Fifth Symposium and Closing Night at Zochrot's Exhibition “Towards Return of Palestinian Refugees”: Planners Respond to the Exhibition
By: Eitan Bronstein
Talking about return of Palestinian refugees

29 December 2011

Transcribed by Noa Shindlinger.

Translation to English: Charles Kamen.

Liat Briks-Etgar:  We are all dissatisfied with the way things are here.  Zochrot fractures this reality, allows us to conceive of an alternative.  My connection with the Miska project is a professional one.  I was involved in a number of discussions during the course of the project.  I thought that the correct approach was to develop plans, not write texts, because planning allows you to think about daily life.  I believed it was necessary to invite people involved in planning and discuss the project with them.  But I came here, to Zochrot’s gallery, looked at the walls and couldn’t understand the language – these weren’t the kinds of sketches and plans that were familiar to me.  They weren’t architecture – what were they?  When Eitan and Aviv discussed the invitation to the exhibit, they referred to the icons on display.  Aviv said the exhibit is trying to develop a new discourse, one that doesn’t yet exist, a new language, to involve others in, that’s confusing at first.  I’d like to open the discussion with reference to this new language:  What does it mean to invent one’s own language?  How much clearer is it?  How much more open?  Shouldn’t we learn the hegemonic language so we’ll be able to speak it and use it to innovate?  I leave this question open.

Tovi Fenster -  I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking practically.  A different way of looking at the recognition of the right of return.  It’s the perspective of an Israeli Jewish woman who’s a planner.  I want to create a link between acceptance and innovation.  I was asked to discuss Einat Manof’s “Counter-mapping” project.  It raised questions such as, what will the return look like (how many new housing units will be built, what will the public spaces be like).  Despite its utopian aspect, it spoke a technical/professional language.  The counter mapping – official maps as sites representing the sovereign’s policy, the agents of power.  She tries to create an imagined geography of the right of return (following David Harvey).  The project challenges conventional planning conceptual frameworks – it’s an ideological space that erases what existed previously, similar to other settler societies like Canada, Australia, etc.  But that approach, in fact, is surprisingly similar to professional modernist planning, because it is disconnected from existing social and political reality and ignores the existing array of political forces.  It’s imposing to create such a project without disconnecting oneself from what’s happening today, but that very act of disconnecting is utopian.  I’d like to propose a broader frame of reference, in which this project is just one stage in a more complex process on which I’m working.  Its focus is the recognition by Jewish society that the history of 1948 can’t be erased through planning.  The remains of villages can be erased, but that only distances recognition and the chance of future reconciliation.  Institutional and political recognition must come first, and be translated into planning policy.  I propose creating planning tools that will be ready when that day comes.  Such tools can already be utilized today.  I’m doing that with my students.  The project is called, “The archaeology of the address – urban planning and recognition (reconciliation).”  The focus of my proposal is the urban address – its micro-geographic.  The address is usually a form of spatial order, a modernist element that helps the regime collect taxes and locate people.  It’s an element of governance.  In my proposal, the address has a new significance: it creates post-colonial relationships.  Promoters want to build at many locations in mixed cities.  The structure is declared worthy of preservation, or scheduled for demolition – a building that before 1948 had belonged to Palestinians.  