Killing cities

In a perceptive commentary on the ground-breaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal into civilian casualties caused by the US air campaign against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – see also my posts here and hereRobert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:

The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Part of the problem, as they note, is the nature of the campaign itself.  This is not the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq in which air power was used in support of US and allied ground troops (although we know that also produced more than its share of civilian casualties); neither is it a counterterrorism campaign directed against so-called High Value Targets who supposedly ‘present a direct and imminent threat to the United States’ (ditto; and as I discuss in ‘Dirty dancing’ – DOWNLOADS tab – ‘imminence’ turned out to be remarkably elastic, a deadly process of time-space expansion).
Ultimately, though, their anxieties turn on what they call the ‘over-militarization’ of the US response to al Qaeda and its affiliates and to IS.  They explain, succinctly, what has encouraged this militarized response (not least the lowering of the threshold for military violence allowed by remote operations):
[U]ntil this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.
In December the Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirmed an escalation in US air strikes across multiple theatres in Trump’s first year in office:
President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen [in 2017].

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Much remains unclear about these actions, apart from Trump’s signature combination of machismo and ignorance, but we do know that Obama’s restrictions on the use of military force outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been loosened:

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House.

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

In September NBC reported that the Trump administration was planning to allow the CIA to take a more aggressive role and to give the agency more authority to conduct (para)military operations.  In consequence a comprehensive revision of Obama’s guidelines was in prospect:

The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions.

Pakistan remains a nominally covert area of operations.  US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas resumed in March after a nine-month hiatus – though Trump’s latest spat with Islamabad raises questions about the sporadic but systematic co-operation that had characterised so much of the campaign – and (provocatively: again, see ‘Dirty Dancing’ for an explanation) one strike took place outside the FATA in June 2017.  The Bureau’s detailed list is here: five strikes are listed, killing 15-22 people.

In Afghanistan the Bureau noted that air strikes had doubled and that this escalation has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in transparency (Chris Woods told me the same story for Iraq and Syria when we met in Utrecht).

All of this confirms the report released today by Action on Armed Violence.

At least 15,399 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 according to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recording of English language media explosive violence events.  This devastating toll – up to the end of November – strongly suggests that 2017 was the worst year for civilian deathsfrom explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began in 2011.

This sharp rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely down to a massive increase in deadly airstrikes.

Compared to 2011, the first year of AOAV’s recording, the rise in civilians killed by explosive violence in the first 11 months of 2017 constitutes an 175% increase (5,597 died in the same period seven years ago).

On average, our records to November show that there were 42 civilian deaths per day caused by explosive violence in 2017.

The report continues:

For the first time since our recording of all English language media reports of explosive weapon attacks began, the majority of civilian deaths were by air-launched weapons. Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58% were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period was 8,932 – an increase of 82% compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169% compared to 2011, when 704 died.

Significantly, as airstrikes are almost always used by State actors, rather than non-State groups, States were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from explosive weapons for the first time since our records began.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV commented:

 These are stark figures that expose the lie that precision-guided missiles as used by State airforces do not lead to massive civilian harm. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die.

In the same vein, Karen McVeigh‘s summary for the Guardian quotes Chris Woods from Airwars:

This is about urban warfare and that’s why we are getting crazy numbers… War is moving into cities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia or the US-led coalition or ground forces leading the assault, the outcome for civilians under attack is always dire…. We’re becoming too complacent about urban warfare, and militaries and governments are downplaying the effects.

I think that’s right, though I also think war is moving back into the cities (if it ever left them); the serial military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are vivid examples of what Chris means, but they also recall the assaults on Fallujah and other cities documented in Steve Graham‘s still utterly indispensable Cities under siege.

The point is sharpened even further if we widen the angle of vision to take in air campaigns conducted by other air forces: the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force in Syria, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Yet again, killing cities to save them.  As a spokesperson for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put it last summer, ‘This is very similar to the Vietnam war, where entire cities were destroyed… What is happening in Raqqa is like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.’

Steve’s work should also remind us that these dead cities are not produced by air strikes alone.  Once reduced to rubble they have often been disembowelled (I can think of no better word) by ground forces; it’s as though these now barely human landscapes compel or at any rate license the continued degradation of both the living and the dead:  see, for example, Kenneth Rosen on ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’ here or  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad‘s chillingly detailed report on the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul here.

