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Dissertation Award: Even maps are political

Dissertation Award: Even maps are political

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

MAASTRICHT. How Israelis and Palestinians make maps – it’s not the most obvious of research topics. Surprising, too, is the proposition that your physical place in the world, with all its historical and political baggage, largely determines what you see and thus also how you are likely to draw a map. Yet this is the core of the PhD research by the American Jess Bier, who not only conceived of and carried out the project but even won a prize – the UM Dissertation Award 2016 – for what the jury described as her ‘extremely original scholarship’.

Bier (36) comes from a Catholic family, but as one of her grandfathers was Jewish, Israel was a common topic of conversation. Later she lived and studied in New York, which is home to not only a large Jewish community, but also a considerable number of Arabs, including many Palestinians. Coming into contact with them gave her a different perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Combine that with an unusual academic background (maths and geography), topped off with courses in anthropology, Arabic, Middle Eastern studies, global economic history and cartography, and you have interdisciplinarity itself. This stood Bier in good stead in Science and Technology Studies at the Maastricht Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS), where she wrote her dissertation. FASoS duly nominated her book for the Dissertation Award; after all, this year it was the turn of an inner-city faculty.

Detailed topographic but also demographic maps are obviously important. They are brought out at every negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, and whenever other parties get involved too, such as human rights organisations or the United Nations. Where exactly are the borders, who lives where, how many Palestinians inhabit the West Bank, how big are the settlements, how much land does Israel control? “What you see is that different parties produce different maps because of the way in which those maps come about, the segregation between the groups”, Bier explains. “In the book I show three maps of the same area. On the Israeli one there’s nothing, the Palestinian one shows an Israeli military base, and the UN one shows an Israeli city.”

What about Google Earth and Google Maps – aren’t there satellites constantly taking photos of the earth? Shouldn’t that result in ‘objective’ maps? No, Bier says, because even satellite images are not unequivocal. Someone on the ground always has to inspect and interpret them. What’s that bump there on the picture – is it a bulldozer, or a house? In addition, satellite images are expensive. “One photo of part of a city can easily cost ten to twenty thousand euros.” Israel takes its own pictures; that’s not an option for the Palestinians. “They do get them from the US, but those are old images, from ten or twenty years ago.”

Further complicating the matter is that Palestinians cannot enter the Israeli settlements, and vice-versa: Israel cannot always access Palestinian areas. What’s more, the Israelis tend to proclaim all sorts of areas military ground, which means they can’t appear on maps. “You see these maps where the same piece of land has been copy-pasted again a bit further up; the same area twice because the real area is military and therefore secret.”

The political and military dominance of Israel clearly plays a role here. When the Palestinian Authority was established in the 1990s, the embryo of a possible state, there was no population register, no land registry, no archives, none of the infrastructure needed to run a state or even to draw up such a thing as a reliable map. “The European Union helped them out, especially the Scandinavian countries. They provided cartographers, helped in setting up databases. Apparently Israel was none too happy about that: there were military actions during which the Palestinian offices were destroyed, hard disks even taken out of computers.”

And so politics leaves an indelible mark on demographic maps. Just as Prime Minister Golda Meir once declared that Palestine did not exist, neither as a people nor as a state, Israeli maps include only the Israelis. But they give themselves away, Bier explains, “when you see a map where the West Bank is lit up, as it were; virtually empty and completely white. Because the Palestinians who live there ‘don’t exist’.”

Jess Bier is now an assistant professor in Rotterdam. The Dissertation Award consists of a statuette and a sum of 3500 euros.

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