Present Futures: Mechanics of Ethnocratic Colonial Urbanism

August 23, 2020

This work is Rula Zuhour’s Master of Architecture thesis project completed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May 2020. The thesis, developed over two semesters, has received the 2020 Schiff Foundation Fellowship for Architecture and was the subject of an interview with SAIC’s F Newsmagazine.

While the thesis investigates decades of Israeli policies and practices that have shaped the neighborhood of Kafr Aqab in East Jerusalem, it comes at a critical moment as the future of East Jerusalem and the West Bank might take a sharp turn. In light of the annexation of parts of the West Bank and the constant threat of revisiting the Greater Jerusalem Bill, the thesis examines the relationship between policy and space in Kafr Aqab, identifying key factors which have laid the groundwork for any future annexation or excision, as well as examining the stakes of each possible future.


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Between the city boundary and the wall. Original drone photo by Maliha Zughayar, 2018.


Within Jerusalem’s city boundary but outside the Separation Wall, the neighborhood of Kafr Aqab is a ledge where Palestinian Jerusalemites resort to live. Behind them is a concrete wall sealing off a city that constantly pushes them out, and ahead of them is a downfall that renders them stateless. With the goal of achieving a 70% Jewish majority in Jerusalem, this lawless place emerges as yet another tool in the Israeli colonial project, which strategically expropriates as much land with as few Palestinians as possible.

In Kafr Aqab, time becomes irrelevant as Palestinians live in a state of limbo. Often compared to a refugee camp, its temporariness is served by permanent structures. But in this case, those structures are informal high-rise buildings, rising higher every day, with little infrastructure and no services. The future of this vertically growing density-like its emergence-is shaped by Israeli policies and practices.


In “Situation” and “Morphology,” the thesis investigates past and current Israeli colonization tactics that have created the Kafr Aqab phenomenon, where architecture and urban planning are instruments of dispossession, displacement, and control. The thesis uses both spatial and non-spatial information to identify colonial policies and territorial tactics that shaped the urban condition of Kafr Aqab. The spatial is reflected in the territorial representation of tactics including land expropriation, the declaration of state land and national parks, and the construction of military walls and checkpoints. The non-spatial is coded into the drawings, where it incorporates colonial systems and policies such as the Israeli ID system, Center of Life Policy, and Greater Jerusalem Bill. The Spatialization of the history and the narrative exposes Israel’s strategic weaponizing of space in consolidation of disparity and control.


In “Futures” and “Moments,” and based on the investigation, the thesis uses speculation to both orchestrate the unstated power of the political boundaries and military structures as well as reveal the stakes of possible future policies currently being considered by Israel in the Greater Jerusalem Bill. By examining moments in space and time of idiosyncratic collisions between the urban fabric, military structures, and political boundaries, the thesis reveals the method in which those territorial tools operate in tandem with oppressive legal, civilian, and administrative policies to expand Israel’s territory, while displacing and fragmenting Palestinian communities.

I. Stories: Beyond the Spatial

This story is one of tens of thousands which show the ongoing and systematic fragmentation of Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. It is a known fact to every Palestinian that starting a family with a person who lives within a 2-mile radius but holds an ID with a different color is not only a commitment to this person, but rather, a guarantee to live with the risk of losing everything at any moment; your legal status, access to your city, and even seeing your family. Choosing a partner with a different color ID means you are committed to sacrificing your wealth to an occupying force and your time to commute and endless bureaucratic processes. The following story is not unique and definitely not an extreme one. It is an appropriate way to introduce this project because it exposes the typical circumstances under which a Palestinian family is forced to establish a home in Kafr Aqab in order to remain a family. While the story is very real, the names used are not in order to avoid any risk of losing this family’s unity.

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When they met: six miles, a wall, and a checkpoint apart. © Rula Zuhour.

Sarah and Ibrahim met in college in 2010, where Sarah, a green West Bank ID holder, lived in Ramallah and Ibrahim, a blue Jerusalem ID holder, lived in East Jerusalem-less than 6 miles apart. Ibrahim would cross the Qalandia checkpoint daily to attend his classes and see Sarah. Since her West Bank ID denies her entry to Jerusalem unless granted a special permit (which is only issued for exceptional cases), they could never meet in Jerusalem.

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Secretly living outside the city boundary. © Rula Zuhour.

