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)

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The two architects have been honing their ideas since they met as students at Israel’s Technion University in the late 1990s. The Israeli government began building the controversial security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank in 2002, during their senior year, and talk of dividing Jerusalem was in the air.

Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai, joined by a close friend named Aya Shapira, began thinking about practical ways that the city could be partitioned without turning it into a modern version of Cold War Berlin. (Shapira was killed in the 2004 South Asian tsunami, and the name of their design studio, Saya, is short for “Studio Aya” in honor of their friend and colleague).

The three architects eventually settled on the idea of building parallel light rail systems in East and West Jerusalem that would come together outside the Damascus Gate of the Old City, turning it into a main transportation hub for the divided city. Their plan also called for turning the Damascus Gate rail station into a primary border crossing between the two states, making it, in Greenfield-Gilat’s words, a “separation barrier that was political but also highly functional.”

Part of their proposal was ahead of its time – Jerusalem has since built a light rail system with a stop outside of the Damascus Gate, something that wasn’t even under consideration in 2003 – but a peace deal dividing the city looks further apart than ever. There hasn’t been a successful Palestinian terror attack from the West Bank in more than a year, and Israelis feel little urgency about striking a deal with Abbas. The Palestinian leadership, for its part, distrusts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and doesn’t believe he would be willing to make the territorial concessions they have demanded for decades as part of a comprehensive accord.

In the middle of a trendy duplex gallery near the Tel Aviv harbor, an exhibition showcases Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai’s plans and includes a vivid illustration of just how difficult it will be to actually bring about a deal. The architects installed a table-sized map of Israel and the occupied territories It is built like a puzzle, with visitors encouraged to experiment by picking up light-green pieces in the shapes and sizes of existing Jewish settlements and then comparing them to blue pieces corresponding to the swaths of land that would need to be given to a new state of Palestine in a peace agreement. (Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai have also developed an online interactive map that offers a similar experience.)

Two things become clear almost immediately. First, Israel would only need to annex a small amount of land to bring the vast bulk of settlers within the Jewish state’s new borders. Second, that annexation would still require the forced evacuations of dozens of settlements, including several with populations of close to 10,000. Some of the larger settlements are so far from Israel’s pre-1967 borders– and would require Israel to relinquish such an enormous amount of territory in exchange – that they can’t even be picked up off the puzzle board. Those towns house the most extreme settlers, so any real-life move to clear them out would hold the real potential for violence.    

Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai are open about their belief that Israel will need to find a way of relinquishing broad swaths of the West Bank. Greenfield-Gilat spent a year studying in a religious school in the West Bank before entering college and describes himself as a proud Zionist. Still, he says that many settlements – including the Israeli community in Hebron, the ancient city that contains many of Judaism’s most holy sites – will need to be evacuated as part of any peace deal. “The deep West Bank won’t be part of Israel,” he says. “The map is meant to show what’s on the table, what is in the zone of the possible agreements between the two sides, and what the cost would be.”

In the meantime, he’s is trying to find other ways of putting Saya’s ideas into practice. Greenfield-Gilat has worked as an advisor to Tzipi Livni, now Netanyahu’s chief peace negotiator, and ran unsuccessfully for the Israeli parliament as part of her political party. He’s now running for a seat on Jerusalem’s city council. “Our mission is to prove that these are not issues that should be put aside because they’re intractable,” he says. “Dealing with them is just a matter of political will.”

This project was supported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Editor's note: This story originally mispelled Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat's name as Yehuda Greefield-Galit. We regret the error.


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