Ramallah and City Building…
Today we took part in a series of lectures and tours about Palestinian city building, past and present. Travelling to Ramallah, the capital of any future Palestinian state, and principal city of the West Bank, we were able to talk freely about projects and ideas that would be harder to talk about in Israel, or the contested territory of Jerusalem.
In an interesting lecture from Birzeit University professor Saleen Tamari, we learned of the concept of modernity in contemporary Palestine, and its roots in both the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate period that followed the First World War from 1918.
It is often this period that we in the west forget, but it is the period during which the territory of Palestine was administered as a British Mandate (1918-1948) that has left the region with the seeds of what it resembles today; things such as a system of land registry, a modern legal system, secular schooling, and revolutionary technology such as the telegraph and railway. Although these things were all introduced under Ottoman rule (from its center in modern day Istanbul), they were established and entrenched under British administration.
Essentially, the change from Ottoman province to British mandate brought a change in the concept of citizenship for Palestinians. Whereas under an Ottoman administration, Palestine was considered as a periphery, tasked with supporting the central region, under the British, Jerusalem particularly was reconceptualised as a ‘Holy City’. Citizens’ IDs began to carry information about their religion or ‘confession’ (Muslim, Jew, Christian…), which under the Ottomans had been abolished. Spatially, this translated into ‘Quarters’, which replaced the mahallas (neighbourhoods) of Ottoman rule. Simply put, the citizens of Palestine were asked to choose an identity and ethnicity based primarily upon belief, which Tamari considered a retrogressive development from the Ottoman concept of citizenship, which allowed free mixing of cultures in their service of the empire.
The codification of land-use and spatial planning became entrenched in Palestine under British administration, in the name of modernity; becoming ‘modern’ as a good colony should. Many argue that it contributes hugely to the division felt in the region today, and allowed proponents of Zionism to claim space in Palestine for the new state of Israel; new ‘Quarters’, designated as different from others.
After Tamari’s lecture, we were introduced to a small project for a desert eco-house in the severally arid and earthquake-prone region of Jericho. Much of this talk indicated that eco-design, and its basic underlying principals, are a new field in Palestine; concern, especially recently has been with other things, and like most things here, is impossible to consider in isolation from politics. When you talk of conserving resources, a Palestinian may well ask you, “for whom?” – Occupying forces often claim resources, and preserving them may well perpetuate their presence here, and on this level it is easier to understand any resistance to ‘sustaining’ the current status quo.
After these lectures, we were taken to see two developments that both aim to address the problems outlined in the introductory talks. Firstly, we visited the ‘neighbourhood’ of Rehan, connected to Ramallah if it were not for an Israeli road running through the West Bank and connecting two illegal Settlements. The existence of this road claims a further swathe of Palestine for Israel, and is the biggest barrier to development of the West Bank’s principal city. At Rehan, we saw promising ideas, quietly proceeding, all-be-it at the precarious mercy of an occupying state.
By contrast, at Rawabi, we were met with the staccato fire of the PR-machine gun; this billion-dollar development is an exercise in city building. From scratch. A world away from the complexity we are faced with in our own project, the Rawabi project aims to create the first city completely planned as a Palestinian city.
By building an entirely new city, Rawabi aims for geographic contiguity of Palestinian urban fabric, rather than the transportational contiguity that Israel might prefer – the latter can be conveniently shut down by an inconvenient checkpoint, or destruction of a road. Simply put, Israel permits Palestinian development that makes its citizens easier to control.
To counter this, the Rawabi project is led by a Palestinian developer (Amir) working towards primarily political aims, with considerable support from US grants (for particular things, likely to be related to US agendas) and a Qattari firm, who happen to also own one third of Morocco’s coastline and to have recently acquired Harrods. Amir stated that the projects backers have given the money for the development, which currently stands at close to $1billion, up front and in useful liquid assets (cash).
Whatever your opinion on ‘city building’, and the capacity for that approach to generate the genuinely sustainable social fabric that underpins good urban conditions, it is also impossible not to acknowledge the ambition of such a project a state, and collection of individuals that have experienced such oppression of their aspiration and culture. You can feel the hunger for this project, as a symbol of what might be possible for an imminent Palestinian state. The developers behind rawabi talk a lot about ‘capacity building’; a concept that acknowledges a deficiency in the indigenous skill-base to pursue good design and construction. Therefore, a large part of Rawabi’s political rationale is to enable indigenous businesses to become capable of working on such a large-scale project, through strategic investment in those businesses. Amir puts it a lot better than me…
Either way, this is the closest I have come to the crazy world of middle-eastern development psychology; the ‘blue-sky’ thinking behind the gems in the desert that have populated our newsreels in recent years. Rawabi is on such a scale! They are quarrying, processing and crushing their own stone; they have $6million of steel stockpiled in case Israel close the border to the West Bank, enough to put up the skeletons of a considerable amount of the project and tide the development over until any political situation diffuses itself; they have their own fabrication laboratories to test everything for foundation design to steelwork; and the construction site itself, although Rawabi is only at the point of carving out roads, is itself a small city of workers camped out in the hilly, arid scrub of the West Bank. And it has a facebook group.
Rawabi’s argument is that by doing a whole city like this, Palestine will become introduced to things that we in the west are beginning to take for granted, from water harvesting and recycling, to waste processing and bicycle lanes. A new city at Rawabi is intended to form the foundations for the new Palestinian State.
It remains to be seen what we as a group take from these visits as we move into the final two weeks of the Jerusalem project, and especially as we begin to make real propositions for spatial and development strategies.