State Turns Blind Eye to Illegal Construction at ultra-Orthodox West Bank Settlement

In the past year, the Palestinian village of Bil'in has gained worldwide publicity due to the resolute protest mounted by village residents and Israeli and international peace activists against the separation fence, which is tearing the village away from its lands.

Every Friday, Border Policemen face off against the demonstrators. The policemen violently disperse the gathering. But the demonstrators and policemen do not know that a few meters away, on the western side of the fence route in a new section of the settlement of Upper Modi'in, building violations on a colossal scale are being committed in broad daylight. This description is not an excerpt from a Peace Now press release. Rather, it is a verbatim quote from a letter by attorney Gilad Rogel, the legal counselor of the Upper Modi'in Local Council, in reference to the new neighborhood called Matityahu East.

This quote comes from an exchange of letters that tells the story of the largest settlement outpost established in recent years in the territories. The letters expose an affair of "hast thou stolen and also inherited" that is being played out in the shadow of the fence, behind the smokescreen of the security of Israeli citizens and under the nose of enforcement authorities. Even the severe report on settlement outposts drafted by attorney Talia Sasson contains nothing that could compare with a case in which the state constructs a fence along a route that is intended to annex an entire settlement built without permits. If that were not enough, the settlement/neighborhood is located in disregard of an explicit commitment by Israel to the United States to avoid construction outside the jurisdiction of existing settlements.

This time, representatives of the legal authorities themselves revealed their nakedness, on official stationary. However, they did not take into account that the damning evidence would find its way to the neighbors in Bil'in. The State Prosecutor's Office was certainly surprised to find the Upper Modi'in legal counselor's document appended to a letter that it received last week from attorney Michael Sfard, the Bil'in residents' attorney. Sfard began the letter he sent to attorney Aner Helman, who is representing the state in the Bil'in case (High Court of Justice 8614/05) with a quote from the state's response to the Bil'in residents' petition: "Based on developers' reports, which the Civil Administration are incapable of verifying (the words `which the Civil Administration are incapable of verifying' are boldfaced), in the western tract of Plan 210/8, which has already been developed, there are about 750 housing units, of which some 520 have been sold." Further down, it is stated that since the construction is being carried out in accordance with an invalid plan, "this is partly unlawful construction." Straight and straightforward.

One has to read it a few times to believe it. A representative of the attorney general, the supreme law enforcement authority in Israel, is informing the Supreme Court that the Civil Administration, the body that is by law responsible for the construction of every porch in the territories, "cannot verify" the construction of 750 housing units, of which about 520 have already been sold. "Do I understand from what you say that the State of Israel officially admits that it has lost not only its ability to enforce the law on the settlers," asks Sfard, but also "the ability to reach the construction sites and gather data?" If the prosecution were to ask this of the policemen who are sent each Friday to the site, they would have no problem verifying that the construction is continuing apace. They could even disclose that the developers have uprooted hundreds of olive trees in an area that was not even supposed to be part of the neighborhood/settlement outpost.

In the same letter about the violation on a colossal scale, which began in March of this year, relating to a building site of the Green Park construction firm, Upper Modi'in legal counselor Rogel wrote to the local council's engineer, Aryeh Pe'er, that he was astonished to learn that additional developers were also building "entire buildings without a permit, and all of this with your full knowledge and with planning and legal lawlessness with which I do not have the words to describe." Rogel announced that since he cannot contend alone with "lawlessness in such dimensions," he had decided to transfer the handling of this "sore evil" to the highest levels.

Pe'er does not deny the facts. He confirms that the construction is not lawful, and puts the blame on "the bureaucracy." He contends that Rogel took part in meetings of the planning committee that issued a warning to the construction firm, and that now he is pretending that he didn't know a thing about it.

The local council's comptroller, Shmuel Heisler, was expecting this response from the engineer. In a letter that he sent to members of the local council, Heisler wrote that it could be assumed that Pe'er would suggest to the legal counselor and to the council head Yaakov Guterman that they "wipe the cobwebs from their eyes" - for after all, everyone was a partner throughout the entire period of construction in the settlement. "On December 31, 2004, I wrote a detailed report in which I reiterated my comments about how the council's planning committee was being run, about the unlawful construction and the granting of construction permits by the head of the council and the council's engineer in violation of the law," writes Heisler.

