West Bank land grab boosts Israeli economy


Israeli settlements and industrial areas are mushrooming across Palestinian lands
Israeli settlements and industrial areas are mushrooming illegally across Palestinian lands

Israel has announced its plans – in flagrant defiance of international law –  to seize  control of more Palestinian lands to build industrial zones, in a bid to boost Israel’s economy.

Standing by the side of a highway near the main gates to Ariel West, an Israeli industrial zone in the heart of the West Bank district of Salfit, Jamal Omar Fazaa makes a sweeping gesture with his hand: “This is my family’s land, exactly 186 dunums [18 hectares],” he explained to Al Jazeera.

An old olive tree stands just a few metres from the Israeli bulldozers levelling the ground here. The crooked necks of yellow cranes dot the landscape along this stretch of Highway 5, an Israeli road that cuts through two adjacent industrial zones: Barkan, which houses more than 130 factories and companies, and the smaller Ariel West, which houses about 26.

Israeli media outlets recently reported that 60 new companies have registered to relocate to the area, despite the threat of retaliation from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Dunum by dunum, Fazaa’s land has been stolen since the 1980s. The 53-year-old teacher initially fought back, but today, he no longer thinks it is worth it. One of his sons works in a factory in the area and will have to renew his work permit, a system Palestinians say is used to suppress any “resistance” activity, such as claiming the right to one’s land. About half of the town’s youth work in the industrial areas, where factories are mostly Israeli-owned.

There are four Israeli industrial zones and a quarry in the Salfit governorate. Together with the 24 settlements and outposts that dot its hilltops, they form a belt that locals call “the finger” for the way it protrudes from the Green Line into the occupied West Bank, cutting a prospective Palestinian state in two. An estimated 72,000 Palestinians live in the district’s 18 towns and villages.

“When they started building this road in 2000, we came to protest,” Fazaa says, pointing at the main road into the Ariel West industrial zone. The protest cost him and some members of his family a few nights in jail and a 9,000-shekel ($2,400) fine, paid by the Palestinian Authority on their behalf. The family was never notified of the land confiscation, he says: “They usually bring the bulldozers, and if the owner comes, they’ll tell him about it.”

Barkan and Ariel West are built on land confiscated from the nearby villages of Haris, Sarta and Bruqin. Fazaa has documents issued by Jordan before 1967, along with faded maps and papers that appear to list at least some of his property. None has been enough to claim his right to the land in question, which would have required hiring costly engineers to survey the land and then fighting for it in court.

The Israeli government has used various means to take control of West Bank lands over the years, including declaring military firing zones or designating areas as natural parks. It has also declared certain areas as state land through an interpretation of an 1858 Ottoman land law stipulating that a piece of land not cultivated for several years passes into the hands of the “sultan”.

Declaring state land is only possible in cases where the land is not officially registered as private property, but land registration in the occupied West Bank has been historically low, and the burden of proving ownership falls on the landowner. The Israeli government has allocated less than 10 percent of declared state lands for Palestinian use, while prohibiting Palestinian construction and development in about 40 percent of the occupied West Bank.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Knesset recently passed a law allowing the state to retroactively legalise settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land. While international law considers all Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal, unauthorised outposts are illegal under Israeli law as well.

In late 2016, the Israeli government deposited new master plans for the development of both the Barkan and Ariel West industrial areas. According to the Palestinian Land Research Centre, these master plans include 138 dunums confiscated from the Palestinian village of Haris and an additional 18 from Bruqin.

At least 30 Palestinian structures in Area C, where the industrial areas are built and which is under full Israeli control, have received stop-work orders this year for lacking building permits – a sharp rise from last year’s total of 50. This rise is consistent with the sharp increase in demolitions elsewhere in the West Bank.

On its website, Ariel West lures businesses with “the highest level of government benefits in the form of industrial grants and tax incentives”, owing to its location in National Priority Development Area A. Much of what is produced here is destined for export. The Barkan industrial park exports up to 80 percent of its products, according to its website.

Al Jazeera approached the Shomron regional council, which administers this area of the West Bank, for further information about the ongoing expansion and the companies slated to relocate to the area, but did not receive a response.

Israeli leaders have often defended settlement businesses on the basis that they provide work to Palestinians. But while wages in Israeli industrial areas may be higher than in Palestinian areas, workers are exposed to exploitative conditions and a lack of oversight on labour and environmental regulations, according to a report published last year by Human Rights Watch.

At least two Israeli and international companies moved their operations out of the Barkan industrial area in recent years amid pressure from the BDS movement, but the cheaper rent and labour costs continue to make the West Bank an attractive locale for business owners – and an uncomfortable option for some Palestinian workers.

“What choice do I have?” said Said, a former worker in a door factory in Bruqin, who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym. “If I don’t work, someone else will.”

This article by by Ylenia Gostoli was originally published by Al Jazeera

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