The Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (1995) between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) partitioned the West Bank into three administrative zones: Area A, B, and C. Areas A and B currently make up 39% of the West Bank (18% and 21%). The PA is responsible for internal security in these territories (only partially in Area B), and has authority over civilian (Palestinian) affairs, such as education and health. The Israeli military exercises full control over external security and continues to exercise dominion over crucial areas of government. Area C, which dissects and engulfs areas A and B, makes up 61% of the West Bank. In Area C, both security and Palestinian civil affairs are under full Israeli control, including planning, building, and development. The territory has roughly 400,000 Israeli settlers and, according to the United Nations, up to 300,000 Palestinians (Israeli statistics cite anywhere between 150,000-180,000 Palestinians in Area C).
Under the Oslo Agreements, power and responsibility over Area C was to be gradually transferred to the PA. Instead, the area has long been a target for piecemeal, incremental annexation by the Israeli government, namely though settlement construction and land expropriation. Today, 70% of Area C (or 42% of the West Bank) is off limits to Palestinian development, while construction, as well as agricultural and economic activity, is heavily restricted by the Israeli military and its strict permit regime within the remaining 30% of the territory. According to the United Nations, these measures, combined with home demolitions, have created a “highly coercive environment” intended to ethnically cleanse the area of its indigenous Palestinian population.
Indeed, as Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party, has admitted, Israel wants to annex Area C through a process of “changing the global view” about the Israeli occupation. The idea is to compel Palestinians to leave Area C for Areas A and B, while working gradually to annex settlement blocs, all in a way that does not arouse international attention or opposition.
In recent years, Israel has stepped up its efforts to annex Area C, with more MKs and senior government figures introducing bills designed to legally absorb settlement blocs stretching from the E1 corridor (northeast of Jerusalem) towards Hebron in the south and the Jordan Valley to the east. In the meantime, the Israeli military has continued to clear the path for annexation by making life unbearable for Palestinians in Area C.
The district of Masafer Yatta is located in Area C near the Green Line in the South Hebron Hills. It is made up of Yatta, the largest community in the region, and some thirty satellite villages to its south and east that are home to roughly 4,000 residents. Since the 1970s, Palestinians living in a cluster of over a dozen villages and hamlets in the district have been targeted for expulsion. Israel has attempted to squeeze out these inhabitants by creating closed military zones on their lands and preventing construction and development in their towns. As a result, with few exceptions, Palestinians living in these areas have been left without adequate infrastructure, including water and electricity, and been forced to build illegally. The Israeli military has responded to these “illegal” structures by demolishing them.
In recent months, the Israeli military has tightened its noose around Masafer Yatta and the South Hebron Hills. According to a recent report from Israeli rights group B’TSelem, since November 2017, the military has imposed harsh travel restrictions to stifle movement in and out of the region. In early November, villagers were cut off from the main artery road and long-standing self-made dirt paths with makeshift roadblocks, mainly piles of sand and rock. In late December, the military replaced these makeshift roadblocks on the road and paths with deep trenches, thereby sealing off the communities of Masafer Yatta from other towns and cities. As a result, several communities have had difficulty accessing medical and school services, and cannot receive large amounts of goods. According to local residents, these measures are designed to make life increasingly difficult and force their “voluntary” transfer to Areas A and B.
Pro-annexation politicians, such as Naftali Bennett and Agricultural Minister Uri Ariel, insist that the annexation of Area C is demographically sustainable for Israel because it would only require absorbing 50,000-80,000 Palestinians. While their figures far underestimate the number of Palestinians currently living in Area C, they may very well be articulating the optimal, target number acceptable for any future annexation bid.