Israel’s failure to approve Palestinian housing and its razing of illegal structures in Area C of the West Bank is fueling tensions with the EU, the bloc’s Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process Sven Koopmans told The Jerusalem Post.
“It is a very negative factor and let me tell you that this is something that is very hard to explain to Europeans,” he said.
An issue in particular for the European Union is Israel’s demolition of illegal structures it has funded. Last year, according to the EU, Israel demolished 101 such structures in both Area C and east Jerusalem, amounting to a loss of €337,019.
“We, as the EU, are very upset that very frequently humanitarian projects that we fund are being demolished.
“European citizens from Portugal to Romania pay taxes that the EU then spends to try and do good in the world,” Koopmans said. This includes a number of modular schools in Area C.
Such demolitions are “unacceptable,” the envoy said, as he discussed the sharp disagreement between the EU and Israel on this issue and indeed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general.
Illegal structures seizing control of Area C
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government holds that the Palestinian Authority is exploiting the issue of housing by building illegal structures so that it can seize control of Area C, which many of its members believe should be included in Israel’s final borders.
The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee [FADC] this week debated the issue, in preparation for a potential government decision to declare the PA’s actions in this regard as “hostile political activity.”
The EU believes that Area C should be part of the final borders of a Palestinian state unless a different arrangement is reached as part of a final status agreement for a two-state solution. Israel’s rejection of most housing requests has made the issue of housing for Palestinians a humanitarian one for the EU, a stance that allows it to support the construction of such structures irrespective of Israeli military law in that region.
Lt.-Col. Adam Avidan, who heads infrastructure for the Civil Administration, told the FADC that 90-95% of Palestinian requests for housing permits were rejected.
Koopmans said he finds it incomprehensible that Israel is denying the Palestinians housing and that Israel is not respecting the EU’s humanitarian activity to provide people with shelter.
‘It is hard to understand that Palestinians are not allowed to build anywhere” in Area C, he said.
Blunt about his opinion on West Bank and east Jerusalem
Koopmans, who is also a legal expert, is blunt about his opinion that the West Bank and east Jerusalem are “occupied Palestinian territory,” a stance that the Israeli government rejects.
Israel has a responsibility as an “occupying power” to “allow the local population to lead their lives except for military necessity,” Koopmans said. It cannot, for example, block the local population’s ability to build a home or a school.
In that same vein, he said, Israel has a responsibility to protect Palestinians from violence by Jewish extremists, including settlers, against innocent Palestinians, such as the burning of their homes.
“I visited this young father who had a small house with a little farmyard with some little children...He said, ‘Twice a week settlers come and throw stones at my kids,’” Koopmans recalled.
He wants to see more accountability from Israel on this issue and has raised it in his meetings with officers.
“I was very happy to hear from the ministers that they see this as a form of terrorism that needs to be tackled,” Koopmans said.
Similarly, he said, settlement activity is highly concerning to the EU, particularly given that “it is not permitted for the occupying power to transfer its own population into occupied territory.”
Koopmans said he is aware of the counterargument against defining the territory as occupied, but thinks that factually speaking it is erroneous.
“I hear sometimes people being in denial [that it] is not an occupation. It is an occupation. The whole world sees it that way,” including the EU.
“The fact that it is prolonged is very problematic,” he said.
Koopmans is equally perturbed by Palestinian terrorism against Israelis and the Palestinian Authority’s policy of paying monthly stipends to terrorists and their family members.
“I also raise this very frequently with the PA. This needs to change. They are aware of it and we are being very clear. At the same time there is a limit to how much we can do,” he said.
For almost a year, Koopmans has represented an initiative by the EU, the Arab League, and Saudi Arabia to find a supportive way to create a package of incentives to help persuade Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations.
“I am here because we want to help, and we want to make a contribution to ending the occupation. That is in the interest of everyone,” he said.
Tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict run counter to the very strong ties that Israel and the EU enjoy, he said.
“We are by far the biggest trading partner for Israel. We have strong cultural ties, personal ties, history,” Koopmans said.
“There is probably not another country outside of Europe that has closer ties with the EU than Israel,” he explained, adding that, “We need to build on it.”
But the absence of a two-state resolution to the conflict ultimately makes it impossible to achieve the full potential of that relationship, he said.
“We think Israel is an important partner but these very bad things that happen limit the potential of our cooperation,” Koopmans explained.
“If these things would not happen, if actually there would be a solution to the conflict, there would be so much more that we can do together,” he added.