x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

EU has leverage to stop West Bank demolition work

European outrage against the treatment of Palestinians is growing, and it's time the EU put some pressure on Israel.

When Israeli president Shimon Peres visited Athens this week for a series of high level meetings with his Greek counterpart, he was probably not thinking of the Palestinian village of Al Khader.

Just outside of Bethlehem, Al Khader is one of the many villages dotting the West Bank that carry the potential to challenge the newly upgraded Israeli-European Union relationship.

Large natural gasfields recently discovered off the Haifa area have thrust Israel into the unlikely position of being a strategic asset to the European Union at a time of uncertainty over energy security.

Diplomatically, the European Union appears to be in its weakest position ever for influencing Israeli policy on the Palestinians. However, EU humanitarian aid projects which improve the living conditions of Palestinian farmers - like those in Al Khader - have the power to alter Israel's colonial aspirations in the West Bank.

Land theft and poverty engulfed villages like Al Khader after the halcyon Oslo years of the mid 1990s. This spurred a significant influx of international donor aid for the fledgling Palestinian economy. This aid has created a false sense of economic prosperity in major cities like Ramallah, but it has also had real effect on the lives of Palestinian farmers both in Gaza and in the West Bank.

Al Khader, nestled on a gentle slope typical of the rolling hills outside Jerusalem, has lost several square kilometres of land to the construction of Israel's controversial separation barrier since 2001.

In recent years, the Netherlands Representative Office and a local NGO have funded an elaborate project aimed at making life sustainable for residents by building water cisterns and helping with other farming infrastructure.

Permits for the project proved impossible to obtain, due to the intransigence of Israel's military government in the West Bank. Work went ahead anyway, but now the project is at risk of demolition.

Al Khader sits in Area C of the West Bank, which under the Oslo framework is under full civil and military control of the Israeli military government. Matters ranging from the construction of houses to water access are strictly supervised by the military government under a stringent permit system.

Observers have noted that the consistent refusal to grant permits such as those needed in Al Khader has resulted in Palestinian flight from Area C to larger towns and villages under the Palestinian Authority. And once Palestinians leave, the land is quickly swallowed up by Israel to be used for future settlements, military bases, training areas or firing zones.

To protect its policy in Area C, Israel has acted forcefully against the work of international organisations on the ground. In July, the military government claimed that the work of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) was illegal and "overstepping its bounds" in Area C.

Throughout Al Khader signs are proudly displayed announcing the generous gifts of the Dutch. But now at least six water cisterns, which have been partially funded by the Dutch, are at risk of demolition. In one case, villagers say that Israel is forcing them to destroy a water cistern themselves.

The latest European Union figures say that from 2001 to 2011, €50 million (Dh227m) worth of West Bank and Gaza development projects fully or partially funded by the EU have been demolished or destroyed by Israel. Schools, cultural centres, farming installations and green energy projects have been destroyed.

Some call this a coordinated effort to remove Palestinians from areas Israel wants to annex.

Israeli natural gas and how to transport it to lucrative European markets were expected to be a prime topic of the talks between Mr Peres and his Greek counterparts.

Beyond natural gas, Israel's economic partnership with Greece, which remains teetering on the brink of collapse, reinforces its position of influence in the euro zone. During last year's flotilla mission to Gaza, the Greek government prevented ships full of pro-Palestinian activists from leaving Athenian ports. Some say this was at the request of Israel,

The recent upgrade in relations between Israel and the EU showcases the new contours of the relationship. While European civil society is angry about Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and many European citizens are pushing their governments to act, the economic relationship is simply too strong to allow for any meaningful EU pressure that would cause Israel to change course.

The uncertainty hanging over the Middle East and its revolutions only strengthens Israel's position as a stable country that will soon be a major natural gas exporter.

However, humanitarian projects on the ground in villages like Al Khader remain a concrete area in which the EU can influence the nature of Israeli occupation.

As the figures demonstrate, EU projects assisting Palestinians in forgotten corners of the West Bank have been systematically targeted by the Israeli military, precisely because they are effective.

On Wednesday, EU diplomats based in Jerusalem and Ramallah visited the southern West Bank and declared, in no uncertain words, the European commitment to keep providing development funds, saying they expect Israel to protect these investments.

A contest has started over these projects, and the question now is how far the European Union will go in defending its investments.

The issue is not if Israel is going to push the European Union around, but how far it will be able to do so.


Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah

On Twitter: @ibnezra