Planning on the West Bank

The wall constructed to divide Israel from the West Bank.

The wall constructed to divide Israel from the West Bank.

I am writing this blog from East Jerusalem. I have been invited over here by the UN-Habitat team based in Ramallah on the Israeli Occupied West Bank of the Jordan. The purpose of the visit is to learn about how planning is practised here, and what might be down to make it a more equitable, fair and transparent process. The visit is linked to a DFID-funded project that is trying to remove the logjam which is preventing Palestinian villagers from developing. I will try to do a couple of further blogs later this week as I learn more about the situation.

The planning situation in the West Bank is both very complicated but also very simple, so let’s do the simple bit first. The Israelis are building lots of new settlements here while stalling on approval of plans submitted for development in Palestinian villages, and demolishing the unauthorised development that then does take place.

Now for the complicated detail. Under the Oslo Accords, the Israelis and the Palestinians came to a compromise agreement on the West Bank. As a transitional arrangement, the area was divided into three zones. Essentially Zone A is the urban centres, Zone B an area of land around those centres, and Zone C the remaining “rural” land.

The Palestinian Authority would have planning powers for Zones A and B: but the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) would have full administrative control of Zone C. Thus any plans for development and permission to develop in zone C have to go to the ICA for approval.

Restricting development

This “temporary” arrangement, pending full transfer of powers to the Palestinian Administration, has now lasted for over 20 years. During this time the ICA has used three mechanisms to tightly restrict development. These are:
• Limiting the approval of plans that would allow for new development rights for Palestinians;
• Blocking the number of permits that are given for construction of houses, public facilities and commercial related developments like wells;
• Issuing stop notices and then demolition orders for buildings constructed without permission.

So what this means is that the urban settlements are like islands, with strong urban containment policies restricting their spread and the natural growth of villages in the remaining rural areas. Meanwhile, around 325,000 Israelis are now living in some 135 settlements in Zone C that have been officially approved by the ICA.

Reasons for refusal and delay

I am told that one of the problems is that the planning standards applied by the ICA are not transparent. When local land use plans for Palestinian villages are submitted they are at risk of being rejected on the grounds of failing to comply with standards, but what those standards are and how appropriate they are for village expansion is not clear to the local leaders submitting the plans. What seems clear is that the obstacles to gaining statutory approval for development leads to situations where development takes place without authorisation, and then triggers enforcement, demolition and forced evictions.

One ground for refusal is that proposals do not conform with the Regional Outline Plan. This is a relic of the British and subsequent Jordanian planning law, which prohibited construction on agricultural land. Meanwhile special Local Planning Councils were created in the 1970s exclusively for Jewish settlements, with provision for participation and powers to approve plans and issue building permits.

The ICA has drawn up some outline plans for Zone C Palestinian villages. Critics argue that these have had the effect – and purpose – of limiting the area for development within a village to a minimum level. The boundaries for expansion are drawn very tightly, and there has been no consultation with the communities involved.

Poverty and Equity

The Occupied Palestinian Territories are one of the oorest parts of the Middle East and North Africa. As a professional planner I have two concerns. On the basis of the evidence presented to me, and at least implicitly endorsed by DFID through its funding of the project, planning in the West Bank over the past two decades has not been an equitable and transparent process. There has been much more development of new Israeli settlements in Zone C than there has been of approved development in Palestinian settlements. Second, the result of this has been that planning really has become a barrier to badly needed investment in the rural areas. Donor agencies are understandably unwilling to invest in schools or similar facilities if the development would be illegal and at risk of demolition. The result is that poor people are trapped in poverty and deprivation.

In the short term, the approval of plans submitted for these villages would provide residents with some security against the threat of demolition and evictions. However, these proposed “master plans” look like quite traditional land use plans that by themselves will not deliver the economic development opportunities or “place-making” qualities that are now seen as essential for rural development.

After a day in the office in Ramallah, I hope tomorrow to see some of this for myself on the ground, and to report in a further blog on what I see and on what is happening in the urban areas.


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