PhD candidate in History, Columbia University
Ruins haunt common views of Palestine: from nineteenth-century European etchings describing a desolate Holy Land, to the remains of 1948 depopulated Palestinian villages bursting through the Israeli surface, to the ruinscapes of jumbled concrete broadcasted worldwide following each war on Gaza. Absent from these imageries are Palestinians themselves and their intricate relationships with ruins and their contested meanings. This paper aims to address this absence by delving into the social life of ruins in mandatory Gaza. Evacuated of its populace and ruthlessly bombarded during the First World War, Gaza under British rule grappled with reconstruction while the national struggle over the land broiled everywhere else. Histories of mandatory Palestine that focus on the national conflict thus have largely overlooked the city.
Shifting the spotlight back to Gaza, this paper shows how British fascination with Gaza’s ruins of war thwarted the city’s reconstruction. Before authorizing rebuilding, the British government sifted Gaza’s war-torn structures through the mandatory “Antiquities Ordinance,” recasting the dreary debris of recent war as picturesque remains of antiquity. Imagining Gaza as a decaying “old city” of the Orient, British authorities subjected its ruins to an ever-delayed preservation scheme, while rejecting appeals for independent rehabilitation.
Gazans challenged this colonial mindset, turning to illicit construction or supplying counterfeit chronicles to undermine the historicizing of their city. Stone inscriptions, ancient columns and other “antiques” that incriminated buildings in Gaza with a history came to stand in the center of a conflict over the past and its relation to space. Gazans recovered many of their houses, while British authorities managed to “preserve” devastation in much of the city’s center well into the 1940s. On the eve of the 1948 war, Gaza’s built environment was still defined by ruins dating three decades back. Taken as a metaphor, these ruins thus suggest replacing narratives of Palestinian history that assume a teleological march of an ever-escalating conflict, with ones more attentive to imprints of the past, and the ways contemporaries understood them.
Dotan Halevy is a PhD student in the history department at Columbia University in New York. His doctoral research project examines the history of Gaza and the broader southern Palestine region in the Late Ottoman and British Mandate periods. He cultivates a special interest in cultural perceptions of ruins and destruction and their intersection with historical narration and amnesia.