As night descends in the Jordan Valley in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), a family in the village of Ras Al-Ahmar lights a small paraffin lamp in the tent they call home.
There is no electricity here and the nearby Palestinian villages are enveloped in darkness. The only visible cluster of light is from a nearby Israeli settlement.
Humanitarian agencies are well aware of the needs in this part of the West Bank but they face a challenge: play by the rules established by Israel or face the risk of having projects demolished.
Despite being outside the state of Israel, 90 percent of the Jordan Valley is under full Israeli civil and military control as part of Area C, a zone that covers 60 percent of the West Bank.
Palestinian communities here, among the poorest and most vulnerable in oPt, desperately need access to water, electricity, sanitation and other basic infrastructure.
But despite the needs, development organizations that try to improve living conditions in Area C say they find their ability to make any lasting impact hampered by Israeli restrictions and bureaucracy.
Like Palestinians, organizations that want to build basic service infrastructure such as houses, schools or water systems are required to submit an application for a permit to the Israeli authorities.
Often, these permits are not granted. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), between January 2000 and September 2007, over 94 percent of applications submitted by Palestinians to the Israeli authorities for building permits in Area C were denied.
“The permit regime is very confusing. There is no clarity about the status of an application, whether paperwork has been received, if it is complete,” Willow Heske, media lead for Oxfam in oPt, told IRIN. “Agencies have sometimes waited for two years only to get a rejection that comes without any explanation.”
“A few years ago we put in plans to build a water reservoir in Al-Jiftlik, to provide half of Al-Jiftlik with running water,” said Heske.
“The reservoir was considered a `building’ and we didn’t get the permit. So we moved to a plan B which still involved setting up a reservoir and piping system but above rather than below ground. This too was not accepted. So as a last resort we had to go back to distributing water tanks. And of course people were frustrated and disappointed.”
Challenging the occupation
Some NGOs, among them Palestinian organizations like Ma’an Development Centre (MDC), believe that adhering to the permit regime helps legitimize the occupation, and choose to ignore the rules altogether.
“If you’re playing within the rules of the occupation then you are legitimizing it. We don’t seek permits from the Israelis. If we put in a permit request we would likely get denied,” MDC project manager Chris Keeler told IRIN. “And also because of a moral stance. We don’t think that a Palestinian NGO should be seeking permission from Israel to be building on Palestinian lands.”
For international organizations, it’s not only the possibility of having a permit denied that affects their work, but also the multiple ways in which the Israeli state bureaucracy hinders their work by issuing “stop work” orders to existing projects, refusing to issue work visas, or refusing to renew existing work permits for foreign staff.
Even MDC finds that it must sometimes work within existing framework restrictions.
“There are houses all over the Jordan Valley that need renovations,” said Keeler. “If we do a project in some of the communities in the north, it would likely get destroyed. So we work a lot in Al-Jiftlik and Al-Fasayil. We need permits in those places too, but because they are more established communities, there is less risk that they will get destroyed. A lot of donors want reassurance that structures we build will not be torn down.”
IRIN was unable to get a response from the Israeli government despite repeated attempts, but in the past the Israeli government spokesperson has said Israeli policy is shaped by security concerns.
In May 2012, the European Union (EU) Council of Foreign Affairs called on Israel to meet its obligations to communities in Area C, “including by accelerated approval of Palestinian master plans, halting forced transfer of population and demolition of Palestinian housing and infrastructure… and addressing humanitarian needs.”
The Council stated that the “social and economic developments in Area C are of critical importance for the viability of a future Palestinian state.”
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the recommendations, saying they were “based on a partial, biased and one-sided depiction of realities on the ground” and that they “do not contribute to advancing the peace process”.
The Ministry said 119 projects were authorized in Area C in 2011 and that they ensured that “planned projects” were “coordinated and in conformity… with the law”.
Oxfam’s Heske believes the recent EU recommendations are bold and courageous, even though it is still not clear how they will play out on the ground. “These conclusions mean that there is now a full political commitment to work on development in Area C,” she said. “How it will play out, we don’t know, if it happens with or without permits. But we don’t want to see just one token water network here and there.”
Since 2011, the Palestinian Authority’s ministry for local government and local Palestinian councils have submitted 32 master plans for development in Area C to the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA). Each master plan includes infrastructure development, health care, primary education, water provision, electricity and the development of agricultural land, and requires approval by the ICA through a lengthy process of negotiation.
However, according to Azzam Hjouj, acting general director for urban and regional planning in the Palestinian ministry of local government, even if master plans are approved by the ICA, it is expected that the Israeli authorities may issue demolition and “stop work” orders for some plans, particularly in areas like Al-Jiftlik in the Jordan Valley, and that political pressure will be required to ensure implementation.
As for the more isolated Bedouin villages in the valley, the new master plans will not cover their areas.
“It’s difficult to make a master plan for these herding communities, because they are dispersed over large areas. They move around a lot and we don’t want to urbanize these areas, it’s their way of life,” Hjouj said. “And even if we made master plans, it would just give the ICA an excuse to congregate the herding communities into one area and take the remaining land.”
The Israeli Coordination of Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT - a unit in the Israeli Ministry of Defense that engages in coordinating civilian issues between the government of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces, international organizations, diplomats, and the Palestinian Authority) said that many of the construction projects in Area C are “illegal and poorly planned”.
A report compiled by COGAT relating to projects in Area C states that “illegal construction projects that ignore master plans undermine the possibility for future expansions and create problems for electrical, sewage and water systems.”
As with the wider crisis, there are no easy solutions for humanitarian agencies seeking to provide aid in Area C, and finding the line between purely humanitarian work, and political engagement is tough.
For economist Shir Hever, author of The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation, Western governments and NGOs need to be more active in opposing the occupation of West Bank areas.
“Instead, donors put 99 percent of their work in doing what is allowed and 1 percent in protesting conditions,” he said.