Israel and EU Clash Over Settlements

RAMALLAH – The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s concern over an "unusually harsh statement" by the European Commission over Israel’s settlement policy indicates a growing unease between Israel and the EU.

The European Commission (EC), the executive arm of the EU, said that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank was strangling the Palestinian economy and forcing Palestinians there to become more dependent on foreign aid.

"It is the European taxpayers who pay most of the price of this dependence," read the July 6 EC statement.

According to the EC, expropriation of fertile Palestinian land for the settlements, the settlers-only bypass roads which serve them, and the hundreds of West Bank checkpoints manned by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have stunted Palestinian economic growth.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that $509 million is spent annually on maintaining Israeli settler roads and checkpoints. The bypass roads are meant to make it easier and quicker for Israeli settlers to reach Israel proper, while the checkpoints ostensibly serve their security.

OCHA released a report in June saying that nearly 30 percent of the West Bank, which under international law belongs to the Palestinians, has been expropriated by the Israelis as closed military zones and for nature reserves.

Together with Israel’s more than 100 illegal settlements – home to approximately 500,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – approximately 40 percent of the territory has been taken by Israel.

The West Bank is divided into area A, which falls under Palestinian control, area B, which falls under both Israeli military and Palestinian civil control, and area C, which falls under full Israeli control.

Palestinians pay a high price by losing land while facing difficulties with travel and accessing their agricultural fields. Many are regularly denied building permits by the Israeli authorities to build in areas B and C.

They therefore build without the requisite permits and then face the possibility of being evicted and having their homes demolished by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). They also struggle to get permits to connect to electricity and water infrastructure.

OCHA says that during the last few months it has seen a tightening of restrictions in areas in and around the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, as well as the Bethlehem and Hebron areas.

The herding and farming communities that reside in Israel’s self-declared military zones in these regions face particular hardships, with their homes and livelihoods now under threat. Many had lost grazing land to make way for settlement enlargement and security. Now they face eviction.

About 300 Palestinians, including 170 children, received evacuation and demolition orders from the IDF in May alone.

Osama Jarrer, deputy director of the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Agriculture in the Hebron governorate in the southern West Bank, said many farmers there had been forced to reduce their flocks.

"Because hundreds of farmers are in the same position there is a glut of livestock, so they sell at a reduced price. But even when they sell to get out of the business more than half of them will not be able to pay their fodder and concentrated feed debts," Jarrer told IPS.

The situation of Hebron’s 3,000 farmers, and their 30,000 dependents, has been aggravated by rising international fodder prices and a water shortage.

The water shortage is due to inequitable water distribution between Palestinians and Israeli setters and a drought that has gripped this part of the Middle East for several years.

Meanwhile, as Palestinians experience the practical consequences of Israel’s West Bank settlement policy on the ground, Israel and the U.S. continue to haggle over the theoretical intricacies in capitals abroad.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell in London a fortnight ago, the latest in a round of meetings over the disputed settlements.

With a broad smile and much fanfare Barak announced to the assembled media that Israel would be dismantling 23 outposts in the West Bank in the near future. The outposts comprise a small number of caravans, often unattached to water and electricity. They are illegal under Israeli law.

Barak failed to mention the settlements in the West Bank. These range from several hundred residents to small cities with tens of thousands of settlers and associated infrastructure. They are illegal under international law.

One of the small outposts slated for evacuation is Migron, near the central West Bank city Ramallah, after Israeli rights group Peace Now petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice.

However, the state asked for a year’s extension before the evacuation would take place, leaving plenty of time for facts on the ground to be established.

The 50 families to be evacuated are to be moved to new homes being built in the nearby Adam settlement, a mere reshuffling of settler numbers.

Moreover, according to documents presented to the court, aside from requesting building permits for 50 new housing units in Adam, Barak last month also approved detailed planning for constructing an initial 200 housing units. These will be part of the general construction blueprint for an additional 1,450 units in Adam.

Migron was built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land in 2002. In an earlier petition in 2006 an Israeli court acknowledged the Palestinian ownership and the illegality of the outpost.

But it will only be evacuated in 2010 in theory, and the chances of the settlers leaving voluntarily are close to nil.

Peace Now says the Israeli government is building an additional 73,300 illegal housing units in the West Bank.

Barak’s manner of dealing with the small outpost of Migron portends poorly for Israel’s future evacuation of larger settlements, and it represents a huge disparity between Israeli diplomacy and the reality on the ground.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.