As is is well known, many members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government are strident opponents of a two-state solution and would like to annex at least a major portion of the occupied West Bank.
Until recently, many in the international community assumed that Netanyahu would block such moves and continue his policy of paying lip service to the goal of a two-state solution, while blocking any meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians and allowing the Israeli settler population of the West Bank to slowly but steadily expand.
But recent developments may indicate that Netanyahu has decided to take his foot off the brakes. Construction within the settlements has accelerated significantly while more and more members of the Cabinet are calling for Israel to officially annex the 60 percent of the West Bank known as Area C. Within the settlements, giant placards are springing up reading, "Sovereignty! Now is the time."
Under interim agreements signed in the 1990s with the Palestinians, the West Bank was divided into three zones. In Area A, comprising about 18 percent of the land including the major Palestinian cities, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is supposed to run things without Israeli interference -- although the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service frequently mount raids inside this area.
Area B is around 22 percent of the West Bank and is mainly rural. Israel retained security control of the area but the PA is supposed to control civil affairs.
Area C comprises over 60 percent of the territory and is under almost total Israeli military control, including control of all land-related civil matters. That means Israel controls land allocation, planning and construction and infrastructure.
The size of the Palestinian population of Area C is disputed. Right-wing Israeli politicians like Education Minister Naftali Bennett claim there are only 50,000 Palestinians living there and therefore Israel could easily annex the territory and grant them Israeli citizenship without altering significantly the demographic balance within Israel.
However, the United Nations says there are 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C. Israeli civil rights organizations like B'Tselem put the number at around 200,000. The dispute arises because many Palestinian towns and villages fall partly in Areas A or B and partly in Area C. Area C also holds virtually all of the Israeli settler population of the West Bank - now around 350,000 plus.
For many years, the Israeli authorities have been behaving as if Area C will one day become part of Israel. Obviously, there can be no Palestinian state if it does. The Israeli Civil Administration has methodically blocked virtually all Palestinian construction and attempts at economic development and systematically taken over more and more land and brought it under Israeli control and ownership.
According to B'Tselem:
-- 36.5 percent of Area C land is defined by Israel as "state land".
-- 63 percent is within settler local and regional councils.
-- 20 percent is under examination by the authorities with a view to retaining them as government property.
-- 30 percent is defined as "live fire zones."
-- 14 percent has been declared nature reserves or national parks.
The Civil Administration almost never grants Palestinians living in Area C building permits, forcing them to build illegally. According to a UN report last September, more than 11,000 demolition orders are currently outstanding in Area C. These orders - which affect an estimated 13,000 Palestinian-owned structures, including homes - are among the over 14,000 demolition orders issued by the Israeli Civil Administration between 1988 and 2014.
Israel's civil administration deputy head Uri Mendes said earlier this month his office is cracking down on illegal Palestinian building and destroying all such structures, save for those that are the subject of legal cases or are protected by a court injunction.
The EU is fighting back against this policy, providing funds for Palestinians to build even without permits, believing this is crucial for their economic development. Thus, a serious clash is developing on this issue between the Europeans and the Netanyahu government.
The future of the two-state solution is playing out in Area C, which has most of the land of a future Palestinian state. This area should be designated for developing and expanding existing Palestinian communities. They are also crucial for building and locating infrastructure such as waste treatment facilities and industrial zones, which cannot be placed in cities. This land has vital mineral and water resources. To give just one example, Human Rights Watch recently reported that Israel gets 25 percent of its quarrying materials from the West Bank and that 94 of the stone quarried in the West Bank goes to Israel.
Israel's policy in Area C of creeping de facto annexation is now turning into galloping annexation. The world, led by the United States, should start paying more attention before it is too late.