The Jerusalem Master Plan: Planning into the Conflict

by Francesco Chiodelli

This paper investigates the Jerusalem master Plan with reference to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem. the Jerusalem master Plan is the first comprehensive plan for the “whole” city (both the western and the eastern parts): for the first time, the comprehensive spatial vision of Jerusalem in the twenty-first century that the Israeli authorities aim to realize is clearly expressed. In particular, the paper focuses on the theme of housing: It analyses in detail the contents of the master plan, showing the different treatment of the arab and Jewish populations, and it reflects on the chances the different aspects of the plan have of being implemented. It is argued that the master plan is an integral part of a forty-year Israeli urban strategy concerning Jerusalem, aimed at encouraging Jewish residential settlement in the eastern part of the city (even if it presents some elements of discontinuity that are worth underlining).


Planning the Occupation

It is rather banal to state that space is both political and strategic and that, as a consequence, the design and organization
of space is a political and strategic activity. Notwithstanding that, planning is often considered an almost depoliticized activity or, at least, a progressive practice, ignoring “the position of planning as an arm of the modern nation-state … [and overlooking] the numerous instances in which planning functions as a form of deliberate social control and oppression exercised by elites over weaker groups.” But we only need to look at the urban contexts of tough social conflicts (for instance, at what Scott Bollens defines as “polarized” or “divided cities”) for planning to disclose all its non- neutrality.
This is precisely the case with Jerusalem, where planning is one of the privileged tools of a “low intensity war,” which combines the “dramatic violence of some events, really easy to be remembered because of the mass media interest (bombs, killings, missiles and bulldozers) … with slower and more consequential events (the construction of buildings, streets, tunnels) no less violent or destructive.” The Israeli- Palestinian conflict becomes, within the holy City, “a war of cement and stone.” The reason is quite clear: anyone who can physically dominate Jerusalem can decide the destiny of the city. To this end, the design and organization of space play a key role, and planning is the tool for achieving specific political aims.
The role of urban policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem has been well analysed by many scholars. However, the Jerusalem master Plan has not yet been analysed with reference to the conflict. the aim of this paper is to present such an analysis. The Jerusalem master Plan is actually a very significant document: it is the first comprehensive plan for the “whole” city (both West and East Jerusalem) since Israel occupied the Eastern part of the city in 1967. For the first time, the comprehensive and detailed spatial vision of Jerusalem in the twenty-first century that the Israeli authorities aim to realize is clearly expressed in an official document.

The Ultimate Aim of Israeli Urban Policies in Jerusalem

As is well known, Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 during the Six-day War and in 1980 declared the whole city, both the western part and the eastern occupied part, to be the “eternal and united” capital of the Jewish State. Nonetheless, the international community has never recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and Palestinians still claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. This is the reason why the main Israeli effort since the 1967 annexation has been to strengthen de facto its control over the whole city; the aim being to create “urban facts” which would make any future division of the city practically impossible. As Michael Romann and Alex Weingrod state, “the overall [Israeli] policy had as its main axiom the prevention of any possible future attempts to again divide the city or to cut off the occupied East Jerusalem territory from sovereign Israeli control.”according to oren Yiftachel, this purpose is reflected in the enactment of a parallel process of both “Judaization” (i.e. encouragement of Jewish settlements, in particular in the eastern part of the city) and “de-Arabization” (i.e. containment of Arab urban expansion).
To get an idea of the “Judaization” process it is sufficient to note that since 1967 the Israeli government has expropriated Palestinian land comprising approximately 35 percent of East Jerusalem’s surface territory (about 24.5 km²), mainly to build Jewish residential neighborhoods. Here almost 51,000 Jewish houses have been built, the majority of these constituting public housing built by the Israeli authorities (or with their support), and are dedicated exclusively for the Jewish population. In 2008 approximately 195,000 Jews lived in East Jerusalem (more than 38.9 percent of the Jewish Jerusalemites). Planning (together with urban policies) is a tool through which Judaization has been implemented.
At the same time, through planning, the Israeli authorities have also pursued the “de-Arabization” of the city, i.e. the containment of both urban and demographic expansion of the Arab population. more precisely, the urban containment has been carried out both as an end in itself, to leave territory free for Jewish settlements, and as a means to effect Arab demographic containment. in fact, one of the main problems Israel has had to face since the East Jerusalem annexation in 1967 has been Arab demographic growth being greater than Jewish demographic growth. Despite the Israeli authorities’ blunt intentions to keep the “balance 70-30” (i.e. 70 percent Jews, 30 percent arabs) and all the attempts made in this direction, the demographic balance has continued to shift in favor of the Arab population. In 1967 the whole city of Jerusalem hosted about 266,300 inhabitants, 74 percent of them Jewish and 25.8 percent Arab; in 2011 the city’s population reached 789,000 inhabitants, 63.9 percent Jewish and 36.1 percent arab. According to projections for Jerusalem in the year 2020 the city’s total population might grow to 958,000 inhabitants, 61.2 percent Jewish (587,200) and 38.8 percent arab (371,100). As Eyal Weizman states, “the policy of maintaining ‘demographic balance’ has informed the underlying logic of almost every master plan prepared for the city’s development.”

The Jerusalem Master Plan

During his second tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert began work on designing a local outline scheme for Jerusalem, the so-called “Jerusalem master Plan 2000.” the last outline plan for the city in fact dated back to 1959 (local Plan no. 62). Not even after the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 did the Israeli authorities provide the city with a comprehensive plan, excepting one abortive attempt in the 1970s. The need to give a city like Jerusalem, experiencing such great expansion, an up-to-date and comprehensive plan became increasingly more pressing until, in 2000, Olmert launched the Jerusalem Master Plan project.
After some years of work, the first version of the master plan, known as Report No. 4, was officially presented in September 2004 by Uri Lupolianski, the Jerusalem mayor who succeeded Olmert. The plan was approved by the local planning committee only in April 2007, and it continued to be discussed by the district planning committee until may 2008. However, in November 2008 Nir Barkat was elected mayor of Jerusalem, and immediately asked to delay the plan’s ratification. In May 2009, Barkat submitted to the district planning committee his requests for changes to the plan.
The situation was further complicated by the intervention, in June 2009, of Eliyahu Yishai, the new minister of the interior. Yishai asked that the plan be returned to the local commission for deliberation because, in his opinion, the changes introduced by the district commission were too favorable to the Arab Jerusalemites. In the autumn of 2010 a revised version of the plan was submitted for public reaction.
To date the plan has still not received final approval. Nonetheless, even without that approval, the plan is the frame of reference for current planning decisions in Jerusalem. As mayor Nir Barkat states: “the master plan has been publicly discussed for five years in the local and district planning committees, and now practically everyone is working according to this plan, although it is not yet official.”

A Political Plan

Like other comparable planning documents, the Jerusalem Master Plan deals with different fields, including archaeology, tourism, economy, education, transport, the environment and others, while pursuing different goals. The Jerusalem Master Plan represents the overall vision which the Israeli municipality, according to the Israeli Government, aims to realize. Because of the importance of the city’s spatial configuration relative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the master plan is not simply the result of technical urban planning based on technical considerations, but also, and above all else, it is the expression of a specific political project.
The fact that a spatial plan also has a political dimension is not surprising. As horst W. J. rittel and Melvin Webber maintain, “Planning is a component of politics. there is no escaping that truism.” this is true everywhere; in a context of tough ethnic and social conflict it naturally becomes more evident. This is the case with Jerusalem. here, as i shall argue, the technical contents of the plan do not only have a deep political sense, but they also act as a sort of “veil of Maya” disguising the real political aims pursued by the design of space. When this veil is lifted, the plan reveals the real intention of the politics. the master plan becomes incontrovertible physical evidence of Israel’s long-term political projects.

The Housing Theme

The Jerusalem Master Plan is a complex document, largely because its two different sets of goals, the political and the technical, are intertwined. to go deeply into its content an operation of dissection is useful to distinguish “general” statements from the more “substantive” ones.
All these statements have both political and a technical dimensions. However, the “general” statements are mainly rhetorical, sometimes operating as a veil masking the substantive contents of the plan. In contrast, “substantive” statements may properly be considered as the technical contents of the plan, relating to spatial design; they enable us to discern the specific urban transformations related to the master plan and, in consequence, isolate the “facts on the ground” the Israeli authorities aim to create.
To fully comprehend the spatial transformations related to the plan, it is important also to compare the plan’s substantive contents to the current urban context and the other urban policies to which the plan’s implementation is related. In this way it is possible to discover which provisions of the plan are really achievable and, conversely, which provisions appear to be non-achievable.

