“Illegal” construction as resistance to the Israeli state

Planning and resistance through “illegal” construction in the Palestinian Occupied Territories

By Michelle Parke


Palestinian land has been illegally occupied by the Israeli state for over fifty years now. East Jerusalem has been a particularly important site of contestation between Palestinians and Israelis and has been highly militarized by the Israeli state for purposes of maintaining control of the land. Many exclusionary planning practices have been implemented by the Israeli state which has created extreme hardship for the Palestinian residents. While large Israeli settlements have been built on Palestinian expropriated land, there have been major restrictions on Palestinian housing and infrastructure development (Braier, 2013), including policies that require the approval of formal plans and subsequent allocation of building permits along with demolitions of non-approved structures (Wari, 2011). Thus the Israeli state is carrying out demolitions that are officially based on planning rationales, claiming that the houses are “illegal” because they have not been granted an official building permit (Braverman, 2007).  This “illegal” construction or informal housing comprises over 40% of housing units in East Jerusalem (Braier, 2013).

Image 1: Israeli soldiers stand guard as a Palestinian building near Hebron is demolished in February 2018 (AFP). See the main source here.


Although the Palestinian people are marginalized by the Israeli state, they do not lack power altogether. They have been able to employ various tactics of resistance and insurgent planning. The “illegal” construction of homes by Palestinians can be seen as a form of spatial protest or resistance. At the same, time, Palestinians have resisted the demolition of their “illegally” constructed houses by initiating independent spot zoning plans utilizing the state planning system in an insurgent way (Braier, 2013). They have initiated an oppositional planning practice that challenges conventional planning by the state and challenges the structure of political power relations within the state (Meir, 2005).

Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem do not have Israeli citizenship because they refuse to accept the illegal occupation of their land (Braverman, 2007). As a result, in order to maintain resident status in Jerusalem, they must continue to live in the city (Braier, 2013). This urban informality that they exist in can be seen as what Yiftachel refers to as a “gray space”, positioned between the “whiteness” of legality and the “blackness” of eviction (2009). The state is responsible for both the existence and the criminalization of this ‘gray space’, which can be illustrated by the paradoxical housing policies. Thus the practice of house construction is not merely a survival tactic but rather a case of counter-hegemonic resistance that challenges the state’s socio-spatial control, in the process of producing social and political consciousness (Braier, 2013; Braverman, 2007). These passive acts are what Katherine Rankin refers to as “subversion” (2010). She argues that this subversion denotes a more “ambiguous political agency” and that it may be unintentional or just a way to get by (Rankin 2010, p.224). Nonetheless, these subversive acts have the ability to “expose the fragility of hegemony” (Rankin 2010, p.225). These small acts, when conceptualized as a whole, serve a counter-hegemonic potential (Rankin, 2010).

In a slightly more nuanced interpretation, these acts can be seen as a form of “quiet encroachment,” described by Asef Bayat as “a non-collective but prolonged direct action by individuals and families to acquire the basic necessities of their lives in a quiet and unassuming illegal fashion” (Bayat, 2000, p. 536). While these actions may not be collective action or organized resistance, they are important to recognize because they still act to challenge and undermine state power. Although each act of “illegal” construction is completed on an individual basis, the gains that are made through hundreds of individual acts are collective and can become a “social force” (Bayat, 2000).

While “illegal” construction by Palestinians can be seen as a form of spatial and counter-hegemonic resistance, it can also be seen as a form of radical planning. The use of independent planning to resist the demolitions can be viewed through the lens of Miraftab’s idea of invited and invented spaces of citizenship (2009). The state planning system has allowed the practice of spot zoning to promote market norms as a neoliberal strategy, overlooking the “legal” documentation that is normally required for a building permit (Braier, 2013). This practice of independent spot zoning has allowed Palestinians to directly partake in the planning process. The introduction of this practice has also resulted in contradictory effects, unintended by the state, by creating a more bottom-up style of planning. Because they now have an opportunity to bring their voices directly into the planning system, planners can no longer ignore the Palestinians. Thus, they have been able to use this practice to get plans approved that prevent their houses from being demolished (Braier, 2013). In this case, they are using formal or invited spaces because they prove advantageous (Miraftab, 2009). Through this political opening in the hegemonic system, they are making a counter-hegemonic move (Miraftab, 2009). At the same time, however, by using that invited space, they are legitimizing the planning system (Braier, 2013).

Image 2: (a) Jewish-Israeli neighborhood of Armon Hanavitz (housing density = 2.8 persons/housing unit), (b) Arab-Palestinian neighborhood of Jabel Mukabar (housing density = 7 persons/housing unit). Source: Braier, Michal. 2013.


The Palestinian people have shown that formal planning practices can easily lead to exclusion. They have been subjected to long-lasting processes of settler colonialism and racialization by the Israeli state that has taken the form of exclusionary planning processes that are intended to prevent growth and spatial gains by the Palestinian people. Nonetheless, they have utilized resistance tactics to challenge the state and its power, continuing to build “illegally” and claim control of land in the contested space of Jerusalem even at the risk of demolition. Informal construction can be interpreted in various ways, but from Bayat’s (2000) perspective, the Palestinian people have been able to gradually “encroach” on the state via informal construction practices that are originally initiated out of necessity. However, independent acts create collective gains for the entire community. Collectively, these multiple counter-hegemonic acts of subversion (Rankin, 2010) challenge the power of the state regardless of their original intent.

Image 3: A Palestinian boy watches Israeli authorities demolish a school in Yatta near Hebron in July (AFP). See the main source here.

The Palestinian people have also shown that even in an area where neoliberal governance and planning practices have been designed to exclude and produce differential citizenship, there is potential for “insurgent citizenship” (Miraftab, 2009). There are political opportunities for Palestinians to take advantage of the system, demonstrating that insurgent planning can be pursued by marginalized groups via both invited and invented spaces. By utilizing insurgent planning and oppositional planning practices, they are challenging the Israeli state’s power (Meir, 2005). While this case study only examines insurgency through invited spaces of citizenship, there is potential for Palestinians to create invented spaces of citizenship as well. Via these informal methods of resistance and insurgent planning, Palestinians have “planned” and made progress in opposition to the state.