Can sovereignty solve problems in the West Bank's Samaria?

Today, demographics in Judea and Samaria play a large role in determining how that responsibility plays out.

 The polluted stream running off from a Palestinian factory in Wadi Haramiya. (photo credit: JUDY LASH BALINT)
The polluted stream running off from a Palestinian factory in Wadi Haramiya.
(photo credit: JUDY LASH BALINT)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Most visitors who venture into Judea and Samaria are attracted to the boutique wineries, historical sites of biblical significance, natural springs, or just want to see a “settlement” for themselves.

But behind the attractions and the stunning scenery lies an area crucial to the future stability of the Jewish state. For tourists and many Israelis living inside the Green Line, it can be hard to grasp the demographic, ecological, logistic or commercial significance of this area that’s frequently in the headlines and forms the central core of the State of Israel.

Traveling recently with Israeli journalists and opinion makers along Route 60, the main highway that cuts through the hills of the Shomron (as Samaria is known in Hebrew), Yigal Dilmoni, CEO of the YESHA Council that represents the Jewish communities of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley, lays out his philosophy. He begins with an explanation of how the road follows the ancient Derech Ha’avot (the Path of the Patriarchs), the scene of most of the stories in the Bible.

This was the birthplace of the nation of Israel, he says, and the land belongs to the Jewish people. “The connection with the land is the basis of everything,” says Dilmoni, adding that taking responsibility and fulfilling obligations to all the people that currently live on the land should be a prime Israeli objective.

Today, demographics in Judea and Samaria play a large role in determining how that responsibility plays out. Almost half a million Jews and 1.8 million Arabs live in an area of about 2290 square miles, and in portions of that space they work together, shop together and battle the same chronic traffic jams.

 Yigal Dilmoni, CEO of the YESHA Council (credit: JUDY LASH BALINT) Yigal Dilmoni, CEO of the YESHA Council (credit: JUDY LASH BALINT)

For Dilmoni, 52, who lives in Avnei Hefetz in the Shomron, taking responsibility means first and foremost that Israel should declare sovereignty over Judea and Samaria for the benefit of all the people who live there, and who are not already governed by the Palestine Authority. Improving living standards, education, health care, employment and providing solutions to pollution would ensure a more secure future for everyone, Dilmoni believes.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accords transferred jurisdiction over areas of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority (Area A is exclusively administered by the PA; Area B is administered by both the PA and Israel), the vast majority of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria today fall under the jurisdiction of the PA, pay taxes to the PA, and vote in PA elections. According to the 2018 Palestinian census, 393,000 Palestinians live in Area C, which is administered by Israel through the planning offices of the Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria.

Dilmoni bluntly calls the Civil Administration “the enemy,” because they have been ineffective in combating illegal Arab construction, which he says includes 75,000 structures erected over the past decade, with an average of five new buildings going up every day.

Driving past the wealthy Arab town of Turmus Aya, which lies between the Jewish communities of Ofra and Shilo, Dilmoni points out some resplendent villas that fit into that category.

He describes the methodical plan of the PA to take over state lands in several ways, by building tens of thousands of illegal structures, mining illegal quarries and paving roads.

What he’s referring to is the day-to-day implementation of the Fayyad Plan, proposed in 2009 by then PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, whose goal was to establish “an independent Arab state with full sovereignty over all of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital.” In other words, the unilateral creation of a Palestinian state without negotiations – all backed by millions of dollars of assistance from the European Union, as documented in a report by Israel’s Intelligence Ministry presented to the Knesset in January.

According to Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and former director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, “the flaccid response that has characterized the Israeli government’s approach to this threat, which can be blamed only in part on bureaucracy, a shortage of manpower in the Civil Administration and the impossible labyrinth of protracted courtroom battles, is allowing the Palestinians to create a problematic reality on the ground that reflects their claim to all of Judea and Samaria as occupied Palestinian territory.”

One of the consequences of the loss of Israeli control in Area C is visible at a stream in Wadi Haramiya on Route 465, a deceptively pastoral two-lane road north of Ramallah. There, Iche Meir, a veteran environmental activist and former director of the Samaria Cities Association for Environmental Quality leads visitors to a foul-smelling stream.

Meir explains that the water is polluted by effluents that flow directly from a Palestinian aluminum factory visible a few hundred yards away. From here, the pollution seeps into the groundwater reservoirs from the Mountain Aquifer, a main source of natural water for both Israelis and Palestinians, and makes its way to the coastal plain. Meir says that the principal agenda of the Civil Administration is to achieve quiet, and that is achieved in their minds by ensuring the economic well-being of the Arabs and not ruffling feathers by acting in a proactive manner to enact or apply laws that protect the environment.

“No environmental protection laws apply here,” contends Meir. “The Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria are under the authority of local councils, but step even one meter outside those boundaries and the law doesn’t apply, and we can’t do anything.”

Transportation is another key issue in Judea and Samaria that impacts the development of communities and the demographic balance. Standing at the edge of Kfar Tapuah in Northern Samaria, Matanya Shapira, deputy director of the YESHA Council, points to the Tapuah Junction below that will be the start of an expanded highway that he expects to be ready in late 2023.

An expanded Route 505 (the Trans-Samaria Highway) will run from the Tapuah junction west through Ariel to Route 5 starting at Glilot, close to Tel Aviv. Eastward, it will connect with the Jordan Valley road that Shapira calls “one of the most important roads in Israel.” The significance of that project is that the entire State of Israel will be connected and easily accessible to Judea and Samaria, he says, which will encourage more Israelis to move into the area.

Shapira contends that upgrading the highway system will improve life for Jews and Arabs, and he advocates doing everything possible to support the development of the whole area, “all of it. Almost two million Arabs live here. We should give them everything. Whoever doesn’t allow life here harms all of us.”

Addressing visitors at Ariel University, Eran Bar-Tal, a former economics editor of Israel Hayom who lives in Herzliya, emphasizes that Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria can bring only economic gains for the State of Israel. Rising land values, increased capital, and the expansion of entrepreneurship and the labor pool are all benefits he cites.

“No development planner in the State of Israel can explain how Israel would look without Judea and Samaria,” says Bar-Tal. “If there’s Israeli sovereignty and all workers get the same rights and benefits, it can only benefit the Palestinians.” The human rights organizations that claim to be concerned about Arab human rights should be supportive of sovereignty, Bar-Tal says.

“There are 1,000 factories in Judea and Samaria, and around 100,000 Palestinians are supported by that industry,” says Dilmoni. “The average salary is 2.5 times as much as what it is in the PA, so they want to preserve it more than we do.”

At the Lipski plastics factory in the Barkan Industrial Park a few miles west of Ariel, chief executive Yehuda Cohen expresses similar sentiments as he leads visitors past the throbbing robotic machines operated by some of his workers.

Cohen employs 110 people, 75 Arabs and 35 Jews, who have helped make his company one of the biggest manufacturers of toilet seats and bathroom accessories in Israel.

Almost all the Arab workers at Lipski come from the surrounding communities and find it “very comfortable to work here,” according to Cohen. Unlike those who work inside the Green Line, his employees don’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to wait at the checkpoints; they get paid according to Israel standards, share meals in the canteen, and take part in company-sponsored trips.

“I bless them, and they bless me,” says Cohen. “My first goal is to make money and secondly, to bring people closer together. I believe we’re doing exactly the right thing here. Those who work together can learn to live together, that’s the real bridge to peace. It’s a very complex situation, I don’t see it as black and white. Getting to know each other and working together gives you perspective. I have hope that things will change.” ■