Pictured: Illegal land seizures of thousands of acres in the West Bank, funded by the European Union under the guise of “agricultural assistance.” EU funding is facilitating a massive program of land theft by the Palestinian Authority. (Image source: Regavim)
Under the guise of “agricultural assistance,” the Palestinian Authority is taking over Area C (the area placed under full Israeli jurisdiction in the Oslo Accords, pending a full peace agreement which would establish sovereignty over the area for one side or the other), with the help of massive European financial support — in violation of the law, and of international agreements signed by the EU.
Over the past decade, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has implemented a long-term program aimed at taking control of strategic locations in Area C of the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria. The PA’s apparent objective is to annex these areas and bring them under PA control, as part of its larger plan for the unilateral creation of a Palestinian state. This plan was publicized in 2009, in an official PA document written by then-Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; since its publication, it has been carried out virtually unhindered, with the help of massive European funding.
Since 2013 there has been a marked acceleration of the plan’s execution, mainly through intensive, large-scale agricultural activity, with the understanding that this tactic, as opposed to illegal construction, enables the PA to take control of vast tracts of land relatively quickly. This activity, carried out under the umbrella of the Palestinian Authority’s “Roots Project” (جذور or Juthoor), enables massive land grabs to be more easily presented to international media outlets and foreign benefactors as “humanitarian aid.”
The key actor in these land-grab projects is the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC). With branch offices throughout Judea and Samaria, UAWC maintains close organizational and operational ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a terror organization that has carried out many deadly attacks against Israel’s citizens, including numerous suicide bombings in the 2000s. UAWC is funded, for the most part, by European governments and humanitarian aid organizations, and by the European Union.
The majority of UAWC’s activities are carried out in Area C. Among the more central projects: Illegal seizure of thousands of dunams of land through agricultural use, illegal seizure of water sources, and creation of new roads, ostensibly to facilitate Palestinian farmers’ access to agricultural areas. These activities are concentrated in areas of strategic importance, particularly areas adjacent to Jewish settlements and the security barrier, as well as locations in Area C that serve as a buffer zone between Areas A and B (which are under full or partial Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, respectively).
Needless to say, all of this activity is carried out unilaterally, without permits or coordination with the State of Israel — in violation of the law that is in force in these areas, in violation of the Oslo Accords, and in violation of international law.
A non-governmental organization, Regavim, dedicated to preserving Israel’s land resources and promoting a forward-thinking land-use policy, has conducted precise documentation and mapping of PA activity in the field, and culled information regarding EU funding for UAWC activities by monitoring Palestinian and European Union publications, media reports, and internet coverage (such as this recent video which boasts of extensive illegal activity). The results of this research, which were presented in a comprehensive report to the Knesset Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Judea and Samaria, are summarized in “The Roots of Evil.”
The Political Context – The Battle for Control of Judea and Samaria
In the “Interim Agreement between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority” signed in Oslo in 1993 (“The Oslo Accord“) between Israel and the leaders of the PLO, the State of Israel officially recognized what had openly operated as a terrorist organization, and allowed it to establish a Palestinian Authority to oversee autonomous Arab governance in parts of Judea and Samaria.
Under these accords, Judea and Samaria were divided into three regions: Area A was placed under full Palestinian civil and security jurisdiction; Area B was assigned to PA civil control, while Israel remained responsible for security; and Area C, which was placed under full Israeli civil and security jurisdiction. Despite the fact that, in practice, many of the Oslo Accords’ clauses were never activated and other elements are no longer relevant, the division of jurisdictional authority remains in force.
Almost a decade ago, then-Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Salam Fayyad began to promote a unilateral program for the creation of “an independent, fully autonomous Arab state on all of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as per the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital.” A central element of the Fayyad Plan is the attempt to deepen the PA’s official administrative presence specifically in Area C and to establish de facto annexation of the territory, based on the underlying assumption that Areas A and B have already been “taken care of” by the Oslo Accords.
The implementation of this program of “creeping annexation” is carried out on two parallel tracks. The first involves cooperation with Israel: The PA submits requests to the relevant Israeli authorities for approval of “special priority” construction projects; generally, international funding for these projects is contingent upon a “seal of approval” from Israel. The second track, which is far more widespread, is the creation of facts on the ground, through extensive illegal construction and development, obviously without coordination or permission of the Israeli authorities. The projects in this illegal track are planned and executed according to a clear, systematic master plan that aims to create territorial contiguity for the future Palestinian state while disrupting the growth and contiguity of Israeli communities.
