Planning on the West Bank (2): Land, water and people

Today I have been to Nablus and followed the River Jordan down to Jericho. I have spoken to a conference, eaten falafel in the bazaar, talked with the most remarkable mayor I have ever met, and come to better understand the significance of water and land in this arid regions. The more I try, the harder it becomes to untangle the issues that are preventing planning in the West Bank from delivering safe, inclusive, prosperous and sustainable settlements.

New settlement

New settlement


To Nablus: walls, fences, lookout towers.

In yesterday’s blog  I sketched the picture of the way planning works in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank. Today began with a trip from East Jerusalem north to Nablus, which used to be one of Palestine’s more prosperous industrial and commercial centres, but which has suffered during the period of conflict and occupation.

Leaving Jerusalem you go through checkpoints where young soldiers with automatic rifles do the checks. Immediately on the Palestinian side there are lots of dusty small cars, parked there informally along the road. Their owners walk from here to work on the Israeli side: cars with Palestinian number plats are not allowed through.

As we drive north the militarised landscape is ever present. New Israeli settlements sit behind walls, barbed wire and fences and guards in look out towers observe who comes and goes. Official warning notices advise Israeli citizens against travelling along this road, because their lives could be imperilled. Local boys throw stones at Israeli vehicles at points along the route: we pass the remnants of a shattered windscreen.

Outposts, colonies and settlements

On the bare and rocky hills we see basic camps surrounded by barbed wire. These are the settlements of the future. They begin in this way, as outposts. A few Israeli friends will occupy a site, and pitch tents and a flag there. The land may be owned by a Palestinian, or it may be “State Lands”, taken over by the occupying power. They are not evicted.

An outpost becomes a colony as more settlers arrive and the tents are replaced by trailers or containers. The barbed wire becomes a stronger fence, the watchtower is more fortified.

Finally, the informal becomes formal and temporary shelters are replaced by construction of permanent homes with neat red pantile roofs, and roads and other facilities. The observation tower may now become a concrete building, manned by soldiers. There will be signposts from the main highway pointing the way to the settlement.

These settlements are splattered through the landscape of Palestine and can be found many kilometres away from the official border. They massively complicate the prospects for a “two state solution”. Typically they sit on the crests of hills, rather than in the valley bottoms. Water is pumped up to them, but the abstraction of this water has serious impacts in this arid region. Palestinian settlements have less secure water supplies and are characterised by black coloured water storage cylinders on the roofs of houses.

A conference in Nablus

There is a conference on urbanisation strategies at the An-Najah National University, organised by the planning school. I make a brief presentation (it all has to be translated into Arabic) on the importance of planning for functional urban regions, rather than looking only within administrative boundaries. I also press the case for integrated plans built around partnerships with the private sector and with civil society.

Those at the event are mainly officials from small municipalities outside Nablus. In the discussion they vent familiar frustrations with the poor access to essential urban services – water, electricity, sewerage, solid waste collection and disposal.

As in so many rapidly urbanising societies what the poor need are these basic services. Installation is crucial, of course, connecting networks and driving the location of development. But management and maintenance also need to be planned and funded. There is more to planning than the micro-scale zoning of land settlement by settlement in an atomised fashion.

Nablus Old Town

The centre of Nablus is the usual mess of traffic that is slowed by the sheer volume in the limited space. There is no sign of a bus, but a multiplicity of yellow taxis being driven in the way that taxi drivers drive the world over. There are parking meters but people double-park outside them if they are not free. Pedestrians jostle for what space they can get, on or off the pavement.

The Old Town is quite extensive but at its heart is the market, a fabulously claustrophobic, colourful and aromatic network of crowded narrow lanes. This is clearly a key part of the local economy, and in contrast to town centres in the west, there are no signs of vacant properties or charity shops in and around this swirl of shoppers.

Local leadership

On past Tabus to our destination, the small village of Al’Aqaba where we have an appointment with the mayor, Haj Sami Sadiq. He is in a wheelchair, having been shot as a young man in a skirmish with Israeli soldiers. Today he speaks strongly for a peaceful path and reconciliation.

He is charismatic and has good political contacts. He has managed to get a plan for his village legally approved by the Israeli Civil Authority (see yesterday’s blog for the significance of this). That made it possible for donors to support facilities that can see the village develop – a school, a guest house, a couple of small community enterprises processing agricultural products. The next stage will be to design public open space and to add further facilities. All this has been achieved despite the village being in a designated military area. Leadership matters.

Herdsmen and Agriculturalists

As we drive towards the Jordan valley we meet up with a small group of Bedouin men and their cattle. The early afternoon temperature must be about 35-40C. We shake hands and give them bottled water and fruit. The tents of Bedouin people are a recurrent feature of the landscape, as are the narrow tracks that their goats have trod into the steep hillsides.

As elsewhere the rights of travelling groups such as these are deeply problematic for planning systems that assume that land rights can be rigidly fixed by drawing a line on a map. Thus the Bedouin, a people surviving at subsistence level, have been major victims of forced clearances and evictions.

The Jordan valley is green and flat, with the hills of Jordan on the opposite bank. The reason it is green is water, which is used to irrigate the commercial farming operated by settler communities. There are extensive areas of orchards, which contrast sharply with the colour, economy and poverty of (un-signposted) Palestinian villages nearby.

In the distance I can see the blue of the Dead Sea. It is retreating as the water supply from upstream is reduced, by settlements, irrigation and more extreme weather. This is a part

of the world where planning has failed. Integrated and inclusive planning offers a way to build a more consensual and sustainable future.