Mapping and “Truth”: Communicating the Erasure of Palestine



“[…] Salmon emphasised the human aspect of carto-topography. No matter how accurate the map, Salmon wrote, people would never trust it if it were not pleasant and attractive to the eye, for it was impossible not to be affected by its external appearance.” (Dov Gavish, in A Survey of Palestine Under the British Mandate, 1920-1948, describing the writings of F. J. Salmon, Director of the British “Palestine Survey” from 1933-38)

“I couldn’t have done anything without the marvelous detailed maps (scale 1:20,000) compiled by the Mandatory authorities and updated just before the 1948 War. I would spread the relevant map on the ground, and suddenly the old landscape arose like an apparition: village houses, mosques, school buildings, paths, stone hedges marking plot boundaries, limekilns, threshing floors, holy tombs, sacred oak trees, springs and cisterns, caves, fruit trees, patches of cultivation. And each plot and every prominent feature had its Arabic name marked on the map, so poetic and so apt […] that my heart ached.” (Meron Benvenisti, in Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, 2000. He describes his efforts to uncover the Palestinian landscape “wiped off the map” by Israeli cartographers.)

This article offers some thoughts on the relationship between mapping, power and “truth” — a term which I use slightly flippantly here, but will expand upon. It focuses in particular on a set of historical maps of Palestine which I was recently involved in making accessible and searchable online through a project named Palestine Open Maps (

My first introduction to the maps in question — a 1:20,000 series of British maps from the 1930s and 1940s, covering much of historic Palestine — came in the summer of 2010. At the time I was working with Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) in Bethlehem, a studio that uses the tools of architectural research and design as a means to think beyond the suffocating constraints of the present condition of colonization, occupation and apartheid in Palestine/Israel. In our work, we were making use of two beautifully detailed map sheets drawn from the Israeli national archives — Qalqilya 14-17 and Et Tira 14-18 — as part of a project in partnership with the Israeli organisation Zochrot looking at the practical dimensions of return of Palestinian refugees. Zochrot (Hebrew for “remembering”) is an organisation doggedly working to educate the Jewish Israeli public about the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”), and to advocate for the return of Palestinian refugees.

It crossed my mind at the time of the project that these map sheets were clearly drawn from a huge series. In fact there are around 155 numbered sheets in total — many with multiple revisions over time — and if you were to lay them all out side-by-side, they would cover the floor of a large exhibition room. However, it also seemed that the process of digitizing and combining the maps in any such project would require serious resources, assuming that the relevant British or Israeli archives would even facilitate such an endeavor. It would be another eight years before the opportunity to do something with these maps would arise.

Visual Communication and Languages of “Neutrality” ///

“I define the Neutral as that which outplays [déjoue] the paradigm, or rather I call Neutral everything that baffles the paradigm.” (Roland Barthes, in The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France, 1977-1978, 2002)

In the interceding years I became involved with Visualizing Palestine, a project where we use visual communication tools — foremost data visualization and infographics — to communicate a data-driven narrative of Palestine/Israel, and of the many historic and ongoing injustices and inequities facing Palestinians. Our work was founded on the premise that visual storytelling through infographics is an especially effective means to communicate complex ideas to a mass audience, and that the views of people can be swayed through exposure to “hard facts” and data.

The latter idea — that people accept the “facts” — appears to have been soundly disproven in the present post-truth era, where we realize that many of us (or even most of us) seem happy to choose our facts to suit our world view. In retrospect, this development seems an obvious extension of the mainstream media logic that in “contentious” issues (politics, race relations, climate change, Palestine) one should simply seek to offer “balance” among dominant narratives rather than attempt to uncover the truth of an issue. Choose your side, choose your facts.

This basically leaves us with the realization that facts and data are simply tools in a broader arsenal. In the rawest sense, we are trying to influence opinions by producing a visual language of numbers, maps, icons, glorified bar charts and other visual paraphernalia that engages interest, conveys a compelling narrative and elicits the trust of the reader. What you accept as “truth” is ultimately a matter of faith in the messenger.
This, in turn, invites the question of what might be the most effective visual language (or languages) for convincing people who remain open-minded on an issue, or even to instill doubt (or “cognitive dissonance”) in more hardened minds. It should be pointed out that our work also takes place in the context of a well-funded and organized Israeli campaign of hasbara (Hebrew for “explaining”, or essentially “propaganda”) that above all seeks to instill the idea that the conflict is too complicated for outsiders to understand, let alone to form an actionable opinion on.

One approach I have personally toyed with for some time is the possibility of harnessing the “neutral” visual language of the news editorial graphic, or to borrow from other such visual languages of authority. The polemic intent of the editorial graphic is typically shrouded in a carefully measured non-design of facts, figures, charts and illustrations, and in a similarly measured written tone and vocabulary. However, it is the choice of the story, the angle from which to cover it, the source of the “facts” and a myriad of other conscious and unconscious choices that its biases are manifested. Which brings us back to the British maps.

