Planning at the Frontline: Notes From Israel

By Oren Yiftachel

There are few societies in which urban and regional planning has been so central to nation-building and state policy as Israel. Over the years, Israeli planning has been a pivotal activity for reshaping the landscape according to the Zionist image of a modern, European-like settler society, while erasing its Palestinian-Arab past and present. Planning did not only locate, but had much to do with creating the Zionist nation, through the narratives, values, heroes and practices embedded in settling and building the land.

Planning in Israel has had many faces, including a major welfare role as provider of housing, land and communities to accommodate the masses of Jewish refugees and immigrants that flocked to Israel starting in the 1940s, following the European holocaust. During the same era, it also facilitated the absorption of masses of Jews fleeing from the Arab world. These benign activities have continued during the last decade with large-scale planning for immigrant Ethiopian and Russian communities.

Ethnocratic Planning

Despite this benign aspect of Israeli planning, one of the most prominent aspects has been the use of planning for “Judaizing” the contested land of Israel/Palestine. It has thus functioned as a centerpiece in a settler society driven by a project of ethnic expansion and domination, chiefly at the expense of Palestinian-Arabs. This occurred first within “the Green Line” (the official border of sovereign Israel, within which Arabs are citizens) in the years following the 1948 Palestinian nakbah, when two-thirds of Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homeland. Israeli planning was heavily involved in confiscating refugee lands and settling them with Jews.

Later, expansionist planning took place in the occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, where hundreds of Jewish settlements were implanted as colonial outposts, supported by a thick network of roads, industrial areas and army installations. I have termed this ethnocratic planning, enhancing the expansionist territorial and economic goals, aspirations and interests of a dominant ethnic group while ignoring or deligitimizing the aspirations and needs of other communities.

Since space is the core of the tension between Jews and Palestinians, spatial planning (that is, management of land use, settlement patterns and development) has been a major bone of contention. Under such circumstances, ethnocratic planning has become a major generator of ethnic conflict over land, settlement, boundaries and development, typically between the powerful Jewish majority and marginalized Palestinian-Arab communities.

Nonetheless, the oppressive aspects of planning have not been reserved only for Arabs. During the 1950s, the massive Judaization project saw the planned settlement of most Mizrahi Jews (hailing from Arab countries) to the state’s distant peripheries, chiefly into twenty-seven newly constructed urban localities named, somewhat ironically, “development towns.” These quickly became, due to planning policies, centers of Mizrahi isolation and deprivation, and since then the Mizrahi have remained the most disadvantaged sector in Israeli-Jewish society.

Privatization of Confiscated Lands

During the last decade, powerful elements within Jewish society have pushed an agenda of privatization, putatively aimed at “freeing” development and enhancing the economy, but concentrating resources in an ever-decreasing group of major economic players. Here too, land became a major bone of contention, given the vesting of large state land resources with the country’s economic elites, most of whom are Ashkenazi (formerly European) Jews. These lands, the majority of which were confiscated earlier from Palestinian refugees, are now being developed by agricultural landholders and several large developers, with the regressive effect of transferring public (state) resources into private pockets. This has accelerated a process of social polarization, causing ethnic and class disparities among Jews to rise to unprecedented levels.

Hence, over the years much of Israeli planning has had a conservative, often reactionary, character, which I have described elsewhere as “the dark side of planning.” This trend, however, somewhat waned during the 1990s, with growing signs of democracy and equality in the planning and land systems. But during the last two years, in the wake of the Palestinian “al-Aqsa” uprising, the Israeli (Jewish) planning agenda has returned to a more aggressive, expansionist and developmentalist mode.

The recent Jewish-Palestinian violent conflict, which has claimed over 2,000 victims (1,400 of them Palestinian), and which has been accompanied by waves of murderous Palestinian terror and an Israeli reconquest of Palestinian cities, has provided a background against which Jewish planners and developers could move quickly to enhance their long-term interests. This is all couched in terms of “national goals,” within a public discourse thick with a strange (and often contradictory) mixture of anti-Arab and pro-development sentiments. This did not occur without opposition, but the conservative agenda has indeed recaptured center stage.

To illustrate these trends, I have chosen two telling episodes from the recent volatile chronicles of Israeli planning that deal with coercion, privatization and Israel’s ethnocratic planning.