I’m still astonished that all those high-minded theoretical debates on planetary urbanism somehow ignore the contemporary intensification of urbicide and urban warfare (see ‘Mumford and sons’ here).

Two Tales of Two Cities


For those heading off to the International Conference on Critical Geography in Ramallah this summer, essential reading from Sharon RotbardWhite City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa (MIT/Pluto Press, 2015) (first published in Hebrew in 2005).

In 2004, the city of Tel Aviv was declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site, an exemplar of modernism in architecture and town planning. Today, the Hebrew city of Tel Aviv gleams white against the desert sky, its Bauhaus-inspired architecture betraying few traces of what came before it: the Arab city of Jaffa. In White City, Black City, the Israeli architect and author Sharon Rotbard offers two intertwining narratives, that of colonized and colonizer. It is also a story of a decades-long campaign of architectural and cultural historical revision that cast Tel Aviv as a modernist “white city” emerging fully formed from the dunes while ignoring its real foundation—the obliteration of Jaffa. Rotbard shows that Tel Aviv was not, as a famous poem has it, built “from sea foam and clouds” but born in Jaffa and shaped according to its relation to Jaffa. His account is not only about architecture but also about war, destruction, Zionist agendas, erasure, and the erasure of the erasure.

Rotbard tells how Tel Aviv has seen Jaffa as an inverted reflection of itself—not shining and white but nocturnal, criminal, dirty: a “black city.” Jaffa lost its language, its history, and its architecture; Tel Aviv constructed its creation myth. White City, Black City—hailed upon its publication in Israel as ”path-breaking,” “brilliant,” and “a masterpiece”—promises to become the central text on Tel Aviv.

There’s an excellent preview/review by Tom Sperlinger, ‘The “forced geography” of Tel Aviv‘, over at the electronic intifada:

At its heart, the book focuses on how Jaffa was all but absorbed into Tel Aviv and thus “ceased to exist as an urban and cultural entity” after 5,000 years. This focus on a city that isn’t there, which Rotbard describes as “an encyclopedia of ruins,” makes this a peculiar book to categorize.

It is not exactly a study of history or architecture. In fact, it can be quite frustrating as either, sometimes eliding past and present in the course of its argument. But it is compelling as a ghost story, in which the perpetual fictions created about Tel Aviv cannot obscure its past….[for a dissenting view, see the Comments at the electronic intifada]

Rotbard explains how in the decades since 1948, Tel Aviv has continued to push anything unwanted into the shadow city at its side:

Everything unwanted in the White City is relegated to the Black City: … garbage dumps, sewage pipes, high voltage transformers, towing lots and overcrowded central bus stations; noise and air pollution factories and small industries; illegal establishments like brothels, casinos and sex shops; unwelcoming and intimidating public institutions such as the police headquarters, jails, pathological institutes and methadone clinics; and finally, a complete ragtag of municipal outcasts and social pariahs — new immigrants, foreign workers, drug addicts and the homeless … Paradoxically, this has actually ensured that the Black City is the most colorful, heterogeneous and cosmopolitan city space in the whole of Israel.


‘Forced geography’ – Sharon’s own term – reminds me of one of my favourite books, also about Jaffa and Tel Aviv: Mark Levine‘s Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948 (University of California Press), which was published in 2005 hard on the heels of the original edition of White City, Black City:

This landmark book offers a truly integrated perspective for understanding the formation of Jewish and Palestinian Arab identities and relations in Palestine before 1948. Beginning with the late Ottoman period Mark LeVine explores the evolving history and geography of two cities: Jaffa, one of the oldest ports in the world, and Tel Aviv, which was born alongside Jaffa and by 1948 had annexed it as well as its surrounding Arab villages. Drawing from a wealth of untapped primary sources, including Ottoman records, Jaffa Shari’a court documents, town planning records, oral histories, and numerous Zionist and European archival sources, LeVine challenges nationalist historiographies of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, revealing the manifold interactions of the Jewish and Palestinian Arab communities that lived there.

