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Designing a Hopeful Vision for Gaza

Toward a post-conflict Gaza of equality and dignity

Palestine is a nation in pieces, pockmarked and cut up by the Israeli occupation through borders, walls, checkpoints, and siege. The Gaza Strip, a tiny segment of land that lies along the Mediterranean Sea, is the clearest manifestation of what absolute domination looks like. Gaza has been cut off from the rest of Palestine by a 15-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade. In 2014, Israel carried out Operation Protective Edge that brought ever further devastation to this beleaguered strip. In response, the late Michael Sorkin gathered his team at Terreform—designers, environmentalists, planners, activists, and scholars—to think through productive interventions for Gaza. The result was Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, which I co-edited with Michael. Open Gaza is a book that engages this space beyond the logic of bombing and blockade. It considers how life could be improved in Gaza within the limitations imposed by Israeli oppression and aggression but also reaches beyond this framework of endless war to imagine Gaza in a future without conflict. The work, however, toward a post-conflict Gaza in which Palestinians are able to live in freedom, equality, and dignity remains.  

In this illustration from Open Gaza, from the chapter, “Ring City: A Metropolis—Not an Enclave,” the authors propose urbanist solutions for Gaza to areas like services and infrastructure, transportation and agriculture. The project is based on the observation that “one thinks very differently about Gaza and its hinterlands if its political border disappears as a physical fact.”

In May 2021, Gaza was once again the focal point of global attention but one firmly fixated on the logic of bombing and blockade. Following Israeli attempts to evict Palestinians from the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem and Israeli police breaking into and desecrating the al-Aqsa mosque, Hamas gave an ultimatum to Israel to evacuate these places. Israel ignored the warning and Hamas fired a barrage of rockets from Gaza. Israel subsequently launched Operation Guardian of the Walls, the fourth major assault on Gaza in the past decade. In 2012, the United Nations famously published a report that questioned whether Gaza would still be a “livable place” by 2020.

Today, Gaza remains inhabited but in conditions that are uninhabitable and unjust. However, spaces of hope continue to exist in this beleaguered community. This latest round of conflict has illustrated the extent to which Palestine and Palestinians, from Gaza to Jerulsalem, remain a connected people despite the divisions that have been imposed upon them. —Deen Sharp

The importance of everyday life

In 1968, the eminent American urbanist Lewis Mumford published a scathing critique of a proposed Israeli master plan for Jerusalem. For Mumford, the Jerusalem master plan, as Alona Nitzan-Shiftan has written, “exhibited the disciplinary hubris that in his view marked so much mid-century urban design thinking—the technocratic belief in data, a valorization of quantifiable progress over immeasurable cultural and ecological values.” Almost 50 years later, Gaza in 2021 is facing a similar set of issues to those identified by Mumford. In the aftermath of the latest Israeli siege, once again numerous statistical summaries and infographics are being published by international organizations about the dire reality of the Gaza Strip. These technical studies will turn the everyday realities and the suffering of the Palestinian people into mere abstractions requiring technical interventions that sidestep the questions of justice, equality, and social values.

Gaza, 2017.
Gaza reimagined, after Ring City.

In my contribution to Open Gaza, I stress the importance of everyday life, the individuals, the culture of the extended families and the children, as well as the donkey and the chicken. I offer a visual analysis of the existing objects that surround Gaza’s inhabitants and the buildings in which they—and I—live. It considers the capacity and adaptability of architectural design and spatial reorganization in Gaza to provide relief in situations of scarcity. I respond to the expectations of various beneficiaries, while at the same time integrate a design component and aesthetic that acknowledges the possibilities of a different and improved future, albeit imagined at this stage. The contribution further draws on my architectural background, linking emergency and architectural site-work to fieldwork research and thus exploring the potential of social and physical mapping as research tools. To identify the fundamental reconstruction constraints for low-income extended families in rural and marginalized areas, a design-based case study of the Rehabilitation of Damaged Houses project is featured as a critical appraisal of one of my related projects undertaken in the Gaza Strip.

