Palestinians should not be penalized for Israeli demolitions - opinion

However, the EU has practically done little to prevent the Netanyahu government’s demolitions of Palestinian structures.

THE SETTLEMENT OF Elon Moreh, with Nablus in the background. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE SETTLEMENT OF Elon Moreh, with Nablus in the background.
Last week, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland and Norway delivered a joint statement on the Middle East at the UN in which the European states reaffirmed their deep concern about Israel’s settlement activities and demolitions of Palestinian structures. The statement noted that “the period from March to August 2020 saw the highest average destruction rate in four years.”
For long, the EU’s policy has been to maintain the viability of the two-state solution rather than actively push for it. This included supporting the presence of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Area C in the West Bank.
Although, the EU maintains a strong position on the occupied Palestinian territories – particularly in regards to settlement activities and demolition of Palestinian structures – what remains absent in Brussels and the capitals of EU member states is the will to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action to prevent, challenge or deter the Netanyahu government’s assault on Palestinian presence in vulnerable areas.
For instance, in 2016, the damage Israel inflicted on Palestinian structures funded by the EU and its member states in the entire  Palestinian territories between 2001-2015 was estimated at around €65 million.
However, the EU has practically done little to prevent the Netanyahu government’s demolitions of Palestinian structures, aside from a few notable examples such as an incident in 2017 in which eight European countries demanded $35,000 compensation from Israel for confiscating and demolishing structures they had built in Area C.
Escalated demolitions
The EU’s idleness on the Netanyahu government’s unconstrained undermining of Palestinian presence in Area C and East Jerusalem has substantially contributed to escalating and accelerating those practices.
According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA Palestine territories), in 2019, Israel’s government destroyed a record high of 204 Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem alone, representing a spike compared to previous years. It further demolished or seized 127 structures funded by international donors (mainly the EU and its member states) in East Jerusalem and Area C, twice as much as in 2018.
This year, despite the novel coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, Netanyahu’s government has significantly stepped up the demolition of Palestinian structures. For instance, the number of house demolitions in East Jerusalem between January and August 2020 was 89, compared to 104 for all of 2019 and 72 in 2018. This is putting Israel’s government on track for a record year in the number of Palestinian structures razed in East Jerusalem.
What’s most alarming about this, is that the Israel government’s escalated and accelerated destruction of Palestinian structures, including EU-funded projects, has been compounded by a sharp decline in the number of EU-funded structures in Area C and East Jerusalem.
In an unpublished policy memo sent by a human rights organization, Euro-Med Monitor, directly to members of the European Parliament, the organization noted that in 2019, the number of internationally (mainly European) financed Palestinian projects shrank to only 12 compared to 75 in 2015. The memo warned that this is akin to penalizing Palestinians for the Israeli government’s destruction of European-funded structures rather than standing up to Netanyahu’s government.
In other words, the EU hasn’t only failed to stop, challenge or respond meaningfully to the Israeli government’s demolitions of Palestinian structures, but it even succumbed further to the Netanyahu government’s will and responded by withdrawing or decreasing funds to those vulnerable areas.
The memo further noted that the EU and its member states have been adamant to hide the magnitude of damage their funded projects have been incurring in the Palestine territories, and called on Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to investigate and publicly report on the issue.
The memo boosted the outrage amongst several MEPs, who were alarmed by the increasing rate of demolitions amid the pandemic. For instance, MEP Margrete Auken, the vice-chairwoman of the EP’s delegation for relations with Palestine, fully acknowledged the memo’s findings, expressed support for its recommendations and vowed to question the European Commission over the issue.
The pretext of lacking permits
Netanyahu’s government doesn’t only seek to undermine and EU shouldn’t penalize Palestinians for Israeli demolitions of its funded structures ; it aims to eliminate them altogether. In July 2020, Israeli MK Amit Halevi of the right-wing Likud party reportedly called Palestinian construction in Area C “an exponential virus,” while his party colleague MK Avi Dichter described it as “territorial terror.”
More recently, Israel’s new foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, stated in his reply to a parliamentary question submitted by MK Moshe Arbel of the right-wing party Shas that Israel rejects out of hand the prospect of compensating the EU for structures or equipment that Israel has demolished or confiscated. He further asserted that he considers any present or planned European activity in Area C that “doesn’t honor Israeli construction-permit procedures European intervention in an attempt to define a border,” which he said would face “consequences stemming from the violations.”
However, Israel’s government knows too well that it does not permit construction and development for Palestinians in Area C, not even a linking up to the water and electricity grids. Israel’s government have deliberately made such permits nearly impossible for Palestinians or internationals to obtain, with only as few as 2.3% of applications for building permits in Area C approved by Israeli authorities between 2009 and 2012.
Furthermore, there have been instances in which Netanyahu’s government demolished and confiscated EU-funded projects that were installed in coordination with Israel’s civil administration in the first place. In September 2014, and under the pretext of a lacking permit, the Israeli army cut down the posts and power cables of a Belgian electrification project in the small village of Khirbat al-Tawil, east of Nablus. The electrification project had been completed in 2004, in coordination with Israeli authorities, to improve the living conditions of the village’s 200 rural and disadvantaged inhabitants. A total of 100 posts and other lighting supports were destroyed in the incursion, and 3.5 km of electric cables were cut.
What the EU should do
This alarming situation of Israeli rising demolitions and declining EU project funding cannot and should not be tolerated. As long as the underlying status quo that enables Netanyahu’s government to carry out such assaults on EU-funded projects remains unaddressed and avoids confrontation, fears will grow amongst all donors to the Palestinian territories that whatever they build or rebuild will be destroyed again in no time.
The way forward begins with the European Commission and European governments undertaking drastic measures to address the root of the problem. For a start, they should investigate and publicly report on all destruction of or damage to structures built with their funding, and use meetings with Israeli authorities to articulate a clear and consistent European position on demolitions and destruction of EU-funded projects. They should demand compensation from Israel if any further projects funded by the EU or its member states are destroyed, and continue to invest in Palestinian development, but substantively penalize the Israeli government rather than Palestinians.
More importantly, they should leverage the fact that the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner and use that clout to close EU-Israel collaborations to deter violations against EU-funded structures in the Palestinian territories.
The writer is a Palestinian writer and political analyst from Gaza.