Ibrahim and Sarah got married in 2015 and moved to a three-bedroom single-family house, which Ibrahim’s parents own in Bir Nabala directly outside Jerusalem. This home had been vacant since 2005, which is the year the Israeli government found out that Ibrahim’s parents—in defiance of the “Center of Life” law—had been living outside the city boundary of Jerusalem. The “Center of Life” law stipulates that Palestinian Jerusalemites must reside within the Jerusalem district limits in order to maintain their residency right in the city, which requires residents to prove that Jerusalem has been their center of life by providing proof of payment for services and taxes to Israel. The moment Ibrahim’s parents were discovered, Ibrahim’s mother—who also holds a West Bank ID—got her temporary permit revoked and was barred from entering Jerusalem for ten years. This temporary permit given to some of the spouses of Palestinian Jerusalemites must be renewed every year, can be revoked at any moment, and only allows its holder to enter Jerusalem, but not to drive or work there. To this day and after thirty-four years of applying for family reunification, Ibrahim’s mother can only get to her own home with this fragile, temporary document.1

Ibrahim and Sarah lived in the abandoned house in Bir Nabala for four years after falsely registering that they live in Jerusalem with Ibrahim’s parents. Had they been discovered, different measures could have been taken ranging from denying their family reunification application to revoking Ibrahim’s ID. Ibrahim and Sarah made sure to keep some of their belongings at Ibrahim’s parents’ house in Jerusalem because of the government’s extreme surveillance. Rounds are made to ensure Palestinian Jerusalemites in fact live at the addresses they claim and not just pay their taxes and utility bills while living in the West Bank, which happens often and is used as grounds to revoke the IDs of Palestinian Jerusalemites.

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In Kafr Aqab, for now or forever. © Rula Zuhour.

As soon as Sarah got pregnant, the risk of breaking their family evolved into the risk of having an unregistered child. They realized that staying in Bir Nabala was not an option anymore, especially as having a child or starting any kind of paperwork automatically draws attention from the government. The “ideal” solution would have been to move to East Jerusalem, but that was not an option for many reasons. First, paying rent in Jerusalem with West Bank salaries is impossible; rent alone would have been 80% of their income. Second, living in Jerusalem leaves Sarah in the same position as her mother-in-law; relying on a legally fragile permit to have access to her own home while being banned from driving and working in Jerusalem. And third, both Sarah and Ibrahim would have needed to take hours out of their day to cross the checkpoint to get to their jobs, family, and friends. And so, the inevitable decision to move to Kafr Aqab was made, where rent prices are lower (although higher than Ramallah), both Ibrahim and Sarah can work and drive, and crossing the checkpoint is only needed to visit Ibrahim’s family or attend weekly client meetings for Ibrahim.

Although Sarah and Ibrahim’s income is considered within the upper-middle class range, they spend an average of 69% of their income to live in Kafr Aqab—money they were able to keep while living in Bir Nabala. For absolutely no services from the city, they pay 12% of their income as property tax. They make monthly payments of 57% of their income to pay off a loan for an apartment in an unregistered building subject to demolition with a price 25% higher than other similar apartments because it’s located in a “safer” area within the neighborhood.

Now, all Sarah and Ibrahim can do is wait. Wait an infinite number of years for their family reunification application to be approved. Wait to suddenly be able to afford an apartment in Jerusalem. Wait for the anticipated decision to excise Kafr Aqab from Jerusalem and be forced to move in with Ibrahim’s parents and share a bedroom with his brother’s family. Wait for Kafr Aqab to be excised and for Ibrahim to lose his ID, get denied access to Jerusalem and his family, and become stateless.

II. Situation: The Lawless [L]Edge of Jerusalem

We are like sheep, through their policies and laws they push us here and lead us to the destination they want. We have no control over where our lives are headed.
—Ismail. A Kafr Aqab Resident.2

It only takes passing Kafr Aqab to notice the chaos. When this thesis refers to Kafr Aqab, it is not the Palestinian village established in the sixth century, but rather the phenomenon emerging in an area sandwiched between the Separation Wall and the city boundary of Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research (2018) broadly summarizes the situation in Kafr Aqab as follows:3


An estimate of 77,800 Palestinians reside in Kafr Aqab. The exact number is unknown due to the government’s total neglect of the neighborhood despite collecting taxes from its Palestinian residents. About third of households are mixed-ID between Palestinians holding West Bank and Jerusalem IDs. The median age is 18.2, with half the population being under 18.

No Law Enforcement

The neighborhood is dense with informal, unsupervised construction. Development has become extremely high risk with a housing bubble contingent on exploiting oppressive colonial policies. The absence of law enforcement has resulted in a lack of security and safety.

