City of collision | icon 041 | November 2006

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words Justin McGuirk

Is Jerusalem really a city?

Surely a city is a place where people and economies flow together, where differences commingle. In contrast, the most pervasive force in Jerusalem is division – division visible in walls and fences but also hidden away in legislation and identity cards, division that is so elaborate and highly scripted that it hinders even the most mundane everyday activities. At least, for half of its citizens, that is.

Anyone who’s been to this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the theme of which is “cities”, might have noticed that Jerusalem isn’t represented. This is because it doesn’t fit the exhibition’s neat encapsulation of the kind of problems facing our cities. It doesn’t provide the dramatic aerial image of a megalopolis, with the eloquent warnings about urban population explosions that such images make. But this is short sighted. In an age when – even in “liberal” Britain – our paranoia about immigration and terrorism is making civil liberties expendable, Jerusalem is a masterclass in what our cities mustn’t become.

City of Collision: Jerusalem and the Principles of Conflict Urbanism, edited by Philipp Misselwitz and Tim Rieniets, makes clear that in Jerusalem, more than anywhere else in the world, urban planning is political. “Major planning decisions for the long-run are made by cabinet ministers and the army, with almost no urban consideration,” says Meron Benvenisti in the group discussion that introduces the book. “Sectarian and partisan Israeli interests are always predominant and legitimate Palestinian needs are rejected as an expression of hostility.”

There it is in a nutshell. In this theatre Israel plays the traditional role of the coloniser, using every advantage that that gives it – such as making the law – to secure as much of the area in and around Jerusalem for itself and to stifle Palestinian ownership as much as possible.

Here is a basic and infamous example. Adopting the medieval strategy, Israel has built a wall around the city defining an imaginary entity called “Greater Jerusalem”. The ostensible reason for the wall is to keep out suicide bombers, but it also happens to take a substantial (13%) and illegal bite out of the West Bank. Aside from cutting right through Palestinian neighbourhoods, it encloses the Palestinians’ half of the city, known as East Jerusalem, throttling any idea of it becoming their capital.

But even more pernicious than the wall is the way that Israel has expropriated any “no man’s land” between Palestinian neighbourhoods to stop those neighbourhoods expanding (despite the fact that the Palestinian population is growing twice as fast as Israel’s) and withholds building permits, forcing the Palestinians into a
cycle of “illegal” building. The result is almost the opposite situation to the sprawling slums of São Paolo and Caracas that are on display in Venice. With no room to sprawl, Palestinian neighbourhoods grow denser and denser, while Israeli settlements spread themselves out in a leisurely suburbia around them.

Of the 38 contributors to this book, not one attempts to justify Israel’s planning and delineation policies. Ordinarily, this degree of consensus ought to make a reader suspicious; in this case, there’s no defending the indefensible. However, the book is no diatribe. It is a deeply impressive – exhaustive – body of research that brings not just the city’s problems but also its history to life. It is well illustrated with maps and photography, and if you can look past some of the academic jargon then the sheer complexity of the situation and your sense of injustice should keep you reading. As will the odd unexpected detail, such as the story about a love affair between an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman and a Palestinian taxi driver.

City of Collision: Jerusalem and the Principles of Conflict Urbanism, edited by Philipp Misselwitz and Tim Rieniets, is published by Birkhäuser, £29.90

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