Planning as a Tool of Political Control: Israel’s Matrix of Control

By Jeff Halper

In Israel’s thirty-six-year occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, planning has been perfected as a tool of political control. Nowhere in the world is planning used with such sophistication to such a single-minded purpose. Because Israel denies having an “occupation” at all–insisting that it is merely reclaiming the historic Land of Israel as the exclusive patrimony of the Jewish people–it seeks to make its control over the Territories permanent. Maintaining control through outright military actions, though effectively employed, is not a preferred means, since it is brutal, too visual and generates both internal and foreign opposition. Instead, Israel prefers to use administrative means–and here is where planning comes to the fore. Dressed in neutral professional jargon, its rationale graphically presented in maps, planning is an ideal guise for concealing political ends.

The complex web of bureaucratic constraints on the Palestinian population, combined with massive Israeli construction, enmeshes the Palestinians in what I call a “Matrix of Control.” The Matrix hides the very fact of occupation behind a facade of “proper administration” and “neutral” construction, thus shunting the blame for the conflict onto the Palestinians. It creates massive Israeli “facts on the ground” that render the occupation permanent. And it is intended to induce such despair among Palestinians about ever achieving a viable state of their own that they will submit to an Israeli-controlled mini-state.

Creating Facts on the Ground

Consider the following facts:

• Since 1967, Israel has expropriated for settlements, highways, “bypass roads,” military installations, nature reserves and infrastructure some 24 percent of the West Bank, 89 percent of Arab East Jerusalem and 25 percent of Gaza.

• More than 200 settlements have been constructed in the Occupied Territories, and 400,000 Israelis moved across the 1967 boundaries (200,000 in the West Bank; 200,000 in East Jerusalem; 6,000 in Gaza).

• During the Oslo “peace process” Israel constructed a system of twenty-nine “bypass roads,” funded entirely by the United States (at a cost of $3 billion). Together with the settlement blocs and military checkpoints, these highways bypass Palestinian communities, creating massive barriers to Palestinian movement while linking the settlements with Israel proper. Palestinians are today confined to more than 200 tiny and impoverished islands.

• Construction of seven (of a planned twelve) industrial parks on the “seam” between the Occupied Territories and Israel give new life to isolated settlements while robbing Palestinian cities–with which they are in direct competition for workers and markets–of their own economic vitality. The industrial parks exploit cheap Palestinian labor while denying that same labor access to Israel. They also allow Israel’s most polluting and least profitable industries to continue dumping their industrial wastes into the West Bank and Gaza.

• Israel’s Matrix of Control extends underground as well, using settlement sites to maintain control over the main aquifers of the Occupied Territories and other vital natural resources.

• Even seemingly innocuous holy places such as Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, sites in and around Jerusalem and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus serve as pretexts for maintaining an Israeli “security presence,” and hence military control reinforced by settlements.

Bureaucracy, Planning and Law in the Service of Political Control

Planning procedures, deriving from a discriminatory legal system and embedded in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, comprise a subtle but highly effective form of political control that entangle Palestinians in a tight web of restrictions and trigger sanctions whenever Palestinians try to expand their life space. For example:

Israel has taken two British Mandate-era planning documents–the Jerusalem Regional Planning Scheme RJ5 (1942) and the Samaria Regional Planning Scheme RS15 (1945)–and used them to effectively freeze Palestinian development in Jerusalem and the West Bank as it was in the 1940s. RS15, for example, zones the entire West Bank as “agricultural land.” Since this severely limits the construction of houses on such land, Israel can effectively deny Palestinians building permits, and demolish their houses if they build “illegally.” But another little-noted provision of British planning law gave the District Commission (now Israel’s “Civil Administration”) the “power to grant a relaxation of any restriction imposed by this scheme.” This has been exploited to permit the construction of hundreds of thousands of housing units for Jews in the settlements of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Military orders issued by the commanders of the West Bank and Gaza (some 2,000 in number since 1967) have replaced local civil law with policies and procedures designed to strengthen Israeli political control. Thus, Order 59 (1967) grants the Israeli Custodian of Abandoned Properties the authority to declare uncultivated, unregistered land as state land, enabling Israel to “legally” claim as state land 72 percent of the West Bank, making it easy to expropriate land from Palestinian owners. Order 270 (1968) designates 250,000 acres of the West Bank as closed “combat zones” which can then be handed over to settlements. Order 291 (1968) stopped the Jordanian process of systematic land registration, thus preventing Palestinians from registering their lands at all. Order 393 (1970) grants any military commander in Judea and Samaria the authority to prohibit Palestinian construction if he believes it necessary for the security of the Israeli army or to ensure “public order.” Order 977 (1982) allows the Israeli army and its agencies (such as the Civil Administration) to proceed with excavation and construction without a permit, providing yet another legal basis for the construction of settlements. Hundreds of other orders prohibit Palestinian building around army bases and installations, around settlements and whole settlement areas and within 200 meters of main roads. Orders effectively curb the development of Arab communities and alienate tens of thousands of acres of land.

Because Palestinians will outnumber Jews in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean by the end of the decade, Israel considers the “demographic bomb” the greatest threat to its hegemony. To counter the trend, Israel actively pursues policies of displacement: exile and deportation of Palestinians; revocation of residency rights; impoverishment of the population through economic “closures”; expropriation of land and demolition of houses (10,000 since 1967). In general, Israel makes life for Palestinians so unbearable that they will “voluntarily” emigrate.

