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This Essential Readings installment is part of a larger series exploring questions of urbanism and spatial production across the region. Encompassing a broad range of entry points to researching and teaching about the urban, the series allows authors to define the specific parameters of emphasis in their installment.]
The last century of political ruptures and upheavals in Palestine was also one of remarkable urban transformation. Until recently, scholarship on the modern history of Palestine overlooked the material and spatial changes that cities underwent as they entered the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this scholarship, the social, intellectual, and cultural shifts that Palestine witnessed in this period took precedence over the study of urban change. Although much of this scholarship is situated in the city, the city itself was rarely considered as a subject of analysis in its own right. However, in recent years, new waves of scholarly writing have emerged that began to fill this gap. Social, cultural, and architectural scholars have been increasingly highlighting the city’s role not only in reflecting but also in forging the social, economic, and cultural developments of this formative period in Palestinian history. Importantly, as these scholars demonstrate, urban transformations in Palestine were not taking place in isolation. They were shaped by, and were part of, broader developments that were unfolding within their wider global, imperial, and regional contexts. The following sections aim to highlight some of the key scholarly literature that addresses Palestine’s urban transformation since the nineteenth century. The sections are divided chronologically, underscoring literature that covers urban transformation in the late Ottoman years, the interwar period, the post-1948 period, and the contemporary post-Oslo era.
The following categorisation is not without its caveats. The first caveat is related to the limits of such periodization. The start and end point of each section is marked by key historical ruptures that are set according to imperial and national temporalities. The city is undoubtedly influenced by such ruptures. However, the timeline of the city and its material changes do not always correspond with these chronologies. Nonetheless, with a few exceptions, these chronologies continue to dominate the periodisation of academic scholarship on the city in modern Palestine. The second caveat relates to the unevenness in academic scholarship on Palestinian cities. Major towns like Gaza, Hebron, and Nazareth—all of which played a significant role in forging Palestine’s relations to the region—are underrepresented in academic writing compared to cities like Jerusalem and Ramallah. A third caveat is related to the scope and limits of what is understood as ‘urbanisation.’ Camps, villages, and Bedouin settlements—spatial formations that are central to understanding the modern history of Palestine and Palestinians—are usually excluded from analysis of the urban condition. With these limitations in mind, the following sections are not intended as an exhaustive list but as a preliminary guide to key sources that are useful for unpacking the multifaceted and incongruent trajectories of urbanisation in modern Palestine.
Late Ottoman Urbanisation
The late Ottoman era in Palestine was an era of rapid urbanisation and urban growth. Parallel to the geopolitical developments of this century, including the Egyptian occupation and the Ottoman tanzimāt, new dynamics came into play that led to the rise and fall of different Palestinian cities. On the coast, Akka, the administrative and economic capital of northern Palestine until the eighteenth century, gave way to Haifa and Jaffa: two cities that engendered the Palestinian coast’s experience of nineteenth and early twentieth century modernisation. Within the mountainous interior, Jerusalem continued to assert its status as Palestine’s religious and political centre whereas Nablus, Hebron, and Bethlehem where increasingly playing greater roles as centres of economic exchange and light industrial production.
An increased sense of rivalry and interdependence marked the relationship between different Palestinian cities and their counterparts in Greater Syria. Beshara Doumani’s book Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean: A Social History(Cambridge University Press, 2017) which tackles the social and economic histories of Nablus and Tripoli in earlier Ottoman centuries is crucial in demonstrating how the study of the relational history of Palestinian cities is useful for approaching these cross-urban dynamics. Shifting relations between Palestinian cities paralleled remarkable transformations within those urban centres. Demographic, economic, and administrative developments took place in tandem with remarkable changes in urban infrastructures and built environments. Cities were expanding beyond their historical boundaries for the first time. City walls were torn down and moats were filled and replaced with new boulevards and public spaces. Cities were no longer defined by their physical containment. Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem among other cities in Palestine and Greater Syria all witnessed the construction of new residential suburbs in their surrounding environs.
