Author: Jess Bier

Publisher: The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Year: 2017

Pages: 316

ISBN: 9780262036153


This is a work that will enthral those interested in the intersection of census data, map making using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and politics. It provides insights in the role of statistical and cartographic expertise in the various ‘negotiations’ between Israel and the Palestinians: “. . . the Israelis had long demonstrated, the way to gain political clout internationally was to produce maps that attempted to represent objective truths in a form that would be internationally recognised.”  

Jess Bier provides much material that demonstrates how political power shapes the ability to know and produce ‘facts’, highlighting the role of Roberto Bachi, for many years head of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and founding figure of the Department of Statistics at the Hebrew University of Israel, who “was able to make scientifically accurate maps while also avoiding indicating Palestinian communities and the Green Line which stood for the 1948 border.”  Bachi played a key role in the 1967 census, which the Israeli authorities rushed through after the Six Day War because of the implications on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. For mapping census data from 1967 onwards, he

started to favour graduated circles more and more. He became increasingly critical of the shaded area technique called chloropleth . . but graduated circles have one advantage that relates to Bachi’s research: they allow for the omission of certain boundaries, including the Green Line. For instead of shading an entire area or sub-region, the graduated circle is located with respect to one single point on the map. This allows for greater precision in depicting – or choosing arbitrarily, since a random point could be used – the precise locations of populations within national boundaries . . . in his 1999 book, the Green Line is absent from every one of Bachi’s relevant maps . . . Bachi would further innovate on his use of dots by adapting convex hulls for geostatistical use. He thereby moved from developing ways of mapping that obviated the need for borders and toward finding ways to draw continuous statistical boundaries around noncontiguous political spaces. By omitting internal boundaries altogether, Bachi could include Israeli data without making plain that such data for the Palestinian Territories were either not collected or, in the case of the census, not being indicated on the map. He then helped to actively naturalise the presence of Israeli settlements in the landscape by redrawing boundaries around the area of Jewish habitation – an area that by design, were spread across most of the Palestinian Territories.

The author notes that it is only by the time of the Oslo negotiations (1994-1995) that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had developed some cartographic expertise, rather than having to rely on Israeli-produced maps. However the pressure has been relentless. She refers to the concerns of Dr. Hassan Abu-Libdeh of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, when Israeli military forces occupied his offices on December 5, 2001: “What I fear most is the magnitude of data stolen”. He worried that Israel would continue raiding offices to gain access to the geographic and population data the PA collects, while at the same time destroying their means of storing this data and turning them into maps.”

Post-Oslo, map production has become even more politically sensitive. Maps of the Israeli-controlled territory now show the parcelling of land: Area C, the settlements that are Israeli municipalities, surrounding the numerous smaller areas A and B, which respectively were placed under full and partial Palestinian control. Jess Bier notes the complicity of the US Agency for International Development in the “ongoing efforts to carve gaps into the Jerusalem hills to allow for the sloping, circuitous, and segregated highway for Palestinians, to complement and circumvent the more direct highways  for Israelis.”  The parcelling has

this led to a mushrooming of Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank with the aim of monitoring Palestinian travel between the different patches of Areas A and B. Since areas A and B are islands within the broader Area C, transit between these islands inevitably involves entering Area C as well. Trips that once had taken twenty minutes instead stretched to hours . . .

In these circumstances, the book records the work of two NGOs – the Settlement Watch division of Peace Now, and the Palestinian Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem (ARIJ) – in mapping the “ongoing empirical changes in the landscape”. While Peace Now has partial access to government data in Israel, ARIJ workers with West Bank visas can only travel within Palestinian areas that lie outside the settlement fences, walls and other barriers – viewing them from without. Jess Bier offers poignant detail on the hurdles facing Palestinian NGOs in developing GIS and cartographic data: “with the exception of  the images they take from distant hills with high-resolution cameras, Palestinian cartographers sometimes rely on commercial satellite imagery and remotely sensed data because of restrictions on cartographers’ mobility”. She notes, “segregation and its related power asymmetries therefore have complex consequences in terms of shaping empirical knowledge of the occupation.”  The author cites Dror Etkes and Hagit Ofran of Peace Now,that upward of 30 percent of the settlements were held on land that would be considered stolen – even according to the regulations of the Israeli government.”.

This book is a sterling example of truth speaking to power. The author, who teaches urban sociology at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, notes that the book

is grounded in over six months of ethnographic field work and archival research in Palestine and Israel plus one further month of archival research internationally . . . during my fieldwork, I was repeatedly reminded of how my position as an international scholar opened specific routes while foreclosing others.  My US citizenship and other forms of privilege made it possible for me to work in both central Israel and the West Bank. This is significant given that many Palestinians experience routine discrimination when travelling between the two, even when their visas permit it, and Israeli citizens are formally barred by the Israeli government from travelling to the Palestinian Territories, although small groups of activists continue to do so. However, also as an international, my stay in the region was dependent on me leaving every three months, and I could be refused re-entry each time I entered or returned.  Such a refusal is routinely enforced without warning on Palestinians in general as well as North American and European scholars who are, or are believed to be, of Arab heritage . . . this book is the result of an attempt to mobilise my privilege to highlight the role of international knowledge in the occupation, thereby pointing out how all knowledge is geographically situated . . .

I made daily trips back and forth across the many boundaries that riddle the West Bank, using as many forms of transportation as possible . . .  I sought out alternate routes, taking Israeli public buses into settlements, and then walking across to adjacent Palestinian towns, and then coming back through checkpoints on foot. With the help of local activists and guides, I climbed through the ruins of the demolished Palestinian villages that are buried beneath the “green belt” of forests that line the highway that runs from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – forests that were planted to surreptitiously hide those same ruins and secure Israeli government ownership of their land. I travelled north to the Lebanese border and south to a Bedouin town in the Negev Desert, which at the time of this writing, has been demolished at least forty-nine times. . .

Jess Bier’s Mapping Israel, Mapping Palestine – How Occupied Landscapes Shape Scientific Knowledge is a work of controlled indignation with a ‘stream of consciousness’ feel, passionate yet dispassionate. She is a worthy colleague of another US academic, Dr. Sarah Marusek, who in writing about the Hizbullah experience in Lebanon, is also ready to challenge the dominant State Department narratives.

Jamil Sherif, May 2020