For centuries—long before the establishment of Israel—the Qudaih family have cultivated the land along the southern border of Gaza. Today, their farm is located next to one of the most militarized borders in the country. Since Ariel Sharon withdrew Israeli civil and military presence in 2005, Gaza has remained under siege. This intensified two years later, when Hamas took over control of Gaza, displacing the Palestine Liberation Organization. Since then, clashes between Hamas and Israel have resulted in a perpetual war. The two million Gazans live as hostages inside their hermetically sealed space. The Israeli army has bombed the airport. Israeli warships and drones restrict access to the shoreline and Mediterranean Sea and surveil all comings and goings. When Palestinians protest the siege, the Israeli army responds with disproportionate force. From the air, they bombard the informal tunnels along the border between Egypt and the very dense Gazan refugee camp, Rafah, which provide access to all sorts of needed goods, from food to construction materials to heavy machinery. On the other side of Gaza’s land border with Israel, Palestinian resistant movements, who use informal tunnels to infiltrate and attack Israel, are confronted by a newly built and unprecedented underground wall.
A militarized landscape of control—made of walls, checkpoints, towers, surveillance, and combat drones and warships—violently wraps the Gaza Strip.
The Qudaih family farm is situated 0.3 miles from the border with Israel. The Israeli army has assaulted the farm time and again. The family’s olive trees and date palms have been bulldozed, their greenhouse and irrigation systems repeatedly bombed. Indeed, such destruction has meant that this centuries-old farm is being forced to experiment with various forms of survival.
In the past couple of years, I have had ongoing conversations with Amir Qudaih. His neighbors and family members have lost their lives in these military raids. In the community of Khuza’a, where the Qudaih family lives and farms, and throughout Gaza, human life is always in peril. Amir’s brother, who attempted to escape Gaza, succeeded in crossing the illegal tunnels into Egypt. But after arriving in Libya, he disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea. In this, Amir’s brother is like many other North African and Middle Eastern migrants who have lost their lives while seeking a new life and prosperity.
The Qudaih family live self-sufficiently. They cultivate the land and live off its harvest; their bodies exist in synergy with the soil. They share the war trauma and ingest the toxic debris of explosive bombs and chemical pesticides Israeli planes spray over the fields. During one of the military attacks, Amir said, he hid with his family for almost a month inside a sheltered room. While they waited for the attack to end, they survived solely on watermelons, which they had swiftly picked from the farm before going into hiding.
The conversations with Amir and the Qudaih family are part of my long-term research and practice at the intersection of design and activism, which I conduct under the umbrella of a small think tank called FAST: the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory. During my architecture studies in Israel, I came to understand the overwhelming relationships between territory, state policy, and rights.
In the library of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), where I studied, I came across masterplans aimed at changing the region’s demographic balance. Since the early days of Israel, architects and spatial planners have played a critical role in the occupation and transformation of Palestine. They had to reimagine and give shape to the newly emerging state by designing cities, neighborhoods, new industries, highways, and other infrastructure. They transformed Zionist ideology into spatial and territorial organization.
In Israel, I learned how architecture and spatial design can manipulate the relations between territory and rights. These disciplines do so by demarcating new boundaries, and by providing justification to grab land, shift ownership, block access, fortify, and give form to new living conditions.
Design can lift some communities. But it can also force others to live precariously, often at the same time.
I was born in Israel—a modernist nation-state and imagined community—to immigrant parents. Although, to some extent, my family can be considered ethnically mixed, our Jewish identity was not fully in sync with the national ethos of the county. We never felt we utterly belonged.
My grandparents fled Casablanca overnight. They took a flight to Paris en route to Israel. They recalled a journey filled with racist slurs shouted at them first in Arabic in Morocco and then in French in Paris. In Israel, these racist insults continued for the rest of their lives, in Hebrew, coming from the newly culturally dominant Ashkenazi community. For my grandparents, the Jewish homeland turned into a nightmare, a lived apparatus of segregation and marginalization.
Segregation and racism operate at various scales: from continents to countries to cities and neighborhoods, and even within our sense of self. They impact both our collective and our singular bodies at the same time. The effects are deep and layered.
Architecture and spatial design can manipulate the relations between territory and rights by demarcating new boundaries.
Israel was established on top of Palestine. The locals, the Arabs, were literally pushed away into camps and across borders to make space for the newly arriving immigrants like my grandparents. Gaza is a small Palestinian enclave along Israel’s southern border with Egypt. It is home to about 2 million inhabitants, of which 1.4 million are refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israel war, also known as the Nakba (the Catastrophe), or the destruction of Palestinian society and homeland that culminated in 1948. It was this catastrophe that led to the permanent displacement of most of the Palestinian people.