Episode One: Planning with Poisonous Chemicals

On February 14, 2002, several light planes were sent by the Israeli government to spray 12,000 dunams of crops with poisonous chemicals. The destroyed fields had been cultivated for years by Bedouin Arabs in the southern Negev region, on land they claimed as their own. Avigdor Lieberman, the minister responsible for land management, explained, “We must stop their illegal invasion into state land by all means possible. The Bedouins have no regard for our laws. In the process we are losing the last resources of state lands. One of my main missions is to return the power to the Land Authority in dealing with the non-Jewish threat to our lands.”

Lieberman’s words clearly exposed a forceful separation between Arab and Jewish citizens, with expressions such as “our” land, “our” law and “their” invasion, seeking to demarcate sharply the limits of identity and rights in “the land” (in Hebrew ha’aretz) as belonging first and foremost to its Jewish citizens.

Not surprisingly, Lieberman (a West Bank settler, and thus, ironically, an illegal invader himself!) failed to mention that the Bedouins are citizens of the state of Israel, and hence can, and should, be allocated state lands to fulfill their residential and agricultural needs. This is especially so of the land of their ancestors, the very area of the destroyed fields.

The minister also failed to explain why the state used such violence and never attempted to resolve the issue by administrative or legal means. Worse still, he overlooked the ramifications of this unprecedented brutal attack: a growing sense of alienation among Bedouin Arabs, once a community anxious to integrate into Israeli society.

This brutal incident is but the last in a long string of ethnocratic planning measures aimed against the Negev Bedouins. In the late 1940s they were concentrated in a small area, the least fertile area of southern Israel, and were placed under military rule. During the 1960s, military rule was replaced by a plan to urbanize the (previously semi-nomadic) Bedouins. The state planned to move them into seven towns and clear the rest of the land they occupied for Jewish settlement and military purposes.

A large number of Bedouins, however, refused to be forcefully urbanized, as such a move would necessitate giving up their land claims. They were subsequently declared by the state to be “invaders”–illegally occupying their ancestors’ land–and their villages (or shantytowns) were classified as “unrecognized.” For three decades the state has attempted to force their migration into the towns with a range of pressure tactics, including denying many social services and refusing to build physical infrastructure or initiate plans for the village.

A common practice involves house demolition. Since no plans existed for the villages, land permits were impossible to obtain, and all houses were deemed illegal. During the 1990s, for example, the state demolished over 1,400 such homes, generating constant fears among the Bedouin citizens, and growing hostility against the state. This has most recently become patently clear, causing the state to prepare plans for several new “recognized” Bedouin localities, beyond the original seven towns, which had been regarded for decades by policymakers as a “final number.” But until such plans come to fruition, we can expect further confrontations between a state driven by the goal of Judaizing the land, and the indigenous Bedouins, who seek to reside and cultivate their traditional lands. Given this, the bitter words of Hassan abu-Quider, a Bedouin activist echo loudly, “Only in one instance shall we, the Bedouin Arabs, get what they say is full and equal rights in the Jewish state: only if miraculously we’ll stop occupying, needing or using any land. Then we shall receive what we truly deserve–full air rights…”

Episode Two: Planning by Intimidation

In early 2002, the struggle over controlling agricultural land in Israel entered a new stage of escalation, in readiness for an expected watershed decision of the Israeli High Court of Justice. The Court was about to rule whether Jewish agricultural settlers, who had leased public land for farming purposes, could claim profits from urban redevelopment, or whether a freeze should be placed on such development.

The main challenger to the farmers’ aim to redevelop the land was the Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow–a nongovernmental organization (NGO) promoting social justice in the distribution of public resources, especially pertaining to economically deprived Mizrahi Jews. In February 2000, the Rainbow launched the High Court petition against land redevelopment and the allegedly illegal privatization of public land held by collective agricultural settlements, and has since been joined by a number of other civic organizations. The main defenders of privatization and development came, not surprisingly, from among the Ashkenazi Jews, who have traditionally occupied the upper strata of society, and from large-scale land developers, who have struck many lucrative redevelopment deals on agricultural lands.

