A Land By Any Other Name: Geography. Mapping. Ethnic Cleansing. Ethnocracy. Spatiality. Borders. Cartography.

A response to the following cluster of works: Ghazi Falah (1996). “The 1948 Israeli-Palestinian War and Its Aftermath: The Transformation and De-Signification of Palestine’s Cultural Landscape”, AAG 86(2), pp.256-285, James Ron (2003). Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel, Derek Gregory (2004). The Colonial Present, Oren Yiftachel (2002). “Territory as the Kernel of the Nation: Space, Time and Nationalism in Israel/Palestine” Geopolitics 7(2); 215-248, Shari Motro (2005). “Lessons from the Swiss Cheese Map” Legal Affairs, pp.46-50

In 2010, en route to Dammam in the Eastern province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a day of shopping and family visits, I was denied entry at the Saudi-Bahrain border on the King Fahad Causeway and asked to turn back to Bahrain. The cause of my entry refusal: my UAE National Identity Card. According to a recent GCC agreement, citizens of GCC countries can travel within the GCC using their ID cards without the need for their passport. In the summer of 2009, the UAE-KSA situation became the exception. The Director General of Passports Major General Salim bin Muhammad Al-Bulaihid issued the following statement to the Saudi Press Agency: “The Kingdom has taken the step because the map appearing on the ID cards of UAE citizens is not in line with the border agreement between the two countries signed on Aug. 21, 1974.”

The UAE-KSA dispute revolving around a strip of land, 25 km long, eastwards from Khawr al Udayd, which gives KSA access to the Arabian Gulf on the Eastern side of Qatar, has to date, not been resolved. Give the UAE kangaroo a tail or chop it off, like the hands of a thief? This tail-like corridor is sure to leave any mapmaker bewildered, and quite likely, afraid. In addition to the KSA border, the UAE finds itself in two other unresolved mapping conundrums with neighboring Oman over the Buraimi Oasis to the South and an “occupation” of its three islands (Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa) by Iran to the North. Now, considering the fact that the UAE is a politically stable, young and economically prosperous country, its mapping process drafts a rather somber more convoluted picture.

Zooming southeast from the Gulf to Azad Kashmir (Pakistan / India) then northwest to Nagorno Karabakh (Azerbaijan / Armenia), maps have time and time again been consistently implicated in disputes and conflicts across varying scales of violence and instability or the lack there of. Maps are used as a visual medium to assert, arguably most powerfully nations’ ideas of who owns what. As Shari Motro puts it: “Every map reflects a set of judgments that influence the viewer’s impression of the underlying data. The choice of colors and labels, the cropping, and the process of selecting what gets included and what gets left out all combine to form a visual gestalt.” (Motro) Maps tend to speak in a matter-of-factly fashion that makes their interpretation much more assertive and emphatic that that of the word. To unapologetically evoke a cliche, if a picture is worth a thousand words, what then is a picture with a thousand words worth?

And then there’s Palestine. In all its glory, its perseverance, it endures there; a shard jabbing the side of the world, reminding it to never forget.  Confronted with a sprawl of maps of Palestine and its several mutations, ranging from the untouched dagger of pre-1948 to the fragmented ceviche some call a map, I begin to sketch.


Palestine in the cartographic world order has been represented or misrepresented, like beauty, truly in the eye of the beholder. I, on the other hand, refuse to partake in that system and begin to sketch out a map of Palestine that tries to address the question “How do you map what is lost, contested, forgotten, erased, controversial? Why would you want to map it?”

Mapping Palestine to me is a dagger held firmly in place by a powerful hand. Whose hand? What hand? Once again, she is in the eye of the beholder. Is the hand the Palestinian diaspora holding a strong Palestine in place pledging her reclamation through resistance? Is it a Zionist dagger into the South bleeding into the Gulf of Aqaba? Or a torch of liberty blazing her flames, Lebanon and Syria, like a fire in the North? Are the fingers, the stubborn fingers of the West Bank and Gaza, holding Israel from its unified dream? Or are they the West Bank and Gaza holding the dagger from its stabbing instinct by remaining locked in position, not advancing or retracting? Are dagger and fingers engaged in a peaceful embrace to find harmony in an unlikely visual unity? Is the dagger not a dagger, but a prehistoric knife carving its name in history? Or a pen oozing ink that seeping into the post-colonial, Pan Arab paper? Or a flagpole thrust in place by hand proclaiming undeniable ownership? Once again, a map, however abstracted, remains multifaceted and obscure. But perhaps like all maps, it remains so, intentionally.