Administrative restrictions intrude into every corner of Palestinian life, enveloping the average person in a web of constraints and controls. Severe restrictions on the planting of crops and their sale hits an already impoverished population hard, especially when combined with Israel’s practice of uprooting hundreds of thousands of olive and fruit trees since 1967, either to clear land for settlement activity or for “security” purposes.

Even seemingly innocuous practices such as licensing and inspection of Palestinian businesses are exploited as a way to harass businesspeople and stunt the local economy.

Barak’s “Generous Offer”

But what about Israeli Prime Minister Yehud Barak’s “generous offer” of 95 percent of the territories, presumably made at the Taba talks in January 2001? Taken at face value, it seems to be “generous” indeed (who, after all, gets 100 percent in negotiations?). At a distinct disadvantage are those who say it was not a good deal, that it would leave the Matrix of Control intact and that it would not lead to a viable Palestinian state. These positions seem to contradict common sense. It is much easier to pin the blame on the Palestinians and justify Israel’s policies of repression.

First off, let’s state the truth: there never was a “generous offer.” In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz (September 6, 2002), Barak explained: “It was plain to me that there was no chance of reaching a settlement at Taba. Therefore I said there would be no negotiations and there would be no delegation and there would be no official discussions and no documentation. Nor would Americans be present in the room. The only thing that took place at Taba were non-binding contacts between senior Israelis and senior Palestinians.” The 95 percent figure comes from Bill Clinton’s proposal, to which both sides responded favorably but with “reservations.” According to Barak, Israel’s “reservations” filled twenty pages.

But even if there was such an offer, we must be careful not to equate territory with sovereignty. Israel can retain its Matrix of Control by establishing a Palestinian Bantustan. Even if the Palestinians “receive” 85 to 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, they still would not have the prerequisites of national self-determination: coherent territory, economic viability and genuine sovereignty. Retaining just 10 to 15 percent of the West Bank would enable Israel to:

Create a Palestinian entity truncated into at least four cantons–the northern, central and southern parts of the West Bank and Gaza–which would render a Palestinian state non-viable and easily controlled by Israel.

Consolidate its strategic settlement blocs around the city of Ariel and in the Greater Jerusalem area, blocs that comprise 150,000 Israeli settlers–or 80 percent of the West Bank settlers. In doing so it would create territorial contiguity for Israeli settlements while dividing the West Bank into isolated Palestinian islands; remove Jerusalem from the Palestinian sphere, thus cutting out the economic heart of any Palestinian state; and leave Israel in control of the West Bank’s water resources.

Retain control over highways and Palestinian movement. Over the past decades, and especially during the Oslo “peace process,” Israel has been constructing a system of major highways and “bypass roads” designed to link its settlements, create barriers between Palestinian areas and incorporate the West Bank into Israel proper. Even if physical control over the highways is relinquished, strategic parts will remain under Israeli control. There are other restrictions as well. The “safe passages” from Gaza to the West Bank, crucial to the viability of a Palestinian state, will continue to be controlled by Israel, and Israel insists on retaining rights of “emergency deployment” to both the highway system and to the Jordan Valley, severely compromising Palestinian sovereignty. Indeed, the highways would retain the status of Israeli “security roads,” meaning that Palestinian development along them would remain limited.

The settlement blocs and highway grid play key roles in the process of incorporating the West Bank and East Jerusalem into Israel proper. Again, seemingly innocuous planning lies at the center of this supremely political program. As early as the late 1970s, Ariel Sharon, then head of the Ministerial Committee on Settlements, presented a Master Plan of incorporation that called for contiguous Israeli urban growth straddling both sides of the “Green Line.” The massive Trans-Israel Highway project, now nearing completion, provides a new “central spine” for Israel along the West Bank. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis will be resettled in the many towns and cities planned along the length of the highway, especially along the Green Line and in areas of Galilee heavily populated by Arabs. New and expanded Israeli cities, towns and settlements on both sides of the Green Line form a new “metropolitan core-region” in which metropolitan Tel Aviv meets metropolitan Jerusalem, which in turn stretches across most of the central West Bank. The Trans-Israel Highway, integrated with the highways and settlement blocs of the West Bank, reconfigures the entire country and moves the entire population center of the country eastward.


The Political Role of Israeli Planners

The schemes for imprisoning Palestinians in impoverished islands while leaving Israel in control of the entire country–the essence of Barak’s “generous offer”–dovetail with strategies to “transfer” them out of the country altogether, the thrust of the Sharon government’s policies. Looked at in a historical perspective, they form part of a century-long program of displacement–nishul in Hebrew–in which the Jews reclaim the country as their exclusive patrimony.

In this process planning has always played a key role. It started with the placement of Jewish settlements before 1948 to determine Israel’s future borders. Land use policies following the ‘48 war were intended to alienate Palestinian refugees from their lands. Current policies allow settlement expansion, displace Palestinians from their land, and result in house demolitions and the incorporation of the Occupied Territories into Israel proper. As both a means to control a subordinate population and as an “invisible” way of conquering land, planning has few equivalents.

Indeed, the active involvement of professional planners, most of whom identify politically with the peace movement, raises thorny questions about subordinating professional activities to political and financial considerations. Even more troubling, it may indicate that planners are either not aware of the political uses of their work, or simply do not want to know. In a situation where occupation, repression and displacement are largely carried out by administrative means that involve planning and law, these are issues that deserve wide debate. At the very least, Israeli planners should be confronted with the implications of their professional work at international conferences or in university settings.

Jeff Halper is the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions ( He can be reached at icahd(at)zahav(dot)net(dot)il.

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