Absence of Services and Infrastructure

Insufficient water supply–water is supplied only two days a week by the Palestinian Water Authority. There is an inadequate sewer system, poor sanitation and waste management, as well as a lack of internal roads and sidewalks.

Lack of Public Facilities

Inadequate education facilities. There are no healthcare facilities, and limited emergency and rescue services.

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Kafr Aqab: A destination. Courtesy of Rula Zuhour.4

With all the challenges Kafr Aqab is facing, the densification process still persists. Palestinian Jerusalemites, especially younger adults, are still establishing their homes in Kafr Aqab. An estimate of one third of families residing in Kafr Aqab are made up of a Jerusalem ID holder married to a West Bank ID holder. Palestinians with West Bank IDs cannot live in Jerusalem while Palestinians with Jerusalem ID absolutely must live within Jerusalem’s city boundary to maintain their residency status under the “Center of Life” law, making Kafr Aqab one of a couple of places they can be together.

Due to numerous colonial policies and tactics enacted by the Israeli government against Palestinians in Jerusalem, many Palestinian Jerusalemites find themselves lacking the means to establish a home in Jerusalem. Between the cost of living and salary gap between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Jerusalemites increasingly find themselves not being able to afford to live in neighborhoods within the Separation Wall. Moreover, building permits are extremely expensive and limited to Palestinians by design due to city planning practices. And with them being forced to prove they reside within the city boundary of Jerusalem, they are forced to move to areas beyond the wall such as Kafr Aqab and Shufat Refugee Camp.

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The Anatomy of Kafr Aqab. © Rula Zuhour.5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

III. Morphology: The Creation of the Kafr Aqab Phenomenon

I told them: I don’t build fences around your settlements. If you put up a fence, you put a limit to your expansion. We should place the fences around the Palestinians and not around our places.
—Ariel Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister 2001-2006, quoted in Neve Gordon.14
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The city boundary of Jerusalem itself has been used as a territorial tactic, constantly expanding Israeli control—Kafr Aqab has only become part of Jerusalem in 1967. © Rula Zuhour.

The Kafr Aqab phenomenon is both a product and tool in the Israeli colonization project in Jerusalem. To fully understand the method in which it was created, one needs to both zoom out and go back in history to identify both policies and territorial tactics crafted to build this colonization apparatus.

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Colonization Apparatus. © Rula Zuhour.

Ever since Israel occupied the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, it has used various tactics to gain control over land and build as many Israeli settlements as possible. Those tactics include the outright forced expropriation of land, declaring nature reserves and national parks on false pretenses, using ancient Ottoman and British Mandate laws to declare state land, needlessly classifying areas as closed military zones, the construction of checkpoints restricting movement, and most infamously drawing the route of the Separation Wall so as to lay ground for annexing seventy illegal settlements in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Israel has also carried through demographic strategies that continuously replace Palestinians with Jews. Those strategies include the Law of return, the Gafni Commission, the “Center of Life” policy, the building permit regime and house demolitions, and the “Greater Jerusalem” bill.15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

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Colonial Planning and Policies. Map of Jerusalem Master Plan is based on Jerusalem Municipality local outline Plan: Francesco Chiodelli, “The Jerusalem Master Plan. Planning into conflict,” Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 51, 2012. © Rula Zuhour.

Since East Jerusalem was annexed in 1967 and Palestinian Jerusalemites were given residency status (rather than full citizenship), Israel has enacted policies that not only suppress their growth and expansion, but also push them to the edges of the city beyond the wall. The inequality between Palestinians and Jews in Jerusalem starts with the city budget. While Palestinian Jerusalemites continue to pay taxes and prove their center of life to be within Jerusalem, they are constantly denied services, family unification applications, building permits, and area for expansion, while simultaneously facing residency revocation, home demolitions, poverty, and restrictions on movement.29

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Displacement. Aerial Photos source: Palestinian Ministry of Local Government. Residency Revocation Data: B’tselem, “Statistics on Revocation of Residency in East Jerusalem,” May 23, 2019. © Rula Zuhour.

Due to the discriminatory colonial policies, over 14,500 Palestinian Jerusalemites had their residencies revoked since 1967. Residency revocation leads to forcible transfer—barring Palestinian Jerusalemites from their own city. In fear of facing revocation, Palestinian Jerusalemites are being displaced to the edge areas of Jerusalem. This animated map shows the link between waves of residency revocation and waves of construction, where Palestinian Jerusalemites living either in the West Bank or abroad rushed to Kafr Aqab to preserve their identities.30

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Dispossession. © Rula Zuhour.

