In Gaza, Hopes for a Transformed and Improved Urban Setting

While the strip’s future has never seemed more uncertain or its present more crushed, it is imperative to imagine and prepare for a better place

In Gaza, Hopes for a Transformed and Improved Urban Setting
A man reacts outside a burning collapsed building following Israeli bombardment in Gaza City in October 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2012, the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territories published a report that questioned whether the Gaza Strip would be a “livable place” by 2020. The report details a society that was unraveling, dependent on aid, subject to devastating Israeli military operations and to a blockade by land, sea and air. In 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge (OPE) in response to rocket attacks by Hamas, with the stated objective of destroying its capabilities to conduct operations. OPE resulted in some of the worst destruction that Gaza had seen. Over 2,000 Palestinians were killed, critical urban infrastructure was destroyed and half a million people were displaced. The Israeli blockade restricted the ability of Gaza’s inhabitants to rebuild, stemming the flow of construction materials, such as cement and steel. The Palestinian author Tareq Baconi, who wrote “Hamas Contained,” described in his visit to Gaza following OPE a society unraveling. “Alongside infrastructural de-development, there has been a less tangible but no less present process of human degradation,” he wrote. Palestinians live in Gaza but in conditions that have for too long been unlivable.

As we know now, in OPE the Israelis failed to achieve their objective of destroying Hamas’ capabilities. On Oct. 7, Hamas literally burst out from the enclosed Gaza Strip into Israel. Notably, its targets went well beyond Israeli military installations to include the communities and towns that are within 10 miles of the Gaza fence. Hamas’ fighters entered kibbutzim and towns, like Sderot and Ofakim, where they slaughtered innocent civilians in their homes. It was a purposefully chilling act to instill fear into Israeli society and an act of revenge.

The Israeli response, fueled by a politics of vengeance, deployed a vastly superior war machine, resulting in massive destruction and casualties. The Israeli bombing campaign of Gaza has resulted in the displacement of over half of the entire population, more than 1 million people, and the destruction of residential neighborhoods, civilian structures, roads and other parts of the infrastructure. The systematic targeting by Israel of the built environment through the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals and public spaces is aimed at making these areas uninhabitable, to render urban life impossible.

It is not only the ferocious Israeli bombing campaign, however, that is killing and displacing Gaza’s inhabitants but the targeting and/or shutting-off of everyday infrastructure that sustains urban life in this densely populated territory. This is what the urbanization of revenge looks like. “There is no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed,” said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Gaza’s sole functioning power station stopped operations not because it was damaged by an Israeli strike but because it ran out of fuel. Israel’s 16-year blockade had already restricted the import of fuel, but now its import was banned entirely. Without power, there is no access to potable water and no functioning sewage system. Urban life is stripped of its critical infrastructural support systems.

There are rumors that Israel wants to displace all 2 million-plus inhabitants of Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. +972 Magazine reported a leaked document from Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence that outlines a proposal to do this forcibly and permanently. High-ranking Israeli officials are writing op-eds in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, urging the West to accept Palestinian families from Gaza. This has been accompanied by crude fantasies by the likes of Israeli entrepreneur Alex Daniel, who shared an AI-generated image of what he called “the new tourist and vacation city in the south that is going to be built soon in Israel: Nova.” The fear that Israel could actually engage in the displacement of all Palestinians from Gaza and attempt to construct a Dubai-like tourist resort provoked The Nation’s columnist Kate Wagner to warn her architectural colleagues to “not participate in this.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has rejected any Israeli displacement plans: “We’re very clear on no reoccupation, just as we’re very clear on no displacement of the Palestinian population.” But what will happen in postwar Gaza? Currently, it seems like no one knows what will happen next, and the idea that the residents of Gaza will actually have any say about it is fanciful. If the population of Gaza is not displaced, on what terms will they be allowed to remain in this territory? Will they be allowed a right to the city, free of occupation and blockade? Will they be able to build back an urban context in which they can live in safety and security, form a viable economy, and be subject to fair and impartial justice? It is instructive to examine here what has happened in previous rounds of Israeli violence on Gaza and the aftermath in particular in relation to the built environment, both as a warning and a plea that another urban relationship between Israel and Palestine and between their inhabitants is both necessary and possible.

After the 2014 military incursion was over, Israel established the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). Its ostensible purpose was to facilitate the flow into Gaza of “dual-use” materials — i.e., those that Israel identifies could potentially be used for military purposes, including aggregate, cement and steel bars. The GRM created a highly complex and byzantine bureaucratic system that Israel controlled and used to significantly slow the entrance of critical materials for the inhabitants of Gaza to be able to rebuild their homes, schools and other vital infrastructure. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) regularly called for Israel to lift the “artificial ceiling” of 90 trucks of cement per day and the unacceptably long timeline for approvals from Israel, with some materials taking over 200 days to obtain approval. Data from the Israeli NGO Gisha shows that cement, steel and gravel were allowed into Gaza in any significant quantity only after 2016. The Israeli military tightly controlled urban rebuilding, repair and growth in Gaza. Far from a mechanism to facilitate the reconstruction, the GRM weaponized the reconstruction process itself, pushing Gazans further into poverty and immiseration.

