An Israeli bulldozer demolishes an illegally built Palestinian farm shed in the West Bank village of Masafer, near Yatta, Feb. 27, 2020. Photo Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
by David Isaac
(JNS) — Diligently following a master plan worked out over 10 years ago, the Palestinian Authority is laying claim to large tracts of Israeli state land through illegal building. Resembling Potemkin villages, many structures stand empty, hollow, windowless, alone or clumped together. The land grab has been hugely successful because Israeli countermeasures have been so feeble, Jews living in the area tell JNS.
“Their side is focused, determined and has a well-developed plan. Our side is unfocused, indecisive and in many cases not even aware of what’s going on,” said Michael Sperber, a family lawyer who lives in Efrat, a city of 15,000 about a half-hour’s drive south of Jerusalem in the Judean hills.
Sperber, a long-time resident of Efrat (he served as deputy mayor 15 years ago) has taken it upon himself to document illegal Arab construction in the area. From Dagan, the city’s northernmost neighborhood, Sperber has a window seat onto Arab buildings advancing from Bethlehem across the narrow valley below and up toward Efrat.
Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi told JNS that, “The illegal building that’s taking place by the Arabs has increased so dramatically in the last year that it’s out of control. If we judge according to where these activities are happening, they’re definitely in places which you can see they’re trying to create facts on the ground.”
Revivi noted that if the illegal structures are not hooked up to the sewage system this could lead to pollution of underground reservoirs, and if they are erected too close to roads then this could prevent the widening of lanes in the future.
Sperber believes the stakes are even higher.
“The Palestinians are at every entrance to the city. Efrat will be surrounded — and not just Efrat. All over Judea and Samaria, we’re being encircled, closed in. My main effort in the last three years has been to wake up the government so that it will understand that we’re losing this fight. We need to do something, and not just here and there, but something organized,” he said.
Sperber offers tours to politicians and the press. Even well-informed VIPs are shocked by what they see, he said, naming several well-known Knesset members and commentators who he says admitted they had not grasped the seriousness of the problem.
Efrat is the perfect spot to see the entire Palestinian plan in miniature, Sperber said, gesturing at the illegal dirt roads crisscrossing ridges and the eclectic variety of buildings in various stages of construction.
“The building pattern is the same everywhere and follows seven stages,” he told JNS from a hill overlooking the valley. “It starts with a greenhouse, then a small shed for tools, followed by a bigger shed for more tools. Then they build a small house and a bigger house. After that, they build a multi-story home with five to six floors. Then they shoot,” he said.
Sperber emphasizes that illegal building gone unchecked leads to terrorism. His warnings gained added emphasis after his home was hit by Palestinian fire from Bethlehem on July 25. Four bullets hit the house. Three hit the storage shed. Another three rounds were found on the patio.
While an Israel Police spokeswoman told JNS the shooting was likely not purposely directed at Sperber’s home, Sperber is not convinced. He noted that the shots were fired individually over a period of six to seven minutes rather than as a single burst, which could possibly have been an accident (Palestinians in Bethlehem frequently shoot in the air during celebrations).
Also, Sperber is known to the Palestinians for his activism. He proudly points out a half-constructed building in the valley that he put a stop to together with other volunteers. An Arabic speaker, he also visits the Palestinian villages to talk to residents and counts some as friends.
Efrat ranks high among the P.A.’s priorities due to its strategic location, he said. It’s one of two places in Judea and Samaria that cut the territorial contiguity of what the Palestinians claim for their future state.
“You see those two hills there? That’s Givat Eitam. It’s part of Efrat and slated for development. It’s also known as E-2,” Sperber said. “It cuts Palestinian contiguity between Bethlehem and Hebron. That’s why they’re always trying to get a foothold up there.”
(The other place that cuts Palestinian contiguity is E-1, located east of Jerusalem and part of the Israeli city of Ma’ale Adumim.)
Sperber says the Palestinians are acting according to a detailed program, the Fayyad Plan, developed by former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in 2009. Its goal is to take over as much of Judea and Samaria as possible through illegal construction and agricultural projects.
Naomi Kahn, director of the International Division of Regavim, an Israeli NGO focusing on land-use issues, said the plan focuses on gaining “commanding vantage points” over major traffic arteries and on cutting off and isolating Jewish communities from one another.
Pointing to a five-story building in the valley, Sperber said: “The owner of that home is Nassar. He owns most of the 22 stone-cutting mills in Judea and Samaria. Four years ago, when I came to this neighborhood, he started putting up that building. Only it wasn’t here. It was in a location 100 meters further on. In the middle of the night, it was a Friday night, the Palestinian police and the Palestinian Mukhabarat [the P.A. intelligence agency], came and arrested him and his friends. The reason was that he hadn’t built according to the Salam Fayyad plan. So he moved the building to be part of the plan.”
The plan also calls for tall buildings because, in their view, such buildings “look like a country,” Sperber said. “Only they stand empty because there isn’t that much housing demand.”
As per the Oslo Accords, Judea and Samaria is divided into three zones: Areas A, B and C. Area A is fully under Palestinian control. Area B is under Palestinian civil control with the caveat that Israel has the right to enter for security reasons and Area C is under full Israeli control.
