In the battle over Area C, where Israel maintains full security and civilian authority, it’s chalking up successes against the Palestinians and the European Union and has significantly reduced the number of internationally (mainly European) financed Palestinian projects. That’s the news provided by the head of Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, Brigadier General Ghassan Alian, to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in two meetings in late July and mid-August. The subject: “the Palestinian takeover of Area C,” referring to 61 percent of the occupied West Bank.
The committee members, however, had reservations about the description of the situation as a “success.” “Even though there are wonderful and highly motivated people [in the Civil Administration], they are too small and this mission is several sizes too large for them,” said Matan Kahana of the right-wing Yamina party. The legislators demanded a firmer hand to prevent what they called a hostile illegal takeover of the area.
Yamina’s Bezalel Smotrich suggested that the settlements receive the authority to supervise and demolish unlicensed Palestinian structures in open areas; he was backed by Likud’s Ariel Kallner. Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked, a former justice minister, proposed pressure on the government to appoint a project manager “whose entire objective would be to prevent the takeover of Area C.” Kahana suggested that a special Israeli authority be set up to this end.
Until about two years ago, these issues were discussed by a subcommittee for the West Bank at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by then-MK Moti Yogev of Habayit Hayehudi. The subcommittee was a key tool of right-wing Knesset members, including many settlers, for shaping Israelis’ conviction that Area C is Israeli territory for all intents and purposes. The subcommittee was also vital for planning Israeli policy there: accelerating and expanding construction of settlements while preventing Palestinian construction.
The committee members and its regular guests – including settler leaders and members of the group Regavim, whose proclaimed mission is to safeguard “the Jewish nation’s land” – often criticized what was described as the helplessness of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Civil Administration subordinate to it. The committee members encouraged these agencies to show greater firmness against the Palestinians.
European involvement in financing humanitarian projects in Area C was often raised in the subcommittee as a practice that must be eliminated. At the two sessions on July 29 and August 13, Chairman Zvi Hauser of the Derech Eretz party said he intended to continue the subcommittee’s tradition and promote Israeli interests in Area C, where he said Israeli governments’ position remains “that Israel has just historical, legal and civil claims.”
In fact, at the July meeting, it was reported that Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi considers any present or planned European activity in Area C that “doesn’t honor Israeli construction-permit procedures European intervention in an attempt to define a border.” That’s what he wrote in his reply to a parliamentary question submitted by Moshe Arbel of Shas, an initiator of the meeting’s topic.
Ashkenazi also wrote that his ministry has made clear to EU representatives that “in cases of a failure to grant a permit and activity in the area, one should expect consequences stemming from the violations.” Also, Israel rejects out of hand “any demand for payment of compensation for the demolishing or confiscation of the equipment,” he wrote.
But the Europeans have already gotten the message, according to data submitted to the committee by Alian. The number of internationally (mainly European) financed Palestinian projects shrank to 12 in 2019 from 75 in 2015, he said, linking that to the supervision and enforcement steps adopted by the Civil Administration. He said previous Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gathered together the ambassadors and attaches of the relevant countries, and along with the Civil Administration’s section dealing with international organizations, “we warned all of them that we won’t tolerate any international project without Israeli approval for that part.”
‘The main battle’
At the two meetings the words “war,” “struggle,” “battle” and “campaign” were used. Gideon Sa’ar of Likud called this “the main battle, the main campaign over the Land of Israel in Area C …. Our demand, which is also derived from the [Oslo] agreements, is a demand for all of Area C.” Amit Halevi of Likud called Palestinian construction in Area C “an exponential virus.” His party colleague Avi Dichter described it as “territorial terror.”
One of the guest participants was Benzi Lieberman, a resident of the settlement of Peduel, former head of the Yesha Council of settlements and director of the Israel Land Authority. He presented a map of the Palestinian areas under construction and referred to part of it as “a cancer.”
According to descriptions at the meetings, Palestinian construction is strangling or attempting to strangle Jewish settlement. Nitzan Horowitz, Yair Golan and Tamar Zandberg of the Meretz party, and guest attorney Roni Pelli of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, objected to this description. They noted that Israel does not permit construction and development for Palestinians in Area C, not even a linking up to the water and electricity grids. Thus the Palestinians are forced to build without a permit, and this is usually very simple construction. But these four speakers were in the minority; the others dismissed the facts that were cited.
Alian listed other achievements of the Civil Administration, which was established in 1981 with the declared objective of serving the Palestinian population. In 2019 it uprooted 7,500 trees that Palestinians had planted in areas that Israel has designated over the years as state land (and thus for Jews only). In the past 20 years, Alian said, the total number of trees planted by Palestinians and uprooted by the Civil Administration is 42,000. As a farmer, he knows that this is a lot, he added.
Marco Ben-Shabbat, the head of the Civil Administration’s enforcement unit, said that in 2019 the administration confiscated 700 excavators and bulldozers and the like, and that confiscation provides “very significant deterrence.” While in 2015 the administration removed only six structures placed in Palestinian communities, in the first eight months of this year “we took care of 242” – that is, they were confiscated and removed from the area. Today, he said, no more than 14 days elapse from the moment the administration locates a trailer or any other structure until it dismantles it and removes it from the area.
