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The Stakes Of Heritage And The Politics Of Culture

The Stakes Of Heritage And The Politics Of Culture

The Old City of Hebron is a good place to grasp the politics of heritage in Palestine. Life in this Palestinian town came to a standstill in the late 1970s when a handful of Israeli-Jewish settlers occupied some of the city’s signature historic buildings, bringing with them several thousand soldiers. They came, many of them all the way from the United States, to redeem what they see as the Land of Israel and its Jewish heritage, beginning with the Tomb of the Patriarchs: while also sacred to Muslims, and actually a mosque for centuries, the site for the settlers is the very proof of their right to the land. The settlers’ ongoing violent presence, militarization, and the progressive depopulation of Palestinian inhabitants all dramatically altered Hebron’s physical and social landscape. Most Palestinian residents, those who could afford it, left to avoid being assaulted, harassed, arrested, killed, or imprisoned by closures and checkpoints. The settlers turned the city’s once-bustling historic center into a segregated ghost town.

In the late 1980s a group of scholars and architects from Hebron’s Polytechnic University conducted an architectural and social survey of an emptying-out, decaying Old City and began discussing a plan for its rehabilitation. Then, in the wake of the mass mobilization of the First Intifada (1987–1993), a stronger movement emerged to rescue the Old City, including Hebron’s Graduate Students Union. This early mobilization, however, did not fully fledge into an organization until Yasser Arafat intervened directly in 1996 by creating the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC) to restore and regenerate the Old City.

Why would Arafat himself intervene to create a heritage organization? Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had been going on intermittently since the Madrid Conference of 1991. But what had been initially an open, participatory, and locally highly respected endeavor, with negotiators from the West Bank and Gaza regularly flying back to Palestine to report to and get feedback from their constituencies, had turned into secretive talks conducted by “Tunisians,” that is, Palestine Liberation Organization exiles with much less local knowledge and legitimacy, and often no qualifications except for a militant pedigree.1 Hebron was (and remains) an important site, especially from a religious and symbolic point of view; it is a microcosm of the conflict and a key battlefield in the war of position and complex maneuvering of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Urban legends have it that Arafat would make undercover visits to the Old City before the official handover; surely he took a keen personal and political interest in the cause. At the time, Arafat and the returnee cadre—the Fatah leadership coming back from exile—were making deliberate efforts to co-opt grassroots initiatives and groups into supporting the series of Oslo Accords, which had created the Palestinian Authority (PA) to temporarily administer the areas from which Israel had withdrawn.2 When Hebron was excluded at the last minute from the 1995 Oslo II agreement because Israel was extremely reluctant to withdraw settlers from the very center of town,3 Hebronites’ dissatisfaction with the negotiations grew. Instead of the dismantling of the colonies, they got the Hebron Protocol, which divided the city into a Palestinian- and an Israeli-controlled area—with the HRC in the latter. Unable to liberate the city, Arafat shifted his tactical objective in Hebron to increasing the number of Palestinians in the area he was going to leave under Israeli control (including the Old City), to prevent Israelis from “easily swallowing” it through their facts-on-the-ground policies (e.g., settlers occupying empty buildings).4 The Palestinians’ (partial) success was in including a much larger Palestinian population as well as a newly established HRC in this area.

The rehabilitation of Hebron’s Old City and Bethlehem (the PA’s early flagship nation-branding project) are the only heritage schemes to have received full institutional and financial support from the Palestinian Authority in its first years. This is because the HRC was established as a function of the ongoing negotiations: Arafat opted to play the demographic card and create his own facts on the ground by repopulating the deserted Old City with Palestinians in order to stop the expansion of the settlements.

Arafat gave the HRC responsibility for the old town. The board of the new HRC included local political figures who were close to Arafat and Fatah, and the people from the polytechnic who had started the restoration works in the late 1980s became the HRC’s engineering office, that is, its executive arm. To guarantee some form of Palestinian security presence in an area controlled by the Israeli army, Arafat encouraged old militants turned police and PA security personnel (returnees originally from Hebron and its vicinity but also from Gaza) to move into the Old City. This influx of security personnel did not continue for too long, but some of the oldest and most committed men who came back with Arafat still live in a small neighborhood known informally as harat al-sulta (neighborhood of the Palestinian Authority). The men of this “militant wave” and their families moved to the Old City for politico-ideological reasons—to defend it from the settlers and keep alive its Palestinian identity.

