Open Letter asks architecture firm to withdraw from U.S. Embassy project in Jerusalem 

Khelil Bouarrouj

Institute for Palestine Studies  /  April 6, 2023

The proposed U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem continues to attract criticism — this time in the architecture and design world. 

An open letter signed by over 400 architects and academics addressed to Krueck Sexton Partners (KSP) calls on the Chicago-based architecture firm “to immediately withdraw from the U.S. Embassy project in Jerusalem and refuse to be complicit in a project that will cause irreparable harm to [the] Palestinian people and Palestinian rights.”

The letter notes that while architects do not make policy, policymakers depend on architects to tangibly achieve their objectives — in this case, cementing illegitimate Israeli claims to Jerusalem.

Rejecting the notion that architecture is apolitical, the letter calls on KSP to conform to ethical practices both in line with the American Institute of Architects’ “statement of values” to uphold “civil rights protections [and] accessibility to the built environment for all” and in recognition of the ongoing transformation in architecture pedagogy “in order to address the profession’s role in systemic injustice and harm.”

For its part, KSP acknowledged the “challenging nature of our assignment but refute[d] references to missteps in our ethical approach to work.” Moreover, KSP added that it was not designing the embassy but “working to support overall planning and decision-making for the U.S. diplomatic presence that includes opportunities for an expanded office and programmatic operations. This planning effort includes multiple sites.” (The U.S. State Department has not officially settled on the contested site.) 

As previously published in Palestine Square, the main proposed site for a new U.S. diplomatic mission in Jerusalem is the Allenby Barracks, named after the British General Sir Edmund Allenby, who led the Egyptian Expeditionary Force into Palestine in 1917. At the tail end of British rule in Palestine (1917-1948), the British government leased the land from its Palestinian owners. The land was seized by the Israeli regime after the Nakba — the forced expulsion of roughly 750,000 Palestinians from their country.

As the aforementioned open letter notes, Zionist settlers expropriated the land under Israel’s “Absentees’ Property Law,” which has resulted in confiscating thousands of Palestinian refugee properties defined as “absentee.” Since 1989, the apartheid regime has leased the land to the U.S. for $1 per annum. 

The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by Congress mandated that the State Department relocate the embassy to Jerusalem but successive U.S. presidents used a delay clause until President Trump announced the American recognition of Israeli annexation of occupied East Jerusalem and swapped the door signage between the embassy in Tel Aviv and the consulate in West Jerusalem.

Additionally, Trump closed the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem that served Palestinians. The Biden administration proposed reopening the consulate but appears to have at least delayed the decision in the face of pressure from the Israeli lobby in Washington.

The documentation by the Institute for Palestine Studies — referenced by the letter — clearly proves Palestinian land ownership. Recently, the civil rights group Adalah procured Palestinian land deeds from Israeli records. Historian and Journal of Palestine Studies co-editor Rashid Khalidi — whose family lays claim to one of the land deeds — recently argued that an American embassy on stolen Palestinian land would amount to a U.S. endorsement of Israeli property theft and embolden the Israeli regime to undertake further expropriations. 

While America’s subservience to the apartheid state has rarely taken international law into account, it is worth noting that Israel’s presence in all of Jerusalem — West and East —violates said law. Under the 1947 UN partition plan, Jerusalem was defined as a “corpus separatum” whose final status was to be subsequently determined by the UN. It was Israel’s 1948 occupation of the western half of Jerusalem —and not its 1967 attack on the residual east — that long precluded the U.S. from building an embassy there. 

In light of these facts, the open letter argues that an American embassy in Jerusalem would violate “the Vienna Convention, which states that any diplomatic mission established must be within the express territorial sovereignty of that state.” Moreover, since many of the Palestinian deed owners are now American citizens, an embassy on the contested site would also violate the “U.S. Constitution, whose Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause prohibits the extralegal governmental confiscation of [American] property.” The letter also points out that KSP would be “not only complacent, but active participants in such violations” upon participation in the construction project. 

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration — a guarantor of the apartheid state — will respond to the growing chorus of criticism. The administration has preferred to voice disagreements with the Israeli government behind closed doors and has retained many of Trump’s policies, including the U.S. recognition of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. 

 Khelil Bouarrouj is a former content editor at the Institute for Palestine Studies (Washington, DC)