Understanding these urban dynamics within Palestine requires moving beyond the empire-centric approaches that dominate the Ottoman historiography of this period. An essential contribution in this regard is the edited volume Ordinary Jerusalem, 1840-1940: Opening New Archives, Revisiting a Global City (Brill, 2018) by Angelos Dalachanis and Vincent Lemire. The volume builds on years of work on opening and researching municipal archives as a primary source for understanding the urban history of Palestine under late Ottoman rule. This approach is significant because it treats the city and its local governance as the focal point for understanding the dynamics of this formative moment in the history of Palestine. Rather than painting the Palestinian city as merely a recipient of imposed systems of governance, the volume’s chapters show that local populations were equally involved in the process of urban change that a city like Jerusalem was undergoing in this period. It also shows that parallel to the institutional and architectural developments in Palestinian cities, there was also a growing awareness of the means and meanings of urban identity and citizenship. The volume thus opens new windows for understanding the urban possibilities that emerged towards the end of the Ottoman rule and how Palestinians related to them.
The Great War turned Palestine’s landscape into an imperial frontier between the Ottoman-German and British forces on the two sides of the battlefield. As mentioned above, Palestine’s urban landscape had already been witnessing remarkable physical transformations prior to the Great War. However, the Great War accentuated these transformations and deployed them to serve the war effort. One example was the Hijaz Railway line which had already been extended to Haifa and Nablus before the war. During the war, the line was extended all the way south to the newly planned city of Beersheba, close to the frontier with British-controlled Egypt. Similarly, existing missionary compounds and public spaces in major cities like Jerusalem and Jaffa were utilised to serve Ottoman imperial propaganda and conscription agendas. Salim Tamari’s chapter, “Urban Planning and the Remaking of the Public Sphere in Ottoman Palestine” in Locating Urban Conflict (MacMillan 2013), is an essential reading on this interim wartime period and its effects on Palestinian cities. Particularly significant is his conception of the ‘triadic modernity’ that bounded cities like Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Beersheba into a shared fate, albeit one that was expressed through divergent experiences of wartime modernisation.
The significance of Salim Tamari’s work lies in its treatment of urban planning under British rule not as a complete departure from the Palestinian urban landscape that was constructed in the last years of Ottoman rule. Tamari debunks the argument that the British had arrived at a tabula rasa when it came to matters of urban planning in Palestine. In a similar light, Jacob Norris’s seminal book Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development, 1905-1948 (Oxford University Press, 2013) invites us to think across the late Ottoman and Mandatory years. Through the framework of ‘colonial development,’ it further shed light on the different agents and denied agencies that underpinned the developmental projects in modern Palestinian history. Walking us through a range of protagonists, from imperial decision-makers to Palestinian engineers to Zionist concession-holders, Norris masterfully narrates the story of how Palestine became a prime territory for colonial investment, extraction, and connection in the late Ottoman and Mandate years. Significantly, his work focuses on Haifa and the Jordan Valley whose urban developments in the Mandate period are relatively understudied compared to the plethora of works on British colonial planning in Mandate Jerusalem.
In both Jerusalem and other cities, new tools of visual representation were central to British endeavours in urban planning. In my chapter “Urban Encounters: Imaging the City in Mandate Palestine,” included in Imaging and Imagining Palestine: Photography, Moderning, and the Biblical Lens, 1918-1948 (Brill, 2021) I highlight the role of new developments in aerial photography and cartography developed by the British in the interwar era not only in supplementing the colonial representation of Palestinian urban environments but also in guiding their physical interventions in those settings. I also demonstrate that British interventions often resulted in the ‘de-urbanisation’ of Palestinian cities. British architect Charles Ashbee’s plans to clear up Palestinian constructions surrounding the historical walls of Jerusalem and the British destruction of a major part of the Old City in Jaffa during the 1936-1939 Great Revolt under the pretences of ‘urban improvement’ are clear examples of this process of de-urbanisation. In both cases, local communities were perceived as a threat to colonial interests and were deliberately pushed beyond the precincts of the two Palestinian cities.