Khaled was one of these returnees, a charismatic old Fatah militant turned PA security man and Old City resident, a local leader much respected in the PA neighborhood as a former member of the presidential guard. He told me the following story about the origins of the HRC:

When [Arafat] announced the establishment of the Rehabilitation Committee he was in Bethlehem, and a delegation from Hebron was with him, of which I was a member. [The people of the delegation] were very angry because of the Hebron agreement that gave the Israelis the right to chase Palestinians within five hundred meters inside H1 [the Palestinian-controlled part]: this was called the hot chase. They talked angrily and loudly, but when they were about to leave [Arafat] said: “Wait, don’t leave!” and then he stood on a chair and said: “Listen, they will give us the hot chase, but we will give them the cold chase in the Old City of Hebron. In this moment I announce the establishment of the Rehabilitation Committee of Hebron.” And that’s how the committee was born.5

Khaled told me this story as we sat in his ample reception room under a large photo of him with Arafat. Right next to it, he had organized a small heritage museum: adorned with a vast number of folklore objects, from agricultural tools to embroidery, this space re-created a traditional Arab home. Deeply committed to both the national cause and the preservation of Palestinian heritage, Khaled did welcome the establishment of the HRC as the “cold chase,” the way to maintain a Palestinian institutional presence and political agency in the Old City under Israeli control—and ultimately the counterplan to wrestle control of the Old City from the settlers, even if gradually. Yet his words illuminate the ambivalent politics at play in Arafat’s move: the leader set up the HRC in part to thwart internal opposition to the accords and to his negotiating approach, which for some Palestinians was similar to giving up on Israeli dictates. Indeed, according to one of my informants, a leftist activist and a journalist, there was another, cross-factional committee at the time, called the Hebron Defense Committee, that was critical of the negotiations and very active in organizing direct actions against the occupation, such as demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes. When Arafat created the HRC—offering diplomacy and urban regeneration as alternatives to political struggle, Fatah members joined it and left the other resistance committee, effectively sealing its fate.6

The HRC started as a transitional committee with an informal political mandate to take responsibility for the occupied Old City. It was also, crucially, a tactical device to counter the expansion of the settlements while the negotiations were still ongoing. The idea was to secure a good negotiating position in preparation for the so-called final status negotiations, believed to be upcoming, which were to resolve the sticking points of the conflict and usher in a peace treaty. The HRC’s work and its very reason for existing would cease with the creation of an independent Palestinian state (and the end of settlements), expected to happen at the turn of the millennium after a five-year interim period. But the failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the peace process as a whole and the continuation of occupation extended the mandate of the HRC indefinitely. As with other institutions created in the mid-1990s as transitional mechanisms, like the PA itself, the HRC lasted much longer than originally planned—and it would grow into something else.

The turn of the millennium was a crucial point in the HRC’s history and in Palestinian perception more broadly. Yet in 2000, no Palestinian state was founded, crushing the expectations of most Palestinians, including those working at the committee; instead, the Second Intifada exploded. Instead of a new era of independent statehood, “interim” limited self-rule continued along with a patchwork sovereignty, all under a heightened regime of violence. Instead of handing over responsibility for the Old City to the municipality, or to another sovereign, elected political body, and with no end in sight to its task of protecting the city from decay and settlers, the HRC’s project simply went on under transformed circumstances and expectations.

Ever since, the HRC has been working to counter the settlers’ project. It has restored most of Hebron’s dilapidated and depopulated central quarters. But in order to sustain livelihoods in the Old City over the long term and in difficult conditions, it has shifted its work to local socioeconomic development; it has also partially detached from the Palestinian Authority and grown dependent instead on European donors, adopting the language and practices of international development. By providing employment on its restoration projects and promoting development in multiple ways among the impoverished local population, the HRC helps maintain the city’s very “Palestinianness,” including the historical character of its traditional Arab-Islamic urban fabric. Despite the fact that the so-called peace process did not bring an end to the Hebron colonies, the HRC has helped several thousand Palestinians return to live in the restored houses of the Old City, preventing the settlers’ further takeover of abandoned areas.

A similar large-scale program of historic conservation and urban regeneration in the Old City of Jerusalem has allowed the local Palestinian population to stay put and enjoy better living conditions, thus blocking the growth of Israeli settlements in their midst.7 Moreover, in villages and towns all over the West Bank, other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have restored many historic buildings, which now host new residential quarters as well as a variety of social and cultural activities, from local government offices to libraries and community centers and women’s centers. This work has made heritagized central quarters into a visible and symbolically important part of West Bank cityscapes. This work of urban regeneration and heritage making is the subject of this book.

