For several months now, senior IDF and Shin Bet officers have been lobbying the government for the approval of measures to improve conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Those responsible for the security of Israel reached the conclusion that for the Palestinian security forces to effectively check extremists, training and equipment – both adequately taken care of primarily by the capable and dedicated officers of the U.S. Security Coordinator – are hardly enough. Motivation is one critical prerequisite, and public support is another. Without these, there is a real risk that vital cooperation with Palestinian security forces will come to an end, plunging Israel into chaos.
To address motivation, those IDF officers responsible for West Bank security decided to stop embarrassing the Palestinian security officers, whom they respect as well-trained and well-intentioned professionals. A practice of daily IDF-Shin Bet incursions for search and arrest operations into areas which are under PA security control, begun fourteen years ago during the Second Intifada, was to end. PA security agencies were to be trusted to act on jointly and independently generated intelligence.
To address the issue of public support, the Israeli officers sought government authorization for a long menu of measures that can substantially improve conditions on the ground, remove impediments for economic development, and thereby change the public mood.
Housing Demolitions Stir the Pot
It is against this background that reports of West Bank housing demolitions by the Israeli authorities seem to undermine those very efforts. Israel looks as though its one hand is determined to undermine the other. Predictably, international protest has also been quick to mount.
Here is some background: The September 1995 Oslo II Accord divided West Bank territory into three categories. Area A (constituting some 18% of the West Bank) was assigned to civil and security PA control. Area B (22%) was placed under Palestinian civil authority and Israeli security. Area C (60%) remained under Israeli civil and security authority. It is important to note that many Palestinian villages are located in portions of Area B that are completely surrounded by C.
Over the past 20 years, natural growth of those Palestinian villages located in Area B had nowhere to expand but into adjacent lands in Area C. Because the owners were unable to obtain building permits from the Israeli authorities, 11,000 houses are now considered illegal and subject to demolition orders. According to a 2014 OCHA report, the number of Palestinians living in Area C was 300,000. At the same time, Israel’s Civil Administration, which counts only ‘legitimate’ Area C residents, puts the number at 90,000. The difference of 210,000 represents the estimated number of Palestinian residents of housing units built in Area C adjacent to Area B communities. These are the Palestinian homes currently subject to demolition.
A “1% C to B” Solution
A rough calculation of the cumulative territory occupied by these 11,000 housing units shows that they cover less than 1% of the West Bank. Therein lays the simple solution to the contentious demolition issue: either recognize these segments as being part of Area B, or transfer planning and zoning authority over them to the PA. Under either option they are legalized. Even though this measure does not solve the predicament of the Bedouin communities, well over 200,000 Palestinians will nonetheless be relieved.
Embracing this solution not only removes a major source of friction and potential trigger for violence – in line with the IDF and Shin Bet strategy of calm – but holds additional advantages to both Israel and the Palestinians. It would apply to Palestinians the concept of ‘natural growth’ that has long justified expansion of Israeli settlements and remove a blatant double standard. It would signal that Israeli control over Area C may not be permanent, and strengthen the PA in the process by providing it with an important gain. Finally, it would remove one important bone of contention between Israel and the international community with little effort or upheaval on Israel’s part.
Three criteria, all derived from Israeli security needs, ought to apply in delineating the segments of Area C territory to be subjected to this solution:
- Distance from Area B:
Subject to the two other criteria (below), all houses located within 500 meters of the outer boundary of Area B shall be included.
- Distance from Israeli settlements:
The extended Area B shall not reach any closer than 500 meters from the nearest Israeli settlement.
- Distance from the Security Barrier:
The extended Area B shall not reach any closer than 500 meter from already built segments of the Security Barrier.
Here is one example of how this would work in practice: Dier Ballut is a Palestinian village that constitutes an island of Area B surrounded by Area C. Its natural growth expansion had nowhere to go except to slide into surrounding Area C. The village’s total territory (all of it Area B) is 10.3 Sq Km; its population is 4200; the number of houses is about 800, of which 120 are in Area C, all built without permits. The Israeli authorities issued demolition orders for the houses built in Area C but most of them have not been implemented. Expanding the village by the suggested buffer of 500m (see below), which would extend Area B into Area C by only 2.7 Sq Km, would spare 120 families the fate of being homeless.
Were this process to be carried out multiple times, affecting as many of the 210,000 Palestinians whose homes qualify by the three criteria, both Israeli security and Palestinian dignity and sense of justice will benefit. This is a measure that the IDF will surely approve, and it is a win-win for both sides that comes at almost no cost. The only barrier to implementing such a policy is a political one, and it is high time that common-sense solutions that benefit all sides in the West Bank cease to be hung up on the politics of the day.