Settlers from West Bank outposts have taken control of land in Area B and are thus in breach of the 1995 Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, says Dror Etkes, an anti-settlement activist. Area B was defined in the Oslo Accords as land under Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control.
According to Etkes, who has monitored the settlements for years, the takeover of land in Area B is a combination of unbridled thievery by settlers and impotence on the part of the Israeli authorities. He says the Israeli side has turned the West Bank into an area where the strongest dominates.
Etkes says an aerial photo shows that Israel has violated the agreement signed in Washington in September 1995. One clause states: "All civil powers and responsibilities, including planning and zoning, in Areas A and B set out in Annex III, will be transferred to and assumed by the Council [the Palestinian government] during the first phase of redeployment."
Etkes found that the outpost of Amona, overlooking the settlement of Ofra in the northern West Bank, has spread hundreds of dunams into Area B. Roads have been built around the eastern side of the outpost on privately owned Palestinian land.
According to Etkes, vineyards have been planted on land owned by Palestinians, whose access to the land has been blocked. For security reasons, Palestinians from nearby villages are not allowed access to thousands more dunams, some of which are in Area B, he adds.
A few years ago settlers began developing the Ain al-Alya spring for tourism. This is south of Ofra, deep in Area B on land belonging to the village of Deir Dibwan. The settlers changed the name of the spring to Ein Erez.
Near Itamar, also in the northern West Bank, settlers took over a 93-dunam (23-acre ) piece of land, part of the Palestinian village of Yanun in Area B. According to Etkes, access is denied Palestinians to other large areas near Itamar that are also defined as Area B. For example, a few years ago, development began around another spring, Ain Umm al-Jareb; its name was changed to Ein Neria. Settlers do not allow Palestinians near the olive groves next to the spring, Etkes says.
Southeast of the settlement of Yitzhar, the aerial photo identified a cultivated area of only five dunams penetrating into Area B. But Etkes says access is also prevented into large areas belonging to the villages of Awarta and Einabus in Area B due to their proximity to Yitzhar.
Near the outposts of Esh Kodesh and Mitzpeh Ahiya east of Shiloh, settlers have taken over about 100 dunams of agricultural land belonging to the Haj Mahmoud family, much of whose land is in Area B. Settlers from the outposts have planted vineyards in one area and have planted other crops in another, according to a petition to be submitted this week to the High Court of Justice.
Family members, who are being represented by Rabbis for Human Rights, say the settlers use threats and violence to keep them from their land and have even shot at them. The family says the Israeli security forces are not enforcing the law and the Civil Administration is not protecting the family's right to the land, even though it is in Area B.
The petition also states that the settlers are benefiting economically from the land, on which they herd animals and plant crops, and that these activities are preventing the petitioners from earning a livelihood. According to the law, these actions constitute possession of the land. If the original owners do not work the land for 10 years, ownership goes to whoever has been working it during that time.
Etkes also documented construction by members of the Ma'aleh Rehavam outpost in a nature reserve; the reserve was set up by the Wye River Memorandum signed by Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1998. But the settlers have put up buildings to expand the outpost in recent years.
Officials in the Civil Administration said they do not have enough personnel to monitor every encroachment by settlers into Area B and to enforce the law.
But according to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs six months ago, the Civil Administration very strictly enforces the law against illegal construction by Palestinians in Area C, over which Israel retains full control. The report states: "Clear patterns are occurring in the Area C communities visited, with residents being forced to move in order to meet their basic needs."
In 10 of the 13 communities visited, the UN investigators documented cases of families who left their homes. According to the report, residents are moving to Areas A and B, as well as to other parts of Area C because planning by the Israeli authorities makes it impossible for Palestinians to obtain a construction permit. In many cases, the report says, Palestinians leave their communities because of violence by settlers, demolition of houses and difficulty in accessing services and resources.
During the first six months of 2011, the UN agency documented 342 demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures, including 125 residential structures. This is almost five times the number of structures demolished during the same period in 2010. The number of people displaced also increased by around five times during the same period.
The report states that while the Civil Administration was unable to prepare plans for Palestinian communities, it approved detailed plans for almost all the settlements. According to the report, settlers are members of Civil Administration committees dealing with planning for Palestinian communities, "raising concerns over conflicts of interest."
"Current planning practices have contributed to the expansion of Israeli settlement in contravention of international law," the report states.
The Civil Administration responded that in two cases, the encroachment claims were known and were being handled "under a procedure governing land disputes." On the other claims, the Civil Administration said: "No complaints have been filed by Palestinians, and the cases will be investigated if need be. The government's coordination of activities in the territories through the Civil Administration will continue professionally and devotedly to enforce [regulations on] illegal construction in Judea and Samaria and illegal encroachment of land.