A brief is prepared documenting the history of the address, of those who inhabited it.  A permit to build at that location will include: 1) an archival review – identifying all those who lived there since the building was constructed.  The goal is to find the residents, both before and after 1948.  That’s not an easy thing to do.  Documentation for the period prior to 1948 is incomplete, completely missing or has disappeared.  We use the planning mechanisms – the municipality has a building file for each address containing planning documents.  The problem is that many documents have disappeared.  But it’s possible, and we’ve had some success.  An address is a tool for researching the past.  It is associated with a building, which is essentially a spatial unit, a vertical slice of time.  2)  Conducting planning workshops at the address itself as a consciousness-raising process.  That’s the crucial, defining stage in the conceptual change I’m proposing.  I’m not talking about placing signs on the building, but about a process of planning the return that involves mutual recognition of the right of the Palestinian refugees to return and the right of the current Jewish residents.  I propose a two-stage process – two separate workshops.  One with the Palestinian residents, focusing on their right to return, but also confronting the question of what happens to the people who are living there.  A similar workshop with the Jewish residents, which will also deal with the right of return and with their own rights, as well as making them realize that the building was expropriated and given to them.  The two stages are based on ideas developed in the field of therapeutic planning – both parties to a conflict must first be dealt with separately, and only later brought together.  3)  A gathering of all those who ever lived at that address, to tell the story of the building and of all its inhabitants.  We don’t know what will happen at these meetings, but there’s a possibility they’ll lead to recognition of the right of return, and perhaps a mutual recognition of the Jews’ right to use the house.  Such situations could give rise to parallel and conflicting experiences of belonging, of refugeeness, etc.  The goal isn’t necessarily reconciliation.  There might be antagonism to dialogue, to recognizing and accepting the conflict.  Reconciliation isn’t possible in the absence of formal recognition by the regime and an in-depth discussion of return. Such a framework could already be developed today, prior to any state action, and might lead to small-scale social change.  4) Planning jointly together with an architect and a planner – the specific topics will depend on what occurs in the previous stages – return, demolition or preservation.  5)  Developing a plan, a program for recognition and reconciliation – documenting the history of the address and turning the Palestinian ghosts into people with names, faces, feeling, reflecting the erased past.
It might sound a little delusional, but we are preparing briefs like that at the university, together with students – it’s significant for educating students exposed through their planning activity to a history of which they were unaware because the formal educational system doesn’t allow such exposure.  The process is an emotional experience for them.  They select an address, sometimes even one where they’d lived.  I propose to include levels of knowledge about the past as part of the urban revitalization process – the right to the city, according to Henri Lefebvre – the right of return to the city, not only of those who live there today, but also involving the former residents in planning.  Such a framework seems to me to be a context in which both groups can jointly think about the return. That’s what we’re doing in Lifta.  The Palestinian owners live nearby; the Jewish residents still live there and are acquainted with the original owners.  It’s a fascinating process because it’s a location that’s today under great pressure for change according to the plan of the Israel Lands Administration, a plan for a boutique village for Jews from abroad.