At the center of the book is a discussion of how Tel Aviv’s self-definition as the epitome of modernity affected its and Jaffa’s development and Jaffa’s own modern pretenses as well. As he unravels this dynamic, LeVine provides new insights into how popular cultures and public spheres evolved in this intersection of colonial, modern, and urban space. He concludes with a provocative discussion of how these discourses affected the development of today’s unified city of Tel Aviv–Yafo and, through it, Israeli and Palestinian identities within in and outside historical Palestine.

Here is the Contents List:

1. Modern Cities, Colonial Spaces, and the Struggle for Modernity in the Eastern Mediterranean
2. From Cedars to Oranges: A History of the Jaffa–Tel Aviv Region from Antiquity to the Late Ottoman Period
3. Taming the Sahara: The Birth of Tel Aviv and the Last Years of Ottoman Rule
4. Crossing the Border: Intercommunal Relations in the Jaffa–Tel Aviv Region during the Mandate Period
5. A Nation from the Sands? Images of Jaffa and Tel Aviv in Palestinian Arab and Israeli Literature, Poetry, and Prose
6. Ceci N’est Pas Jaffa (This Is Not Jaffa): Architecture, Planning, and the Evolution of National Identities in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, 1880–1948
7. Planning to Conquer: The Role of Town Planning in the Expansion of Tel Aviv, 1921–1948
8. The New-Old Jaffa: Locating the Urban, the Public, and the Modern in Tel Aviv’s Arab Neighborhood

artworks-000109753529-bstbhi-t200x200POSTSCRIPT: A welcome reminder from Léopold Lambert of his interview with Dena Qaddumi (right) earlier this year on the spatial politics of Jaffa-Tel Aviv:

It attempts to propose a struggle narrative for Palestine that is not focused on Jerusalem to which many of us contribute, thus participating to a debate mostly focused on the 1967 war. By examining the spatial politics of Jaffa-Tel Aviv, Dena attempts to show that similar “ethnoocratic” logics of segregation are also at work in an environment admittedly less militarized. This logic also incorporates the same capitalist mechanisms of gentrification at work in other cities of the world. We begin by an historical approach to the “black” and “white” cities — using Sharon Rotbard’s terminology — before addressing its current situation, in particular from an architecture point of view, symptoms of the spatial violence at work within the city.

The facts on the ground

Razed to the groundHuman Rights Watch has released a bleak report, Razed to the Ground: Syria’s unlawful neighborhood demolitions, 2012-2013.

Satellite imagery, witness statements, and video and photographic evidence show that Syrian authorities deliberately and unlawfully demolished thousands of residential buildings in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 38-page report, “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013,” documents seven cases of large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers that violated the laws of war. The demolitions either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population or caused disproportionate harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch found.

“Wiping entire neighborhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.”

Demolitions, Hama

More images and commentary here, but this is almost certainly only a fragmentary map of a still wider geography of urbicide.  According to Martin Chulov, reporting from Beirut,

Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “These are the areas that we were told about by witnesses. There are likely to be other areas, but there are many black holes in Syria where we don’t have information. This is likely part of a systematic policy in rebel held areas elsewhere in the country as well.

“It shows yet again that this is not a one-off act by a commander. This is part of a strategy targeting all opposition-held areas. It is a mirror image of the starvation of people in Yarmouk [refugee camp in Damascus] or in Old Homs. It shows yet again how ready the government is to collectively harm areas of people that are supporting the opposition.”

The circumstances and context are different, but Assad is clearly borrowing yet another tactic from Israel’s playbook.  The ongoing demolition of homes in occupied Palestine is a slower process, but just as brutal and just as illegal: see the work of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions here (though I wish it were called the Committee against Home Demolitions to capture more fully what is being so deliberately and callously destroyed).  Here is Human Rights Watch last summer:

Israeli forces should immediately end unlawful demolitions of Palestinian homes and other structures in Occupied Palestinian Territory. The demolitions have displaced at least 79 Palestinians since August 19, 2013. Demolitions of homes and other structures that compel Palestinians to leave their communities may amount to the forcible transfer of residents of an occupied territory, which is a war crime.

