By Sam Gilbert
Early this month Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem published a report on Israel’s policy in Area C and its implications for the population of the West Bank. Less then a week later Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, in the midst of Kerry’s attempts to start the stalled peace talks, reiterated his plan to annex all of Area C to the Israeli state, bringing with it the 350,000 some od settlers as well as 62% of land of the West Bank.
In a conference held by the settler Yesha Council Bennett said “the attempt to establish a Palestinian state in our land has ended .. That we need to Annex area C of the West Bank now because the idea of creating a Palestinian state there is over.”
Bennett’s comments were met with international condemnation, the timing of his words seen as purposefully undermining Kerry’s attempt to restart the stalled peace negotiations. These comments, along with others from the Israeli right, have been presented as marginal within the mainstream Israeli political discourse. However the substance of Israeli policy and practice in the West Bank requires that these ideas been taken seriously.
Bennett’s Israel Stability Initiative published in 2012 lays out his plan for annexation, while B’tselem’s Report on Area C outlines the application and effect of Israeli Policy in Area C from 1995 till today. Each report has fundamentally different political objectives yet both provide a window into Israeli politics and practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPt).
The Israel Stability Initiative
In 2012 Naftali Bennett presented a 7-point plan for managing the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Judea and Samaria, the biblical term for the West Bank. The Israel Stability Initiative outlines a plan whereby Area C, the territory that Israel maintains full security and planning control after the Oslo agreement, would be annexed to Israel and the Palestinian State would be created in the disconnected cannons of areas B and C. Bennett’s plan would naturalize the 50,000 Arab residents (official number at 180,000), along with the 350,000 Israeli settlers. No Palestine refugee would be allowed to return to the west bank or Israel, and Gaza would be left to fend for itself.
The PA would be granted, “Full autonomy in areas A and B” while Israel would maintain a “full security umbrella for all of Judea and Samara.” The IDF would maintain a strong presence and complete security control over all of Judea and Samaria.”
While this proposal might seem especially partial to Israeli interests, B’tselem’s recent report on Area C shows how Bennet’s plan is in essence the institution of permanence for something has already become the de-facto reality in the west bank today.
Earlier this month B’Tselem published a 111 page report titled “Acting the Landlord: Israeli Policy in Area C, the West Bank. The report presents Israel’s policy in Area C and explores its implications for the population of the West Bank as a Whole.
Area C is a product of the Oslo accords, an interim agreement that was supposed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel. In 1995 the interim agreement went into effect in West Bank and the region was divided into three administrative categories A, B and C. “Area A: Under full control of the Palestinian Authority, comprising 18 percent of west bank including most Palestinians cities and population center. Area B, 22%: Israel retains military control while PA controls civil matters. Area C, 60 percent: Israel controls security and land related matters, including land allocation, planning and construction, and infrastructure.”
These divisions were based on demography not geography, with A and B subdivided into 165 disconnected cantons with no territorial continuity and surrounded by area C. Area C on the other hand is territorially contiguous, and comprises all the settlement and settlers in the west bank (350,000) along with some 180,000 Palestinians.
Area C contains the vast majority of the West Bank’s natural resources (water, agricultural, mineral) and nearly all of the development potential for a future Palestinian state. Area C lands surround all areas of A and B stifling growth in these already built up areas, and disconnecting the regions from one another
Legalizing the Norm
Claim to the greater land of Israel (Eretz Israel), has been a common thread in Israeli politics since the state’s inception and before. Bennet’s proposed plan to annex all of Area C (a modified two state solution) is interesting in it simply cements the reality on the ground today, extending it to a final solution to the conflict.
B’Tselem’s report underscores how Israel’s policy in area C is anchored in the perception of the area as meant above all to serve Israel’s Own Needs in favor to those of the Palestinians by restricting Palestinian construction and development throughout.
In the vast majority of Area C Israel denies Palestinians any opportunity to build or develop. In fact since 67 only .6 percent of the entire area C has been allocated to Palestinians by the Civil Administration, while 31 percent has been allocated to pseudo governmental World Zionist Organization (which develops settlement), 8 percent to Settlement Authorities, 12% to government ministries with an additional 30 percent designated as Military Firing Zones.
According to international law, Planning and construction policy for Area C should rely on Jordanian planning law, but this has been altered by order to the Israeli military to serve the state’s purposes. One outcome has been the refusal if Civil Administration to plan villages, approving Mandatory Plans for only 16 of 180 villages in Area C. Since all construction in Area C requires approval of Civil Administration, the prospect for receiving a building permit without a master plan is negligible. In fact between 2000-2010 of the 3050 application for permits only 6.5% were approved. Many are forced to build without permits, at constant risk of demolition (660 a year since 2000).
Yet “in contrast to the restrictive planning policy followed for Palestinian communities, the Israeli settlements, also in Area C, enjoy expansive allocation of land, detailed planning, connections to advanced infrastructure and a blind eye regarding illegal construction.”
