Can Architecture Help Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute?

The key to bringing these nations together in peace may be to first think of the territories as moveable pieces

Architects are using a puzzle-like map to get Israelis to think about how a peace plan might look. (Image courtesy of SAYA)

It’s 2015, and peace has finally come to the Middle East. Tourists stream to the Old City of Jerusalem from Israel and the new state of Palestine, passing through modern border crossings before entering the walls of the ancient site. Jerusalem has been divided, but creatively: the city’s busiest highway is used to separate the Jewish half of Jerusalem from the Palestinian one, the the border between the countries situated unobtrusively along the road’s median.

Both ideas were developed by a pair of young Israeli with an unusually practical approach to peacemaking.  Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat and Karen Lee Bar-Sinai, both 36, have spent years working on highly specific ideas for how policymakers could divide Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine without doing permanent damage to the delicate urban fabric of the city.

The architects say their top priority is to prevent Jerusalem from being divided by barbed wire, concrete walls and machine gun batteries.  That was the dire reality in the city until 1967, when Israeli forces routed the Jordanians, who had controlled Jerusalem’s eastern half since the Jewish state’s founding in 1948.  All of Jerusalem, including the Old City, has been under full Israeli sovereignity ever since.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that will never change. Jerusalem, he said in July, is “Israel’s undivided and eternal capital.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he will accept nothing less than a partition of the city that leaves its eastern half, and much of the Old City, under Palestinian control.   

Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai have mapped out where the border between East and West Jerusalem would go and made detailed architectural renderings of what it would look like. They’ve even designed some of the individual border crossings that would allow citizens of one nation to pass into the other for business or tourism. They are trying to take big-picture questions about the future of the city and ground them in the nitty-gritty details of what a peace deal would actually look and feel like.

 “We’re trying to fill the gap between the broad stroke of policymaking and the reality of life on the ground,” says Bar-Sinai, who recently returned to Israel after a yearlong fellowship at Harvard University. “Only thinking about these questions from the 30,000 foot high perspective isn’t enough.”

Her work with Greenfield-Gilat begins with the premise that the heavily-fortified border crossings currently in use across the West Bank – each guarded by armed soldiers and equipped with mechanical arms that look like those found in American toll booths – would destroy Jerusalem’s unique character if they were imported into the capital.

Instead, the two young architects have tried to blend the new border crossings into their surroundings so they stand out as little as possible. In the case of the Old City, which contains many of the holiest sites of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, that approach calls for situating the structures just outside the walls of the ancient site so its architectural integrity is preserved even as Israeli and Palestinian authorities gain the ability to move visitors through modern security checkpoints that resemble those found in airports. Once in the Old City, tourists would be able to move around freely before leaving through the same border crossings that they had come in through.

The two young architects have also paid close attention to detail.  Their plan for turning Jerusalem’s Route 60 into the border between the Israeli and Palestinian halves of the city, for instance, includes schematics showing the motion detectors, earthen berms, videos cameras and iron fences that would be built on top of the median to prevent infiltration from one state to the other. A related mock-up shows a graceful pedestrian bridge near the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem that would arc over the highway so Israelis and Palestinians could enter the other country by foot.

Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai’s work is taking on new resonance now that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have returned to the table for a fresh round of American-backed peace talks, but it has been attracting high-level attention for several years. The two architects have briefed aides to retired Senator George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s chief envoy to the Israelis and Palestinians, and other senior officials from the State Department, White House and Israeli government. In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented their sketch of the American Colony bridge to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an example of what the separation of Jerusalem would look like in practice.

The journalist and academic Bernard Avishai, who first reported on the Olmert-Abbas meeting, describes Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai as “young and visionary.” In a blog posting about their work, Avishai wrote about “how vivid peace looked when you could actually see the constructions that would provide it a foundation.”.


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