Reading Shari Motro as a graphic designer by training, I enthusiastically devoured the material, which was to me, unique in its approach and critique and waited. Alas, the moment of revelation never came. A detailed and thorough critique of the map-making process in the negotiations surrounding the Oslo II talks which sliced the West Bank into alphabetized segments, Motro’s utopian notion of good mapmaking as a leap towards peace and reconciliation, stops at that: a critique of aesthetic shortcoming. Nowhere does Motro question whether the poor visual representation is in fact an extension of the obscurity of the language used in the Oslo drafts, which “reflected the skewed balance of power between Zionists and Palestinians: the latter recognized the state of Israel (and hence, abdicated their claim for 78% of historic Palestine), but received in return only a vague ‘recognition’, and a concrete plan for a three-phase Israeli withdrawal from unspecified parts of the occupied territories” (Yiftachel) In the glimpses of ideological interrogation, Motro hides behind the words of notorious critic Edward Said “a humiliating capitulation to Israeli expansionism” choosing instead to focus all attention on the design application steering the discussion towards technique not tactic. In what is termed the Swiss Cheese Map, the issue of “a vision of Palestinian sovereignty punctured by holes” is not simply a question of color, shape and outline, but an issue of ideology – of belief and of intention. The map was designed that way for a reason; it looked that way not for the lack of graphic designers or cartographers in Israel or the lack of emphasis placed on the mapmaking process. But those questions are barely evoked and reading through the text, the process is presented as though the map was simply an afterthought, an oversight. What becomes of the people in the alphabetized areas, namely area C, effectively occupied areas? What becomes of the people living in those lands? If augmented, unlike the rendered map, what becomes of them? Does this obscurity of such areas point to the dehumanization that Gregory speaks of, allowing the military to “erase or freeze” them over time? (Gregory) Is its lack of representation intentional to decrease the state’s “bureaucratic, moral, and political sense of responsibility” for the inhabitants of those areas as Ron argues?


“A skilled designer can make peace seem inevitable or impossible, reassuring or terrifying, logical or jumbled”

(Motro) What the statement assumes here is not atypical of a design professional: that if we could only make better maps, things would be so much better, so much easier. Having started my career as a designer, having lived, slept, ate worked with designers for upwards of 5 years of my life – I am very aware of the design-world, or design-bubble that can envelop those who work closely in it. Considering the fact that Motro works for Empax, which looks at the role of info graphics in diplomacy, I can understand the intrinsic belief she seems to have of the power and agency of design as she fervently states: “Israelis and Palestinians who support a two-state solution desperately need a positive picture that captures and bolsters their fragile conviction that peace is possible.” (Motro) Positive images, or pictures for that matter, as many like Ella Shohat and Rober Stam have argued, do not always, as we have learned from the aesthetics of representation hold positive outcomes, intentions and meanings in mind. What is meant by “positive” here? Whose interpretation of “positive”? If by positive, we mean prettier, we are presented with the eternal conundrum of design. Practically speaking, from an institutional operation perspective, it is also important to remember that designers often remove themselves from the content, taking orders from the art or creative director, whose job it is to translate the work into a piece that communicates their “vision” or the vision of the client. Designers working behind the computer screen on Adobe Illustrator, AutoCAD, Photoshop or other software, busy themselves instead with the eternal hunt for the perfect typeface, the specific PANTONE swatch color and the perfect alignment of that vector shape to the carefully defined ruler. They are liberated from political responsibility. If the function of “Good mapmaking” is to simply capture a superficial pleasant and “positive” aesthetic that assuages the fears and agitations of the party being persuaded, then by all means, let the powers of typography, color palette, juxtaposition, illustration, photography and visual hierarchy reign over the peace process and sell a prettier, more digestible version of displacement, fragmentation and compromise, whereby form takes precedence over function. But if the function of “good mapmaking” is to generate, as Motro states “new maps capture a vision that Israelis and Palestinians can live with,” then function should be prioritized, and design with its communication agency and power should work to represent, notwithstanding creative direction, the realities of the proposed geographic distribution. It should lay it out on the table, and then see, if it truly does “capture a vision that Israelis and Palestinians can live with,” If the maps were in fact created to accurately tell the story of the Accords without a sales pitch in mind, will it still be the harbinger of all things good, will it still “tip the balance in favor of peace.” As I seek an answer to that question, I am reminded of the words of David Scadding, award-winning Registered Graphic Designer, typographer, instructor and speaker: “Good design never makes up for bad content.”

What questions Motro leaves unasked become the crux of Oren Yiftachel’s investigate in Territory as the Kernel of the Nation: Space, Time and Nationalism in Israel/Palestine. Less concerned with the lines, the colors and the visuals of mapmaking, Yiftachel maps out how “the when? And where?” become the pivotal points in the context of expansionist, what he calls “ethnocratic socities” and argues that in the context of Israel/Palestine – the “where”, the land, rather, becomes the main source of contestation in the conflict. “If early Zionism was indeed a colonial movement of the displaced seeking survival, its later version became a case of state colonialism.” (Yiftachel 236) Unlike Motro, Yiftachel raises questions about what got the mapmaking process to where it was by analyzing the territorial-centricity of the conflict and raises questions about the incentives the meanings behind the borders Motro is seeking to map out, effectively laying out the complexity of the Palestine / Israel mapmaking process and of why it cannot be resolved through a simplistic technocratic perspective. “‘Ethnocratic’ and settler societies, which can never be treated as static political communities, but rather as arenas of constant struggles over the very geography of the polity in question.” Nowhere is his problematizing of the “mapping” territorial process more clearly asserted than in his analysis of what is presented as an almost “un-mapable” territory: Jerusalem. Surely, simply good design will not solve this one.

