A Palestinian woman and child with their sheep in Al Dairat Rifaiyya, where more than half of the homes are built on land owned by the villagers but without Israel’s approval. Image Credit: AFP

Al Dairat, Palestine: It was a large house with three floors and freshly painted pale blue shutters that had just been built for a family of 17.

But within a few hours of work by a pair of Israeli bulldozers, all that was left was a mountain of rubble and twisted metal.

Like more than half of the homes in Al Dairat-Rifaiyya — a village of 1,800 Palestinians on a windswept hillside in the southern West Bank — the house was built on land owned by the villagers but without the Israeli occupier’s approval.

Left without a roof over their heads and unwilling to try building again, the family moved away to rented accommodation in a nearby town.

It is a scenario that plays out hundreds of times a year across most of the West Bank, where the Israeli regime has made it all-but-impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits.

The result is wide-scale construction the occupying regime says is “illegal”, which is then demolished by the Israelis in a policy that has drawn widespread condemnation.

The question of Israel’s iron grip on all planning matters in what is known as “Area C” — which covers more than 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank — is now being debated by the regime’s supreme court.

In a landmark appeal, Al Dairat village, Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights and three other organisations are demanding the regime end its discriminatory housing policies and return local planning rights to Palestinians.

Giving Palestinians control over their own planning would curb the need for “illegal” building, thereby halting house demolitions, say the petitioners, who have made their case before the Supreme Court and are now waiting for a final ruling.

The appeal also raises the question of forced displacement of local Palestinians as a result of planning failure and the practice of house demolitions — both of which are banned under international law.

“Planning is not seen as a right, it is seen as something ... that the Israeli government can bestow or withdraw,” says Arik Ascherman, president of Rabbis for Human Rights.

UN figures show there are 298,000 Palestinians living in Area C alongside 341,000 Israelis in 135 colonies and another 100 or so colony outposts.

Area C covers 360,000 hectares but less than one per cent of it is designated for Palestinian development, compared to 70 per cent for Jews-only colonies, the UN says.

Until the 1967 Six Day War, the Palestinians had their own planning committees, but these were disbanded by Israeli military order in 1971, while special bodies were set up for colonies.

The result is a two-tier system — a civil and consultative planning system for Jewish colonists and a military system without representation for Palestinians.

“The result is an ongoing and deepening planning failure and the massive destruction of Palestinian homes in Area C,” urban planning expert Professor Ghassan Khamaiseh wrote in an affidavit to the court.

Last year Israel demolished 601 Palestinian-owned structures, displacing 1,215 people.

The UN said it was the highest annual number of people affected by the policy since it began keeping records in 2008.

In the same period only one Palestinian request for a building permit was granted, Israeli rights group Bimkom says.

“The only thing that can happen right now that can really change the situation is to return planning authority to Palestinian hands,” Ascherman says.

In Al Dairat, where most houses lack an Israeli permit, the threat of demolition hangs over everyone.

“It is a very hard feeling because every day, you see jeeps passing, you think they’re coming to demolish your house,” says Mohammad Al Umur, a 59-year-old farmer who has four wives and 30 children.

“This is both a psychological and a financial war with no limit. The feeling is indescribable,” says Al Umur, who has ploughed all his income and that of his sons into defending and then rebuilding four family homes that were razed.

“Everyone living here who is over 45 has had at least one house demolished — some of them have been through it two, three or four times,” says Mohammed Al Adra, a taxi driver with 25 children.

“The aim of this is to make us leave,” he says.

The Israeli defence ministry’s Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Palestinian Territories confirms that planning policy is subject to political approval.

“The Civil Administration’s planning committee examines and promotes construction plans equitably, dependant on the fact that these plans meet the relevant planning criteria and their promotion is approved by the political echelon,” it said in a statement, without giving further detail.

Planning is meant to be a purely civilian issue but in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it has been politicised, Ascherman says.

“Israel’s greatest desire is to claim as much of Area C as possible so there’s a great interest in keeping it as clear as possible of Palestinians.”