Gantz accuses PM of trying to derail permit process for Palestinian construction

Defense minister says Netanyahu attempted to go behind his back by speaking directly to military officials, against protocol; authorizations were issued despite the intervention

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold the first cabinet meeting in the Knesset on May 17, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold the first cabinet meeting in the Knesset on May 17, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Sunday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of attempting to go behind his back to block his ministry’s approval of Palestinian construction projects.

Last week, Gantz announced plans to permit a number of Palestinian building projects in Area C, which makes up some 60 percent of the West Bank and is under full Israeli security and administrative control, on the same day he announced his approval of some 800 housing units in Israeli settlements.

Gantz’s plans for Palestinian construction were approved by his ministry’s Civil Administration’s Planning and Licensing Subcommittee on Sunday morning.

According to Gantz’s office, members of Netanyahu’s office attempted to intervene to block the authorizations, reaching out directly to military officials on the subcommittee in apparent contravention of rules requiring such communications to go through the defense minister.

“I will not allow the Prime Minister’s Office to circumvent [my] authorities. The activities of that subcommittee are under the auspices of the defense minister. There are operating procedures. It was decided last week to hold the meeting and there is no need to interfere with this proper process while it is being carried out,” Gantz said in a statement.

Construction of the then new Palestinian city of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

According to Gantz’s office, Netanyahu’s office made direct contact with Civil Administration officials during the meeting and “asked that they stop the meeting while it was taking place.”

Military officials quickly alerted Gantz to the intervention, and the defense minister “ordered them to continue the meeting,” his office said.

“If the prime minister wants to request an injunction, he knows my number,” Gantz added.

Gantz and Netanyahu have butted heads over the issue of authority in the past, most notably when the prime minister’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, directly contacted the head of the Israeli Air Force regarding the military’s position on the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates as the premier was secretly negotiating a normalization deal with Abu Dhabi, which ultimately resulted in the US agreeing to sell the aircraft to the Emirates.

The Palestinian town of Hizma. (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Palestinian town of Hizma. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gantz’s plans to legalize hundreds of Palestinian structures in Area C were announced last Monday, when his office said 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.

It is highly uncommon for Israel to approve Palestinian construction in Area C, resulting in rampant illegal building, which is in turn regularly 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 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.

Ramat Shlomo, March 1, 2013 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Gantz’s most recent announcement of permits came shortly before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, whose administration is widely expected to restore Washington’s stance against settlement construction and to take a more supportive position vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority. 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.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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