Global Challenges
Special Issue no. 2 | March 2023
Urban Morphology & Violence
Global Challenges
Special Issue no. 2 | March 2023
Urban Morphology & Violence | Article 7

Informality as a Right to Necessity?

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By altering the morphology of Jerusalem through the gradual expropriation of Palestinian land and the revocation of Palestinian rights to the city, the Israeli authorities are implementing urban planning that serves two different populations, explains Emna Ines Fayala in this article.  

Urban planning is particularly weaponised in the contested and religiously symbolic city of Jerusalem as it aims to appropriate the land and suppress the existing Palestinian identity in favour of a Jewish one (Chiodelli 2016). Israeli settler-colonial practices and apartheid spatial-planning combine to create a system of oppression aimed at the displacement of Palestinians (Forensic Architecture 2023). According to Sari Hanafi, the Israeli colonial project is "spaciocidal" given that it targets the space upon which the Palestinian people live (Hanafi 2012). Since 1967, Israel has expropriated more than a third of Palestinian land in Jerusalem and 11 neighbourhoods have been built for Jewish residents alone. Through zoning, the regulation of permits, and the declaration of green spaces, Israeli authorities exercise a draconian form of land use control (Lemire 2022). The physical space of the city is therefore home to- what some have referred to as “a war of cement and stone’’ (Chiodelli 2012).

Despite these challenges, Palestinian neighbourhoods continue to grow within restricted boundaries and the Palestinians continue to claim their urban rights. How do Palestinians counter Israeli control over East and West Jerusalem? Palestinians rely on three strategies to resist land expropriation and control, informality being the quintessential means to countering Israeli policies. Is illegality, then, the result of a dearth of options, or does it constitute a deliberate strategy of resistance?

Informality as a right to necessity?

The dominant strategy to resist Israel’s urban policies within the Palestinian community remains the use of informality. Almost a third of the houses in Palestinian neighbourhoods that continue to grow are considered informal settlements, with illegal construction often taking the form of entire multi-storey buildings of 4 to 25 housing units (IPCC 2020).  In 2015, the number of construction starts was approximately 1000 while less than 50 building permits were granted. There are now more than 20,000 homes built without permits in East Jerusalem (B’tselem 2020). In 2022, 950 homes were destroyed in Palestine, including 151 units demolished in East Jerusalem under the pretext of illegal construction (B'tselem 2022). This daily practice is part of Israel's 114 new settlement plans to take over East Jerusalem to make room for Jewish settlements (Middle East Monitor 2022).In 2022, 950 homes were destroyed in Palestine, including 151 units demolished in East Jerusalem under the pretext of illegal construction 

Discussions about the motivations behind urban informality in Jerusalem highlight two, seemingly contradictory perspectives. On the one hand, informal urbanism can be interpreted as a form of resistance that promotes a sense of place in the shadow of a national strategy of exclusion and inequality, but also as a right to necessity in the absence of choice—“the production of an urbanisation that is independent of frameworks and does not conform to official rules and regulations” (Habitat UNI Hub 2020). Ananya Roy defines it as “a state of exception to the formal order” (Roy 2005). According to Nurit Alfasi, informal urbanism is the only choice for communities forced to resort to illegality given Israel's discriminatory regulations (Alfasi 2014). Yosef Jabareen also sees this informality as a translation of the community's need and right to develop its own living spaces. He points out that Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem have developed a "right to necessity," that is, informal alternative rights of survival and resistance. This right responds to needs and rights ignored by Israel and its urban policies (Jabareen 2017). Miraftab takes a different perspective, viewing informality as 'insurgent planning" that responds to unjust and marginalising planning policies and practices (Miraftab 2009). Weiner also rejects the idea that Palestinians resort to informality because they lack choice. His systematic study of illegal construction in Jerusalem demonstrates that informality is primarily a political choice as Israel issues enough permits to meet Palestinian needs. Weiner argues that the Palestinian Authority is funding an intentional campaign to subsidise and encourage massive illegal construction on land that does not belong to them in order to wage a “demographic war” against Israel (Weiner 2003).

These two, ostensibly contradictory motivations nonetheless complement each other insofar as informality serves both as a mode of resistance and a strategy for survival. In 2015, only 7% of the requests for building permits were granted to Palestinian neighbourhoods (Haaretz 2015). Israel's discriminatory bureaucratic measures make it nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits and create a housing shortage (Human Rights Watch 2022), which lead to an inevitable need to build illegally. Although it is impossible to exclude this right to necessity, by producing “unplannable” spaces, Palestinians are also reclaiming their right to the city, defying Israeli imposed spatial planning strategies and laws and producing “unruly” spaces that the Israeli government has more difficulty governing.

