With the Israeli occupation of the West Bank now entering its 56th year, numerous international and nongovernmental organizations have recently called for renewed attention to Israel’s continued violations of Palestinians’ rights, with many openly accusing Israel of the crime of apartheid. One of Israel’s most appalling violations is its ongoing efforts to remove Palestinians from areas of the occupied West Bank, which constitute a clear-cut policy of ethnic cleansing. These efforts are focused on different locations within Area C of the West Bank, an area where, as stipulated by the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has no security or civil control. Not coincidentally, Area C is also where the majority of Israel’s settlement and colonization activity is located.
While specific cases of threatened communities receive attention from diplomats, journalists, and local and international NGOs, there is often a lack of clarity with respect to the full understanding of what is taking place. These actors’ narratives tend to emphasize the humanitarian challenges vulnerable Palestinians are facing, or to frame each community’s struggle to remain in place as an isolated land dispute with Israeli authorities. Meanwhile, those who offer a more critical framework or tougher criticism usually highlight illegal settlement expansion, or the threat that Israeli policies of expulsion pose to a future “two-state solution.”
What is often lacking in such narratives and analyses is a focus on the true goal that both Israeli authorities and Israel-aligned NGOs are pursuing: the purposeful reduction, or even the wholesale elimination, of the Palestinian presence in various parts of Area C.
What is often lacking in such narratives and analyses is a focus on the true goal that both Israeli authorities and Israel-aligned NGOs are pursuing: the purposeful reduction, or even the wholesale elimination, of the Palestinian presence in various parts of Area C. The realization that this is indeed Israel’s ultimate goal provides much-needed clarity, which can help inform policy decisions made by both the Palestinians and the international community.
A Concerted Effort to Remove Palestinians
The Oslo Accords, which consisted of a series of agreements signed in the 1990s by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, divided the territory of the West Bank into three distinct areas of control (without altering the entire West Bank’s status as under military occupation): Areas A and B, which the PA controls in terms of civil matters, and Area C, which is fully under Israeli control. Israel, meanwhile, exercises different degrees of security control over areas A and B. None of the three areas forms a single, contiguous territory; rather, the West Bank as a whole resembles a patchwork of hundreds of different fragments. Area C, which is the largest of the three areas, constituting almost two-thirds of the West Bank, is where almost all Israeli colonies are located, both Israeli-authorized settlements and what are officially unauthorized outposts that in practice operate with the government’s blessing and protection. Area C is also where a considerable amount of additional colonization activity and military presence is concentrated, whether in the form of infrastructure, tourism activities, or military firing ranges.
The removal of Palestinians—entire communities as well as individuals and families—is conducted in four main ways: Denial of permits, demolition of homes, destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure, and attacks on civil society organizations (CSOs) that support vulnerable communities and increase their resilience.
Denial of permits: A planning scheme for Palestinian communities that has been approved by Israeli occupation authorities covers less than one percent of Area C. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), this Israeli plan leaves “little opportunity for community development…placing the structures outside the planned areas at risk of demolition.” Meanwhile, OCHA data shows that local outline plans for Israeli settlements that are approved by Israeli occupation authorities cover at least 8.5 percent of Area C—more than eight times the area approved for Palestinians. The outcome of this discriminatory system is that Israeli occupation authorities consistently deny nearly all Palestinian applications for building permits.
According to Israeli NGO Peace Now, out of 4,422 Palestinian requests for construction permits made between 2009 and 2018, just 98 were issued—a paltry 2.2 percent. And from 2019 to 2020, as reported by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, an even lower 0.65 percent of requests were approved.
In February 2022, Deputy Defense Minister Alon Schuster told the Israeli Knesset that his ministry had issued just 33 building permits for Palestinians between 2017 and 2021. This was not so much a “confession” as it was a defense of the department’s record of preventing Palestinian development, since officials often come under pressure from right-wing nationalist parliamentarians to increase the demolition of Palestinian structures rather than grant permits for new construction. According to Israeli NGO Peace Now, out of 4,422 Palestinian requests for construction permits made between 2009 and 2018, just 98 were issued—a paltry 2.2 percent. And from 2019 to 2020, as reported by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, an even lower 0.65 percent of requests were approved.