The story of the HRC encapsulates many facets of this book: the politics at play in Palestinian heritage making and its connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the relationship between Palestinian heritage, particularly urban regeneration, and laying material claims to sovereignty (i.e., resisting colonialism), but also instantiating provisional, improvised, and at times innovative forms of local government; the enmeshment of heritage with processes of fragmented state formation; the post-Oslo connection between heritage and development; the NGOization of Palestinian civil society; and the tensions between the PA and cultural organizations. In the pages that follow, I explore the current proliferation of heritage initiatives in Palestine and the growing mobilization of heritage as a language to frame and advance Palestinian rights to the land and as an intervention into the landscape to counter colonization. In a way similar to the spread of human rights, “heritage” has proved central to the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination and, crucially, to the Palestinians’ struggle to create a state of their own. Palestinian heritage—as a specific assemblage of actors, ideas, modes and schemes of action, and material sites—is connected to local civil society and transnational networks and regimes of practices. Thanks to such transnational connectivity, it also constitutes an important technology of government (in the amplified, Foucauldian sense) in the lacerated space of the occupied territories.




Lara, an enthusiastic Palestinian architect in her late twenties, took me in the fall of 2004 to a small West Bank village threatened by a ring of Israeli settlements, where her Ramallah-based NGO was restoring an old mansion. Part of a magnificent, if run-down, Ottoman-period historic center, it would house a community center run by a local women’s organization. Lara was not from the village—she held an international MA and was soon to move abroad on a PhD scholarship—but she worked closely with the engineer supervising the site, another enthusiastic young woman from a nearby town, as well as with the local contractor and the architect of the municipality. She regularly met with local women to discuss the restoration project. Some of these women were vocal advocates for their community, often with histories of political activism either themselves or in the family (i.e., a son or a husband in an Israeli jail); others were fully disillusioned with “politics” (al-siyasa) and the ways in which it had made their lives miserable. But all, together with Lara, looked forward to the development of the heritage project, into which they had put a lot of hope for the future. Funded by a European donor as part of a broader job creation scheme, the construction site already employed a number of the women’s male relatives.

This kind of cultural heritage was quite unlike all that I had experienced in my previous work across a number of Middle Eastern and European countries in a field historically monopolized by the state and (neo)colonial forces and an exclusive interest in monumental, pre-Islamic archaeology.8 In Palestine, people’s living environment, not ancient history and archaeology, takes center stage, and it is local civil society, not foreign and state actors, who is doing heritage. In Palestine, heritage actors were mostly young cosmopolitan architects, artists, and cultural producers. Many were women, frequently with a history of political activism and transnational life trajectories. Some were public intellectuals; all were full of passion. They understood heritage primarily in terms of a robust commitment to improve the environment and lives of local communities strangled by the Israeli occupation—to contribute to “solving current social problems and answering social needs”—and to change people’s mentality toward a stronger “awareness” (wai) of heritage and the environment.9 It seemed to me that these heritage practitioners had turned a colonial practice upside down, reformulating it for new objectives. Only later did I realize the full extent to which these civil society efforts participate in the process of state formation and of governing Palestine.

The Israeli occupation and ongoing colonization of Palestinian lands since 1967, in contravention of international law, has dramatically affected Palestinian heritage practices by destroying, directly or indirectly, hundreds of historic buildings and pouring an immense amount of concrete over the hills of the West Bank to house a growing population of now well over half a million settlers.10 Palestinian practitioners work to prevent further destruction of historic buildings and towns and to restore and repopulate what has been ruined, but also to improve the well-being of the communities that live in these old houses. And yet if current Palestinian heritage practices respond to the Palestinian predicament of ongoing dispossession, occupation, and colonization, they also partake in transnational circuits of heritage expertise and aid money—in a global context where heritage has been reformulated as a means of socioeconomic development.

With the Oslo Accords, the coming of the PA and the beginning of self-rule in the Palestinian territories ushered in state formation and the construction of a national heritage.11 Emerging polities often bring about a shift in the public narration of the past—political communities do not exist before their collective memories, but they come about (also) by working through them.12 Pasts that matter to societies are not merely a reflection of political dynamics and the object of political manipulations but one of the terrains on which politics plays out, where dominant discourses and identities are made and unmade.13 As the shared past and shared culture of the nation, heritage is the source of the nation’s distinctiveness.14 As heritage materializes in a number of specific sites, it also ties a nation to its alleged ancestral territory. In this way, it provides the material evidence of a people’s roots in and rightful ownership of that territory. It tells a nation’s story by giving it a rooted past but also a set of values and a sense of continuity and futurity.15 States have thus largely monopolized heritage and used it to promote national identification along with political legitimacy and territorial sovereignty.16 But in Palestine the state has not yet (fully) materialized. The tremendous growth of the Israeli colonies and the failure of the negotiation process have disrupted the transition to Palestinian statehood inaugurated by the accords and indefinitely extended the duration of the PA as nonsovereign quasi-state—all while development money has continued to flow into the territories. In this context (in fact, a transformed colonial condition), Palestinian NGOs as well as other international and transnational actors like donors and aid agencies have stepped in, complementing a fragile and ever-transitional PA in a variety of domains, including heritage.

