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Open Letter a call to architects to respect Palestinians’ rights

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Picture: Baz Ratner/REUTERS/taken September 9, 2014 – Jewish settlement of Beitar Illit near the West Bank town of Bethlehem September 9, 2014. Days after a ceasefire was reached in the war in Gaza, Israel announced that 400 hectares west of Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, was now ‘state land’ that is territory for Israel. Will South Africa’s architects join the campaign against US firm involved in plans to establish American Embassy on Palestinian land illegally confiscated by Israel, the writer asks?

By Iqbal Jassat

Do architects in South Africa, either as individuals or as associations have a moral and ethical obligation to look beyond their immediate horizon to areas requiring a commitment to fundamental human rights?

Though not clearly spelt out in mission statements of some architect groupings I’ve scoured through, I do think that the very nature of their profession positions them as agents of change.

It goes without saying therefore that an architect’s core value has to be an indisputable universal respect for human and civil rights.

My concern about this matter arises from the Biden administration’s plan to build a new US embassy compound in Occupied Jerusalem.

Though it poses direct ethical challenges for US-based architects and companies complicit in the plans concocted by Israel in cahoots back then during the Trump presidency, it does so indirectly to SA architects as well.

Why?

The proposed embassy is planned to be built on a plot of land – the “Allenby Barracks” – that was illegally confiscated from its original Palestinian owners.

Due to global implications arising from the undermining of international law, an open letter is being circulated calling on Chigago-based architecture firm Krueck Sexton Partners (KSP) to disengage from the project.

Calling on KSP and other contractors to pull out, the letter denounces the location of the proposed embassy as a violation of international law and argues that it goes against several signed diplomatic conventions in addition to the ethical obligations of architects.

“Concerned with the ethical implications of this project for the architecture profession, we are calling on the Chicago-based architecture firm Krueck Sexton Partners (KSP), and other companies complicit in this plan, to immediately withdraw from the Israeli planning process and stop their participation in and endorsement of Israel’s illegal seizures of Palestinian land in Jerusalem.“

It goes on to claim that Biden’s following through on Trump’s “egregious break with decades of US policy” by ordering the move of the embassy to Jerusalem and recognising the city as Israel’s capital, is a violation of Jerusalem’s special “corpus seperatum status under international law – meaning that sovereignty over Jerusalem remains undetermined”.

The letter further claims that by ignoring America’s obligations under the Vienna Convention, the move violates Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

It reminds us that the site in question where the embassy is to be built, is land confiscated from Palestinians under Israel’s discriminatory Absentee Property Law. This obnoxious law has been described by human rights lawyers as a foundational tool of Israel’s oppression and domination of Palestinians within a broader Apartheid system.

In fact prior to the current open letter, Palestinian NGO Adalah and the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR) addressed their concerns in a communique to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. They emphatically pointed out that the move is in violation of international law including Article 46 of the Hague Regulations.

Written during November 2022, Adalah and CCR said the move makes America complicit in unlawful seizure of Palestinian land.

“Given the solid evidence of Palestinian ownership of the land intended for the US Embassy Compound, the Biden administration must immediately withdraw its involvement in the plan.”

If it fails to withdraw, “…the US will not only be further entrenching the Trump administration’s international law violation, but it will be adding a new layer of violations by effectively ratifying Israel’s illegal appropriation of Palestinian property, including that of US citizens”, argued Adalah and CCR.

The open letter clarifies the historical ownership of the land is well-documented. Indeed it notes documents from Israel State Archives confirm that most of the Allenby Barracks site is land belonging to Palestinians forcibly displaced from their homes in 1948.

“Several of the owners and their descendants are now US citizens, to whom the US owes additional obligations regarding the protection of their property.”

While it is to the credit of campaigners against the plan who make a compelling case against it as spelt out in their open letter, it is bizarre and contemptible that since 1989, various American administrations, Democrats and Republicans alike, have allowed the status quo of leasing Allenby Barracks from Israel for an annual rate of $1 to remain, despite being in flagrant violation of Palestinian rights.

While the open letter campaign garners support from across the world, it is hoped that South Africa’s architecture institutions, individuals who practice this craft and universities who offer courses, will acknowledge that ethics do not cease to be applicable across borders.

“Palestinians cannot inhabit, sustain livelihoods, nor plan for and improve their environment without access to their own lands due to illegal land confiscation.”

Iqbal Jassat is an Executive at Media Review Network, Johannesburg, South Africa