In an attempt to illustrate the significance of the “land” of Jerusalem in equal proportions, Yiftachel diverts from his historical approach to an analysis of poetic meaning, which may have been the Achilles heel of the argument. Through a comparison of Jerusalem of Gold and Flower of All Cities, Yiftachel seeks to emphasize the equally land-centric, exclusionist premise held by the both Palestinian and Israeli peoples. “Both poems display the denial and exclusion of the Other – Jerusalem/al-Quds are purely Jewish/Arab. The Other is a present absentee, casting a shadow over the city, but is never allowed a voice, a name, or a rightful place in this bi-national, multi-communal city.” (Yiftachel 235)

The poetic reference does little to augment his critical analysis of the territorial-kernal because it does not differentiate in the definition of the all-encompassing “Arabness”, which weakens the absentee argument of the Other that he presents. While Jerusalem of Gold speaks to an exclusively Jewish audience “the Shofar calls on Temple Mount..And in the rocky caves, A thousands suns are shining, We shall descend again to the Dead Sea On the Jericho Road” Zahrat Al Madaen, Flower of All Cities speaks to a multi-communal city in its first line: “For you, the city of prayers, I shall pray” it does not distinguish the prayer types. In other instances in the song, the song references specifics of both Muslim and Christian sacred symbols simultaneously: “Maria…The Night of Isra’a…Churches…Masjids etc”. Further analysis of Palestinian poetry questions the exclusionist terriorital focus. For instance, the Other, is also reinforced in the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish in several instrances but especially in the poem In Jerusalem as translated by Fady Joudah:

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t believe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me . . . and I forgot, like you, to die.

While, as Yiftachel argues, land has in fact been a significant part of the national Palestinian discourse, it cannot be held to equal weightage as it has in the Zionist nation-building project. The notion of sumud cannot be solely attributed to the attachment to the land in and of itself; it is “sumud” for (the land) but “sumud” against (repression, dispossession, cleansing, expulsion) as well.

While land and territory may have had different meanings and leverage amongst the Israeli Palestinian mobilization and identity-building process in the past, it is interesting to see the different manifestations of the land-centric angle over time. Land has become increasingly exhibited in contemporary projects that revive the land-centric notion of Palestinian identity. I am reminded here of Tabo طابو (colloquial Palestinian-Arabic for Title Deed), a Ramallah-based project initiated by a Palestinian-Canadian engineer. Tabo.ps states:

To Palestinians worldwide, owning land in Palestine is priceless. Land represents a Palestinian’s identity, his roots, and his proof of existence. It is his ancestry, his forefather’s legacy and children’s birthright. It is the place from which he came, and to which he shall return. Now UCI makes it possible for Palestinians to reclaim their legacy, reconnect with the land of their ancestors, and own a piece of the homeland, for them, for their children, and for generations to come.”


Using a digital mapping system of previously unmapped agricultural land, the site allows Palestinians living in the diaspora to, in a three-step online process, select, view images and details of and buy land in the West Bank. In its Why Buy in Palestine? section the site emphasizes an ethical angle in relation to the land, making it less territorial and material, more visceral and symbolic:

The principal tool used by the occupation is to confiscate unregistered lands in Palestine and declare them as “state land”. According to the World Bank, only a third of land in the West Bank is registered. Buying and registering land in Palestine can protect it from illegal confiscation and settlement, and promotes ownership and control of Palestinian land by Palestinians”

Other contemporary projects like Zochrot and Palestine Remembered bring to life Yiftachel’s notion of land-centricity, but go a step further and challenge the isolation of land-as-kernal by exhibiting the missing link in the meaning of “sumud” in the against context. Browsing through the site one is met with a rich and peculiar marriage between Falah, Gregory and Yiftachel as land becomes a navigational blueprint to bring to trial the implication of geographic annexation in the dispossession of Palestinian and prevention of return. Evocative of Mark Levine’s “From Bride of the Sea to Disneyland: the Role of Architecture in the Battle for Tel Aviv’s Arab Neighborhood” which highlights the usurping of the Palestinian city of Jaffa by Tel Aviv through several “restoration” architectural projects, Palestinerememebred, is the Swiss Cheese map brought to life, in the colors of a kufiyeh – black and white, laying out facts without the flourishes, challenging the Motro-ian imagination of peace through design.


One thought on “A Land By Any Other Name: Geography. Mapping. Ethnic Cleansing. Ethnocracy. Spatiality. Borders. Cartography.

  1. Marwan says:

    Super excellent article. But did you see this major work on Mapping Palestine?
    See this video of a lecture in Washington DC:

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