Over the course of generations of conquest, what has been lost in colonial cities like Jerusalem? Israel’s settler-colonial project has been premised on a set of racial and spatial assumptions that require the dispossession—even the elimination—of the native Palestinians. Over the seven decades of Israeli rule in Jerusalem and throughout historic Palestine, the state has produced abiding landscapes of loss for Palestinians, while enabling mass Zionist settlement on lands and in homes wrested from the indigenous population. Israel’s almost ineluctable expansion as well as the fortification of its exclusive character underscores why settler colonialism must be seen not as a single, seminal event of conquest but rather as an ongoing process of violent ordering and reordering. Over the last 70 years of Israeli governance, Jerusalem has been reconfigured geographically and demographically through policies designed to construct Jewish settlements on the ruins of destroyed Arab neighborhoods and villages. Analyzing the moving edge of Israeli colonialism across an urban center radically reconfigured since 1948 reveals the steady, grinding violence of settler-colonial urbanism.

Continuities of Colonial Urbanism

The fate of Deir Yassin in 1948 and Khan al-Ahmar in 2018, two Arab villages in the Jerusalem area, offer insights into the state’s enduring racial and spatial designs. These two sites lie roughly 20 kilometers apart, on opposite edges of what has become a sprawling conurbation under sole Israeli control. This region, known among Israeli planners as “Greater Jerusalem,” is much larger than the official municipal boundaries, redrawn unilaterally by the Israeli state in 1967. Deir Yassin and Khan al-Ahmar also bookend, temporally, the expropriation of this rapidly expanding colonial city.

In the late 1940s, Zionists and Palestinians understood the strategic and demographic significance of Deir Yassin, located just west of Jerusalem’s British-drawn municipal boundaries. Bringing the village under Israeli control and expelling its Palestinian residents would allow the Zionist movement to establish a territorial link between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the two cities most critical to the nascent Israeli state. Those familiar with the history of Palestine/Israel are generally aware that on April 9, 1948, weeks before the creation of Israel, Zionist forces massacred at least 107 Palestinian inhabitants of Deir Yassin. This violent incursion (one of several massacres that year) helped ignite an exodus of tens of thousands of Palestinians from the Jerusalem area and far beyond. What is less well known, however, is that in the years immediately following the expulsion of the Palestinians and the creation of Israel, the commandeered lands of Deir Yassin and a string of neighboring Arab communities, such as Ein Karem, Lifta, Maliha and Al-Walaja, were used to establish the western edge of the enlarged Israeli municipality of West Jerusalem.

The racist violence integral to colonial conquest radically transformed the land and was, in turn, celebrated as the noble work of “reclaiming” and “redeeming” Eretz Yisrael for the Jewish people. Israeli officials and their supporters abroad began to generate narratives that, paradoxically, depicted Jerusalem as the Jewish people’s “immutable” and “eternal” capital, while the Israeli state simultaneously altered its urban landscape quite radically to serve the needs of its Jewish citizens.

Moving Edge of Israeli Colonial Expansion

On the western rim of Jerusalem’s protean metropolitan area, Israeli settler colonialism was enabled by the forced removal of Palestinians in 1948. After the state’s conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967, a more challenging impediment threatened the central Zionist aim of demographic dominance. In the wake of the 1967 war, Israel did not take possession of the thousands of emptied Arab homes and abundant lands seized from refugees, as it did in 1948. Instead, the roughly 60,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem overwhelmingly remained in their homes and deepened their commitment to national liberation and anti-colonial resistance. Appropriating and reordering the east side has required, therefore, newfangled methods of colonial governance.

Just as the massacre at Deir Yassin and the expulsion of its Palestinian survivors enabled Israel to expand the boundaries of West Jerusalem after 1948, Khan al-Ahmar and other Bedouin communities in the region are vital for Israel’s colonial push eastward towards the Jordan River.

Concerted efforts to defuse what Zionists have termed the Palestinian “demographic time bomb,”[1] have always been a critical dimension of post-1967 colonial rule in Jerusalem. Several Israeli urban planners have detailed how the new rulers sought to implement, among other things, policies to “cap” the Palestinians at no more than 28 percent of the city’s population.[2] Israeli officials unilaterally redrew Jerusalem’s municipal borders to facilitate this vision, expanding the former Jordanian-administered city tenfold. The aim, as former Israeli city planner Sarah Kaminkar noted, was to take in a maximum amount of Arab land but a minimum of Arab population.[3] The state also carried out plans to move tens of thousands of Jewish settlers into fortress hilltop settlements built on expropriated Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem. Demographic changes would, it was thought, strengthen Israeli claims to the enlarged urban area.

Despite everything that Israel has done in Jerusalem since 1967, however, today the roughly 205,000 Israeli Jews in East Jerusalem are still outnumbered by more than 320,000 Palestinians. This has jeopardized Israel’s abiding racial and spatial designs for the Jerusalem metropolitan area. This context of widespread racial anxieties among Zionists and renewed political challenges to the Zionist colonization of Palestine characterizes the Israeli state’s planned destruction of Khan al-Ahmar. Israeli governments since 1967—and especially since the Oslo agreements were signed in 1993—have viewed the predominantly working poor Bedouin inhabitants of Khan al-Ahmar much as Zionist settlers of the Yishuv regarded Deir Yassin in the late 1940s.