During the Nakba, the new state of Israel forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. More than 500 Palestinian towns and villages were razed to the ground. The refugee camps—which the international aid agencies quickly erected—remain the sites where Palestinians are imprisoned to this day.
It is in these camps that Palestinians’ rights are constrained—from their freedom of movement to their access to education and employment—and they are denied any kind of prosperity. The camps they inhabit are overcrowded; they lack gardens, parks, sports facilities, and spaces of leisure like libraries, restaurants, or movie theatres. Even Palestinians’ access to basic resources, from food to shelter, is limited and fragile. In other cases, forcibly displaced Palestinians are inhabiting unrecognized villages, informal neighborhoods, and illegal homes within the internationally recognized borders of Israel, living precariously under a constant threat of home demolition and internal displacement.
My practice of architecture converges with activism. In the past decades, I have produced maps, books, and design projects that make visible spatial violence and offer alternative imaginaries such as plans, masterplans, or policy recommendations that support communities in need and challenge all sorts of governmental institutions with change. In 2019, FAST was invited to propose a project for the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale, an international exhibition and public platform that can be very effective for raising awareness and advocacy. I decided to use this invitation to showcase Gaza and find ways to liberate and share stories collected from Gaza with the visitors of the biennale and the press.
As 2020 ended up being a long year of confinement, the biennale exhibition was postponed to 2021. During the COVID-19 quarantine, I spent many hours talking with Amir Qudaih. Our conversations shifted from discussions of wars, borders, and violence to exchanging information about food and our favorite family recipes.
Amir shared with me the story of his escape from Gaza. After many attempts, he eventually managed to leave for the US. He received a special visa to come to the US and study in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he now lives. In fact, I met him through a Lebanese student of mine. Her family was originally from Palestine, but she grew up in Beirut and Dubai. We all met in Cambridge.
The Qudaih family’s survival depends entirely on their agricultural knowledge and their farm, where they produce more than 90 percent of the food they eat at home. Although military raids continue to destroy the farm time and again—no fewer than three wars have taken place in Gaza in the past six years—the family has always managed to rebuild, regardless of their limited access to materials and resources.
The Khuza’a community, where the farm is located, is resilient, despite the repeated destruction of its members’ livelihoods. The town’s residents, many of whom depend on the farming sector for both employment and food supply, work closely together to support each other through ongoing external stresses and wars. They work on each other’s farms sowing and harvesting. And they do so not in exchange for money—they have little use for money, as Israel prevents fertilizer and other yield-extending agricultural products from entering Gaza—but for the sake of solidarity.
If individual farmers need help, community members contribute their labor in exchange for farm products. At harvest time, Khuza’a’s farmers set aside produce boxes for those in need, and trade with their neighbors for different vegetables—swapping, for instance, tomatoes for onions.
With limited access to water and electricity due to Israeli-imposed resource restrictions, farmers depend on natural cycles, living seasonally and growing a range of crops. During the rainy winter months, they collect and store rainwater for use through the rest of the year. At the end of the season, they sow wheat for harvest at the beginning of the summer. External restrictions, conflict, and instability all determine the shape of a full year’s labor on the farm.
The Qudaih family’s four-dunam1 farm complex includes a large greenhouse that Abd el Haleem Qudaih started building back in the 1980s. The farm produce is transformed seasonally, but the greenhouse is mainly used to grow tomatoes and onions.
Just before the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000, the Qudaih family’s relationship with their Israeli neighbors seemed to be improving. A new initiative called the Leadership Agricultural Cooperative, assembled under the auspices of the Histadrut (General Organization of Workers in Israel), allowed the region’s farmers, including Abd el Haleem, to improve agricultural production through increased access to supplies and markets. But the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank brought an escalation of violence to the area. This influx resulted first in the intifada, and then, among other things, in the unilateral design and construction of an Israeli wall around the West Bank. This wall cut the farmers off from their main consumers.
