Giving in to the Settlers in Beit Sahur

U.S. document shows Israel wields immense control over Palestinian construction in the West Bank.

People in Beit Sahur believe the Israeli settlers who claim that the Israel Defense Forces was responding to the settlers' pressure when it started erecting a new guard tower last week in the eastern part of this largely Christian West Bank town. Locals do not, however, accept the army's claim that the tower was added for professional, military reasons. The settlers vow to keep up the pressure - and Beit Sahur residents know all too well what they mean. In the last 18 months, settlers from the Gush Etzion area have been holding increasingly frequent protests against the "Arab construction" in Beit Sahur.

For their part, the settlers say the tower will eventually be integrated into a Jewish city that will connect the Gush Etzion settlement bloc with the Jewish settlement of Har Homa in East Jerusalem. The Beit Sahur residents have no reason to doubt either the settlers or the Har Homa neighborhood committee chairman, who declared that, "This could become a reality, just as Har Homa spilled beyond what was planned and expected."

After the 1967 war, Beit Sahur lost 1,200 of its 7,000 dunams (1 dunam = 1/4 acre) to Jerusalem, with its greatly expanded municipal borders. Later, another 430 dunams of its land were appropriated by Har Homa, which crowds the town from the north. After various other "small" expropriations - nibbling at territory here and there for the purpose of building bypass roads - Beit Sahur and its 13,000 residents were left with a little over 600 dunams of non-built-up, agricultural land available for development.

From 1967 to April 27, 2006, much of this territory was occupied by the IDF's Shdema base; the remainder was declared a closed military area, and sections of it that had been cultivated gradually withered. In 2006 Shdema was relocated, to the relief of all. The locals' joy, however, proved premature: Back in 1995, Israel had designated those 600 dunams - regardless if the land was publicly or privately owned - as part of Area C. As elsewhere in the West Bank, that designation evolved into a permanent reality on the ground.

About 100 families, owners of the newly freed-up private land, planned to redeem it from the barrenness imposed on it by the IDF when it seized the territory for "security needs." However, according to Abu Ayman, one of the landowners, Beit Sahur Mayor Hani al-Hayek warned him back in 2006 that under Israeli civil administration regulations for Area C, "heavy machinery" - that is, tractors or bulldozers - could not be used there, under threat of the confiscation of the machinery. Planting and sowing are allowed, says Abu Ayman - who as a young man tended and picked some of Beit Sahur's famous fakkus fruit, also known as an Armenian cucumber - but land reclamation is prohibited. This holds true for the privately owned agricultural land that stretches across the neighboring hills and the valley between them.

The Beit Sahur Municipality, meanwhile, had no shortage of plans for the 108 dunams of public land previously taken up by the military base - an orthopedic hospital for children, and a public park and playground that could double as a venue for cultural events. Funding for those projects was even found: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Vatican would pay for the park, to be named the "Peace Park," and another American aid organization, CURE International, would underwrite the hospital.

But the land, both public and private, belongs, after all, to Area C. Requests for a permit to build the hospital received no response from the Civil Administration. However, according to municipal sources, the mayor understood from his talks with Civil Administration officials that the Israelis had verbally approved the building of the Peace Park.

Construction began in 2007. The first thing built was a climbing tower, the first of its kind in the territories, to the delight of local children (and rope merchants). Land was then prepared for sports courts and a play area, and a large hall, a restaurant and a storage shed were added.

In May 2008, when construction was already in full swing, the rightist organization Women in Green began to hold protests at the site of the park every Friday. MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) informed the Knesset of the "scandal": U.S. money was funding illegal construction. On August 1, 2009, the settler radio station Arutz Sheva aired an item on the situation under the heading "Obama's illegal outpost." The municipality was then served with an order to stop construction.

Two weeks ago, after settlers celebrated Tu Bishvat, Hebrew graffiti appeared on the park's structures, and Stars of David were drawn on the signs declaring the project's American funding. Park employees were ordered by the municipality to erase the graffiti; the Stars of David on the USAID signs remained.

Having learned belatedly that the work had not been officially authorized by the Civil Administration, USAID froze its funding for the project (some $310,000) and the work stopped, although dozens of families still flock to the site, from as far away as Hebron. For them, it is still a safe and friendly recreational area, practically the only one of its kind in the vicinity.

The lesson of this affair - namely, that verbal agreements with the Israeli civil administration cannot be trusted - may have been the reason for publication of the following document, obtained by Haaretz. In the document, written last September, shortly after the scandal of the "illegal outpost," USAID explains to its "implementing partners" (i.e., Palestinian subcontractors) in various projects the need to secure written approval from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and Palestinian municipal authorities to prevent delays "that involve [purchase of] construction materials or erecting a structure of any kind (whether permanent or non-permanent)."

Although Palestinian authorities are mentioned in the document, most of it focuses on COGAT requirements that apply not only to Area C, but to A and B as well. Indeed, it demonstrates the immense control Israeli authorities wield over Palestinian construction throughout the West Bank. The Palestinian partners, according to the document, must consult with the relevant USAID representatives about "construction materials including, but not limited to, pipes (especially metal pipes), which COGAT often considers 'dual use' materials" - that is, materials that can potentially be used in terrorist activities. Thus, the "dual use" materials definition applies not only to Gaza, but to the West Bank.

Also, according to the document, later on, "implementing partners should obtain permission in writing from COGAT and local municipal authorities ... stating (a) whether COGAT considers the intended project a 'structure' and (b) whether the proposed construction location is in Area C." Before purchasing building materials and consulting with the relevant USAID personnel, the partners are then required to "obtain written confirmation from COGAT that such materials can be brought into the area ... COGAT requires documentation that provides the following information: (1) the name of the project; (2) where and when the materials were purchased (i.e., name of the factory, city, country); (3) who is the intended recipient; (4) who actually paid for the materials; (5) where the materials will be used; and (6) for what purpose. It is also important to identify who will have custody over any and all building materials procured by the implementing partner and how the materials will be secured from theft or misuse ...

"It is essential to obtain COGAT's approval in writing. COGAT acknowledges only written agreements and permission that its officers have issued. When working with Palestinian Authority officials who report that COGAT has approved a project, the implementing partner must still obtain a copy of the written approval directly from COGAT."

The above directives apply to the entire West Bank. With regard to Area C, however, there are additional requirements: Before materials are purchased for a project, the implementing partner must meet with COGAT and USAID representatives. "In such meetings," the document explains to the partner, "know that COGAT frequently requests the exact location of 'construction' and/or delivery sites. Implementing partners should be prepared to show locations on local maps and/or share GPS coordinates with COGAT."

It emerges that, historically, Beit Sahur's Peace Park is located somewhere between the field where the shepherds learned of Jesus' birth and the area where Boaz fell in love with the Moabite woman Ruth, in the Bible. A few weeks ago, the municipality summoned local residents to a cultural center (a building renovated with USAID funds) in Beit Sahur's old city for an emergency meeting to discuss how the town can protect what little available land it still has. Three days ago, bulldozers and soldiers showed up, and waved a written order in the face of locals and journalists. The soldiers claimed that the area has once again been declared a closed military zone. Beit Sahur inhabitants do not yet know whether this zone includes their great local achievement of recent years: the recreation and play area for children.