The village of Turmus Ayya, nestled in a valley between the Nablus and Ramallah districts in the northern occupied West Bank, had high hopes when a local Palestinian company proposed constructing a new housing development on the outskirts of the village.
It was a chance for the village, with a population of around 11,000 Palestinians, to expand and address the growing population in their town and draw potential homeowners from the overcrowding in the nearby city of Ramallah.
When the company suddenly stopped construction on the site, the townspeople were left confused. The planned development was located in land designated as ‘Area B’, which unlike Area C, was designated by the Oslo Accords as permisable for Palestinian construction.
So, they thought, there couldn’t be any reason for the sudden change.
“We learned from the media that Israel was banning construction in Area B, specifically in Turmus Ayya and the villages around the Shilo settlement,” Saeed Hussein, mayor of Turmus Ayya told Mondoweiss.
“We were shocked. We know the Israelis ban construction in Area C, but now in Area B too? Soon there will be nowhere left for us to touch!” he said.
The halt on construction in Area B was pushed by Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who submitted a letter to the ministry’s legal adviser saying he opposed Palestinian construction in Area B around Shilo due to “security concerns.”
According to Israeli media, Bennett’s advisor on settlements, Avi Roeh, wrote in the letter that there was “no real justification for the construction in its current location of all places, and it seems its main purpose is to challenge Israeli security forces.”
The Times of Israel reported that Roeh claimed the developer “declared it to be part of an effort to encourage a Palestinian takeover of lands in the Judea and Samaria,” adding that it was the ministry’s position that the devleopment could have “broad security consequences” for the region and “should not be allowed there.”
Bennett’s efforts come after similar efforts by settlers from Shilo, who sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging he put a stop to the construction due to security concerns.
Haaretz reported that Bennett’s letter came in response to an appeal by the Palestinian developer who petitioned the High Court of Justice to send Israeli troops to guard the construction site, claiming his workers had come under attack from the settlers.
A local landowner Turmus Ayya, who asked to remain unnamed from, has plots of land next to the development, and told Monodoweiss he can vouch for the fact that settlers have been terrorizing the workers ever since they started.
“The settlers come and threaten the workers and try to mess up their equipment and destroy the work they’ve done,” he said, pointing to a portion of a newly paved road that had been destroyed, allegedly by settlers from Shilo.
Other parts of the road had been haphazardly blocked off with large rocks and debris — an act also allegedly carried out by settlers.
“This part of the village is not even close to Shilo, unlike the center part of town, which is just a few hundred meters away from the settlement,” the man said. “So it doesn’t make sense why they’re so opposed to construction here.”
Palestinians already feeling effects
While Bennett’s request still needs to go through a series of approval before its enforced, locals in the villages around Turmus Ayya say they have also been facing pushback from Israeli forces in Area B — something they have never experienced before.
In the village of Qaryut, six kilometers north of Turmus Ayya, and three kilometers north of Shilo, activists told Mondoweiss that Israeli settlers and security from Shilo and the nearby Eli settlement have been establishing more of a presence on lands designated as Area B in the village.
They say that in the past few months, Israeli forces have stopped work on a house on the outskirts of Qaryut, and confiscated tractors and other equipment belonging to farmers in the area.
“They [Israel] have started preventing people from building or working on lands close to the settlements,” local activist Bashar al-Qaryouti, 37, told Mondoweiss.
Al-Qaryouti said that people “shouldn’t be fooled” by the claims that the new policies in Area B are being enforced out of “security concerns.”
“This is part of their plan to create a bloc of settlements in the Nablus area, and they don’t want any Palestinians standing in their way,” he said, referencing Israeli plans to build a network of bypass roads connecting Eli, Shilo, and a number of other neighboring settlements.
He expressed fears that if Israel doubles down on its efforts to prevent the people of Qaryut from accessing their lands in Area B, it will severely affect the economy of the village, which relies heavily on agriculture as a source of income.
“For now they are saying now construction, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that they will ban people from even working on the land or accessing it to harvest their crops,” he said, adding that many villagers have olive groves near the settlements.
“The settlements came after the villages. But in order to serve the needs of settlers, they will do anything at the cost of the Palestinians,” he said.
A dangerous precedent
Back in Turmus Ayya, there is a sense of dreadful anticipation, as the village waits to see how the fight between Benentt and the Palestinian developer plays out.
The stakes are high for the village, where not a single piece of land is designated as Area A, which is under full control of the PA.
“The majority of Turmus Ayya land is Area B, and a smaller portion of it is Area C,” mayor Hussein told Mondoweiss from his office in the town center.
“There are only a hundred meters between the last house in Turmus Ayya and Shilo,” he said
“Who knows if in the future they can say this is a security risk, and use it as an excuse to begin demolishing houses.”
Both Hussein and al-Qaryouti expressed fears that the events happening in their villages could set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the West Bank.
“For the past twenty years we have been fighting for our rights to exist in Area C, and now we are fighting for Area B,” al-Qaryouti told Mondoweiss. “Maybe in the near future, we will have to fight just so they won’t evict us from our homes and villages.”
Hussein expressed little hope in the situation going in favor of the Palestinians, despite the appeal that’s been sent before the supreme court.
“The people of Turmus Ayya have filed more than 150 cases in court against the settlers and settlements for violations on our land,” he said. “But not once has any case been resolved or found in our favor.”
“The Israelis have all the rights and all the power. And we have none of those things,” he said, highlighting the fact that Shilo has been undergoing major expansions in recent months, on stolen land from Turmus Ayya, without any issues.
“The settlers have the army, the courts, and the state behind them,” he said. “And now they have the American government fully supporting them too. So what are we left with?”
Hussein, a dual Palestinian-American citizen said he believed what was happening now in Area B was a direct result of American policy in the region.
“Since the release of the peace plan, any new policy in Israel can be directly tied to the American government,” Hussein said.
He expressed frustrations that he, and the thousands of other dual citizens in Tuumus Ayya, were being negatively impacted by the policies of their own government.
“We are Americans, but because we are Palestinians, we have no rights. Israel always takes precedent,” he said.
“America has given Israel its blessing to take over our land,” he said, referencing the Trump administration’s support of Israeli annexation plans.
“How can you have use your power to give this land to Israel, but you can’t use it to support the basic rights of Palestinians?”