“Even Before the War, Water in Gaza Was Not Enough to Shower”

Naama Riba interviews Malkit Shoshan. Haaretz, Oct 25, 2023

Harvard lecturer Malkit Shoshan has been studying conflict areas in the Middle East for 20 years, including Gaza. She says that despite the pain, now is the time to talk about solutions to end the conflict. ‘The discourse of revenge dehumanizes an entire population,’ she says

These days, it’s hard to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Gaza cogently; especially when many Israelis are demanding revenge by the army for the Hamas massacre of October 7. 

Architect Malkit Shoshan, who for nearly 20 years has been studying conflict areas in the Middle East and around the world, says that despite the pain she feels now, solutions have to be discussed, along with the reasons we’re seeing such a monumental clash.

‘Even before the current war, every family in Gaza had access to electricity for only about two hours a day. The water was primarily used for drinking; there’s no water for showers.’

“This is a discourse I hope will help prevent the eruption of violence in the future. We’re seeing a chain reaction after decades since the dismantling of European colonialism,” she says in a Zoom interview.“Many conflicts are supposedly local but are actually linked to geopolitical shifts. There have been many geopolitical changes, and everything happening here has to do also with the global order and relations between powers like the United States, European countries, China, Russia and Iran.

This is expressed through local tensions, with nobody understanding exactly what the greater strategy is. The current changes in the Middle East, such as the Abraham Accords and the anticipated agreement with Saudi Arabia, are shifting the balance in the region, and it seems that everyone is choosing sides.” 

Alongside her study of conflict-affected regions – African countries, Kosovo, Georgia, Gaza – Shoshan lectures at the Harvard School of Design. She makes sure to keep her work independent, raising funds from public cultural and art sources.

The conversation with Shoshan continually shifts from the macro to the micro. As she puts it, while these superpowers compete over dominance, people are suffering. “We’ve seen in recent years that this is intensifying and will intensify further due to climate change, resource peak and growing gaps in living conditions,” she says.

“When there is no water, food and electricity, there is conflict, and this affects security everywhere. I’m currently studying regions in Africa and witnessing how climate change affects conflicts.” 

In 2005, Shoshan and partners founded FAST – the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory – where she curates exhibitions, conducts research and writes books. The organization’s first project aimed to assist the Arab village of Ein Hawd, descendants of the Palestinian community that previously inhabited what is now called Ein Hod, a Jewish art commune on Mount Carmel near Haifa. FAST sought to develop an alternative master plan to the one imposed by the Israel Land Authority and the local planning authorities that did not correlate with the reality on the ground.

‘The connection between the Jews and Israel in the colonialist context differs from empires like France’s or Britain’s, which sent their people to occupy land and extract resources. The Jews have a historical and spiritual connection to the Land of Israel.’

`‘Protests and Balloons,’ from the FAST exhibition ‘Border Ecologies and the Gaza Strip’ at the Venice Biennale.Credit: By the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory

Since then, she has researched various subjects including the peacekeeping bases in Africa. She presented her research at the Dutch Pavilion during the 2016 Architecture Biennale, titled “BLUE,” and authored a book on the research, published earlier this year: “BLUE: The Architecture of UN Peacekeeping Missions.” In this project, which she started in 2007, Shoshan meticulously documented 150 locations, mainly in Africa, illustrating how UN bases are established in areas where conflicts emerged after the withdrawal of European colonial powers.

In her book, she demonstrates how spaces generated by UN peacekeeping missions impact both urban and rural areas, often harming the environment. Rather than fostering peace, they frequently give rise to tensions and conflicts in these fragile settings.

‘All of us who are Jewish and Israeli come from a complex background; it’s a country saturated in trauma.’

Peacekeeping bases are modular, constructed through dependency on global supply chains, often utilizing materials foreign to the local environment and culture. Also, these missions are initially conceived as temporary endeavors, with annual budgets and plans.

A map of the Gaza Strip, from the Venice Biennale exhibition. Credit: Courtesy of FAST

However, as we observe in our region, they persist for decades, leaving behind a negative and enduring material and environmental footprint. This landscape of military bases, walls and barbed wire in urban and rural areas, especially along border regions, is all too familiar to us.

Local resilience

Shoshan’s project, which involved various experts, aimed to re-envision UN bases, utilizing more low-tech solutions like solar panels and wind turbines, with the goal of minimizing negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts on their surroundings. A key objective was to “shift resources from global supply chains to local hands,” Shoshan says. 

Throughout the mission, the base and UN presence can initiate a transition while empowering the local population, enhancing local markets and fostering capacity and resilience, with the spaces ultimately handed over to the local residents.

‘Women Gardens,’ from the FAST exhibition at the Venice Biennale.Credit: By FAST, the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory

The primary goal is to raise awareness. “People often examine current conflicts without considering their broader historical, socioeconomic and cultural contexts. Architectural tools provide a clearer understanding of the space and the systems that shape it; they offer a nuanced comprehension necessary to conceive alternative visions,” Shoshan says. 

“Bureaucrats and politicians are often so entrenched in the day-to-day system that they lack the imagination to envision what is possible. Architects and spatial designers, who craft long-term visions and transform abstract concepts into tangible forms, homes, neighborhoods and cities, can contribute significantly. An examination of the existing situation and its context enables us to approach the conflict from a standpoint of social justice while exploring alternative possibilities. Without objectively evaluating a place’s history, a viable solution may remain elusive.”

“Atlas of the Conflict” is a tour de force of nearly 500 pages. One clear observation: The Land of Israel and the Jewish presence here has lacked clear borders for thousands of years.

That’s very utopian.

“I’m against using the term utopia because it’s too simplistic and one-dimensional. I’m for engaging with complexity and addressing a crisis from several points of view. There are discrepancies between what is desired and what is happening in reality; when the situation is so extreme we must work through multiple alternatives. It’s not utopia, it’s a reality check.”

Jewish presence in Israel since 1040 BCE, Atlas of the Conflict, Israel-Palestine. Credit: Courtesy of FAST: Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory

One of Shoshan’s most significant and extensive projects is the “Atlas of the Conflict, Israel-Palestine.” Another book she co-edited is “The Unmanned: Architecture and Security Series,” which explores the effects of security measures and military technologies on civic space. 

Two years ago at the Venice Architecture Biennale, she presented the exhibition “Border Ecologies and the Gaza Strip: Watermelon, Sardines, Crabs, Sand, and Sediments.” It was a study of a Gaza family living alongside the Israeli border. The exhibition won the Silver Lion Award, the second most prestigious prize at the Biennale. She has also been working on a book centered around the Gaza Strip and the Gazan family, intended to be a continuation of the exhibition, though it’s currently on hold. 

Alongside the project on Gaza, she is developing a study on climate-induced migration. The climate crisis is poised to reshape the world in ways that are challenging to envision. Many of the urgencies of the climate crisis seem to be relevant to Israel. Climate change exacerbates conflicts, as it renders many areas uninhabitable.

‘Tent City.’ Credit: By the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory

Shoshan left Israel following her studies at the Technion, Israel’s MIT. She moved to the Netherlands, then to New York. She says that since October 7, she has had a hard time talking about her work. 

“I’m opposed to any form of violence; there’s no justification for the violence that occurred, and it has left me deeply affected. Regarding my work and interest in conflict regions, I’m not a diplomat. I come to these places driven by curiosity, looking to understand what shapes the built environment, and how urban design and architecture can give rise to alternatives that enhance the well-being of their inhabitants and the surrounding environment,” she explains. “Israel has avoided addressing the root causes of the conflict with the Palestinians, particularly concerning Gaza, a place primarily inhabited by refugees. It’s akin to a pressure cooker that no one wants to deal with, so it has simply been set aside.” 

Shoshani was born in 1976 and grew up in Haifa to parents of Jewish-Moroccan descent and attended the Reali School, a private institution on Mount Carmel often attended by children from affluent families. She felt that her environment was racist: “Both my parents and grandparents on both sides experienced racism. It’s a country with so much separation between groups; it’s something impossible to avoid.”

A Gazan home with an open kitchen and vegetables garden. Credit: Courtesy of FAST: Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory

How much did your background shape what you chose to do?

“All of us who are Jewish and Israeli come from a complex background; it’s a country saturated in trauma. I grew up in a Zionist home, and I came to understand the politics of the country and its history through my architecture study at the Technion. It’s only then that I realized how much architecture is embroiled in politics and how often it’s a political act. 

According to Shoshan, only when she started reading the briefs, the texts describing regional and national master plans created by the state, did she realize they must have been produced from a very naive place. These were plans “such as Arieh Sharon’s master plan for Israel, known as the ‘seven stars’ plan along the Green Line that began in the 1970s – plans that were intrinsically connected to older approaches like Tower and Stockade. … These were audacious plans that radically transformed the space by design.” 

She says that in recent decades, walls, fences, settlements, roads and other infrastructure in the West Bank “create separation and produce a new territorial arrangement in the name of Zionist ideology.”

