Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya, West Bank — Israel’s frequent destruction of Palestinian homes, schools and mosques in the occupied West Bank is about to be put to an important test in the country’s Supreme Court. And for at least some Palestinians, the outcome is seen as even more important than statehood.
On April 28, the court gave Israel’s defense and security agencies involved in the occupation 90 days to come up with a way of involving Palestinians in the review process for applications submitted by Palestinians to plan and build in the West Bank.
“The respondents should search for a way to make a certain improvement — as long as the long awaited political agreement has not been achieved — in the involvement of the Palestinian population in Area C in matters of planning,” the three-judge panel wrote in their interim decision, referring to a sector that encompasses two-thirds of the West Bank. Palestinian input is currently wholly excluded.
The court directive, issued in response to a petition by the village council of Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya near Hebron, and by three human rights groups, did not specify how the change should be made, but mentioned the possibility of bringing in a Palestinian advisor.
In Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya three days after the court hearing, village elder Mohammed Lamur said that the peace process between Ramallah and Jerusalem, chaired by the United States, pales in significance alongside this fight to build. He said: “What do I have with the U.S.? What do I have with Ramallah? This is my land, and I want to be able to build on my land.”
In this village, where the remains of a demolished home is one of the first sights to greet visitors, out of 180 houses more than 100 are deemed by Israel to be illegal due to planning violations, and therefore fair game for demolition. Lamur has four wives, 27 children and — so far — 38 grandchildren. “Where are they going to live?” he asked.
The dilemma Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya faces is not unique in a West Bank whose Palestinian population is rapidly growing. Just as Israel’s occupation of the territory has impeded the development of a Palestinian state, on a local level Israel has impeded the development of many Palestinian villages.
Over the 62% of the West Bank that comprises Area C, Palestinians must ask Israel for permission if they want to undertake any building work on privately owned land — and the answer is almost invariably no. Only around one in 20 applications submitted between 2000 and 2012 were approved, causing Palestinians, who seek “natural growth” for their expanding families no less than Israeli Jews do, to claim that their only choice is to build anyway.
Palestinian frustration about this is exacerbated by Jerusalem’s readiness to approve applications by Israeli Jews in the West Bank. On March 3, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the number of construction starts in West Bank Jewish settlements had more than doubled in 2013 to 2,534 units — the highest in a decade.
And so, the West Bank resounds with mutual accusations of illegal building: Palestinians, citing the Geneva Conventions, complain that all Israeli settlement building on the West Bank is unlawful, while Israel censures large amounts of Palestinian building as prohibited. But Israel is the side with the power to act on its views: About 80 times a year on average, Israel sends in bulldozers to raze structures.
The structures Israel razes are not just homes. When the Forward visited Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya, former mayor Mohammed El-Adarah was in a mosque that was being constructed so that residents of his part of the village could complete their five daily prayers with less of a walk. But built without a building permit, the new mosque might be demolished just as homes are. “I’m very concerned, but we need the mosque. What can we do?” said El-Adarah, who argued that placing hope in the Israeli planning system was futile.