Yusuf Jabarin, Professor of Geography, University of Haifa:  Had the nakba not occurred, the Jaffa metropolitan area could have numbered  3 million Palestinian, and Jews as well.  A few million Palestinians could have lived in the Haifa metropolitan area, and Jerusalem would have been an unfortunate city, of interest to no one.  A few ultra-orthodox, Moslems and Christians, 36 rural localities in the surrounding area destroyed, the town lacking the potential to become a metropolis.  But what’s interesting in the Palestinian literature is that there once were Jaffa and Haifa, and Nazareth was a little town, but today Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel.  It underwent a process of urbanization and developed under restrictions, like a ghetto, a black city in every respect, alongside Upper Nazareth and its extensive area.  In Haifa, something remaining from ’48 is demolished every day.  The municipality isn’t interested in preserving even the smallest traces.  It’s the planning equivalent of a daily coup-de-grace.  There was an official of the Israel Lands Administration whose job was to count the number of buildings demolished in Haifa’s Old City – unlike what happens in other venerable cities in the world, where they’re accustomed to preserve and honor the memory of the past.  The Haifa municipality built us the most fascistic courthouse in the world, an aggressive structure that replaced the lovely old buildings that stood there.  That courthouse received an architectural prize; it’s planners characterized its surroundings as “folklore.”  That’s the story of Israeli architecture and planning.  The process of destruction and gentrification is underway also in Jaffa, and it greatly frustrates me personally.  The first thing that the PLO in Lebanon did with respect to the historical aspect of the nakba was to map each and every village and record its history on the basis of the refugees’ accounts.  That project stopped in 1982.  Then came the mapping of the demolished villages, All That Remains, by Walid Kahlidi, and later they discovered maps and geography and began thinking about how the refugees could be returned to where they’d lived – Abu Sitte – a fairly simplistic project.  He argues that they can all return because Palestine has enough room.  But what’s interesting is that Ben Gurion’s first government, in its first meeting, was asked to establish a planning group led by Arieh Sharon.  That’s the first Israel Master Plan.  He put together a team of 128 professionals, who saw there was completely empty space with very few Palestinians scattered throughout Israel (156,000).  The name of the plan for Kiryat Shmona was Khalissa – you can see a stratum of the Palestinian village with new localities on top of it.  This plan completely defined the Israeli space until the new Master Plan of the 1990’s.  Master Plan No. 35, the most recent, addresses the coming years.  It represents a symbolic spatial victory over the Palestinian nakba.  The plan is completely destructive; remnants continue to be erased, including signage.  The final issue related to planning – I was asked to prepare a plan for the return of ‘Iqrit’s inhabitants.  I told them I’d prepare a professional building plan and an outline plan to be presented to the District planning commission.  The metaphoric client was the High Court of Justice, which in 1951 confirmed the right of the inhabitants of ‘Iqrit to return to their village.  The first thing we did was to examine the findings of the government’s inter-ministerial committees.  We looked at our plan and saw that if we took into consideration modern roads and various requirements, as if we ourselves worked for the planning department, we’d end up planning the equivalent of a Jewish settlement on the West Bank.  But that’s not what we want to do; we don’t want another Itamar.  If we bring people back after 60 years of exile and displacement, but don’t want to return them to the equivalent of a settlement, how do we bridge the architectural gap between 1948 and 2012?  How can we create a space that isn’t folklore?  We decided to create an abstract space, returned them 63 years into the past by creating an architectural discourse so that if people do return they won’t feel completely disconnected; they would still be connected by an umbilical cord.  Initially, the residents of ‘Iqrit objected to the plan for a locality of 600 dwelling units. They also asked about the remainder of their lands, on which moshavim have been established.  The compromise I suggested was to define a specific municipal area.  I mention this project because I feel that local Palestinian politics are completely fragmented, in every sense, but that the new generation no longer participates in the nationalistic legislative process, and instead slowly creates for itself a new collective memory through planning, the internet and Facebook, based on an architectural perspective, heritage, etc.
Na’if Hajo – member of the Committee of the Uprooted:  The committee was established in 1992.  Since then we’ve been carrying out activities in the villages, as well as major activities like the March of Return, monthly visits to localities for those interested, persons who have been displaced or other Palestinians.  The committee’s activities expanded after the Madrid Conference and the Oslo agreement.  When the PLO spoke about the Palestinians and the residents from 1948, the response was that they’re Israeli citizens with rights.  The committee’s initial activities were lectures and data collection (village maps, aerial photographs, archival material).  As you know, 530 villages were destroyed in 1948, from the northern border all the way to Beersheba.  As part of the committee’s activity, we decided, in cooperation with the Center for Alternative Planning in Eilabun, to prepare a plan for reconstructing the demolished village of Al-Ghabasiyya, based on information obtained from former inhabitants of the village who were still alive. We based ourselves on the original parcellation, in order to maintain the village’s rural character.  Each building would be erected where it had stood, according to the old plans and the villagers’ memories.  There are locations, such as al-Ghabsiyyah, whose former residents live very close by, and they remember where their homes stood.  The plans were developed to the degree that, when negotiations begin to return those who were displaced, the plans are ready.  I’m from the village of Lubya, near the Golani junction, most of whose inhabitants were uprooted and expelled beyond the state’s borders, while a minority remained in Deir Hana and Maker.  We sketched the plan of the village from memory, its streets and public buildings, including schools, the mosque and diwans.  We compared the aerial photographs with the plan we drew from memory and found that people remembered very well, even after all these years.  We did the same for other localities.  The collective memory exists.  To solve the conflict, a solution must be found for the refugees and those displaced, and there’s room for them all.  The committee knows about Zochrot’s activities, and sees it as a partner and initiator, and believes that its members can help establish new localities or restore neighborhoods in mixed cities or in Arab localities that were destroyed but where there remains of buildings still exist. 

