The price Palestinians pay for the neglect of Qalqilya
The West Bank’s most densely populated Palestinian city, Qalqilya has been eagerly awaiting implementation of the Israeli plan that would allow it to double its size by expanding into land that has until now been off-limits.
“We desperately need this plan because of the density,” said Mayor Hashem al-Masri.
“It will be a catastrophe if we can’t expand. It will feel like someone is trying to drive us out of our city.”
The fate of Qalqilya, which lies along the de facto Israeli border and is surrounded on three sides by Israel’s apartheid wall, touches on one of the conflict’s thorniest issues: the battle over the 60 percent of the West Bank known as Area C.
Under interim peace accords reached two decades ago, Area C remained under full Israeli control, and Israel has repeatedly rejected calls to allow large-scale Palestinian development there.
These restrictions have made life difficult for Qalqilya’s 53,000 residents, who live on just over 1.5 square miles (four square kilometres) of land. Because of the separation barrier, the only way it can expand is east – into privately owned Palestinian lands in Area C. The plan calls for building more than 14,000 new housing units, an industrial park, playgrounds, a waste management plant and a cemetery.
|The years of occupation have not allowed for natural growth and it’s an injustice to leave people locked in like this... Qalqilya will not disappear|
Qalqilya has been among the quietest cities in the West Bank, and has even been singled out by Israel’s nationalist defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as a model. Its planned expansion is one of the flagships of Lieberman’s “carrot and stick” policy toward the Palestinians.
Qalqilya was once a regular shopping destination for Israelis. Palestinians would cross into Israel freely for jobs, and some locals can still fondly recall leisurely riding their bikes to Israeli beaches on the Mediterranean. But all that changed after a crackdown on Palestinians after the second intifada.
It’s now a sleepy city that produces agriculture and not much else. It’s mostly known for housing a popular West Bank zoo, a decrepit menagerie by Western standards that is famous for the taxidermy of its deceased animals.
With the backing of the Israeli military, Israel’s Cabinet approved the expansion plan last year. But once settlers, angry that their own housing construction permits had been limited under US pressure, got wind of it they launched an angry campaign against Lieberman and Major General Yoav Mordechai, who heads the Israeli defence body for Palestinian civilian affairs, accusing them of being soft on Palestinians.
As Qalqilya officials await Israeli approval, antsy residents have already begun illegally building concrete structures in outlying farmlands overlooking Israeli communities, even at the risk of being demolished.
Rassem Khamaisi, a professor of urban planning at Haifa University who drew up the planned expansion, says Israel must allow the city to breathe, with or without a peace deal.
“The years of occupation have not allowed for natural growth and it’s an injustice to leave people locked in like this,” he said. “Qalqilya will not disappear.”
Abdel-Momen Afaneh, a senior city administrator, said the city had a natural interest in maintaining calm since 4,000 residents have permits to work in Israel, but if strangled, he said, the tough conditions could breed violence.
He said the proposed expansion, already scaled back to address Israeli security concerns, is the absolute minimum needed for a city projected to reach 80,000 residents within 20 years. “If this is rejected, the city will not rise again,” he said.
At City Hall, the mayor rejected any warnings that its expansion would harm Israel.
“Who is threatening whom?” al-Masri asked. “We just want our rights, our natural right to grow.”