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Resident of Dul-Baba near the ruins of his home. Photo: 'Amer 'Aruri, B'Tselem, 16 October 2017
From the field

Israel lifts last veil disguising its West Bank planning policy

On 17 June 2018, a new military order (Order No. 1797) will enter into effect. The order removes any option for Palestinians to challenge demolition orders that the Civil Administration issues for new structures, allowing Israel to demolish homes summarily.

In polished legal language, the order sets forth that any Civil Administration enforcement officer may order the “removal” of a new structure – a term that includes both uncompleted structures and structures completed within the last six months. In the case of residential structures, enforcement officers may order their demolition if they are still unoccupied or within 30 days of occupancy. If the person in possession of the property has a building permit, they may file an application to have the demolition cancelled within 96 hours. However, if no such application is filed within this timeframe and the owners do not demolish the structure themselves, the enforcement officer may “remove the structure and anything attached thereto from the property”, so long as it is “not located within the confines of a detailed building plan”, and after consulting with the legal advisor or his representative.

This is not the first time Israel has tried to deny Palestinians access to legal proceedings under the Planning and Building Law. About a year ago, the state attempted to use a different method, originally designed to remove illegal settlement outposts. The military declared an area where an entire community resides as a “restricted area” and ordered the removal of any real property found therein, foregoing the need to issue demolition orders for each structure separately. The state has so far issued such orders against three communities. The communities have petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice and are awaiting its decision.

In essence, the new military order is simply another aspect of Israel’s planning and building policy in the West Bank, which serves mainly to deny Palestinian development almost completely and dispossess Palestinians of their land, with the goal of using as much of the West Bank as possible for Israeli needs. As part of this overall policy, Israel has blocked the option of Palestinian construction on vast areas it has labeled “state land”, “firing zones” or “nature reserves”. In the little land that is left, Israel does not, as a rule, draw up zoning plans, which offer the only route for obtaining building permits. Without any possibility of building legally, Palestinians are forced to build homes without. At that point Israel suddenly acknowledges the existence of planning procedures, proclaims the construction “illegal” and issues demolition orders for the structures.

Until now, issuance of a demolition order set into motion legal proceedings that could take months and even years, with usually predictable outcomes. The various legal advisors, appeal committees and the justices of the Supreme Court make do with examining technical questions and never look into the overall policy and its ramifications. The proceedings focus on whether the petitioners have a right to enter a “firing zone” (disregarding the question of whether or not such a zone can be declared); whether they have a building permit for the structure facing demolition (overlooking the fact that Israel deliberately refrains from making such plans for Palestinian communities in Area C, meaning that legal construction is impossible); whether remedies were exhausted prior to seeking the court’s intervention; or whether the petitioners waited too long to act. In almost all cases, the answers are negative and the petitions are dismissed.

The legal proceedings under the Planning and Building Law, which the new order cancels, do not prevent home demolition, nor do they offer Palestinian residents the opportunity to get legal approval and start to lead reasonably normal lives. The only advantage these proceedings offer for those facing demolition is the possibility of an interim injunction that offers a stay until the petition is decided. The length of the proceedings offers the petitioners a reprieve, knowing their homes will not be demolished in the meantime. Yet the interim injunction also prohibits them from building new structures to meet their changing needs, renovating existing structures, connecting to infrastructure or building public structures. This puts the residents’ lives on hold and keeps them in a state of uncertainty for a protracted period of time.

In essence, the new military order removes the façade of judicial review over demolition orders and over Israel’s planning and building policy in the West Bank. This is no trifling matter: upholding the regime of occupation requires façades and Israel goes to great lengths to maintain them. This is true of the military law enforcement system, the military courts and the takeover of tens of thousands of hectares in the West Bank. Israel’s readiness to lift the veil on this matter indicates its plan to accelerate and expand the dispossession of Palestinians throughout the West Bank, and a conviction that it will not be called to task over this either internationally or locally.