The Other West Bank Construction Freeze

There is a great confidence-building measure that would improve our lives as Palestinians and restore our faith in the peace process: Allow us to build in and develop Area C.

Let me take a step back and explain what I am talking about. In its present form, the peace process has actually sustained a building freeze that is decades rather than months old, but it’s a different one than the one you’ve heard about — it’s a freeze on Palestinian building on most of the West Bank, a territory defined by the Oslo Accords as Area C. And it deeply constrains Palestinians who wish to improve their own lives.

This long-lasting freeze associates the peace process in Palestinian minds less with opportunities and more with restrictions and deferral of dreams. Lifting these restrictions would send a clear message to Palestinians that there are immediate and tangible gains to be realized even while the negotiations proceed.

This is by no means a substitute for ending the occupation and ensuring Palestinian freedom, or a false reciprocal exchange for continued Israeli settlement activity on Palestinian land; rather it is a confidence-building measure that would indicate Israeli seriousness about doing more than simply meeting with Palestinian leaders.

The 1995 Oslo interim agreement divided the Palestinian territories — excluding East Jerusalem — into three areas, A, B and C, with different security and administrative arrangements for each. Areas A and B, corresponding to all major urban and rural population centers, were placed under full or partial Palestinian administration.

The remaining Area C, comprising almost 60 percent of the West Bank, was kept under full control of the Israeli military, including land administration and planning. This arrangement was only meant to be transitory, as Area C was to be gradually handed over to the administration of the Palestinian Authority within 18 months of its establishment according to the interim agreement signed in 1995. Needless to say, this transition never took place as Israel continued to drag its feet, and the political process ultimately broke down in 2000.

Ever since 1967, Palestinian construction in what became known as Area C has required special permits from Israeli authorities. These building permits are rarely issued; only a handful are typically approved every year.

Almost all Palestinian building applications are rejected on the grounds that these buildings would be erected on open space, where construction is prohibited, or on lands confiscated by military orders, or on state land.

That Israeli settlers in Area C were granted, on average, over 1,000 building permits annually during the past decade makes the arbitrariness and injustice inherent in Israeli policies irrefutable.

As a result, Palestinian construction and development has been confined to less than 40 percent of the West Bank. The side effects of this crippling condition cannot be overstated and are most visible within Palestinian towns and cities, where all building activity is concentrated by necessity.

Combined with high population growth, the scarcity of land undermines urban planning, industrial, commercial and agricultural development, and environmental management. The high demand for residential units leads to unbalanced urban plans where extensive land allocations for residential use come at the expense of vital economic activities including commerce, industry and agriculture.

These same sectors are further undermined by the prohibitively high price of land plots available for industrial, agricultural or commercial use. Environmental problems are also exacerbated as public infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants and landfills have to be placed close to or within population centers.

In addition to addressing the serious challenge of land shortages for residential, commercial, agricultural, industrial and infrastructure use, opening Area C to Palestinian development efforts would create significant opportunities for economic growth.

Palestinian estimates show that investments in several key sectors including tourism, agriculture, real estate and mining in Area C would yield tens of thousands of new jobs over the next ten years. In fact, Palestinian investors, including the Palestine Investment Fund, have already developed plans to invest billions of dollars in various projects in these areas over the next 10 years. We await the lifting of Israeli restrictions to put our plans into action.

Resolving the issue of Palestinian access to Area C at an early stage during the negotiations will provide a real boost to the peace process. It will give the Palestinians a real diplomatic achievement, and signal that Israel is serious about its intentions to end the military occupation.

On the political side, it is not a costly move for Israel. Israel, in effect, will not be prematurely ceding control over this territory — a territory that will eventually be transferred to Palestinian administration anyway, but rather only opening it up for Palestinian building and construction.

The freeze on Palestinian building and development in their own territory only serves to make advancing and improving Palestinian life a near-impossible task. Israel’s friends in Washington would do well to ask Israel to correct this injustice, even while talks intended to bring about lasting peace between our two nations continue.

Mohammad Mustafais, senior economic adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund.