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Palestinians in West Bank's Area C suffer in limbo

MALEH, West Bank — In remote Palestinian villages of the northern Jordan Valley, children read by gas lamp, and water must be purchased from miles away, even when electricity lines and water pipes to Israeli settlements run directly past their homes.

Near Nablus, a Palestinian farmer whose home is nearly surrounded by Jewish communities says settlers frequently harass him, digging up crops, and once poisoning his cow.

And in Khader, south of Jerusalem, a carjacker once escaped Palestinian police by simply crossing the street into a part of town under Israeli jurisdiction.

These are snapshots of an increasingly difficult reality for the tens of thousands of Palestinians living in a part of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control.

Though Israel's military occupies the entire West Bank, it has permitted a degree of autonomy in and around large Palestinian cities, zones known under the 1995 Oslo II accords as Area A and B.

But the remainder of the West Bank, designated Area C, remains under both Israeli security and administrative control. It houses less than 5% of the Palestinian population, but more than 60% of the land.

Most of Area C had been expected by both sides to be handed over to Palestinian control by the end of the 1990s, but after failed statehood talks and a violent Palestinian uprising, a transfer never took place.

That's left as many as 150,000 Palestinians — Israel puts the figure at 90,000 — living in limbo in the shadow of expanding Jewish settlements.

Largely cut off from the services and rights afforded to their Palestinian brethren living under Palestinian Authority control, those in Area C say Israel is slowly trying to drive them off the land by demolishing homes, withholding basic services, freezing growth and seizing property for firing ranges and military outposts.

At the same time, the number of Israeli settlers has tripled since Area C was created. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's last government approved a record number of tenders for new settlement construction and moved to legitimize nearly a dozen outposts that it and previous Israeli governments had once deemed illegal and promised to tear down, according to Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group.

With Netanyahu's reelection, many Palestinians in Area C fear that the pressure on them will only grow.

"It's a land grab," said Palestinian Authority negotiator Ashraf Khatib, who believes that some in Netanyahu's government hope to annex Area C to avoid dismantling settlements and to exploit the fertile, water-rich Jordan Valley, already home to several large Israeli-owned date farms and vineyards.

A recently leaked European Union report concluded that Israeli policies in Area C have "undermined" the Palestinian presence and, in recent years, have led to a deterioration in basic services, including water, education and shelter.

During a recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry raised the issue of transferring some Area C land to Palestinian control.

Israelis deny any effort to make life harder for Palestinians in Area C and point to 328 infrastructure projects they approved for Palestinians in 2011 and through mid-2012, including seven electrical facilities, four medical clinics and six school renovations.

"Israel regularly approves dozens of international projects for the benefit of the Palestinian population," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

He said the situation is complicated because under the Oslo accords, some of the infrastructure and social programs for Area C were supposed to be provided by the Palestinian Authority. But critics say it is increasingly difficult for Israel to defend the stark differences in services and infrastructure provided to Palestinians and Israelis living under their control.

More than 70% of villages in Area C are not connected to a water network, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. That's largely why Palestinians use one-quarter to one-third of the water per capita that Israeli settlers do, according to studies by the World Bank and Amnesty International.

"Water pipes for settlers sometimes run five feet from our homes, but we are not allowed to have even one cup," said Arif Daraghmeh, the mayor of Maleh and head of a regional council representing about 3,000 Palestinians living in the northern Jordan Valley.

He says his family has lived in tiny Maleh for three generations, but Israel won't permit permanent structures, forcing most residents to live in tents or mud-brick homes.

Over the last two years, the number of demolition orders and evictions has soared, he said, while previously the community was largely ignored by Israel.

Just a few miles away is the Israeli settlement of Shadmot Mehola, a modern fenced community with red-roofed, two-story homes, street lamps and playgrounds. "They have everything and we get nothing," Daraghmeh said.

Israel says it is trying to balance its security requirements and the protection of settlers with the needs of Palestinians living in Area C.

According to a report by the military's Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, Israel approved 13 new master plans in 2006 for Palestinian communities and is working on 20 more.

But according to the U.N. humanitarian office, less than 1% of the land in Area C is planned for Palestinian development, after removing large tracts set aside for Israeli settlers and the military, wildlife preservation and other uses.

In 2012, 815 Palestinians in Area C were displaced after their homes were demolished because the residents did not have Israeli-issued permits, the U.N. office said.

But getting permits is difficult. Peace Now found that 94% of Palestinian applications were rejected from 2000 to 2007. During the same period, Israeli settlers constructed more than 18,000 homes, the group said.

Khaled Daraghmeh, 44, who is not related to Maleh's mayor, has been battling for years with settlers who surround the old commercial building he has converted into his home. They have gone to court to dispute his family's ownership claim on the property and an adjacent spring.

"My only crime is being here," said Daraghmeh, who moved into the building after settlers tried to take it over several years ago. "They just want to erase us from the land."

Palestinian officials say they are largely helpless to assist Palestinians in Area C, which they say suffers from higher rates of poverty, hunger and crime than Area A and B.

Efforts to build schools, roads or water wells in Area C are often blocked by Israel, they say. "We try to help with infrastructure, but everything must be approved and sometimes it takes years or is never allowed," said Nablus Gov. Jibreen Albakri.

Khader is one of several Palestinian towns operating under a patchwork of Israeli and Palestinian control. Sometimes the division between Areas A and C runs down the middle of a street, meaning Palestinian police can drive on only one side, said Ismail Issa, a Khader city councilman.

As well, residents on one side of the street can receive building permits, enjoy city-funded improvements like street lamps and parks, and rely on police protection. But those in Area C are restricted from developing their land and must fend for themselves, Issa said.

He said the city can't even get permission to build a fence to seal off a 100-foot cliff just 10 feet from a grade school because the edge of the mountain is in Area C.

"It was a lot easier to run this city before there was such a thing as Oslo," Issa said. "It's crazy."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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