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······································································· Decolonizing Architecture. Sandi Hilal / Alessandro Petti / Eyal Weizman
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Decolonizing Architecture

The Future Archaeology of Israel’s Colonization. Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, Eyal Weizman


Whatever trajectory the conflict over Palestine takes, the possibility of further partial –or complete– evacuation of Israeli colonies and military bases must be considered.

Zones of Palestine that have or will be liberated from direct Israeli presence provide a crucial laboratory to study the multiple ways in we could imagine the reuse, re-inhabitation or recycling of the architecture of Israel’s occupation at the moment this architecture is unplugged from the military/political power that charged it.

Our project uses architecture to articulate the spatial dimension of a process of decolonization.1

The project engages a less than ideal world. It does not articulate a utopia of ultimate satisfaction. Its starting point is not a resolution of the conflict and the just fulfillment of all Palestinian claims, also, the project is not and should not be thought of in terms of a solution. Rather it is mobilizing architecture as a tactical tool within the unfolding struggle for Palestine. It seeks to employ tactical interventions to open a possible horizon for further transformations.

Recognizing that Israeli colonies and military bases are amongst the most excruciating instruments of domination, the project assumes that a viable approach to the issue of their appropriation is to be found not only in the professional language of architecture and planning but rather in inaugurating an “arena of speculation” that incorporates a varied cultural and political perspectives through the participation of a multiplicity of individuals and organizations.

Between Anarchy, Government and self-Government

The question of the use of the future archaeology of the occupation, like similar questions posed during other processes of decolonization throughout history, exists within a conceptual spectrum between two contradictory/complementary political desires for anarchy and government.

The popular impulse for destruction seeks to spatially articulate ‘liberation’ from an architecture understood as a political straitjacket, an instrument of domination and control. If architecture is the means of decades long crime, a weapon in a military/security arsenal that reproduced the power relations of racist ideologies, then architecture must burn.

The impulse of destruction seeks to turn time backwards, reverse development into virgin nature, a tabula-rasa, on which a set of new beginnings could be articulated.

However, rather than the desired romantic ruralization of developed areas (there is no longer ‘sand under the pavements’) destruction generates desolation and environmental damage that may last for decades.

In 2005 Israel evacuated the Gaza settlements and destroyed 3,000 homes, creating not the promised tabula-rasa for a new beginning, but rather a million and a half tons of toxic rubble that poisoned the ground and water aquifers. The decontamination process has been greatly impeded by the complete closure of the Gaza Strip –which is the new form that Israel’s occupation has taken.

The governmental impulse is to impose political order and a new system of control. It is thus not surprising that post-colonial governments tended to reuse the infrastructure set up by colonial regimes for their own emergent practical needs of administration. Evacuated infrastructure and built structure was often also seen as the legacy of ‘modernization’ and as an economical and organizational resource. A strong temptation present throughout the histories of decolonization was thus to re-occupy colonial buildings and infrastructure and reuse them in the very same way they were used under colonial regimes. Such repossession tended to reproduce some of the colonial power relations in space: colonial villas were inhabited by new financial elites and palaces by political ones, while the evacuated military and police installations of colonial armies, as well as their prisons, were reused by the governments that replaced them, recreating similar spatial hierarchies.

In the context of present day Palestine –re-using the evacuated structures of Israel’s domination in the same way as the occupiers did– the settlements as Palestinian suburbs and the military bases for Palestine security needs  –may lead to the danger of reproducing their inherent alienation and violence: the settlement’s system of fences and surveillance technologies would thus enable their seamless transformation into gated communities for the Palestinian elite. Using Israeli residential and military areas might also establish a sense of continuity rather than of rupture and change.

An interesting example in this category is Al-Muqata in Ramallah, the present-day seat of the Palestinian President. It was built by the British military as part of their effort to put down the Arab revolt of 1936-39 (often referred to as the first intifada). From 1948 to 1967 it was used as a military base and prison by the Jordanian military and for the same purposes by the Israeli army after 1967. The place was evacuated as part of the Oslo process and became Arafat’s headquarters. During this time the compound was closed off and monitored, and some of the cells were used again for incarceration and torture. After the death of Arafat the place was monumentalized into a site of pilgrimage.