A Prelude to Catastrophe ///

“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You don’t even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don’t blame you, because these geography books no longer exist […] Nahalal arose in the place of Mahlul, Gvat in the place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Haneifa, and Kfar-Yehoshua in the place of Tel-Shaman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.” (Moshe Dayan, writing in Ha’aretz newspaper, 1969)

The two map sheets that I described in the opening paragraphs included four Palestinian villages that would be depopulated just a few years later during the 1948 Nakba and its aftermath. These villages, Miska, Kufr Saba, Jaljulye, and Byar ‘Adas — all falling within five kilometers to the west of the Green Line — were among more than 500 Palestinian communities depopulated by Zionist militias as the State of Israel was founded over the remains of Palestine, on the lands of more than 750,000 Palestinians who became displaced as refugees. It is also worth noting that — contrary to the received historical canon — almost half of these communities had been depopulated before the State of Israel had been declared, and before any soldiers from neighboring Arab countries had entered into the conflict.

Barclay Funambulist (4)
“Palestine” map sheet at 1:250,000 scale, 1946.
Barclay Funambulist (3)
“Israel” map sheet produced by Survey of Israel based on British Survey of Palestine layers, 1951.

While the physical remains of these communities continued to be present in the physical landscape for years and sometimes decades after the Nakba, they disappeared almost in a single stroke from official maps. A 1:250,000 scale map from 1951, titled “Israel” is identical in almost every detail to a British 1946 map titled “Palestine,” but for the disappearance of hundreds of Palestinian localities, and their replacement with the names of almost as many Jewish-Israeli settlements newly established on their lands. Within a decade, tens of thousands of landscape features would be systematically renamed in Hebrew as part of a conscious effort to overwrite the Arabic Palestinian landscape with a new Eretz Israel — or “old-new,” to borrow from the title of Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland,” one of Zionism’s early establishing texts.

As such, the British maps hold a huge historical significance. The 1:20,000 scale series, in particular, charts in incredible details a Palestinian landscape on the eve of its erasure. The maps are dense with natural and human-made features. Alongside the hundreds of towns and villages, every individual parcel of land is demarcated, and thousands of landscape features — mountains, rivers, valleys, plains, orchards — are shown, each with its transliterated Arabic name. Furthermore, these maps are infused with the authority of the British as a “neutral” party in the conflict; with the authority of being a primary source from the time; and the authority of the sheer precision and beauty of their cartography. Yet, as historical artefacts, these maps are anything but neutral.

Maps as Colonization ///

“There are few countries in the world in which surveying and mapping played so much important role in its history. Palestine, the Holy Land, was long coveted by foreigners, primarily the Crusades and European colonists. They wanted to know its physical and historical characteristics as a prelude to conquering the land.” (Salman Abu Sitta in The Atlas of Palestine, 1917-1966, 2004)

“[…] the roots of the modern survey system of Palestine set up by the military government are to be sought in the Balfour Declaration and its implications regarding land. The system was formally established in July 1920 with only one objective: to survey and map the lands of the country as demanded by the Zionist Organisation, in order to implement legally binding land settlement and registration of tenure rights.” (Dov Gavish, in A Survey of Palestine Under the British Mandate, 1920-1948, 2005)

The maps are not simply an innocent artefact of the British administration of Palestine, but were in fact created as a tool in the processes of conquering and controlling Palestine militarily, and in the Zionist colonization of the land. As a counterpart to the mapping efforts, a series of British laws and ordinances were devised to systematically register the ownership of every parcel of land in Palestine in order that it could be sold or otherwise transferred to Zionist organizations such as the Jewish National Fund or the aptly named Palestine Jewish Colonization Association.

Even the map projection and coordinate reference system by which the maps are drawn — the 1923 Palestine Grid — is a product of the British colonial administration, and remains (with some slight modification) the basis for modern maps of the territory. However, the 1:20,000 maps also represent an incomplete process of colonization. The land registration was never completed — in fact only around 20% of land was formally registered by the end of the British mandate period, and less than 5% transferred to Zionist organisations or individuals — and of the maps themselves 20 out of the series of 175 were never completed.

Despite their colonial origins, the mere existence of the maps offers an undeniable testament to the historic injustice of the Nakba and, by extension, to the legal and moral rights of Palestinians to return and to restitution. In archival theory, this act of reading of the “subaltern” Palestinian narrative through such documents is referred to as “reading against the archival grain.” In fact, it is perhaps an awareness of their colonial origin — and that they had both the power and the reason to distort geography against the Palestinian historical narrative — that makes these maps all the more compelling. The maps also represent a beautiful collection of objects in their own right, recording layer upon layer of information compiled over decades of surveying work by individuals at the forefront of the craft of cartography and mapmaking during the 1930s and 1940s. Bringing these maps to an audience as wide as possible seems to naturally serve a purpose that is, at the same time, academic, political and nostalgic.


