Building Palestine: A war over Area C

Building Palestine: A war over Area C
In-depth: The pattern of Israeli demolition of Palestinian development projects built without impossible-to-receive permits may be broken by a new EU approach that ignores Israeli bureaucracy to build anyway.
5 min read
31 December, 2015
Area C is home to some of the most hard­-pressed West Bank communities [Getty]
In the South Hebron hills, a dusty track - fit only for tractors, donkeys and four-­wheel-­drives - curls up to the tiny Palestinian community of Shaab al-Batum, a collection of tents, ramshackle homes and animal pens.

It is home to one of the hard-­pressed herding communities clinging on to life in the southernmost part of the West Bank.

On the hillside just above Shaab stands a shiny new building little in keeping with its surroundings.

It is a new school, complete with toilet block and play area, and bears the logo of ECHO, the European Union's humanitarian and protection wing, and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

It appeared almost overnight in August of this year.

Like most Palestinian buildings in the area it is considered an illegal structure, built without a permit from the Civil Administration, the part of Israel's occupying regime responsible for land-­zoning and planning matters in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank under Israel's full military and civil control.

Within days of its completion, a demolition order was issued by Israel for its destruction.

The order has yet to be carried out, but that it was even built signifies a major change in Europe's approach to Israel's policies in the West Bank, reflecting its increasing exasperation with a situation where billions of euros have been spent - with little to show. 

Systematic settlement ­building

The EU's commitment to a resolution of the conflict since the signing of the Oslo agreements has been to support Palestinian state-­building, ensure security for Israel and to provide relief in line with international humanitarian law where needed.

Instead, it has seen Israel carry out a de facto annexation of Area C using the Oslo Interim Agreement as its prime political and legal argument.
In Area C... it is hard to see any trace of Palestinian state­building. Systematic settlement ­building is what we see

Under Israel's rule, 70 percent of the occupied West Bank is now off ­limits to Palestinian development of any kind, and in 29 percent it is extremely limited - with Israel operating a permit system for Palestinian construction. Some 94 percent of applications are refused.

At the same time, Israel's settlements - deemed illegal under international law - have grown to the extent that around 350,000 settlers live in Area C, more than three times the number of 20 years ago.

"In Area C... it is hard to see any trace of Palestinian state­building," commented one senior EU source. "Systematic settlement ­building is what we see."

Another official source, referring to Area A - ­the part of the West Bank controlled by the PA - ­agreed.

"As a result, the so­-called state-­building project to which we refer for in recent years is in reality a project which takes place only in 17.7 percent of the West Bank."

Further fuelling the anger is the increasing number of European­ taxpayer-funded humanitarian projects targeted for demolition by Israel. 

Impossible to build

It's nothing new.

According to the European Commission, between 2001 and 2012, Israel destroyed or damaged 82 European projects in the West Bank and Gaza, at a loss of 66 million euros ($72m).

But in 2014 there was an increase of 31 percent in the Israeli military's demolitions of donor-­funded humanitarian assistance projects in Area C; 118 such structures were destroyed, up from 90 in 2013 and 79 in 2012.

In the first three months of 2015, almost as many projects were demolished as in all of 2014.

The anger is heightened by the fact that the EU seems to have become the perpetual financier of efforts to bring about a viable Palestinian state - a situation that is being widely questioned.

One official who asked to remain anonymous has warned that European aid was likely to become unsustainable within three to four years "without some form of political breakthrough - and money alone has not succeeded in producing that".

The situation is all the more galling in that Israel's discriminatory planning regime in Area C flouts international law and directly contributes to the poor living conditions confronting many Palestinian residents of the West Bank.

Palestinians and international actors find it impossible to build.

Even permits for basic infrastructure such as rainwater­ harvesting cisterns are disallowed by a system under which thousands of Palestinian homes and whole communities are subject to demolition orders - and where violence by settlers restricts access to land.

A 2011 EU report, Area C and Palestinian State Building, signalled a different approach - one which "proposed a rationale for EU interventions in Area C while shifting the general approach from a purely humanitarian response to longer-­term development".

Europe would encourage the PA to significantly expand its operational assistance to its people in Area C, in line with its own commitments to do so. The PA has responsibilty for health and education for Palestinians in Area C, but can rarely get the necessary permits to build clinics or schools, for example.
If, after six months, no permits are forthcoming, the aid project is implemented anyway

A war over Area C

Since 2012 the EU and the PA have been actively participating in the planning and zoning of Area C which, if successful, could pave the way for development and more authority of the PA over Area C.

Central to this approach is a move away from waiting for permits from Israeli authorities.

If, after six months, no permits are forthcoming, the aid project is implemented anyway.

The EU's new stance has provoked outrage in Israel, particularly in settler organisations and government circles.

Donor-­funded construction has been branded illegal and has led to what Yoav Mordechai, Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, has termed "a war over Area C".

Currently the new school still stands and is functioning, its fate awaiting the outcome of this "war".

Read more articles by Ron Taylor here