As Alian and Ben-Shabbat put it, the acceleration of the Civil Administration’s efforts against Palestinian construction was made possible by two legislative amendments: a military order for removing mobile homes and an order against unauthorized structures. The two amendments were originally written to prevent the construction of settler outposts on private Palestinian land and were later applied to Palestinian communities, which usually build on private Palestinian land – theirs or rented.
These two legal tools were adopted as a result of constant criticism of the Civil Administration in the subcommittee for the West Bank. Alian said a larger budget for the administration would improve its performance even more.
The right deterrence
Former legislator Yogev, a resident of the settlement of Dolev, took part in the August 13 meeting as a guest. Trying to cool Ben-Shabbat’s enthusiasm, he said: “But Marco, if [the excavator] is brought back within a day … or a water pump or any other thing confiscated for a day … that doesn’t represent any punishment and contains no deterrence. If it’s brought back after a year the monetary loss will end the phenomenon.”
Ben-Shabbat replied that he has to obey the law, but “in the test of reality, we stipulate conditions to those offenders. For example, opposite the settlement of Psagot Kokhav Ya’akov, a truck was seized two and a half months ago. We stipulated conditions [for its return], for example, removing the trash that was dumped there ... Two trucks, each of which is worth almost 5,000 shekels [$1,470] a day, have been with us for over three months. There are tractors that have been in the process for about two months, and some for a week and a half, all according to the stipulations of the law. And I think we’re stretching those places to their limits, as long as it’s within the confines of the law.”
Meir Deutsch of Regavim, a resident of the settlement of Efrat, attended the two meetings. Yogev described Regavim as the “intelligence officer” of the subcommittee that he once headed. Deutsch told the participants that 70 percent of areas A and B, where Palestinians are allowed to plan and build, are empty. “That means that there’s no need for the Palestinian Authority to build in Area C because they have nowhere [else] to build. Because they have 70 percent of Areas A and B that are still unpopulated, they can build there.”
Nir Barkat of Likud said there should be a goal of settling 2 million Jews in the West Bank, along with the “thwarting of the Palestinians’ attempt to change the situation. They have enough territory in A and B.”
At both meetings it turned out that the cabinet decided already in July 2019 to appoint a kind of project manager for the Area C issue. This manager wasn’t appointed, but the Civil Administration did map Palestinian construction without permits and made a new estimate of the Palestinian population (though not via a census). The findings were not disclosed at the meetings.
The Civil Administration drew up regional priorities for demolishing Palestinian structures: at this stage in the area surrounding Jerusalem, the South Hebron Hills and firing zones, with an emphasis on the Jordan Valley. Later the Civil Administration plans to do the same near the separation barrier, in areas along main roads and on state lands.
Ben-Shabbat said the coordination between various groups that report immediately on Palestinian construction has improved greatly, whether it’s settlers who are ordinary civilians and report Palestinian construction, or soldiers and reservists who stop construction immediately via the mobile-homes order.
Ben-Shabbat also spoke about intelligence tools: The Civil Administration adviser on Palestinian affairs is on Palestinian social media as well as Facebook, “which looks as though there’s nothing there but contains a great deal of information, both cautionary and certainly information that’s sent to our enforcement activities.”
The Civil Administration also uses the Palestinian Geographic Information System “in order to see trends.” Also, information comes from Central Command intelligence, and from the army’s West Bank Division and brigades, Ben-Shabbat reassured his listeners.
During the Oslo negotiations, the two parties agreed to artificially divide the West Bank into the categories A, B, C (Palestinian cities, villages and the thinly populated area, respectively). This was to facilitate the gradual redeployment of the Israeli military and transfer more territory to the PA’s responsibility. This artificial division should have ended by 1999, according to the accords.
According to the PA’s interpretation, most of the West Bank was supposed to become Area A – where the PA maintains policing and planning authority – on the eve of the implementation of a final-status accord in 1999.
Since the establishment of the PA in the mid-’90s, Israel has restricted Palestinian construction to a minimum in Area C, which constitutes 61 percent of the West Bank excluding East Jerusalem.
For years the EU’s position has been that Area C is an integral part of the future Palestinian state, and that its financial support to the Palestinians is geared toward the establishment of this state, as part of the Oslo Accords. The EU expressed hope that Israel would in the meantime approve master plans for Palestinians communities to enable legal construction and a linkup to infrastructure.
When it turned out that Israel was not approving master plans submitted by Palestinian villages in Area C, and continues to refuse to connect them to the electricity and water grids, the EU, or individual countries, supported projects they described as humanitarian: rehabilitating cisterns, installing solar energy technology, building schools or adding classrooms, financing clinics, and distributing trailer homes instead of the tin shacks and huts of shepherd communities, which were eroded by the weather, mobile toilets and the rehabilitation of agricultural land and roads. This is the nature of projects that so alarm the Knesset committee.