General Statements

Reading the master plan at the level of general statements gives the impression that it assiduously seeks to present itself as a technical document attempting to resolve all Jerusalem’s urban problems in a neutral way, without any discrimination, and regardless of political issues connected with city governance.
For instance, the plan never refers to the occupied status of East Jerusalem, never addresses the criticism of the building of new houses in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and does not acknowledge the tensions and conflicts between Arabs and Jews in some areas of the city like the so-called holy Basin, or Silwan. All the contents of the plan are presented as if they were situated in a neutral, non-problematic and apolitical space.
At the same time, the plan professes a desire to treat both the Jewish and the arab populations in the same way. For instance, the very first lines of Report No. 4 claim that one of the main purposes of the plan is to ensure “an urban quality of life for all the residents [emphasis added]” and “to preserve the special character of the city as a world city, sacred to the three major monotheistic religions of the world, and at the same time to create a living and vibrant city providing its citizens with a high level and quality of life.”

At the level of general statements, the Jerusalem Master Plan seems to break away, at least partially, from the discriminatory character of the urban policies implemented in Jerusalem since 1967 by the Israeli authorities. In the past these policies have always neglected and often harmed the Palestinian neighborhoods, so that nowadays they are characterized by conditions of acute urban decay, such as lack of services, the spread of precarious and unauthorized houses, and other problems. On the contrary, the plan declares the need to fix the problems of the Arab areas: for instance it declares the necessity to solve the problem of inadequate infrastructure and to meet the Arab population’s enormous demand for residential building.
It is worth underlining the fact that the plan also breaks a sort of taboo in Israeli politics: it declares impracticable a demographic balance of 70:30 (Jews to Arabs, respectively) and certifies that the most likely demographic scenario is a ratio of 60:40 between Jews and Arabs respectively. It is this latter scenario that the plan adopts as a basis for planning provision.

Substantive Statements

At the level of general statements the master plan might appear to deal with the problems of both Jews and arabs in a “balanced way,” without any discrimination; nonetheless, an analysis of the substantive contents of the plan clearly reveals an unequal treatment of Arabs and Jews.
In general terms, the plan proposes two main strategies to guarantee new buildings: densification and expansion. In the first case, the addition of residential units within existing urbanized areas can be realized mainly through increasing the actual limits on height or volume; in the second case, the plan proposes the expansion of existing neighborhoods and the construction of new residential neighborhoods on the outskirts.
These two strategies are managed differently depending on the population group involved: most of the proposed increase in Jewish building (62.4 percent) will take place through expansion; in contrast the proposed increase in residential building for the Arab population through expansion is only 44.3 percent.

Table 1. Residential expansion proposed by the Master Plan (nominal capacity)*.

Source: Jerusalem Municipality, Local Outline Plan, chapter 4, 32-38).


Master plan data
Jerusalem Master Plan figure 1


The difference in treatment may also be related to a technical reason: the urban fabric of arab neighborhoods is sparser and has a lower density in comparison with Jewish neighborhoods and, thus, densification is more feasible in the former. However, this technical factor is probably not the main reason for the difference in treatment: that appears to be political. Densification and expansion are dissimilar in terms of territorial outcomes. Densification, unlike expansion, does not entail territorial occupation/consumption. So, from an israeli point of view,it is a very convenient strategy to provide arab housing without territorial enlargement of arab neighborhoods; on the other hand, expansion is a very convenient strategy to increase the housing supply for the Jewish population and at the same time to increase Jewish territorial occupation.(*) The master plan’s data concerning residential expansions are divided into nominal capacity and real capacity. real capacity refers to the share expected to be realized by 2020. In my analysis what is important is the nominal capacity: it concerns the overall building capacity allowed by the plan.

The hypothesis of a politically oriented use of these techniques in relation to housing supply is confirmed by the fact that much of the Jewish residential increase is expected to be within East Jerusalem. In total, the Jerusalem Master Plan allows more than 37,000 new residential units (by expansion or densification) within the occupied territories of East Jerusalem. For example, according to the plan, the Gilo and Har Homa neighborhoods, located in the southern part of East Jerusalem, are expected to double: they have an additional rated capacity of 7,808 units (6,548 through expansion) and 8,105 units (7,728 through expansion) respectively. the plan does not provide any estimates of the land area to be occupied by these new expansions.
however an overall idea can be drawn from Figure 1, realized according to the maps contained in report no 4.
With reference to arab neighborhoods, the additional building capacity proposed by the plan amounts to 32,630 new residential units. the majority of this capacity (55.7 percent) is to be carried out by densification; expansions relate to the enlargement of the Beit hanina, Jabel mukhbar and al Walaja neighborhoods. on paper, the building capacity proposed by the plan is quantitatively considerable: 32,630 new units against existing property estimated (in 2004) at 38,226 units (this does not take into account the 15,000 unauthorized buildings).

