Building Statehood, From the Ground Up

For Palestinian urban planners and architects, the keystone to obtaining independence lies as much in building the new as in conserving the old. Yet theirs is often a battle against the odds as they face resistance from many quarters, not least from the Israeli occupation.

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Instead of the all-too-familiar scenario of West Bank homes and land falling victim to Israeli bulldozers and settler highways, Palestine’s membership in UNESCO signaled a change beyond the politics of occupation. From the outside, it would be easy to assume that a dispute once entirely centered on land has become couched in terms of conflicting architecture: heritage on the Palestinian side versus settlements on the Israeli’s. However, a more complex scenario is emerging. Instead of focusing on the strictly adversarial relationship with its neighbor, a new Palestine – buffeted by economic and political developments – has been turning inwards and at the same time outwards toward the wider Arab Middle East and beyond. As official recognition of these contested territories looms closer in some form or another, old and new architecture, the urban sprawl of Ramallah, and the construction of thousands of affordable housing units in new West Bank developments convey the contours of an imagined nationhood.



The road leading from Ramallah’s main Manara Square to Al Muqataa, now home to the offices and administration buildings of the Palestinian Authority (PA), had been widened so the tanks and armored vehicles of the British Mandate could quell dissent and civil strife at a moment’s notice. Al Muqataa1 has had a protracted and troubled history. A notorious prison built in 1936, it was kept in use long after the British authorities withdrew. Administrated by the Jordanians after 1948 and then inherited by the Israelis in 1967 and the Palestinians in 1993, it “embodied the supremacy and oppression of the colonial entity in architecture,” according to architect Yazid Anani. He recalls the gray-brownish structure with its small slit windows from his childhood memories, when it was headquarters of the Israeli military and civil administration, and people were allegedly tortured there. “It was always a place of trauma, and the architecture conveyed these messages of pain and suffering. It was really terrifying,” he says.

The prison was destroyed in 2002 during the pro-longed Israeli siege against Arafat’s Compound in an operation called Defensive Shield. Today a postmodern mausoleum and a museum dedicated to the memory of Palestine’s first president form part of a double-walled, high-security complex that includes the gleaming headquarters of the PA.

Anani, current head of the academic council of the International Academy of Art Palestine, explains over the phone from his office in the Department of Architecture at Birzeit University: “This is what’s happening in Palestine: a new form is substituted for old practices. The watchtower, the wall, the gate, the policing and the fortification of all these Palestinian structures is an indication of the PA adopting the same policies [of Israel] for controlling the people. If you look at the history of military and occupation like the Panopticon,2 you find cheaper ways of occupying people without casualties, without a loss of resources. It’s like Al Muqataa, the prison. Now it’s taking a form which is clean and lovely, but it still represents the same practice of oppression that it used to have.”

Increasingly disturbing for the architect who calls himself “a cultural activist” are the crossovers between the new Palestine and an old opponent, Israel. Miniature versions of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) watchtowers and the separation wall have become integral parts of the PA surveillance apparatus across the territories. Anani observes, “When you have the faculties of oppression, you tend to use them.” It is an ethos that has spilled onto the streets of Ramallah. “We don’t walk in the streets as we used to before the PA,” he continues. “For example, Abu Mazen3 lives in his house, which is a big fort with barricades. Then when he goes out, it is a sort of curfew, the transpor-tation and the streets are guarded, nobody is allowed to cross the streets, cars are stopped. From his house he goes through these empty streets to his headquarters, which is also a kind of gated community under security. There is a disconnection between people and the au-thorities and how they use the real city.”

Powerful forces other than the PA have been sculpt-ing Palestine. During Oslo’s golden period, from 1995 to 1998, more construction took place in Ramallah than in the city’s entire history, fueled by Palestinian investment mainly from the countryside, augmented by family funds from the diaspora. The city’s grand mansions of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as its historic cinemas, were sacrificed to urban sprawl. A second wave of construction engulfed the city after Palestinian returnees with their own ideas of urbanism opened new restaurants, cafés, and businesses. Then in 2003, the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF), a partnership between the PA and Palestinian investors, paved the way for public land to become available for private development by international investors, mainly from the Gulf. Anani can’t help but worry about the “conflictual position of the PA in adopting these neoliberal policies as a way of proving to the world that we are ready for a state of security, because most of the money budget-wise goes to the intelligence and the police. We are hearing funny stories in Ramallah about more surveillance and more undercover agents questioning people. We’re really turning out to be like other Arab countries.”