During the early months of 2002, a smear-and-scare campaign was launched by some of the major landholders. Taking advantage of the public atmosphere charged by violent Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, they began to claim that the challengers were driven by “a secret goal of flooding the country with Palestinian refugees.” In large road signs, newspaper advertisements and numerous media appearances, the speakers for the agricultural lobby heaped scorn on the Rainbow and its leading activists, claiming that they “aim to destroy the state of Israel…have become enemies and haters of Jewish settlement.” Attorney and large-scale developer Shraga Biran, who represents many holders of agricultural land, issued similar accusations in the brief he submitted to the High Court:

The acceptance of this petition, God forbid, is the acceptance of a post-Zionist, anti-national argument…Would this honored Court accept an argument that property should be taken from the Jewish public in the name of the [Palestinian] Right of Return? … In a time of terrorism and bloodshed, this honored Court is asked to totally reject the petitioner’s attempt…

Responses of the Israeli public to the scare campaign were mixed. The Rainbow issued several strong statements refuting the allegations. But the responses of the main social interests aggrieved by the marked inequality of the Israeli land system were particularly illuminating. The Development Town Forum, comprised of the mayors from most peripheral, and mainly Mizrahi, development towns, began to mobilize and supported the Rainbow challenge, claiming that they have been discriminated against for years by the farmers’ firm grip on national land. As noted by Haim Barbibai, mayor of the peripheral development town of Kiryat Shemoneh:

Finally we have a group attempting to address long-term inequalities of the Israeli system of land. Their accusation of “secret” goals to help the Palestinian refugees is nothing but a farce which aims to divert attention from the ongoing “strangling” of our towns by the agricultural settlers. It will not change our resolve to support the Rainbow challenge or other initiatives which promote our rights.

Leaders of the second main group deprived by the Israeli land system, the Palestinian Arabs, were more skeptical. For example, Hanna Suyaid, mayor of the peripheral Arab town of Ilabun, and head of the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, noted:

It is interesting that the Rainbow claims to advance goals of social justice, but why is this limited to Jews only? They want to stop Jewish farmers and developers from making large profits, but forget to mention that the original holders of the land were Arabs, and that they should be the main beneficiaries of any land redistribution; as usual, Jews fight among themselves, at the expense of the Arabs.

The Dark and Light Sides of Planning

What do these episodes tell us about Israeli planning at the beginning of the 21stcentury? On the one (right?) hand, they reflect the remaining strength of the oppressive elements in society, which spare no effort in manipulating planning procedures and mechanisms to advance their own nationalist and class interests. These are clearly apparent everywhere in Israeli society, where anti-Arab and pro-development planning is taken for granted and the order of the day. This indeed reveals a dark side of planning, running roughshod over professional and social considerations of equality, justice and even efficiency.

But on the other (left?) hand, and perhaps as a consequence of the above, Israel has also seen the establishment of new civic organizations. These attempt to challenge, bypass or influence the stagnant political process, caught as it is in the firm grip of Zionist-capitalist hegemony. Such organizations have become conspicuous in the planning, land use and development fields, and include: Bimkom (architects and advocacy planners); the Mizrahi Rainbow (mentioned above); Adva (an NGO working on social equality); the Committee Against Home Demolition; Adala (a legal center working for equality for Israel’s Arab citizens); the Arab Center for Alternative Planning; Sikkuy (an NGO for Arab-Jewish equality); and the Negev Forum for Coexistence.

In recent years, these organizations have generated new discourses in the Israeli public sphere. They have pushed planning, legal, media and political agendas toward exposing the injustices of the current land and planning systems, and have offered progressive alternatives. They have worked with peripheral and marginalized communities, in the best tradition of activist advocacy planning “from below.” Such organizations represent a “lighter side” of Israeli planning. Needless to say, between these two imaginary dark and light poles there exist a multitude of organizations, agendas, discourses and practices which oscillate between the two.

But make no mistake: the nascent progressive organizations, working outside the Israeli planning establishment, are no match yet for the established, conservative interests. The nationalist and economic forces connected to the centers of power and influence are far stronger and far more versed in the mechanisms of legal, economic and violent power that they use to advance their goals. But the growing appearance and steadfast activity of progressive organizations does give some hope that Israel can one day become what is so often promised in the powerful texts emerging from the ancient place–a land of peace and justice.

Oren Yiftachel teaches in the department of Geography, Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel. Yiftache(at)bgu(dot)ac(dot)il For an elaboration on this discussion, see Yiftachel, O. (1999), “Ethnocracy: the Politics of Judaising Israel/Palestine,”Constellations: International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, Vol. 6: 3: 364-390; Yiftachel, O. (2000), “Social Control, Urban Planning and Ethno-Class Relations: Mizrahim in Israel’s Development Towns,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24: 2: 417-434; Yiftachel, O., Alexander, I., Hedgcock, D. and Little, J., editors (2001), The Power of Planning: Space of Control and Transformations, Kluwer Academic Publications, Boston.

You May Also Like