Questions from the audience:To Dr. Yosef:  Is your project similar to what the Committee of 40 representing the unrecognized localities is doing, preparing alternative plans to be presented to the authorities?  The political context is clear, and it’s not just a legal matter, but one that’s political, because the court is also political.  The first decision of the High Court of Justice permitting the residents of ‘Iqrit to return was in 1951, but there were additional cases in which their suit was rejected.  In 2004, Ariel Sharon’s view, opposing their return, was accepted.  That’s a political decision.  As far at the return of those displaced is concerned, there’s no difference between the Supreme Court justices and the central committees of the Likud, Labor or Meretz.

Gil Mu’alem Doron:  My studio did work similar to Tovi’s.  A “micro” project, like “Bibi’s House,” has great potential, even if it only introduces the subject of return in places it’s not discussed.  A project like this presences the refugees.  One student began searching for remains where she lives.  There could be a problem obtaining cooperation.  The discussions between the students and members of the Bibi family were very difficult.  There’s greater potential in working with internal refugees, because communication may be easier. We worked at the level of design – the students designed the family’s living room and considered its style.  I don’t see any possibility regarding Manshiyyah, on the Jaffa seashore.  Two months ago, the municipality decided to demolish the stairs and half-room next to the sea at Irshid; even such minor remnants bother them.  Regarding aerial photographs – a few months ago the municipality demolished another remnant on the other side of Tel Aviv.  The family that established the fishing village lives today in Jaffa, and another family that lived there received compensation – the family had converted to Judaism as a result of intermarriage.  And a question about the uprooted people:  Are you carrying out this activity in the cities as well?

Eitan:  On Sunday, at 8:00 PM, a group from Zochrot that dealt with the return will make a presentation on Rothschild Blvd., near HaBimah.  I wanted to ask Yusuf whether they’ve thought about what they’re doing next with the project – submission to the planning commission?  A public presentation?
A question for Tovi – you said your project is based on the existing planning frameworks, such as the individual building file, and that you suggest conducting research at a detailed level.  It seems to me that it’s an historical survey – what happens next?  Assume that someone carried out such a survey, and found what they found, and carried out the therapeutic planning process – do you have any ideas for actual, concrete planning projects?  Like adding floors to a building – would some of the additional dwelling units be allocated to refugees, etc.?
Another question for Tovi – Won’t your approach preserve existing power relations?  There’s no process of rethinking because you’re using the existing language.  Is it possible to think about changing the address rather than preserving it?  Is it possible to think about a new notation?

Tovi:  To Gil.  I’m aware of the issue of cooperation.  I located the owners of my grandparents’ house; they live across the street. There is cooperation, but it’s slow.  The broader project involves typologies, processes that will occur and it’s possible that such a meeting won’t be held because of antagonisms, or that it will occur, and we’re evaluating that.  What’s the next step?  We have a number of ideas, one of which I’m discussing with city planners, like the Planning Department of the Tel Aviv municipality, which at some stage will be involved in a survey or a brief that must be prepared, and whether or not it leads to recognition, it’s a step that must be taken.  Regarding outcomes – the documentation.  I don’t know whether it will be a book, film, video.  The documentation must be open and accessible.  Another thing – plans, or planning that includes design and the esthetic aspect.  As part of the wider project we’re focusing on dialogic processes and attempting to create a “third space” and non colonial power relationships.

Yusuf:  I have another project as well.  I originally called it Palestinian Archictecture, but changed the name to Architecture and the Environment in Israel to receive funding from Mif’al HaPayis.  Palestinian society was totally defeated in a territorial sense; not one square centimeter remained.  The only oppositional space it had left was virtual – the collective memory.  Lieberman can prevent me from entering ‘Iqrit and Bir’im, but we can’t be stopped from imagining – from planning the country as I see fit.  It’s also important for me to say that I have no interest in building my life on the basis of attacks on Jews and making them fear they have no place here. My project is to demonstrate that a people exists here, that it existed in the past, and that it has rights and architecture that represents that people’s sociopolitical being.  Buildings have social and cultural implications.  Regarding the Committee of 40, the issue of the unrecognized localities (today almost all of them have been recognized) is different from the issue of the uprooted.  We worked on a supplementary project that we’re completing, about Saffurya, in which we constructed a three-dimensional village model. We want this imaginary place to include stories of the lives of people who lived there.  It didn’t consist only of structures; it also included people.  We intend to submit the ‘Iqrit project to the planning commission.  It’s a model of a locality planned for the uprooted, most of whom still live here.  Our starting point is the decision of the Supreme Court and of the inter-ministerial committee from Rabin’s time.  We plan a broad campaign whose goal is that the residents actually return.  The planning process was a cooperative one.  We met in the church in ‘Iqrit, and in Haifa, and conducted a dialogue.  We wanted to challenge the system and present an outline plan for a locality based on earlier decisions, and launch a campaign to increase awareness of the architecture and the Nakba.  