After the 1993 Oslo Accords and the subsequent peace talks, the situation in Gaza rapidly deteriorated. The Israeli government launched the construction of a new wall around the Gaza Strip, further enclosing the area and expanding Israeli presence. Israel’s 21 settlements—designed, constructed, and inhabited since 1967, when Israel took hold of the Gaza Strip after the Six-Day War—continued to grow. However, after increasing protest from the international community, which held that Israeli settlements in Gaza violated Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel began to formally disengage from the strip. This disengagement was finalized on September 12, 2005. Israel evacuated its settlements and army posts from the Gaza Strip, retaining exclusive control over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters. The government continued to monitor and blockade Gaza’s coastline and patrol the external land perimeter of the Gaza Strip, with the exception of its southernmost border, where Egypt retained control of the border and where European monitors supervised crossings.
By 2006, the Israeli fence around Gaza was completed, and the movement of people and goods, including produce, grew more restricted. Two border-crossing points were designated for the movement of people—the Erez Crossing into Israel in the north and the Rafah Crossing into Egypt in the south—with three points—the Karni Crossing into Israel in the east, the Sufa Crossing further north, and the Kerem Shalom Crossing on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt—designated for goods, produce, and materials.
Around the same time, Israel seized and cleared land along the new fence, including the Qudaih family’s land, and declared it a buffer zone, bulldozing twenty of the family’s olive trees in the process.
Not long after, Hamas took control of Gaza through Palestinian elections, leading to cross-border raids and war. Over a number of weeks, the Israeli military fired artillery rounds into Gaza and bombed buildings in its Operation Summer Rains, killing at least 240 Palestinians, at least half of whom were civilians.
The Qudaih farm was one such target. The farm, including the family greenhouse, was fully destroyed, leaving the family without the resources to rebuild. With their greenhouse demolished, the family had to stop producing tomatoes and shift to vegetables that could grow outside, such as onions, potatoes, and squash.
After a couple of years, the family managed to rebuild one of the greenhouses, but it did not last. In 2008, during Operation Cast Lead, the newly built greenhouse, the farm’s irrigation system, and the family’s date palms were all at least partially destroyed.
From 2012 to 2014, two consecutive operations, Pillar of Defense and Returning Echo, both involving direct attacks on Khuza’a, further damaged the farm. Right after, in 2014, Operation Protective Edge saw the village bombarded by air, cut off from the rest of the strip, and besieged by tanks. According to Human Rights Watch, some 80 percent of its buildings—including, again, the Qudaih family’s greenhouse, along with the home of some extended family—were severely damaged or destroyed.
The greenhouse was finally rebuilt in 2016 and remains intact. Nevertheless, the war forced the Qudaih family to develop new models of self-reliance on the farm: namely, to transition from their market-driven export of agricultural produce to subsistence farming, which continues to be the model by which the family lives today.
GOLD FOR WATER
Access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities is a basic human right, but, according to UNICEF, only one in ten people in the Gaza Strip have access to safe water. About 1.8 million people, of which 52 percent are children, require some form of humanitarian water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) assistance.
Gaza’s water crisis includes both a shortage of potable water and poor wastewater, sewage, and sanitation infrastructure. The lack of access to safe water for drinking, cooking, and bathing—combined with the over 108,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage that flows daily from Gaza into the Mediterranean—makes for serious health risks in Gaza and in neighboring Israel and Egypt. A strict Israeli blockade that bans the importation of construction materials, water pumps, and energy only intensifies this crisis.
Today, UNICEF estimates that Israel supplies about 5 percent of Gaza’s clean water. For the remainder, Gazans depend on an already overextracted, depleted, and polluted coastal aquifer. Moreover, contamination by seawater, chemicals, untreated or undertreated sewage, and runoff from fertilizer leaves only about 4 percent of the aquifer’s water safe to drink. The rest needs to be purified and desalinated.
Gaza’s municipal water grid is also unreliable. Much of it was destroyed during the war, and Israel’s blockade prevents material for reconstruction from entering Gaza. This forces residents to improvise, relying instead on an unregulated system of wells, and on water vendors, who truck water to households for about 30 shekels (or 7 US dollars) per cubic meter of water, instead of the 1 or 2 shekels the same amount would cost through the municipal grid.
In Khuza’a, the Qudaih family has always struggled with water access, and has therefore long experimented with self-sufficient and regenerative water sources. In 1983, the family built their first rainwater-harvesting system, which included an underground water tank with a movable cover, along with a series of small dams to direct rainwater to the tank. Abd el Haleem Qudaih built the system himself. But to pay for the construction materials, his wife, Khaldya Qudaih, sold the gold she received at her wedding.
The tank of the rainwater-harvesting system was built to be opened when it rains. This, it turned out, made for highly dangerous work. In Gaza, it rains mainly at night, when Israeli-imposed curfews prevent Gazans from leaving their homes, lest they be shot. The farm, furthermore, was and remains heavily surveilled due to its proximity to the border.
