Israel is pushing its luck with the EU

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 20/10/2017

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks during US President Donald Trump’s (R) visit to Israel on 23 May 2017. [Israeli Government Press Office/Haim Zach/Handout]

When it comes to the various stakeholders in the Israeli Palestinian conflict Israel has guaranteed American support in almost whatever it does. Other stakeholders, including the EU, have consistently criticised Israeli government policy but consistently failed to back it up with any action. That is, possibly, until now.

The Obama administration was castigated by the pro-Israel lobby for its supposed lack of support for Israel despite granting it a 10-year $38 billion military aid package, the likes of which no other state could dream to secure. In fact, over half the aid the US hands to other states goes to Israel.

Obama missed a trick on not making the aid package conditional upon any progress in the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, or a halt to settlement construction, which the US sees as “illegitimate”. Neither Netanyahu’s brazen snub to Obama when he addressed the US Congress without coordination with the White House, nor the humiliation of American Vice President Biden – who while on a visit to Jerusalem in 2010 was met with an announcement that Israel planned to build 1,600 home for Jewish Israelis in units in the illegal settlement of Ramat Shlomo which is attached to Jerusalem – was enough to trigger such conditioning.

The US is a member of the Middle East Quartet now renamed the ‘Office of the Quartet,’ which brings the EU, Russia and the United Nations together. It describes its mandate as “to help mediate Middle East peace negotiations and to support Palestinian economic development and institution-building in preparation for eventual statehood”. The Quartet’s last key report was published in 2016. The report focussed on violence and incitement, Gaza and Palestinian governance and settlement expansion, land designations, and denial of Palestinian development.

In the area designated C under the Oslo Accords, Israel maintains full control over both security and planning. The denial of Palestinian development is enacted mostly through the denial of permits for building construction. The Quartet noted that “only one permit for Palestinian housing construction in Area C was reportedly approved in 2014, and there do not appear to have been any in 2015. In the five-year period from 2009 to 2013, only 34 building permits were approved for Palestinians in Area C, out of at least 2,000 submissions”.

The report further noted that there were over 11,000 demolition orders pending against Palestinian structures, three quarters of which are on private Palestinian land. The report acknowledged that “as Palestinians are consistently denied permits to build legally, they are left with few options but to build without permits”.

There was a significant increase in the number of Palestinian structures demolished across the West Bank in the first four months of 2016, with some 500 demolitions of Palestinian structures by the Israeli authorities and nearly 800 Palestinians displaced, more than what was carried out throughout the entire year of 2015. Although many of these were not dwellings, the loss of structures such as water wells, solar panels, and animal shelters has impacted the livelihoods of over 2,500 people in the first half of 2016. The trend continued in 2017 and to this day.

Israeli security forces gather around as a Palestinian home is being demolished in Jerusalem on 14 March 2017 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

Israel makes no distinction between structures it considers to be illegal that are funded by Palestinians and those that are funded by non-Palestinians, those built without planning permission or those agreed upon in bilateral agreements with the Palestinians.

Gaza’s International Airport, which opened in 1998, was destroyed by Israel in 2001. It was built with funding from Japan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Germany. To this day the airport remains in ruins and no sanctions were ever taken against Israel by either Germany or Spain.

In January of this year Israeli forces demolished some 15 structures in Khirbet, including homes and the only school in the small hamlet, which is located on the outskirts of the village of Beit Furik in the Jordan Valley in the north-eastern occupied West Bank.

In July the Dutch government lodged a protest with Israel over the confiscation of electricity equipment, which was said to be a hybrid power system of both diesel and solar power. The electrification project in the southern Bethlehem region was donated by the Dutch government and cost about 500,000 euros ($590,806), 350,000 euros ($413,564) of which went to Jubbet Al-Dhib, according to the report in the Israeli daily Haaretz. The Dutch Foreign Ministry requested Israel return the equipment and is “currently assessing what next steps can be taken,” the ministry’s statement to Haaretz said.

In August Israeli troops dismantled a structure built for a nursery for 25 Palestinian children in the village of Jabal Al-Baba near Jerusalem claiming it was built without a permit. This followed the demolition a few days earlier of a small primary school in the southern West Bank and the removal of solar panels used to power another school. This drew criticism from the EU which expressed “strong concern about the recent confiscations of Palestinian school structures undertaken by Israel in Bedouin communities in the occupied West Bank,” adding that “every child has the right to safe access to education and states have an obligation to protect, respect and fulfil this right, by ensuring that schools are inviolable safe spaces for children”.

