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Over recent years, the battle for the West Bank has increasingly focused on Area C, where some 300,000 Palestinians currently live. The Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three districts and made the Palestinian Authority responsible for civilian affairs in Areas A and B — about one-third of the West Bank— where the vast majority of Palestinians currently live. Most Israelis, including settlers, recognize that these areas will remain under Palestinian administration and free of settlement.
And so, the tug of war is over Area C. The P.A. wants this slice of the West Bank free of settlements, like Areas A and B, and eventually to be part of a new state. Settlers want to expand their presence there. And the Israeli right in general is increasingly advocating annexation of this area to Israel. Settlers are vying to build, and so are Palestinians.
Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya’s Supreme Court petition called for the return of construction planning to Palestinian hands by re-establishing the Palestinian planning committees that Israel abolished before it took direct control of approving building applications in 1971. This would give Palestinians the power to approve or reject plans, subject to the decisions of a higher Israeli committee.
Marco Sassòli, professor of international law at the University of Geneva, backed this solution in a written opinion submitted to the court. He told the Forward, “International law requires institutions and regulations to remain in place [during occupation] if they function.” The Palestinian planning committees that operated during the Jordanian occupation until 1967 and for the first four years of the Israeli occupation did function, he said, and they should be restored.
The Israeli defense bodies responsible for the West Bank argued in court that the current situation is legal and that Palestinians can represent their views by submitting plans to them. But the court rejected this argument and, while acknowledging the “sensitivity of the subject and the complexities of political matters” ordered the government and security bodies to do better.
Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Civil Administration, the Israeli authority in the West Bank, declined to comment on the issue beyond the government’s court presentations, as did the Israel Defense Forces.
Arik Ascherman, president of the Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization that is petitioning alongside Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya, said that short of a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is the only way to secure Palestinian towns and villages the right to develop.
“We decided this after seeing that international pressure, civil disobedience and trying to defend homes [from demolition] is not going to fix things,” he said. “The only way the situation is going to change is if we get to the heart of the matter, which is this discriminatory policy. And the only way to do this is to give Palestinians real ability in planning their communities.”
But the Palestinian political establishment, interestingly enough, is not supportive. “We don’t go to Israeli courts, we don’t recognize Israeli courts [jurisdiction] on the occupied land,” Ashraf Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian negotiating team, told the Forward.
He raised concerns that integrating Palestinians into planning procedures without a diplomatic solution could actually prolong the occupation by reducing Palestinian opposition to it. “If this court order will delay the end of the occupation and form some kind of cover for the occupation, it’s a problem. We want to end the occupation, not prolong it,” he said.
Lamur takes a very different view. He said that planning issues are so important to him that he would accept even the extension of Israeli sovereignty to his land if he felt it would bring with it equal planning rights for Jews and Palestinians. And while he opposes the Israeli occupation, he said, “I believe in the Israeli legal system 100%.”
Meanwhile, pressure continues from the other side. Regavim, a right-wing Israeli group that calls for tougher government enforcement of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian building, claims that the Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya petition is disingenuous. Regavim actually has mirror-image cases in the Israeli courts, such as those calling for pending demolition orders to be enforced in the village of Sussiya near Hebron, and for almost all homes to be razed.
Ari Briggs, the group’s director of external relations, told the Forward that statistics on how many Palestinian planning applications Israel approves don’t tell an accurate story, because Palestinians skew them by applying for permission only when they know it will be refused, in order to make Israel look bad. And he claimed that the Ad-Dirat-Al-Rfai’ya case is “just another way to hit Israel over the head.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org