A young Italian architect carefully mapped resistance and occupation in Hebron’s Old City. The web platform she created provides a unique means to understand how Jewish settlements and Israeli military presence are contributing to the city’s slow death.
Zakyeh Mahmood Qasrawi belongs to that tiny minority of Palestinian people who decided to remain in Hebron’s Old City. Back in 2005, during a curfew, Israeli soldiers blocked her house’s main entrance on al-Shuhada street, forcing her family to find an alternative passage through the neighbouring courtyards. Since then, to exit and come back home, 80-year-old Zakyeh is obliged to use her neighbour’s main entrance, cross the rooftop and pass by a door of fortune opened from there. Her full story, along those of other Palestinian families residing in Hebron’s historical centre, are reported by Mapping the Apartheid: a unique and innovative lens to understand how Israeli occupation impacts Hebron’s urban life.
“Zakyeh offers an eloquent example of the situation on al-Shuhada street,” explains Marianna Castellari, heart and mind behind the project. “Due to Israeli settlers and soldiers, families living there had indeed to socially and spatially reinvent their lives; and Mapping the Apartheid simply wants to portray their daily struggle”. Marianna, a former Italian student in Architecture from the Polytechnic School of Milan, has been living and working in Ramallah for a year. Before coming back to Italy in late February, she spent two months in Hebron for fieldwork, and in collaboration with Youth Against Settlement, a local NGO of Hebronite Palestinians, and the Polytechnic School of Hebron, her project eventually took shape.
“Although I was working on my own, their commitment was of great help and motivation to me. The majority of the stories we gathered and reported actually came from the NGO’s members; and Suhaib, a web developer from Hebron’s university who worked on the website, participated with such enthusiasm that I really had never expected. Today, in seeing the platform published, I think I really owed it to all of them.”
Captivating in graphics and solidly underpinned by in-depth research, Mapping the Apartheid features an interactive web-platform where anyone – from area studies’ experts to people simply interested in gathering information – can ascertain the situation on the ground. Thematic maps, powerful images, stories from local families and careful graphic reconstructions of key urban sites merge into a comprehensive canvas, which for clarity and precision of representation leaves very little room for revisions. “It’s actually very difficult to give a sense of what’s happening in Hebron after decades of occupation,” Marianna says, “if one really wants to gather information, there are either official reports or news articles, yet both are very technical and specific”. She continues: “With this in mind, we spent a long time discussing an effective way to report about the city and we (concluded) that words weren’t enough. We needed some graphic and visual materials in order for people to get into the topic and mapping patterns of resistance and occupation at the urban scale featured as a more accessible, yet profoundly objective, means of denunciation.”
Hebron is the second largest Palestinian city and the only one with Israeli settlements within its urban centre. While a Jewish minority has historically featured in the city’s demography until 1931 – when the arrival of Zionism contributed to ignite communal strife between Jews and Arabs – the first Israeli settlements started in the 1967 war’s aftermath.
At that time, a growing number of Israeli Jews – informed by a Zionist ideology mixed with religious fundamentalism and mainly coming from the US and Israel – increasingly settled in Hebron’s Old City. Without going through the whole story of the occupation (which you can find on a detailed timeline on the project’s website) today’s Hebron is divided into two separate zones, H1 and H2, under Palestinian and Israeli military control respectively. Zone H2 also embraces Hebron’s Old City, where 4,000 Israeli soldiers watchdog a difficult coexistence between 35,000 Palestinians and 500 Jewish settlers.
Within this context, the relationship between settlers, the Israeli government and its soldiers on the ground could be defined by a coordination of state and non-state actors, geared to produce socio-spatial fragmentation in the Palestinian front. In other words, settlers move into Hebron’s Old City – often motivated by a nationalist and fundamentalist bias – and the Israeli state provides them with financial support and the army eventually guarantees their security; a security concern which is also instrumental in perpetuating their military presence.
“Since the city is a sacred site for all three Abrahamic confessions, the conflict for Hebron has often been described as a matter of religion. Yet, the struggle is primarily about space, territory and land control,” Marianna concludes, adding that “as al-Shuhada Street shows, Hebronite Palestinians have been deprived of the road space, impeded to drive forward their businesses and forced to change their relationship to public and private spaces.”
At the time of writing, four different settlements stand in Hebron’s Old City, while an intricate network of security checkpoints, street closures and barricades criss-cross the urban fabric. Palestinians’ daily existence is spatially hindered by an expanse of physical barriers and socially frayed by a hopeless war of attrition, preventing their life to unfold normally. It is precisely this widening rift between social and urban fabrics that condemn Hebron’s historical centre to a slow death.