Urbanisation After 1948
The gradual ‘de-urbanisation’ of Palestinian space under the British Mandate foreshadowed the major obliteration of Palestinian urban life as a result of the 1948 Nakba. Whereas much scholarship has dealt with the social, political, and cultural histories of Palestine and Palestinians after the Nakba, relatively little is known about the Nakba’s material effects on Palestinian cities and built environments. These effects were heavily divergent across the different sides of the Green Line, demarcating the boundaries between the newly established State of Israel and what became known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Haneen Naamneh’s article “A Municipality Seeking Refuge: Jerusalem Municipality in 1948” (Jerusalem Quarterly, 2019)is a useful starting point for understanding how, even amidst the events of 1948, Palestinian urbanites were already navigating how to adjust their lives and their urban institutions to meet the looming crisis of the Nakba and its aftermaths.
The ethnic cleansing committed by Zionists against Palestinians during 1948 turned the once bustling streets of Palestinian cities like Jaffa, Lydd, and Haifa into ghost towns. Overnight, an entire urban social fabric was obliterated and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian urbanites became refugees displaced from their homes. While some of these Palestinian urban quarters and properties remained unoccupied, many were looted by Israeli agencies and newly arrived settlers. Meanwhile, Israeli State policies continued to push the remainder Palestinian urban population within the boundaries of Israel outside of their urban spaces and environments. With some reservations, Daniel Monterescu and Dan Rabinowitz’s edited volume Mixed Towns, Trapped Communities: Historical Narratives, Spatial Dynamics, Gender Relations and Cultural Encounters in Palestinian-Israeli Towns (Routledge, 2007) remains the most comprehensive attempt at documenting the transformations in the social, demographic, and physical make-up of Palestinian cities within the Green Line after 1948. The volume is also essential for understanding the flaws of the ‘mixed cities’ framework that dominates Israeli colonial discourses surrounding these cities.
The influx of internally displaced Palestinian refugees into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had a remarkable influence on their urban social and spatial make ups. This was also the starting point for the increased influence of international organisations and agencies like The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) over questions of urban inhabitation in these territories. In my article “Consolidating the Rule of Experts: A Model Village for Refugees in the Jordan Valley, 1945-55,” (International Journal of Islamic Architecture, 2021) I trace a short-lived Palestinian model for refugee settlement on the outskirts of the city of Jericho which presented itself as an alternative to the UNRWA. Though failed, the project points us to the different possibilities that Palestinians imagined for the future of their lived environments that differed from the urban camp model. It also points us to the influence of 1948 over questions of urban versus rural settlement in Palestine as well as temporary versus permanent architecture.
A significant factor in over the West Bank and Gaza in the 1948-1967 period was the respective administrative subordination of the two Palestinian territories to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Republic of Egypt. Despite the major developments that took place in the West Bank and Gaza during this era, little is known about their history. The scarcity of archival materials is one key reason behind the shortage of academic scholarship on this period. However, works such as Maha Samman and Yara Saifi’s “Adapting Modernity: Designing with Modern Architecture in East Jerusalem, 1948–1967” (Journal of Design History, 2021) show us that through oral histories and the study of built environments it is possible to trace some of the key developments in architectural and urban fabrics during this critical phase in the history of Palestine. Focusing on residential architectural projects in Jordanian-ruled Jerusalem in the aftermath of 1948, their work points us to the forgotten architectural modernities that reorganised the built fabrics of other West Bank cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Nablus throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Present and Future Urbanisation
The recent past and present are arguably the most covered periods in academic scholarship on Palestinian urbanisation. The apparatuses and tools of Israeli settler colonialism and their influence on Palestinian lived environments on the different sides of the Green Line receive special attention within this scholarship. These apparatuses and tools materialise in spatial forms that supersede the boundaries of the city. Walls, checkpoints, and highways are deliberately designed to enhance Israeli colonial endeavours and containing Palestinian spaces. In his article “Assembling the Fabric of Life: When Settler Colonialism Becomes Development,” (Journal of Palestine Studies, 2016) Omar Jabary Salamancatraces the conception and afterlives of infrastructural developments in Palestine as projects that ‘reassemble the fabric of life.’ He traces the deliberate reconfiguration of the Palestinian urban environment following the Oslo accords for the purpose of accommodating Israeli settlers and colonial infrastructures. He also problematises the ‘humanitarian’ development approach of the international donor community, revealing the embeddedness of their projects within the settler colonial frameworks and schemes of the Israeli state.
