The Azzun municipality wants to renovate the town’s northwest entrance. Why should a routine municipal matter like that interest Israelis? Because the entrance is in what is called Area C, and Area C is “ours.”
Many years ago an officer in Israel’s Civil Administration told a diplomat a joke about the artificial division that has been sanctified in the Oslo Accords, referring to areas A, B and C in the West Bank. “A is for Arafat – where Palestinians have administrative and policing authorities and Israel has security authority. B is for balagan [mess, chaos] – the Palestinians have administrative authority and Israel has security authority, while policing authority is based on the mood of the Israeli commanders in the field. And [borrowing from the French spelling] C is for chelanu [ours] – Israel has administrative and security authority.”
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The entrance to Azzun provides a glimpse into the planning and bureaucratic muddle and the dependence on the graces of Israel and its Civil Administration. This situation was supposed to last five years at most, until 1999, but has become permanent and been the lot of hundreds of Palestinian communities large and small – day by day, week by week, month by month for 22 years.
So when officials from the Azzun municipality called me two weeks ago about their problem, I decided to take up the gauntlet.
With the help of grants from two foundations, the town finally upgraded its main road, fixed the infrastructure, built roundabouts to reduce traffic jams, renovated sidewalks and retarred the road. About a month ago the workers and bulldozers came near the entrance, some 25 meters (82 feet) from the main road, Route 55.
The entrance isn’t welcoming. One sees piles of construction debris, garbage here and there, and no sidewalks or lane markers on the battered road which turns into a neglected olive grove and weed field on one side and a gravel-and-dirt area on the other. Then there are crooked electricity poles with dangling wires and tall street lamps – which municipality employees seem to have forgotten about, as they don’t light up at night.
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The problem with the entrance isn’t only that it’s classified as Area C and merges into a road that reaches the Israeli settlements of Ma’aleh Shomron, Karnei Shomron and Kedumim and the outposts they’ve generated. The problem is that at the entrance, like at the entrances of many West Bank villages, the army has placed an iron gate. It’s attached to a concrete cube on the western side, and its lock is fixed to a concrete cube on the eastern side. When the army sees fit, it locks the gate, thus blocking the main entrance to the town.
The Azzun municipality assumed the obstacle to renovating the entrance was this gate and the concrete cubes, so it asked to move them for two or three days to complete the renovation. The municipality has been given to understand that the army vehemently refuses to move the cubes, but the plot is in fact more tangled.
“All the settlements down the road have nice well-groomed entrances, why don’t we deserve a well-kept, proper entrance like that?” asks Mayor Riyad Radwan, a former school principal.
He can only gaze with envy at a spacious, well-kept settlement like Ma’aleh Shomron, which was established in 1980, when the village of Azzun had already existed for 800 years since 1187. Israel took some 268 dunams (66 acres) from Azzun’s land and gave to the settlement. The rest of the settlement is built on the land of the villages of Thulth and Deir Istiya, according to ARIJ, the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem.
When Radwan says “we deserve a proper entrance,” he isn’t suggesting that the Civil Administration should renovate the entrance, which is after all in an area under complete Israeli administrative and security authority. He isn't suggesting that the CA pay for this, even though millions of shekels accumulate every year in the Civil Administration’s coffers – fines imposed on Palestinians tried in military courts, which are allocated, according to the Civil Administration, to improve infrastructure and the landscape in Area C.
All Radwan and the municipal council want is to be allowed to tar the road and put attractive lighting up at the entrance and extend the sidewalks right up to the road, to replace the ones the military bulldozers destroyed at the beginning of the second intifada. Every day the contractor can’t complete the work costs the municipality another few hundred shekels, if not more.
The municipality has been talking about renovating the internal roads and entrance for over a year, officials told me. They are aware of the limitations that the A, B, C artificial divison poses. Of the 9,472 dunams left, after what the village lost in 1948 west of the Green Line and the land confiscated for the settlements and the fence – 2,342 dunams – about a quarter is in Area B and the rest is in Area C. Not even one cubic CM is dubbed A.