Despite his concerns, many others hail the con-struction and the flood of easy cash as evidence of a stronger, more confident economy, despite a sharp decrease in the GDP growth rate of the occupied territories from 9 percent in 2010 to 3.5 percent last year. While Gaza has been slowly recovering due to the easing of the Israeli blockade with an increased agricultural jobs market, unemployment on the strip remains high at 40 percent, with 16.5 percent in the West Bank. An economic sector such as information technology has been flourishing because it only requires a computer and reliable fiber optics. IT architects can work long hours and unwind with a few beers in the cafés and clubs catering to the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Ramallah. In fact, Palestinian returnees and NGO workers have turned this once sleepy town into the Beirut of the West Bank.

Yet the Palestine economy remains dependent on the kindness of strangers – in the form of donor aid – and on Israel, which controls water and electricity in the territories and periodically injects much-needed Palestinian tax revenues into the economy. Control within and control without leaves the state-to-be little room to grow except, as evidenced by the skyline of Ramallah, skyward. New malls, housing developments, and a transnational landscape of spanking new high-rise buildings give the appearance and shopping oppor-tunities of a flourishing consumer economy. Ramallah has become a gilded, neoliberal ghetto, according to Palestinian historian and academic Rashid Khalidi, who told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the PA needed to get their people “out [of] their expensive Audis and Mercedes and out of their bubble in Ramallah where everyone is prosperous and there is no unemployment.”4

Despite the gloss, a stark political reality on the ground is revealed by a West Bank architect who asked not to be identified: “Israel has been brilliant at using planning as an instrument of control. When we talk about the settlements we think of them as Lego boxes that are going to be dismantled overnight. But they are cities and they have created a consciousness in our minds that they cannot be moved. That’s the problem with Israeli planning and the Oslo Agreement, they limit people’s thinking. When you have a physical wall around you and physical checkpoints, they do not only restrict your movement, they restrict your imagination, and when you plan, you need imagination.”



The impact of Palestinian membership in UNESCO should not be underestimated.5 Yes, recognition by UNESCO may at first appear to be a lesser alternative to the greater goal of upgrading Palestine’s UN status from observer to country. But this recognition truly places Palestine on the global cultural map. Arguably it also affords Palestinians more sway in preserving their cultural legacy and more political clout toward building their state-to-be. In the West, architectural heritage and conservation center on discussions about preservation techniques; in war-torn countries, issues of sectarian violence, looting, and corruption pose graver conundrums. The situation in the occupied ter-ritories has been compounded by an invidious campaign by Israel to render the Palestinian people invisible – not only in their own lands, but also in the arena of inter-national affairs. Heritage provides the opportunity to explore the very aspects of experience – culture and identity – which make them unique.

“The main premise for the occupation is a land with no people for a people with no land,” said Fida Touma, co-director of Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation in El Bireh. In the West Bank, heritage has stood as a bulwark against illegal land grabs. In 1995, a presidential decree by Yasser Arafat established a heritage rehabilitation unit in Hebron to support Palestinian families when Jewish settlers were taking over buildings. After the Israeli military assault on the Church of the Nativity during the Second Intifada,6 again part of the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee began holding workshops and working with local and international advisors to identify sixty Palestinian heritage and con-servation sites. The Nativity Church and the Old City of Bethlehem heads a final roster of twenty specified on the Inventory of the Palestinian Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites of Potential Outstanding Universal Value that will be considered for nomination for UNESCO world heritage site recognition.

Touma’s offices are located in a 1932 ochre stone house with an external stone staircase leading to a riwaq or portico, a common and traditional architectural ele-ment in pre-World War I urban Palestinian dwellings. Speaking over Skype, Touma explains that only build-ings constructed before 1700 AD are legally protected in the occupied territories, under British Mandate regulations which provide the basis for present-day Palestinian law. As she points out, this means that “historic houses, peasant houses, vernacular architecture in villages, almost all Ottoman on Roman bases” are not protected. From 1994 to 2007, Riwaq compiled the National Register of Historic Buildings, which identified 50,320 sites in 422 Palestinian localities in sixteen cities, including East Jerusalem, and 406 villages throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If fifty villages were saved from falling into ruin, then over twenty-five thou-sand historic buildings could be rescued – but time is never on the side of conservation. After 2007, travel restrictions and checkpoints, which hinder the free movement of Palestinian nationals, have stopped the verification of the status of these structures, all in pri-vate ownership, so that nobody really knows whether they are standing or have been destroyed and built over.

