Consecutive Israeli governments have fabricated a sophisticated system designed to lend a guise of legality to the seizure of land in the West Bank.
By Adam Aloni
A month ago, with nearly no public debate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retroactively approved an urban building plan (UBP) for the West Bank settlement of Itamar. A week later, on October 29, Netanyahu retroactively approved UBPs for another three settlements: Shvut Rachel, Sansana and Yaqir. Once again Israeli authorities “laundered” construction in the West Bank that even they deemed illegal for years. Contrary to attempts in the media to represent this move as a Netanyahu capitulation to settler leaders, this was nothing more than the implementation of a long-standing Israeli policy of extensive unauthorized construction followed by retroactive approval. This allows the state to maintain a semblance of the rule of law while violating it on a daily basis.
In many settlements, the government itself has been responsible for illegal construction, primarily through the Housing and Construction Ministry. An analysis of Defense Ministry data shows that in the overwhelming majority (approximately 75 percent) of West Bank settlements, construction – sometimes extensive construction – was carried out without the necessary permits or in breach of the permits that were granted.
In 2005, the director general of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, which serves as the Israeli government’s branch for establishing and reinforcing rural settlements, testified that the Settlement Division expressly advocates violating planning and building laws in the West Bank. He said that the modus operandi is first to establish Israeli communities, then reinforce them, and only several years later to approve plans for the construction – “This is the mode of operation”.
The establishment of settlements – with or without building permits – violates international humanitarian law and the human rights of the Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Over the years, Israeli governments have all disregarded this prohibition and fabricated a sophisticated legal system designed to lend a guise of legality to the seizure of land in the West Bank.
While Israel employs the same planning and legal language to describe Israeli and Palestinian construction in the West Bank, in practice these procedures and regulations are implemented completely differently in Jewish-Israeli settlements and in Palestinian communities. In the case of settlements, Israeli authorities provide assistance, turn a blind eye to violations, and retroactively approve unauthorized construction, all as part of a long-standing policy to facilitate the de facto annexation of West Bank land to the sovereign territory of the State of Israel. Palestinian communities on the other hand, face an exacting, by-the-book, bureaucratic approach, a freeze on planning, and extensively implemented demolition orders, all as part of an ongoing policy to prevent Palestinian development and dispossess Palestinians of their land.
Israeli government policy regarding planning and construction for Palestinians in the West Bank is the very reverse of the modus operandi described above. With regard to Palestinian construction in Area C, the Israeli government cynically explained to the UN that in order “to facilitate proper planning procedures, illegal construction is not tolerated. Such illegal construction harms the local population, given the fact that it does not take into consideration planning policies that will ensure a reasonable quality of life, and public needs.”
However, in practice the government has no such planning policy, nor will it have any such policy. In approximately 70 percent of Area C, Palestinian construction is completely prohibited, while stringent restrictions are imposed on another 29 percent of the area. In the remaining one percent of Area C – some 1,824.3 hectares – there are approved outline plans that enable Palestinian development. However, most of this area is already built up.
In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has prepared outline plans for 116 communities, and 67 plans have already been submitted to the planning bodies in the Israeli army’s Civil Administration for approval. However, these efforts have been to no avail. Only three plans have been approved, and they cover a total area of a mere 57 hectares (equal to 0.02 percent of Area C). This outcome is hardly surprising, given that Palestinians are completely excluded from the decision-making process with regard to planning in Area C.
Israel has surrounded the Palestinian residents of the West Bank in a planning stranglehold, while at the same time approving outline plans for settlements that already cover a total area of 28,217.4 hectares, equal to 8.5 percent of Area C. In addition, Israel has allocated extensive areas to the municipal authorities of the settlements, thereby blocking any Palestinian use of the land and ensuring that it remains available as a reserve for settlement expansion. Given the relative size of the two populations, the planned area for each settler is at least 13 times greater than that for each Palestinian. And that is how Israel expropriates West Bank land for itself at the expense of local Palestinian residents.
Adam Aloni works as a researcher at B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.