11 months after announcement, Israeli building permits for Palestinians stalled

Nearly a year since security cabinet approved 700 permits for Palestinians in Area C, plans for just 26 units have advanced

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

The West Bank town of Qalqilya is seen behind Israel's security barrier. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
The West Bank town of Qalqilya is seen behind Israel's security barrier. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Eleven months after the security cabinet, in a rare decision, approved granting 700 building permits to Palestinians in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank, an examination by The Times of Israel found that only a handful of such approvals have been issued.

The top ministerial body’s debate on the matter last July — under the former interim government — was highly charged, with several of its more hardline members opposing what they called a “reward” for illegal construction carried out by Palestinians in the most sensitive area of the West Bank.

Palestinians say they have little choice but to build illegally in Area C, which makes up 60 percent of the West Bank because as opposed to settlers, Israeli authorities rarely grant them permits. Between 2016 and 2018, just 21 of the 1,485 Palestinian applications for construction permits in Area C were approved by the Defense Ministry.

Israel is currently weighing plans to annex as much as half of Area C, where nearly all of its 450,000 settlers live, and is hoping to do so without including the long-neglected villages where some 150,000 Palestinians are believed to live.

Then-Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The security cabinet passed the plan to grant Palestinians 700 building permits, thanks largely to the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who analysts at the time speculated was seeking to signal to the US that he was willing to take steps toward the Palestinians that some in Jerusalem might consider to be compromises.

Seemingly orchestrated leaks from that security cabinet meeting stated that the approvals were granted in parallel with 6,000 building permits for Israelis in the West Bank as well, in what was largely seen as an effort to placate settler leaders who opposed the decision.

But Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich, who served on the security cabinet at the time as transportation minister, said Wednesday that the 6,000 building permits had not actually been part of the discussion. On the other hand, he said the 700 permits granted for Palestinians were all for buildings that had already been built. The goal of the decision was to instruct authorities to create building plans that would regulate those structures so that they no longer would be under threat of demolition.

Explaining his decision to support the move, Smotrich wrote at the time that the security cabinet was granting Palestinians who had been living in Area C before the 1994 Oslo Accords the right to build and develop “only in places that do not compromise settlement and security and do not… produce a de facto Palestinian state.”

As to the current status of those permits, Smotrich, whose party now sits in the opposition, said Wednesday that he was unaware whether they had been granted.

But an examination of the protocols from the nine Civil Administration Planning and Licensing Subcommittee meetings that took place since the July 2019 security cabinet decision found that the Defense Ministry body responsibly for authorizing construction in Area C issued just a handful of building permits during that time.

US President Donald Trump, left, turns to give a pen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019 after signing the official proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. From left, White House adviser Jared Kushner, US special envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Plans for just 26 housing units were advanced in those meetings, with only six of those units — located in a single building — receiving actual building permits. The non-residential plans advanced in the year since the security cabinet approval included ones for a glass-making factory, a concrete-making factory, a medical clinic, an industrial park and a water treatment plant.

The Civil Administration and Prime Minister’s Office both declined to expound on the limited number of plans for Palestinians that were advanced over the past year. Given Smotrich’s claims, and the fact that most of the building approvals from the past year have not been retroactive, it was possible that none of the 700 permits have been issued at all.

At the same time, dozens of applications for building permits and plans were rejected by the Planning and Licensing Subcommittee.

In addition to the Planning and Licensing Subcommittee, the Civil Administration’s Supervisory Subcommittee also has authority to grant building permits, but unlike the first body, the latter does not publish the protocols from its sessions. Moreover, a security official speaking anonymously acknowledged that it is exceedingly rare for the Supervisory Subcommittee to issue permits and instead it focuses primarily on demolition orders.

Asked if it was possible for the Civil Administration to have issued permits without including them in protocols from their meetings, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry body declined to comment.

An official from the Prime Minister’s Office said he would not comment on matters discussed in security cabinet meetings.

Palestinians inspect their belongings in an area where about 10 illegal tents were destroyed by Israeli forces in the West Bank village of Fasa’il in the Jordan Valley on June 14, 2011. (AP/Mohammed Ballas)

“Apparently, the security cabinet’s decision that Netanyahu made sure to publicize as if Israel actually intended to approve any development for the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories has turned out to be one big bluff, and even the few permits that were approved have not been issued,” fumed Hagit Ofran of the Peace Now settlement watchdog.

The government’s policy remains one that grants almost no permits for Palestinians in Area C while Israeli settlers build about 2,000 units a year, she said.

Ofran explained that the security cabinet vote had come just over a week after security forces carried out controversial demolitions in a PA-controlled area adjacent to East Jerusalem. In order to continue to carry out such enforcement, the High Court of Justice had asked Israeli authorities to demonstrate that they were also issuing orders for construction and not only for razing.

“Netanyahu may have hoped that publicizing such decisions would save us from The Hague tribunal, but the truth is that what needs to change is actions, not talk,” Ofran said. “There is no Israeli interest in preventing Palestinian development in Area C, only the narrow interest of a minority of settlers who are not interested in the well-being of their Palestinian neighbors.”

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