On Friday, September 2, Shabbat started at 6:36 P.M. in the Samaria Regional Council. At 6:41, the council’s land coordinator reported to Israel’s Civil Administration that an earthmover was upgrading the access road into the Palestinian village of Qusra, southeast of Nablus.
The fact that he had violated the holy day of rest by making the report did not appear to worry him: On three different Sabbaths, in August and October, he also reported on work carried out by Palestinians in the northern West Bank, in the hope that civil administration inspectors would stop them. One time, he referred to preparations for putting up power lines between the villages of Aqraba and Majdal, east of Nablus; another time, a road was being built to the village of Asira al-Shamaliya, north of Nablus; and the third incident involved ground-clearing near the village of Qafin, west of Jenin.
The urgency to report, outside of official working hours, on a minor repair being made on a stretch of road to a Palestinian village, shows dedication that goes above and beyond the role of an employee in a public agency – not least in a local government in which many residents are religious Zionists or even ultra-Orthodox.
Such reports are submitted by means of an online form titled “Report on Suspected Violations of Planning and Construction Laws,” a computerized platform that has replaced the manned call center of “Operations Room C,” a Civil Administration body established in late 2020.
Its express aim: expediting enforcement and demolition operations against Palestinian construction in about 61 percent of the West Bank’s land area – that is, in the territories known as Area C, whose planning and administrative powers were to temporarily remain in Israel’s hands, according to the Oslo Accords. By 1999, planning, construction and administrative powers in most of this territory were supposed to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, but Israel did not abide by the agreements.
When the call center was launched, in January 2021, it was described in an ad on the website of the Kokhav Ya’akov settlement (which is built on the land of Kafr Aqab) as a “snitch line.”
The ad read: “Have you seen construction work by Palestinians that you think is suspicious and unauthorized? Have you come across a sanitation hazard caused by Palestinians who treat the law with contempt? From now on you have your own snitch line – turn to it anytime, in any possible way and make a complaint.”
Unlike the call center, which was in principle intended for everyone’s use, the online form is used mainly by “land coordinators” or “land inspectors” working for Israeli regional councils in the West Bank.
A Civil Administration internal document, which Haaretz obtained recently in the form of a map and Excel spreadsheet titled “Operations Room C,” lists 1,168 tip-offs through the online format during a period of about eight months this year, from March 1 to October 19. The document provides yet another glance at the intense involvement of settlers in Civil Administration and Israeli army operations, from evictions of the Palestinians from most of the territory of the West Bank and the prevention of their construction and infrastructure work, to the meticulous effort to ensure that they do not exceed the bounds of the enclaves Israel has allocated to them.
The recent demand of the Religious Zionism party to control the bodies that run the lives of the Palestinians and their land in the West Bank did not come out of nowhere: It is the natural continuation of the pressure that has been applied for years on the ground, in the Knesset, in the media and in the courts, by the settlement lobby, which for some 30 years has presented a false picture according to which the territory designated as Area C belongs solely to Israel and the Jews.
In a separate column in the spreadsheet Haaretz has obtained, there are comments from the people who made the reports, which reflect how much the construction and other work undertaken by Palestinians in the West Bank has become criminalized according to the criteria set by the Civil Administration and the settlers.
For example: “breaking ground and clearing the land in a rocky place that has not been cultivated in the past 20 years”; “preparing land for construction near the road”; “steamroller, tractors and a truck paving a road north of the Kafr Laqif village”; “apparent preparation of a ditch in which to lay a pipe”; “massive construction on and preparation of plots of land”; “work in the illegal quarry where a confiscation was carried out a few months ago”; “Arabs are now building a structure near Al-Tuwani”; “manual construction of an encampment and installation of a water cistern”; “digging a well”; “digger working for the second consecutive day south of the village of Beitillu”; “Arabs working within the Blue Line [area that Israel plans to declare state land]”; “Arabs are planting trees”; “Arabs are placing a prefab home near Kiryat Arba”; “vehicles – Arabs doing earthwork”; “digger in Beitillu working for the third consecutive day”; and “[a digger] is turning a path into a road.”
The time (including minutes and seconds) when every report was written appears in the document, as well as the time when it first began to be addressed by the authorities, the name of the person reporting, their telephone number and what tools and machinery they observed.
For example, a backhoe, mobile home, donkey, plow, horse, tractor, excavator, cement mixer, truck, hand tools, etc. Sometimes the officials who handled the report on the ground are noted – the staff of the District Coordination and Liaison Office (which is subordinate to the Civil Administration) or soldiers from the regional brigade, or both – and if someone handled the problem in a preliminary way, what it was and what was done.
Sometimes a report is deemed irrelevant. Sometimes that happens simply because the location is not precise enough. Twenty-eight reports erroneously placed the “crime scene” near Cyprus and another seven within the borders of Israel, west of the Green Line. The lion’s share of the reports, 731, covered the area between Jerusalem and southwards. The rest were north of Jerusalem.
