Dividers and Rulers

By Joyce Song, 4 July 2003

Joyce Song investigates strategies of land representation and administration in the occupied territories of Palestine, where strategies such as the non-recognition of villages, and the placement and building of settlements, roads, and walls, she argues, advance political decisions under the guise of ‘innocent’ urban planning

Nowhere is control over land, a key strategy of the modern state, more direct than in and around Israel’s ‘Green Line’. Mapping of territory in Israel reflects a larger political program of dividing and repressing the Arab population, a whole system of control promoted by the Israeli government and advanced through distribution, ownership, and development of land. The pattern of destruction or non-recognition of Arab homes and lands, and the unfair allocation of resources, are clearly displayed in the disproportionate level of poverty in Arab villages and the fact that, while making up almost 20 percent of the population, Arabs own only about 3 percent of the land.[1] Overcrowded and structurally deteriorating Arab villages are surrounded by well-heeled Jewish settlements, some eerily resembling American suburban tract housing.

At the extreme are the so-called ‘unrecognised’ villages, housing almost 70,000 Arabs living within the Green Line.[2] Though such villages dot the country there is no sign of their existence on any government map. The only recognition of them is in the Israeli government’s consistent efforts to destroy them under the 1965 Planning and Construction Law, which authorises the designation of lands for residential, agricultural, or industrial use. In practice, the government has made it a project to define the land of Arab villages as ‘agricultural’ lands, condemning entire villages to ‘illegality’ though most were extant before the establishment of Israel. These ‘illegal’ villages are not entitled to state resources for building repair, schools, drinking water, or health clinics.[3] Permits for building that would grant legal legitimacy are routinely refused. Statistics for demolition practices are revealing: between 1993 and 1996, 1,440 Palestinian Arab houses were demolished, 624 of them outside of any court process.Arab homes accounted for 94 percent of these demolitions, despite forming only 57 percent of all recorded unlicensed building.[4] There are approximately 12,000 current demolition orders in the Galilee area alone.

While all of this makes it difficult for Arabs to build or improve their homes, a tight link between private institutions and the state allows the allocation of land solely for Jews. Predating 1948, the Jewish Agency (JA), and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) purchase and develop land, build new settlements, and provide social services – all for Jews only, and unaccountable to the state.[5] The Israel Land Administration (ILA), which controls 93 percent of land and, as a public body, should not discriminate, nevertheless leases land to these bodies. On the ILA board itself are an equal number of government members and JNF members.

There have been attempts to challenge this tight-knit set of relationships. A fairly recent case brought by the Qa’adem family, refused entry into the Jewish settlement of Katsir in 1995, ended after four years with Supreme Court ruling that the State could not give land to citizens based on religion or nationality or give it to the Jewish Agency knowing only Jews would benefit. But while the ruling was taken as monumental, the Supreme Court did not provide any enforcement mechanism to follow it through. Indeed, the Qa’adem family is still barred from residing in Katsir.

What Eyal Weitzman and Rafi Segal, two Israeli architects banned by their own Israeli Association of United Architects from presenting to the International Union of Architects’ Congress last year, have called the ‘politics of verticality’ is resonant not just in the West Bank but extends into the ‘Green Line’, effectively destroying any impression of a border altogether. The ‘politics of verticality’ point to the need to look beyond two-dimensional space, to ‘read’ and not merely ‘view’ space. Within the ‘Green Line’, the non-recognition of villages, the placement and building of settlements, roads, and walls, are strategic political decisions masquerading as innocent urban planning. And the so-called ‘security wall’ that is being built kilometers into the West Bank, weaving around Arab villages like enormous lassoes, is less about security than pilfering ‘agricultural’ lands from Arabs who live on them. A conventional map does little to describe the way space, in the air, on the ground, and below, has been distributed in order to bolster Israeli control. In or beyond the ‘Green Line’, Arabs are clearly second-class citizens; the only logic behind the government’s plan being to make life for Arabs unbearable enough so as to push them out altogether.

>> Left: Dar El Hanoon (unrecognised Arab Village)>> Middle: Security gate, Azzun, outside of Nablus, West Bank>> Right: Arab dwelling under demolition order

[1] The Koening Report (1976) issued by the Ministry of the Interior and titled ‘On Handling the Arabs in Israel’ orders to ‘expand and deepen Jewish settlement in areas where the continuity of the Arab population is prominent, and where they number considerably more than the Jewish population; examine the possibility of diluting existing Arab population concentrations. Concurrently, the state law has to be enforced so as to limit ‘breaking of new ground’ by Arab settlements in various parts of the country.’ The Koening Report, Section 1: The Demographic Problem; published in Swasia, vol III No. 41 (15 October 1976) pp. 1-8[2] There are approximately 6.5 million people in Israel; 18-20 percent of this population is Arab[3] Article 157A of the National Planning and Building Law of 1981 forbids unlicensed buildings from connecting to electricity, water, or telephone networks[4] See statistics from the Association of Forty which researches ‘unrecognised’ villages at [ ][5] The Jewish National Fund sees its mission as being to act as ’the caretaker of the land of Israel, on behalf of its owners – Jewish people everywhere.’ See their website at [ ]

Joyce Song <song_joyce AT> is a specialist in Arabic law currently working with NGOs in Palestine