Landscape, Photobooks

What Israel’s gardens say about the occupation of the Palestinian people

Images from the series Garden State © Corinne Silva

“War is the natural occupation of man - war and gardening,” said Winston Churchill, whose observation is printed on the opening page of Corinne Silva’s new monograph, Garden State.

The former British Prime Minister’s words are a fitting yet ironic introduction to a book that highlights the distinctly man-made character of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

More specifically: it seeks to understand the evolution of the occupation through the fortified gardens and landscapes of residential settlements built on the hills of the Occupied Territories.

“I wanted to put the British involvement [in the history of the occupation] right at the forefront of the book,” Silva told me over tea in her new London Fields studio. “It was really important to have clear accompanying text – at the exhibition, I included a library of my books so people could learn more about it.”

An unnerving sterility pervades Silva’s images. Three sites feature as case studies – the Mediterranean Coast, Green Line, and West Bank – and on first glance, the paths, buildings, gardens and plants together appear bright and orderly.

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This is in line with the so-called ‘quality-of-life’ label given to the settlements when they were built in the late-1970s, as the Israeli Labour government abandoned its socialist stance in favour of the new neoliberal consensus of other Western governments.

During this period, the architecture of Zionist settlements became less conditioned by the idea of centralised communal living, and more about the development of new-build, gated housing.

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On closer inspection, however, in the images of saplings propped-up by tape, and tacky plastic fences used to separate gardens and roads, Silva’s photographs allude to the hollow cheapness of these residential communities. Not one person features in any of her photographs, mimicking the emptiness of many of the public spaces and buildings.

“A lot of the settlements in the West Bank are empty because they are bought as an investment to support the Zionist cause – it’s enough for people to occupy territory, they don’t need to live in the houses” she explained. “Like many gated communities, no one sits on the benches or walks on the pavement because everyone drives.”

“When I think of the pictures I have seen of Israel-Palestine over the years, it is often the ‘victim’ that is portrayed, Palestinian children throwing rocks at tanks…I knew having spent time there that these photographs – of violence and suffering – don’t work for me. We have all become so immune to them.”

Instead, by disrupting landscape photography’s traditional dramatic, all-encompassing style, Silva has tried to create in Garden State what she calls an “alternative visual language” with which to discuss these issues in a more subtle way.

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It is quite remarkable just how little is shown in Silva’s images of the world outside the Israeli settlement. Her deliberately subjective, human-scale framing of the images is claustrophobic; we are left guessing at how the sites fit into the vast expanse of historic land surrounding them. It raises certain awkward questions: What is not being shown? How are the settlements viewed from the water-starved Palestinian villages situated downhill?

“These settlements are somehow hovering above the landscape – they’re not embedded, they’re all very new. In a lot of ways they’re not any different to gated community gardens that you might see in Mexico or Spain, yet they are part of a more sinister agenda.”

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Also included in the book is a ‘Taxonomy of Colonising Plants’, a table showing details about the plants photographed, completed by the Middle-Eastern plant expert, Sabina Knees. It allows Silva to refer more directly to what she calls “the human-plant relationship” and its presence within the walls of the Zionist settlement.

“I wanted to think about the agency of plants. What Sabina refers to as ‘adventitious weed flora’ are plants which can access the water fed to the garden. Should these places ever become de-colonised, would the gardens survive?” she asks.

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This interest in nature, and our place and rights as humans living as part of it, has been a consistent theme in much of Silva’s photographic career. “Mesopotamian kings would come back from conquests with trophies of war, which included incredible exotic plants which no one had seen before. They would be able to grow them because they had access to water and could pay people to look after them. The garden, was, and is, a way to demonstrate wealth and power.”

“When it comes to power, the most potent weapon the Israeli State has is water”, Silva continues. This final point epitomises the central achievement of Garden State: to recognise the more insidious side of colonial occupation.

See more of Corinne’s series here.