We also know, however, that evacuated colonial architecture doesn’t necessarily reproduce the functions it was designed for. There are examples of other uses, both planned and spontaneous, that have invaded evacuated colonial architecture, subverted their programs and liberated their potential. Even the most horrifying structures of domination can yield themselves to new forms of life.

Given the scale of Israeli construction in Palestine, and the need for housing, all three approaches need be applied and simultaneously coexist. Some areas of settlements will be destroyed, some reused and others subverted –used and abused for different purposes and opening new possibilities for collectivity.

Because the reuse of the colonial architecture is a general cultural/political issue, we do not seek to present a single, unified architectural solution, but rather “fragments of possibility”.

Believing in the potential of existing forces to shape reality, the starting point of our investigation is the most complex option of the three –a strategy of subversion– which speculates on the use of colonial architecture for purposes other than those they were designed to perform. For this reason, the project seeks to spatialize a set of possible collective functions into the abandoned military structures and the evacuated houses of the colonists2.

What new institutions and activities can model the evacuated space and what physical transformations these spaces require?

The guiding principle is thus not to eliminate the power of the occupation’s built spaces, but rather to reorient its destructive potential to other aims. We believe that if the geography of occupation is to be liberated, its potential must turn against itself.


The first moment of access to the colonies and to the military bases is a possible moment of transgression whose consequences are unpredictable. Although in the Gaza Strip it was the Israelis who demolished most of the buildings, those buildings left intact were mostly destroyed by the Palestinians. The morning after the military left Palestinians destroyed the space and carried out as many remnants of building materials they could use and carry. This destruction is a spontaneous architectural moment of reappropriation, and as such we believe that it should not be prevented or controlled.

It is only after the indeterminate result of this moment of first encounter, and within the possible rubble of its physical results, that architectural construction may begin.

This moment of first access questions the conception of architecture and urban planning. The acceptable precondition for planning is a situation of spatial and political certainty –a clear site demarcation, a schedule, a client and a budget. The erratic nature of Israeli control and the unpredictable military and political developments on the ground renders Palestine an environment of high uncertainty and indeterminacy. Planning in such conditions could not appeal to any tested professional methods.

Manual of Decolonization

Rather than a single unified proposal inhabiting the entirety of Palestine (itself an area whose extent has not been politically defined) our project presents “fragments of possibilities” –detailed transformations on the architectural scale. Because the number of typologies in settlements and military bases are limited– variations on the single-family dwelling in settlements and concrete prefabricated barracks in military bases –these ‘fragments of possibility’ constitute a semi-generic approach that could be modified to be applied in other areas evacuated.

The instructions, descriptions, diagrams and drawings add up to form a manual, meant both at professionals, public institutions, and private citizens who are faced with the problem of how to deal with the remnants of colonial architecture. The manual will determine to what extent the evacuated structures are flexible to accommodate new uses and will demonstrate the various ways that they can be adapted or transformed.

The production of the manual is based upon a series of meetings with the “stakeholders” in this process. It includes representatives of various organizations and individuals, the local community, members of various NGOs, government and municipal bodies and academic and cultural institutions, local residents and resident associations. Their genuine participation is the crucial factor and the only agency that could guaranty the implementation of the actions outlined in the manual.

The Smile

Whenever we presented and discussed our plans and models the initial reaction of our discussants was a smile. We initially feared we were ridiculed. Are our plans so far fetch redicilous within this environment of permanent impossibility? It is also true that models are reduced worlds ‘under control’ and that they often make people smile. The smile may thus be the first moment of decolonization. It is a strange to imagine the transformation of Israeli settlements, but we would like to interpret the smile as an aesthetic reaction, an opening of the imagination to a different future in which our participant could engage. It is also the first moment where the Palestinian articulate their right for planning their future and regain their agency. Engaging the project require an active role, creativity and imagination, rather than contemplation.

Two project sites were chosen as two prototypes of decolonization: the colony of Psagot (still inhabited by colonists) and the former Israeli military base of Oush Grab, which was evacuated in 2006.


