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Meeting to approve rare West Bank Palestinian construction delayed

Defense Ministry blames meeting’s postponement on ‘labor dispute’; plans to advance 2,200 new settlement homes also apparently put off

Construction work is seen in the West Bank settlement of Yakir, on June 11, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Construction work is seen in the West Bank settlement of Yakir, on June 11, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Despite an announcement last week of rare plans to approve more than 800 housing units in West Bank Palestinian towns, a Tuesday meeting to finalize the move has been delayed to an unknown date.

The Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration — which regulates West Bank construction in areas where Israel has civilian control — was also set to discuss advancing 2,200 units in settlements in the coming days.

Those plans would presumably be delayed as well. The Civil Administration declined to comment on specifics.

It was unclear when either of the construction plans — in Israeli settlements or Palestinian towns — would be authorized. But the proposal to approve Palestinian construction had ignited sharp opposition among Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s constituency on the Israeli settler right.

A spokesperson for the Civil Administration said the delay was due to a “labor dispute” by civilians working in the ministry’s Higher Planning Committee. The committee is responsible for overseeing construction in the West Bank’s Area C, which comprises about 60 percent of the West Bank.

The committee members decided to sanction their employer as they bargained for better employment terms, leading to the delay, the Civil Administration spokesperson said.

Israel rarely approves Palestinian construction in Area C. Most Palestinian towns in the zone are unrecognized. Between 2016 and 2018, Israel rejected around 98% of Palestinian applications for permits, according to Defense Ministry figures.

Palestinians look at homes that were demolished by Israeli authorities in the West Bank village of Khalat Aldabe, south of Yatta, on June 17, 2019. (Wissam Hashlamon/Flash90)

Palestinians living in Area C regularly build homes and other structures illegally, saying they have no other choice. Israeli authorities routinely conduct demolition operations to crack down on the practice.

In 2019, the Israeli government approved a record 700 building permits for Palestinians, in what was widely seen as an attempt both to stave off international criticism and to prevent High Court involvement in providing Palestinians with judicial relief against demolitions.

However, an investigation by The Times of Israel last year found that very few of those planned permits had actually been issued.

Bennett was subjected to harsh criticism from his national-religious voters for the plans to approve the Palestinian construction alongside new settlement housing. West Bank settler leaders attacked the proposal as giving too much ground to Area C’s Palestinian residents.

“This is part of the neglect that began with the last government and enables Palestinians to effortlessly take over land in Judea and Samaria,” said hard-right Binyamin Regional Council head Yisrael Gantz, referring to the West Bank by its Biblical name.

Bennett is expected to fly to Washington later this month and meet with United States President Joe Biden, who has been publicly critical of settlement construction.

Left-wing Israeli politicians, meanwhile, praised the approval for Palestinian construction and attacked the choice to advance settlement expansion.

“This is a dangerous step that will likely entrench the conflict and place obstacles before the possibility of achieving a sustainable final-status agreement with the Palestinians,” several parliamentarians in the left-wing Meretz party wrote in a letter to Defense Minister Benny Gantz following last week’s announcement.

Much of the international community sees settlement construction as violating international laws of occupation, as well as threatening the possibility of a future two-state solution. Israel argues that it does not occupy the West Bank — contending that the territory is instead disputed — rendering those laws irrelevant.

The entrance to the Kedumim settlement in the West Bank, on February 26, 2019 (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Many of the 2,200 settlement units planned will be spread out in the various settlement blocs, which are likely to remain in Israel under any two-state agreement.

But some of the construction could lie in more tenuous territory. Some 377 units are planned in Kedumim, a settlement that lies deep in the northern West Bank, albeit west of Israel’s security fence. Another 258 units will be advanced in Har Bracha, another settlement deep in the central West Bank, according to the Samaria Regional Council.

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