In reaction to the violence unleashed in OPE and the serious continued decline in living standards in its aftermath, I was part of a progressive group of urbanists that sought to think collectively about productive interventions for a more just, equitable and beautiful future for Gaza and, in turn, Israel-Palestine more broadly. Basing our approach on the idea of the right to the city, we produced the edited volume “Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope.” This book presented bold ideas as well as projects that have actually been realized within Gaza. These ranged from the reconstruction and repair of residential housing to the building of a school by the Jerusalem-based architect Omar Yousef, who because of the Israeli siege has never been able to visit his completed work.

In the book, the Palestinian Gazan architect Salem Al-Qudwa details how he was part of a participatory design process with Gazans that, in 2010, successfully rebuilt 70 housing units in seven months, for just $4,400 per unit. Al-Qudwa explains how he and his team were able to successfully involve the local populace in both the design and the building of their homes, using local materials from the community. “Too often international organizations come into Gaza and produce experimental shelters that do not serve the needs of the local population or are attentive to them,” Al-Qudwa noted. In the formulation of this project, Al-Qudwa was purposefully attentive to the perspective of his compatriots’ needs and, importantly, their desires. He explains that “it is important to mobilize people’s aesthetic sensibilities by creating and appreciating everyday objects and activities that enhance life and human dignity.”

Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari, in their contribution to “Open Gaza,” described their visit to Gaza as part of the Palestine Regeneration Team (PART) with UN-Habitat in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in 2009. “We sought to break the blockade by not relying on imported materials but by those we could source from inside Gaza,” Golzari explained. They proposed a model called green stitching that builds upon existing initiatives by the local community to establish green rooftops and small gardens at street level in a manner that links neighborhoods. As part of the reconstruction scheme, they also suggested introducing neighborhood learning rooms that would act as community laboratories. People from the neighborhood would be able to drop in to the learning rooms to become familiar with the basics of construction, while more skilled workers could get updated on new techniques of self-help construction. In response to the current Israeli onslaught, Sharif and Golzari have further developed their ideas, showcasing what it means to rebuild Gaza in a way that will heal the “fractured landscape” at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. They work with available materials and salvage the ruins using crushed concrete, earth, clay and rebars to create a new skin for the city.

Critically, both the proposals in “Open Gaza” by Salem Al-Qudwa and PART seek to build upon the capacities and potential of the inhabitants of Gaza. This is an approach that is firmly rooted in the principle and idea of the right to the city. The inhabitants of Gaza and Palestine are not merely statistics or numbed inhabitants of a completely bare life whose existence is defined by Israeli domination. Instead, Palestinians in Gaza are approached in these proposals as humans with capacities that can be utilized and built upon, even fulfilled. Palestinians in Gaza have opinions on how they want their urban contexts shaped and organized, aesthetic preferences and desires, that should be respected and attended to. In “Open Gaza,” we envisage a territory that is not caged in by arbitrary and cruel borders but one that imagines an urban context that protects and embraces surrounding agricultural and green space. Can a Gaza ever exist in which its inhabitants are allowed to embrace its hinterland rather than gasp for the open space of the sea?

In the present moment, an open Gaza filled with hope, prosperity and fulfilment is being smashed into oblivion. But even in this context, Palestinians and others are mobilizing and resisting the politics of annihilation. Architects and Designers for Gaza is just one group of many that have mobilized for the call for a permanent ceasefire and the right to the city for Palestinian Gazans. “We felt we had to do something and professionally; we have a professional code of conduct that we abide by,” Gozlari said, in explaining why he, along with others, initiated Architects and Designers for Gaza. This international group of academics and professionals is assembling to help in the rebuilding of Gaza, proposing self-help collaboration clusters with displaced families and persons. It is also mobilizing to create both physical and virtual education clusters. Gaza had a vibrant education sector with thousands of aspiring engineers and architectural students. But now many of their higher education buildings have been reduced to rubble.

Can Israel live side by side with Palestinians who are not subjugated but instead allowed to fulfill their potential? Can Israel ever envisage a Palestinian state in which Gaza has a seaport, an airport, a sustainable source of energy, and a vibrant and diversified economy on its own territory? As this protracted conflict continues to expand in its scale and toxicity, as the politics of vengeance deepens, these are the questions that urgently need to be posed and resolved. A political solution is conceivable, and even possible, in which the people of Israel and Palestine coexist as equal citizens. A just reconstruction process grounded in the ideals of the right to the city that recognizes Palestinians in Gaza as participants in their own destiny, able to shape their surroundings and live in dignity, is the necessary first step to pick up the ruins and build a shared future.

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