In a January 26, 2001, interview with Ha’aretz, Israeli President Ariel Sharon was asked how he would respond to Palestinian snipers shooting at the new Jewish settlements of Gilo, to which Sharon responded that he “would eliminate the first row of houses in Beit Jela.”
When the reporter enquired what he would do if shooting persisted Sharon replied:
I would eliminate the second row of houses, and so on. I know the Arabs. They are not impressed by helicopters and missiles. For them there is nothing more important than their house. So, under me you will not see a child shot next to his father [a reference to Mohammed Al-Dorra]. It is better to level the entire village with bulldozers, row after row.
The demolition of Palestinian housing has been an instrument of territorial re-configuration since Israel’s independence in 1948, with around 7,000 Palestinian homes having been levelled in occupied territories between 1967-2001 according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Up to the twenty-first century the pretext behind the demolitions was usually that they had been constructed without a building permit. The IDF’s military practices in Palestine under Sharon, however, highlight a shift in military thinking which since 1948 – and in line with conventional military thought of the post-war period – saw that entering cities offered no benefits and should be avoided. Yet recently large numbers of houses or entire districts have been levelled as part of military operations. The strategies employed in the second Intifada, such as Operation Defensive Shield, represented this movement towards the targeting of the urban environment for destruction, a practice of war known as urbicide.
As hinted towards by Sharon, critical to this new method of disabling the enemy is the bulldozer. The IDF’s military bulldozer, the armoured D9 Caterpillar bulldozer, is retrofitted with steel armour plates, bullet-proof windows and redesigned to withstand bomb explosions, machine gun fire, sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenade rounds. It is further optimized with buckets suited for concrete demolition and an asphalt ripper in the rear. The D9 can also be equipped with crew operated machine guns and grenade launchers.
The armoured D-9 was a key weapon in inflicting the large-scale urban destruction of Operation Defensive Shield. The bulldozer was used for demolishing houses and cities, uprooting olive trees, destroying electricity transformers and tearing up roads and airport runways. Other acts of urbicide included riddling water tanks with bullets, bombing and destroying electronic communications, disabling television and radio transmitters and bombing hospitals. In the Jenin refugee camp, a 40,000 square-meter area was bulldozed in the center of the camp, leaving around 4000 residents homeless. During the operation lesser demolitions were also carried out in Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah.
Tactically, the IDF employed a new set of warfare techniques designed for the urban context. Infantry, tanks and bulldozers all worked in unison to reduce vulnerability of each other. The bulldozer provided several military advantages within the urban environment. It paved the way for squadrons and tanks to enter areas previously too narrow and it could proceed to erase whole districts. It further provided the advantage of avoiding sniper-fire, booby traps and home-made bombs. It is claimed that around 1000-2000 bombs and booby-traps were planted throughout Jenin, which the bulldozer was used to detonate. Despite the high-tech weaponry and armour of the IDF, infantry would have previously been vulnerable to counter-attack of this sort.
The contemporary colonial occupation of Palestine is not the only conflict of the globalization era where urbicide and bulldozers have been considered solutions to complex political problems and employed within military practices. In Kosovo, degrading Serbian forces included destroying bridges, railroads, highways, communications networks, oil storage depots, heating plants, power stations and water treatment facilities. In Vietnam, the US’s Rome Plow bulldozer levelled the forests which the Viet Cong would use to camouflage in. In Iraq, damaged infrastructure included public-sewerage networks, water tanks and electricity generators.
As a war practice urbicide does not target the combating forces of a enemy nation. It targets the population of an urban site through destroying the infrastructure it relies on. Its aim is to suppress the enemy through exerting maximum destruction. On the one hand, it may appear that urbicide is an appropriate military tactic for contemporary forms of war. Contemporary wars no larger particularly take place between two distinct armies mobilized by two distinct nation states, but between nation-states and non-state armies. Such armies often operate discreetly and from within urban areas, evoking the necessity to bring the war to the urban environment. Yet with the devastation practices of urbicide cause to civilian populations, it may be necessary to reconsider our political responses to contemporary political problems. As Dov Tamari notes:
On numerous occasions, we attacked and destroyed physical infrastructure elements within the area of influence in order to exert pressure on the opponent and his interests. Such infrastructure elements included bridges, transportation, power stations, etc. In the short term, this course of action may have been beneficial. In the long run, however, its benefits are doubtful, as the purpose of our intervention was to make peace and restore stability—and it is very difficult to accomplish this in a country or an area whose infrastructure we have destroyed