Mapping the conflict

“Atlas of the Conflict” is a tour de force of nearly 500 pages. One clear observation: The Land of Israel and the Jewish presence here, a crossroads between three continents, has lacked clear borders for thousands of years. States and empires have sought to control it. 

Jewish control expanded under the kingdom of David in the First Temple era; the kingdom controlled many areas in Syria and east of the Jordan River. Another apex came after the Six-Day War, when Israel controlled Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. 

Shoshan also reviews Israeli security measures and fences in the West Bank and Gaza. She maps the settlements as well as Israel’s diplomatic negotiations.

An initiative called the “Agricultural Leadership Cooperative” enabled local farmers to improve production by gaining better access to supplies and markets. Credit: Courtesy of FAST

She says that visual, architectural and geographic representation tools allow the viewer to examine reality with words not getting in the way. The Atlas also contains a glossary of conflict-related terms as detailed as a definition of a Merkava tank and a Katyusha rocket. 

When I look at the Atlas of the Conflict and your studies, I ask myself what the Jews could have done in 1948, three years after the Holocaust. This was a period of massive border changes all over the world. I ask what the world, with the benefit of hindsight, could have done to prevent the explosion today. 

“I agree that there was a confluence of tragedies. The world was shattered and transformed. Empires dissolved and reconfigured themselves into nation-states, simultaneously dividing spheres of influence among themselves. The borders of these new nation-states were drawn arbitrarily, often without regard for existing human, social or cultural structures. Countries like Israel were established for strategic reasons. We continue to witness the legacy of these divisions in the conflicts that persist and shape our reality to this day.

‘Watermelon.’ Credit: By FAST, the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory

“We can trace these ‘questionable’ decisions in Africa, the Middle East and along the India-Pakistan border. These regions are also where the UN conducts its peacekeeping missions. Today, we can assert that nation-states created a one-dimensional space that is out of sync with reality. As a result, we live with tensions that erupt in Israel and elsewhere, and are likely to erupt again.” 

Do the Jews have a choice?

“The connection between the Jews and Israel in the colonialist context differs from empires like France’s or Britain’s, which sent their people to occupy land and extract resources. The Jews have a historical and spiritual connection to the Land of Israel. And they have no other place to return to. They were violently expelled from other nations.

“But this connection also exists for some Christians, who are descendants of people who lived in the region 2,000 years ago. Over the years, there were still Jews in the region, but most of them scattered and others settled. 

“The only path to a solution in such a complex place is to create a space that’s equal for everyone – to study Arabic, to realize that we’re part of the Middle East, not to force an entity on this space that doesn’t suit its reality, or at least allow all the richness and history to be present in a positive and peaceful way. Yet I’m an individual and this is a collective issue. This proposal shouldn’t come from me but through a public discourse. A race-based and militarized approach won’t hold and is definitely not the solution.”

‘Sea.’ Credit: By FAST, the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory

Shoshan completed the Atlas in 2010 and for a while shifted her focus to other conflicts. However, in recent years, she has been studying Gaza, which she considers an epitome of many conflicts around the world in the era of climate-induced displacement. Here, people are migrating north to countries with more stable weather and economies, only to confront militarized borders and find themselves left outside to fend for themselves in vast lawless landscapes. 

When there’s no electricity and water

On the eve of the 1948 War of Independence, tens of thousands of people lived in Gaza. After the State of Israel was established, about 200,000 refugees were forced to flee there; they and their descendants make up over half the Strip’s population. Until 1967, Gaza was under military Egyptian rule, and after decades of Israeli settlement and the presence of the Israeli army, Israel withdrew in 2005, dismantling its 21 settlements and evacuating the settlers and the troops. 

In 2007, Hamas seized power in Gaza, while Israel controlled its border, reducing the people’s fishing rights to a short distance from the coast, where fish do not abound. “We’ve seen for decades that the Gazans weren’t a part of any discussion about any future prospect,” Shoshan says. 

“Gaza was occupied for centuries by the Ottoman Empire, which was succeeded by the British Mandate. Yet until 1948, the life of the Gazans was rather free. They could travel between Gaza and Jaffa. In the summer they would sell their produce and live in Jaffa, and in the winter they would go down to Gaza. The infrastructure was connected; they had no interest in supporting the [UN] partition plan. The [1979] peace agreement with Egypt proves that the Egyptians didn’t want to deal with the Strip, considering it part of an overall Palestinian issue. Over time it became a crowded place where life is very hard.”

In the “Border Ecologies” project, Shoshan focused on the farm of the Khoury family (not their real name), who live in southeast Gaza. The changes in the border over the years have significantly impacted the family. Being located next to the border, the farm has also endured intense Israeli patrols and bombing during the frequent wars. 

