Area C (which is 60% of the West Bank ) feels the effects of Israel’s power

110813 Palestinian children

Palestinian children scramble for food rations during Ramadan in the West Bank city of Hebron. Picture: AP Source: AP

ONLY 5km separates the offices of two mayors on one of the planet’s most contested pieces of land, but they may as well be at opposite ends of the earth.

Next month, the 193 countries of the UN are set to vote on a Palestinian state. Any decision will not be binding on Israel but any pressure point that does arise will be here, in the heart of the West Bank’s “Area C”, which is deemed under the Oslo accords to be under full Israeli control.

This week, the Israelis authorised 1600 new apartments in east Jerusalem settlements and flagged the approval of 2700 more, damaging hopes of kick-starting the peace process.

David Elhaiini is a Jewish settler who is Mayor of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, which covers 21 settlements. Unlike many settlers, who say the Bible gives them the right to live in “Judea and Samaria”, Mr Elhaiini argues security.

“The only thing someone in Australia or other countries will understand is security,” he tells The Weekend Australian. He says having settlements and army in the Jordan Valley protects Israel.

“Nobody can destroy a country without going in by tanks.”

Area C amounts to 60 per cent of the West Bank. Israel has complete power over which Palestinian homes will be built or demolished in the area.

Far more Palestinian homes are demolished than approved. Asked what he thinks about the demolitions, Elhaiini replies: “I believe in law.”

The international community argues that Israel’s settlements are illegal. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Israel insists the settlements are legal. To counter criticism that the building was on private Palestinian land, Israel’s Defence Ministry commissioned an audit of settlements. The audit and its database were presented to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who read it and then ordered it not be made public. It concluded that in the majority of settlements, Israel was breaking its own laws.

The entire database was leaked to Haaretz newspaper, which reported: “An analysis of the data reveals that in the vast majority of the settlements — about 75 per cent — construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to permits that were issued.

“The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.”

Haaretz was then leaked another document showing Israel had stripped 140,000 Palestinians of their residency rights, and those of their children, after they travelled overseas. Upon their return, they were told any Palestinian who had been away for more than 3 1/2 years could not return.

The paper said this was “the covert deportation of West Bank residents in order to increase the number of Jews in the West Bank” and an example of “the occupation’s rotten fruit”.

Palestinian Mayor Abed Kassab says when Israel took control of his village, Jiftlik, in 1967, the population was more than 25,000. It is now 5000.

He gives a range of reasons: lack of water and electricity; Israelis killing some of the villagers’ animals; Israelis taking sheep from villagers, putting them into Jewish settlements and presenting the villagers with fees for feeding them.

“Even my father was forced to leave by Israeli helicopter to go to Jerusalem to pay a penalty to the Israelis,” he says.

He says Israel rarely approves building permits because it is “a military zone”.

The village tries to enlist foreign diplomats to pressure Israel to allow structures for schools and health clinics. The village tried to turn an old school into a health clinic. The Mayor says the Israelis rejected it on the basis it was outside the village.

They found a location within the village but then the Israelis said it needed to be approved by archeological authorities who, in turn, told the villagers they had found some remains, so they needed to find a new location.

Finally, with pressure from diplomats, the Israelis permitted the clinic.

The village then applied to install water pipes but Israel said, again, that the village needed to get Israeli archeologists to monitor the digging, even though the pipes were to be only 40cm deep. The village had to pay 70,000 shekels (about $19,200) for this.

Kassab says a tragic aspect of their lack of water is that the pipes providing water to the neighbouring Jewish settlement run through his village.

He says the village’s spring no longer provides water because Israelis drilled wells below it and took the water. Israeli authorities say the spring died naturally.

Now the village has been refused a water tank on the basis, says the Mayor, that it is a historical area. He says no villager has ever won a challenge against a house demolition order. Three houses and a shack were destroyed in recent months. Ten more houses are to be demolished.

“In most cases, they force the owner of the house to pay for the bulldozer but we never pay the fee,” Kassab says.

“When we don’t pay then they come and confiscate some of the other properties, like a tractor.”

In neighbouring Fasayel, Mayor Ibrahim Ibayyat says if they do get a house approval, the Israelis insist it does not have a closed roof.

“In Area C, you must have what they consider a temporary house,” he says.

He says eight houses face demolition and four months ago, Israeli officials destroyed an animal shed.

A few hours before hearing all this, Jewish Mayor Elhaiini told us: “If something is illegal, it should be taken down.”

But the international community says the settlements themselves are illegal — herein lies the heart of this conflict.

Unless something changes, the aftermath of next month’s battle in the UN could determine whose houses — and lives — will be demolished.

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