Israel informed the High Court of Justice last week that it will establish a criminal enforcement unit for building violations in the West Bank, under the Civil Administration.
In response to petitions to open criminal investigations against local and regional council heads in Jewish settlements, the state said that it will allocate employees to the unit, funding for whom is included in the budget passed last month.
The intention of establishing the unit was first mentioned by Israel in 2012, and now is the first time it announces that the unit will be funded, and that staff work to establish it has begun. The announcement was made on Thursday in response to five petitions by human rights group Peace Now and one by Jordan Valley activists, demanding that council heads in Jewish settlements be investigated for turning a blind eye to illegal construction within their boundaries, and in some cases actually funding it.
The additional manpower for the Civil Administration was included at Yamina’s request in the coalition agreement with Yesh Atid, signed in last June. The agreement states that this clause is intended to “ensure the national interest in Area C by adding the positions” – that is, for enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction, as part of what the right calls “the fight for Area C”.
The Minister in the Finance Ministry, Hamad Amar, replied to a query by MK Orit Struck (Religious Zionism) that the construction violations enforcement unit will receive 20 of the 50 new positions approved for the administration, and that some of these will later on be assigned to the criminal enforcement unit.
Struck said that “(Defense Minister) Benny Gantz’s decision to take positions, meant to prevent the takeover of the area by the Palestinian Authority and allocate them to enforcing the law on the Israeli settlers is a spit in the face of his coalition partners.”
The Binyamin Regional Council, against which some of the petitions were filed, called upon ministers to “block this grave step, that will perpetuate discrimination against Jews in the area,” and to delegate the enforcement of building violations in the West Bank on the land enforcement authority which operates inside Israel proper.
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Peace Now called the state’s response “foot-dragging” and called to investigate the suspicions at the 433 (major crimes) police unit. The legal counsel for Peace Now, Michael Sfard, said that the announcement is an attempt to persuade the court to deny the petitions, and expressed doubt that the unit will indeed be formed.
He added that "The biggest criminals in the territories are the authorities themselves and, in any case, most of the serious offenses are economic and, therefore, should be investigated by 443."
In 2013, then-State Comptroller Yosef Shapira found that the Civil Administration is shirking its duty of criminal enforcement of construction and zoning laws. “Lack of criminal enforcement in construction and zoning violations contributes to the perpetuation of the existing lawless situation in the Judea and Samaria areas,” he wrote. “It is important that the relevant ministers – Defense, Interior, and Justice – instruct that steps be taken to regulate it.” In response to that report, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories replied that staff work on the matter is taking place.
In 2017, AG Avichai Mandelblit asked the High Court of Justice to issue an order to then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to create a criminal enforcement unit. Shortly prior a meeting on the subject was held, attended by then-PM Benjamin Netanyahu, in which the establishment of such a unit was agreed upon, but the decision was not implemented as no budget was allocated for the purpose.