Examining the colonization apparatus at the Kafr Aqab scale, it is easy to see how Palestinians were slowly dispossessed of their land and left with that lawless ledge between the Wall and city boundary. The thick dash-dot line represents the accessible parts of the village to Palestinians, which has been shrinking dramatically due to the construction of the illegal Israeli Settlement Kokhav Ya’akov, Area C classification, and the construction of the Separation Wall. Prior to Kafr Aqab becoming a resort for Palestinian Jerusalemites seeking to preserve their residency status, the land used to be primarily agricultural.

IV. Futures: Bird City or Slum Metropolis?

East Jerusalem remains stuck in our throat: we can’t swallow it and we can’t spit it out.
—A former Israeli Minister.31
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Ethnocratic Territorialization. © Rula Zuhour.

The speculation on future policies is based on a report done by Crisis Group, which investigates Israeli plans for Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem both inside and outside the Wall. It focuses on the Greater Jerusalem bill, drafted in 2007 and voted on but shelved in the Israeli Parliament after winning the support of Netanyahu in 2017 and a dispute over the excision of Palestinian neighborhoods that have been walled off. One of the bill’s goals is to swap the 140,000 Palestinian votes in municipal elections with 140,000 Jewish Israeli ones-known as ethnic gerrymandering.

The Israeli attitude towards East Jerusalem can be summed up in the quote above. While this quote refers to East Jerusalem as a whole, it can be applied to the specific case of Kafr Aqab as follows:

For Kafr Aqab to be swallowed is to integrate it with “Unified Jerusalem”. To be spat out is to be excised from Jerusalem, which was proposed in two scenarios. And to remain stuck is for Kafr Aqab to stay inside the city boundary but outside the wall.

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Futures: Bird City | Slum Metropolis. © Rula Zuhour.32

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The Long Game. © Rula Zuhour.

The two futures “Bird City” and “Slum Metropolis” are not separate, but rather feed off each other, raising the stakes every day. “Slum Metropolis” is a direct product of the current displacement of Palestinian Jerusalemites, and “Bird City” will be the second, if not the third time the very same communities are displaced. This vicious cycle is the very definition of the state of limbo Palestinians live in and is always coupled with the continuous expansion of Israeli territory and illegal settlements as shown in the maps.

V. Moments: Idiosyncratic Collisions Between the Urban Fabric, Military Structures, and Political Boundaries

Infrastructure space possesses disposition just as a ball at the top of an inclined plane does. The geometry of the ball and its relative position are the simple markers of potential agency. Even without rolling down the incline, the ball is actively doing something by occupying its position.
—Keller Easterling33
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Moments. © Rula Zuhour.34

Moments represent a collection of urban conditions at a certain moment in time. And each condition is defined by the collision between the urban fabric with different colonial military structures and/ or political boundaries. Codifying buildings with ID colors reveals the way in which those territorial structures and boundaries work in parallel with the colonial policies to determine where Palestinians live. To fully understand what is at stake, possible futures are envisioned for each moment-whether the decision to excise Kafr Aqab from Jerusalem is made tomorrow, in ten years, or twenty.

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[In]Visible Line. © Rula Zuhour.

[In]Visible Line

The invisible city boundary of Jerusalem determines where Palestinian Jerusalemites can establish a home. The city boundary here is a permeable line which operates as the edge of the ledge, where crossing it is considered defiance of the “Center of Life” law. While inside the boundary is currently highly desirable, outside it is classified as Area C, which bans Palestinians from construction without Israeli permission.

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Excision will result in shifting the city boundary to align with the Separation Wall, probably transforming the area into Area C (or some equivalent) in order to consolidate control and prohibit further construction. The longer the excision process takes, the more visible this boundary becomes.

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Waiting Line. © Rula Zuhour.

Waiting Line

Ramallah–Jerusalem Road is the spine of Kafr Aqab. It is the road Palestinians take to travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho. The traffic on this road is multiplied due to Qalandia Checkpoint, which has transformed it into a commercial corridor that serves both neighborhood inhabitants and passersby. Palestinians can spend up to three hours a day waiting in this canyon of waste and billboards.

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Long-term excision will result in exacerbating the situation. With complete neglect from the municipality of Jerusalem, upgrading the infrastructure or providing waste management to accommodate the urban growth and increasing traffic is improbable.

