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Palestinians in West Bank's Area C suffer in limbo

Residents largely cut off from the Palestinian Authority say Israel is trying to drive them off the land by demolishing homes and withholding services.

May 18, 2013|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • A car driven by a Palestinian is stuck by tear gas grenades fired by Israeli soldiers during clashes in February with Palestinian demonstrators at the Hawara checkpoint near Nablus, in the northern West Bank.
A car driven by a Palestinian is stuck by tear gas grenades fired by Israeli… (Alaa Badarneh / European…)

MALEH, West Bank — In remote Palestinian villages of the northern Jordan Valley, children read by gas lamp, and water must be purchased from miles away, even when electricity lines and water pipes to Israeli settlements run directly past their homes.

Near Nablus, a Palestinian farmer whose home is nearly surrounded by Jewish communities says settlers frequently harass him, digging up crops, and once poisoning his cow.

And in Khader, south of Jerusalem, a carjacker once escaped Palestinian police by simply crossing the street into a part of town under Israeli jurisdiction.

These are snapshots of an increasingly difficult reality for the tens of thousands of Palestinians living in a part of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control.

Though Israel's military occupies the entire West Bank, it has permitted a degree of autonomy in and around large Palestinian cities, zones known under the 1995 Oslo II accords as Area A and B.

But the remainder of the West Bank, designated Area C, remains under both Israeli security and administrative control. It houses less than 5% of the Palestinian population, but more than 60% of the land.

Most of Area C had been expected by both sides to be handed over to Palestinian control by the end of the 1990s, but after failed statehood talks and a violent Palestinian uprising, a transfer never took place.

That's left as many as 150,000 Palestinians — Israel puts the figure at 90,000 — living in limbo in the shadow of expanding Jewish settlements.

Largely cut off from the services and rights afforded to their Palestinian brethren living under Palestinian Authority control, those in Area C say Israel is slowly trying to drive them off the land by demolishing homes, withholding basic services, freezing growth and seizing property for firing ranges and military outposts.

At the same time, the number of Israeli settlers has tripled since Area C was created. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's last government approved a record number of tenders for new settlement construction and moved to legitimize nearly a dozen outposts that it and previous Israeli governments had once deemed illegal and promised to tear down, according to Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group.

With Netanyahu's reelection, many Palestinians in Area C fear that the pressure on them will only grow.

"It's a land grab," said Palestinian Authority negotiator Ashraf Khatib, who believes that some in Netanyahu's government hope to annex Area C to avoid dismantling settlements and to exploit the fertile, water-rich Jordan Valley, already home to several large Israeli-owned date farms and vineyards.

A recently leaked European Union report concluded that Israeli policies in Area C have "undermined" the Palestinian presence and, in recent years, have led to a deterioration in basic services, including water, education and shelter.

During a recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry raised the issue of transferring some Area C land to Palestinian control.

Israelis deny any effort to make life harder for Palestinians in Area C and point to 328 infrastructure projects they approved for Palestinians in 2011 and through mid-2012, including seven electrical facilities, four medical clinics and six school renovations.

"Israel regularly approves dozens of international projects for the benefit of the Palestinian population," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

He said the situation is complicated because under the Oslo accords, some of the infrastructure and social programs for Area C were supposed to be provided by the Palestinian Authority. But critics say it is increasingly difficult for Israel to defend the stark differences in services and infrastructure provided to Palestinians and Israelis living under their control.

More than 70% of villages in Area C are not connected to a water network, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. That's largely why Palestinians use one-quarter to one-third of the water per capita that Israeli settlers do, according to studies by the World Bank and Amnesty International.

"Water pipes for settlers sometimes run five feet from our homes, but we are not allowed to have even one cup," said Arif Daraghmeh, the mayor of Maleh and head of a regional council representing about 3,000 Palestinians living in the northern Jordan Valley.

He says his family has lived in tiny Maleh for three generations, but Israel won't permit permanent structures, forcing most residents to live in tents or mud-brick homes.

Over the last two years, the number of demolition orders and evictions has soared, he said, while previously the community was largely ignored by Israel.

Just a few miles away is the Israeli settlement of Shadmot Mehola, a modern fenced community with red-roofed, two-story homes, street lamps and playgrounds. "They have everything and we get nothing," Daraghmeh said.

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