Israel advances Palestinian development in Area C on eve of Biden visit

"Approval of six zoning plans for Palestinians in the Judea and Samaria area," stated the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

 A Palestinian man looks on as Israeli machineries guarded by Israeli forces demolishe a Palestinian house in Masafer Yatta, in the West Bank July 4, 2022 (photo credit: REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA)
A Palestinian man looks on as Israeli machineries guarded by Israeli forces demolishe a Palestinian house in Masafer Yatta, in the West Bank July 4, 2022
(photo credit: REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA)

Israel plans to advance Palestinian development in Area C as part of a series of gestures it announced on the eve of US President Joe Biden’s arrival on Wednesday.

The Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) gave “approval of six zoning plans for Palestinians in the Judea and Samaria area,” Major General Rassan Alian stated on Tuesday. “Validation is approved for the plans of Hizma and Harmala. Deposit is approved for the plans of Fukeikis, Hares, Kisan, and Battir.”

Other gestures include an additional 1,500 worker permits for Palestinians in Gaza, bringing the number of those who can hold jobs and engage in commerce in Israel to 15,000.

A new vehicular crossing – Salem – will be opened in the northern part of the West Bank to ease the entry of Israeli Arabs into Jenin in Area A.

Israel will also grant residency status to 5,500 Palestinians who have moved to the West Bank either from Gaza or abroad. Entry into the Palestinian Population Register in such cases can only be done with Israel’s approval.

 People gather as Israeli machineries demolish a Palestinian house in Masafer Yatta, in the West Bank July 4, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA) People gather as Israeli machineries demolish a Palestinian house in Masafer Yatta, in the West Bank July 4, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA)

How will citizenship work?

Israel had halted these approvals in 2009 and had renewed them only last year under former prime minister Naftali Bennett’s government. Total registrations over the last year will now come to 17,000.

The gestures were announced following a security assessment by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who met last week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Additional measures are currently under consideration as well,” COGAT stated.

What about the Israeli Right?

Settlers and right-wing politicians had been particularly concerned about the advancement of Palestinian development.

The Knesset Land of Israel Caucus blasted what they deemed “destructive measures” for the Israeli electorate.

The caucus said that right-wing ministers should be forming a “defensive wall” to halt Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s revival of Oslo-like gestures, referring to the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords that set the stage for a two-state resolution to the conflict.

Biden has been supportive of Palestinian development of Area C and opposed Israeli construction there. The Right had feared that such a gesture would be made. Biden’s visit had underscored for them the fragility of Israel’s hold on Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli military and civilian control and comprises 60% of the West Bank.

US politicians and presidents have been divided on the question of Area C. Even former US president Donald Trump believed that half of it should be part of the borders of a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians believe that all of Area C, where the Israeli settlements are located, must be part of the final future borders of their state.

In contrast, the Right has increasingly argued that in the absence of a peace process, all of Area C must be part of Israel’s permanent borders. They have opposed any steps to authorize Palestinian development and building there, fearing that any such construction would ensure that the territory would inevitably be part of a future Palestinian state.

Settlers and the Israeli Right have argued that there is a plan, established by former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, to fortify certain strategic areas of Area C.

“We are fighting against this,” said Yesha Council CEO Yigal Dilmoni. “We have to stop each step.”

Biden’s trip is heavily focused on Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, his stop in Israel, including his plans to visit Bethlehem and an east Jerusalem Palestinian hospital, places the focus on the frozen peace process.

Binyamin Regional Council head Israel Gantz had warned that such a move in Area C “brings the establishment of a Palestinian state closer, and puts an arrow in the heart of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria.”

Both he and Dilmoni said they believed that an election period meant that such steps should not occur.

“The transitional government has no mandate to take such irreversible steps and endanger the Jewish hold in the heart of the Land of Israel,” he said. “We will not allow this.”

Hagit Ofran of the far-left NGO Peace Now, said the plans that were announced were not substantive. Israel has granted only a small number of development plans and permits for Palestinian construction in Area C, a move which the Left has argued has left the Palestinians little choice but to build illegally.

“These plans do not significantly change the situation in Area C” for Palestinians, she said. “There is no plan here for the recognition of Palestinian communities in Area C. All plans are for buildings on the outskirts of villages whose center is in Area B, and they have expanded since the 1995 Interim Agreement and should now be allowed some expansion.”

Gush Etzion Regional Council Head Shlomo Ne’eman said that three of the zoning plans were in his region and that the fact that they were linked to communities in Areas A and B were what made them significant.

These approvals give the Palestinian Authority the green light to transfer Palestinians from Areas A and B to Area C  to take over strategic swathes of land.

“This transfer de-facto puts Area C under the control of the PA," Ne'eman said. "If the State of Israel has to pay such a steep price to welcome President Joe Biden, who needs a guest like this?”