Nevertheless, even if the provisions of the master plan will be fully implemented, by 2020, according to Souad nasr-makhoul, 100,000 Arab residents will lack housing. moreover, as I will argue in the following section, it is quite likely that these provisions will remain a paper proposal because of the many constraints concerning the realization of new buildings in Arab neighborhoods.

Opportunities of Residential Expansion

As is well known, all the contents of a plan are merely hypothetical: their implementation is related to many factors, largely independent of the plan itself. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on the chances that the contents of the Jerusalem Master Plan have of being implemented.
With reference to Jewish neighborhoods, there is a good chance that the provisions of the plan will be fully implemented. this is suggested in part by the pace of expansion of Jewish building in East Jerusalem in the last decade (an expansion which has been always directly supported and promoted by the Israeli authorities). There are no signs of a future change in this regard. It is also corroborated by the detailed plans that, according to Daniel Seidemann, have been approved or submitted in the last few years. the approved detailed plans for 393 new houses at Neve Ya’acov and for 2,337 new houses at Givat Hamatos C correspond to expansion areas in the master plan. this is also the case in relation to the detailed plans submitted for 105 new houses at Ramot and 983 at Har Homa.
On the contrary, if we compare the Jerusalem Master Plan’s contents regarding Arab neighborhoods with the status quo of East Jerusalem and with ordinary urban policies, the plan’s proposals for extra Arab housing appear to be largely non- achievable. this is particularly true if the problem of unauthorized buildings is taken into account.41 the master plan dedicates only a few lines to this subject.
It simply determines the number of unauthorized residential units in the Arab areas (approximately 15,000, or 28 percent of the total), but it does not take into consideration their distribution, as if this does not matter. The result is that the provisions of the plan (in particular regarding the densification process) risk being unfeasible. The majority of the 15,000 unauthorized Arab residential units are comprised of stories added to existing housing without a building permit; the densification proposed by the plan in the Arab areas has already occurred, although in an unauthorized manner. The spaces the plan devotes to densification are already occupied and have been for many years. The possible results of this situation are twofold: first, an ex post process of regularization on the basis of the plan’s proposals; and second, the interruption of many processes of densification proposed by the plan, with blame for this attributed to unauthorized building. Given the policies implemented in past years by the municipality (opposed to every kind of regularization, and mainly grounded on demolition) and the failure of the plan to mention the necessity to implement any regularization process, the most probable outcome seems to be the second.
Generally speaking, the idea expressed by the Jerusalem Master Plan is that unauthorized residential development has essentially both a political and economic nature, and that the solution should exclusively be the demolition of unauthorized housing. no more discussion is devoted to this matter. However, to describe the unauthorized building phenomenon as merely a problem of public order signifies a lack of awareness of the deeper reasons for this phenomenon. there are many causes of unauthorized building, but the main one is certainly connected with urban policies and bureaucratic mechanisms implemented by the israeli municipality itself. In particular, illegal housing construction is directly connected to the extreme difficulty, for an Arab inhabitant, of obtaining a building permit. The reasons offered are quite different. For instance, it is not possible to obtain building permits in areas characterized by an infrastructure shortage: this is a characteristic of many Arab neighborhoods, and the blame lies entirely with the Israeli municipality. Moreover, it is not possible to obtain any building permit within areas where no detailed plan has been approved: many arab districts are not provided with these kinds of plans and (as the master plan itself highlights) this is again a fault of the Israeli municipal planning policy. In addition to that, there are also several problems connected with the land registration system or the very high cost of building permits. These problems have existed for many decades, but the Israeli authorities never tackled them. To sum up, as Nathan Maron states, “illegal construction on such a massive scale does not indicate contempt for the rule of law, as the municipality would have it. … it indicates, rather, a profound failure on the part of the planning system itself.”
Essentially, if the ordinary urban policies of the israeli administration are not recognized as preventing arab building, and if any real solution is to be found to this problem, the destiny of Arab residential expansion and densification proposed by the master plan is to remain a paper exercise. if during the next ten years the level of permits issued remains the same as in past decades (about 100-150 per year), the building capacity of 26,462 housing units for arabs provided by 2020 will be reduced to at least one-fifth.
It is worth emphasizing that not only do parts of the provisions related to Arab areas risk remaining a paper exercise, but also that some of the contents of the Jerusalem Master Plan appear “deceptive.” This is particularly evident when we consider the fact that the plan completely ignores the spatial impact of the wall.
The completion of the wall will completely alter Jerusalem’s urban conformation. It represents the most relevant transformation of the city since 1967. Very large swathes of West Bank territory, where a large number of the most important Israeli settlements in the West Bank around Jerusalem are located, will be physically annexed to israel (and to Jerusalem). Moreover (and this is the most relevant factor to our discussion) the wall will exclude several Arab neighborhoods from Jerusalem. This is the case of Samiramis, Kafr Aqab, Shu‘fat refugee camp, Ras Khamis, Dahiyat As Salam, and Al Walaja (fig. 2). These neighborhoods are inhabited by almost 55,000 Arab Jerusalemites. Officially, these neighborhoods are still part of Jerusalem (they are located within the municipal borders, although they are situated on the eastern side of the wall). In real terms, however, the wall’s construction has actually excluded these areas from Jerusalem and from the control of the Israeli authorities. as Yakir Segev (who holds the “East Jerusalem portfolio” in the Jerusalem municipality) argues, “the Jerusalem municipality has no hand in managing these neighborhoods, and doesn’t have the power to address the difficult situation facing the 55,000 people who live there. […] [these neighborhoods] are outside the jurisdiction of the state, and certainly the municipality.
For all practical purposes, they are [located in] Ramallah.”


