Turning Visions into Reality: Israel’s little known master plans for Jerusalem

Edward Said warned in 1995 that ‘it was only by first projecting an idea of Jerusalem could Israel then proceed to the changes on the ground which would then correspond to the images and projections’. The roundtable discussion began with this quote to emphasize the role of the imagination in the process of remanufacturing Jerusalem as a primarily Jewish Israeli city. Despite being said over 20 years ago, the quote strikingly relates to the current situation. Israel continues to construct future visions for Jerusalem, and then works to transform these visions into a concrete reality on the ground.

The roundtable talk, ‘Which Jerusalem? Israel’s little known Master Plans’, held on July 28th 2016 at the Kenyon Institute in East Jerusalem, aimed to expose Israeli plans for Jerusalem. Israel’s master plans are used as a political tool to ensure future control over the city, and to further dispossess Palestinians. Through discussing Nur Arafeh’s policy brief, ‘Which Jerusalem? Israel’s little known Master Plans’, the talk aimed to explore how Israel plans to implement its vision of Jerusalem, and what can be done to counter these visions.

photo credit: Flash90

The panel comprised of Nur Arafeh, Raja Khalidi and Maha Samman. (Photo: Fabio Cristiano)

The Three Master plans

The talk was the first joint event between the Kenyon Institute and Al Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. The panel consisted of Nur Arafeh, a policy maker at Al Shabaka, Maha Samman, an assistant professor from Al-Quads University, and Raja Khalidi, a leading Palestinian economist. The discussion focused on three Israeli plans for Jerusalem; the Jerusalem 2020 Master Plan, The Marom Plan and the Jerusalem 5800 Plan. Each of the plans reinforce each other by one common systematic thread; to increase the number of Jewish residents and reduce the number of Palestinians living in Jerusalem. The roundtable discussion aimed to raise awareness of these plans, and present a policy recommendation for what can be done to combat them. Details of each master plan can be read in full at https://al-shabaka.org/briefs/jerusalem-israels-little-known-master-plans/

‘A Jewish Destination for Tourism’

Each speaker stressed that the development of the tourism sector is at the core of each of the three Israeli plans. Tourism is used as an engine for economic development, and to attract Jews around the world to Jerusalem. Plans to enhance cultural aspects of Jerusalem, as outlined in the Jerusalem 5800 Plan, aim to make Jerusalem ‘the Middle East’s anchor tourist attraction and resource’. The government-commissioned Marom Plan allocates 43 million dollars to Jerusalem to transform it into an international tourist destination through the construction of hotels and real estate property. The construction of a new airport between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea aims to serve 35 million passengers a year.

Tourism at what cost?

Despite tourism seeming to be apolitical and beneficial to all, Nur emphasized that the tourism plans have a specific demographic goal – ‘to increase the ethnic imbalance between Jews and Palestinians’. Plans to boost tourism are simultaneously implemented with restrictions on the development of Palestinian tourism. Nur outlined the difficult licensing procedures for Palestinian businesses, and restrictions on permits to convert buildings into hotels in East Jerusalem. Raja Khalidi, a leading economist asserted that the number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem living below the poverty line in 2014 was 82%, whilst poverty in Jerusalem as a whole was only 42% in the same year.

Furthermore, Nur detailed how tourism can be used as ‘a major tool to control the narrative and the projection of Jerusalem as a Jewish city’. Out of the 57 sites identified on the map of the Old City, only one is a Muslim site; the Dome of the Rock. This exemplifies how maps can be used to erase people, history and culture to construct a new reality of Jerusalem. This was reiterated by Raja, who asserted that the extraordinary tourism potential of Jerusalem is being used as political tool to reinforce the rhetoric of the holy land.

Urban Planning as a tool of territorial control

A crucial aspect of the discussion was the use of urban planning as a form of territorial control. Maha Samman asserted that urban planning is:

    A major geopolitical and strategic tool Israel has used since 1967 to tighten its grip over Jerusalem and constrain the urban expansion of Palestinians as part of its efforts to Judaize the city.

Despite having no international legal standing, the 2020 Master Plan identifies both East and West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The plan aims to maintain a Jewish majority by providing affordable housing in Jewish neighborhoods and encouraging the construction of new settlements. Nur asserted that the 2020 Plan recognizes the housing problem in Palestinian neighborhoods, suggesting on the surface an equal interest in both Palestinian and Israeli housing. However, whilst 2,300 dunums is planned for Palestinian construction, 9,500 dunums is reserved for Israeli Jews. Furthermore, Nur stressed that 55.7% of additional housing in Palestinian neighborhoods uses an approach of densification whereas 62.4% of Israeli Jewish building is to happen through expansion of urban areas. Maha developed this point by emphasizing that densification will lead to an extreme strain on already poor facilities, creating a dire situation for Palestinian communities.

The talk concluded that the 2020 Master Plan is therefore a political plan that uses urban planning to ensure a Jewish demographic. The plan also supports ‘spatial segregation of the various population groups in the city’. This would result in a future Jerusalem divided in terms of ethnicity, with no area combining Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

photo credit: Flash90

The audience gathered at the Kenyon Institute (Photo: Fabio Cristiano)

The need to develop an alternative vision

All three speakers affirmed that the Palestinian Authority offers no alternative vision for Jerusalem. Nur offered urgent steps to be taken to challenge colonization and the dispossession of Palestinians. She believes that raising awareness of the plans is crucial, and calls for the establishment of committees in each East Jerusalem neighbourhood. These committees would form a representative body for Jerusalem at a national level, working as a channel between Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority to ensure that Jerusalem receives the support it needs. Raja asserted that in the absence of a Palestinian plan, there is a ‘planning vacuum alongside the political vacuum’ which has ultimately led to an abandonment of any Palestinian expectation that they can change the balance of power.

Despite the repeated stress on the lack of a Palestinian vision for Jerusalem, a comment from the audience suggested that this is not always the case. An audience member declared that there are already local committees in twenty-two of the neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that are already involved in urban planning. However, the Municipality of Jerusalem repeatedly hinders their plans from being implemented, suggesting that the problem is not the absence of a plan, but the implementation. The panel’s lack of awareness of these already existing committees suggests a gap between academics, policy makers and the communities themselves which must be bridged.

Planning in the context of liberation

A crucial question was raised from the audience; where does planning fit in the greater context of liberation? Increasing awareness of Israel’s master plans is important in order to encourage Palestinians to formulate their own vision for Jerusalem. However, to a certain extent the discussion of long term strategies ignores the urgency of the present situation by shifting the focus onto the future. The talk ended with a question that could not yet be fully answered; is there a contradiction between planning and the struggle for liberation? Nur concluded that developing a plan for Jerusalem is a process of resistance that acts as a step in the path towards liberation. However, where planning fits in the process of liberation has no satisfying answer, and remains an unanswered question.