LUBBAN AL-SHARKIYEH, West Bank (AP) — Ahmed Awais is desperate to get out of his parents' cramped home where he, his wife and three preschool children share one room, sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
Six months ago, the Palestinian laborer began building a small house on land owned by his family. But last week his dream of a more comfortable life came to a halt.
An Israeli army jeep pulled up at his construction site on the outskirts of Lubban al-Sharkiyeh and officials handed him a stop-work order with a date for a demolition hearing. Awais, 30, like others in his village, hadn't bothered to ask for a building permit since Israel rarely grants them to Palestinians.
On a nearby hilltop, on the other side of a main West Bank highway, the Israeli settlement of Eli continues to grow, with about 20 apartments currently under construction. Eli was built over the last 30 years without legal planning and permits, according to an Israel defense official, and the government is only now promoting a master plan for 620 homes to legalize building retroactively.
"The settlers are building homes. Each of their boys and girls has a room and even the dog has a room," Awais said. But if the hearing goes against him, the modest structure on his own small plot will likely be bulldozed. "This is my land and I am not allowed to build in it," he said, taking a break from mixing concrete.
Lubban al-Sharkiyeh and Eli illustrate what critics say is an accelerating Israeli policy to suppress Palestinian development while tightening Israel's hold over the more than 60 percent of the West Bank that remains under sole Israeli control.
The land, known as "Area C" under interim peace accords, is home to some 350,000 Jewish settlers. It also is a key point of contention in U.S.-led peace talks.
Israel denies it's trying to restrict Palestinian growth there. But critics say Israel's policies in Area C suggest it wants as few Palestinians as possible on lands whose ultimate fate is still under dispute.
Israel seeks to keep large chunks of Area C, while the Palestinians demand a near-total Israeli pullout so they can establish a state in the West Bank along with two other territories Israel captured in 1967, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
The talks have entered a decisive phase, with the U.S. pressing both sides to reach agreement on the contours of a final deal by the end of April. However, gaps remain wide.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he supports the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, but never submitted a proposal for drawing a border.
A former Netanyahu aide, Yoaz Hendel, said the prime minister wants a partition deal that allows Israel to keep "maximum land and minimum" Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israel's policies in Area C contradict Netanyahu's peace pledges, said Lior Amihai of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now. "A government that intends to find a solution to the conflict would certainly not enhance its hold in the heart of the West Bank," he said.
Maj. Guy Inbar, an Israeli Defense Ministry official, denied Israel applies different planning rules for settlers and Palestinians in Area C.
Still, Israel has issued a record number of demolition orders for Palestinian properties since 2010, while settlement housing starts more than doubled last year, compared to the year before, according to official Israeli figures.
The international community has urged Israel to freeze settlement activity and lift restrictions on Palestinian development in Area C. The World Bank has said that if Palestinians could build and develop there, they would be able to expand their struggling economy by one-third.
A U.N. survey published Wednesday said close to 90 percent of Palestinians in Area C feel their livelihood is being harmed by Israeli planning restrictions. The survey, based on information from 532 Palestinian communities, also indicated that the total Palestinian population is close to 300,000, nearly double a previous estimate.
"By understanding the gravity and extent of the problem, we hope at least some of the (Israeli) measures can be lifted," said Ramesh Rajasingham, head of the area's U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Defense official Inbar said the Civil Administration, the branch of the military dealing with civilian affairs in the West Bank, tries to enforce the law equally against settlers and Palestinians who build illegally.
However, the Civil Administration has failed to remove dozens of settlement outposts established without formal government approval. Inbar said some outposts have been removed and that many Palestinian homes built without permits have not been demolished.
The Israeli group Bimkom, which calls for equal planning rights for Palestinians, said it's virtually impossible for Palestinians in Area C to receive Israeli building permits.
In 2010, Palestinians submitted 444 requests for permits and only four were granted, according to Bimkom, citing data obtained through freedom of information requests.
At the same time, Israel issued more than 4,000 demolition orders against Palestinian homes and structures in the past four years, or roughly a third of the 25-year-total of 12,500, Bimkom said. Of these, 2,450 orders were carried out, including 787 since 2010.
By contrast, no houses were ever demolished in Eli. Inbar said the government had sanctioned the establishment of the settlement in the 1980s, but never approved a building plan there. A master plan is still going through the approval process, Inbar said.
Amiad Cohen, an Eli resident, said the Civil Administration is turning a blind eye to illegal Palestinian construction while dragging its feet on approving building in his community. "The Palestinians are doing whatever they want," he said.
In Lubban al-Sharkiyeh, 16 houses have demolition orders pending, including eight issued recently and four dating back 10 years, said Mayor Abdel Hadi Awais, a member of a large clan that many village residents belong to. In 2000, four houses and a cattle shack were demolished, he said.
The village has lost land to Eli and another settlement, Maale Levona, he said. About 60 percent of the village is in Area C, and the rest, including most of the built-up area, belongs to areas under Palestinian self-rule. Almost all hilltops around the village have been taken by settlers.
In areas where the Palestinian Authority is in charge — about 38 percent of the West Bank — building permits are relatively easy to obtain. Still, expanding families, including in Lubban al-Sharkiyeh, often have no place to go since many can't afford to buy land in the self-rule areas.
Another village resident, 53-year-old Mohammed Awais, said his only choice was to build on his own land, in Area C, and take the risk of doing so without a permit. The demolition order came in 2003, three years after he began building, and he's been engaged in legal battles since then.
When army jeeps enter the village, as they did last week to distribute new demolition orders, he said his heart skips because he fears his house will be razed.
"They (the settlers) became the owners of the land and we became the settlers," he said.
Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.