The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Humanitarian responses to discriminatory planning in Jerusalem

While working within Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem, Anne Hofhuis reports on the challenges the NGO sector faces as it tries to counter the destructive impacts of Israeli planning policies in the city.

Anne Hofhuis

Cities: Jerusalem

Topics: Integrated planning, Transport, Property, rights and evictions, City politics, Social conflict, Informal settlements, Divided cities

The eastern side of Jerusalem. Photo: Anne Hofhuis
Current state of division and future expansion plans. Map: Anne Hofhuis
National Parks Scheme. Source: Sharon, 2005
Percentage of permits and illegal constructions. Source: Margalit, 2006
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After another periodic halt, the Israeli government has resumed expansion of the controversial Ma'ale Adumim settlement  a policy that will effectively prevent Palestinian communities in the West Bank from expanding in any direction. These plans to uproot Palestinian residents from their communities around Ma'ale Adumim, which is northeast of Eastern Jerusalem, were announced in September 2014 and work to solidify a decades-old planning regime that has marginalized Palestinians. 

The Ma'ale Adumim settlement is located in the E1 zone, an area that falls under Israeli military and civil rule according to the Oslo Accords, despite the large number of Palestinian residents who settled there at the end of the 1948 war.  Although the 12 square-kilometre E1 zone is used by Palestinian and Bedouin communities as farmland, the Israeli government's 1999 E1 expansion plan zoned the space for the expansion of Israeli settlements. Ultimately the government's plans involve connecting existing Israeli settlements while simultaneously sealing the eastern edge of the city and fracturing remaining connections between Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank. In spite of international criticism, the plan continues to go ahead.

Furthermore, it is just one example of a number of policies and spatial planning mechanisms that the Israeli government has implemented in recent decades to isolate and hinder growth of Palestinian communities in the E1 zone and other areas around Jerusalem. This article will discuss ongoing attempts by NGOs to counteract an unjust planning system and one of the largest settlement plans to date.

Discriminatory planning policies

In 1950, after the end of the major wars between Israel and Palestine and the drawing of the armistice (green) line, 22 new towns were created to spread the Jewish population to areas of political advantage rather than geographical logic. After the Six-Day War at the end of the 1960s, Israel occupied Jerusalem’s Old City. In order to accommodate the goal of a united Jerusalem, the Israeli government applied strict zoning laws to the area and made plans to restore the Jewish quarter in the Old City. 

In the 1960s, the Israeli government also instituted the Centre of Life policy, ensuring that Palestinian residency in Jerusalem could easily be revoked if Palestinians were not able to prove that Jerusalem was the practical centre of their lives in terms of residency, services and work. Throughout the 70s and 80s, settlement plans and zoning policies sought to accelerate Israeli settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In 2003, Israel began constructing a wall around Jerusalem. The government claimed it was protecting its citizens, but the walls effectively encircled Israeli neighbourhoods and isolated Palestinian areas in the West Bank. As a result, many Palestinians feared their communities would become increasingly isolated and their freedom to move between home and work would become endangered. Under the stringent conditions of the Centre of Life policy, Palestinian citizens who could not maintain their livelihoods in Jerusalem on a daily basis would lose their residency rights to the city. 

Over the decades, roads in Jerusalem have also come to function as dividing mechanisms. There are roads with walls in the center to divide Palestinian and Israeli traffic, large obstructive earth mounds next to roads, Israeli-only roads and highways, and tunnels leading to Israeli settlements that pass over and under Palestinian infrastructure. Meanwhile, the majority of Palestinian roads remain unkept and primitive.[i] 

Cycles of destruction

Existing Palestinian neighbourhoods receive little to no upgrading of their infrastructure. Coupled with a lack of permits being given to build new housing, this means that there are very few options for Palestinian communities to grow. Palesitinian communities are trapped within a cycle of destruction. Many Israeli maps do not document the existence of a large number of Palestinian settlements and, as a result, their land rights are not recognized once the government decides to build upon these areas. Secondly, Palestinian communities face difficulties attaining construction permits that lead them to undertake “illegal”acts of construction, often followed by the destruction of their homes.

In 2005, a master plan for 2020 that included a national parks scheme was drafted by the government. A large amount of the area designated by the plan for green zoning in the east of Jerusalem is currently covered with Palestinian communities, such as Silwan village. Though the government has offered no explanation as to the future of these spaces, it is slowly demolishing the “illegal” Palestinian housing in these areas.