Of all the different cities within the West Bank, Ramallah received the lion’s share of scholarship on contemporary Palestinian urbanisation since the Oslo accords. This emphasis is not surprising. The accords turned Ramallah into the de-facto capital of the newly established Palestinian Authority, inviting notable investments in official, commercial, and residential construction. In her 2008 article “Enclave Micropolis: The Paradoxical Case of Ramallah/al-Bireh,”(Journal of Palestine Studies) Lisa Taraki traces the rise of Ramallah from a small village into a central city and the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. More than a mere critique of this development, as is common in political economy studies of present-day Palestine, her study accounts for the city-specific dynamics that influenced Ramallah’s contemporary condition. Especially significant is the entanglement of Ramallah’s history within strong patterns of movement of people—particularly the influx of refugees and the emigration of its native population, especially to the Americas. These local processes offer a more nuanced view of the city’s history that are significant for understanding its urban present.
Although Palestine experienced a long history of suburbanisation that started in the late nineteenth century, more recently, patterns of suburban development have been an instrumental tool for the expansion of Palestinian capital in the West Bank within the limits delineated by the Oslo accords. The most exemplar case for this expansion of private capital is the city of Rawabi, constructed by a Palestinian investor between the towns of Ramallah and Nablus. In his recent book, provokingly titled Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World Is Invited: Capital and State Building in the West Bank (Duke University Press, 2021), Kareem Rabie offers the most comprehensive account of this private project and what it means for the present and future of urbanisation in Palestine. Rabie’s critical analysis situates Rawabi within the broader trends in the Palestinian political economy in the age of what became known as ‘Fayyadism,’ following Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who enthusiastically introduced neoliberal policies to the Palestinian economy. Rabie’s title is perhaps the most fitting description of the Palestinian Authority’s vision for the West Bank’s future. Palestine is throwing a party and the whole world is invited. Except Palestinians.
Most writings on the present of the Palestinian urban condition describe how Palestinians have been denied the right to their cities and urban spaces. However, the hope that Palestinians would one day take charge of their livelihoods and their cities is not entirely absent from academic scholarship. Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp’s edited volume Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope (American University in Cairo Press, 2021) comprises one of the most impressive attempts at imagining a future for Palestinian urbanism beyond the current condition of colonial violence. Focusing Gaza, a city that is often reduced to images of destruction, the editors invited architects, planners, and researchers to both analyse the city’s urban reality and imagine a different reality for its future. Their work borrows its inspiration not from some unattainable reality, but from the already existing creations and means of resistance and fortitude of Gaza’s population. It shows us that it is possible to address questions of hope in the future of urbanism without falling into the pitfalls of architectural positivism.
Overall, this list of scholarly works points us to some of the key trajectories of Palestinian urbanisation during the past century. Although the list covers a wide range of historical moments and examples, the account they offer of Palestine’s urban condition is far from an exhaustive one. For various reasons, several critical works addressing this topic remain missing from this list. However, these readings have been selected because they offer a window onto the diversity of questions, frameworks, and methodologies deployed in the study of urban Palestine. Despite this diversity of approaches, most, albeit not all, of these works share a common feature that renders them particularly relevant for pushing the boundaries of Palestine Studies: highlighting the role and agency of Palestinians in the construction of their modern lived environments. For long, this role has been overlooked as writers—both critical and uncritical—were more invested in imperial and colonial interventions in Palestinian urban space. By bringing Palestinian actors, activities, and contributions to the fore, the works demonstrate that although much of the Palestinian urban condition has been determined by external forces and conditions, Palestinians were not only reacting to these forces. Instead, Palestinians have also been crafting parallel schemes for their urban environments, serving their own visions and aspirations for a city yet to come.