In Nabi Samwil, a West Bank village of 250 residents just north of Jerusalem, elementary school principal Khalil Abu Arqoub must choose daily between heeding the orders of Israeli military administrators and upholding the well-being of his pupils.
As part of Israel’s stringent building restrictions in this area, the toilet of the Nabi Samwil Mixed Basic School, which he directs, has a demolition order against it.
So does the wire fence the school erected to separate the children’s play area from cars traversing the badly potholed road from the Tomb of Samuel holy site.
“Where will the pupils go for their needs?” Abu Arqoub asked. “Are there people today who do it outside, on the mountain?”
It’s the kind of Palestinian hardship many Israelis dismiss or minimize, citing the role their own security concerns have played in actions taken by the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank. Indeed, for all the difficulties that Abu Arqoub and other Palestinians face directly from Israel’s military, the number of those subject to such building restrictions is actually quite small: a mere 56,000 to 150,000 (depending on varied estimates) out of a total West Bank Palestinian population of 2.5 million.
These are the Palestinians of Area C — a sector of the West Bank designated under the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as being under Israel’s exclusive military and civilian rule. Under the accords, both sides agreed Israel’s rule would continue in this part of the West Bank pending resolution of the overall territory’s final status in bilateral negotiations. But these negotiations have been frozen for years, with each side blaming the other for this failure.
The number of Palestinians living in Area C may be small, but the area they live in constitutes 62% of the total West Bank and includes its most fertile and resource-rich land. No less significantly, this section of the West Bank encompasses all of Israel’s Jewish settlements. And lately, voices on the right that may be part of Israel’s next ruling coalition are calling for the outright, unilateral annexation of this West Bank sector.’
Those advocating this move notably include Israel’s minister of public diplomacy, Yuli Edelstein, who is a senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, and his fellow party member Ze’ev Elkin, a top Likud Knesset member.
The head of Israel’s Jewish Home party, which will be the third largest in Israel’s recently elected parliament, is also urging that Israel take this step. Like many others, Naftali Bennett, the party chief, is attracted by the prospect of absorbing the lion’s share of the West Bank’s land and a minimum number of its Palestinian residents.
“There are 350,000 Israelis living in Area C and only 50,000 Arabs,” he told Israel’s Ynet news website in February 2012. “They will become full-fledged Israeli citizens and according to this plan no one — neither a Jew nor an Arab — would be driven out of his home.”
But right now, charge critics, Palestinians are, indeed, being driven out of their homes in Area C as the possibility of Israeli annexation emerges.
A 2011 research report conducted by the European Union noted that in 1967 between 200,000 and 320,000 Palestinians lived in the Jordan Valley, most of which is in Area C. But demolition of Palestinian homes and prevention of new buildings has seen the number drop to 56,000, the report said. In a similar period, it added, the Jewish population in Area C has grown from 1,200 to 310,000.
In many ways, the challenges confronting the residents of this tiny village exemplify the issues at stake.
The IDF order to demolish the Nabi Samwil school’s toilet is part of a broader building ban it is enforcing, based on a 1997 designation of the area in which the village sits as a national park. Israel views all of the sites in which Nabi Samwil’s Palestinians live as illegal structures.
That designation contrasts with the situation just across the road in the Har Shmuel Jewish settlement, where many new villas are under construction as part of the “natural growth” of the community. In Nabi Samwil, as elsewhere in Palestinian villages of Area C, not only is natural growth not allowed, it is actively stymied, according to international and Israeli critics.
“There is a definite preference for allocating land to settlements while embittering Palestinian lives to the point where they will leave,” said Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, who scrutinizes Israeli land and housing plans for Area C for Bimkom, an Israeli non-governmental organization that promotes progressive planning policies. Cohen-Lifshitz terms this a “silent transfer” of Palestinians from Area C.
Israel denies any such intent, and neither Israeli authorities, nor the United Nations nor Bimkom could furnish data on Area C population trends of recent years. But Israeli measures appear to be intensifying of late that have the effect of restricting the growth of Area C’s Palestinian population. In addition to implementing orders designating sections of Area C as national parks, those measures include treating certain other areas as nature reserves, archaeological sites and army firing zones — all of which render structures built by Palestinians in these areas illegal.
