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.
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