In terms of developing a new and longer-term reconstruction methodology, I argue that examining Gaza’s current sociocultural context through the lens of the “architecture of the everyday” not only restores personal agency, but also reveals future creative possibilities for built environments where few exist. The aim of my contribution is to make a sustainable form of self-build architecture that families can build themselves. This also challenges, if not contradicts, the well-intentioned but ultimately demeaning “eat to survive” approach that informs the work of many international aid organizations in Gaza. This research is a contribution towards the reconstruction process in Gaza, in which I see myself as a facilitator, a bridge to transfer knowledge back and forth, challenging the siege. But most importantly, I see my work as contributing to change on the ground that lays the foundation for future efforts by the inhabitants of Gaza themselves. The goal is to empower Gazans, making them self-sufficient and able to make use of existing resources without having to rely on Israel or any other external sources for building materials. Although the focus of this research is on Gaza, its findings will benefit reconstruction efforts in other conflict zones in the Middle East—Syria, Iraq, and Libya—where human displacement is a defining problem and post-conflict reconstruction of the built environment is an urgent need. —Salem Al Qudwa

The ability to dream is fundamental to liberation

As Gaza was being barraged by Israeli bombs earlier this year, I felt completely numb. Glued to my phone, I was following every minute and every image of death and destruction. I wandered about my day in New York in a dissociative sense of disbelief, wishing I was in Jerusalem with my family.

In Jerusalem we obsessively long for Gaza because Gaza is the one stretch of Palestine that Palestinians from Jerusalem are barred from visiting. I have never once stepped foot in Gaza. And likewise, many Gazans have never stepped foot in Jerusalem, a mere 45 miles away. Geographic proximity coupled with this immeasurable distance between our two cities results in our inability to see Gaza for what it is. We instead opt to mythologize each other in the hope of forming a connection. This distance also leads to a paralyzing inability to think about Gaza, to imagine it beyond the Israeli blockade and the incremental genocide of its people. A goal of the Israeli blockade is to fragment the Palestinian psyche and to limit the ways in which we imagine our future liberation. If an entire generation cannot see Gaza, how will they know it exists? 

In my co-authored piece for Open Gaza, “Timeless Gaza,” we unlearned Gaza as a strip, an enclave, a territory, and a periphery; all terms favored by colonial regimes. Instead we wanted to learn, and dream, about Gaza as a center, a connected node, a focal point. The 1880 Conder, C. R. and H. H. Kitchener Map of Western Palestine and other British Ordnance Surveys and military maps from 1917, 1918, and 1925 all studied Gaza and its environment as one of Palestine’s central nodes, integral to the rest of the country. Setting the British maps’ obvious violent disposition aside, they provided us with evidence of a connected Gaza, reachable by land, air, and sea. “Timeless Gaza” proposes an alternate timeline collapsed into a singular frame that obliterates the Israeli blockade, at least from our psyche. This is a Gaza that has never been severed from its hinterland or from its past: all of Gaza’s eras, monuments, and roads are alive and well, the city serving as a regional hub on the Mediteranean. At times the exercise felt futile but what became abundantly clear is that our collective ability to dream of decolonization is fundamental to forming a path to liberation.

The Palestinian popular revolt of 2021, an ongoing effort to reimagine, reconnect, and strengthen communal and familial bonds between Palestinians across Palestine, is evidence of Israeli failure to fragment Palestine. The blockade on Gaza failed at severing Gaza from Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and 1948. Palestinians think and talk about Gaza daily. The Israeli siege on East Jerusalem—a multiheaded plan that uses apartheid laws, de-development policies, settler expansionism, and the separation wall—has also failed to cut off and transform Jerusalem’s Palestinians into a subdued labor force. It has instead mobilized them to organize and strengthen their political consciousness. —Mahdi Sabbagh

Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, edited by Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp, is published by Terreform and AUC Press. Read an essay about the book, Gaza, A Surprising Model for Urban Living, in the Fall 2021 issue of YES! magazine.


Mahdi Sabbagh is a practicing architect and urbanist and a co-curator with Palfest, the Palestine Festival of Literature. He holds a Master's in Architecture from Yale.
Salem Al Qudwa is a Conflict and Peace Practitioner Fellow at Harvard University.
Deen Sharp is an LSE Fellow in Human Geography at the London School of Economics and co-editor with the late Michael Sorkin of Open Gaza.

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