In a report on the operation of the council, drafted earlier this year at the request of the management of the Interior Ministry's municipal division, Heisler wrote, "Most serious of all the projects approved by the authorization authority [the head of the council and the engineer of the council] was the Matityahu East project, in contravention of the approved Taba urban construction plan. The deviations are significant." Heisler quotes from a letter by the head of the Planning Authority in the Judea and Samaria Civil Administration, who supported his comments. He relates that in the wake of the report, the head of the council halted the activity of the council's oversight committee.

In response, the Justice Ministry stated: "In the case of the handling of the petition on fence construction in the area, the State Prosecutor's Office learned that unlawful construction had evidently been carried out in the settlement of Upper Modi'in. The Civil Administration, through the office of the Judea and Samaria district attorney general, was asked by the prosecutor handling the case to render his opinion of the matter. This opinion has not yet been received by the prosecution, and the Justice Ministry will continue to track developments. Since the information has not yet been submitted to the Justice Ministry, it is obvious that the information has not been brought to the attention of the attorney general, either. In any event, the attorney general has not yet taken up the matter."

The Arab voice is looking for a party

Kadima is grappling with the question of the Arab candidate. According to the polls, Sharon's party is getting along just fine even without the representation of nearly 20 percent of the state's citizens. In any event, the right will stick them with the label of "Shimon Peres' Arab mother." Some party sources say that it would be enough to have deputy minister Majali Wahabi and the votes he would bring in from the Druze community. (It seems as if Sharon will position him in a better spot than the 19th and 20th places that are reserved on the Labor Party list for an Arab and a Druze, respectively). But the Druze are a minority within the country's non-Jews who vote: 55,000 Druze as compared with 550,000 Arabs. The chance of a political bang in the Arab sector, says pollster Dr. Danny Gera, the managing director of Al-Arsad, a polling firm that specializes in the non-Jewish minority, hinges on a substantive change in the attitude of the Jewish parties toward a public that they mainly consider a "demographic problem."

In the last election, the voting rate of Israeli Arabs dropped to a nadir of 63 percent, as compared with 75 percent in the previous election. According to an analysis of Arab voting patterns in the elections to the 16th Knesset, Gera predicts that a similar voter turnout would, on March 28, 2006, give the Arab leftist bloc (Hadash and Balad) between 180,000 and 190,000 votes (six to seven seats, depending if they unite or not), 30,000 for the Labor Party (one seat) and approximately 20,000 to other Zionist parties (half a seat). United Arab List, which is struggling to break through the minimum barrier for Knesset representation, would struggle for every vote out of the 40,000 people who are still "undecided."

A voter turnout of 70-72 percent in elections to the 17th Knesset would ensure the Arab sector three additional seats. Gera claims that they are waiting for a Jewish party that will put in its platform a true commitment to reduce gaps between the general population and the Arab sector. The Arabs are tired of the discrimination against them by society and by the state, and their rankings at the top of the poverty and unemployment charts. They are especially incensed by abstract promises. The aphorism "The tongue has no bone," is well known to them, and therefore the party that is interested in the "available" votes has to commit publicly to appoint an Arab cabinet minister with a portfolio, and to ensure representation to its Arab MKs. Until now, the Jewish parties courting the Arab vote have always made due with a single Arab on their lists, usually in a borderline position. For the most part, they choose a featherweight activist in the Arab public. Gera says that since there is no Arab personality of larger-than-life proportions who can draw votes, he recommends that the Jewish parties focus their efforts on platforms that would assure the end of discrimination against the Arab sector.

Withdrawn law

MK Michael Nudelman, who has now joined Kadima, recently received widespread publicity in the wake of disclosures of tax benefits he received for the biweekly visits to what was once his home in Kiryat Shmona (his son now lives there). What is less known is that three years ago, the Knesset Finance Committee approved an amendment to the law on granting income tax benefits to residents of border regions and settlements.

At the time it was determined that the benefits would not apply to ministers, MKs and directors appointed in accordance with the Civil Service Law. The amendment was pushed through at the initiative of MK Avshalom Vilan of Meretz, who wished to block incentives for Israeli citizens, and primarily for the citizen Avigdor Lieberman, to move their place of residence to preferred regions in settlements.

However, other MKs, including, for example, Shalom Simhon of the Labor Party, and other MKs in northern and southern Israel, refused to forfeit the nice income boost. Six months after the agreement was accepted, this time through the National Emergency Plan, the MKs decided that the emergency situation required cancelling of the amendment and making elected officials eligible again. They also saw to it that the cancellation would apply retroactively, and so, it was as if the amendment had never happened.