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Complete Refugeeness. © Rula Zuhour.

Complete Refugeeness

The city boundary here divides displaced Palestinians of two time periods within the Israeli colonial project. Palestinian refugees living in Qalandiya Refugee Camp arrived here in 1949 after being dispossessed from their homes in Jerusalem, Haifa, Lydd, Ramleh, and west of Hebron. Inside the boundary are Palestinian Jerusalemites being displaced right now. Since the refugee camp was established long before this part of Qalandia became a destination for development, its presence remains much stronger and therefore the boundary is much less visible.

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It is less likely for developers to build near the refugee camp since the area is less desirable. However, as the situation persists, developers will start running out of options and densification will eventually reach the edge of the camp.

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Edge of the Edge. © Rula Zuhour.

Edge of the Edge

As seen in “Morphology,” the Separation Wall was built around existing buildings, and urban infill and vertical densification have been following the route of the Wall since. The Wall separates this area from the former Qalandia airport. Currently classified as a “closed military zone,” the motion of transforming the area into a massive Israeli settlement was formalized in February 2020. The Israeli government has issued demolition orders for four buildings that are too close to the Wall.

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Verticality at the edge of the edge will probably be determined by the proximity to the wall, where the further away from the wall, the higher a building can be. Excision will equate the Separation Wall with the city boundary in this case.

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Bottleneck. © Rula Zuhour.


The moment the city boundary and the Separation Wall intersect is where the checkpoint of Qalandia emerges. This is the point where all traffic reaches its highest level, whether Palestinians are driving, taking public transportation, or walking, whether they actually need to cross the checkpoint or not, and whether they have West Bank IDs, temporary permits, or Jerusalem IDs. Palestinian lives revolve around this checkpoint to the point where social media accounts were made to report live traffic updates. This point also operates as the end destination for Palestinian protests where it has become a site for shooting by Israeli military forces.

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Since this area is outside the city boundary and lies within Area C, no new construction can be predicted. However, the exponential growth of the population will probably lead to the expansion of the checkpoint to accommodate the traffic.

The Future is Here

Shifting from the urban to the human scale, this section is a collaboration with Palestinian Jerusalemite photographer Samer Sharif. Sharif investigates the five critical moments on the ground and with his lens, captures social, urban, and infrastructural features emerging due to the ongoing urban intensification of Kafr Aqab. Those photos are a manifestation of and a glance into the future awaiting Kafr Aqab.

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[In]Visible Line: Am I inside or outside the Wall? © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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[In]Visible Line: Edge of the Ledge. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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[In]Visible Line: Yet another. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Waiting Line: Canyon of Waste and Billboards. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Waiting Line: The “Old” and the “New”. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Waiting Line: Between Construction and Demolition. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Complete Refugeeness: Old and New Tents. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Complete Refugeeness: Permanent Temporariness. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Complete Refugeeness: Belonging. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Edge of the Edge: Concrete Forest and Military Meadow. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Edge of the Edge: Military Picket Fence. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Edge of the Edge: Parking Lot/ Playground. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Bottleneck: Elevated Cages. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

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Bottleneck: Aspirations and Reality. © Samer Sharif, 2020.

Related readings and sources

Noura Alkhalili, Muna Dajani, and Daniela De Leo, “Shifting Realities: dislocating Palestinian Jerusalemites from the capital to the edge,” International Journal of Housing Policy, 14:3, 257-267 (2014), DOI: 10.1080/14616718.2014.933651.

Muna Dajani, Daniela De Leo, and Noura Alkhalili, “Planned informality as a by-product of the occupation: the Case of Kufr Aqab Neighborhood in Jerusalem North,” Planum: The Journal of Urbanism, n.26, vol.1/2013, 2012.

Forensic Architecture and B’tselem, “Conquer and Divide: The Shattering of Palestinian Space by Israel.”

Sansi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, Permanent Temporariness (Stockholm: Art and Theory Publishing, 2018).

Yara Sharif, Architecture of Resistance: Cultivating Moments of Possibility within the Palestinian/ Israeli Conflict (New York: Routledge, 2017).

Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007).

Oren Yiftachel, “Critical Theory and ‘gray space’. Mobilization of the colonized.” City, 13:2-3, 2009, 246-263. DOI: 10.1080/13604810902982227.

Oren Yiftachel, Ethnocracy: Land Identity Politics in Israel/ Palestine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).