Reports submitted after Shabbat began or just minutes before are not uncommon. Two reports on Yom Kippur appear in the Excel spreadsheet: One at 1:26 P.M. Reporting: “Efrat call center” (The center in the settlement of Efrat was responsible for filing 90 reports during the period in question, including 25 on the Sabbath.) In the “tools” column, the word “people” appears. No other comments appear and the nature of the “building violation,” of which these same people were suspected, on Yom Kippur on the land of the town of Al-Khader, is not known.
The second report was written at 6:06 P.M. – the Yom Kippur fast ended at 7:05 P.M. – and concerned “an apparent garbage fire on survey land,” also in Al-Khader. The person reporting is a man named Avi Margolin. A few media reports reveal that – at least in 2019 – he was a resident of the Sde Boaz outpost, which in itself is illegal. According to the Kerem Navot civil society organization, which monitors Israeli land policy in the West Bank, 99 demolition orders are pending for structures in that outpost.
Although Margolin does not appear to have any official position in Gush Etzion, he is the author of 181 reports in that part of the West Bank, south of Jerusalem, 23 of them on the Sabbath. And he is not the record holder in terms of the documents Haaretz has seen: Shai Luhi, a ranger for the Har Hevron (Hebron Hills) Regional Council submitted 199 reports, 35 of them inputted on the online form on the Jewish Sabbath or holidays.
Yishai Cohen, a “ranger from Western Binyamin” – the Ramallah area – also signed off on 199 reports, including five on Shabbat and the Shavuot holiday. The person reporting on work on the access road to the village of Qusra mentioned above chalked up 27 reports, and goes by the name Malakhi. It seems this is Yishayahu Ben Malakhi, an employee of the land division of the Samaria Regional Council, who on the latter’s official website is mentioned alongside his colleague Eitan Margalit – who has 32 complaints appearing in the spreadsheet, including one on Shabbat and three on holidays – along with Hadar Oppenheimer, the coordinator, who signed off on two reports.
Dror Etkes from the Kerem Navot NGO estimates that, in areas under the jurisdiction of local councils led by religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox people, use of cellphones on Shabbat has received the backing of some rabbis. Avi Gisser, rabbi of the settlement of Ofra, has in the past given permission to continue construction on the Sabbath of nine houses built on the private land of Palestinians, which “the settlers of Ofra trespassed on,” Etkes says. “The permission was given as a result of a petition the owners of the stolen land submitted to the High Court of Justice, with the goal of populating the houses and, in practice, in order to reduce the ability of the High Court to intervene in this case by means of establishing facts [on the ground].”
One-third of the reports are addressed
The Civil Administration’s Operations’ Room C switched to using the online form less than a year ago, a security official told Haaretz. Instead of a few soldiers working shifts and using WhatsApp to deal with the reports, everything is now managed through a computerized digital format based on a Geographical Information System: The moment someone fills out the online form, the details of the report are merged with existing information in the system, which filters out irrelevant messages: for example, when a permit from the Civil Administration exists for the work that’s been reported on, or when the work is being conducted in Area A and Area B enclaves in which Israel allows the PA to plan and build. After the automatic screening process, the report is passed on to the infrastructure officers and regional supervisory units in the Civil Administration.
“Collection of the information and determination of whether it is an accurate report are immediate,” said the security official. “But when did the enforcement authorities see the report – within 10 minutes, or an hour and a half or three hours? That’s already a different question.”
Some reports are handled very quickly: For example, on March 27 at 8:52 A.M. Shai Luhi reported manual laborers and a generator in the area of the village of Al-Tawani, and apparently someone saw his message by 9:45 A.M.
At 11:15 A.M., a force from the District Coordination and Liaison Office and the regional army brigade appeared at the site. They did not find tools to confiscate, but – as the spreadsheet tells us – they immediately issued stop-work orders. The nature of the work that was halted was not described, but Haaretz has learned that workers installed electric poles in the village.
On October 9, the order was actually the opposite: first, the case was “handled,” and then came the report. In the morning, about 15 Israelis, who had been seen coming from the settlement of Susya in the South Hebron Hills, invaded an agricultural plot south of the Palestinian village of Sussia, owned by a resident of the town of Yatta. In the presence of soldiers, the Israelis demolished three tents of this farmer’s family. At 3:42 P.M., Shai Luhi reported a farm tractor and the “building of a new tent encampment” in this spot to Operations Room C. The family rebuilt the tents, but the next day Border Police officers arrived and demolished them. They also confiscated the sides of the tents and a sleeping mat.
The owner of the land wanted to file a trespassing and demolition complaint, but a policeman at the Kiryat Arba police station refused to take down the complaint, saying it must be accompanied by a surveyor’s map testifying to his right to the land. A letter from attorney Quamar Mishriqi-Asad complaining about this officer led to its being accepted, but an investigation was opened against the complainant for illegal construction. The Border Police and the police did not respond to Mishriqi-Asad’s written complaint about the demolition of the tent and its confiscation without proper authority.
This manner of unofficially “handling” Luhi’s report does not appear, of course, in the Excel spreadsheet. What does appear in it are comments concerning other reports, such as “DCO arrived at the site” or “[the tractor driver] was released with a warning; in addition, this involves [works on] an existing road and not opening a new road.” Other comments include “two trucks were confiscated”; “a supervision representative decided not to enter the village and confiscate, but to observe the vehicles for a day from Mount Gilo; in doing so, the forces will serve as a reserve for confiscation if one of the vehicles leaves”; and “after the force arrived, it turned out that the aforementioned person dug sewage ditches for an existing house. He was warned that it is forbidden to build new structures at the site and his details were taken down.”
Others state that “the force arrived at the location before an answer was received from the supervisory unit, and independently confiscated the vehicle. Therefore, the DCO stopped dealing with the matter”; “after the arrival of the force it turned out that this were agricultural work”; and “the vehicles [that were reported] are vehicles that worked at the site as part of the laying of the Ariel-Barkan water line” – in other words, Israeli infrastructure work was unintentionally reported. In addition, in response to a report from the Efrat call center about “hoes and 30 people” that “look[ed] like a provocation,” the spreadsheet notes it was private Palestinian land.
How many of the reports were dealt with, and how? The Civil Administration refuses to give those filing reports an accounting of the outcome, but the security official told Haaretz that based on experience, “there is a reasonable chance that a third of the reports are dropped from the beginning, while two-thirds” – some 700-800 cases on the spreadsheet – “are high-quality reports.” Out of these “quality” reports, about another third, or maybe half, were not handled “because of the span of time between the report and the decision to send someone to handle it or the time they arrive, and by then the work has already been stopped,” said the official. Stopping about a third of the reported work by Palestinians “doesn’t amount to a large number statistically, and even in these [cases] they do not always decide to make confiscations,” the official added.
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When Operations Room C was established at the end of 2020, it was claimed that it would also serve Palestinians reporting trespassing and illegal construction by Israelis. But the online form doesn’t even exist in Arabic. The security official told Haaretz that reports are received from Palestinians in other ways every day. “But let’s acknowledge the truth,” he said. “Operations Room C was established to provide an answer especially, or mostly, for what is called the ‘battle over Area C’” – a typical term used by the settler lobby – “and to allow more civilian bodies to draw our attention.” According to the official, even though the phone number of the manned, now obsolete call center was published on the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories app, “the Palestinians have never made use of it. Those who took advantage of it were mostly the settlers, the Israeli groups.”
The official rejects the conclusion that pressure from the right-wing Regavim NGO and the settler lobby have influenced and drive the work of the Civil Administration, saying that if there is a rise in demolitions and confiscations, this stems from the growth in population, both Palestinian and Israeli, and the increase in violations of building regulations. Regavim, on its part, continues to claim that the Civil Administration is not doing what it is actually required to do. In a petition based on the Freedom of Information Law submitted by Regavim in July 2021, it claims the Civil Administration is “acting in bad faith” and hides information about the handling of reports to the Operations Room C. The petition was dismissed in May, after a response was provided that did not completely satisfy the petitioners, and the court ruled the petitioners to compensate the government for 2,000 shekels ($585) in legal expenses.
Regavim spokeswoman Tamar Sikurel told Haaretz that “in the end, the Civil Administration is a body that has been given a mandate to protect Israel’s interests in these territories, and it very simply is not doing its job… The Operations Room C is [only] partly active; land inspectors in the councils in Judea and Samaria have WhatsApp groups in which military and Civil Administration people are members, and there they report 24/7 on building violations, of which the vast majority are not dealt with. This is in addition to the [the online form] in which inquiries to the Civil Administration are entered.”
The security official is actually satisfied with the tools available to the Civil Administration to stop Palestinian construction. In addition to the online incarnation of the Area C call center which “aids the work and makes it easier, like more potential eyes,” there are drones operated by the Civil Administration and settlement councils, and there are inspectors who patrol on the ground. If Tel Aviv’s city hall only had drones and reports from citizens, too, it could also locate and prevent a lot more building violations, said the official.
Luhi, the ranger, said he would not cooperate with Haaretz when asked for a request for comment. Eitan Margalit asked where Haaretz got his phone number and hung up. Yishai Cohen, Avi Margolin and Yishayahu Ben Malakhi declined to respond to requests for comments. The Efrat call center promised that its security officer would call back, but he had not yet done so by publication time.