But has Israel pushed its luck too far with the EU?

Despite Israel’s destruction of facilities funded by the EU, history shows it has protested to Israel but has not taken action. However, this could be about to change.

Reports have emerged that eight EU countries, led by Belgium, have drafted a letter to be delivered to senior Foreign Ministry officials demanding compensation amounting to €30,000 ($35,456) for confiscating and demolishing structures and infrastructure built by them in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control. This follows Israel’s refusal to return the confiscated equipment as demanded by the eight countries which are members of the ‘West Bank Protection Consortium,’ a body through which they coordinate humanitarian assistance to Area C.

The letter stresses that “the demolition and seizure of humanitarian equipment, including school infrastructure, and the interference in the transfer of humanitarian assistance contravenes Israel’s obligations under international law and causes suffering to the Palestinian residents”.

However, Israel claims that European activity in Area C is not humanitarian assistance but “illegal development that is being done without coordinating with Israel and with the aim of strengthening the Palestinians’ hold on Area C”. This claim was previously made in 2015 by Benjamin Netanyahu who ordered the demolition of some 400 Palestinian structures built in the West Bank with European funding.

While the international community has often talked the talk about Israeli crimes, this is a rare example of action that could at least make Israel think twice before acting. While this is a small step by eight EU countries it could mark a significant and necessary change in policy from condemnation of Israeli policies to tangible action. EU citizens should be outraged that contributions from their taxes to alleviate Palestinian suffering and build peace, are being wasted by Israel while goods from illegals settlements continue to make their way to EU supermarket shelves.

If the EU is serious about peace and its support for a two-state solution then it can use existing instruments to exercise its influence. This includes suspending the EU-Israel Association Agreement for Israel’s failure to adhere to a clause which states that “relations between the parties, as well as all the provisions of the agreement itself, shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles”.

Israel’s clear failure to respect Palestinian human rights should finally trigger a suspension of this agreement.

Empty condemnation of Israeli settlements doesn’t work: We need action

Firs published by the Middle East Eye on 10/11/2016

Instead of finding creative language of condemnation, the international community should declare that settlements are illegal and prohibit trade

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Israel is the only state in the world that believes that it can continue to build settlements only for Jews in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights until such a time that their fate is decided through negotiations. Its most important ally, the United States, currently considers them “illegitimate” and an “obstacle to peace”, though its position has changed over the years.

The United Kingdom frequently “condemns” settlements as it considers them “illegal under international law” adding that new announcements “take us further away from a two-state solution and raises serious questions about the Israeli government’s commitment to achieving the shared vision of Israel living side-by-side a viable, independent, and contiguous Palestine state”.

In the past, the British government has also used terms in reference to settlement building such as “concerned”, “deeply concerned”, “extremely concerned”, “profoundly concerned”, “deplores”, “very disappointed”, “deeply disappointed”, “extremely disappointing and unhelpful”, “provocative actions”, “provocative and deeply counter-productive” and “extremely worrying”.

Israeli settlers start to build a new illegal outpost north of the West Bank Palestinian village of Ain al-Baida in October 2016 (AFP)

In fact, a quick check of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website shows that various officials made seven announcements using a mixture of the above language since June of this year.

The European Union says settlements are “illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible”.

The position of the Canadian government is that the “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace”.

Lowest common denominator

The Australian government’s approach to settlements is more problematic from a Palestinian point of view and is, in fact, out of step with most others.

In 2014, Canberra’s stance on the settlements moved significantly as then Prime Minister Tony Abbott ruled out using the term “occupied” when describing Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. The attorney general, George Brandis, speaking on behalf of the minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, said it was “unhelpful” to refer to historic events when describing these areas, given the ongoing Middle East peace process.

A Palestinian woman searches through her belongings after her family home in East Jerusalem was demolished by Jerusalem municipality workers near the Israeli settlement of Ramat Shlomo (in the background) in October 2016 (AFP)

He went on to tell a Senate hearing that “the description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful”.

“It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language,” he added.

The different kind of language used to express individual governments’ views on Israeli settlements clearly has an impact on statements made by the main international body that attempts to speak with one voice on the issue. The reader may expect this to be the United Nations, but in fact it is the Middle East Quartet which specifically articulates this view and, in doing so, seems to be choosing the language of the lowest common denominator.

Quartet’s feeble words

The Quartet is made up of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia. In its a recent report, the focus of the language used when it came to settlements was not one of calling them “illegal” or “illegitimate”, but to describe their impact on the prospect of the two-state solution. It talked of how settlement construction is one of the trends “undermining hopes for peace”.