Case Study North: The Colony of Psagot/Jabel Tawil/ Ramallah Region

Located on the hill of Jabel Tawil, 900 meters above sea level, the colony visually dominates the entire Palestinian area. Until the occupation it was used as an open space for recreation. The hills of Jerusalem and Ramallah were popular with families from the Gulf especially Kuwaitis that traveled there to escape the summer heat (the people of Ramallah still call the hill “the Kuwaiti hill”) in their cars which were covered by the best motor trade insurance broker. In 1964, the municipality of Al Quds (Jerusalem) bought the land and prepared a plan for its development into a tourist resort. The work started in early 1967 with the construction of an access road. The work was interrupted by the Israeli occupation. In July 1981, on the initiative of the Likud party, the colony of Psagot was inaugurated as a ‘compensation’ to right-wing Israelis for the evacuation of the Sinai peninsula. The area designated for tourist accommodation was the first to be occupied by settler housing. The first houses set on the hill of Jabel Tawil were pre-fabricated structures wheeled over from Yamit, a settlement in the north of the Sinai. Psagot is at present a religious settlement inhabited by 1,700 people, mainly American Jews and a minority of recent Russian and French immigrants.

Case study South: the former military base Oush Grab (the Crow’s Nest)

In May of 2006, the Israeli army evacuated a military camp strategically located on the highest hill at the southern entrance to the Palestinian city of Beit Sahour, part of the region of Bethlehem. It was a menacing fortress overlooking the edge of the town. Most houses surrounding the camp were destroyed by tank shells and gunfire originating at the base. Flood lit during the night, flash lights constantly scanning the area around it, the base has been in one an ‘endless day’ The evacuation was itself a violent operation, at night dozens of tanks rolled into the town and in the morning the base was found empty. Moments later, Palestinians entered the base and took away every element and material that could be recycled.

The military history of the hill is longer than the occupation. It was built as a military base by the British Mandatory army during the Arab revolt (referred to by some as the very first intifadah). After 1948 it has become a military base of the Jordan Legion. After 1967 it has become an Israeli military base.

It would be possible to imagine this base used by a revolutionary Palestinian army, but Palestinian military tactics are more stealthy and covert and have no need for the static high-point bases of yesterday’s wars.

During the Oslo era an agreement was signed between the municipality of Beit Sahour and the central government under Arafat, guarantying that in case of a possible Israeli evacuation the base would not be used by the Palestinian police and be handed over to the management of the municipality as a public space. Upon gaining control of the site a municipal masterplan designated a set of public functions, a neighborhood with a hospital and an amusement park. A play area for children, a restaurant and an open garden for events have already been constructed on the slopes of the hill.

The most contentious part of the site is its summit. There, several concrete buildings formed the heart of the former camp. Surrounded by a giant earth mound running the top rim of the hill these building seem to inhabit the crater of a volcano.

Although the summit is evacuated, it is still kept under the [remote] control of the Israeli military. Providing the most strategic views in the entire area, the military did not accept it occupied by Palestinian eyes.

Revolving Door Occupations

Since its evacuation the summit and the buildings that inhabit it were at the centre of various political vortex and contentious confrontations between Jewish settlers, the Israeli military and Palestinian organizations and in which our office has been directly engaged. In may 2008, protesting against Bush visit to Israel and in anticipation of some ‘government concessions’ settler groups sought to use the emptied buildings of the military base as the nucleus for a new settlement/outpost. The topographical location of the base on the summit and its existing fortification would easily lend themselves, they thought, to their regimented and securitised way of life.  The military declared the site “closed military zone” but nearly every week settlers come back to occupy the base, hold picnics, heritage tours and Torah lessons there and raise the Israeli flag.

Israeli soldiers are present to ‘protect’ the settlers. Palestinian and international activists including members of our office also occupy the site and confront the settlers. A set of competing graffiti written by one side and then obliterated by the other testifies for a ‘revolving door’ occupancy. Our proposal for the reuse of this site becomes also an intervention into the contentious political struggle for this hilltop.


UNGROUNDING: Urbanism of the first 10 centimeters


Settlements are suburban when put in relation to the Jewish geography in the occupied territories, they are fenced up bedroom communities fed by a growing matrix of roads and other infrastructure, but they could be understood as potentially urban when put in relation to the Palestinian cities besides which they were built.

The surface of the suburb is marked by its various uses. It is inscribed extensively with the signs of the petty bourgeois lifestyle that maintains it: an excess of roads and parking lots, private gardens, fences, sidewalks and tropical plants. The pattern of streets in the settlements/ suburbs is a folded linear structure strung by roads and sidewalks.

