In the previous months, the world was sent up in arms by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex 30% of the West Bank. However, after the plan was halted temporarily the outcry faded, an alternative date remained unannounced, and it began to matter little whether the annexation had a formal date or that there was not, in fact, a continuous de facto annexation gradually taking place on the ground in the West Bank.
As part of the Oslo Accords, the occupied West Bank was divided into three parts. Area A constitutes 18% of the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority (PA) controls most civilian affairs and internal security, while Area B constitutes about 22% of the area in which the PA is in charge of education, health and the economy. Area C makes up 60% of the occupied West Bank and was supposed to be gradually handed over to the PA, but instead, Israel still retains total control of it.
Israel’s exclusive control includes law enforcement, planning and construction, while most of the area has been reallocated for the benefit of Israeli settlements or the Israeli military, at the expense of Palestinian communities.
The Palestinian population in Area C comes to around 300,000, most of them small herding communities scattered in remote areas, mainly on the eastern and southern slopes of the West Bank.
Twenty-five years have passed since the Oslo Accords, and this complicated situation became a permanent condition of ever-tightening Israeli control over Palestinian life and development in Area C, within a process of dispossession and land seizure designed to expand Israeli settlements and restrict the territory available to the Palestinians who live in the region.
The process has involved the demolition of Palestinian homes, schools, medical facilities and a refusal to recognize private property rights.
Israel’s apartheid project not only violates international law and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination but jeopardizes hope for a two-state solution, making territorial compromises increasingly difficult.
Years of neglect and suppression have left the Palestinian people living in Area C in a desperate situation, isolated from other areas in the West Bank and highly vulnerable to forcible displacement and ever-worsening policies.
Israel’s ongoing control of all critical aspects of security and civil affairs in this area has been guided by the intertwined goals of minimizing the Palestinian population while facilitating the expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements and settler population in the same territory which ballooned from just 1,500 in the early years of occupation to almost 430,000 in 2020.
Israel’s silent war
Recently, a report by Israeli daily Haaretz has shed light on Israel’s battle over Area C, as the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held two meetings, late July and mid-August, dealing with what they called a “Palestinian takeover” of Area C, complaining in the discussion of Palestinian construction in 61% of the West Bank, which they claimed was choking off Israeli settlements and sabotaging the chance for further expansion – which is the opposite of the reality on the ground.
Furthermore, the report highlighted Israel’s intensifying demolition campaign in Palestinian communities targeting the existence of Palestinians in Area C and how the Israeli officials proudly testified in the meetings about the efforts taken to target and destroy Palestinian agriculture and construction in Area C.
According to the head of Israel’s Civil Administration, Israeli forces have uprooted 42,000 trees planted by Palestinians over the past 20 years, including 7,500 in 2019 while in the same year, Israeli forces confiscated 700 excavators and other equipment from Palestinians.
Figures from the Civil Administration show that from 2016 to 2018, Palestinians submitted 1,489 requests for building permits in Area C but approval for only 21 of these – 1.4%. During this same period, 2,147 demolition orders were issued for Palestinian structures in the same area.
Haaretz noted that senior Israeli officials had drawn up regional priorities for demolishing Palestinian structures, which “at this stage” include “the area surrounding Jerusalem,” the South Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley.
According to Knesset committee member and senior Likud MK Nir Barkat, Israel aims to settle 2 million Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, adding: “They have enough territory in A and B.”
In another step, Israel has significantly reduced the number of internationally (mainly European) financed Palestinian projects in a plan to eliminate European involvement in financing humanitarian projects in Area C.
According to Haaretz, last week the Israeli government allocated about $6 million to survey and map out unauthorized Palestinian construction in the West Bank’s Area C, which is under full Israeli control. This is the first time that funds have been specifically allocated for such a survey as part of the state budget.
Even though the authority for enforcing the Israeli law on illegal construction in Area C is in the hands of the Civil Administration, the survey budget was allocated to the newly founded Settlement Affairs Ministry.
In addition, 19.5 million shekels ($5.64 million) were allocated for grants to local government in West Bank settlements. These funds were approved as part of an 11 billion-shekel addition to the budget, while no final state budget for 2020 has been decided on.
New settlement construction
In complete defiance of international outcry against the Israeli regime’s land grabbing and illegal settlement expanding policies in the occupied lands, last week the Palestinian Ma’an Arabic news agency cited a report published by Israel’s Channel 7 media network that the 70-year-old chairman of the Likud political party had given the green light for plans to build over 5,000 units, after more than six months during which such construction had been frozen.
The report added that there have been contacts between settlement leaders and Netanyahu over the past few days, where Jewish extremists have called on the Israeli premier to end the freeze on settlement construction activities in the West Bank or face large-scale protests against his administration.
On Aug. 13, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to a U.S.-brokered deal to normalize relations and under the agreement, the Israeli regime has supposedly agreed to “temporarily” suspend applying its own rule to further areas in the occupied West Bank and the strategic Jordan Valley that Netanyahu had pledged to annex.
While Emirati officials have described the normalization deal with the Israeli regime as a successful means to preventing annexation and save the so-called two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli leaders have lined up to reject the UAE’s bluff, the Israeli prime minister himself having underlined that annexation was not off the table, but had simply been delayed.
On the other hand, Palestinians, who seek an independent state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as its capital, view any Arab normalization deal with Israel as a betrayal of their cause.
Last week Jamie McGoldrick, the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), released data on the demolishment of Palestinian structures built without Israeli building permits.
Between March and August 2020, 389 structures owned by Palestinians in the West Bank were demolished or confiscated – including in Areas A, B, and in east Jerusalem. On average, this is about 65 structures a month, which, according to the U.N. agency, is the highest average number of demolitions in the past four years. About 79% of the structures demolished or confiscated were located in Area C.
Their demolitions “hit the most vulnerable of all and undermined emergency operations,” the statement said.
Adding that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Israeli authorities indicated that they would restrain their longstanding policy of demolishing inhabited Palestinian homes. “Sadly, demolitions during the period March-August 2020 left 442 Palestinians homeless, further exposing many to risks associated with the pandemic. In August alone, 205 people were displaced, more than in any other single month since January 2017,” he said.
Beyond homes, the targeted buildings included water, hygiene or sanitation assets and structures used for agriculture, among others, undermining the access of many to livelihoods and services. Moreover, 50 of the structures had been given to Palestinians as humanitarian aid, and their destruction hit the most vulnerable of all and undermined emergency operations.
“Of specific concern is Israeli authorities’ increased use of an expedited procedure (Order 1797) for the removal of structures as soon as 96 hours after delivering a notice, largely preventing owners from being heard before a judicial body,” added the U.N. coordinator, saying these took place without “declaration” or fanfare. Israel is grabbing more lands, expanding illegal settlements in the West Bank and by all unlawful means turning out the Palestinian lands of Area C into Israeli territories.
* Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers