The City and the Non-State: Municipalisation in Late Ottoman and Mandate Palestine

By Nadi Abusaada
Submitted to Session P6466 (State and the City: Presences and Absences in the Mashreq, 2021 Annual Meeting
Archit & Urb Plng
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper aims to historicize the advent of municipal governance in late Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine (1870s-1930s) and its material and social effects on its urban centres. Against literature that reads Palestine and the region from the top-down perspective of imperial powers and their influence on local settings, this paper elucidates how local environments and populations shaped processes of urban change and modernisation within an imperial context.

The role of municipal institutions in the modern Middle East has been greatly overlooked in historical and recent scholarship. This lacuna is partly because municipalities fit neither ‘Islamic city’ nor ‘colonial city’ frameworks that dominate the historiographies of Middle Eastern cities in this period. Through my close examination of the establishment and activities of the municipalities of Jaffa and Nablus, I demonstrate that these chiefly locally-run institutions were the primary platforms for financing, planning, and executing most of the urban development projects often attributed to the Ottoman and British Mandate ‘states’ ruling Palestine at the time.

Through my examination of municipal projects—planned, implemented, and failed—I argue that municipalisation amounted to more than simply the creation of a new bureaucratic institution that carried out technical and administrative work in the cities. Municipalisation opened up new spheres of public involvement in urban affairs and new arenas for political participation. I examine municipal elections, debates in Arabic newspapers, and petitions by local residents regarding urban affairs as the principal sites where these new possibilities materialised. My paper thus reframes local residents not as passive urban subjects of imperial and colonial rule, but as active participants in governance processes.

My paper draws on two kinds of sources: an analysis of the built environment, and archival materials. In the first vein, I read the wealth of buildings and urban plans as a material history. This approach allows for analysing them as meaningful expressions of their historical moment, and as bearers of social, political, and cultural meaning. In the second vein, I look at material shifts beyond their physical manifestations and consider their underlying processes of change. For this, I rely on extensive archival research I conducted over four years in archives in Palestine/Israel and in Europe, and investigate historical materials on the conception, planning, and execution of municipal projects in modern Palestine.