The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been characterized as being about several things. Some argue it’s about ethnicity, some say religion, while still others say politics or ideology. Whatever your persuasion, there is one undeniable reality about this conflict: it’s a people struggling to stay connected to their land. The territorial aspect lies at the heart of every facet of the Palestinian struggle, whether it’s the location of depopulated villages, the border that denotes the boundaries of Jerusalem or the Armistice Line which separates territory recognized as occupied from that which is recognized as Israel. Maps tell the story of the Palestinian cause better than any testimony from a refugee, than any human rights report, than any party or leader. The documentation, in black and white, of one people usurping the land of another, year after year, decade after decade, is a simple and straightforward explanation of exactly how the injustice facing the Palestinians was and continues to be carried out.
Palestinians have valued the history of Palestine’s geography greatly. They know that the documentation of how Palestine was may be the only record proving a connection between Palestinians and their land into the future, given ongoing Israel colonization. Many atlases or historical works documenting the depopulation of Palestine stand as testimonies to crimes committed. Walid Khalidi’s seminal All the Remains and Salman Abu Sitta’s über-comprehensive Atlas of Palestine: 1948 are two that come to mind.
But Malkit Shoshan’s contribution, Atlas of the Conflict: Israel-Palestine, is different. Shoshan is an Israeli. Yet, while the contributions of Palestinian historians and geographers may have been motivated by a patriotic yearning, Shoshan’s drive to document these territorial changes comes from a different and still noble origin. As discussed in her atlas, Shoshan was an Israeli architecture student at the Technion a decade ago when she was asked to design a shopping mall for an empty plot of land near Tel Aviv. When doing preliminary site research she discovered the plot to be a destroyed Palestinian cemetery. She decided then to stop designing and instead “learn the history of [her] country, – a history that is never directly told.” She writes:
Driven by curiosity, I started collecting illustrations, maps, photographs, diagrams and other visual materials. Textual testimonies, although important, simply weren’t tangible enough for my purposes, as the lack a sense of scale. I wanted to know what the image of over 500 destroyed Palestinian localities would look like, on a map with a relative scale, in space, and in comparison to the thousands of newly-built Israeli localities.
It is extremely difficult to grasp an architectural project on the scale of a state or a nation. To plan, design and construct a building takes years. To destroy a whole country and build another one on top of it took a couple of decades. For me, this new sense of scale and its realities resulted in a personal episode of complete bewilderment…I was brought up in a Zionist context. We were overwhelmingly and completely appreciative of Israel, considering it a miracle: a nation that had constructed itself almost seamlessly from thousands of years in the past right up to the present day. The 2,000 years of exile were absent in my historical consciousness. You can say I had been led to believe that Israel had always been there, and that the tragedy of Palestine has nothing to do with it: that it was just an incidental episode.
As maps are usually drawn by whoever is in power, the powerless can so easily disappear from them.
The process by which Shoshan put together her atlas was clearly an awakening for her, and those who are unfamiliar with the history and geography of Palestine in the last 100 years will encounter a similar awakening. She goes far beyond the mapping of Palestine’s depopulation from 1947-1949 and includes the history of recent Zionist settlement, the destruction of villages after 1948, the changing maps after various Arab-Israeli wars, maps of settlement patterns in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and occupied Jerusalem, as well as detailed maps of the apartheid wall that runs through Palestinian territory.
A downside to the book is that it is quite small in dimension which occasionally makes the reading of detailed maps difficult to read. However, this is simultaneously an upside because Shoshan’s atlas retains all the detail of a much heavier and unwieldy atlas in a convenient size allowing it to fit nicely on a bookshelf or desk for regular reference. Jam-packed with information, detail, maps, images and explanations, Malkit Shoshan’s atlas may lead those unfamiliar with the geography of this conflict to experience an epiphany like the one that led the author to undertake this impressive work.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This book review may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.
The views in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.