Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved a number of preliminary steps for Palestinian construction projects in the West Bank, his office said Monday, in an apparent effort to offset any potential blowback for his approval of some 800 housing units in Israeli settlements earlier in the day.
The permits would legalize hundreds of Palestinian structures in Area C, which makes up some 60 percent of the West Bank and is under fully Israeli security and administrative control. Israel rarely approves Palestinian construction in Area C, with the overwhelming majority of requests being denied.
On Monday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that a Defense Ministry panel would approve plans for over 800 new settler homes days before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to take a harsher view of Israeli settlement expansion than his predecessor, Donald Trump.
That night, Gantz’s office announced he had approved the submission of plans for the expansion of the village of al-Walaja in the southern West Bank, the expansion of the village of Hizma outside Jerusalem, approval for plans for a hotel in the Bethlehem area, a hearing regarding the submission of plans for a hotel in Beit Jala, and a hearing regarding retroactive approval for agricultural buildings in the area of al-Fara in the northern West Bank.
The proposals were scheduled to be discussed next week in a meeting of the Civil Administration’s Planning and Licensing Subcommittee, a different body than the one that will approve the plans for the settlement expansions.
Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, a researcher at the left-wing Bimkom human rights group, which focuses on construction-related issues, told The Times of Israel that the approvals discussed by Gantz were woefully insufficient compared to the needs of Palestinians.
“This is like mocking the poor,” he said. “Most of the plans are from 2012. They’re all very small in terms of their land use and do not allow for [further] development.”
At a meeting next week, the Civil Administration’s High Planning Committee will approve the construction of 500 housing units in the West Bank settlements of Itamar, Beit El, Shavei Shomron, Oranit, and Givat Ze’ev, the Prime Minsiter’s Office said.
In addition, the committee will advance plans to build 100 units in Tal Menashe and more than 200 homes in the Nofei Nehemia outpost.
Tal Menashe, in the northern West Bank, was the hometown of Esther Horgen, who was killed last month in a terror attack. Her husband has called for increased settlement construction following her murder.
“While with one hand Netanyahu publishes headlines about expanding Jewish settlement with 800 housing units, with his other hand he approves illegal construction plans by the Palestinian Authority covering hundreds of dunams,” Meir Deutsch, head of the far-right Regavim organization, said in a statement.
It is very uncommon for Israel to approve Palestinian construction in Area C, resulting in rampant illegal building, which is in turn often demolished by Israel.
Between 2016 and 2018, just 21 of the 1,485 Palestinian applications for construction permits in Area C were approved by the Defense Ministry, or 0.81 percent.
In 2019, the security cabinet approved — in principle — a record 700 building permits for Palestinians in what was widely seen as an attempt both to prevent the High Court of Justice from blocking further demolitions of Palestinian property on the grounds that it is impossible for Palestinians to build legally and to stave off international criticism against Jerusalem that it failed to allow Palestinian construction.
However, this past summer, an investigation into the matter by The Times of Israel found that very few of those buildings permits had actually been issued.
Plans for just 26 housing units were advanced by the Defense Ministry committee charged with issuing the approvals, with only six of those units — located in a single building — receiving actual building permits, as of June 2020.
Biden’s administration is widely expected to restore Washington’s stance against settlement construction. During an official visit by then-vice president Biden in 2010, the Interior Ministry announced that 1,600 housing units would be built in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. The declaration incensed Biden, as Washington was opposed to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.
Most of the international community considers settlement construction a violation of international law. In November 2019, by contrast, the US State Department said it had concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November became the first top American diplomat to visit a settlement in the West Bank.
Aaron Boxerman and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.