Human Rights Watch documented demolitions on August 19 in East Jerusalem that displaced 39 people, including 18 children. Israeli human rights groups and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented additional demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank on August 20 and 21 that destroyed the homes of 40 people, including 20 children.

“When Israeli forces routinely and repeatedly demolish homes in occupied territory without showing that it’s necessary for military operations, it appears that the only purpose is to drive families off their land, which is a war crime,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The politics of peace talks do not make it any less unlawful for Israel to demolish Palestinians’ homes without a valid military reason.”

Remember these two reports when you read the response from the ‘international community’ to the latest Syrian revelations.  And listen to the silences.

City of Ruins

I was in Warsaw over the week-end, and my visit coincided with the opening of the new building for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Even in its presently empty state, it’s a stunning place.


Its Core Exhibition, developed under the supervision of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, will display the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland, but the Museum has been built on the site of a pre-war Jewish neighbourhood where in October-November 1940 the Germans established the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe and razed it to the ground less than three years later.  And it’s this recent catastrophe (along with others) that invests so much of Warsaw with its contemporary historicity.

Warsaw Ghetto

You can find a sequence of other chilling maps of the Ghetto (and a helpful critical discussion of them) here, basic accounts of the process of its formation here, an excellent summary survey of the Uprising here and a shorter one here.  By 1943 hundreds of thousands of Jews had been deported from the Ghetto to concentration camps, and according to Deutsche Welle:

In early 1943, Heinrich Himmler ordered the final liquidation of the ghetto. Until then, most Jews had rejected armed resistance, including for religious reasons. But when the last mass deportation was about to begin, hundreds of young Jews decided to fight.

On April 19, 1943, the approaching German units met unexpected resistance. The young Jews were aware of their hopeless situation – they had no weapons, food or support. Yet they endured for three weeks, delivering a fierce battle. When the Germans surrounded the insurgents’ bunker in early May, they collectively committed suicide.

“They wanted to decide themselves how to die,” said Zygmunt Stepinski, director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. He called their deaths a political manifesto. “They wanted to show that Jews could defend themselves and that they organized the first-ever uprising against the Nazis,” he said.

13,000 Jews were killed during the Uprising, and most of the surviving 50,000 were deported to concentration and extermination camps.

The Museum has been designed by a Finnish architect, Rainer Mahlamäki, and his studio.  To some degree, in its bridge suspended over the Main Hall, defined by the soaring, undulating walls that divide the Museum into its two parts,  the building reinscribes the division of the ghetto into two and the bridge that joined the one to the other (over Chlodna Street, an ‘Aryan’ thoroughfare), but more significantly it’s intended as ‘a bridge across the chasm created by the Holocaust – a bridge across time, continents and people.’


DAVIES Rising '44Many of those involved in the Museum project have suggested that the 1943 Uprising was a crucial inspiration for the general Warsaw Rising in 1944. This started on 1 August, and the insurgent Polish Home Army held out for 63 days of intensive urban warfare which left 16,000 of them dead along with 150-200,00 civilians.  The best English-language narrative of these courageous and horrifying events is probably Norman Davies‘s Rising ’44.

To make sense of this on the ground and to recover its material traces, we turned to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which included City of Ruins, an extraordinary 3-D simulation of American Liberator flights over the city in 1945 (advertised as the world’s first digital stereoscopic simulation of a city destroyed during the war: more on the project and how it was achieved here) –

– and to an outdoor/indoor exhibition of colour photographs of the ruined city taken by a young American architectural student, Henry N. Cobb, in 1947: The Colors of Ruin.  You can see some of Cobb’s photographs here, and Vimeo has this interview with him which includes a number of incredible images too:

Why such wholesale destruction? Under the terms of the surrender document agreed by the Polish Home Army in October 1944, the insurgents and the civilian population were expelled from the city into transit camps, from where they were deported to concentration camps.  According to some accounts, Hitler issued Command #2 on 11 October, realizing his pre-war dream of the total destruction of the city: ‘Warsaw is to be razed to the ground while the war proceeds.’  Six days later Himmler made sure his officers understood exactly what was intended:

‘The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth… No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.’

