Opinion |

Gantz, Stop the Ethnic Cleansing in the West Bank

Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard
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Defense Minister Benny Gantz, December 2020.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, December 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard

We’re in a transition period. Starting last week the Israeli government is, again, a transition government. In the United States the Trump administration is about to be replaced by the Biden administration, in a process that has been taking longer than usual because the person passing the torch is in denial of reality. The lockdown Israel entered on Sunday, like the lockdowns in Europe, is supposed to be a transition from an era of raging pandemic to a period of a vaccinated society. We are experiencing a transition period regarding both government and health, and in contrast to climatic transition seasons, its duration is unclear.

It’s possible that the transition government will serve for five months - if a government manages to form after the March 2021 election. It is also possible that political indecision will prolong its life by another five months, until after a second election in 2021.

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Ostensibly, the new American administration will take the reins on a single day, January 20, upon the inauguration of the new president. Formally that is correct, but in effect, replacing government officials and implementing new policy will take a long time. There’s no need to expand on the uncertainty regarding the dates for a return to the pre-COVID-19 routine. Anything is possible.

Actually, not only Israel and the U.S. are in a political transition period. Europe, which is dealing with cruel waves of the coronavirus, is experiencing a period, hopefully transient, in which its activity as a global political power is largely paralyzed.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this state of affairs is creating a double and triple transition period. All the central players who influence its present and its future have taken a deep breath and dived under the water, and it’s not clear what their condition and their nature will be when they return to the surface, and when that might happen.

There have been mounting signals in recent weeks that Israel plans to exploit this multinational transition period in order to promote far-reaching acts of annexation and disinheritance. The Netanyahu-Trump initiative for full, official annexation of parts of the West Bank was shelved in exchange for normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which left the settlers’ stomachs growling, and there’s nothing like an interregnum for introducing acts that in normal times would have triggered international condemnation and political pressure, which even if not heavy, is likely to be onerous.

Thus, with the international radar diverted to heavy COVID-19 regions and Trump’s antics, the settlers’ hunger can be addressed. About two weeks ago a bill legalizing dozens of illegal outposts (which the law euphemistically calls “young settlements,” which is like calling an armed robbery “an economic initiative”) passed a preliminary reading into law in Knesset.

These days the heads of the Civil Administration in Beit El and at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv are considering restarting the land registration process in the West Bank, a process that was “frozen” upon the Israeli army’s entry to the territory over 50 years ago. If that is done, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would lose their property rights to what remains of their land.

The Civil Administration planning institutions are being inundated with initiatives to connect unauthorized outposts to the water and electricity systems, initiatives which are cropping up at the contagion rate of the mutated British coronavirus, and in themselves are creating planning mutations (although not new ones): water and electricity pipes that wind throughout the West Bank, branching off only at the entrance to communities in which the residents have a Jewish mother.

In parallel to all these, since the pandemic began, we can clearly identify a dramatic acceleration of demolition proceedings in the Palestinian sector of the West Bank. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has documented an increase of almost 65 percent in the number of demolitions this year versus 2019. Most of the increase, which peaked in November, took place after the pandemic erupted in March.

The increase in demolishing Palestinian buildings is achieved under pressure by settler organizations, by an unprecedented investment of manpower and resources for the purpose, and the formulation of truncated procedures for demolitions. In other words, the procedural rights of residents who aspired to challenge the demolition of their homes was sharply reduced, and legal procedures launched to stop demolition orders from being implemented were accelerated, all in order to increase the inventory of structures that can be demolished.

If the Israeli government continues to enjoy the de facto immunity of the transition period, and if the transition period lasts long enough, Area C (over 60 per cent of the West Bank, where Israel retains near exclusive control, including over law enforcement, planning and construction) in the West Bank will undergo significant change, primarily acceleration of the present process of causing the Palestinian presence to vanish. Or, in less forgiving words: the ethnic cleansing will accelerate.

Stopping this process requires just one person to oppose it: Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Without his approval no outposts will be legalized, settler houses built on Palestinian land won’t be connected to the grid and to water, a disinheriting land registration won’t arise, and he can check the binge of Palestinian home demolitions merely by saying to the head of the Civil Administration: “Enough.” He doesn’t even have to raise his voice.

This wouldn’t be the first time that a transition government takes advantage of transience to make long-term changes. We Israelis are signatories to the most blatant example of that: The Israeli military administration in the West Bank is legally defined as a transition government between one sovereignty and another, but in effect has been acting like a permanent absolute government for the past 53 years.

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