“The Two Faces of Ramallah” / Download the map in high resolution (7.8 MB) (license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0)
I stayed in Ramallah a few weeks ago and was thus able to observe the amount of buildings that have been or are being built since my last two visits in Palestine (2008 and 2010). The argument that I would like to make throughout this text is that these recent developments are symptomatic of a chasm between, on the one hand, the Palestinian authority and the emergence of a bourgeoisie within the Palestinian society and, on the other hand, the rest of the Palestinian population and the refugees in particular. This chasm is particularly visible when experiencing the urbanism of Ramallah and a division we can generalize in defining it as separating the Northern-Western hilly part of the city from the Southern-Eastern one that will be the topic of the following article.
As the map intends to show, the Southern-Eastern part of the city is directly confronted to the occupation. Qalandiya checkpoint is the military passage that Palestinians with permits use the most to go to Jerusalem. The Area A corridor along which the most Southern part of the city is built — this includes the refugee camp of Qalandiya — and that extends to the checkpoint is also the only route to the Southern cities of the West Bank (Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho). The regular traffic jams along this road reminds us of the impossibility for the city to be relieved from this congestion between the apartheid wall and the limits of Area C, where the Israeli army exercises full control. Furthermore, when using this unique axis of communication, one cannot ignore the view to the Israeli settlements of Psagot (see photograph 14) and Kochav Ya’Akov (see photograph 15). Similarly in the North-East, Area C in general and the Israeli settlement of Beit El and its military basis in particular, constitute a solid barrier preventing the city to develop. These parts of the city, like every other Palestinian cities have no choice but to be visually and empirically confronted to the occupation on a daily basis.
The Southern-Eastern part of Ramallah is however different. A few years ago, its hills were almost untouched and only the far-away antenna of Dolev, a relatively small Israeli settlement (1,195 inhabitants) and the abandoned construction site in Ein Qiniya (see old article) were markers of human activity. In 2009, Salam Fayyad, then Prime Minister engaged an intensive program of economic/real estate development of Ramallah with the explicit condition of ignoring the occupation. In this regard, it is not innocent that the symbol of such program was the 28-floor-tall Palestine Trade Tower, a building with no other architectural identity than the classic indicators of illusory opulence, which opened in 2012. Before really engaging the architectural form of Ramallah’s development, let’s continue addressing the question of its aesthetic. The proper of urban aesthetic is to recount the vision of society proposed by the various actors of its buildings. An opulent aesthetic thus strikes us as particularly inappropriate in a society whose overwhelming majority of members suffer in one way or another of an occupation. However, sometimes the aesthetics of opulence is pushed to the extent that Palestinian new housing developments appear as extremely similar as the neighboring Israeli settlements. This is how, in 2012, I had written an article entitled “Architectural Stockholm Syndrome” about a particular Palestinian ‘settlement’ still in construction during my last visit in 2010. This development is now inhabited and further construction is now being conducted as the photograph below illustrate.
Aesthetic is fundamental in the way it construct our political imaginaries. Nevertheless, we should go beyond architecture’s appearance and also insist on the actual spatial characteristics of these new developments. Similarly to many places in the world, the emergence of a bourgeoisie within a society encourages its living urban space to be segregated from the rest of the city. What I call the Palestinian ‘settlementization’ constitutes an effort of the Ramallah bourgeoisie in this direction. A look at the group of buildings mentioned above, as well as another one, even more recent (see photo below) is certainly indicative of such an isolationist defensive agenda, facilitated by the topography as the Israeli settlements themselves have been instrumentalizing for decades. As if there was not already enough walls and gates in the region, these Palestinian settlements reinforce architecturally that against what they are supposed to struggle. On the Western side of the wall, Tel Aviv is well-known as “the Bubble,” in opposition to Jerusalem where the political antagonism is more tangible; in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority and the new bourgeoisie have also managed to create a bubble on the Eastern side of the wall.
This description of the new building developments in Ramallah intends to show that their architecture is the symptom of a broader political problem. There is a Palestinian political and economic elite that develops itself despite — we might want to go as far as saying “thanks to” — the occupation. The current prospects in view of the creation of a Palestinian state will do nothing else than crystalizing this hierarchy, as it is doubtful that the higher social classes renounce the wealth they accumulated during the fifty years of the occupation. When considering the hypothetical conditions that would determine this new state, we could envision the sale of the Israeli settlements to this same elite, most of which won’t find any problem living in these comfortable citadels. The racial apartheid will have then be replaced by a social one and architecture will continue to enforce its segregative function if we do not reinvent it.
All following photographs by Léopold Lambert (2010-2015):
Photo 1: Ramallah (2015) Photo 2: Palestinian ‘settlement’ (2015) Photo 3: A proof that the Israeli military regularly enters Area A (2015) Photo 4: Advertising for a new real estate development on the road to Birzeit/Nablus (2015) Photo 5: Advertising for newly constructed housing on the road to Birzeit/Nablus (2015) Photo 6: Another Palestinian ‘settlement’ (2015) Photo 7: Residential street in a relatively recent new part of Ramallah (2015) Photo 8: On the hills of Ramallah (2015) Photo 9: On the hills of Ramallah (2010) Photo 10: Building in construction (maybe yet another ‘homage’ to Diller and Scofidio, 2015) Photo 11: On the hills of Ramallah (2015) Photo 12: Panorama of the hills of Ramallah (2015) Photo 13: Center of Ramallah, bus station + market (2015) Photo 14: Israeli settlement of Psagot (2015) Photo 15: Israeli settlement of Kochav Ya’Akov (2010) Photo 16: Qalandiya refugee camp (2010) Photo 17: Qalandiya refugee camp (2010) Photo 18: From Ramallah to Qalandiya checkpoint (2010) Photo 19: Surroundings of Qalandiya checkpoints (2015) Photo 20: Surroundings of Qalandiya checkpoint (2015) Photo 21: From Jerusalem to Qalandiya checkpoint (2015) Photo 22: Ramallah’s Southern corridor from the other side of the wall (2015)