Maps as Resistance ///

“There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.” (Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 1995)

“Archive fever is spreading among Palestinians everywhere. Whether in Ramallah or London, Haifa or San Francisco, Beirut or Riyad, someone or some group is busy interviewing old people and compiling genealogies, searching for photographs and letters, collecting textiles and folksongs, visiting and renovating graveyards, scanning and repairing manuscripts, and compiling information on old houses and destroyed villages, and this is but the tip of an iceberg whose full dimensions can hardly be imagined.” (Beshara Doumani in Jerusalem Quarterly Issue 36, 2009)

Around a year and a half ago, I made the surprising discovery — at least to me — that the Israeli national library had digitized the 1:20,000 map series along with many others, and had made them available to an online viewer. Although it was possible to zoom in and view the maps in high resolution, their utility — and therefore their value or meaning to the average person — was constrained by the fact that there was no narrative information to explain the maps; that the maps could only be viewed as individual sheets (which could not be downloaded), and (crucially) there was no way to search, navigate or otherwise comprehend the maps as a whole.

Despite the knowledge that it would represent yet another Palestinian archival project, the urge to do something with these maps was irresistible. The time consuming work of collecting and scanning the maps had been done for us, and it was not necessarily a given that they would be available online indefinitely. So, together with the Visualizing Palestine team — and with support in the early stages from Columbia University Studio-X Amman and various individuals including Majd Al-shihabi who himself was supported by a Creative Commons Fellowship — we embarked on the task of “open sourcing” (or “liberating”) these maps and trying to make them accessible to an audience as wide as possible.

I should note here that the sheer volume of Palestinian digital archiving projects that are happening — and the ephemerality of so many of them — is certainly not a reason to dismiss the importance of such work, and there are the notable few project which have the necessary clarity of vision and institutional support to sustain them in the medium to long term. Some more hopeful examples that I have been personally exposed to — in all of their various complexities — are the Palestinian Oral History Archive at the American University of Beirut, the Palestinian Journeys platform of the Palestinian Museum (in which Visualizing Palestine is a partner), and the efforts of the Institute for Palestine Studies to digitize the meticulous records of Palestinian land ownership in present day Israel held by the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP).

In our own project, over the course of a few months, we figured out a series of processes using various mostly open-source tools and technologies to download the maps in high resolution: to crop and color-correct them, to georeference them into navigable Google Maps-style tile sets, and to make them searchable by embedding geographic and demographic data on localities (towns, villages, cities) from historic and contemporary sources — namely the British “Village Statistics” from 1945, and present day data from the Palestinian Authority and Israeli government statistical authorities.

Barclay Funambulist (2)
Detail of 1:20,000 scale Nablus map sheet, 1942.

The early response to the platform — even in its initial limited form — has been encouraging. We have seen Palestinian refugees sharing screenshots of their villages of origin across social media, we have been reached out to by academics and activists, and the platform has had media write-ups in languages including Arabic, Italian and Spanish despite being only available in English. Meanwhile, googling “Palestine Open Maps” already yields hundreds of search results. We hope that, with time and support, we can build the platform into a much richer and more multi-faceted resource where its content — and usefulness — can be extended by its community of users.


Beyond Mapping ///

“ […] the urgency to archive Palestine and the Palestinians is driven by a deep and widespread pessimism about the future. The more remote that freedom, justice, repatriation, and self-determination seem to be, the greater the desire to preserve and record for posterity not only what was then, but what is now. I mention the attraction of archiving the present, not just the past, because Palestinians are still incapable of stopping the continued and accelerating erasure of the two greatest archives of all: the physical landscape, and the bonds of daily life that constitute an organic social formation.” (Beshara Doumani in Jerusalem Quarterly Issue 36, 2009.)

“The best antidote to the claustrophobia we Palestinians feel while attempting to cross the many borders Israel has created is to focus our attention on the physical expanse of the land. Israel is attempting to define the terrain, to claim and fragment it with wire fences, signposts, gates, and roadblocks staffed by armed soldiers backed up by tanks. I am but one of the millions of travellers who have passed through over the ages. I lifted my eyes and beheld the wonderful valley created eons ago as it stretches far and long north to the Lebanon and south to the Red Sea and into Africa utterly oblivious of the man-made borders that come and go.” (Raja Shehadeh, A Rift in Time, 2010.)

So, where does this leave us? However vividly and convincingly Palestinians and others can render the historical “truth” of their Nakba, it does not change the fact that their dispossession and marginalization continues to this today in the broad daylight of international media attention. From the ongoing destruction of Palestinian communities in the West Bank and southern Israel, to the collective punishment of Gaza, to the denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return home.

The words of Raja Shehadeh offer one channel to refocus our minds in this context. They remind us that maps, and even the physical cutting up and control of territories are temporary human exercises. They remind us that these things — maps, and the power that they represent — can be subverted within any given moment, and that a century of Zionist colonization is just a blink of an eye in the entirety of human history, let alone in the life of the planet itself. In a similar way, visual storytelling is just one form of advocacy in a much wider justice/equality/liberation movement and, for those that it seeks to influence, recognising injustice is only the first small step towards becoming an active agent in political transformation.