Jerusalem Master Plan figure 2
Despite that, the plan does not take into account the territorial outcomes of the wall; it simply declares that this will create some “complicated situations” to be treated case by case. In consequence, the plan continues to include the residential additions expected within these areas in the total count of Arab housing capacity in Jerusalem, as if living on the western side of the wall or on the eastern side makes no difference: at Al Walaja, the plan allows one of the greatest new expansions intended for the Arab population (2,400 new buildings); at Kafr Akav it allows densifications for 1,120 housing units; at Shu‘fat densification for 975 units. the Arab neighborhoods on the eastern side of the wall in Jerusalem are de facto excluded from Jerusalem; as a consequence it does not seem proper to consider the 4,500 new housing units located here as part of the Jerusalem residential capacity.
Similarly, many others statements about Arab neighborhoods contained in the master plan seem to have a small probability of being carried out. For instance, the plan claims the necessity to “create tools (including governmental assistance) that will facilitate the establishment of neighborhoods by public building,” but public buildings in Jerusalem have almost always been devoted only to the Jewish population it states that “the unsatisfactory engineering infrastructure in the east part of the city requires allocation of resources in a huge scale,” but public budgets allocated for Arab neighborhood facilities have always been very insufficient (meir margalit argues that “although Palestinian Jerusalemites constitute 33 percent of the city’s total population, the amount of the municipal budget invested in East Jerusalem ranges from 8.5 percent to 11.75 percent”). With regard to all these policies, there are no signs of a future change in the israeli authorities’ attitude.


Analysis of the Jerusalem Master Plan shows how, passing from “general statements” to “substantive contents,” and from the contents of the master plan to real opportunities for development, there is an increasing restriction of the development possibilities of Arab neighborhoods. this development is as balanced and wide as is necessary to meet the present and future needs of the Arab population in the statements of principle. It is rather unbalanced when we analyse the substantive contents of the plan. It is insufficient (and sometimes just rhetorical) in terms of real opportunities.
Therefore, even if the plan tends to present itself as merely a technical tool (and at first sight it may even seem to be a progressive planning document able to meet the needs of Arab Jerusalemites), deeper analysis of the feasibility of its contents shows the master plan for what it really is: a tool for encouraging Jewish settlement in the eastern part of the city, while it pays little attention to the real needs of the Arab population. Consequently, the Jerusalem Master Plan can be considered the most recent and comprehensive part of the Israeli “Judaization” strategy. Nonetheless, it presents some elements of discontinuity with regard to urban policies implemented by the Israeli authorities in Jerusalem since 1967. For instance, it explicitly recognizes the need to solve the problem of inadequate infrastructure in Arab neighborhoods and the need to meet the enormous demand for residential building by the Arab population. moreover, probably for the first time in an official Israeli document, the impracticability of a 70:30 Jewish-Arab demographic balance is stated. it is not by chance that the plan has been strongly resisted by the Israeli right wing. Of course, as I have argued, all these statements have a rhetorical value beyond the substantive value and they will probably have little real effectiveness in modifying the practical situation with regard to Arab neighborhoods.

The Jerusalem Master Plan

Francesco Chiodelli (;, PhD, teaches Spatial and Urban Analysis at the Faculty of Architecture of the Politecnico di Milano. His research focuses mainly on themes of planning theory and urban conflicts, with particular attention to the spatial dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to questions of liberty, pluralism and tolerance in public and private spaces. He has published several studies on Jerusalem, including a recent monograph, Gerusalemme contesa. dimensioni urbane di un conflitto (Roma: Carocci, 2012).


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