The Israel army almost automatically rejects building permits for Palestinians in 60 percent of the West Bank. One of the least sexy aspects of the conflict, a new court case aims to challenge the discriminatory regime of building permits and planning.
The Israeli High Court of Justice on Monday will hear a petition asking to restore planning rights in Area C of the West Bank to Palestinian local and district planning committees, which were abolished by the Israeli military in 1971.
The petitioners, local Palestinian leaders and Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, hope to give Palestinians a say in the use of land and resources, redress discrimination compared to Israeli settlers, and scale back military control over their lives. They seek to turn residential planning over to civil bodies, instead of the IDF which administers the land today.
If that sounds boring, it is. Terrorism, stone throwing, tear gas, juvenile detention, weapons smuggling, hilltop youth and even the peace process are the sexy topics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Planning rights in Area C are bureaucratic and impenetrable.
The sexy parts of the conflict easily distract from the daily lives of 150,000 Palestinians (the UN says it may be double that, Naftali Bennett thinks it’s less) who live under military rule and under the shadow of IDF bulldozers. Their requests for building permits from the military planning authority are almost automatically denied – 94 percent, say the petitioners. Hence they live in permanent fear of demolition orders, have no water lines, electricity grids or roads to their villages. They are hard to visit, hard to count, and when driving through the desert, they can even be hard to see.
Where the sovereign reigns
Area C is not some tiny, faraway patch of land: it is fully 60 percent of the West Bank, which was carved up by the Oslo accords: Areas A and B are regions of partial or near-total Palestinian civil control, both formally under Israeli military sovereignty. In Area C, the Israeli military controls both security and civil affairs.
Geography is just as important as quantity. Area C forms a fat band along the eastern part of the West Bank – from the Jordan Valley to the north to the South Hebron Hills in the south. Its thin tentacles stretch westward, crossing the mid-section of the West Bank with Palestinian population centers, thickening again along the western part, the Green Line that divides the West Bank from Israel proper.
Human rights organizations frequently accuse the Israeli government of carrying out a piecemeal, creeping annexation of this region through a stultifying and labyrinth system of military bureaucracy and planning authorities that makes day-to-day life impossible for Palestinians. They believe the intention is to drive Palestinians into major population centers in Areas A or B (less than half the West Bank), while ensuring Israel’s permanent hold on the lion’s share.
Only one percent of the land is allocated to Palestinian development and over a quarter to settlements, says Rabbis for Human Rights, one of the petitioners. The State, in response to the petition, has argued that new plans aim to provide 10 percent of the land to Palestinians; but 70 percent still falls under settlement councils for future use and cannot be used for Palestinian development, writes the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The IDF has declared vast tracts to be “firing zones” – although up to 5,000 Palestinians already live there.
In 2009 – the year Benjamin Netanyahu won the elections and began his second term as prime minister – 191 civilian Palestinian structures were demolished. In 2010 and 2011, the annual average was 459 structures destroyed, the petition says. In 2012 alone, writes OCHA, 815 Palestinians were made homeless when their residencies were demolished. There are no claims that those structures endangered security.
Discrimination in plain sight
The State has argued that changing the military governance of this area would upset the delicate political status quo, and the fate of Area C is to be determined at the diplomatic level. Yet the term “status quo” is totally inapplicable when observing the territory up close.
On the ground, the two people live right alongside each other, sometimes within spitting distance. The settlements are tidy, with neatly paved roads, webs of electricity lines, fat water pipes with enough to waste, cellular and Internet service. New neighborhoods crop out like appendages. Acre by acre, they approach the Palestinian “villages.”
In the South Hebron Hills these villages are small clusters dotting the hillsides with squalid tents or shacks reeking of goats and swarming with flies. For electricity residents use generators and the occasional donated wind turbine. Water comes from costly tanks, spindly pipes strung ad hoc between villages, or polluted cisterns.
On a visit to the South Hebron Hills last week a mangy mule stumbles about listlessly; children are ruddy but their hair is matted with dust. In the baking, bone-dry region, the mule is allowed to drink only twice a day. I am afraid to ask how often the children wash; some villages have a shack with a hole – others have no toilet at all.
The IDF destroys these rudimentary structures, shacks and cisterns in an arbitrary, but regular way. Demolition orders are issued for nearly every structure and some are executed, sometimes years later, and with no warning. In at least one case, the Israeli Supreme Court issued an injunction prohibiting the demolition, but the army went ahead anyway. In 2011, a school was bulldozed in the middle of the day, with children gaping.
The school was rebuilt with donations from international NGOs. Teachers proudly display some improvements that came along with the reconstruction: they now have five or six desktop computers and the kids get lessons on how to use them. When I ask about Internet access, they only chuckle.
As the residents of Umm al-Khir show us various structures that have been damaged by settlers and are threatened with demolition, silhouettes of soldiers suddenly appear up the road, like a mirage in the blinding mid-afternoon sun and silence. In full combat gear, toting M16s, they squint at every driver; Palestinians are stopped, detained, papers checked, passed on. Israeli drivers come and go with hand-waves to their protectors.
This last scene highlights the surreal nature of occupation: military rule over civilians in daily life, some favored, others suppressed, and one ethnic group has no representation in governing and planning their lives. The High Court hearing on Monday doesn’t appear likely to surprise anyone – for a favorable ruling allowing Palestinians rather than the Israeli military to plan their own lives would gouge the foundations of the occupation itself.