing of hands on trouser legs.” He looks out the window. “Yet if architecture could scream, Erez would.”

Monument to Oslo

During the heyday of the Oslo process, up to 30,000 Palestinians were triaged every day through Erez. Having left their homes at 2 or 3 am, they waited for hours in what came to be known as the “cattle stiles,” where they were screened, searched and periodically pulled aside for interrogation by the Israeli security services. Those who had a “security record” with the authorities were turned back.

They were identified by magnetic cards made obligatory by the Israeli army during the first intifada, “one of a series of measures aimed at tying the individual to the central authority,” as one Israeli security official described them. At Erez, they were also brought face to face with the other side of Oslo: the privileges and wealth that it brought to the Palestinian leadership. Adjacent to “the cattle stiles” in Erez is a separate air-conditioned lounge, a place much like any Western airport terminal, though which Palestinian businessmen and officials with special VIP cards granted by the Israeli authorities hurried every day. To working Palestinians, the cards and the checkpoint became a symbol of these iniquities of “peace,” and of their dependency on Israel and submission to its security dictates.

Development as Control

Dating back to the first intifada, the “development” of the West Bank and Gaza has was indeed always been tethered to these two principles: Palestinian dependency and Israeli control. The outbreak of the intifada initially prompted the closing of Israel’s borders with the West Bank and Gaza, but the resulting rise in Palestinian unemployment and political militancy soon became a concern for the Israeli authorities. In the waning years of direct rule, they therefore attempted to reintegrate some Palestinians into the Israeli labor market through the construction of specially sealed industrial zones on the border between Gaza and Israel, and also funded some municipal work programs.

The price Palestinians paid for this for this was submission to control — participation in this “development” became conditional on possession of the magnetic IDs. As former defense minister Yitzhak Rabin explained, this policy aimed “to strike a balance between actions that could bring terrible economic distress and a situation in which [the Palestinians] have nothing to lose, and measures that bind them to the Israeli administration and prevent civil disobedience.” In what was to prove an enduring legacy, “development,” as Graham Usher has written, came to mean that Palestinians became closely monitored guests in their own economy.

The installation of a Palestinian autonomy only reformulated this relationship. Enduring Israeli restrictions crippled the economy, and during periodic closures, the population lurched further into destitution, adding to frustrations over the steady expansion of settlements, whose population doubled in six years.

Humanizing Dependency

Something of this pathos was clearly on view in Erez, which saw a steady stream of diplomats who occasionally forsook the VIP lounge to get a feel for Palestinian frustrations. As these mounted in late October 1998, SIDA and the government of Japan agreed to fund a project to redesign the terminal. “[It] was supposed to give some dignity to them, so that they would feel that they are being treated as human beings, not that they are owned by someone. The situation is inhuman. They are treated like cattle,” recalls Jan Olof Vinterhav, a program officer at SIDA. The project was coordinated with the Israeli authorities, who undertook to upgrade their side of the terminal.

Pontvik took to his remit comprehensively. His steel drawer yields flow charts and maps of parking lots and expanded waiting lines, embracing the organic community that grew up on the Gaza side of the entrance, the centerpiece of which was a small market where workers bought meals and groceries. Pontvik wanted to run a formal market with stands down the middle of his design. “It would become a natural extension of the community, an outlet for nearby villages.” Aesthetic concerns were also paramount. He had hoped to incorporate
certain principles of vernacular and regional architecture, a sense of space, the use of light. A number of books on Islamic architecture sit in his bookshelf, along with Edward Said’s Orientalism, a Swedish bestseller. Pontvik had high hopes for the project: “It’s a gate to a country that is developing, that is about to be born.”

Development as Design

Of the intentions that paved the road to the intifada, these were among the better ones. Otherwise, Western donor agendas in the territories were quite similar to those of the outgoing Israeli administration. Investment in Peace, a 1993 World Bank study on the Palestinian economy, situated development assistance to the Palestinians against the background of the first intifada: “The resulting sense of despair and dependency, juxtaposed against high expectations derived from exposure to Israel, is clearly a major impediment to achieving peace and stability in the region.”

The international donor effort in the territories, led financially by the EU and coordinated politically by the US, was accordingly intended to raise living standards among Palestinians in order to bolster support for the peace process and the Palestinian Authority. Much as during occupation, development was a means to encourage Palestinians to live quietly. To the extent that some refused, early international budget support to the PA proved handy in funding the security services that quashed Arafat’s political opposition.

However, efforts to raise Palestinian living standards foundered as donor funds reaped increasingly diminishing returns. During particularly severe Israeli closures in 1995-1996, losses to the Palestinian economy all but trounced what funds had been disbursed to date. A modest economic recovery in 1999 and 2000, made possible by expansion of Palestinian work permits, was cut short by the collapse of political negotiations and Ariel Sharon’s visit to the al-Aqsa mosque in September 2000. “Development” in the West Bank and Gaza had long since become not a catalyst but a substitute for political emancipation, as USAID confirmed when it threatened in September 2000 to withdraw its funding if the PA opted to declare independence.

What moderately principled support for Palestinian development endured grew increasingly token. In contrast to other larger donors, SIDA’s mandate in the West Bank and Gaza was not only to bolster the peace process but to explicitly support Palestinian independence. But sustainable assistance to this end found fewer and fewer outlets. “Almost all Swedish assistance is about employment generation,” confesses Vinterhav. At the height of closures, this increasingly took the form of make-work jobs: cleaning streets, fixing sidewalks, planting trees. Following the final failure of donors to address the roots of underdevelopment and disenfranchisement in Palestine, all that was left was to cosmetically adjust its façade.

Architecture of Power

The politics of this adjustment at once revealed and concealed the prerogatives of power and development in the West Bank and Gaza. While donors wanted a more efficient and therefore humane terminal, “the Israelis, put simply, wanted control,” recalls Vinterhav. The Israeli side of the terminal, recounts Pontvik, would be a state-of-the-art surveillance apparatus, rendering obsolete the magnetic IDs. “They were going to incorporate biometric identification technology; workers would put their hand on a terminal, and the computer would register them and check their profile.” It was to be as unobtrusive as possible: “Eventually, they wanted to replace the soldiers at the checkpoint with private security guards. According to them, the less the involvement of the military, the better the terminal.”

The Palestinian design integrated innocuously into this plan. The result was a gate, not only to a new country, but to a brave new world. “The terminal would allow for total control…imagine, the only sound being that of sliding automatic doors. I wonder about the psychological effect,” confesses Pontvik. This was more than SIDA and the government of Japan had bargained for, but it was also not incompatible with their broader remit. On the common ground of Israeli and donor agendas, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between efficiency applied more humanely and power distributed more efficiently.

That the Erez project rendered less visible the application of control may not be coincidental. At Erez, more than anywhere else prior to the intifada, Israel’s power over the Palestinians became starkly visible, and its national self-image as righteous victim foundered. There can be no doubt about the project’s utility to tens of thousands of Palestinian workers. Yet within the context in which it was conceived, its other effect would undoubtedly have been not primarily to humanize but rather depoliticize the architecture of Israeli occupation.


Today, the Erez project languishes as an awkward testimony to the failure of Western aid agencies to put a more attractive face on the iniquities of the Oslo peace process, and a reminder of limits of development as an ever non-political discourse of diminished expectations.

In the Middle East, some lessons are never learned. Anodyne calls for political momentum and military restraint have tellingly marked the limits of American concessions to immediate Palestinian grievances — culminating in George W. Bush’s infamous call for Israel to show “compassion at checkpoints.” Any such measures, both the US and Israel seem to agree, must be conditional on a cessation of Palestinian violence. Both remain vague on what the political payoff to this would be.

The Palestinians are not impressed. “The Israelis have to understand that we don’t want security for bread, we are trading security for independence,” imprisoned Fatah spokesman Marwan Barghouthi stated early in the intifada. Since then, the stakes have risen, with Israeli plans for buffer zones and new fences in the territories following Operation Defensive Shield, stirring visions of a thousand new cattle stiles.

Stripped of the pretensions that once impelled them, Pontvik’s maps remain confined to his steel drawer. From his office the architect still follows the news from the Middle East. He has a narrow view of the Baltic Sea which in late October takes on a hard gray appearance, the first sign of winter. It turned out to be a particularly long and hard season in 2000.

How to cite this article:

Peter Lagerquist "Postmortem of a Compassionate Checkpoint," Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002).

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