By Ahmad El-Atrash
Palestine is a small country that is engulfed by problems that have evolved throughout modern history as a serious challenge to the sustainable development of contemporary Palestinian society. Inevitably, un-harmonised urbanisation within the Palestinian context is one of the most persistent challenges that undermine the development of Palestinian statehood. One tangible cause of the status-quo urbanisation in Palestine is the evident and complex interaction with the geo-political reality, as well as the incompetence of municipal and state decision-making apparatus, which further shapes the nature and characteristics of urban spaces. Given that this rarely finds an expression in Palestinian academic and professional research, this article will attempt to provide some insight into this reality in the Bethlehem metropolitan area.

Historically, the three cities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour (hereinafter referred to as the Bethlehem metropolitan area) have developed to constitute the urban hub and the service centre of the Bethlehem Governorate (Figure 1). These three cities have a monolithic relationship that shares a rich pool of natural resources and a common socio-cultural context. The Bethlehem Governorate is one of the largest of the eleven West Bank governorates. It occupies 607.8 km2 of mass land and borders the Jerusalem Governorate in the north and the Hebron Governorate in the south. The western borders of the Bethlehem Governorate are the 1949 Armistice Line (Green Line), which was demarcated by designated United Nations (UN) resolutions.

The Bethlehem metropolitan area faces many vexing problems that create a de facto situation that is considered antithetical to the process of sustainable development. On one hand, the Bethlehem metropolitan area is surrounded by various types of Israeli territorial and security measures. The northern and western parts of the Bethlehem metropolitan area are surrounded by the Segregation Wall, which prevents expansion of the area and connection with its twin city of Jerusalem. The southern and eastern parts of the Bethlehem metropolitan area are enclosed by the new Israeli bypass road. On the other hand, the lack of sound planning capacities on the Palestinian side has exacerbated the side effects of the Israeli antagonistic measures, creating sprawled neighbourhoods and cities. The fact that the Bethlehem metropolitan area cannot expand means that it is “eating into” its open spaces. Horizontally limited by the Segregation Wall and Israeli bypass roads and vertically by a “preservation policy” (Hilal et al., 2007) that seeks to keep the city’s traditional nature, the Bethlehem metropolitan area is developing into what Lisa Taraki (2008) calls an “enclave micropolis.” Other resulting environmental problems such as congestion, pollution, and urban decay at the old cores, as well as the rising numbers of urban poor will feature prominently as formidable challenges to the emerging Palestinian statehood in the coming years.

Palestinian societal development is being urbanised, as almost three-quarters of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) inhabitants live in urban areas – 69% in the West Bank and 81% in the Gaza Strip (PCBS, 2007). To globalise the trends, the Secretary General of the UN, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, asserted that we are living in an “urban century,” as more than half of the world’s population is now living in urban areas (UN-HABITAT, 2008 a). In our case, the population of the Bethlehem metropolitan area constitutes 28% of the total Bethlehem Governorate population and more than 40% of the governorate’s urban dwellers, who represent 70% of the total number of governorate dwellers (PCBS, 2007).

According to ARIJ (2007), the rate of natural annual growth in the Bethlehem metropolitan area had an average of 3.2% between the years 1997 and 2005. Although the growth rate in the Bethlehem metropolitan area is less than the national growth rate – which reached 3.3% (PCBS, 2007) – it is considered high when compared with other countries; the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) reports the world growth rate to be 1.2%, that of the Arab States to be 2.1%, and that of the less-developed countries to be 1.5% (PRB, 2008).

The UN-HABITAT, in one of its latest publications entitled “State of the World’s Cities 2008/2009: Harmonious Cities,” asserted that the driving forces behind urban growth in the fastest growing cities in the developing world (i.e., cities growing at an average annual growth rate of more than 2% per year, as in the case of the Bethlehem metropolitan area) are often complex and overlapping. However, the analysis led to the identification of the three most significant drivers of urban growth, namely: economic and industrial policies and related strategic investments in two key areas – transport infrastructure and communications and trade service sectors; improvements in the quality of life in cities; and changes in the legal and/or administrative status of urban areas (UN-HABITAT, 2008 a). According to UN-HABITAT’s Global Urban Observatory (2008 b), the latter (i.e., administrative change) was the main driving force behind urban growth in Asia, compared with Africa or Latin America and the Caribbean. Assuming that this factor includes de facto measures and “as though” legal procedures, as those implemented by the Israeli occupation in and around the Bethlehem metropolitan area, it has, without a doubt, been the substantial cause of the soaring urban growth rates in the Bethlehem metropolitan area. It is worth noting that the directional and rotational trajectory of urban growth changed radically after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank territory back in 1967, when the Bethlehem metropolitan area was considered an inclusive neighbourhood of Jerusalem that was perpetuated and extracted from the milieu of its territorial realm, ultimately directing urban growth away from Jerusalem, the centre of life at that time.
During the last four decades of Israeli military occupation, Palestinian jurisdiction over land in the Bethlehem metropolitan area has drastically decreased, as opposed to the increasingly urban population growth rates. Taking the gross population density as a quantitative indicator: the gross population density in the Bethlehem metropolitan area has increased exponentially by a factor of 7 during 1967-2007 (Table 1).

