Israel approves 700 Palestinian construction permits in effort to expand control over West Bank

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In an extremely rare move last week, the Israeli security cabinet approved some 700 building permits for Palestinian construction in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli authorities announced the plans alongside the approval of more than 6,000 housing units for Israeli settlers residing illegally in the West Bank, revealing little information as to the details of the plan and the locations of the promoted housing.

The news that Israel was approving Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank was initially received with some confusion as Israel routinely demolishes Palestinian homes built “illegally” there. Area C accounts for more than 60% of the West Bank and was designated as under full Israeli control by the Oslo Accords.

Some speculated that the move was mean to demonstrate Israel’s “good faith” ahead of US envoy Jared Kushner’s visit to the region to promote his peace plan. But that narrative was quickly dispelled by Israel’s own cabinet ministers, who said the approval of the permits was part of a policy shift “intended to push out the Palestinian Authority’s involvement in planning and construction in the territories,” Haaretz reported. 

Right-wing MK Bezalel Smotrich confirmed the intentions of the Israeli security cabinet, writing on Facebook “a Central goal that I have placed in my public life is to prevent the establishment of an Arab terror state in the heart of the country, protect our whole land Israel and develop the settlement and sovereignty in all its spaces,” according to Haaretz’s translation of the post.

Praising God for the Israeli government’s efforts to stop “the spread of the terrorist cancer within us,” Smotrich noted that construction approvals would only be given to Palestinians in locations that serve the “strategic interests of the state of Israel and not the national interests of Arabs.”

Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now condemned Smotrich’s statements, saying “Israel has made it evident that it will decide where the Palestinians will build and where they cannot, and that any such building will be subject to the whims of the settlement agenda.”

“The goal of the construction plan is ultimately to serve the settlers, and not out of some sincere concern for the needs of the Palestinian population,” Peace Now said.

“The Israeli government is making a significant step toward annexing and applying sovereignty over the territories, and thereby severely damaging the prospect of reaching a political agreement to end this occupation of more than 52 years.”

PA pushes back

In response on Sunday, the Palestinian Authority said that it’s government would begin issuing building permits for Palestinian construction in Area C, the latest in a salvo of measures being taken by the PA to combat what it sees as Israel’s attempts to expand its authority in the Palestinian territory.

Under Oslo, the PA has full civilian and security control in Area A, which constitutes less than 18% of the West Bank, and shares joint control with Israel over Area B.

The PA has no jurisdiction in Area C, which sees the highest rate of Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes, settlement construction, and settler attacks against Palestinians.

While the PA is not legally allowed to issue building permits in Area C, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that “since Israel no longer respects any of the signed agreements and is dealing with all areas and classifications as Area C, then we will treat all Areas as ‘A’.”

His comments were made during a meeting with activists and families from the occupied East Jerusalem town of Sur Bahir that were affected by Israel’s massive demolition campaign in the area earlier this month.

The demolitions sparked international controversy given their unprecedented nature, as they took place in an area of the town designated as Area A, and most residents of the homes had obtained the proper permissions from the PA before they began construction.

While the PA’s decision were framed as a response to the Sur Bahir issue, it is no coincidence that Shtayyeh’s comments were made just one week after Israel’s approval of the 700 building permits in Area C.

‘A mockery’

While the permit approvals should be understood as a clear move toward Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, Peace Now noted that the measure also indicated a “mockery” of the widespread need for Palestinian construction in Area C.

With a population of up to 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C, it is estimated that at least one thousand young Palestinian couples are in need of housing each year in Area C, the group said.

“The decision to promote about 700 units for them will not provide real answers to Palestinians who already live in Area C, and certainly will not help the entire West Bank to be developed as a Palestinian area,” Peace Now said.

In fact, according to data from the Israeli Civil Administration which controls the issuance, or lack thereof, of building permits in the West Bank, between 2008 and 2016, out of 3,365 Palestinian applications for construction in Area C, a maximum of 66 were approved.

In the same time frame, 12,763 new settlement units were approved for construction.

“From 1995 to the present day, the boundaries of Areas A, B, C have not changed, creating an absurd situation whereby some of the Palestinian communities are “surrounded” in Area C and cannot expand with new construction or even infrastructure without Israeli approval, which as established above is rare,” Peace Now said.

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In a lot of the discussion i heard of these 700 permits for Palestinians it was considered that most were likely to be retrospective and apply to already existing structures. So little is likely to be new build.