The history of Palestinian built environment and urbanization has been shaped by policies, introduced during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire
, that controlled and managed Palestinian space. The Ottomans introduced various policies and systems – the tanzimat (reforms), centralization, modernization, land settlement and parcellization, planning and taxation systems – that were designed to enable the level of population control and land management required by an empire that was struggling to locate itself globally. The development of planned cities such as
Radical transformations in the built environment have taken place since the late nineteenth century, the result of socioeconomic and geopolitical processes. The shift in land ownership from communal to private and the shift from an agro-based family economy to a wage-based economy changed the architectural forms, construction industry, and layout of villages and towns. The traditional courtyard houses (ahwash) that evolved around kinship ties and were grouped together around winding alleys to form neighborhoods (harat) gave way to modern planning, complete with use-zoning maps and the construction of individual mansions or linear multistory mixed-use buildings along wider streets.
By the turn of the twentieth century, new architectural forms started to emerge, reflecting an accelerated process of village and town urbanization. Soon after their conquest of Palestine, the British authorities issued a Town Planning Ordinance (1921) that created Palestine planning institutions and their respective powers. After several amendments to the text, the Mandate authorities issued (in 1936) a second Ordinance that established a less centralized system. It empowered each Local Building and Town Planning Commission, under the control of the District Commission, to prepare a detailed town planning scheme to determine not only the allotment of land for public purposes (roads, gardens, schools, cemeteries, and so on); or the “objects of archaeological interest or beauty” that would be preserved; but also the size, height, design and external appearance of new buildings. This explains for instance the compulsory use of stones in several regions of Mandate Palestine .
The British Mandate speeded up the transformations in Palestinian communities and left a clear “Western” influence on life in general and on the built environment in particular; new styles (such as neoclassic) and new technologies (such as reinforced concrete) began to dominate construction. Further concentration of population occurred in
These relatively smooth transformations to the built environment in Palestine ended abruptly with the cataclysmic event in 1948 that is referred to by Palestinians as the
In the part of Palestine that came to be known as the
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 halted nascent Palestinian efforts to introduce an international architectural style locally. During the period of total Israeli control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (1967–1993), the Israeli military authorities controlled planning processes. Like all colonial regimes, Israel used planning and land management as a tool to control land and to keep the Palestinians within easily governed spaces. Israel’s regional planning policy in the West Bank during this period (which bore the strong imprint of Moshe Dayan , Defense Minister between 1967 and 1974) was based on two concepts: economic integration of the whole West Bank to Israel (which implied a relaxation of restrictions on movement of Palestinians, mainly labour, and a certain degree of autonomy given to Palestinian municipalities); encirclement of Palestinians towns and villages by zones allocated for theme parks, military zones, and Jewish settlement activities, the integration of settlements with Israel and the construction of huge road networks to connect the settlements to Israel. (Despite Palestinian population growth during this period, the occupation's "town planning“ permitted the expansion of the towns’ built-up areas only once during the 1970s.)
In the Gaza Strip, the spatial dimension of Israel’s policy of conquest of the land and control of people took other forms. Israel tried to empty the refugee camps by encouraging refugees to settle in the West Bank and by expelling thousands of relatives of militants to the
With the “Oslo era” (which began in 1993), the West Bank and Gaza Strip have experienced a building boom that has dramatically changed the physical composition of the Palestinian landscape. By the end of the twentieth century, town architecture provides sharp contrast between vernacular and contemporary settings. At the center of the Palestinian villages and towns are clusters of soft-colored traditional houses, their gentle domes blending naturally with the rolling surrounding hills. Scattered around the historic centers are more recent additions of large, multistory, individual or clustered buildings and houses, built of smoothly cut limestone blocks, concrete walls, and flat roofs furnished with antennas, satellite dishes, plastic water tanks, and solar panels. These new constructions that encroach on the agricultural lands and the public/common lands have no organic link with the past architectural heritage and, in addition, traditional construction methods, building crafts, and skills are nearing extinction with the retirement and death of master builders and craftspeople.
The Oslo Agreement
brought about unmistakable transformations on architecture and planning in the occupied territories. The agreement divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, each with a different relation to the State of Israel. The
After 1993, urbanization processes in the Gaza Strip have been characterized by the development of the main roads, an airport, a harbor, hotels, residential and commercial towers (abraj), and summer beach houses (chalets). However, with limited space and ad hoc planning,