It’s natural that the entrance to the village is considered C because it merges with the road that Israelis take to reach their settlements' villas. So the municipal officials knew they should coordinate completion of the work with the Israeli side. But there’s a problem: They aren’t allowed to talk directly to the Israeli side, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords. Everything must be done through the Palestinian Authority, which to this day presents its mediation as a big achievement.
The Azzun municipality asked, as required, the Palestinian liaison committee in the Qalqilyah Governorate to coordinate the entrance’s renovation with the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison Office (DCO) in the Qalqilyah area. The Palestinian liaison committee is subordinate to the Civil Affairs Ministry, headed by Fatah’s Hussein al-Sheikh for the past 12 years. The DCO is part of the Civil Administration, which is subordinate to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories at the Defense Ministry; COGAT has been headed by Kamil Abu Rokon since May 2018.
Municipal officials say they spoke about the road to the Palestinian side already a year ago, handed over the renovation plans and assumed they would coordinate all the details with the Israeli side. But five or six weeks ago when the renovation work almost reached the entrance, soldiers there told the workers to stop. They weren’t allowed to touch the entrance area, they announced. The sidewalks, the new tar, the lighting all had to stop about a meter before the iron gate, which is about 12 meters from Route 55.
In addition, a few days before Eid al-Adha, which fell on August 10 this year, the Palestinian liaison committee gave the municipality an Israeli order regarding “ a land seizure” of 25 square meters on which the iron gate stands. The order is dated around three weeks earlier, July 16, and signed by Central Command head Nadav Padan, the army chief in the West Bank. This order is in tune with the basic (unobserved) rule, that the occupier is only permitted to temporarily seize land for military needs, but not confiscate land for ever.
A security official suggested to Haaretz that there has been a procedural omission here. The act of seizing the land for placing the red iron gate took place years ago, but it has only been officially regulated now — by means of issuing the order. The official added that the Palestinian liaison committee raised the issue of renovating the entrance only around five weeks ago at a meeting with an officer from the District Coordination and Liaison, and even that was done unofficially. Was the takeover order issued before or after that unofficial meeting? We do not know.
The official said by phone: “Renovating the road is not too great a request. As long as they want to tar an existing road – whose infrastructure exists – there’s no problem with that. But they asked for several things: to move the gate and add sidewalks, and for that they must apply to the transportation officer at the Civil Administration. Now it has been submitted to this examination.”
Haaretz passed the query on to the army and COGAT spokespeople on the morning of August 18. That night the army locked the iron gate to the only direct entrance into the village – the second, eastern entrance, was closed by the army in 1994 and has been blocked ever since. The road to Ma'aleh Shomron curves there
This is the 13th gate lockdown since the beginning of the year. The previous one was on August 5. Usually the lockdown takes place at night, and the army says it’s because of the throwing of stones and firebombs at Israeli cars on Route 55. The last lockdown continued until late in the evening of the next day, August 19.
That evening municipal officials came to the locked gate and happened to meet a DCO representative and Israeli army officers there. “They told us okay, we could renovate,” a municipal official said. But another Israeli security official told Haaretz a week later that at that meeting, the municipal officials were told they must submit a request in writing, detailing the renovations.
Haaretz passed the message on to the municipal officials, who had no idea that this is what had been required of them. They immediately wrote a letter and submitted it to the Palestinian liaison committee. After all, they’re forbidden to maintain direct contact with the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison Office.
The army spokesman and COGAT didn’t provide official answers to Haaretz’s questions. An official at the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry told Haaretz by phone that everything was all right, the renovation was progressing as required, there were no problems. He rejected the suggestion that the Palestinian liaison committee had neglected the issue, and hung up.
It remains to be hoped that the letter the municipality gave the Palestinian liaison committee has reached the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison Office, and that it was passed on to COGAT and the army, and that it won’t be necessary to send it on to other officials in the Civil Administration. After all, Azzun really wants to soon have a pretty, convenient, normal entrance. Like the settlements do.