It noted that “the continuing policy of settlement construction and expansion, designation of land for exclusive Israeli use, and denial of Palestinian development is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution”. It suggested that “this raises legitimate questions about Israel’s long-term intentions, which are compounded by the statements of some Israeli ministers that there should never be a Palestinian state.

In fact, the transfer of greater powers and responsibilities to Palestinian civil authority in Area C contemplated by commitments in prior agreements has effectively been stopped, and in some ways reversed, and should be resumed to advance the two-state solution and prevent a one-state reality from taking hold”.

The report’s only recommendation on this matter was that “Israel should cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion, designating land for exclusive Israeli use, and denying Palestinian development”.

Then serving as Middle East Quartet envoy, Tony Blair visits a UN-run school in Gaza City in 2015 (AFP)

This seems to be an extremely weak recommendation which Israel can simply file, ignore and breathe a sigh of relief that it will not face any action for continuing with its settlement expansion.

Perhaps the most interesting statement on settlements came recently from the US. Reacting to Israel’s announcement that it would build a new settlement, it “strongly condemned the announcement”. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the new settlement would be “another step towards cementing a reality of perpetual occupation” that would “further call into question Israel’s commitment to achieving a negotiated peace”.

Interestingly, he linked the announcement to America’s decision to gift Israel with a 10-year $38bn military aid package. It was “deeply troubling”, said Toner, that Israel would make its announcement so soon after the conclusion of the aid package.

“I guess, when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that is a source of serious concern as well,” he said.

Failed strategy

It seems clear to me that the long established convention of simply issuing statements following each announcement either of an expansion of settlements or the establishment of new ones has failed. Clearly, no amount of creative language to censure settlements has worked.

Every time Israel makes a new announcement, I suspect that countries which feel they must respond only face the dilemma of which exact words to use. I have made this point repeatedly at meetings with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the UK and the look on the faces of the officials we have met almost confirmed this.

Israel knows that it can ride out any criticism and build. It is certain there will be no real repercussions. In fact, Israeli politicians feel so emboldened that Education Minister Naftali Bennett recently called for Israel to build more settlements in response to any UN criticism.

In September 2015, Israeli soldiers evacuate Palestinian land owners trying to farm on their land near Karmi Tsour, a settlement near Hebron (AFP)

If the UN Security Council adopts a resolution on settlements, Bennett said, Israel would “need to have an appropriate Zionist response, immediate sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, including Maaleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, Ariel, Ofra and Beit El”.

By 2017, the “temporary” occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights will have lasted 50 years. Talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis about ending it and signing a peace deal will have gone on for 24 years. The number of illegal settlers will be pushing towards the one million mark. All efforts to cajole Israel into ending the occupation have failed.

The international community should spend less time searching for acceptable language to indicate their displeasure with Israel and take firm action instead, particularly on settlements. They should be declared illegal and any trade with them should be prohibited. That would be a start in shifting the dynamics of the conflict.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinian youths wanting to play football in the Maale Adumim settlement in the Israeli occupied West Bank (seen in the background) are blocked by Israeli security forces as they try to enter the settlement in October 2016 (AFP)

Israel’s ban on the Muslim call to prayer in Jerusalem is the tip of the iceberg

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/11/2016


Al-Aqsa mosque

Something is in the air in Jerusalem and if Israel has its way it soon won’t be; the Muslim call to prayer — the adhaan — is under threat. The state which is built upon the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the indigenous Palestinian people is inching its way towards banning the call for prayer, which was probably first heard in Jerusalem in 637 AD. That was the year in which Caliph Umar Ibn Al-Khattab travelled to Palestine to accept its surrender from Patriach Sophronius, bringing a six-month siege of the Holy City to a peaceful end.

The required respect for people of other faiths was exemplified by one of Caliph Umar’s first acts upon entering Jerusalem. He understood the sensitivity surrounding religious sites and the potential danger of changing the status quo. He thus declined an invitation from Sophronius to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lest Muslims turn it into a mosque. Instead, he stepped outside the Church to perform the midday prayer; a mosque named after him was later built on the site and exists to this day. This is in sharp contrast to the establishment of Israel in 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homeland at gunpoint. Villages and towns were ethnically cleansed and wiped from the face of the earth, and their mosques were also destroyed or turned into synagogues or museums; at least two became cafes and one became a cowshed.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and one of Israel’s first acts as the occupying power was to raze the 770-year old Moroccan Quarter of East Jerusalem in order to improve access to Al-Buraq Wall, which Jews call the Western (“Wailing”) Wall, in order to facilitate their prayers there. Just a year after issuing the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Britain had actually dismissed attempts by Chaim Weizmann to vacate the Moroccan Quarter and to place the Western Wall under Jewish ownership. Fifty years later, Israel had no qualms about bulldozing the Shaikh Eid Mosque which had stood since the time of Saladin.

