Cities in Conflict, Jerusalem, Belfast, Nicosia and Beirut: How can we learn to live together?

The following is a summary of the lecture by Prof. Scott Bollens on Divided Cities that was organized by Ir Amim Executive Director Yudith Oppenheimer and hosted by Museum of Islamic Arts Director Nadim Shiban in Jerusalem.

In places where one has to live with one’s enemy as one’s neighbor, what are the circumstances that allow the best path towards living together? What criteria permit us to say that the situation is going towards certain stability? Is an end of physical fighting a guaranty of stability?

As a specialist on urbanism and nationalism in politically contested cities, Professor Scott Bollens presented on February8th, a study at the Museum of Islamic Arts in Jerusalem in which he conducted 63 interviews in the Holy City of Jerusalem across the political spectrum. Alongside Jerusalem, he has studied four other major cities with similar political backgrounds.

With 24 years of field research he studied the politically contested environments of two or more groups in conflict regarding the dispute over control and sovereignty leading to a state of violence on a limited geographical area.

These are divided into different categories according to the differences and similarities of the conflict.

photo credit: Flash90

The wall that divides Greek and Turkish Nicosia, Cyprus

Within these categories there can be a state of constant, unresolved conflict as is the case in Jerusalem. This translates as a failure in the attempt of resolution. Other cities that have moved into a situation of relative stability and sustainability include Barcelona, where the attempt of Catalonia to become an independent state, separated from Spain did not include fighting as the debate stayed within the political arena. Within the spectrum of discord, this is an extreme example of political resolution, whilst Jerusalem serves as another extreme of unresolved, ongoing violence. He insisted on the fact that for the moment Jerusalem was one of the worst cases of inter-population conflict.

The following examples exist between the analysis of Barcelona and Jerusalem. They are characterized by a current context of suspended violence through arrangements, such as a ceasefire, but there is still no move towards a sustainable peace situation. This is the case in Mostar, Bosnia where there remains great dysfunctions within the government structure and Beirut, Lebanon where there is no more violence since the civil war; nonetheless, there are still tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in what we could call a state of “suspended animation“. The government hasn’t had much weight in either country.

The third category represents a state of unresolved conflict moving towards a peace-building situation as can be seen in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Professor Bollens did other studies on Johannesburg, South Africa; Sarajevo, Bosnia; and Nicosia, Cyprus.

A paradoxical observation

An important theme for Professor Bollens was that peace can also necessitate greater physical division. The best illustration of this is Belfast. After the Good Friday peace agreement was made in Northern Ireland in 1998, a legislated power-sharing arrangement between Catholics and Protestants was built. This marked a change from the previous arrangement whereby the United Kingdom ruled directly as a third political actor, allied closely with the Protestant population. Before the treaty, there were 16 walls separating the different denomination’s neighborhoods. Currently, that is to say 18 years after the treaty was made, 80 walls can be found, many demanded by residents of the city themselves. This significant increase shows that a top down agreement is not always a liability for security between the people. In this case, the Protestants did not feel reassured by what should be seen as a political advancement. This example shows the disconnection that can be between political decisions and the concrete way they are lived by the populations. It surely has to go both ways, and it is good to think how one can combine both in order to have a positive outcome. The wall is the sign of a need to guarantee a protection of identities.

photo credit: Flash90

The Walajah wall and a view to Jerusalem

photo credit: Flash90

Belfast peace walls, Northern Ireland

Redrawing of boundaries

This factor is essential in a peace building process. It was the case in Johannesburg during the ending of the apartheid situation. The limitations between the white and black cities were altered in order to include the black communities in the more modern infrastructure. This sometimes requires administrative readjustments in order to allow the more disadvantaged community to adapt and to homogenize the two ways of living, making it accessible to both populations.

Physical changes on the ground

This point is related to the previous one. These changes can happen before national peace agreements; this is what one calls a bottom up movement. The changes stem from a population’s initiative, as has been seen during the reform of the access of the wall that separated the north and south of Nicosia in Cyprus.

How do changes on the ground occur?

It can help to have common places where both parties have to cohabit, having something in common. In Cyprus there were religious sites on both sides of the wall. Even though in Jerusalem it seems to be the cause of disagreement and conflict, common places may also act as the path to peace.

Urban planning

This is about reducing the regulations in order to allow the disadvantaged party to feel comfortable in the other environment’s institutions. This was the case in Johannesburg after the fall of the apartheid. The white administration had to loosen up in order to let the black community have their share of responsibilities. This is a very good example of the joint ventures of the two conflicted parties after a peace arrangement.

If the coalitions between Israel and Palestine were to happen, Israel should probably loosen its administration and move away from high regulation. while keeping at the same time the high quality of the public services. The problem here would certainly be the need to make concessions.

Structural inequality is a type of violence, if one cannot get permits to build a house and another can, such as in the case of Jerusalem, it is a serious human rights offence.

One of the ways to fight against this would be by showing how to live as true citizens freely in the city without showing who is the victim and by staying dignified and audacious when one is in the right. For example, Prof. Bollens suggested that Palestinians start illegally building a structured plan in East Jerusalem, as a sign of organized and pacified resistance. This could be an answer to the problem with the settlements in the occupied territories as in both cases there is no more valid property ownership. Nevertheless, Palestinians have a counter force against the oppression, which is the growth of population in the city. Their capacity to hold on allows a sustainable situation.

Areas for coexistence after peace

This implies finding ways to restructure different places of the city in order to have some open place to have the possibility to interact with each other, such as parks and shopping centers. The difficulty here is the need to take ones time and not try to go too fast in the rebuilding of a society.

The peace building is an intergenerational procedure, in other words it takes time to forget and change the trauma of the past.

Negative Co-existence

In Mostar and Beirut since the post-war situation there is not much possible communication between the different communities after the war. Even if in the two cases the international community tried to reconstruct neutral city centers it did not correspond to the need of the local people in one place or the other. The intentions were good but the way it was put into practice wasn’t.

In conclusion, Professor Bollens suggests that a type of catastrophe may be required to change the current status quo in Jerusalem, to contribute a ‘wake-up call’ that would lead to the creation of a renewed peace effort.