So-called Oslo II, the interim agreement of 1995, specified the powers of the PA, established a year earlier as a transitional governmental body.17 Even though the PA “had many of the symbols and trappings of a state (such as passports, stamps, car number plates, . . . ministries, police and security forces, and other public institutions), in substance [it] was actually a limited self-government with very limited administrative, security and legislative powers over limited areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip” (Map 1).18 Oslo II gave the Palestinians control over both security and administrative affairs in the major population centers, which constituted only about 7 percent of the West Bank (known in the agreement as area A). Smaller towns and rural hamlets (area B), amounting to about 24 percent of the West Bank, were subject to shared control, with the Palestinians in charge of administrative affairs and the Israeli military in charge of security. Israel retained absolute control over approximately 69 percent of the West Bank (area C, including Jerusalem, all Israeli settlements, military installations, and border areas).19 Percentages have slightly changed (in 2013, area C was about 61 percent of the West Bank, and area A, 18 percent20), but the fragmentation of the West Bank remained as these “interim” arrangements were never superseded by a final agreement. The growth of the settlements, and of the network of Israeli-only bypass roads that connects them, has turned the West Bank into a series of enclaves that analysts have compared with South African Bantustans under apartheid.21 Hebron can be seen as a condensed microcosm of the conditions that characterize the West Bank as a whole.

MAP 1. Map of the West Bank, based on UN OCHA West Bank Access Restrictions as of January 2017. The Palestinian areas are in dark gray (areas A–B); area C, fully controlled by Israel, is in light gray with the settlements in white.
Source: UN OCHA, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Reprinted with permission.

Under these conditions, how has heritage been rearticulated and institutionalized over time in relationship to changing Palestinian social forms and politics, as imbricated with an enduring occupation as well as transformations in global development? These questions are critical because heritage has increasingly played a central role in Palestinian sovereignty claims, as well as in cultural development schemes the world over. This book explores these questions in an ethnography of Palestinian heritage, focusing in particular on the current proliferation of urban regeneration initiatives and museums.

Similar to the spread of the human rights discourse, and thanks to its close association with development, cultural heritage has grown into an important prism through which Palestinians understand their relationship to their occupied land and, crucially, lay claim to it. In fact, for some activists, heritage claims might well have a better chance of success against the occupation than claims in the name of human rights,22 which many Palestinians increasingly view as having no effects.23 In Hebron, for example, the HRC has managed to contain the settlers, whose numbers have remained the same, unlike in the rest of the West Bank. In 2017 Palestinians put forward and won the nomination of the Old City of Hebron to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, hoping that the achievement of international heritage status might guarantee the city urgent protection for its residents and the heritage they inhabit; Israel reacted furiously by withdrawing millions in funds to the United Nations and financing instead a Jewish heritage museum in the city.24 A few years earlier, in 2015, Israel’s High Court of Justice froze the army’s plans to build the separation wall across the lands of the West Bank village of Battir, and the fact that this unique, living historic landscape was also a Palestinian site on the World Heritage List played a key role in this decision.25 By invoking and preserving heritage, then, Palestinians assert their rights to the land on the ground and on the international stage; they also assert a sense of entitlement and a place of cultural worth within global taxonomies of value.26

All these activities have been conducted under the banner of heritage preservation, yet they go well beyond “heritage” as it is conventionally conceived. Palestinian heritage organizations often perform diverse functions, ranging from producing all sorts of inventories (of historic properties but also other resources), surveys, and maps to preparing territorial master plans. Generally, they have acted as important conduits of development aid. In so doing, they have often stood proxy for absent or extremely weak governmental institutions. In Old Hebron, for example, the PA has almost no authority, because the Hebron Protocol placed it under Israeli military control, where it has remained ever since. In this context, over the years the HRC has expanded the scope of its activities and has come to run the administration of the Old City as if it were a municipality; today it is the major functioning Palestinian institution there, receiving several million dollars a year from European and Arab donors. On the ground, “civil society” organizations have achieved much greater results than their weak, underresourced “state” counterparts at the PA Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture. The fact that these organizations often play an important role in both local and national governance in various ways and embody a different vision of Palestinian politics and especially of what a Palestinian state should look like leads to frequent clashes with PA institutions.

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