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Rebuilding history – Destruction and Reconstruction in Palestine

Dr Salman Abu Sitta, founder of the Palestine Land Society, seen at the P21 Gallery in London during the awards ceremony for an architectural competition for the reconstruction of destroyed Palestinian villages [supplied photo]
Dr Salman Abu Sitta, founder of the Palestine Land Society, seen at the P21 Gallery in London during the awards ceremony for an architectural competition for the reconstruction of destroyed Palestinian villages [supplied photo]

This September London’s P21 gallery hosted an important exhibition and prize-giving ceremony – one that brought together history, politics and contemporary architecture.

The annual competition is the brainchild of Dr Salman Abu Sitta, founder of the Palestine Land Society, perhaps best known for his monumental work in creating highly detailed maps of Palestine as it was before the 1948 Nakba.

Thanks to his work, we have meticulously documented proof of the more than 500 villages which were largely destroyed during the Israeli attacks and occupation following British withdrawal.

This huge database has been used as the source of inspiration for a competition in which students of architecture and planning choose one of the villages from a shortlist of 100 and propose an imaginative reconstruction. Said the organisers:  “Students were encouraged to preserve historical and religious sites and traditional water resources such as wells and springs, which formed the heart of Palestinian agricultural life in the past.“ They were also asked to take into consideration communications with adjacent communities and to bear in mind the needs of local tourism, including visitors from al shatat (exile). Some students included memorials to the victims of the Nakba and to Palestinian resistance leaders martyred in 1948.

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This is the second year of the competition; last year three universities participated, but this year saw the participation of eight universities in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. The jury consisted of five distinguished architects from Germany, Palestine and the UK.

The whole concept of the competition is clearly linked to the theme of the right of return of Palestinians to their homeland – a right enshrined in international law and reaffirmed annually by the United Nations. Dr Abu Sitta, who was born in Al Ma’in in Beersheba district, spoke eloquently about the long history of Palestine and the continuity of life over the centuries in its towns and villages drawing on his phenomenally detailed knowledge of the whole region.

This year the winning entry by a student from the University of Petra, Jordan, was inspired by the destroyed hilltop village of Al Qastal near Jerusalem. He was awarded a prize of £2000 and a travelling scholarship. Dr Abu Sitta pointed out that Al Qastal was one of the first village to be attacked and depopulated in the spring of 1948. The following day the village of Deir Yassin became the site of one of the worst massacres of the Nakba.

The chairman of the jury, Dr Nasser Golzari of the University of Westminster, reminded the audience of the very difficult practical, physical and mental conditions under which many of the students were working – especially those from the Islamic University of Gaza, subjected for years to a crippling blockade.

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Some of the prize winners were able to join the audience on Skype to talk about their entries. Tellingly, those from Gaza were cut off, due to one of the all too frequent power cuts imposed on the Strip.

The student who was awarded the second prize had chosen the village of Qula near Ramleh, which had been razed to the ground and later covered by a forest. She explained how she was able to plan the re-emergence of the village, while preserving the forest around it.

Last year’s student winners were unfortunately not able to take up the travelling fellowship they were awarded, because they were not granted a visa to travel abroad.

Local coordinator Antoine Raffoul expressed the determination of the organisers that this year’s winners – and those from last year – will be able to take up their travelling scholarships. Their trip will include studying the reconstruction of an Italian village badly damaged in a recent earthquake.

He also said that they hoped that the competition will be gradually internationalised, attracting the participation of institutions and individuals from around the world.

Report by: Dr Hilary Wise and Betty Hunter (Palestine Solidarity Campaign)

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