By designating drive/walk/no-walk areas, channeling movement, designating the different degrees of private and public space the first ten centimeters of the urban ground surface embody most of its operational logic and also its ideology.

This surface is the primary site of our intervention. It is the logic of the surface that we seek to deactivate in order dismantle the structures that define the internal organization of the suburb as it will become a set of public and communal functions.

Under the category of ‘ungrounding’ the manual suggests a radical transformation of the first 10cm of the ground. Ungrounding is achieved through the dismantling of the existent surface –roads, sidewalks, private gardens– and their replacements with a new surface layer.

Methods of ground transformation are based on accelerating the decay of existing surface elements. The pervasive system of concentric roads and spaces for parking will be eroded, removed or buried under new surface layers. The barriers and fences that demarcate the edges of the private lots of the single-family homes will be removed as the ground gets abstracted and ‘collectivized’. Built structure will be suspended like pavilions on a single, unified, new surface.

The re-grounding of the surface is a central part of a strategy that seeks to reconfigure a new figure-ground relation. The possible connection between the individual buildings will be reconceived. Connection would be undertaken across a field in which movement is not prescribed by the linear folds of the roads the sidewalks.


UNHOMING: Design by Destruction


Could controlled material decay become a process of place making?  How destruction could become a design process that may lead to new uses?

In the case of ungrounding it is clear that the destruction of the surface –through actively uprooting its elements and also through accelerating the decay of other surface elements– would create the ground from which new life could emerge.

In the base of Oush Grab we have employed the first stages of our architectural proposal as forms of destruction. Because of its ‘revolving door occupation’ in which the danger of the place’s appropriation by settlers always exist, it is important to first render the building less amenable to be used, before allowing for new functions to inhabit them.

As a first stage of design we propose to perforate the buildings of the military base by drilling holes into their walls. When the building is finally appropriated these would render walls into screens.

Another way of intervention within the base is to transform its landscape. The earth rampart raised around the buildings has been constantly shifting due to Palestinian contractors using the site as a dump for their unwanted rubble and to other contractors taking some of the earth from the rampart as material for construction. Our intervention seeks to use the shifting nature of the rampart to reorganize the relationship between the buildings and the landscape. We will partially bury the buildings in the rubble of their own fortifications.

The molecular level of the occupation is the single-family house on a small plot of land. Investigating ways to transform this repetitive semi-generic structure may open up ways to transform the entire geography of occupation. What are its limits of transformability?

Can a single-family home become the nucleus of a new type of public institutions? Which structural parts should be retained and what are the possible ways of connecting together groups of houses?

The problem is also how to transform a series of small-scale single-family houses into unified clusters of communal space, to accommodate larger functions like halls and classrooms, laboratories for a research institute, clinics and offices.

Folded Vision

The problem of unhoming is not only a technical question of transformations.. A lingering question throughout the project was is how to inhabit the home of one’s enemy. Within the multiple cultures that inhabited Palestine throughout the decades, rarely has one ever been the “first” or “original” occupier; but rather one is always a subsequent. To inhabit the land is always to inhabit it in relation either to one’s present-day enemies or to an imagined or real ancient civilization. This is a condition that turns the habitation of old cities, archaeological sites, battlegrounds, and destroyed villages into culturally complex acts of co- or trans-habitation.

For example –we believe that any act of de-colonization must include interventions in the field of vision. The settlements are organized as optical devices on suburban scale. Their pattern of streets as concentric rings around the hilltop, the placement of each house, the space between the houses and the organization of windows and rooms follow design principles that seek to maximize the power of vision with both national-aesthetic and national-strategic aims in mind. The pastoral view out of home windows reinforces a sense of national belonging when it reads traces of Palestinian daily lives –olive groves, stone terraces, livestock– as signifiers of an ancient holy landscape. The paradox of vision is that although what composes the panorama are traces of Palestinian daily lives, the settlers wish to have these inhabitants disappear.

The view is also national-strategic in overseeing tactical roadways and surveying the Palestinian cities and refugee camps. The visual affect of the settlements on Palestinians is in generating a constant sense of being seen. From Palestinian cities one can hardly avoid seeing a settlement, and one is most often seen by one.