Indeed, the significance of this small hamlet rests precisely in the fact that it does not lie within the current Israeli-defined boundaries of Jerusalem. Situated about ten kilometers east of the existing municipal border, Khan al-Ahmar and several other communities are located in an area targeted for settler colonial expansion which Israeli planners and politicians have come to define as the “E-1” zone. The Israeli state plans to incorporate this area of about 12 square kilometers into a “Greater Jerusalem” under sole Israeli control and is laboring in real time to actualize this expanded version of its “eternal capital” through projects such as the destruction of Khan al-Ahmar.

Although Israel has not yet built its prodigious “separation wall” around E-1, the planned route of the barrier would encircle E-1 and fortify its incorporation into colonial Jerusalem. The Palestinian inhabitants of Khan al-Ahmar have struggled to remain on their land. In July 2018, they successfully—though temporarily—resisted their violent removal and “relocation,” along with other displaced Bedouin communities, to a site near a municipal garbage dump. The Bedouin of Khan al-Ahmar may soon join that minority of Palestinian refugees who have been expelled from their homes not once but two or three times since 1948.[4]

In the early 1950s, the Israeli state ejected this semi-nomadic community from the Negev Desert where they had lived for generations before Zionist settlement in Palestine. They sought refuge in the area that Israeli officials have now deemed E-1, east of Jerusalem. Much like Deir Yassin, which lay strategically between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, this now partially demolished village sits along the trajectory of settlement that Israel envisions will link its “eternal capital” to the Jordan Valley.

In March 2017, Israeli authorities declared the modest homes of Khan al-Ahmar and the school that residents built of tires and mud as merely a collection of “illegal” and “unrecognized” structures. The thick mesh of bureaucratic and legal restrictions imposed on the community for decades permits the occupying power to evict them on the pretext that it is the occupied who are unlawfully present and encroaching on Israeli “state land.” In the Jerusalem of the future, gerrymandered lines on a map will likely no longer be sufficient to represent the city’s new borders. Rather, fortified walls and iron-clad separation, once proposed by the ideological predecessors of Israel’s current rulers, will almost certainly be the mechanism through which the E-1 territory is incorporated into an expansive Jerusalem and, therefore, the Israeli state.

Just as the massacre at Deir Yassin and the expulsion of its Palestinian survivors enabled Israel to expand the boundaries of West Jerusalem after 1948, Khan al-Ahmar and other Bedouin communities in the region are vital for Israel’s colonial push eastward towards the Jordan River. By expropriating the territory of Khan al-Ahmar and other nearby Arab areas, Israel will bisect the West Bank into separate northern and southern sections, effectively preventing the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state. In the context of negotiations with the Palestinians since the late 1990s, successive Israeli governments have expressed the Israeli state’s commitment to the settlement of E-1 and its incorporation into Jerusalem. From the Camp David talks in 2000, to those in Taba in 2001, to those advanced by the Olmert government in 2008, every Israeli government has insisted that the entire area of E-1—not to mention the illegal Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem—is non-negotiable.


The Trump administration’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018 was premised on the refusal to acknowledge Palestinian rights to the city. That act, however, may portend a far more serious outcome. After the Bush and Obama administrations quietly precluded Israeli officials from finalizing their plans in E-1, the Trump regime appears to be encouraging the Knesset’s most racist visionaries and their settler shock troops to make “Greater Jerusalem” a reality. The question of Jerusalem’s political status has always begged a more fundamental question: How has the racial state used its power to define, map and rearrange the contours of the city?

Throughout the shifting metropolitan area, the theft of Palestinian land, homes and other property has been integral to creating the Jerusalem of the dominant Zionist imagination. The losses of Palestinians once residing in Khan al-Ahmar, Deir Yassin and so many other sites of expulsion throughout the Jerusalem region are the precondition for an Israeli racial project actualized through settler-colonial conquest. The eastward expansion of “Greater Jerusalem” will foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Rather than leading inevitably to a single democratic state, the death of the two-state solution may very well be consolidating apartheid as the terminal phase of the Zionist settler-colonial project.



1. See the 1976 Koenig Report, written by the then Israeli interior minister. In 2003, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the mere presence of growing Palestinian populations under Israeli rule as a “demographic threat.” Gideon Alon and Aluf Benn, “Netanyahu: Israel’s Arabs are the Real Demographic Threat,” Ha’aretz, December 13, 2003.

2. See Meron Benvenisti, City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), and Sarah Kaminker, “For Arabs Only: Building Restrictions in East Jerusalem,” Journal of Palestine Studies 26/4 (Summer 1997).

3. Personal interview with Sarah Kaminkar, June 1997.

4. B’Tselem “Communities Facing Expulsion: The Khan al-Ahmar Area,” June 24, 2018; Mariam Barghouti, “Bulldozing Palestine One Village at a Time,” Al Jazeera, July 9, 2018.

How to cite this article:

Thomas Abowd "Jerusalem’s Colonial Landscapes of Loss," Middle East Report 287 (Summer 2018).

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