Village people: Surviving in Palestine's Area C

Village people: Surviving in Palestine's Area C
Analysis: Israel's zoning of urban areas under its military occupation is heavily weighted to benefit Israeli settlers at the expense of Palestinian villagers, notes Ron Taylor.
5 min read
04 December, 2015
Israel judges Palestinian buildings 'illegal' if built without rarely-issued permits, and demolishes them [Getty]

The Oslo Accords stipulate that Israel will gradually relinquish control of Area C - currently under Israel's full civil and military control, and comprising more than 70 percent of the occupied West Bank.

"Powers and responsibilities related to the sphere of planning and zoning will be transferred gradually to Palestinian jurisdiction" - by 1999, the Accords state.

But Israel has yet to transfer its authority.

A United Nations report released in September 2015 shows that more than 11,000 demolition orders affecting an estimated 13,000 Palestinian-­owned structures, including homes, are currently outstanding in Area C.

Most of these structures are situated in communities which do not have Israeli-approved "master plans" and are therefore considered by Israel's Civil Administration - the branch of the military in charge of planning and land zoning in Area C - to be illegal.

According to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, the CA "applies a deliberate and consistent policy in Area C with the goal of restricting Palestinian construction and development", a policy which is directly responsible for the large number of house demolitions.

Of the 180 Palestinian communities located entirely in Area C, the CA has prepared and approved plans for just 16, whose total area equals just one percent of Area C.

     Without master plans, residents remain in a state of uncertainty, unsure of their futures, their homes or their livelihoods

The rest, without master plans, remain in a state of uncertainty, their residents unsure of their futures, their homes or their livelihoods.

The master plan system is a means for implementing Israeli government policy and for setting priorities when distributing the most important resource in the region: land.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank must apply for them, as must Palestinian communities.

But the arrangements for the two are rather different - ­a civil and representative planning system for Jewish settlers, and a military system without formal representation for Palestinians.

The outcomes, too, are different.

This system is illegal under international law. The occupying power is obliged to protect the population of the occupied territory, and to administer the territory for the benefit of the population.

The system also relies on a number of pretexts to reject Palestinian plans, while often approving plans for Jewish-only settlements retroactively.

The purpose is to ensure most Palestinian communities remain "illegal" - even in the case of villages that have existed for decades, and even when the villages are located on their own private lands.

One pretext is to classify the community as not viable. In the South Hebron hills, the village of Susiya's very existence is threatened this way.

Its plan was rejected because the CA deemed it to be a collection of illegal structures, the dwellings fragmented and scattered - and thus should not justify recognition from a planning point of view.

Another hurdle any proposed master plan must face is archaeology.

Most Palestinian communities in the West Bank are situated in areas of archaelogical interest, and when preparing a master plan it is necessary to assess whether the site actually contains antiquities.

Significant finds can lead to the rejection of the master plan and force the residents to leave.

Zanuta, a tiny herding community in the South Hebron Hills, is such a victim.

In a case still being considered by an Israeli court, the CA argues that the residents should leave because they live in an archaeological site.

But even where a master plan has been approved, a village may still face a struggle for survival.

At-­Tuwani, the largest village in the South Hebron
hills, finally received approval for its plan in 2012. The village also includes an archaelogical site.

The village is now "legal", but because the CA fixed the boundary in a very specific way, the plan does not, according to Palestinian planner Rassem Khamaisi who assisted At­-Tuwani's residents, "enable the village to develop and expand in a natural pattern using plots of land owned by the residents on neighbouring hilltops".

     Most Palestinian communities are situated in areas of archaelogical interest... Significant finds can lead to the rejection of the master plan

Any construction beyond the official village boundary is strictly forbidden.

The residents of At-­Tuwani have mixed feelings about their new-found "legality".

"It is good that the demolition orders are gone. We are now more secure here," said Hafez, a community leader.

"But most of our land is outside the plan. Here we can't build, even though we own the land. We started to make some agricultural buildings but they were demolished. If we can't build, we don't know what our future will be."

It is the fixing of boundaries at­ an early stage of the planning process­ around very limited areas which highlights most clearly the different outcomes for Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages in Area C.

Plans for settlements include large areas for future development and expansion.

In contrast, the boundaries set by the CA for Palestinian communities only incorporate already built-­up areas and, in terms of population growth, impose a high population density - so much so that the Israeli NGO Bimkom ["Planners for Planning Rights"] has found that some plans drawn up by the CA assume a future density 70 percent or higher than in several of the largest and most populated cities in Israel and the Western world.

And, according to the UN, Israel, through the CA, approved master plans for settlements that already cover an area equal to 8.5 percent of Area C - in which "the planned area for each settler is at least 13 times greater than that for each Palestinian".