As land prices skyrocket, the temptation for land-owners to sell is far too great. Since 2008, land prices have been increasing approximately ten percent each year in “an atmosphere of speculation driven by the same people who inflated the prices of the stock-market in 2005/2006,” according to Riwaq’s other director, Khaldun Bshara, in an email. A dunam,7 an area equivalent to one-thousand square meters, used to cost $35,000 to $40,000; now it can cost upwards of $400,000. In the premium real estate of Ramallah’s Manara Square, a dunam is reportedly going for a whopping $24 million.

Most of Riwaq’s projects take place, Touma notes, “outside the donor pump-line,” in villages where the inhabitants think it “crazy” that anyone would want to lease a dilapidated property for free while it is ren-ovated and turned into a community or women’s centre. But once the work is completed, people rediscover the beauty of the old structures. “People are just astonished. They need to see something with their own eyes to believe [it],” she says.

In villages where many of the inhabitants have earned their livelihoods by constructing Israeli settle-ments, she notices a heartrending trend, “They saw


“When you have a physical wall and checkpoints around you, they do not only restrict your movement, they restrict your imagination, and when you plan, you need imagination.”


that the settlement houses looked nicer than their own so they tried to emulate them, and built their houses like those of the occupiers.” Other Palestinian homes copy the modern Western styles of the settlements less to ape the prestige of the strong and more to camou-flage any difference – in case they are bombed.


New City on a Hill

Through the analysis of planning procedures and the destruction and transformation of architecture pictured in official black and white photographs from Israeli state archives, the exhibition From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-50 reveals what powerful forces historically hid and misconstrued. The new state of Israel manipulated the built environment and landscape of Palestine in such a way that it convinced both its citizens and the wider world that a war of independence had been fought on a land that had been abandoned, where ethnic cleansing had not taken place.

The exhibition’s Israeli curator and visual critic Ariella Azoulay writes: “The ruined landscape visible in the photographs is the most compelling testimony to the fact that what occurred here between November 1947 (after the Partition Plan) and March 1949 was … not the result of a war for survival, of battles, of exis-tential distress. This destruction was unnecessary, inten-tional, straightforward, systematic, utilitarian, harsh, alienated, premeditated, indifferent and in particular, intended to socialize the population to the new political regime.”8 By convincing the new Jewish citizens that the “modern,” “handsome” buildings – Azoulay’s descriptions of Palestinian towns and local architec-ture – were unhygienic, dilapidated, and occupied by “terrorists,” or had to be destroyed to stop “infiltrators” (refugees expelled after May 1948) from returning, Israeli leaders ushered in a blind acceptance of the vio-lence, destruction, mass arrests, and curfews directed at Arabs only. From school children to the elderly, Israelis cleared the building rubble from the emptied land and took possession of it.




“When the first Jewish migration came into this geog-raphy, they were saying, ‘This was the land of scorpions and stones,’ as if there was nothing, an erasure of all the cultural production inside this space,” Anani com-ments. He draws the connection between the new Israel of the past and the boom in Palestine now. “As the neoliberal economy enters and the investor comes to Palestine, there is a destruction of what used to be, whether it’s land or buildings. So the returnees from abroad created everything from new as if nothing existed. You have to destroy everything and start new


“We did not want to build a piece of London or New York. We wanted to build something modern that was accepted by the Palestinian community.”


to produce the maximum revenue.” It is a weird and disturbing paradox – even if the intentions of the two parties, in different periods of history, were quite differ-ent, in effect they were doing the same sort of thing.

From his research, he sees the new affordable housing developments such as Al Reehan and Rawabi, the first purpose-built Palestinian city built by Palestin-ians in a 1,000 years, devoid of common architectural elements. For instance, he notes that they lack features such as small plazas, gardens, and porticos, which in the past traditionally encouraged social interaction and com-munal activity. In his presentation for ArtTerritories,9 he compares the conurbations to shipping containers and uses aerial photographs to stress their resemblance to the illegal Israeli settlements. “Architecture becomes a way of containment as if it is reproducing colonial strategies,” he concludes.10

The Palestinian-American entrepreneur and inves-tor behind Rawabi, Bashar Masri, couldn’t disagree more. He believes Rawabi, the largest construction and private finance initiative in the territories, to be an exer-cise in strengthening the Palestinian middle class and giving them a better quality of life, as well as creating much-needed job opportunities. Even the new city’s design in the form of twenty-three neighborhoods with twenty-three accompanying neighborhood associations for the forty-thousand people who will live there by 2018 is a way of promoting community cohesion. “The concept of community has been fragmented by the closures and by the political problems, and we want to bring it back,” he stresses.

