Amid a stalled peace process and an increasingly hopeless political atmosphere, a growing number of young Palestinians are betting that they can design their way into a better future. In Forefront this week, journalist Joseph Dana talks to these proactive architects and designers to find out how Palestine’s unlikely sustainability movement came into being — and where it is likely to go.
The 10th-century Arab traveler and scribe Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Al-maqdisi once described Jerusalem as “a golden goblet full of scorpions.” Eleven centuries later, Jerusalem remains the beating heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a primary place of interest for Palestinian urban planners.
Along the road connecting Jerusalem and Ramallah sits the shabby village of Kufr Aqab. It feels lawless: There are no traffic lights, no crosswalks and a near-constant display of garbage clogging the streets. The village is buttressed on its eastern flank by the Israeli separation barrier, a 12-foot-high concrete wall complete with imposing guard towers. Kufr Aqab looks like a forlorn West Bank village, but it is not. The village became part of Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, in which the Jewish state took control over the eastern part of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Currently, Kufr Aqab exists in the impossible position of being on the West Bank side of the barrier, but still within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality. Residents pay city taxes and get little in return. Garbage is collected once every two weeks, water access is infrequent and the Jerusalem police rarely enter.
Kufr Aqab is not the Jerusalem promised by Mayor Nir Barkat in his sleek rebranding campaign for the contested holy city. The neighborhood does not have working garbage disposal system or sidewalks. Driving through, classic stereotypes of maniac Middle Eastern drivers seem apt as one is forced to carefully negotiate potholed streets with no working traffic lights. Without regular trash pickup from the city government, residents resort to burning garbage. As a consequence, dull, thick smoke covers everything with a toxic film. The area is a literal gray zone within the occupation’s strained geography.
Despite its noxious environment, Kufr Aqab is booming. Rents have reached highs unthinkable a few years ago. Developers are swooping into build narrow concrete apartment buildings in alleyways. Bordered by the separation wall and the United Nations-administered refugee camp of Qalandia, Kufr Aqab is unable to expand outward and thus expands upward. Tall apartment buildings can’t be built fast enough to satisfy the demand.
Part of the reason is intermarriage. Love knows few boundaries and neighborhoods like Kufr Aqab, inside Jerusalem but on the West Bank side of the separation barrier, are ideal places for mixed couples to settle.
In a situation of total confinement and virtually zero public resources, the community has stepped in to take control over its neighborhood. Community members patrol their streets at night and handle the episodic crime though a traditional vigilante system.
Enter former Israeli soldier Micha Kurz and Grassroots Jerusalem, a non-profit organization that stepped in to fill the void left by a dysfunctional municipality. After returning from a stint of post-army international travel, Kurz became active in various political movements critical of Israel’s occupation. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he decided to focus his energy close to home. He started his non-profit to provide needs-based assessments of places like Kufr Aqab, neighborhoods long forgotten by the municipality. Arming locals with cellphones connected to an elaborate database, Grassroots Jerusalem has been quietly collecting accurate data concerning the needs of Jerusalemites. In effect, it does the job that the city won’t in Palestinian neighborhoods.
“Israel might take care of issues like water, waste management and maybe even build some new schools in the near term,” Kurz, 31, explains over the din of a bustling West Jerusalem cafe. “But they will do with this without working according to community-based plans. In a sense, the city will do this without any Palestinian leadership within the development.”
“The plan is completely top-down in the sense that Palestinians don’t even have access to the plans,” Kurz adds. “They will watch it happen outside their door. Keep in mind that many Palestinians have not voted for this government and basically have no say whatsoever. They can’t even read the plans because they are in Hebrew.”
Kurz’s long-term vision is to build an infrastructure for civic involvement that incorporates Palestinians into the process. As a former soldier, he isn’t naïve about the unlikely prospect of tearing down the concrete separation walls that cut off Kufr Aqab. Instead, he is focused on piercing the cultural and structural divide that leaves the neighborhood in ugly limbo.
“We are not going to end the occupation,” he said. “But we can encourage the Palestinian population of Jerusalem to become more active in how the city is running, whether through needs-based assessments of neighborhoods or simple translation help. The goal is greater participation in how the city is run.”
It’s a goal that rolls off the tongue easy enough, but what does Palestinian participation in East Jerusalem look like in practice?