Architecture and Urban Planning in Palestine

Architecture and Urban Planning in Palestine
Caught Between Domination, Devastation and Mismanagement

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A Villa in Ramallah

Khalil Raad collection

The history of Palestinian built environment and urbanization has been shaped by policies, introduced during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire , that controlled and managed Palestinian space. The Ottomans introduced various policies and systems – the tanzimat (reforms), centralization, modernization, land settlement and parcellization, planning and taxation systems – that were designed to enable the level of population control and land management required by an empire that was struggling to locate itself globally. The development of planned cities such as Beersheba , attention to industrialization and infrastructural works, and the construction of the Hijaz railways and clock towers are some manifestations of those Ottoman policies in Palestine.

Radical transformations in the built environment have taken place since the late nineteenth century, the result of socioeconomic and geopolitical processes. The shift in land ownership from communal to private and the shift from an agro-based family economy to a wage-based economy changed the architectural forms, construction industry, and layout of villages and towns. The traditional courtyard houses (ahwash) that evolved around kinship ties and were grouped together around winding alleys to form neighborhoods (harat) gave way to modern planning, complete with use-zoning maps and the construction of individual mansions or linear multistory mixed-use buildings along wider streets.   

By the turn of the twentieth century, new architectural forms started to emerge, reflecting an accelerated process of village and town urbanization. Soon after their conquest of Palestine, the British authorities issued a Town Planning Ordinance (1921) that created Palestine planning institutions and their respective powers. After several amendments to the text, the Mandate authorities issued (in 1936) a second Ordinance that established a less centralized system. It empowered each Local Building and Town Planning Commission, under the control of the District Commission, to prepare a detailed town planning scheme to determine not only the allotment of land for public purposes (roads, gardens, schools, cemeteries, and so on); or the “objects of archaeological interest or beauty” that would be preserved; but also the size, height, design and external appearance of new buildings. This explains for instance the compulsory use of stones in several regions of Mandate Palestine .

The British Mandate speeded up the transformations in Palestinian communities and left a clear “Western” influence on life in general and on the built environment in particular; new styles (such as neoclassic) and new technologies (such as reinforced concrete) began to dominate construction. Further concentration of population occurred in Jerusalem , Jaffa , Haifa , and other cities. The architectural distinctions between urban (towns) and rural (villages) became less apparent. In major cities and towns, such as Ramallah , al-Bireh , Bethlehem , and Beit Jala , new construction reflected contemporary urban architecture forms rather than traditional peasant architecture.

These relatively smooth transformations to the built environment in Palestine ended abruptly with the cataclysmic event in 1948 that is referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba , during which more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages were depopulated. In the decades that followed, successive Israeli master plans were designed to dominate and expropriate the land mass of Palestine that became Israel and reflected total disregard for the spatial, social, and economic needs of the Palestinians who remained. Drastic restrictions were placed on the jurisdictional areas of Palestinian towns and villages, Palestinian citizens were denied building permits, and Arab villages in the Naqab (Negev desert ) and the North were designated as “unrecognized”; as such, they have been denied basic services such as water, electricity, health care, and education, and homes there have been routinely demolished and residents expelled.

In the part of Palestine that came to be known as the Gaza Strip , the post-1948 influx of 250,000 refugees increased the indigenous population of over 70,000 by more than 300 percent. This dramatically affected the urban and rural landscape of the Strip, as tent camps were quickly established and then replaced by more solid makeshift and dilapidated shelters. The responsibility for town planning was assumed by the Egyptian Governor, who issued by-laws in accordance with the 1936 Mandate Ordinance (such as zoning plans or determining the setbacks of new buildings in certain areas). UNRWA assumed responsibility for the management of the refugee camps (including planning for housing units and public services).

