Meir Deutsch, director of Regavim, "a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of Israel's land resources and the rule of law," spoke to a January 3 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) hosted by Ashley Perry, advisor to the Middle East Forum's Israel office.
Deutsch said that Regavim, a non-governmental organization (NGO), was founded in 2006 to "force the state of Israel to do what it is supposed to be doing according to Israeli law." In pursuit of that mission, Regavim presented evidence detailing how the Palestinian Authority (PA) has devoured Israeli land over the past decade through duplicitous and illegal means. Designed to hollow out the Jewish state, the PA implemented its plan under consecutive Israeli governments that refused to enforce Israeli law after signing the Oslo Accords in 1993.
According to Deutsch, although Israel declared statehood in 1948, "the state was established forty years beforehand" by "purchasing land, by building schools, universities, by paving roads, building towns, communities." In 1948, "all that was done the previous forty years was declared as the Jewish state, the state of Israel."
Arab countries responded to Israel's official rebirth by attacking it, with Jordan occupying the eastern portion of Israel's biblical land of Judea and Samaria from 1948 to 1967 and renaming it the West Bank [of Jordan]. Israel retook Judea and Samaria in the Six-Day War of 1967, but the 1993 Oslo Accords divided Judea and Samaria into three areas. Area A fell under the PA, giving them full responsibility of civil administration; Area B fell under the responsibility of the PA, except for security issues; and Area C came under full Israeli control.
After Oslo, the interim agreement failed to reach a permanent solution, but the "game changer," according to Deutsch, occurred in 2009 when then-PA prime minister Salam Fayyad published his "vision" of the Palestinian state. Since Areas A and B were already under his control, Fayyad schemed take over Area C by using Bedouin nomadic clans as "pawns on a chess game in order to put facts on the ground." Realizing that by exploiting the law allowing nomads to settle permanently in an area if they secured a water source, Fayyad installed water tanks in Area C, a plan Deutsch called "very simple, very smart, low cost." As a result, the Bedouin became permanent residents of "these places where the Palestinian Authority decided" they wanted them to live.
In 2009-10, Regavim exposed the next stage of the PA's encroachment on Area C by documenting the illegal schools built by the PA and funded by the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN). One school, displaying EU blue stickers on multiple structures and touting its "humanitarian aid," received eighty percent of its funding from the EU.
This scheme allowed the PA to leverage the establishment of such illegally built schools to seize Israeli land. After the schools were built, roads paved, and electricity and water supplied, Palestinian families moved to the area and built homes. Once the students begin attending the school, the PA's illegal land grab becomes a fait accompli. Israel is hesitant to enforce the law by removing these illegal schools because it fears international pressure and negative publicity.
EU stickers are prevalent in "a very strategic" area connecting Jerusalem and the Israeli town of Ma'aleh Adumim in the E1 section of Area C. Israel has stated its intentions to develop the area for years but, yielding to international pressure, has yet to act. Meanwhile, the PA took advantage of Israel's faintheartedness and established "clusters" of illegal structures in 2012, again with EU funding, to build permanent structures that grew into towns. To avoid scrutiny early on, the PA obscured the clusters of buildings under tenting. Subsequently, the PA swallowed up swaths of Area C by merging the clusters into Areas A and B with the intent of forming a contiguous land mass to the Jordan River and the strategic area of the Jordan Valley.
Israel's courts aid the PA's ability to flout Israeli law by refusing to apply land laws to Judea and Samaria.
In response to Regavim's 2014 campaign publicizing the EU's funding of the PA's illegal structures in Area C, former prime minister Netanyahu pressured the EU to stop funding the PA "clusters." Yet, the EU continues funding illegally built schools, and since 2014, has plowed funds into agricultural projects. Israel's courts aid the PA's ability to flout Israeli law by refusing to apply land laws to Judea and Samaria.
Jordanian land laws in Judea and Samaria, a vestige of Ottoman rule, stipulate that "if you work the land for seven to eight to ten years, you start having rights in the land," according to Deutsch. The EU, with a full understanding of these practices, then purchases tractors so that the PA can work "thousands of dunams," or acres, of land to which the PA lays claim in the international media as part of EU-funded agricultural projects.
In 2016, Regavim reported on 1,053 water sources with over 62 kilometers of water pipes in Area C, all of which are buried in the pavements and roads, thereby leveraging the agricultural projects into major land grabs by the PA. Land that was formerly "no man's land" under Israel's control has illegally become private Palestinian land, generously funded by the EU.
Between 2009 and 2021, the number of illegal structures in Area C rose from 30,000 to 71,000. At the same time, Deutsch's research of the land under PA control in Areas A and B found that seventy percent of that land remains empty. Areas A and B combined constitute forty percent of Judea and Samaria and contains two million Arabs, while the remaining sixty percent is in Area C, under Israel's control. Nonetheless, official PA plans, funded by the EU, have prioritized PA expansion into Area C.
Regavim is providing a complete picture of the PA's illegal actions because the Israeli government refuses to act.
Deutsch attributes the Israeli government's unwillingness to stop the PA's illegal encroachment on Israel's Area C to the proliferation of PA land schemes unfolding below the radar and the fact that few in government are willing to "connect the dots." Regavim's research has done just that to provide a complete picture of the PA's illegal actions, but the Israeli government, cowed by international pressure, refuses to preserve the very ground disappearing under its feet.
The ultimate blame for the Israeli government's ignoring the PA's land theft lies in the skewed mentality deep in the offices of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel's security office responsible for enforcing law in Judea and Samaria. Deutsch believes COGAT's officials see Jews are "guests" in Judea and Samaria instead of "owners" of the land – a Stockholm Syndrome mentality undermining the state of Israel.
Regarding international relations, Deutsch said Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was "nowhere to be found" in bringing the PA's illegalities to the attention of the EU. Deutsch presented his findings to fifty members of the EU parliament in Brussels, and each professed shock over the abuse of EU humanitarian aid. Even though Regavim's efforts spurred the EU to stop funding the PA's illegal actions, the EU continues to fund the agricultural projects that are equally dangerous to Israel's future.
Israeli leaders who lack the will to stop the PA's illegal land grabs are betraying their own citizens.
Regavim's exposure of both the PA's duplicity and the Israeli government's irresponsibility affects the Middle East Forum's Israel Victory Project (IVP), which aims to convince the Palestinians that Israel is "tough, determined, and enduring" so that Arabs understand the war against Israel is lost. In Deutsch's words, the PA's strategy following Fayyad's plan against Israel is a continuation of the original "battle for independence" that never resolved Israel's claim to its ancestral land.
The PA has accelerated its battle plan in the past decade by exploiting the moribund international proposals launched since the Oslo Accords. Deutsch said that every year finds the PA helping itself to a "percent" of Israel's Area C without consequence. Israeli leaders who lack the will to reverse the PA's "death by a thousand cuts" of the nation's birthright are betraying its citizens, Deutsch lamented. Those enduring terrorist and missile attacks to live in their own country, and who serve and defend the Jewish state, are left to the mercies of an advancing adversary.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.