WATERMELONS AND THE SIEGE OF KHUZA’A
Wars in Gaza are perpetual: since 1948, conflicts, attacks, and military operations have come and gone with the seasons. Most of the two million people who currently inhabit the Gaza Strip, half of whom are children, have never experienced peace.
One of these operations is Operation Protective Edge. It was begun on July 8, 2014, by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in response to rocket attacks that had been launched following an earlier Israeli airstrike against Gaza. This specific assault lasted until August 26, 2014, causing the deaths of 2,251 Palestinians (including at least 1,483 civilians), 71 Israelis (including 66 soldiers), and one foreign national, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
These 50 days of war led to the destruction of 18,000 homes and displaced 500,000 Palestinians. The village of Khuza’a was bombarded from the air, cut off from the rest of the Gaza Strip, and besieged by tanks and ground troops. Eighty percent of the village’s buildings were severely damaged and destroyed. The Qudaih farm, including the greenhouse, and one of the family homes, was entirely destroyed.
Human Rights Watch, which investigated reports of Israeli soldiers firing at unarmed civilians trying to flee Khuza’a, called IDF actions an “apparent violation of the laws of war.” At the end of the siege, recounted one Khuza’a resident, “it was as though a tsunami had hit the small agricultural town. After a brief ceasefire, the tanks and artillery returned, the attacks resumed, the townspeople sought refuge, and the rescue services were forced to withdraw. Khuza’a was closed to the outside world as Israeli forces took control of the town.”
During the attack, the Qudaih family hid in a small room for 21 days, eating the watermelons they had hurriedly stocked before the raid. Scared for their lives and surprised by their survival, the family witnessed their neighbors’ home collapsing on its inhabitants, leaving mountains of rubble and the stench of corpses in its place.
Watermelon is a common crop in Gaza, as its sprawling plants do well in the Mediterranean climate and are easily sowed, cared for, and harvested. “Watermelon is a gift we bring when we visit family and friends,” says Amir Qudaih. Amir also makes note of the two types of local watermelons, the Gazan and the Israeli. The Gazan has a dark green color, and its inside is bright red, with large seeds, while the Israeli has lighter green stripes. Amir grows both of them on the farm and in the home garden.
“We didn’t imagine it would save our lives,” he recalls. He still remembers the dread, the sounds of war, and the smell vividly. “After 21 days,” he says, “we stepped outside the room and into a ruined home, village, and farm. We actually thought we were dead. It took us time to acknowledge that we were still alive.”
Seen from Gaza
Gaza exposes the flaws of international institutions society put in place after the world wars to protect and allow people and communities across the world to live peacefully and prosper. Gaza is also laid bare as a victim of, and evidence for, the collective ethical failure of Israeli society and the notion of the nation-state, which remains exclusive and selective in its ability to protect all its citizens justly and equally. In an attempt to unravel the Ottoman Empire and other colonial powers around the world, the nations victorious from the world wars enshrined the sovereignty of the nation-state and gave it control over territory and all that it contains, including people and resources, both within its borders and at its margins. Today, dominant nation-states have taken the place of older colonial rulers. This legacy is evident, for instance, in the operations of the largest and most significant international political bodies, the United Nations; the five permanent members, France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and the United States, hold veto power of the Security Council focus and resolutions and control the largest budget of the UN.
The nation-state, as a place and apparatus of selective inclusion and exclusion, stands in the way of organic flow, solidarity, and cooperation. A growing number of people live precariously at its external boundaries. The United National High Commissioner for Refugees already recognizes 80 million displaced persons across the world. That number records only those who are counted, and their ranks are growing as the climate emergency renders larger areas across the planet uninhabitable.
People and communities will continue to migrate to survive. They will increase the pressure on the nation-states with a steadier climate than others. Israel’s hermetic and militarized borders and exclusive isolationist policies subject millions of Palestinians to living stateless lives, in limbo. The walls, camps, and unrecognized enclaves that they inhabit may just offer a glimpse into the future.
This essay expands upon the author’s work in “Border Ecologies and the Gaza Strip,” an exhibition which the Venice Architecture Biennale awarded The Silver Lion earlier this year, stating that the project “invites us to think about divided histories, agricultural practices, rituals of daily life and the realities of settlement and occupation.”
- This Ottoman measurement unit is equivalent to 1,000 square meters or 10,000 square feet, or about 1.3 soccer fields. ↩