Special Verbrennungskommandos (‘annihilation detachments’) began the systematic destruction of what was left of the city with mathematical precision, using high explosives and flame-throwers.  According to the Museum guide,

‘They divided the city into regions, numbered the corner buildings and methodically destroyed the capital.  On the walls they put instructions concerning the method of destruction.  The Germans destroyed historical monuments and burned to ashes the biggest Polish libraries…  They turned archives, museums and their collections into ruins and ashes.  The Old Town became a city of ruins.’


Less than 5 per cent of pre-war Warsaw remained intact – about 12 per cent had been totally destroyed during the 1939 bombing and siege of the city, a further 17 per cent with the destruction of the Ghetto and 25 per cent during the Rising of 1944 – but it’s the systematicity as much as the scale that is so shocking.  And the sense of shock remains even as – in fact precisely because – today you walk around an Old City no less painstakingly restored, its planners, architects and builders working from old plans, photographs and drawings and using the original materials as far as possible.  It adds another dimension to what Steve Graham calls the post-mortem city: the resurrection of Warsaw is an extraordinary testimony (like the Museum of the History of Polish Jews) to the determination of a people to recover their history, to refuse their erasure, and to remember the enormity of what befell their predecessors.


Or so it seemed to me before I started to think (and read) about the politics of memorialisation in post-war Warsaw.  David Crowley‘s essay on ‘Memory in Pieces: the symbolism of the ruin in Warsaw after 1944’ argues that

‘the image of ruin … functioned – unmistakably – as an ideological vent through which to draw patriotic sentiment and indict those who had destroyed the city.  But the powerfully affective image of ruin and the memories that it could arouse had to be contained and its force channelled (quite literally, in the form of voluntary labour to reconstruct parts of the city, like the Old Town).  In effect ruins, in the representational cosmos of socialism during the 1950s, were time-locked in 1944, the moment of destruction.’

Royal Palace 1945But what could the Royal Palace (in particular) re-present within that cosmos?  Tellingly, it was still in ruins in 1956 when a post-Stalinist regime came to power, and existing plans for its reconstruction were abandoned.  ‘In the years that followed,’ Crowley writes, ‘the castle formed an open wound at the heart of the city.  Seeing it as an aristocratic symbol of democracy, Crowley calls it an ‘architectural oxymoron.’  In ruins, the castle could ‘function indexically as evidence of both the glorious Polish past and the ignominious “Soviet” present.’  Finally, in the 1970s its reconstruction was approved as ‘Warsaw Castle’, an attempt to extinguish the aristocratic past and to forestall any democratic future, so that it functioned as what Crowley calls a sort of counter-iconoclasm, working to forget what its absence once signified.

But there was another, more pervasive absence.  The razing of the Ghetto destroyed a significant nineteenth-century fabric, and after the war a still wider nineteenth-century Warsaw disappeared from the landscape of reconstruction altogether.  Jerzy Elzanowski argues that its buildings and structures were seen as emblematic of the repressive class structure of capitalism; they had to be replaced by a radically different fabric ‘adequate to the needs of socialist society’ (‘Manufacturing ruins: architecture and representation in post-catastrophic Warsaw’, Journal of Architecture 15 (1) (2010) 71-86).

CROWLEY WarsawAnd there are, of course, other, ostentatiously modern Warsaws that have been forcibly put in place after the fall of Communism in 1989.

For all that, in the city of ruins, and most of all in the spectral traces of the two war-time uprisings in which images are made to stand for ruins, genocide and urbicide march in lockstep: and we would be foolish not to attend to the sounds and signs of their boots on the street.  Crowley thinks their museumisation and memorialisation is a kind of reversal in which the past (and specifically the Second World War) becomes a ‘lost utopia’.  I see what he means – I saw what he means – and I’m beginning to understand, too, why Elzanowski concludes that, at least in Warsaw (and no doubt elsewhere), images are at once indispensable for historical recovery and yet ‘seem to hinder our ability to observe the reality of here and now.’  It was, in part, an unease about my response to the materiality of the city and to its photographic representations that sent me off to dig out their two essays.  I felt a tension between the affective – the effect the ruins and the reconstructions had on me – and the analytical.  I’m still struggling.