By 2013, the PA and Palestinian investors like Masri, working with the financial “action tank” Port-land Trust,11 are planning fifteen thousand new homes on the West Bank for people with monthly incomes between $800 and $1,500. This segment of the popula-tion can now avail themselves of affordable home mort-gage schemes like those in the United States, before the subprime loan debacle set in. The Portland Trust ini-tially approached the global architecture, engineering, and urban planning firm Aecom, which eventually led a consortium of Palestinian architects and planners from Birzeit and Al Najah universities to design Rawabi. Its name in Arabic, which means “the hills,” departs from the traditional location of Palestinian villages in the valleys and interrupts the fortress line of illegal Israeli settlements atop West Bank hills, as identified by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman in Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. In 2010 in Rawabi, ground was broken by Bayti Real Estate Investment Company, the firm formed by Masri’s company Massar International and the project’s main financier, Qatar Diar, an investment real estate firm and part of the government-owned Qatar Investment Authority. Includ-ing infrastructure and off-site utilities, Rawabi should cost $1 billion – approximately half the price of a B52 stealth bomber.

In Aecom’s London headquarters, vice president Christopher Choa admits that building in Palestine has posed challenging constraints, but these have led to un-intended positive consequences. “What’s interesting about Rawabi or the West Bank, in general, [is that] because they actually have limited contact with the out-side, they have to make do with the boundaries and perimeters that they have; they are challenged on every front. So effectively they have to create potentially ad-vanced urban solutions, which are typically strong in identity, very dense, and much more self-contained. They have to create much more internally supported uses.”

Even water and electricity, because they are con-trolled by Israel, are less easily available in Rawabi than they are in Ateret, the illegal Israeli settlement on the same ridgeline. Choa explains, “Again there are two ways to get to those environmental goals: one way is to have a huge sustainable energy program, the other is that you effectively have to do with less. For example, the typical domestic potable water use in the developed world is two hundred, three hundred liters a day. In Rawabi it is less than one hundred liters simply because the access to the aquifer is controlled. There is actually a huge aquifer sitting below Rawabi, but the water has to come from Israeli pumped sources. So if you think about it, the extreme political constraints force a certain amount of self-reliance, a certain aggressive thinking about reducing consumption, and frankly the solution to that is the dense city.”

When the master plan for Rawabi was being drawn up, Masri wanted to ensure – contrary to Anani’s asser-tions – it was a design for an authentically Palestinian city: “We did workshop after workshop to be sure that the team of experts we brought in from Aecom were aware of local needs. We did not want to build a piece of London or New York. On the contrary, we wanted to build something that was accepted by the Palestinian community with modern planning.”

In fact, Rawabi might become technologically more advanced and more sustainable than any of the nearby Israeli settlements. But before that happens, certain long-standing problems need to be resolved. Located halfway between Nablus and Jerusalem, nine kilo-meters north of Ramallah, the 6.3 square kilometer site is mostly in PA-controlled Area A with less than ten percent in Area B, which falls under the security jurisdiction of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.12 The 2.8 kilometer strip that separates Rawabi from Ramallah lies in Israeli-controlled Area C. “That’s given us a heck of a hard time,” Masri’s nearly twenty years in Washington D.C. show up in his easy conver-sational tone. Permission to build an access road on this strip of land was unofficially promised by Israeli authorities three-and-a-half years ago but nothing de-finitive has been agreed. Another controversy, this time sparked by the Palestinian side, arose over a rumor that the project was employing Israeli contractors, which Masri vehemently denied. However, he did admit to getting his sand and concrete from Tel Aviv like the majority of construction that takes place in the West Bank.13 In phased construction, Rawabi plans to open its doors to the first six hundred families by the summer of 2013, with the majority of three-bedroom apartments costing from $85,000 to $140,000 – the projected, not actual price.

Masri, who grew up in Nablus, left for the US in 1977 and returned to Palestine in 1995. He founded a range of businesses from import/export to advertising and IT, but not construction, under the umbrella of Massar International. When the political situation turned dire during the Second Intifada, the business started to fail. Instead of firing any of his three hundred staff, he decided to diversify and began working in Morocco, where his company built ten thousand middle- and low-income homes in Rabat, Marrakech, Tangier, and Casablanca. Today, Massar International has fifteen hundred employees.

