“Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope” was released in 2020 and brought together 21 essays written by a collaborative group of architects, urban designers, and social scientists. The book engages with the Gaza Strip, a geographical location known as one of the most contested in the world.
Gaza’s history stretches back to ancient times. Partly due to its desirable coastal location, the land now known as Gaza has been fought over countless times throughout history, but the modern conflict dates back to 1948 when the state of Israel was officially proclaimed, with the support of the United States. The boundaries of Gaza- the 140 square mile stretch of land hugging the Mediterranean coast- were then established in a 1949 armistice agreement between Egypt and Israel, halting the conflict after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The official creation of the state of Israel had enormous consequences on the Palestinian population. In 1948, approximately three-quarters of a million Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. This period is known as “al-Nakba” or “The Catastrophe”, fostering a collective trauma and sense of despair for the population that is still visible nowadays. Having lost their homes and livelihoods, around 500,000 people became dependent on U.N. aid, and they and their descendants have been classified as “refugees” by the United Nations.
Israel seized the territory in 1967 from Egypt. The Gaza fence went up in 1994 after the Oslo Accords, which was designed to end the conflict between Israel and Palestine by establishing an independent Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, even after Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, Gaza is stifled on all sides by Israel and Egypt’s impositions. The deprivations in Gaza have only worsened. An estimated 80% of the 1.3 million refugees in Gaza rely on aid, and over half a million live in refugee camps. The inability of the residents to leave or cross the state-controlled boundaries has created a space that most advocates called ‘the world’s largest open-air prison.
While the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on earth, home to almost 2 million Palestinians and hosting a collection of significant Palestinian cities and refugee camps, its small size belies its global significance. Nowadays, access to the Gaza Strip is highly restrictive, and, as a consequence, scholarly research on this geographical location is scarce. It became the focal point of a new volume of Urban Research, a publication by an urban think tank under the name of Terreform. After the 2014 Gaza War, the project came together, during which hundreds of thousands of Gazans were internally displaced, tens of thousands of homes were damaged, and more than 2000 Gazans were killed. Its interest lies in the architecture of Gaza and speculative visions of future development progressions in the contested territory. Gaza’s fortitude in the face of utter despair has long fascinated the international community, making it critical in debates about spatial equity, often to the point of abstraction.
One of the research accounts includes the transformative effect of Salem Al Qudwa’s visual methodology, which prioritizes the recovery of Gaza’s people’s agency and humanity. In one of the chapters of “Open Gaza: Architectures of real hope,” the new book released by Terreform, the Palestinian academic and architect, Salem Al Qudwa looks at some of the Strip’s (West Bank) building techniques and materials “—for housing, delineating partitions, and even toward an ad hoc form of public art—which must be tailored to the area’s specific needs, planning shortfalls, and imposed limitations.” He argues that working on architecture and space alone cannot reduce or transform conflict, but understanding the spatial dimension of conflict can be crucial in bringing about a comprehensive response to conflict.
Qudwa, raised in Gaza, recognizes and attributes significance to the home as a physical place of family structure. Reconstructing houses and including the homeowners in the conversation is a way to bring dignity to the Palestinians. By investing in such a process, Qudwa sees the potential to empower people and give them agency, not just over the process of reconstructing their homes, but over themselves and the formation of their identities as well. He introduces simple structures into the landscape, structures that would enable easily adaptable additions to the construction.
His methodology included bringing a whiteboard with him to the site of reconstruction. This not only created a level of transparency by displaying everything but also made it a participatory process. It involved the families and enabled double sensory attainment of information. Other than just listening, he encouraged the family members, specifically the matriarchs and children, to draw out their needs, striking the delicate balance between social and physical needs.
Populations during a war or an occupation are dispossessed of their historical narrative. This humanitarian action aims to keep the alternative narrative of the population alive, voiced, and accessible through participatory methods. Qudwa’s method strengthens the identity of the West Bank in the face of an illegal but long-lasting occupation.
(Editorial note: This article was submitted for publication on May 6th, 2021, and as such does not reflect key developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since then.)
Edited by Ines Navarre
Mehak Balwani is in her third year at McGill University, currently pursuing a B.A. in International Development and English Literature.