Demolitions: According to OCHA data, between January 2009 and early August 2022, Israeli occupation forces demolished 8,663 structures in the entire West Bank, including East Jerusalem, directly displacing 13,000 Palestinians and affecting some 151,666 people in total. In 2020 alone, 854 structures were demolished, and in 2021 that number rose to 911. The figure for 2022 up to August 10 was 498 structures.
Area C represents the bulk of Israeli demolitions—a total of 6,802 structures between 2009 and 2022, or 79 percent of total demolitions during this period. When one zooms in closer, however, the data shows that two governorates recorded the highest numbers of demolitions: Tubas in the northeastern part of the West Bank and Hebron in the south, which respectively saw 1,508 and 1,334 structures demolished.
Of the total number of demolished structures in Area C from 2009 to 2022, 1,710 were inhabited residential units while another 513 were uninhabited residential units (i.e., units under construction). This demolition of more than 2,000 homes constitutes the most direct form of violent displacement carried out against Palestinians in the West Bank, displacement that, in many cases, occurs repeatedly.
Targeting livelihoods and infrastructure: An additional method of undermining and ultimately removing the Palestinian presence in a given area is the destruction of infrastructure and livelihoods. OCHA data shows that 2,295 of the structures demolished by the Israeli authorities between 2009 and 2022 were classified as agricultural, while a further 906 were recorded as being related to livelihood, 687 to hygiene and sanitation, and 166 were labeled as “other infrastructure.”
When an occupying military force such as the Israeli army destroys a community’s means of survival—whether they be economic resources such as herding infrastructure and animal shelters or basic requirements such as water pipes and cisterns—the impact is devastating.
When an occupying military force such as the Israeli army destroys a community’s means of survival—whether they be economic resources such as herding infrastructure and animal shelters or basic requirements such as water pipes and cisterns—the impact is devastating. More importantly, when one realizes that Israel’s goal is to cleanse the West Bank of its Palestinian residents, the logic of such tactics becomes chillingly obvious: they make Palestinians’ continued presence in the area a nearly impossible prospect.
By way of illustration, in early July 2022, a total of 19 Palestinian households comprising about 100 people left their community of Ras al-Tin in Area C, relocating instead to Area B. According to an OCHA report, the community’s “living conditions had become intolerable” due to “occupation-related coercive measures imposed on them by the Israeli authorities and by Israeli settlers.” This is clearly ethnic cleansing in action.
Sabotaging Palestinian civil society: In addition to direct attacks on Palestinian homes and structures, Israel also targets CSOs that help support Palestinian communities in Area C, thereby undermining Palestinian resilience and increasing populations’ vulnerability. Israel is supported in its efforts by various organizations that cooperate and coordinate with Israeli occupation authorities and settlers. This includes groups that lobby European governments to cease funding for relevant Palestinian CSOs. One group involved in such efforts is the disinformation organization NGO Monitor, which has attacked multiple targets, including the Dutch government’s funding for CSOs working to increase Palestinian food security. Another player is UK Lawyers for Israel, which in 2019 sent two of its representatives to the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council—a body run by and for Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank—to discuss [i] how to prevent European Union funds from supporting what the settlers’ council calls the Palestinian “takeover” of land in Area C.
A major target of both Israeli authorities and right-wing pressure groups has been the Union of Agricultural Working Committees (UAWC), which helps Palestinian farmers and rural communities, especially those in Area C who continue to face Israeli policies designed to seize their land, demolish their homes, and forcibly displace them. In 2018, right-wing settler group Regavim published a report titled “Roots of Evil,” in which it attacked UAWC as the “key actor” in so-called “land-grab projects” and urged authorities to curtail the union’s activities. The same group went on to push additional disinformation regarding the union in a Knesset meeting that same year. And in October 2021, UAWC was one of six Palestinian CSOs banned by Israeli authorities, part of a blatant effort on the part of Israel to stop these organizations from performing their work in support of Palestinian society and Palestinians’ rights.
