As we witness the situation in Gaza with sadness, anger or a feeling of powerlessness, it seems significant to bring attention to some of the efforts for peaceful and long-term development that also take place in the Palestinian territories. ASF Denmark’s Israel/Palestine group is currently planning a collaboration with Riwaq, a Palestinian NGO that works to protect and promote architectural heritage in Palestine.

The group visited Jerusalem and the West Bank in 2012, where we commenced discussions about joining the organisation on a project in the village Jaba, and we are now seeking new members in order to aid it’s realisation. Here, the Jaba project is outlined in the context of Riwaq’s work to employ the preservation of cultural heritage as a tool against the Israeli occupation and towards rebuilding dispersed communities, both physically, economically and socially.

Primary to being involved with a specific building project, the Israel/Palestine group was founded on an interest in the area as a site of extreme spatial conflicts. The conflict is rich in examples of the role architecture, planning and spatial practices have in implementing policies that become part of occupational strategies, conduction of warfare and legal restrictions that affect lives, communities and possible outcomes of the conflict. At the same time, the area also becomes a site of study in how spatial practices can be used to resist, subvert, alter, rebuild and establish alternative realities.


As a consequence of these relations, Riwaq focuses their effort on restoring cultural heritage as a means to influence the political future of Palestine. Their work extends beyond the physical renovation of historical buildings, discussing and intervening in issues such as labour, knowledge, power, national identity and social structures. During our visit to Ramallah, we met with Khaldun Bshara, one of the two co-directors of Riwaq. Trained as an architect and anthropologist, he represents one of the many professions involved in the organisation, consisting of conservation architects, historians, planners, archaeologists, artists and sociologists.

When we entered the beautifully restored building that serves as the organisation’s main office, we walked straight into a review of a design proposal and the discussion between members of the Riwaq team and a couple of international volunteers. The place comes off more as an architectural office than a typical NGO, and with a library on architecture and conservation, a range of publications, exhibitions and symposiums, it aims to be a cultural hub for both Palestinian and international professionals and experts.

In our conversation with Khaldun, he tells us about Riwaq’s more than 20 years of work with cultural heritage. Their efforts have manifested in a national register of historical buildings, contributions to writing a (post-colonial) history of Palestinian architecture, and many concrete restoration projects that have contributed to reviving entire communities. He explains that one main goal is to recreate the common. After years of occupation and Israeli control, public space has been broken down, split into private and public spheres, of which the latter is tightly controlled by the state.

It’s a 5-star occupation. They allow us to breathe, but not to express [ourselves].

Many of Riwaq’s projects include restoring and creating plazas, playgrounds and other public spaces in order to create a space for dialogue and self-expression. Khaldun continues

We believe space is crucial in order to solve problems; if we don’t have public space, we don’t have public speech, we will not have openness, but just be fragments. 

We believe space is crucial in order to solve problems; if we don’t have public space, we don’t have public speech, we will not have openness, but just be fragments.


Riwaq’s attempt is furthermore to reverse the private-public dichotomy and create a sense of responsibility for the common and the public. Riwaq includes the community by providing the materials and the expertise for renovation, but demands that the citizens apply themselves in the building process or hire someone in the community to do it, and additionally ask that they help restoring the public spaces. Renovation in this context also means to restore the culture of reciprocity (gift-exchange) that existed historically in the Palestinian villages, in recreating an exchange of labour and forgotten relations within the communities.

Gift exchange is important because you are not alienated from you labour. We are not marxists in Palestine, but it’s the concept: if you sell your labour in the Israeli market, this is really the worst [way] that you can contribute to your country. Like you give your labour to the settlement. In this case you are contributing to your house, to your neighbours house. And this value is beyond money. (Khaldun Bshara)

But Riwaq’s projects indeed also contribute economically, by actually creating jobs in the periphery, encouraging production of local building materials such as bricks and tiles, and educating a new generation in the traditional buildings crafts. The projects become sites of knowledge exchange where young Palestinians get the chance to learn a skill and become experts within their field. This has lead to a wave of people moving back to the abandoned historical village centres, who can now practice their skills and make a living locally.

Most of the historical centres are the slums of the communities, rubbish dumps and home to the excluded. Khaldun explains that Riwaq wishes to remove the stigma surrounding the historical centres, and turn them into attractive parts of the villages that can compete with the suburbs:

We will show the people themselves how to do this, because they have lost the ability themselves, because of modernity, the new building crafts, the new concrete which is like magic. 

By increasing the value of the historical buildings, they can avoid demolishing them for new, cheaper construction.In addition to working on the physical level, Riwaq attempts to restructure the city councils themselves, in order to create a component within the local political system that will take care of the cultural heritage.

We will show the people themselves how to do this, because thew have lost the ability themselves, because of modernity, the new builiding crafts, the new concrete which is like magic.


The special focus on villages as sites for interventions is based on the fact that most of the cultural heritage exists in the periphery. Riwaq has concluded that restoring 50 selected villages would make up for 50% of all the historical buildings in Palestine. The projects are distributed geographically throughout the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, in an attempt to connect a fragmented Palestine with cultural clusters.

Jaba is one of these villages, and is located in the West Bank, overlooking Jerusalem and Ramallah. As in most villages these buildings are abandoned, but still intact as all the growth has expanded outwards. There are 27 historical houses in Jaba, which have the potential of transforming into a beautiful site for culture, recreation and tourism. Because of its proximity to Jerusalem the village can attract many visitors, and without being too close to Israeli expansion, there are greater possibilities for future development.

ASF Denmark has been invited to take part in defining the development of Jaba. Riwaq is carrying out a survey and discussing possibilities with the local community. The Israel/Palestine group wishes to visit Jaba, as a first step towards creating design proposals and eventually contribute to the building process. If you are interested in joining the group, please contact us on

The blogpost is written by Nicola Louise Markhus 

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