Na’if:  The Ghabsiyyah plan is based on a Supreme Court decision.  We prepared a plan for creating the briefs, so that if the day comes and the government demonstrates its good intentions, we’ll be able to present alternative plans for returning those who were uprooted.  The same regarding Saffurya, whose residents live in a Nazareth neighborhood, near Saffurya’s lands.  But we don’t want to sue in the Supreme Court because we know ahead of time what the result will be.  We never considered it, because we know that as soon as we file a suit or an appeal it will create a precedent, and we want to avoid a fiasco.  In Deir Hana, for example, when two brothers got into an argument about a plot of land, the Israel Lands Administration noted in the file that the plot was in dispute, they went to court and the ILA took half the land.  We prepared a plan, and will do so for other localities, such as Lubya, and we’ll also prepare a model for reestablishing a locality.  There are villages whose uprooted inhabitants are proceeding independently because they believe that working with us will delay their return.  Regarding urban localities – Arabs living in cities aren’t considered to have been uprooted, but are viewed as residents of the city.  In Jaffa and in Lod, for example, live people who were uprooted from villages, but they’re a relatively small percent of the population.  When we try to get them involved there’s opposition; they’re afraid of their neighbors’ negative responses to any activity they may undertake.  That’s why we’ve been unsuccessful in Jaffa and Ramla.  The Miska march was supposed to have been held in Jaffa, but residents of Jaffa were worried about reactions.

Li’at:  The thinking is based on concepts such as recognition or justice that assume Jewish sovereignty.  We begin with the internally uprooted who are still here, located in a repressive system whose effect was to encourage Palestinians to focus their efforts internally, on their own households.  Refugees from Jaffa in Balata, for example, talk about building a house but not about the shared urban public space.  Why not create planning visions based on opportunities for us all?  What kind of typologies could be developed?  Would people want to return to the village?  Might they wish to strengthen the existing cities rather than establishing new localites?
Uri (from the audience):  Our plans are rooted in fantasies, and our work may be so conflict-ridden and antagonistic, that it could be worth considering its social and political potential.  We’re talking about a kind of coexistence.  We’re becoming a single society, so we must look forward, not back.  I’d like to propose a new possibility, not to return to the same locations but to imagine a model of a society beginning anew.

Ofra Lyth Yeshua:  Some people had no homes.  What about them?  Are we dealing only with property rights?  

Yosef:  The vast majority of Palestinians view land as sacred.  The idea is to plan the village as it is imagined to have existed before 1948.  Regarding Uri’s comment – maybe, as part of a virtual project, we should consider the country and all its inhabitants and plan for a space that will include them all in a manner that makes a clear political statement – not “coexistence,” but shared existence, rather than sanctifying the geography of the past.  We should be aware of it, but must think about space in new, challenging ways.  I told my students that I don’t want to spend my time in spatial planning.  I said that the entire country is open to you – go find a neighborhood or a room where Arabs live and create typologies.  The students greatly surprised me – they took up the challenge, developed fascinating projects – for example, abandoned buildings in Tel Aviv or in Wadi Salib.  That led to an interesting discussion about culture and society.  And regarding the Supreme Court – I’m also from a family that was uprooted, from Al-Lajjun at the Meggido junction.  The suit stated that the land had been expropriated but nothing had been done with it, and still the Supreme Court rejected our appeal, so I agree there’s no point in appealing to the Supreme Court.