Over the past number of years, the illegal track has become not only more pronounced but more “creative,” using agricultural work to establish facts on the ground — in violation of the law in force in this region, in violation of the Oslo Accords which stipulate that the State of Israel is the sole sovereign over this territory, in violation of international law.
The PA has enjoyed the diplomatic support of European countries for decades. Although the European Union was an active participant in the formulation of the Oslo Accords and its representatives participated in the signing ceremony, in recent years the EU has actively funded many of the PA’s illegal activities in Area C, contributing to the very projects that undermine those accords by taking unilateral steps to create a Palestinian state encompassing all of Judea and Samaria.
Palestinian “civil society” organizations and the PA itself have received massive practical and economic support from European governments and organizations. European funding, as well as diplomatic support and other forms of active participation, have been channeled directly to Fayyad Plan projects.
One of the methods employed by the European Union to create a de facto Palestinian state is to block the development of infrastructure and expansion of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria through Palestinian construction and agriculture. Over the last several years, the EU has built more than 2,000 structures in Area C for the Palestinian population, creating or supporting dozens of illegal settlement clusters, without requesting or receiving construction permits or coordinating these projects with the relevant Israeli authorities. In fact, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu protested the EU’s blatant violation of the law, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini gave an official commitment to desist from any additional illegal construction in the E1 area – but not in the rest of Area C. All of the EU-funded construction projects, agricultural projects, and infrastructure projects in Area C are clearly designed to establish territorial contiguity for the Palestinian Authority presence, in an attempt to preclude the possibility of annexation or development of these areas by Israel in the future. All are carried out illegally, in contravention of Israeli jurisdiction over this territory, under the guise of European Union Foreign Affairs Council humanitarian aid to needy Palestinian communities in Judea and Samaria.
The Legal Context – Ottoman Property Law in the Service of Land Expropriation
The law in force in Area C of Judea and Samaria, which is under full Israeli jurisdiction, is comprised of many layers of legal systems, including Ottoman law, Mandatory law, Jordanian law, military rule, international law, as well as legislative acts of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. In general, however, the essential underpinnings of property law in Area C rest upon Ottoman law.
According to Ottoman law and Israeli Supreme Court decisions that continue to enforce it, uncultivated land belongs to the sovereign – in this case, the State of Israel. Additionally, some of the land in Area C is classified as “survey land” – tracts that are not registered as privately owned, which the sovereign (the Israeli government) is in the process of regulating and registering as state land.
A private individual may be granted ownership of agricultural land (as per section 78 of the Ottoman Legal Code) if he held and cultivated the land in question for a consecutive period of several years (the precise period required is dictated by the nature of the land parcel itself).
Thus, a person who poaches land and uses it for agricultural purposes may claim ownership or other rights to the land in question
, simply by claiming to have worked the land for a number of years. Palestinian land-use projects exploit this “loophole” in Ottoman law to great advantage.
Activities carried out under the Roots Project, the systematic program of land seizure in Area C, are presented as agricultural projects; nonetheless, many of these types of work – erecting fences and walls, excavation with heavy machinery, creation of roads, and more – require building permits, which they obviously do not have. On the other hand, the law is meticulously enforced against Jewish construction, resulting in what can best be described as “reverse apartheid:” A number of draconian regulations are applied exclusively to Jewish residents of Area C, such as “delimiting orders” and “obstructive use orders,” which empower the authorities to demolish structures en masse and to bar residents, without due process, from contested areas.
The Union of Agricultural Work Committees – The Operational Arm of the Land Seizure Enterprise
The Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) is the main operational arm of the PA’s plan to seize control of Area C and to create a de facto Palestinian state in this territory.
The Union, headquartered in Ramallah, is comprised of more than 65 branches of local agricultural councils throughout Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. With more than 100 employees, its annual budget exceeds 5 million euros (nearly $6 million USD). Its budget is based mainly on direct and indirect donations from foreign sources, including the European Union and the United Nations, and the governments of France, Norway, and Holland.