Under the Oslo Accords, the open spaces of Area C were actually slated to be handed over to the P.A. But this commitment, like many others made by each side, went unmet amid the breakdown of the accords, for which each side blames the other.
In January, there was a spike in Israeli Area C demolitions, with 139 structures, 59 of them homes, destroyed in 20 separate incidents, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. That marked the highest number of demolitions in a single month in more than two years, according to OCHA.
Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israeli military administrators, stressed that demolitions in Area C are carried out against illegal structures — not as a means of pressuring Palestinians to leave. He said that military authorities last year gained approval for some master plans in Area C and are working on others.
“Planning is done to make order in Area C, and soon we will see more and more plans that enable them to live legally with connection to water and electricity, and not in a pirate fashion as is the case today,” Inbar said.
But in Nabi Samwil, the army has rebuffed requests to expand the school beyond the 20-square-meter room where 12 pupils from grades one to four are crowded together to study. Even a request to bring in a prefabricated trailer for more space has been denied, according to Abu Arqoub.
The school principal said that based on the number of youngsters in Nabi Samwil, there should be 60 pupils through grade six studying in the school — but that lack of space precludes this. Most Nabi Samwil pupils consequently study in other villages. In January, after being visited by a civil administration official backing up a previous order, Abu Arqoub removed cloth from a tent he had put up to give pupils a sheltered rest area outside their classroom. “I wanted it to be a place they could eat sandwiches and relax,” he said.
In October, paramilitary border police forces also escorted a bulldozer that demolished sheep pens and cow sheds that were deemed illegal structures in the village. These structures formed part of the livelihoods of Issa Barakat and Eid Barakat, two local farmers. “I had one big and one small shed with 35 sheep,” said Issa Barakat, 62. “These are sheep that we live from, that we make cheese and milk from. There is no other work here.” He said that 10 of his sheep died from exposure to the elements after the demolition.
Eid Barakat, who comes from the same extended family, showed the Forward an order he was issued to uproot 99 fruit trees planted in 2011 on land he owns that has been designated part of the national park. “They make it impossible for me to make a living. Everything is forbidden. If they could close the air, they would,” he said.
Inbar, who is spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry’s coordinator of activities in the territories, said it was necessary to demolish the pens because they were illegal. Authorities are now working on a plan that would legalize some, but not all, of the buildings in Nabi Samwil and would allow permitted buildings to grow in size via additions by 20%, he said. The toilet could be legalized under such a plan, the school expanded and the road fixed, Inbar’s office said.
After being pressed for a week for details on the Nabi Samwil plan, Inbar, in an email sent just before press time, said that “ad hoc” buildings where the Palestinians currently live will be replaced by “permanent buildings that are appropriate for a park.”
This appeared to contradict Inbar’s earlier statement that some existing buildings could remain and be expanded. The email also contradicted his earlier suggestion that the school would be part of the plan. Public buildings are not included in the plan at all, his email stated.
Over the last five years about 50 people — more than 16% of the village’s population — have left Nabi Samwil because of the difficult conditions, according to resident Mohammed Barakat, a lawyer who heads the Palestinian chapter of Disabled without Borders.
Ramesh Rajasingham, OCHA’s senior humanitarian official for the West Bank, said that Israel’s actions in Nabi Samwil were not atypical of wider patterns in Area C. “You will find other communities in Area C where building has become very difficult, whether it is residential or for education,” he said. “We do have instances of classrooms being demolished in some areas.”
The deputy spokesman of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Paul Hirschson, said that in Area C Israel is merely implementing the 1993 Oslo Agreement. Israel “has the obligation to implement law and order on the security and civilian levels in Area C,” he said.
Hirschson blamed the Palestinians for the continuation of what was designed by Oslo to be an interim arrangement for Area C since they had, in his view, shunned Israeli invitations to return to peace negotiations.
“The Palestinians signed on to a system in which Israel grants the building permits in Area C,” Hirschson said. “If they want to change that, the way to do so is by coming back to negotiations.”
Nabi Samwil residents, meanwhile, are convinced that Israel wants the area empty of Palestinians. “They want us to leave this place,” said Eid Barakat, the farmer.
Contact Ben Lynfield at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.