After the 1948 War , the West Bank (which was united with Jordan ) became home to a wave of refugees. Responding to their humanitarian and social needs resulted also in the spatial transformation of towns and adjacent areas, though in a less pronounced manner than in Gaza. In terms of legislation, Jordan replaced the 1936 Ordinance by a Cities, Villages, Buildings Law in 1955 (which was in turn replaced by a 1966 Law). During this period (1948–1967), urbanization gained momentum and architecture was emancipated from traditional plans and forms, in a process that had started in larger cities during the Mandate period. Jerusalem, Nablus , Ramallah, and al-Bireh (and even some villages that were rapidly expanding as towns) were among the urban centers whose architecture had a distinctly modern flavor, as can be seen in the public and private buildings and institutions constructed during this period—municipal and post office buildings, universities, hospitals, public parks, banks, hotels, cinema theatres, and some family houses.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 halted nascent Palestinian efforts to introduce an international architectural style locally. During the period of total Israeli control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (1967–1993), the Israeli military authorities controlled planning processes. Like all colonial regimes, Israel used planning and land management as a tool to control land and to keep the Palestinians within easily governed spaces. Israel’s regional planning policy in the West Bank during this period (which bore the strong imprint of Moshe Dayan , Defense Minister between 1967 and 1974) was based on two concepts: economic integration of the whole West Bank to Israel (which implied a relaxation of restrictions on  movement of Palestinians, mainly labour, and a certain degree of autonomy given to Palestinian municipalities); encirclement of Palestinians towns and villages by zones allocated for theme parks, military zones, and Jewish settlement activities, the integration of settlements with Israel and the construction of huge road networks to connect the settlements to Israel. (Despite Palestinian population growth during this period, the occupation's "town planning“ permitted the expansion of the towns’ built-up areas only once during the 1970s.)

In the Gaza Strip, the spatial dimension of Israel’s policy of conquest of the land and control of people took other forms. Israel tried to empty the refugee camps by encouraging refugees to settle in the West Bank and by expelling thousands of relatives of militants to the Sinai in preparation for major expansion of Jewish settlements when they are established. Under instructions from Ariel Sharon (chief of the Southern Command between 1969 and 1973), the Israeli army launched a campaign of punitive raids in Gaza, during which it destroyed thousands of homes in the refugee camps to create a network of wide roads and facilitate military access and surveillance.

With the “Oslo era” (which began in 1993), the West Bank and Gaza Strip have experienced a building boom that has dramatically changed the physical composition of the Palestinian landscape. By the end of the twentieth century, town architecture provides sharp contrast between vernacular and contemporary settings. At the center of the Palestinian villages and towns are clusters of soft-colored traditional houses, their gentle domes blending naturally with the rolling surrounding hills. Scattered around the historic centers are more recent additions of large, multistory, individual or clustered buildings and houses, built of smoothly cut limestone blocks, concrete walls, and flat roofs furnished with antennas, satellite dishes, plastic water tanks, and solar panels. These new constructions that encroach on the agricultural lands and the public/common lands have no organic link with the past architectural heritage and, in addition, traditional construction methods, building crafts, and skills are nearing extinction with the retirement and death of master builders and craftspeople.

The Oslo Agreement brought about unmistakable transformations on architecture and planning in the occupied territories. The agreement divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, each with a different relation to the State of Israel. The Palestinian Authority encouraged construction and urbanization of the land under its control, namely Area A and to a lesser extent Area B. Huge investments have been made in real estate and the construction of suburbs, gated communities, shopping centers, and the first “planned city” (Rawabi , located between Ramallah and Birzeit ). The rapid population increase has justified the rush and ad hoc planning procedures/ processes since 1993 and has driven planning initiatives.

After 1993, urbanization processes in the Gaza Strip have been characterized by the development of the main roads, an airport, a harbor, hotels, residential and commercial towers (abraj), and summer beach houses (chalets). However, with limited space and ad hoc planning, Gaza City and the refugee camps have become densely populated spaces; in Shati' refugee camp , for example, one hundred thousand residents live in about one square kilometer. Israel’s unilateral “disengagement from Gaza” has paradoxically created a state of ongoing disaster: by evacuating Jewish settlers, Israel has been able to use more massive lethal force against the residents of the Gaza Strip (in 2008, 2012, and 2014), and by redeploying the army around the Strip, it asserts its control of all border crossings and is able to control movement into and out of the territory. That, plus designating large swaths of territory as no-go zones, squeezes an already densely populated space. The end result is a situation in which urban planning takes a back seat to survival strategies.

Selected Bibliography: 

Abdulhadi, Rami S. “Land Use Planning in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.Journal of Palestine Studies 19, no.4 (Summer 1990): 46–63.

Abu-Ayyash, Abdul-llah. “Israeli Regional Planning Policy in the Occupied Territories.Journal of Palestine Studies 5, nos.3-4 (Spring-Summer 1976): 83–108.

Amiry, Suad, and Vera Tamari. The Palestinian Village Home. London: British Museum Publications, 1989.

Benvenisti, Meron. Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948. Translated by Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Bshara, Khaldun, and Suad Amiry, eds. Reclaiming Space: The 50 Village Project in Rural Palestine. Ramallah, Palestine: Riwaq, 2015.

Khalidi, Walid, ed. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.