Looming strike at Defense Ministry body could freeze settlement approvals

Settler leaders call on government to intervene to end Civil Administration labor action that would set back West Bank building

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

Palestinian laborers work at the construction site of a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Ariel near the West Bank city of Nablus on January 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Palestinian laborers work at the construction site of a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Ariel near the West Bank city of Nablus on January 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Settler leaders called on government ministers to act Wednesday to prevent a labor strike by workers of a key Defense Ministry body that threatens to delay construction of thousands of settlement homes in the West Bank.

On Monday, employees of the Civil Administration, which runs daily affairs in the West Bank, announced they would be ceasing the vast majority of their activities starting next Sunday in protest of what workers argued was the Finance Ministry’s refusal to meet their basic demands for improvements to their employment conditions.

The umbrella Yesha Council chairman Hananel Dorani sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to prevent the “practical construction freeze” on settlement homes that had already gained approval at a political level.

“We ask that you mediate with all the relevant parties and act immediately to restore the Civil Administration to full functioning,” Dorani wrote, saying a delay in construction would create a “bottleneck” that would take years to overcome.

Hananel Dorani attends a press conference at the protest tent of Beit El residents in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Among the over 20 areas of activity that will be halted due to the strike are the advancement of tenders for thousands of homes beyond the Green Line, the granting of work and entry permits for Palestinians into Israel and the West Bank, and the clearing of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, which is slated for demolition.

A similar strike had been launched in March over similar employment grievances, but Civil Administration workers’ committee chairman Benny Elbaz told The Times of Israel that the Finance Ministry pledged that it would offer various improvements to work conditions over the next three months if the employees agreed to return to work at full capacity.

Elbaz claimed that no such accommodations were offered, leading his committee — with the backing of the Histadrut labor union — to announce a renewed strike.

For their part, Finance Ministry representatives have argued that Civil Administration staffers already make between 30 and 40 percent more than other government employees due to their work beyond the Green Line, in what can sometimes become hostile environments.

Government employees also received a wage increase last month.

But the Defense Ministry workers say they are heavily understaffed and overworked and that the Finance Ministry’s offers thus far do not come close to what they have requested.

“We’re sick of being treated like an inferior organization,” Elbaz said.

A photograph of the construction work being done for a new neighborhood in the Ma’ale Amos settlement on June 18, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan claimed that over 10,000 housing approvals would be delayed due to the Civil Administration strike.

“As if it is not enough that every house in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) needs four different permits from the political echelon, now the residents have also become hostages in a conflict between Civil Administration employees and the Finance Ministry,” Dagan said in a statement.

“We understand the plight of Civil Administration employees and their need for a fair livelihood and ask the Finance Ministry to solve the problem and not leave half a million people unanswered for weeks on end,” the regional council chairman added.

This is not the first time bureaucratic strains have backlogged thousands of settlement homes after they already received political approval.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan speaks during a protest against the planned eviction of the outpost of Amona, in front of the Knesset on January 30, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Ground was broken for just 250 settlement homes from January to March of this year, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in the lowest quarterly figures since 2012.

This was despite the fact that over 3,000 homes gained final approval for construction in 2017.

That year, Israel began construction of 2,783 settlement homes, with a quarterly average of nearly 700.

Settler leaders have blamed the slow pace on inflated bureaucracy in the West Bank, where the military handles affairs typically reserved for government offices. However, housing starts have dipped within the Green Line as well over the past year.

A Civil Administration spokeswoman said numbers would likely climb in the next quarter, once several plans get off the ground.

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