Palestine entered the twentieth century with a number of large to middle-sized cities and towns that formed part of a regional urban network.
During the late Ottoman period, cities such as Nablus, Bir al-Sabi‘, Jaffa, Acre, and Haifa were important nodes in commercial and social networks encompassing Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut, Cairo, and beyond. Other cities, such as Jerusalem, Hebron, Nazareth, and Gaza City, were also important urban centers with extensive regional connections. Ottoman urban planning schemes included the creation of public spaces and monuments, infrastructural investments in roads and railroads, and a building boom. The coastal cities of Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre were incorporated into the expanding capitalist world economy and regional markets. Jaffa port was developed to deal with a burgeoning tourism and pilgrimage industry.
Further expansion of the coastal cities occurred after the establishment of the British Mandate. Jaffa and Haifa’s populations increased as a result of peasant migration from the rural hinterland, increasing Jewish immigration, and the establishment of Zionist colonies within the confines of the cities.
Jerusalem, with its central importance as an administrative and religious center, also expanded during the years of the British Mandate, and significant extension of the city’s boundaries took place with the establishment of new Palestinian upper middle class suburbs to the west, north, and east of the city. Haifa also experienced an expansion of its geographic reach with the establishment of new neighborhoods. Similarly, in Gaza City new residential and commercial neighborhoods, populated mostly by the propertied and commercial class, were established during the Mandate era.
During the years of the British Mandate, the coastal cities of Haifa, Jaffa, and the inland city of Jerusalem witnessed a flourishing of a modern public sphere including the printed press; community institutions of a political, educational, literary, and economic nature; and places of leisure and entertainment. A modern urban culture was being crafted by an emerging bourgeoisie, middle class, and nascent proletariat.
However, in some cities, the urbanizing trajectory was being thwarted by Jewish immigration and colonization during the Mandate. This was the case for instance of Jaffa being overshadowed by the colony of Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, where Zionist colonies were being established in the western and northern parts of the city. Haifa and Akka are two other cities where colonists settled, thus foreshadowing the loss of the Palestinian demographic and political majority in these cities.
The Nakba had far-reaching and dramatic consequences for urban life in Palestine. In the territory that was conquered by Israel, some cities—Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, Acre, Ramla, Bir al-Sabi‘ and the western part of Jerusalem—lost the vast majority of their Palestinian populations due to expulsion and forced flight. The cities were rapidly colonized by Jewish settlers and lost their Palestinian character.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Palestinians who became de facto citizens of Israel continued to live in isolated urban enclaves surrounded by Jewish Israelis. Some cities, like Nazareth, increased in population because of migration of internally displaced Palestinians and others from the surrounding countryside after 1948. However, the planned city of Natzeret ‘Ilit, built on confiscated Palestinian land in the late 1950s as part of the state strategy of maintaining a Jewish majority in the Galilee, encircles and contains the expansion of Palestinian Nazareth, the largest urban concentration of Palestinians in lands colonized in 1948.
In Jaffa, a process of land appropriation for Zionist colonies has resulted in the ghettoization of the native Palestinian population and its concentration in poor neighborhoods, such as in the once-elegant Ajami neighborhood, home to the nascent Palestinian middle and upper middle class during the British Mandate. Gentrification of old parts of Jaffa and its conversion into gated communities and artists’ quarters has resulted in a drastic change in the character of Jaffa. The segregation, ghettoization, and enclavization of Palestinians who remained within their native cities after 1948 occurred in Acre, Ramla, Lydda, and many other towns and cities. In Haifa, for example, the Palestinian population was concentrated in a ghettoized enclave of Wadi Nisnas and its surrounding area.
The Nakba left a substantial imprint on the remaining nonoccupied part of Palestine as well. Some cities, like Gaza City, were overwhelmed with refugees, and the demographic and class profile of the city was forever changed. With the advent of Egyptian rule in the Gaza Strip, the area was transformed into a blockaded enclave that persists to this day. In the West Bank, Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, and Bethlehem remained as the main urban population centers and began to attract more migrants from the surrounding areas. However, Jordanian policy favored the development of the future metropolis of Amman, now home to a majority Palestinian population. Waves of educated and skilled emigrants from the West Bank to Jordan and the Gulf states further disadvantaged Palestinian urban centers.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 led, in turn, to transformations, some of which are reminiscent of the fate that befell Palestinian towns in Israel after 1948. Jerusalem underwent the most significant transformation in its geography and political institutions after 1967. Vast colonial settlements began to ring the city and dig deep into the eastern part, previously an exclusively Palestinian area. East Jerusalem is today a besieged community surrounded by Jewish colonies, the separation wall, and various other forms of security barriers and checkpoints.