Intentionality: The Smoking Gun
The knowledge that Israeli authorities are actively pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing in Area C of the West Bank does not just rest on the targeting of Palestinian communities and CSOs. Evidence is also found in the openly-expressed intentions and racialized discourse of both Israeli officials and Israeli settler groups. In July and August 2020, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held meetings on “the Palestinian takeover of Area C.” In the discussions, Palestinian communities were compared to a “virus” and a “cancer”—exactly the kind of dehumanizing language one would expect in the context of a campaign of forced displacement and colonization.
In Knesset discussions, Palestinian communities were compared to a “virus” and a “cancer”—exactly the kind of dehumanizing language one would expect in the context of a campaign of forced displacement and colonization.
Meanwhile, the Israeli settler group Regavim, which, as noted above, plays a role in advocating for the demolition of Palestinian structures and has indeed cooperated with Israeli authorities to that end, has described Palestinian communities as “spreading tentacles.” And Regavim is not the only non-state body working with the government to target Palestinian construction; in October 2021, the Israeli government’s Settlement Affairs Ministry gave 20 million shekels to 14 settlement authorities so that they could purchase drones and pay patrolmen to monitor the West Bank for instances of Palestinian construction occurring without what are in essence impossible-to-obtain permits. And in 2020 Israeli occupation authorities set up a hotline for anyone to report illegal construction in Area C.
In 2021, Israel’s Intelligence Ministry produced a report on the “Palestinian campaign for Area C,” which was declassified and published the following year, becoming the subject of a Knesset committee debate. Again, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on how Palestinians’ efforts to simply live their lives and develop their own land are spoken of by the State of Israel and by settler groups as acts of aggression or warfare, as a “campaign” or a “takeover.” It is also worth noting how truly disturbing the implications of such a paradigm are for how a civilian population and their means of existence are treated by this occupying power. As one Israeli activist noted in a Twitter thread on the report, the Intelligence Ministry’s recommendations provide “insight into Israel’s work plan and the methods to achieve its national goal,” which is to concentrate Palestinians into 166 “isolated enclaves” rather than a contiguous territory. Of course in order to do that, Israel must ethnically cleanse the West Bank by forcibly removing or driving out the Palestinians who live there.
No Doubt, It Is Ethnic Cleansing
Israeli authorities’ policies and efforts to forcibly displace Palestinians in Area C have been noted on numerous occasions over the last decade by international actors, and above all by Palestinian human rights organizations. However, international actors are often hesitant to accuse Israel of intentionally driving Palestinians out of the West Bank. This situation has improved in recent years, which have seen a growing acknowledgement that Israel’s policies amount to apartheid, which involves the understanding that specific discriminatory policies and crimes are not just isolated occurrences but are rather an intentional part of a broader racist regime. However, there is still a long way to go before we begin to see broader acceptance of the extent to which apartheid itself is both rooted in and an expression of settler colonialism.
There is still a long way to go before we begin to see broader acceptance of the extent to which apartheid itself is both rooted in and an expression of settler colonialism.
Understanding Israeli policies in Area C as ethnic cleansing is an important corrective to narratives that foreground humanitarian needs or diplomatic concerns. The ethnic cleansing of Area C is a policy that is pursued by Israeli state authorities regardless of what coalition government is in power. This shows that Israel’s goals—to free up land for Israeli settlement expansion and the exploitation of natural resources, to confine Palestinians to tiny Bantustans, and to destroy any possibility for Palestinian sovereignty—are deeper strategic goals, and not just part of the fluctuations of coalition politics. With Israeli policies shaped by the dual goals of colonization and expulsion, and with Israel’s program of ethnic cleansing intensifying by the day, the international community must adjust its language and its approach to match the reality of what is happening in Palestine.
[i] Source is in Hebrew.