Israel has frozen pending Palestinian construction in Area C of the West bank, and is starting to talk about annexing some Area C land as part of Jerusalem’s response to last week’s announcement of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.
Under the Oslo Accords, Israel has full civil and security control of the area.
Israeli spokesmen had warned of unilateral steps in response to the pact. Indeed, on Thursday Israel announced the suspension of the diplomatic talks with the Palestinians, which were scheduled to end on Tuesday.
On Sunday morning, the newly appointed coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj.-Gen.
Yoav Mordechai, announced that approvals of master plans for 19 Palestinian villages in Area C had been frozen.
He spoke at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Sub-committee on Judea and Samaria, which focused on the issue of illegal Palestinian construction.
Israel is often accused of imposing de facto policies that prevent Palestinian development in Area C, but its officials have rarely publicly articulated a policy to halt such building, even temporarily.
His spokesman, Guy Inbar, said that former defense minister Ehud Barak gave initial approval to the plans. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had advanced them during the last nine-months, when Israeli and Palestinian teams were negotiating, Inbar said.
Europe and the United Nations have in the last few years increasingly focused on shoring up Palestinian development in Area C, including with financial assistance, because, they said, they view it as vital to the viability of a future Palestinian state.
But as they have increased their support for Palestinian development of Area C, political voices in support of Israel’s annexation of Area C have grown stronger.
Communications Minister Gilad Erdan – a cabinet minister considered to be close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – said that Israel should also begin “preparing for the declaration of Israeli sovereignty” over regions of Area C that have large Jewish populations, otherwise known as the settlement blocs, and that it is clear will always remain a part of Israel.
In the 1990s, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three areas: • Area A, comprising some 18 percent of the territory, was transferred to the Palestinian Authority – where it enjoys most governmental powers.
• Area B, making up 22% of the territories, was divided between Israel and the Palestinians, with Israel retaining security control, and civil matters given over to the Palestinian Authority.
• Area C, comprising some 60% of the territory – including all the settlement lands – remained in Israeli hands.
Erdan told Israel Radio that as a result of the Fatah-Hamas unity plan, Israel needs to send a clear message to the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people that “they will lose with their unilateral steps, which will be answered by unilateral steps on our part.”
Erdan said that there are clear steps that he feels Israel should already be taking, such as deducting debts the PA owes Israel – for instance to the Israel Electric Company – from the duties and taxes Israel collects for the PA and transfers to them each month.
“But if you ask me,” he said, “we need to take more significant steps, such as declaring Israeli sovereignty over Area C, where the Jewish population lives, and is clear to us that they will [continue] to live there.”
While Erdan is not the first cabinet minister to suggest annexing parts of Area C as a result of the Palestinian move – Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has already made that suggestion – it has added significance coming from Erdan, because he is considered closely aligned to Netanyahu.
On Monday, the High Court of Justice will hear a petition by Rabbis for Human Rights, which seeks to force the Civil Administration to allow regional and local Palestinian planning councils, empowered to initiate master plans for their own villages in Area C.
According to Rabbis for Human Rights spokesman Yariv Mohar, only 19 out of 180 Palestinian villages in Area C have master plans.
Even if an additional 19 master plans were approved, that would only allow for 1% of Area C to be authorized for construction, Mohar said.
He noted information they had received from the Civil Administration as part of their legal cases on the issue show that only 5.3% of Palestinian permit requests were granted between the years 2000-2012.
In response to the cessation of Palestinian master plans, Rabbis for Human Rights said that “basic humanitarian news and the right to develop should never be conditioned upon political agreements or negotiations and cannot be denied because of the suspension of diplomatic talks with the Palestinian Authority.”