Furthermore, building is severely restricted, and Israeli plans to realize a Jewish majority in the “unified” city of Jerusalem have meant the revocation of thousands of residency permits to East Jerusalem Palestinians as a result of the “center of life” policy implemented in 1995. Taken together, these developments—the restriction of geographic expansion and building and the threat of withdrawal of residency status-- have spawned an emerging landscape of urban satellite communities in previously rural areas such as Kafr Aqab, Anata, and Shu‘fat. Kafr Aqab and Shu‘fat village and refugee camp, both within the expanded Jerusalem municipality limits, have been transformed into multistory dense settlements with little public services for Jerusalemite Palestinians who want to maintain their Jerusalem residency status and avoid high rents in East Jerusalem. It is also a refuge for Jerusalemites and their West Bank spouses denied residency in Jerusalem.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, the Israeli colonial restriction on municipal expansion and the granting of building permits, coupled with demolition of structures built without permits (especially in Jerusalem and what Israel considers, since the Oslo Agreement, as Area C, which constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank area) has meant a vertical expansion of building in areas available to the cities, usually in the form of multistory apartment buildings, a feature that has become pervasive in Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, and many smaller towns and even villages. Real estate speculation and the steep rise in land prices around urban centers (mostly in Area A), as well as the availability of bank loans to middle-class white collar workers are the main drivers of urbanization in the West Bank. Local and Arab investors and capitalists have had the support of the Palestinian Authority and international financial institutions and aid agencies, reflecting a trend found throughout the Arab region of a partnership between capital and state and municipal authorities as the main shapers of urban development.
In the twenty-first century, Ramallah has emerged as the major Palestinian urban center in the West Bank following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. In terms of political importance and attracting migrants, it has surpassed Jerusalem, Nablus, and Hebron, historically major centers of administration, trade, and manufacturing in the West Bank. A globalized middle class lifestyle has taken hold in Ramallah and is being replicated in other cities.
Palestinian urban history is also a history of resistance to colonialism and popular mobilization. The major cities of Palestine, Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa, were sites of political organizing and protest during the Mandate period. Resistance activities in previously Palestinian cities after 1948 have been limited because of the dispersal and enclavization of the Palestinian population, but Nazareth has maintained its role as a hub of Palestinian political activism, especially since the 1970s. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 occupation, a vibrant resistance movement sprang up in the major cities and towns, including the many refugee camps that had become part of the urban social fabric. Nablus’s old town stands out for its resistance to the Israeli army’s incursions during the second intifada, especially from 2000 to 2005.
Palestinian urbanization has been a part of and has entailed major social transformations in class dynamics and relations, productive activities, social composition, lifestyles, the organization of space, and the relation between the city and the countryside. Social groups and strata have risen and fallen during this historical trajectory of urbanization and have left their mark on the social world of city dwellers.
Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700–1900. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
Hilal, Jamil and Abaher El-Sakka. A Reading on the Socio Urban Changes in Ramallah and Kufur Aqab. Birzeit: Birzeit University, Center for Development Studies, 2015.
Khalidi, Walid. Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876–1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984; btd.palestine-studies.org
Seikaly, May. Haifa: Transformation of an Arab Society 1918–1939. London: I.B. Tauris, 2002.
Tamari, Salim. Mountain Against the Sea: Essays on Palestinian Society and Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.
Tamari, Salim, ed. Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighbourhoods and their Fate in the War, 2d ed. Ramallah: The Institute of Jerusalem Studies and Badil Resource Center, 2002.
“The Palestinian City’s Cultural, Political, Social and Urban Transformation,” Jadal, nos. 27-28 (2016); mada-research.org
Taraki, Lisa. “Enclave Micropolis; The Paradoxical Case of Ramallah/al-Bireh.” Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no.4 (2008): 6–20.