In recent months, alarming signs have been accumulating that Israel is stepping up its creeping annexation of most of the occupied West Bank, and in doing so killing any prospect of ever reaching a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Most of this Israeli activity is focused on the 60 percent of the West Bank known as Area C which is totally under its control, where Israel is stepping up settlement planning while simultaneously throttling Palestinian economic and social development.
The most dramatic manifestation of this policy is a plan to totally demolish a small Palestinian village called Susya in the hills south of Hebron making several hundred people homeless. The plan has been put on hold until the end of October in the face of a chorus of international protests from European governments and the US State Department. Important American Jewish organizations like the Union for Reform Judaism, which issued a strong statement, and J Street which collected over 10,000 signatures on a petition to Secretary of State John Kerry to use his influence in the matter, also weighed in against the impending demolition.
Sussya is just one of 17 Palestinian villages in the area under threat. Israeli settlers have long been eyeing this area of the West Bank for their own expansion – which for them would have the added benefit of driving a stake into the idea of ever making a two-state peace with the Palestinians.
Under the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, the West Bank was divided into three areas. In Area A, about 18 percent of the territory including all of the major Palestinian cities, Palestinians are supposed to have complete control – although the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) often conduct raids and security operations. In Area B, about 22 percent, Palestinians run their domestic affairs while security is shared between the IDF and Palestinian security forces. Area C, where most of the Israeli settlements are located and an estimated 100,000 Palestinians live, is under full Israeli control.
The Israeli settler movement, which is now heavily represented in the Israeli cabinet, seems to have given up the idea of Israel annexing all of the West Bank, which would put it in permanent control of some 2.7 million Palestinians. Instead, their ambitions now focus on Area C, which would give Israel the maximum amount of land with the minimum amount of Palestinians.
If Israel did annex this territory, this would leave almost all the Palestinians squashed into cities with no territorial contiguity – an archipelago of Palestinian islands surrounded by a sea under Israeli control. Some might call them “Bantutans” since that arrangement would be eerily reminiscent of the notorious South African attempt to isolate black Africans during the apartheid era.
Under Oslo, more and more control was supposed to revert to the Palestinians over time – but that idea died long ago. Instead, Israel has been systematically taking over more and more of the land – and of its most precious natural resource, namely water.
Haaretz reported this week that the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank has promised to advance a “strategic plan” to develop the South Hebron Hills region. The plan calls for the construction of two industrial parks, a medical center and homes for new settlers.
To be clear, this is not an area that could ever be retained by Israel if there were to be a two-state solution. It is far away from the nearest Israeli settlement bloc. In fact, under the formula of land swaps that would allow some of these massive settlements near major Israeli cities to remain in Israel, the Israelis would have to hand over some of its territory adjacent to the Hebron hills to the future Palestinian state.
While expanding its own control, Israel is making life more and more difficult for the Palestinians who live in Area C. Their attempts to build homes and small industrial enterprises have been systematically frustrated by the Israel authorities who refuse to issue them building permits. Their access to water for agriculture is also being blocked. The government is clearly trying to send them a message that they would be better off abandoning the land and relocating to the cities, leaving the area free for unfettered Israeli settlement.
Talking to Israeli Knesset members last month, EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen claimed that 70 percent of Area C land, has been set aside for exclusive Israeli use. He said that between 2009 and 2013 only 44 housing permits have been granted to Area C Palestinians.
This creeping annexation is not dramatic. It is insidious, going on mostly under the radar every day. But it is also deadly – potentially condemning Israel to a future of constant and permanent conflict while threatening the very democratic principles on which the state of Israel was founded.