The E1 plan is part of a larger masterplan of additional settlements around the periphery and in the east of Jerusalem. The continuation of the construction of the wall is planned to surround these settlements. Palestinian communities who now live within the wall may suddenly find themselves outside of it or surrounded by Israeli settlements, which would hinder their freedom of movement. The general consensus amongst local NGOs is that the E1 plan will sever the remaining connections between Palestinian communities and Jerusalem and serve to further isolate them. 

Responses from the NGO sector

The contested nature and intensity of the ongoing conflict has created a situation in which it is nearly impossible for international aid to remain neutral. Most NGOs are often partial to the Palestinian stake within the conflict, as this community suffers the most under the current policies. Any critique these organisations voice on Israeli planning measures is met with swift reprimands from the Israeli government. For example, after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was critical of the Israeli government's policies, the government became resistant to releasing control of some historical sites to UNESCO.[ii] Similarly, Israel recently “seized and destroyed emergency shelters that international donors provided for families whose homes were demolished” in the E1 zone[iii].Whilst the international community has voiced their opposition and placed pressure on halting the expropriation of land,  Israel’s recent choice to continue expelling residents and constructing roads and new neighbourhoods confirms its lack of commitment to inclusive planning policies and approaches.

The Israeli government has also taken measures to hinder the work of smaller organisations, including media and local NGOs, that have taken up the Palestinian cause. NGO Monitor was formed in Jerusalem in 2001 after accusations of human rights violations were directed at Israel. The group critically reviews activities of organisations such as BIMKOM - Planners for Planning Rights and the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (B’Tselem), publishing reports on the effects and funding procedures of these organisations. According to its website, "NGO Monitor’s objective is to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote  politically and ideologically motivated agendas”. There are, however, strong suspicions that this organisation is linked to the Israeli government and works to ensure that NGOs are kept at bay, while public awareness of governmental activities, such as the E1 plan, is minimized. 

Measures have also been taken by the Israeli government to weaken Palestinian civil society so as to ensure as little resistance as possible to Israel’s expansion plans. Palestinian residents living in East of the city are somewhat trapped by their own status. Others in the West Bank consider them to be more prosperous since they have access to Jerusalem and some of the benefits of living there. At the same time, they do not have all the same rights as Israeli citizens. They are mere ‘residents’ who must exercise care not to lose this status and its privileges. On top of this, the Israeli government has taken measures to remove Palestinian power over many of the religious, common, and public spaces. These spatial changes affect the potential for civil society to gather and initiatives to develop against the E1 expansions. Small NGOs such as Grassroots Jerusalem are attempting to counteract these measures by providing gathering space and establishing links between the communities in the east. Giving the Palestinian communities these tools and networking capabilities will assist in a fight which goes beyond throwing rocks to finding more creative ways to tackle the current planning policies.

The weakening of Palestinian communities, Israel's responses to critique from the international community and current partisan planning policies have produced an NGO sector which focuses on tackling the structure of planning. This means assisting Palestinian communities with knowledge, networks and tools to appeal against current plans and legally protect their communities. As these small scale activities progress, NGOs are also documenting the current progress of settlement planning in an attempt to increase international awareness of the imbalanced planning system. Mapping of the spatial occupation is the main way these organisations visually communicate the impact of Israeli policies on an international scale.

BIMKOM is one of the largest organisations challenging planning discourse. They argue that, alongside unlawful demolitions, the government does not provide proper infrastructure or affordable housing for Palestinian residents, effectively ensuring that Palestinians can no longer afford to live in East Jerusalem. One of their latest projects involves providing planning skills and assistance to deprived communities and grassroots organisations. They also partner with communities to create plans in a participatory manner. These are then submitted to the legal planning system for approval. Often these are alternative proposals to existing zoning plans that are discriminatory.

Heritage conservation is another important planning tool that can help build a Palestinian spatial identity and strategically protect Palestinian areas. It may also be used to increase physical security and facilitate socioeconomic development. Riwaq, an organisation that establishes heritage conservation areas, has hindered demolition processes by establishing, recognising, labelling and, in some cases, working to preserve Palestinian heritage.

In the face of small gains, awareness, including in the form of increased media like this article, remains an important tool within the struggle to counteract the E1 plan. Community initiatives on the ground are a time-consuming, small-scale and uphill battle, whereas the Israeli government is able to plan and build large settlements in just a short matter of time.


[i]SHOSHAN, M. 2010. Atlas of the Conflict Israel-Palestine, Rotterdam, 010 Publisher

[ii]LARKIN, C. & DUMPER, M. 2009. UNESCO and Jerusalem:Constraints, challenges and opportunities. 

[iii]NORWEGIAN REGUGEE COUNCIL. 2014. Stop forced transfer or Palestinian Bedouins[Online].


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