Israeli construction plans for West Bank raise tensions with Europe

Relations with UN also frosty over lack of visas for employees of human rights commissioner.

People work at a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah in the West Bank July 1, 2020. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
People work at a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah in the West Bank July 1, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The Israeli government's decision last week to approve the construction of 4,900 housing units in West Bank settlements has boosted tension with the European Union. Palestinians say that land must be part of a future Palestinian state.
On Friday, the EU disseminated a public statement from the French, German, British, Italian and Spanish foreign ministers against the building program.
The statement said they were "deeply concerned" and called "for an immediate halt to settlement construction as well as to evictions and to demolitions of Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem and the West Bank."
The EU said the Israeli government's approval was "a counterproductive move in light of normalization agreements reached between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain."
An official Israeli government source declined to comment on the EU statement.
Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, a Jewish community south of Bethlehem, saw the European statement as another attempt to become part of the peace process.
“It is hard for me to remember one time that the European were happy with the Israeli government's building plans in Judea and Samaria," Revivi told The Media Line.
He was using the biblical terms for the West Bank that are routinely used by Israelis living over the Green Line, the temporary border drawn in the armistice agreements following Israel’s 1948-49 War of Independence.
"It is true that a number of different European countries have had different initiatives to bring peace to the region, specifically to the Palestinian people. However, none of the initiatives have ever come to anything productive and sustainable," Revivi stated.
"An interesting point in the European response is actually that they are referring to US President [Donald] Trump's initiative and admitting that it is something with a substantial potential of succeeding," he said.
"As far as I know, the Israeli government’s decision was done with the US administration’s acknowledgement and therefore is definitely not against President Trump’s vision of peace," he added.
Other Israeli settlers were more outspoken in criticizing the EU position.
"They are acting like a colonial power right under Israel's nose. They are trying to change facts on the ground," Yisrael Medad, a resident of Shilo in the West Bank, told The Media Line.
He was referring to the construction, with EU assistance, of housing, schools, agricultural and industrial projects for Palestinians in the West Bank.
"If the EU is building here, why can't Israel?” he said.
“The EU is a lot farther geographically from here, and Israel has political sovereignty. We live, reside and plant fields in Judea and Samaria. We have the right to live here," he stated.
Tension between Israel and the United Nations has also increased a notch, it appears. According to media reports, Israel is not renewing visas for UN personnel working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
When contacted, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: "We have nothing further to add to the statement [made] in February, which we believe speaks for itself."
In response to the UN Human Rights Council's publication that month of a list of 112 companies doing business in West Bank Jewish communities, then-foreign minister Israel Katz said in a news release that "the commissioner's decision to continue to pursue an anti-Israel stance at the UN Human Rights Council is a stain on the UN commissioner’s office and on human rights itself."
Katz called it a “blacklist,” saying it represented “the ultimate surrender to pressure from countries and organizations interested in harming Israel" and adding that the “State of Israel will not tolerate this discriminatory, anti-Israel policy and will take action to prevent the implementation of these kinds of decisions."
Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director, says he was also affected by Israel’s visa policy. His was revoked almost 11 months ago because his work was determined to have violated a 2017 Israeli law barring entry to those advocating a boycott of Israel.
“We work closely with the United Nation's human-rights workers," he told The Media Line, adding that failing to renew visas for UN workers "stems from Israel's sustained assault on human-rights advocacy.” He also called it “part of a pattern to muzzle documentation of Israel's systematic repression of the Palestinians."
Nevertheless, local employees and a mix of technologies allow him to work from afar.
"Human Rights Watch has emergency researchers, and these colleagues supplant the local team," he explained. "If the goal of the Israeli government is to muzzle human rights, it has failed.”
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