“Sixty-two percent of the total area is Area C. Only 3% of that is taken up by settlements, meaning 97% is open land. The Israeli government holds it for future negotiations and the Palestinians know it. That’s why they build most of their buildings in this area,” said Sperber.
The P.A. only puts a small fraction of its budget towards Areas A and B, even though there’s plenty of space in both, Regavim’s Kahn said. “They’re pouring all their resources into politically motivated construction. Also, the P.A. is incentivizing Palestinians from Areas A and B to move to Area C. They pay people to move in. They offer all kinds of incentives. They offer stipends for university studies. You name it.”
Listing neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem like Silwan and Issawiya, Kahn said, “All those areas are packed full of people given incentives to move in.”
The story is as much one of Israel’s failure to enforce its own rules as it is the Palestinians’ intent to break them, said Sperber.
“We are the problem,” he said, noting that Israel’s Civil Administration has allowed the situation to deteriorate.
The Civil Administration is the civilian arm of Israel’s military government in Judea and Samaria, responsible for building, zoning and infrastructure, among much else. The department falls under the aegis of the Defense Ministry and reports directly to the defense minister.
The Civil Administration’s spokesperson told JNS that the numbers of illegal buildings are confidential.
Regavim has come up with its own figures — 80,000 illegal Palestinian Arab structures in Area C of Judea and Samaria. Kahn said her group arrived at that number by counting the buildings one by one using aerial photography. “We compared aerial images taken every two years for the past 10 years to track construction, demolition, agricultural work, new roads and other infrastructure projects,” she said.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 8,665 structures were demolished since 2009. Of those, 79% were in Area C and 20% in eastern Jerusalem. So far in 2022, 500 structures were demolished.
In recent years, the Civil Administration has come under sharp criticism from Israeli watchdog groups. It has been accused not only of passivity but of actually facilitating Palestinian land grabs. Sperber says that from his experience, this is the case.
“When a typical Arab lays claim to a piece of land, without any evidence, he calls up the DCL [the District Coordination and Liaison officer, the representative who mediates between the army, the settlements and Palestinian residents in Judea and Samaria], whose direct number he has on his cell phone, and the officer shows up and stops us Jews from doing anything to prevent his illegal seizure,” he said.
Liaison officers will often give Arabs permission to do something and then check afterwards whether it was legal or not. When JNS met with Sperber on Aug. 10, he said that only a few days before, Palestinians had begun plowing near a 2,000-year-old aqueduct running to Solomon’s Pools, ancient reservoirs lying two miles southwest of Bethlehem. The liaison officer gave them the go-ahead to farm near the aqueduct even though there’s a law against any activities within 100 meters of the site, he said.
Sperber immediately brought the problem to the attention of the Defense Ministry. In that case, the Civil Administration did act and stopped the farming. In Sperber’s opinion, the administration would not have acted if it was just an issue of illegally farming on Israeli state land. It was only because of the risk to the aqueduct, which was, in fact, damaged, that anything was done, he believes.
“This is just one example of what happens every day,” he said.
The Civil Administration did not respond to repeated requests from JNS to comment on the criticism.
Efrat Mayor Revivi said that the Civil Administration’s actions to counter the problem constitute a “drop in a bucket,” basing his claim on the amount of illegal building he sees, the complaints the city files and how quickly the administration reacts. “They will go and present a warning letter and then it basically can drag out for months, if not years, until the legal process actually gets a move on. We’ve got an example of a house they’ve managed to build five stories high during the time that it’s been under observation,” Revivi said.
Sperber lists several reasons why the situation has reached a crisis point.
“First, we woke up too late. They started with the Fayyad Plan in 2009. Their budget is $250 billion. They have 600 workers in a land registry department. They have a minister devoted to this. Every time I go up to the hills of Givat Eitam, they immediately send people. They’re measuring the area. They’re planting. We’re just a bunch of civilians trying to do something. Our government is barely acting at all,” he said.
The P.A. also receives extensive foreign support for its activities, both from the European Union and individual European governments, he said.
Regavim’s Kahn confirmed this, saying, “The Europeans pay for the planning. They pay for the engineering. They pay for the legal support. They pay for the infrastructure. They pay for construction, even though they know it’s illegal, and they build into the contracts the possible demolition. They also build into the contract legal representation if and when it comes to court because it’s illegal.”
Sperber also noted a cultural disconnect. Arabs respect those who are strong and defend their rights, he said, while Israel appears vacillating and weak and unwilling to defend its rights. Also, Israel fears pressure from the U.S. and Europe.
Finally, he said nature abhors a vacuum: “If there’s an open area and Israel doesn’t lay hold of it, the Palestinians will.”
The P.A.’s efforts to seize as much land in Judea and Samaria as possible are not widely covered in the Israeli media and stories about it are generally found only in the press to the right of the political map. Neither has it appeared as a campaign issue in the run-up to Israeli elections in November.
Sperber wants to make it a mainstream issue. He is working to interest centrist politicians. He argues that even Israelis who favor a two-state solution should be alarmed that one of those states should spring up not through negotiations, but through land theft.