For over seven decades, Palestine has been at the forefront of international consciousness, cyclically sliding in and out of vogue of the ‘violence du jour’. In turn, Israeli ‘independence’, Palestinian resistance, two Intifadas, and the fight for statehood have been represented ad nauseam. At this point, the plight of millions both in Palestine and the diaspora has effectively become background noise in international news. It is not difficult, therefore, to assume a kind of immutability to the situation; that people on each side think what they think, and it is what it is.
Images are simply more visceral. We’ve been seeing much longer as a species than we’ve been reading. Infographics appeal to base human abilities.
This apparent immutability is no accident, but a purposeful and systematically implemented strategy of what has been, in fact, a war on narrative. “The issue between Palestine and Israel is not as people understand it. From far away, it’s a war,” says Yosra Gamal, Information Designer at Visualizing Palestine. “But not in the common sense of the word. It’s a war of histories. Israel has survived on its stories.”
Visualizing Palestine's first visual put Khader Adnan's famous hunger strike in Israeli administrative detention in 2012 in context of the most famous hunger strikes in history.
With the wealth of reports that are published every year on the different facets of Israeli apartheid, occupation, and oppression, Palestine has become one of the most well-documented cause in the world. But the information remains largely trapped in echo chambers of academics and activists, people and entities that already agree with each other. As a result, a lot of activism has come to preach only to the choir.
It’s a war of histories. Israel has survived on its stories.
Visualizing Palestine (VP) was founded to combat this phenomena, as an initiative that blends research, design, and technology. Since 2012, VP has been using data visualisation to present a factual, rights-based narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Their infographics - presenting the complexities of the conflict in accessible, concrete, credible visuals - have been translated into over 10 languages, including Hebrew, and been used in more than 400 cities and 65 countries around the world.
We’re concerned with the stories that news agencies aren’t. The bigger events aren’t always representative of what’s actually happening.
The idea was born when engineer Ramzi Jaber was curating TEDxRamallah in 2011. He was shocked upon learning that hundreds of Palestinian minors are incarcerated every year in Israeli jails, a fact that he thought he, as a Palestinian, should have known. “There’s not a lack of information about Palestine - that’s clearly not the problem,” says Ahmed Barclay, VP data journalist. “It’s to do with how that’s being disseminated.”
Along with co-founders Joumana Al Jabri and Jessica Anderson, Jaber built the umbrella initiative Visualizing Impact, with VP as their biggest and oldest project, as a platform for visual storytelling for social justice. Their technique of data visualisation disrupts conventional fights for social justice in several ways. On one hand, it makes the complexities of UN reports and the linguistic acrobatics of academia immediately digestible to the digital age, where audiences are collectively visual learners. “Images are simply more visceral,” says Jaber. “We’ve been seeing much longer as a species than we’ve been reading. Infographics appeal to base human abilities.”
When you look at [apartheid in] South Africa, you see that small wins ... did in fact lead to their freedom.
On the other, it is an unfortunate but all-too-real truth that, by and large, the world is apathetic to stories of oppression and injustice; it takes an immediate tragedy, sensationally represented in the media, for a worldwide audience to care. VP is succeeding in its impact because they start from this realistic, albeit disappointing, assumption of apathy - that international audiences aren’t expected to care simply because they’re morally ‘supposed’ to side with a maligned and dispossessed community.
One of their most successful images, for example, shows an uprooted and destroyed Central Park. The statistics of 800,000 uprooted olive trees, 80,000 affected families, who lose an annual 12.3 million US dollars in income because they rely on the olive harvest - when put in terms of the uprooting of Central Park 33 times over - becomes an accessible reality to an unaffected audience. “800,000 is just a number,” says Gamal. “But now it becomes a tangible reality. Now every time someone sees Central Park or passes by it, they can imagine it.”
Israel’s most critical strategies of violence occur in two ways: violence of space - the architecture of imperialism in walls, checkpoints, and land seizures - and the re-writing of history. Moshe Dayan - former Israeli minister and military leader in every war from 1948 until 1973 - once said: “You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal arose in the place of Mahalul, Gvat in the place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Haneifs, and Kfar Yehoshua in the place of Tell Shaman.”
Dayan himself explains the process of creating what Joseph Massad, prolific Middle East Studies scholar and professor at Columbia University, has called ‘geographic simulacra.’ In constructing this kaleidoscope of simulations - the physical erasure of histories and entire villages - Israel created a new geography, and therefore a new history, that is more ‘real’ than the on-ground reality. Through decades of dissemination, the story of Zionist settlement in Palestine - by necessity - becomes not only righteous, but immutable.
During the annual lobbying conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, in Washington DC, VP collaborated with the US Campaign to End the Occupation for a series of placards that were placed on a mobile truck that followed lobbyists around as well as the DC subway.
In a 1973 report about the destruction of Arab villages, Israeli professor Israel Shahak wrote: “No publication, book or pamphlet gives either [the] number [of Arab villages] or their location.” In a monopoly on the production of knowledge, the narrative, both ideally and materially, is absolute. This is more than the rhetoric of perpetual persecution of the Jewish people, through European pogroms and the holocaust that ‘necessitated’ the settler-colonialist creation of Israel. This is the physical production of a geography that mystifies reality into one long uninterrupted history. The city of Modi’in for example, which was only founded in 1987, bears the name of an ancient Israeli village - the exact whereabouts of which are unknown - but creates a historical affinity which obfuscates the reality that part of the city is in violation of international law.
There’s not a lack of information about Palestine... It’s to do with how that’s being disseminated.
Because of how this narrative was extrapolated to international stages and debates - and the superimposition of rhetorics of perpetual persecution and the precarity of the Jewish people, even within the land they have colonised - any counter-narrative can be disqualified as antisemitism. To this point, one of VP’s most recent work is a fashion piece called ‘Return is Possible,’ which is a scarf that shows the status of Palestinian villages that were depopulated during the Nakba, based on the groundbreaking project of researcher and geographer Dr. Salman Abu Sitta. Abu Sitta spent 40 years mapping historic Palestine through the Nakba, with the goal of showing that the right of return is not only sacred and legal, but feasible and possible.
VP's visual on Israel's demolition of Palestinian homes (edited for clarity).
The intervention of a counter-narrative like the one VP is creating disrupts this apparent immutability, especially because VP relies on data that cannot be realistically refuted. An equally easy disqualification of criticism of Israel is the simple assertion that it’s not true. VP exclusively uses open source data, namely reports by the UN and World Bank. The references are included in every visual on their website, though that hasn’t stopped people on social media from attacking the visuals. “It’s a narrative and a counter-narrative,” says Gamal. “But when you back your story with data, you can’t really refute it. You can say you don’t agree, but then it’s your opinion. You’re not fighting with facts.”
...when you back your story with data, you can’t really refute it. You can say you don’t agree, but then it’s your opinion. You’re not fighting with facts.
In recent decades, the Palestinian political agenda - as presented in the sanitised spaces of negotiations and international organisations - seems to be a two-state solution. But the inherent logic of occupation lends itself to this perpetual debate on statehood. Presenting the issue as a case of the existing state of Israel against a potential state of Palestine obfuscates the material reality on the ground, which VP is working to represent.
“The idea of one-state or two-state solutions doesn’t make much sense for us,” explains Gamal. “Because in fact, on-ground, it’s one state, one border controlled by Israel. One military. One population registry. One currency. One government that treats people differently, with two different sets of laws for Palestinians and Israelis. An apartheid state.”
The full visual shows a side by side comparison of the features of South African and Israeli apartheid.
Though every visual stands alone, they create a multiplicity of stories that together make up a comprehensive narrative of this singular fact: Israel is an apartheid state. By shifting the conversation from the often-ethereal concept of ‘statehood’ to the more tangible aspects of social justice, VP brings to the forefront issues that often escape the attention of mainstream media.
In November 2018, Airbnb announced that it would remove all listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, due in part to VP’s advocacy efforts with Human Rights Watch.
“We’re concerned with the stories that news agencies aren’t,” says Gamal. “The bigger events aren’t always representative of what’s actually happening. So it’s an important part of our archiving of history, the narrative that documents the situation today in very human terms: marriage, education, love, sports, art.”
In November 2018, Airbnb announced that it would remove all listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, due in part to VP’s advocacy efforts with Human Rights Watch. “We had been working on this and communicating with Airbnb about their complicity in this kind of violation, for almost three years,” says Gamal. “And just at the time that we were planning to release a visual about it, they announced they would remove all their listings from Israeli settlements. And that’s important. When you look at South Africa, you see that small wins like that did in fact lead to their freedom.”
Perhaps most importantly, VP’s focus on accessibility and the immediate impact of their visuals has successfully widened their network beyond the echo chambers of pro-Palestine politics. Though their work has been integral to campaign efforts by academics, student activism, and the BDS movement, their impact reports show that their visuals - in over 10 languages, including Hebrew - have been used in more than 400 cities and 65 countries around the world. “Countries where you wouldn’t expect that Palestine would be a topic,” says Gamal. “So we’re taking the conversation outside the small circle of activists, academics, and organisers, to very regular people who just use them to communicate something that they believe in. Palestinians or non-Palestinians.”