In 75% of the settlements, building was carried out without the appropriate permits, legalized retroactively by government and military. Between 2000-2007, 91 building permits were issued for Palestinians, same period 17,000 residential units were built in settlements. While Palestinians in area C are isolated from areas A and B, Jewish settlements are connected to one another and to Israel proper by Jewish only Bypass roads.
The international community has time and again confirmed the illegality these actions under International Humanitarian Law. Yet insufficient international pressure (particularly from the U.S.) has led to a situation where Israel strengthens it hold on Area C and “preserves a de-facto annexation of area C and creates circumstance that will help perpetuate this state and influence the Final status of the Area.”
The Party Line
Bennet’s Ideas about area C reflect a broader hostility within the Knesset about Palestinian statehood and the need to annex all or most of West Bank. In a Times of Israel interview, Deputy minister of Defense Danny Dannon spoke about the sentiment within the coalition government: “there was never a government discussion, resolution or vote about the two-state solution… and nobody will bring it to a vote, it’s not smart to do it — but if you bring it to a vote, you will see the majority of Likud ministers, along with the Jewish Home [party], will be against it.”
Numerous quotes from current cabinet minsters confirm this position:
“The essence of Zionist existence in Israeli settlements across the country.” – Moshe Ya’allon: Defense Minister.
“The real solution is to extend Israeli sovereignty over the settlements in Judea and Samaria.” — Danny Dannon, Deputy Defense Minister.
“We will try to apply sovereignty over as much as we can at any given moment.” — Ze’ev Elkin, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“Israel should announce the annexation of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria.” — Gilad Erdan, Minister of Communication and Home Front Defense.
“Israel will need to take unilateral steps to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria.” — Yisreal Katz Minister of Transportation.
Annexation: The Final Solution
The vocal support of annexation has been attributed to the right wing shift in the government in Israel, yet its mainstream credentials are exposed with even a cursory glance at policy and practice in the west bank through Israeli history.
Every Israeli president since Menachem Begin in the 70’s has publicly espoused a two state solution based on Bilateral U.S. brokered negotiations, while simultaneously doing everything in their power to undermine its physical viability on the ground.
Netanyahu’s most recent statements, considered “moderate” in comparison to Bennets, nonetheless betray the administration’s position to undermine the two state solution, as noted in Peace Now’s report on Settlement construction under the current administration. In response to the proposed peace talks Netanyahu said that Israel would continue to build and that “construction in major settlement blocks does not substantially affect Israel’s ability to come to an agreement.” He went on to say that “We will continue to live and build in Jerusalem, which will always remain united under Israeli sovereignty,” as published by the Israeli daily, Isreal Hayom and Haaretz.
Considering East Jerusalem is the internationally recognized future capital for the Palestinian state, and that settlement expansion is the number one obstacle to peace, these comments say much about the prospects for a future agreement. Furthermore the proposed state Netanyahu supports is one that according to him “would have to be demilitarized and with arrangements that rely fully on the Israel Defense Forces for security.” A state that doesn’t control its borders or security and whose army is the occupying power is not an autonomous State, but the “state” of Palestine today.
Netanyahu’s position toward the Palestinians in consistent with the low ceiling allowed for Palestinian aspirations since the onset of the peace processes. Oslo, the basis of the most current arguments about annexing area C, provides a telling example. As scholar Rashid Khalidi, one of Yassar Arafat’s key advisers during the Oslo negotiations, states, “It (the Oslo agreement) was never designed to achieve independent Palestinian statehood. It was never designed to end the occupation. It was really designed, of all people, by Menachem Begin, to make permanent Israeli control over the occupied territories. And that is what has succeeded until now.” Indeed it has. Since the signing of the Oslo agreement settlement population in West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) has tripled from 110,900 to nearly 350,000, according to B’Tselem.
Palestinian author Naseer Aruri notes the occupation was never designed to be temporary, but has been used to create the illusion of a two-state solution when that option has never been on the real agenda. Madrid, Oslo, Camp David all have been used as diplomatic cover as Israel has consolidated and even extended its illegal occupation.
B’Tselem’s report exposes the fact that Israeli policy gives every indication of permanence. “Israel preserves a de-facto annexation of area C and creates circumstance that will help perpetuate this state and influence the Final status of the Area.” If we acknowledge Israeli policy in tandem with territorial usurpation, then comments like Bennet’s need not be viewed as extreme. It is time the International community, the U.S. and those moderates in the Israeli Knesset acknowledge that what Bennett’s is arguing for is not on the margins of Israeli political thought but the ideological underpinning of Zionism as practice in the oPt. And In area C the Zionist goal of maximum land with minimum Palestinians is on full display.
– Sam Gilbert is a journalist living in Ramallah. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.