Li’at:  Perhaps we should think beyond borders.  Today planning standards permit building settlements (communal localities) or West Rishon (higher density, urban consortiums).

Tovi:  We (Jews) aren’t there yet.  For me, even to talk about the address in 1948 is a radical revolutionary thought.  That’s what we should aspire to, but there are additional stages along the way.  We must flood people with an awareness of what occurred in 1948, and only afterward will it be possible to say, let’s now move forward, look to the future.

Uri:  I’m a utilitarian who believes that both sides can benefit from a future we haven’t yet conceived of.  

Yusuf:  We did a project in Jerusalem in which we projected the city into the future and asked Israelis and Palestinians to free their imaginations, but both groups came back to the same place – the neighborhood.  We told them to write stories and poems, to leave the deadly bubble of ghettoization, to think about a future Jerusalem.  It was a fascinating project that failed because we weren’t able to overcome the existing baggage.  Even though the participants were open, “bleeding hearts,” etc.

Na’if:  The uprooted are some of the citizens who remained in the country after the Nakba, and they transmitted to their children and grandchildren that each of them had a house and a neighborhood and a school, and that’s remained part of their consciousness – they don’t think spatially, or about a spatial solution to the conflict.  People should talk with one another and they’ll find a solution.  I was a pupil in the Kadouri school, a Jewish school, like Rabin and Alon – it was the emplacement opposite Lubya.  On Memorial Day during the second year I was there people reminisced; there’s a memorial room with a photo of Eli Ben Zvi, the son of Israel’s second president, who was killed in the battle for Lubya.  I’m one of those uprooted from Lubya; I have no relatives other than a few family members in Deir Hana, because the rest are abroad.  I went to Kadouri because I wanted to connect.  I graduated in 1967, and am still in contact with the other students, but I never told them that I was from Lubya.  The history teacher mentioned Lubya and said that there was bitter fighting there, and that we got rid of them all and no one was left in the village.  Then one of the pupils said that wasn’t true, that there are still refugees in the area, because he knew I was from Lubya.  It’s hard for me to connect to people I work with (I’m an engineering technician) – in Misgav, for example.  When I found out about Zochrot I was very glad that I could identify myself as someone who had been uprooted from Lubya.  During the period of military government I wasn’t able to identify myself as someone who had been born in Lubya.

Umar, coordinator of Zochrot’s project, “Practices of return”:  The exhibit that closes today is a way-station in a process that began a few years ago to plan the return of refugees.  We won’t establish localities and won’t bring back the refugees tomorrow morning, but we are developing a discourse of return.  It’s important for us to emphasize the return - not to discuss the right of return because we’re past that pointless argument.  We’re dealing with dilemmas and minefields, among ourselves and vis-à-vis the partners with whom we’re working, like the group making the presentation on Sunday, and the Ma’alul planning group.  Our activity is based on two challenging assumptions:  recognizing the right of return (a challenge to Israelis), and ending expulsions, even of the conquerors (a challenge to Palestinians).  We have to be creative.  We’re dealing with the fears of the Jews and the fantasies of the Palestinians.  We don’t want to plan the return vis-à-vis today’s rulers or in today’s terms.  The current system can’t provide the auspices in which this project can be accomplished.  The right of return can’t coexist with Zionism; what exists today must be shattered, replaced by something else.  The question has been asked:  Who gave Zochrot, a Jewish organization, the mandate to plan the return?  That’s why we cooperate with BADIL, from Bethlehem.  We have a group planning return to Tel Aviv and Jaffa, working with a group from BADIL, and we’ll be happy to receive professional assistance.  Regarding the dilemmas – we’re planning the return of Palestinians, but the question immediately arises – how do Jews dare do such a thing?  But I suggest to the Jews not to think only about planning the lives of Palestinians after they return but also about planning the lives of the Jews after the refugees return.  This exhibit is part of the process.  It will be mobile, able to reach groups who wish to discuss planning the return, and anyone interested in creating such a group is invited to contact us.  We thank all those who participated in the various panel discussions, and to Zochrot’s staff, and especially Aviv Gross Alon, who curated the exhibit.

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