Because the organization of homes is directed towards the surrounding view, the main door into each settlement home is approached from the inner areas of the settlement. Entering the home one moves into the living areas and the main window  which opens onto the landscape. But what happens if the people that should now be arriving at these houses are those otherwise “composing of the view”, if the new user would now approach the house from the view?

Our response is a small-scale intervention. We propose to change the direction of the front door to face, not the inner areas of the settlement but the Palestinian cities. Changing the direction from which one enters the house, also alters the spatial syntax of its interior. This small-scale intervention is ‘cinematic’ in the sense that it is an intervention in the framing of the conditions of vision and in directing ways of seeing. It reorganizes the field of the visible, a perspective folded onto itself.



In the course of our analysis, we made use of both documentary and narrative sources to identify some of the landowners within the areas of the colonies.

Jabel Tawil/P’sagot is at the gravitational centre of various orbits of extra-territoriality: displaced communities, individuals, migrations and family connections. Our investigation traced some of the Palestinian landowners to the US, Australia, Kuwait, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq and of course in Palestine closer at hand, sometimes fenced off a few meters away from their lands. Their private and family histories are the intertwined histories of Palestine and its displaced communities, forced out by the occupation and by economic and professional opportunities overseas.

About half of the area occupied by the Psagot colony belongs to private owners with the other half registered as belonging to one of various kinds of collective lands.3

The fate of private lands should be decided by their owners, it is within the communal lands that we propose various types of collective uses.

We discovered a map dating 1954 which shows the original parcellation of land on Jabel Tawil. We superimposed the 1954 plan onto the plan of the colony. The Palestinian demarcation lines cut arbitrary paths through the suburban fabric of the settlements, sometimes literally through the structures themselves, creating a new relationship between the houses and their parcels, internal and external spaces and between public and private spaces. Some of these odd lots are public lands. This archipelago of public lots forms the basis of our proposals.

The Public, the Communal, and the Non-Governmental

Public spaces and public institutions are generally managed by state and/or local authorities and are thus an important means by which the act of government articulates itself. In Palestine, the long period of “statelessness” under colonialism has shifted the manner by which public space and the public in general functions.

Until the beginning of the 1990s, Palestinian cities where directly managed by the Israeli Military.  Through the “civil administration” the military controlled planning and development permission and thus the central activities of the different municipalities. During this period the Palestinian cities where transformed into dormitory towns with very little public space. Furthermore, the ‘civil administration’ actively inhibited pubic institutions from developing. Private clubs, cinemas, schools and universities were put under close scrutiny or forcibly shut. The military required any association of more than three persons to have a permit. But difficulty in establishing and maintaining public institutions persisted even after the Oslo accord of 1993. The main reasons that impeded the creation of open public space in the Palestinian cities were the borders set up for Palestinian ‘self administered areas’. These borders where drawn tightly around the build up area of the Palestinian cities and villages leaving out little potential land for new construction.

The structure of land ownership within Palestinian cities meant that very little land was not privately owned, andmunicipalities have had a dire access to lands. Most open spaces and new institutions were created by the many international organizations and NGOs.

The role that NGOs play in Palestinian society must be explained: Palestinian civil society was greatly strengthened during the Intifada of 1987-1992. Local leaders organized resistance and a set of alternative services like schooling and medicine, to those shut off by the Israeli army. When the Palestinian Authority was established in 1993 there was a clash between two systems of government. The Palestinian Authority, whose leaders have largely come from abroad, attempted to centralize and regulate the network of self-governing institutions that developed throughout the intifada.

The network of institutions locally formed during the first intifada was transformed into the infrastructural framework of contemporary NGO structure in Palestine. The local leaders of the first Intifada largely preferred to become directors of NGOs than ‘officials’ in the Authority. Most former leaders of the leftist ‘Popular Front’ are now directing leading NGOs. (A good example is Mustafa Barghouthi and his healthcare network, which include diet plans and exercise programs with amazon pilates ball and more).

The West Bank has since been governed in parallel by the Palestinian Authority and by a series of local and international NGOs, both under the umbrella of ultimate Israeli sovereignty. In many cases Palestinian NGOcracy (as the phenomenon came to be known) provided a better quality services –medical, educational, planning– and the services NGOs provide are often better funded than those of the Palestinian Authority, which was always less than a government in less than a state.

