In Rare Move, Israel Secretly Approved Palestinian Construction in West Bank

Security cabinet kept vote on Area C secret, hoping to prevent settlers from exerting political pressure to undermine the plan, initiated by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Barak Ravid
Chaim Levinson
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Abandoned army base near Beit Lehem in West Bank's Area C
Abandoned army base near Beit Lehem in West Bank's Area CCredit: Tali Mayer
Barak Ravid
Chaim Levinson

Israel's security cabinet voted last month to authorize a slew of construction plans for Palestinians living in the West Bank's Area C –  the largest swathe of the occupied territory where all the Jewish settlements are located and where the Palestinian Authority lacks any control.

The decision was the first of its kind in a number of years, and was kept secret, or not published in an attempt to prevent Israeli settlers from trying to exert political pressure to thwart it.

The proposal was initiated and put to a cabinet vote by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as part of his to encourage moderate Palestinians, .

"The program's goal is to do good by those prepared to live in coexistence with us and on the other hand make things harder for those planning terror attacks," Lieberman said at the time.

"I have given orders to improve humanitarian and economic infrastructure as much as possible. My goal is to show the Palestinians that it pays to live in coexistence and not to get involved in the cycle of terror. This is supposed to lead to coexistence and improved economic relations regardless of (the) diplomatic process," Lieberman said.

The cabinet vote took place in the middle on September. Those who voted in favor were: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lieberman, Interior Minister Arye Dery, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Housing Minister Yoav Galant. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon left a vote in favor in a note. Those who voted against the plan were Habayit Hayehudi leaders, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who wasn't present and also left a note.

The plan drawn up by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj.-Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, included general construction plans, as well as building permits for public structures and housing units for Palestinians in a number of villages in the West Bank.

The new construction will extend to villages in the northern West Bank and the Qalqilya Forest.  The plan calls for establishing an economic corridor between Jericho and Jordan, an industrial zone west of Nablus and for construction of a hospital near Bethlehem. Additional soccer fields and playgrounds will also be built in rural areas.

Though the plan is relatively modest in scope, Israel has not undertaken such a move for years.

Though the plan was not deemed to be sensitive for diplomatic or security reasons, it was kept secret, with not a single detail leaked to the press.  A senior Israeli official said the reason was because the decision was seen as politically sensitive.

According to the official, settler leaders hold sway in the Likud and there are strong objections to Palestinian construction in Area C in the Habayit Hayehudi party. Objections to the issue have grown only stronger with settlers pressing the government to avert a court-ordered demolition by year's end of the illegal outpost of Amona.

When Lieberman first presented the plan on August 18, the heads of the Eretz Yisrael Caucus in the Knesset, MK Yoav Kish (Likud) and MK Betzalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), sent a letter to the prime minister, demanding he remove all parts of the plan that pertained to permitting Palestinian construction.  "Whitewashing illegal Palestinian construction gives a tailwind to attempts by (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas and his friends to take over Area C," they said.

The heads of the Yesha Council of settlers published a statement at the time claiming that the "defense minister is giving the Palestinians a carrot and the settlers a stick."

In November-December of 2015, Netanyahu and then-defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, tried to put forward a similar plan, much wider in scope for Palestinian construction in Area C.  But the plan was stopped by the security cabinet due to the objections of Habayit Hayehudi and Likud ministers. Habayit Hayehudi ministers even threatened at the time they were ready to topple the government over the issue. This time around, though, Bennett and Shaked made do with voting against the plan.

In response, former chief negotiator and Zionist Union co-chair MK Tzipi Livni said the decision was "correct" and "contributes to security. If it would have been done publically, we could better advance our interest with countries in the region and the world. The secrecy is Bennett's fears and our loss," she said.

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