The current gross population density of the Bethlehem metropolitan area – 3,383 person/km² – is considered relatively high when compared with other Palestinian cities (Figure 2), and with that of the West Bank and the oPt, 422 persons/km² and 635 persons/km² in 2008, respectively (PCBS, 2009). It is worth noting that the gross population density in the Arab states is 155 persons/km² and 66 persons/km² in the less developed countries (PRB, 2008). In this context, ARIJ (2007) indicated that the gross population density is projected to increase as the rate of population growth is high and the access to open land is limited in the Bethlehem metropolitan area. If one assumes that the Israeli activities will remain as they are today (with land confiscation and the construction of the Segregation Wall), the gross urban population density in the Bethlehem metropolitan area will increase to 4,520 persons/km² in the year 2010 and to 5,135 persons/km² in the year 2015 (ARIJ, 2007).

Thus, it is vivid enough to note that the Bethlehem Governorate, as in the case of other Palestinian governorates across the oPt, is being deliberately urbanised, mainly due to high Palestinian growth rates and the Israeli de facto enabled environment. To look at the bigger picture, the gross population density of the West Bank has increased by approximately 50% during the last five years (El-Atrash, 2009). This is due to the high rate of population growth and the limited access to open lands for future development, compounded by the land confiscation policies that the Israeli government has implemented in the West Bank territory, thus propelling the salient rural-urban migration. This relatively high gross population density will probably exacerbate the results of urban sprawl and the misuse of valuable agricultural land.

Land-use/land-cover interpretation of the isolated Palestinian lands in the Bethlehem Governorate due to the building of the Segregation Wall shows that almost one-third of the area is of an agricultural nature, plus another 4% of forests (ARIJ GIS-Database, 2009). Anani (2007) called the former an “agrarian landscape,” which is characterised by a vivid change in its physique, due mainly to what he called rurbanisation: the mix in the property (e.g., social and physical) of urban and rural areas to a degree that is regarded as interactive and inseparable.

The perpetual and increasing migration from Palestinian rural areas to urban ones, due to the Israeli oppressive practices, including the Wall, has its adverse effects on both sides. However, the borders between these urban areas and its rural hinterlands can be best described by the term used by Raja Shehadah (2002), “a vanishing landscape,” due to the growth rates of urban sprawl areas and the uncontrolled expansion of villages in the direction of urban centres. Consequently, the organic relationship between Palestinian manpower and agrarian landscape became more fragile, thus jeopardising the agricultural production-consumption cycle of agri-economics (Anani, 2007).

Weber (1991) argues, however, that those who are disconnected from their production-consumption relationship with the landscape tend to protest and resist. In the Palestinian arena, the nucleus of civil protest and resistance, as in Ba’lian and Na’lin in the Ramallah Governorate, as well as Umm Salamuna in the Bethlehem Governorate, east of the Bethlehem metropolitan area, provides an aspiration and motivation for other Palestinians that something could be done to stop the crime of the Wall against Palestinian lands and people.

The Israeli planning authorities have purportedly manipulated the land-use system in the oPt (Abdulhadi, 1990). The designated “green natural” zones were systematically annihilated and concretised with exclusive Jewish settlements. This was described as “agoraphobia; the fear of space” (Salmon, 2002), which refers to the fact that the crux of Israeli colonial politics consists not only of the division of territory but of its abolition as well. By the same token, the Palestinian sociologist Sari Hanfi (2004) described such a colonial model a “spacio-cidal,” as opposed to genocidal.

The Israeli Jerusalem Municipality’s use of legal manoeuvring to designate Palestinian lands as “green natural” zones only helps to gain enough time to strategically abolish the landscape by its concretisation through illegal, exclusive Jewish settlements, such as Har Homa that was built on Jabel Abu Ghneim, north of the Bethlehem metropolitan area (Figure 3).

To conclude, the rate of urbanisation in the Bethlehem metropolitan area gains momentum from the de facto administrative boundaries compounded by the high rates of natural urban growth at both the national and regional levels. This has been conceptualised through a common and authentic urban morphology that is characterised by highly compact patterns of built-up and infrastructural lines. The morphology of the Bethlehem metropolitan area was directed away from the centre of its life – Jerusalem – after the 1967 war, causing urban sprawl that damages prime agricultural lands and valuable natural resources, thus undermining the sustainability of the urban environment.

Ahmad El-Atrash holds a master’s degree in urban planning and landscape architecture from Birzeit University. He is working as a research associate at the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ) on issues related to spatial planning. Mr. El-Atrash can be reached at or