The strategy, however, does not seem sustainable as ‘informal’ construction is regularly and systematically demolished: “ If you build it, they will come” (B'tselem 2020). Over the years, demolitions have kept pace with illegal construction in East Jerusalem and increased by 38% between 2020 and 2022 (Human Rights Watch 2022), causing trauma that negatively impacts Palestinian family structures (AFSC 2021). And while Israel has long been the ostensible victor in the war between demolition and informality, recent international pressure from the press and non-governmental organisations has applied some restraint on Israel's destruction plans (Jewish News Syndicate 2023).

Inclusion and Alternative Urban Planning

Theories of the “right to the city” assume that states are the sole providers of rights and that these rights are intangible, universal and apply to all individuals in the same way —that members of all ethnic and national groups have “a right to the city without being subjected to discrimination” (Jabareen 2017) and that all inhabitants of a city have the right to participate equally in the production and appropriation of its urban spaces (Braun 1969). Israel, however, does not recognise the rights of the Palestinian community and violates its obligations under international law. To compound the problem, the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem continues to reject the legitimacy of the Israeli municipality (El-Atrash 2016). As a result, Palestinians have difficulty defending their urban rights within a system that both fails to recognise them, and one which they do not consider legitimate. In recent years, signs of a slight shift both from the Israeli government and from Palestinian civil society have been observed. Palestinian planning projects are increasingly being submitted and approved in East Jerusalem. In Beit Hanina, the number of approved projects increased from 44 to 127  between 2010 and 2019. However, despite this increase in the number of projects approved, the average size of each plan submitted has decreased, with the overall area approved remaining largely constant (IPCC 2020).

In November 2021, a historic step was taken. Following pressure from Israeli and Palestinian organisations, a historic five-year $9.6 billion government development plan for Palestinian-Israeli society was adopted. The plan aims to close the socio-economic gaps between Palestinian and Jewish society, including providing housing solutions for the Palestinian population and reforming discriminatory urban policies (New Israeli Fund 2021). ACAP has also been recognised by the Israeli Ministry of Interior as a public body with the right to intervene in official planning procedures and to lodge objections to Israeli national plans.  This is a historic achievement as ACAP is one of the first and only Arab organisations in Israel that holds official status (ACAP 2022).

However, in 2022, the 114 new plans adopted by the Israeli government and Netanyahu's victory in the legislative elections with the support of the extreme right and ultra-Orthodox parties cast doubt upon these slight advances. Netanyahu's declaration that "the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the land of Israel” (Twitter 2022) indicates a step backward in urban rights for Palestinians and more draconian ethnic cleansing policies.

In addition to official changes, Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem has created alternative “bottom-up” plans in response to the Israeli “top-down” plans (El-Atrash 2016). Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem has created alternative “bottom-up” plans in response to the Israeli “top-down” plans Since 1998, the IPCC, an independent Palestinian non-profit organisation, has been one of the main actors in the fight for urban and planning rights in East Jerusalem.  They have developed a program with UNHabitat to help Palestinian communities to gain development and construction opportunities. In collaboration with other actors such as Bimkom and the Centre for Advancement of Peace Initiatives, with funding from the European Union, they implemented a three-year "Urban Planning Support Program for Palestinian Communities in East Jerusalem". This program aims to improve the living conditions of Palestinians and diminish the pressures of forced displacement. It promotes a participatory planning approach, giving these communities a chance to contribute to the planning process. The goal of the program is to legalise the maximum number of buildings, freeze the demolition of more than 750 buildings built without permits, create public spaces and create investment opportunities in housing and services. Currently, more than 210 hectares in six East Jerusalem communities are covered by this project and more than 44 demolition orders have already been frozen since the program began (UN-HABITAT 2015a). In addition, UN Habitat also collaborated with the Arab Thought Forum to implement a 15month urban project in Al Ram, Kufur Aqab, Anata and Al Zaiem (UN-HABITAT 2015b). With the help of international donors, Israeli NGOs and the Arab National Movement, Palestinian civil society has also developed urban projects in At-Tur, Silwan, Al-Isawiyyah and Beit Hanina. (UN-HABITAT 2015c)


East Jerusalem illustrates the complex and conflicting relationship between informal urbanisation and the struggle for political recognition and inclusion. Although informality remains the dominant strategy for countering Israeli control over urban planning, it has considerable limitations, including the very real risk of demolition and a lack of access to infrastructure, plunging entire communities an ever more precarious state of existence (IPCC 2020). In Jerusalem, the very concept of informality must be used with caution as its meaning, perception and consequences change according to the social group that appropriates it.  While informal spaces are often perceived as a “threat” to the development of the city, these spaces must also be understood and studied in a context described as colonial or apartheid-like (Forensic Architecture 2022).

Emna Ines Fayala
Masters Student in International Relations/Political Science
Geneva Graduate Institute

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Source: B'tselem, UNHabitat and IPCC.

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