NGOcracy has its dangers of course. Most NGOs, much like the Palestinian Authority, are internationally funded, and although donors are operating ‘in support of Palestinians’ they are in fact not accountable to the people of Palestine and often pursue the cultural and political agendas of the donor states. Philanthropy has thus become one of the main vehicles for western countries to intervene within the politics and culture of Palestine.

Baring these dangers in mind, the network of NGOs seems to us an important vehicle in developing new types of Palestinian public, social and communal spaces, and some NGOs might be the first to occupy the evacuated and transformed spaces.

We have started by setting up a series of meeting with local NGO –the Palestine Wildlife Society, Women Shelter, Save the Children, Alternative Tourism Group, Alternative Information Centre amongst others– and developed with them conceptions regarding the various ways in which particular sites within the colonies and military bases could be designed.

We have noticed that the archives of these NGOs are also the ‘living archives’ of Palestine. A combined archive of the hundreds of local NGOs, or access thereof, would provide information about the environment, welfare, human rights and politics throughout Palestine, and thus offers a diffused and multi-perspectival alternative to state centered information centers.


Throughout our work we have started to realize that the project may form a possible laboratory for architectural actions whose reach may go beyond the local specificity of our environment, it may also form a beginning of a model to think through the future of the suburban settlements, many of those in dire crisis, in other places worldwide. The ritual destruction, reuse, ‘redivivus’, or ‘détournement’ of the single-family house may suggest a possible repertoire of action for the larger transformation of other types of secluded suburban spaces at large.

1. We suggest to revisit to the term of “decolonization” in order to maintaining distance from the current political terms of a “solution” to the Palestinian conflict and its respective borders. The one-, two-, and now three-state solutions seem equally entrap in a “top-down” perspective, each with its own self-referential logic. Decolonization implies the dismantling of the existing dominant structure—financial, military, and legal—conceived for the benefit of a single national-ethnic group, and engaging a struggle for justice and equality. Decolonization does not necessarily imply the forced transfer of populations. Under the term decolonization, for example, Jewish communities could go and live in the Palestinian areas.
2. Although our proposals are based essentially on the third approach, we consider the possibility in some cases of also using the other two at the same time. Demolition, for example, will be necessary in cases in which colonies or military camps are constructed in particularly valuable landscape aries, just as simple reuse as residences could be proposed in areas where demand for housing is particularly urgent and in which colonial architecture is constructed on lands belonging to private Palestinians. In these cases, only the owners can decide on the future reuse of these structures.
3. The differences between the various categories of collective land ownership were erased by the regime of occupation, which considered all these lands as “public lands” and thus as the property of the sovereign. As sovereign in these areas Israel used these “public lands” to construct upon most its settlements.


This article is a reflection on the project Decolonizing Architecture directed by Hilal, Petti and Weizman and concerned with the potential future transformation of Israeli Colonies and Military Bases. The project is sponsored and produced by Eloisa Haudenschild and Steve Fagin, partners in spareParts, a division of the haudenschildGarage.

The project will be displayed at the BOZAR Palace in Brussels from October 30th   2007 to January 4 2008. The exhibition is curated by Lieven De Cauter and coordinated by Iwan Strauven. Participating architects: Senan AbdelKader, Nasser Abourahme, Nora Akawi, Yazid Anani, Saleh Hijazi, Rana Shakaa, Omar Yusuf.

Landscape design in collaboration with: Situ Studio, NYC

Artists and Architects in residence: Ursula Bieman, Vincezo Castella, Bianca Elzenbaumer, Marco Ferrari, Fabio Franz, Anne Gough, Zakiya Hanafi, Jake Himmel, Armin Linke, Jesse Long, Francesco Mattuzzi, Michele Marchetti, Allegra Martin, Barbara Modolo, Pietro Onofri, Armina Pilav, Giovanni Piovene, Salvatore Porcaro, Francesca Recchia, Lorenzo Romito, Roberto Sartor, Rianne Van Doeveren.

Academic collaboration: International Art Academy Palestine, Goldsmiths Centre for Research Architecture.

Committee: Giorgio Agamben, Stefano Boeri, Lieven De Cauter, Teddy Cruz, Jad Isaac, Laura Kurgan, Thomas Keenen, Andrew Ross, Salim Tamari.