Federal Urban Renewal Not Dead

by Tom Angotti

So you thought Nixon killed federal urban renewal in the 1970s? Did you know that the federal government is currently financing one of the largest urban renewal plans in history? It has displaced tens of thousands of low-income people over the last decade without any compensation. In their place, the government builds new gated communities with modern infrastructure for a privileged population. These new enclaves are linked to one another by federally financed highways. To build these highways the government displaces even more poor people. But unlike the federal interstate highway system that we’re accustomed to, these roads are not “freeways.” They are policed and only residents of the gated communities are allowed to move freely. And this whole urban renewal program takes place in a nation where the population that is not of the dominant culture lives in its own segregated low-income enclaves, often without basic services, unable to travel freely throughout the region, in substandard housing, discriminated against because of their national origin.

This has been going on without a peep from planners. Or from liberal politicians opposed to segregation or conservatives against urban renewal. Not even from those who helped kill the earlier version of urban renewal in the 1970s.

I’m not making this up. This is happening. Not in the 50 states, but in a small nation outside the U.S. that gets the largest foreign aid contribution from the U.S. I’m talking about Israel. The urban renewal program is designed to support Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Gated Settlements

Since the 1948 war, Israel has displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and continues to demolish their houses and take their land to make way for new roads and Israeli settlements. Reasons given are zoning and building code violations, lack of proper title, or simply suspicion of housing a lawbreaker. There are currently about 340,000 settlers, half of them in East Jerusalem. Israel now occupies 22% of West Bank land, including settlements and military enclaves, and controls over 60% of the territory.

In the January 2001 issue of Harpers an essay by Alex and Stephen R. Shalom states the case forcefully: “Israeli settlements – whose presence even the United States government had always considered a violation of international law – increased even more rapidly under Ehud Barak than under the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu. Moreover, Israel linked the settlements with permanent, multi-lane highways running through Palestinian lands. Palestinian property was confiscated, crops uprooted, and houses demolished. And the United States government has provided lavish subsidies for this Israeli effort, none of which, needless to say, have gone to compensate Palestinians for lost land, crops, or homes.”

The settlements are part of a geopolitical and military strategy to make the formation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. They are usually located near existing Arab towns and villages, often overlooking them. They often restrict expansion of Arab villages and towns and prevent the development of much needed new housing through the imposition of zoning and housing regulations. Palestinians are prevented from moving outside squalid refugee camps and the patches of land they are allowed to retain in the West Bank and Gaza (the latter is one of the most densely populated areas in the world). And within Israeli cities, Arab communities are often ghettoes for second-class citizens. The Israeli-built highways, protected by 150-300 foot buffers, are built on land taken from Palestinian farmers. They directly link the Israeli settlements with Israeli cities, encircle and isolate Palestinian cities and towns, and are guarded by Israel’s military.

Within Israeli cities things are not much better. Where the Arab and Palestinian minority is even allowed to live and work, they are invisible to the majority. In the December 11, 2000 issue of the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz a new government plan for eleven Israeli cities with Arab minorities is discussed. “The whole plan is based on assimilating the Arab residents out of a desire to improve the situation of the general population in those cities.” In the interests of assimilation, the government effectively permits the continuation of segregation. The plan fails to mention the Arab minority, denying the existence of an Arab community and foreclosing development of its identity and power. The Ha’aretz article cites cases in which entire Arab neighborhoods are left off maps, and says many street signs are not in Arabic and don’t cover Arab neighborhoods. They note that “over 60 percent of the Arabs in mixed cities live in housing that is the property of the state,” making occupants easy targets for urban renewal.

Comprehensive Long-Range Planning

The Arab ghettos and Israeli enclaves did not arise spontaneously out of a policy muddle. In his book The Fateful Triangle, Noam Chomsky cites former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti around 1981 who described Israel’s planning strategy to be the “development of large urban centers which will organically link vital areas of the West Bank to the major Israeli urban centersˆ.The Arab towns and villages are to become like ghettoes ˆ surrounded by large Jewish dormitory suburbs, settlements, military camps – all served, linked and carved up by fast access highways.” That long-range national urban strategy has now been fulfilled. And as Benvenisti predicted it makes any agreement now between Palestinians and Israelis over land for peace unlikely because Israeli settlements are scattered throughout Palestine and the Israeli government refuses to dismantle them or allow them to be part of a Palestinian state.

Okay, maybe not all the money for the new settlements comes directly from the U.S. government. Some comes from Israeli government revenues and right-wing Jewish organizations. But the Israeli military is the guarantor of settlement viability, and they wouldn’t have the power they do without U.S. aid. U.S. aid is an issue for every U.S. resident whose tax dollars go to prop up the government responsible for this human rights disaster. Something to consider if you supported U.S. efforts against ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and apartheid in South Africa.

Though the U.S. has publically objected to the Israeli settlements for decades, in practice they never did anything to force the Israeli government to withdraw its support from them. This stems from the larger economic and military strategy of the U.S. in the Middle East, which is to use Israel as a counterweight to the Arab countries, to protect the flow of oil and the interests of transnational corporations. Urban planners may be able to make a connection between the power of oil and the auto-dependent, highway-based model of urbanization.

What is the issue for progressive urban planners? We are against the displacement of low-income communities, the formation of segregated enclaves that entrap the poor and powerless and protect the rich, and the exclusion of people based on race, religion and class. So shouldn’t we be against the settlements in Israel and put to rest federal urban renewal forever?

The Israeli peace movement is still reeling from the shock of the resurgent intifada. Some are beginning to realize how they bought into the unequal terms of the Oslo accords, failed to recognize the depth of pain and anger among Palestinians, became comfortable in their daily segregated realities and dreamed of a harmony that would never emerge from the bitter urban reality faced by Palestinians.

Tom Angotti is the Editor of Planners Network Newsletter.

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