Like all of us I have been watching the carnage in Gaza with concern and growing despair. And like many people, I have struggled with how best to understand this conflict, fraught as it is with historic hatreds, accusations and counter-accusations. If it is at all possible I would like to attempt a pragmatic view, starting with the recognition that the historic conflict over Palestine concerning land ownership, use and associated rights may be seen as falling within the spectrum of issues related to land use planning.
Through this lens, Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories may be seen as being exercised through acts of land use planning, i.e., settlements, housing, the construction – and often destruction – of infrastructure and controlling freedom of movement. Denying Palestinians access to land, to housing, to farming and to employment is carried out by expulsions, demolitions, the tearing up of groves and of course the construction of the massive and highly controversial "security barrier" along and through the West Bank.
Finally, all of this is backed up by military might and, as we now see in Gaza, the willingness to engage in violence out of all proportion to any stated justifications. At this writing, almost 1,000 Palestinians have been killed, over 4,000 are injured and much of Gaza lies in ruins. Also in ruins is Israel's moral standing in the eyes of much of the world: Tens of thousands of people have been protesting Israel's actions, and there are calls for a boycott of Israel – to "disinvest" in that country just as was the case for South Africa in the 1980s (however, the ability of U.S. firms to participate in anti-Israeli boycotts is constrained by U.S. law).
Many readers of this site may object to the above. But I would encourage such readers to again consider our planning perspective: On the APA site, for example, planning is seen as a profession that
"works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive places for present and future generations. Good planning helps create communities that offer better choices for where and how people live. Planning helps community members envision the direction their community grow and will help them find the right balance of new development and essential services, protection of the environment, and innovative change."
If we as planners are indeed concerned about "the welfare of people," about equity, about giving people "choices for where and how" they live, about the provision of "essential services," and about helping communities envision their own futures, then what Israel has been doing to Gaza for the past several years should appall us, for it has been systematically attacking Gazans' every means for fulfilling these goals. Gaza has, in fact become an "urban prison", as Tom Angotti wrote in the spring 2008 issue of Progressive Planning:
"All roads and commerce in and out of Gaza are blocked by the Israeli military. Israel's economic blockade has resulted in an unemployment rate of 40%, while 80% of the population relies on food aid Israeli warplanes destroyed Gaza's main power plant and sewage treatment plant, creating a critical public health crisis. Many of Israel's European allies have denounced the Israeli siege and economic blockade as disproportionate responses to the threats against Israel's security. The Israeli human rights group B'tselem states that over four years 13 Israelis were killed by rockets while in only the last two years over 1,000 Palestinians died, almost half of them civilians Many groups consider this to be collective punishment or ethnic cleansing in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel's vindictive policy against the civilian population is summed up in a wry statement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: ‘We will not allow them to lead a pleasant life."'
It would appear that Israel is doing all it can to "un-plan" or "de-plan" Gaza – to make it unviable, inhospitable and uninhabitable. Yet, despite the deliberate creation of these terrible conditions, Angotti notes, "Planners in the U.S., even many who opposed the uprooting of viable communities by the federal urban renewal program in the 1960s, have failed to raise their voices against the use of U.S. aid to support these policies."
This silence continues: I note that the websites of American Planning Association and the Canadian Institute of Planners make no mention of the conflict or take a position on it. I hope such will be forthcoming.
But as Tom Angotti urges, one way to become involved is to support the work of the Jerusalem-based Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) which works to address the conflict there by making explicit the connections between land use and Israel's military control of Palestine:
"[ICAHD] connect[s] the dots to show how the Israeli government's ongoing policies of Palestinian home demolitions, relentless development of large settlements, and building of the ‘Separation Barrier' deep into the West Bank are a persistent barrier to the just and lasting peace we seek. We disclose how the uncritical political support of the U.S., underwritten and financed with U.S. taxpayer money, sustains the Israeli Occupation's devastating impact on Palestinians, its violations of basic human rights, and how these pose a grave threat to the short and long-term security of Israelis."
As planners – hell, as human beings – I believe we need to apply in principle to both the Israelis and Palestinians alike the goals we hold for our own communities. This must start with acknowledging that criticizing the actions of Israel's government does not mean denying Israel's legitimacy or its need for security, and much less sympathizing with militant groups like Hamas or their tactics.
But a just resolution to this crisis will not be possible while Israel continues to violate international law, engages in shockingly disproportionate violence, and steadfastly opposes the natural aspirations of the Palestinian people to access, use, farm, develop and live on lands they can call their own.