After Gaza's 'urbicide', how do you rebuild before there's nothing left to return to?

Experts and architects share what it will take to prevent the enclave’s complete erasure

Palestinian families return to their homes in Khan Yunis. Anadolu
Powered by automated translation

The Israel-Gaza war has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, of whom 12,000 are children, and injured more than 75,000. Thousands more are still buried under rubble.

Alongside these deadly statistics is another less talked about aspect: the wanton and intentional destruction of much of Gaza’s urban fabric – the buildings and places that are vital to sustain life, health and culture.

Entire neighbourhoods have been razed to the ground and countless hospitals, schools, shops, universities, places of worship and administrative buildings blown up or bulldozed. Photovoltaic and solar panels have been targeted, as have one-third of Gaza’s greenhouses and half of its farming land, according to satellite imagery analysed by multi-disciplinary research group Forensic Architecture.

This "urbicide", literally the killing of a city and ensuring it becomes unliveable as there is nothing to return to, also includes the destruction of more than 200 cultural sites and monuments, including mosques, cemeteries and archaeological remains, according to a report by the International Council on Monuments and Sites in February.

“It’s very difficult to conceive because the scale this time is so absurd and beyond our peripheral vision that its effects are not possible to gauge, even for those of us it was already visible to,” says Dima Srouji, a Palestinian architect, artist and academic who lives in London.

Nevertheless, Srouji says she wasn’t shocked. “The Zionist aim since its inception as an ideology is to build a state on top of us whether dead or alive. As it seems, preferably dead,” she tells The National.

Despite the resilience of Palestinians and the enduring ties among second or third-generation diaspora Palestinians to their identity, culture and land, what’s happening in Gaza is existential and unprecedented.

“The nightmares I’ve been having since October have been of the urbicide we’re witnessing,” says Srouji. “Inter-generational trauma aside, urbicide has a much longer effect than the attempt to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian people. Urbicide erases that land and the culture that we are all living for. Once that urbicide is complete, that spiritual connection with space and the terrain is threatened.”

This feeling of overwhelm and angst is shared by many in Palestine and the diaspora, some of whom have family in Gaza.

Yara Sharif, a Palestinian architect who runs a practice with her husband Nasser Golzari, says: “Nasser and I lost around 40 family members in the first week of the genocide so we felt we needed to do something."

For the pair, who also teach at the University of Westminster in the UK, this meant founding an organisation called Architects for Gaza, which has drawn interest from architects and practitioners around the world. It aims to conceive of ways of “rebuilding Gaza in collaboration with those displaced” and provide students from Gaza with the opportunity to carry on – or finish – their education online and in person through a platform called the Gaza Global University.

Embedded within the founding principles of the group, which is in the process of registering for UK charity status, are the right to live in the city, the right to education and the right to reconstruction. Also, importantly, the right to return.

Just as they do in their own architectural practice, Sharif and Golzari say that Architects for Gaza is focusing on the pragmatic and immediate on the one hand, and the more speculative on the other.

“The latter allows us to imagine a future where we can push for a sustainable reconstruction, where there is no siege and Gaza and Palestine are free,” says Golzari. In many ways, speculative proposals are a way of cultivating hope in what seems like extreme and impossible conditions.

The practical strand Architects for Gaza is currently focused on is the design and build of a modular clinic, in collaboration with a charity called Mist (Mobile International Surgical Teams), that could be attached to existing medical infrastructure in Gaza and used as a classroom if needed. It will be installed in one place for now, but more could be erected in different parts of Gaza. Sharif and Golzari hope to be among a team that will go to set it up.

“We’re waiting for a ceasefire,” Golzari says.

If they manage to go, it won’t be the first time having visited in 2010 as part of another organisation they co-founded, Palestine Regeneration Team, or Part. A team of specialists in self-build, wastewater treatment and design went to Gaza to work on projects with locals and NGOs such as UN-Habitat and Unesco.

“The idea was to learn, rethink what can we do to rebuild and, most importantly, celebrate the local initiatives happening in Gaza,” says Sharif. "Because of the siege, Gazans have been forced to come up with countless innovative techniques to survive, whether it is in reconstruction, water recycling or water heating.

“They’ve learnt how to create building materials and bricks out of rubble, rebar, earth and clay, produced their own solar panels and converted cooking oil for use in engines and to generate energy. It’s this idea of creating possibility or abundance out of scarcity.”

And it’s something the West could learn from, they say, given the limited planetary resources and environmental crises we face.

The scale of what has been wrought on Gaza and what needs to be done is so immense and the future so uncertain that it seems almost strange to talk about reconstruction.

“We don’t know what the political settlement will be, who will govern Gaza, what is left exactly and even whether the municipal buildings where all the property deeds are stored have been destroyed, because that is another big obstacle for reconstruction,” says Fadi Shayya, a Lebanon-born lecturer in the UK, who is also part of Architects for Gaza.

He says he “was angry and depressed” in the first few weeks of this assault, but “survival mode” took over.

“Our region has been riddled with instability and conflict, which gives us little to no time to grieve; we are constantly in reserve mode, ready to help our students, families and networks.” Being ready means reconstruction efforts can start the moment it’s possible, he adds.

Both he, Sharif and Golzari speak of letting Palestinians and Gazans take “ownership” of whatever is done post-ceasefire. “The only people who have the right to discuss reconstruction in Gaza are Gazans and Palestinians,” says Sharif.

That also means going beyond viewing Palestinians as merely victims or passive participants in the fate meted out to them. Sharif and Golzari speak of the richness of the heritage and culture of Gaza, and the diversity of its landscapes, which include dunes and significant amounts of farming land and greenhouses.

“Part of the ongoing colonial project of erasure is the imagery that keeps repeating itself so that we only ever associate Gaza with ruins, destruction and rubble and almost forget that it's a coastal city very much associated with the Mediterranean and was a trading hub for thousands of years,” says Sharif. "It wasn’t so long ago that when you spoke of Gaza, you spoke of Alexandria, Beirut, Istanbul and even Marseille.”

Given the gravity of the current urbicide, it has become increasingly urgent to document, preserve and recreate what has been erased.

Zain Al-Sharaf Wahbeh is a Palestinian architecture graduate who was born in Jordan and grew up in the UAE. For a postgraduate project at the Royal College of Art in London, she focused on a lost territory in the north of Jaffa, partially reconstructing it using digital modelling methods.

Al Manshiyya was demolished after 1948 to create “an empty landscape as some kind of moral alibi for its replacement into something else,” she says. An Arab Islamic city with Palestinian vernacular infrastructure, Al Manshiyya is where her paternal family come from.

To recreate this neighbourhood, she used the testimonies and schematic drawings of a former resident of Al Manshiyya, Dr Ahmad Sharkas, who lived there as a boy. Beyond that, she had to “rely on the coloniser” for materials as only British Mandate and Israeli archives, maps and documentation were available.

“The Palestinians in Al Manshiyya and elsewhere were told they would be able to come back to their homes so they didn’t take their photographs or possessions with them," says Wahbeh.

Documenting villages and towns in Palestine that were erased after 1948 is critical, she explains, because people with memories of life in places like Al Manshiyya are now in their eighties or nineties. This forensic reconstruction work is something she intends to continue and hopes will have wider applications, for herself and others.

“It's about developing methodologies and methods of documentation, analysis and mapping that could be transferred to any neighbourhood that has been demolished or is at risk of erasure," she says, “No one is immune to injustice, if it’s not our city or country, it could be another. So how do we create methods, even preventative ones, to fight against that?"

Updated: April 15, 2024, 10:58 AM