“I’m examining how the family copes with the situation in Gaza when there’s no electricity and water,” Shoshan says. “Even before the current war, every family in Gaza had access to electricity for only about two hours a day. The water was primarily used for drinking; there’s no water for showers. In such a situation, if you want to engage in agriculture, you have to find creative off-grid solutions.” 

The Khourys were resourceful and adapted their farming methods to the security situation. When Israel left in 2005 and augmented the border fence, areas belonging to the family were engulfed in the buffer zone and the family’s olive trees were uprooted by bulldozers. Then the Khourys’ greenhouses were destroyed in 2006’s Operation Summer Rains, which took place after the Second Lebanon War. So the family started to grow onions, potatoes and squash, which can grow outdoors. 

The Khourys rebuilt the greenhouses, but during the 2008-09 Gaza war these structures were destroyed once again, almost entirely. So once again the family rebuilt the greenhouses, which were then destroyed in the 2014 Gaza war along with other buildings belonging to the family. During that war the Khourys had to take shelter for 21 days; they only had watermelon to eat. Since 2016, at least until the current war, the greenhouses remain intact.

Shoshan organizes the issues arising from the research on the Khourys into distinct chapters, each dedicated to a particular aspect of the family’s coping strategies. One chapter focuses on their farm. 

“The farm serves as the primary source of their sustenance. The family exhibits a remarkable ability to swiftly recover from security constraints and wars, even when faced with challenges in acquiring materials and resources,” Shoshan says. 

“They’ve also established a system of barter trade, such as exchanging onions for tomatoes. Relying heavily on seasonal patterns and lacking a consistent supply of water and electricity, they diligently store water during winter and sow wheat toward the end of the season for the early summer harvest.” 

Shoshan’s research also refutes several theories that have been circulating since October 7, voiced by Israeli politicians and in the Israeli media. One theory relates to Gaza’s water supply. As of the eve of the war, Israel only supplied around 5 percent of Gaza’s clean water. Actually, the residents of Gaza depend on a coastal aquifer that is already overexploited, depleted and contaminated, along with a desalination plant that is not operating continuously.

In 1983, the Khoury family installed their first rainwater pumping system. To enhance the water storage setup, the elder woman of the family sold her wedding gold, an act Shoshan aptly titled “Gold for Water.”

Shoshan underscores the pivotal role of the women in the family. “While the men tend to distant farm lands, the women cultivate the area around the house,” she says. “In the garden, they grow zucchini, potatoes, beans, melons and watermelons, alongside various edible and medicinal herbs. The women’s cared-for garden supplies fresh produce daily for the family’s meals. Additionally, it features an enclosed area with a clay oven for baking fresh bread and cooking lentil soup on top.” 

The study also features another encouraging narrative from the Khoury family’s history. During Ehud Barak’s government just before the second intifada, which began in September 2000, the family’s relations with their Israeli neighbors improved. An initiative called the “Agricultural Leadership Cooperative,” organized under the auspices of the Histadrut labor federation, enabled local farmers to improve production by gaining better access to supplies and markets. But, as mentioned, this rapport between the family and Israel was short-lived, and over the years the Khourys grew more self-reliant. 

Was there ever a point when a solution for the Gaza Strip seemed feasible?

“You have to ask the Gazans. But a solution must exist. I’m not sure if any of the solutions proposed for Gaza in the past were relevant to the residents there. For a solution to be effective, it cannot be one-sided; there should be a public debate – perhaps not at this moment when pain, fear, hate and revenge dominate. 

“Historically, the world is in constant flux, and so are the borders that divide or unite us. Learning from history, I’m certain that Israel’s borders will change. If governed with mutual respect, prioritizing human rights and prosperity, there’s no reason we can’t coexist. Israel’s sealed and militarized borders, along with policies subjecting millions of Palestinians to a stateless existence in camps and enclaves, in a state of limbo, cannot endure.” 

Many people accuse the people of Gaza of not opposing Hamas. They speak in terms of revenge and “leveling the Strip.”

“It’s a discourse that dehumanizes an entire population. No one chooses to live in a ghetto. Life there is profoundly sad. It’s a life without a shower, without electricity, without freedom of movement, work, personal or collective security. What’s happening now is a tragedy. I hope they steer it toward a place that instills hope in everyone. We exist in a spatial reality shaped by political, strategic and racist motives, born of a place of fear and trauma. Finding a sustainable solution, one different from all the options we’ve attempted, will take time, but it’s a necessity.”