UAWC has both overt and covert ties to the terrorist organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and its activities are carried out in coordination with the Palestinian security apparatus and other Palestinian judicial bodies.
Both the PFLP and UAWC have attempted to obscure their close ties
, in order to portray the civilian organization as an independent non-profit entity. Notwithstanding their efforts, there is clear evidence of their ideological and financial interdependence: An internal document prepared for the American humanitarian organization USAID in 1993 stated that the UAWC is “[t]he PFLP’s agricultural organization” and “The PFLP’s agricultural extension services are provided by the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC).” In fact, the PLO’s dominant Fatah faction identified the UAWC as an “affiliate” of the PFLP.
The affiliation of the UAWC with the PFLP is ongoing, despite the classification of the PFLP as a terrorist organization both by the United States and the European Union. Senior figures in the PFLP hierarchy have served in senior positions in the UAWC, among them Jamil Muhamad Ismail Al Majdalawi, formerly the Vice President of the UAWC in Gaza, who is a well-known senior officer in the PFLP. He served as head of the political division of the PFLP in Gaza, and in 2013 acted as the PFLP’s representative to Fatah bodies in the Palestinian Authority. Bashar Al Khiri served as Chief of the PFLP’s Political Division in the early 2000s. He was arrested and imprisoned by the State of Israel, and after his release served as President of the UAWC Advisory Board from 2005-2010.
One of the European organizations that provides financial support for UAWC activities is Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), a Norwegian society that describes itself as “committed to building democratic society and to strengthening people’s ability to take control of their own lives.” NPA describes itself as non-political, although its views are not neutral. Thus, it “supports organizations that represent weak or vulnerable populations, particularly if they resist or are in conflict with those in power.” NPA lists UAWC as one of its partner organizations in Palestine.
NPA, which was supported by the American government’s humanitarian aid program USAID for many years, was brought up on charges of supporting terrorism by the US Department of Justice in 2017. In the course of the trial, which was concluded in 2018, the NPA admitted to supporting Iran, Hamas, and a number of other terror organizations.
From 2016 to 2018, NPA received 32,000,000 Norwegian kroner (3,320,000 euros – nearly $4 million USD) from the government of Norway (out of a total commitment of 50 million kroner) for joint UAWC-NPA projects.
In fact, the terrorist ties of the UAWC have not deterred the EU, which earmarked 3.6 million euros to the UAWC to run the Roots Project in the Bethlehem area in 2014, and funded 90% of its overall budget. Under the auspices of the Roots Project, a representative of the EU visited the area in order to report on the progress of the initiative and provide an overview of the UAWC’s activities.
In March 2015 the inaugural ceremony for the Roots Project was held in Bethlehem. The EU’s ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, John Gatt-Ruter, an honored guest, addressed the ceremony:
“The projects the European Union will carry out for the residents of Area C are essential, particularly in the agricultural sector, which is an important segment of the economy. This project will contribute to assistance for Palestinian farmers … and establishing Palestinian facts on the ground … The Union of Agricultural Work Committees has demonstrated its ability to carry out agricultural projects in many Palestinian areas, and the relationship with the European Union is the result of the successes achieved by the UAWC.” [Emphasis added.]
Conclusions and Recommendations
In the past decade, the Palestinian Authority has made a concerted effort to gain control over as much land in Area C as possible. In recent years, and in particular since 2013, the Palestinians have intensified agricultural activity as a means of quickly and efficiently seizing large swaths of land under the guise of humanitarian aid for farmers. This activity is illegal, and violates the international treaties to which the PA is a signatory. But this has not troubled foreign governments and organizations, including the European Union, who continue to bankroll this illegal activity – while at the same time vocally criticizing the State of Israel.
Because of the large-scale strategic consequences of the Palestinian program of land seizure, this problem cannot be addressed as a case-by-case, localized problem. The larger picture must be taken into consideration, and the European Union must cease its unbridled intervention in the internal affairs of a democratic state (Israel) and its wholesale violations of international law and treaty – activities that entrench Palestinian intransigence, cripple the prospect for a negotiated settlement, and endanger the security of Israelis in a very real and immediate sense.
Naomi Linder Kahn is Director of the International Division of Regavim.