This article was originally published on Al Jazeera English on May 13, 2014.
Al-Dirat Al-Rifa’ya, Occupied West Bank — There are about 1,100 people in this hardscrabble farming village in the south Hebron hills, all of whom, according to the Israeli authorities, have to live in less than eighty homes.
The town is built in “Area C,” a designation created by the Oslo Accords which refers to the 62 percent of the occupied West Bank under full Israeli control. Palestinians who live here must ask the state for permits to build, and those permits are rarely granted: In 2013, Israel approved just eighteen requests.
So the residents of Dirat and dozens of other villages face two unpalatable choices. They can leave their land for the major population centers, where the Palestinian Authority issues permits. Or they can build illegally, investing in homes which Israel can demolish at any time.
A petition heard in Israel’s high court on April 28, the first of its kind, seeks to change that. The village asked the court to reinstate the planning councils which were cancelled by military order in 1971.
The court was sympathetic—to a point. A panel of three judges, none of them considered liberals on this subject, called the status quo unsustainable and gave the state 90 days to change it. “The respondents should search for a way to make a certain improvement, as long as the long-awaited political agreement has not been achieved,” the court ruled.
Dry and bureaucratic as it may seem, the case touches on a key aspect of the 47-year occupation. The failure of yet another round of peace talks suggests that Israel will hold on to Area C for the foreseeable future. Indeed, a growing chorus of politicians wants to go further, permanently annexing it as Israeli territory.
Planning has become a powerful tool for reshaping this part of the West Bank, pushing Palestinians off their land and making room for future Israeli settlement.
“Almost all of Area C is free of Arabs. They’re almost gone,” said Jeff Halper, the founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, one of several local NGOs that joined Dirat’s petition. “It’s ethnic cleansing. Why are they demolishing this house? You can’t explain it by security… it’s all a proactive campaign, in different ways, to Judaize, and to annex, and to de-Arabize.”
Standing on the roof of his home recently, Mohamed el-Ezz, a village elder, pointed out the “legal” part of Dirat, a narrow strip of 130 dunams. The village has asked the Civil Administration, the Israeli military authority in the West Bank, to approve construction on another 1,700 dunams, a move that Ezz said would meet Dirat’s needs “for the next 30 years.” The army never responded.
So when Mohammed Abu Ram decided to build a house for his family, he did so without a permit, spending 400,000 shekels ($115,000) for the land and the construction. His investment was short-lived. He was awakened one morning in the summer of 2012 by army bulldozers that had come to demolish his house.
“I worked for 20 years in Israel. I went there every day because I dreamt about this house… all my things, all my life, I invested them in this house here. And now I have to live without anything,” he said.
Israel demolished 663 structures in the West Bank last year, 85 percent of them in Area C, according to the United Nations. Halper estimates that around 29,000 have been destroyed since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.
The Civil Administration says it monitors all illegal construction, both Palestinian and Israeli. But the settlers who live there, in violation of international law, have twenty local planning committees to approve their requests. The Palestinians have none. Just 1 percent of Area C is zoned for Palestinian development, the United Nations estimates, and most of it is already built up; the majority of the land is off-limits, designated as nature parks or firing zones, or for Israeli settlement.
Government lawyers also told the court that many Palestinians build without first trying to seek permits. But the application alone can cost up to $5,000, a prohibitive expense, particularly when the approval rate is about five percent. “When [the committee] is only composed of Israelis, and they refuse any application, people see no use to go and apply for permits,” said Shlomo Khayat, a former head of the military planning committee in the West Bank.
Ironically, one day before the court ruling, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the West Bank, said that planning in Area C “has been frozen” to punish the Palestinians for signing 15 international treaties last month. The Israeli government blames that move for the breakdown of negotiations, though it came only after Israel cancelled a planned prisoner release.
“I don’t know how long that will last, because that decision came from the prime minister and the minister of defence,” said Maj. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Civil Administration. “But we haven’t seen any change on the Palestinian side in order to promote the negotiations.”
Inbar declined to comment on how Israel would respond to the court’s ruling. “We have 90 days to submit our comments, and they will be given within that timeframe,” he said.
The groups that filed the petition do not expect much, beyond a symbolic step like appointing a few Palestinian advisers. “They're setting us up for all kinds of possible changes which give the appearance of improvement but really leave everything in place,” said Arik Ascherman, the head of Rabbis for Human Rights.
“We'll see what happens from the court. But all of this from the army, the court, everything they've said to the citizens here, it's just words, just talk,” said Ezz, the village elder. “They won’t end the occupation.”
Khayat said the attitude toward building in the West Bank shifted as the occupation became permanent. “We had guidelines to treat this land as an amana,” he said, something held in trust. “But when they established the Civil Adminstration [in 1981], that changed… now the land was ours.”
At least four members of the current Israeli cabinet, including the influential economy minister Naftali Bennett, want to make the status quo permanent and annex Area C. Their plan would necessitate granting citizenship to the people living there, but Israel, constantly worried about its demographic balance, does not want to absorb a large number of new Palestinians.
So the area’s population has become a controversial political issue. Bennett claims that just 50,000 Palestinians live in the vast expanse of Area C. The UN said earlier this year that the figure is closer to 300,000. Either way, it is a strikingly low figure—at most 11 percent of the West Bank’s population, spread across 62 percent of its land.
Back in Dirat, Abu Ram cannot afford to build a new house; even if he could, the permit would be unattainable. So he pays 1,500 shekels per month ($434) to rent a home in a nearby village, a sum almost equal to the average wage in the West Bank. His son, traumatised by the demolition, has been in and out of the hospital for the past two years.
“And they want to talk about peace?” he said, gesturing at the concrete ruins. “Look at this. How do I talk about peace when I don’t have a home?”