“Definitely you have to think positively to get through all the difficulties.” He recalls, “Yesterday I was stopped at the Israeli checkpoint for more than forty minutes. It’s not like we’re living immune from the occupation; we suffer from the occupation on a daily basis. But there is something in me that says the radicals want us to leave and we ain’t leaving, we’re sticking around.”

Rawabi is part of his new vision for Palestine, where “Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Jews will be living in Palestine and respecting Palestinian laws.” It is a radical sentiment that would get him in trouble with many Arabs and Israelis.

Last year he launched an equity fund to raise $80 million and surpassed his target by $10 million.14 Another one of his missions is to change perceptions about Palestine. “I don’t want people to say ‘I’m sorry the Palestinians live a tough life.’ We know we have a just cause, we know the whole world recognizes that we have a just cause despite the American veto here or there. The tide is with us. We have to make sure we don’t screw it up.”



1 The word, al muqataa, derives from an apportioning of land under the feudal system.


2 A building designed by the eighteenth-century English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham, in which the inhabitants of prisons, schools, and workhouses could be observed without their knowledge.


3 PA President Mahmoud Abbas.


4 Khalidi was interviewed by Chemi Shalev in the article “Leading Palestinian intellectual: We already have a one-state solution,” Haaretz, December 5, 2011, news/diplomacy-defense/leading-palestinian-intellectual-we-already-have-a-one-state-solution-1.399629.


5 On October 31, 2011, Palestine was granted full membership to UNESCO after a vote in its favor, 107 to 14.


6 For thirty-nine days between April 2 and May 10, 2002, IDF forces laid siege to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem after a Hamas cohort had taken refuge in the church. The siege ended when an agreement was reached and militants, surrendering to Israel, were exiled to the Gaza Strip and Europe.


7 An Ottoman unit of land.


8 Ariella Azoulay, From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947–50 (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 87. This catalogue was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name, shown at The Mosaic Rooms, A.M. Qattan Foundation, London, from November 4 to December 1, 2011. Azoulay’s work is based on research in the Israeli state archives, for example the Israeli Government Press Office, Central Zionist Archive, IDF and Defense Archive, Palmach Museum photographic collection, and the Haganah Archive.

9 ArtTerritories is a bilingual Arabic and English platform for visual culture professionals inside and outside of Palestine. See


10 Quote taken from Yazid Anani during his presentation for ArtTerritories, “Designing Civic Encounter,” an urban tour, symposium, and workshop in Palestine, July 2011. See ArtTerritories, “Designing Civic Encounter: Yazid Anani,” accessed December 29, 2011,


11 Portland Trust, with offices in London, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah, encourages peaces between Israel and Palestine through economic stability. See


12 A bizarre situation that arose out of a scheme agreed upon by the PA and Israel in Oslo II, 1995. Area C is under total control of Israeli security unlike B, which is shared between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Full Palestinian autonomy, Area A, tends to apply only to the most built-up areas: Ramallah, Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Jericho, Jenin, and Hebron – despite an Israeli enclave in the middle of that town.


13 According to the article “A Shining City on a Hill” by Stacey Perman in Time, March 21, 2011, Masri required Israeli suppliers to Rawabi to sign the PA’s agreement to boycott goods from Jewish settlements. It was a stipulation that outraged right-wing Knesset members, who drafted a law, which was passed to penalize specific Israeli companies that supplied Rawabi. They are barred by law from tendering for Israeli government contracts.


14 In an email from Jack Nasser from Massar International: “Siraj Palestine Fund I is the first private equity fund investing exclusively in companies operating in Palestine. The Fund’s mandate is to inject needed capital in viable SME [small and medium enterprises] across various economic sectors. Siraj’s investments are intended to realize reasonable returns for its investors through unleashing the potential of Palestinian businesses, while promoting technological advancements and sustainable development in the country – spurring economic growth, job creation, and innovation in?Palestine. The fund closed at $90 million exceeding its target of $80 million.”


motilium motilium et grossesse motilium eureka
Advertising the new city, a rendering of Rawabi is stretched on a fence surrounding the construction site. Photograph by Yazan Khalili.
In the heart of the old city of Birzeit, Al Rozana Association Building (center) was renovated by Riwaq in 2002. Photograph by Yazan Khalili.
Skyline of Ramallah. Photograph by Yazan Khalili.
Still under construction, the newly built Diplomats Housing Project, which overlooks the neighborhood of Al Tira in Ramallah, is often confused with an Israeli settlement. Photograph by Yazan Khalili.
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