Christian sites

Churches continue to come under attack by the Israelis. Benzi Gopstein, the leader of extreme right-wing Jewish group Lehava, voiced support for arson attacks against Christian churches in 2015; he has also called Christians “blood sucking vampires” who should be expelled from Israel.

Jewish extremists have on a number of occasions targeted churches in what are called “price tag” attacks. There was a particular rise in these in the lead-up to Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land in 2014. A top Catholic official received death threats and Hebrew graffiti appeared on the wall of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre, the local headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church: “Death to Arabs and Christians and to everyone who hates Israel”.

At the end of last month, the Israeli flag was raised at the Eastern entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, enraging the Christian community and raising serious concerns about Israel’s commitment to protecting Christian sites. The Church fought a two-year battle with its water supplier which threatened to cut the supply due to unpaid bills, which was settled in 2012. Add to this Israel’s restrictions on visits by Christians to the holy sites in Jerusalem, and on Christians from Gaza visiting either Jerusalem or Bethlehem, and the difficulties faced by Palestinian Christians becomes clear.

Muslim sites

The situation for key Muslim sites in the occupied Palestinian territories is even more precarious than those of Christians. When East Jerusalem was occupied in 1967, the Israeli flag flew for a short time over the holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque. The mosque was set alight in 1969, reportedly by an Australian tourist; the damage included the complete destruction of a 1,000-year old pulpit.

An agreement between the Israelis and the Jordanian custodians of the holy sites, which covers the whole of the area on which Al-Aqsa Mosque stands, stated that the Jordanian Waqf would administer the compound and that Jews would be able to visit but not pray. The status quo has largely stood the test of time but in recent years has come under great strain, particularly since Ariel Sharon’s “visit” to the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa in 2000, which triggered the Second Intifada. The visit seems to have given Jewish extremists the green light not only to dream about praying on what they call the “Temple Mount” but also to plan to build a Jewish temple thereon; the plans include the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock Mosque.

Recent years have seen an upsurge in the frequency and extent of incursions by extremists during which the use of the sanctuary by Muslim worshippers is restricted. This practice has increased tensions and prompted fears of a change to the “status quo”, moving the Jordanian government to act by withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest. Clashes have erupted frequently between Israeli security forces and Palestinians devoted to protecting their mosque. Israeli forces have also harassed worshippers, banning some from entering the Noble Sanctuary or withholding their Jerusalem ID cards, without which they struggle to move around the territories. Such practices were a major contributory factor to the ongoing year-long uprising in which individual Palestinians have attacked mainly security forces but in some instances Israeli civilians in what has been termed the “knife intifada”.

Another city that has suffered disproportionately, probably due to its religious significance, is Al-Khalil (Hebron). The city is home to 120,000 Palestinians whose lives are blighted by the planting of 700 particularly extreme Israeli settlers in the centre of the city; they are protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers and a system of closed military zones and checkpoints. The city is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque which Jews call the Cave of the Patriarchs. The mosque was the scene of a terrorist attack in 1994 by a Jewish American-Israeli named Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Muslim worshippers while they were praying; although the murderous attack was condemned by the Israeli government it was — and is — applauded by some Israelis, particularly the extreme right-wing settlers. Israel’s response was — perversely — to impose greater restrictions on Palestinians and to divide the Ibrahimi Mosque physically, as well as to open it up exclusively to Jews for ten days of the year and to Muslims for another ten days.

Restricting the call to prayer

Israel’s restrictions on access to the holy sites in Jerusalem and Hebron have recently been complemented with bans on the daily call to prayer. In Hebron, the practice has been ongoing for a number of years and included the call being silenced 49 times in January 2014, 52 times in December 2015 and 83 times last month.

The practice seems to be spreading to Jerusalem. Israel recently banned three mosques in Abu Dis from broadcasting the morning call. Lawyer Bassam Bahr, head of a local committee in Abu Dis, condemned the “unjustified ban”, saying that “Israel attacks Palestinians in all aspects of their lives.” It seems that the ban was a response to complaints from illegal settlers in nearby Pisgat Zeev who complained to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat about the “noise pollution” coming from local mosques. Both Barkat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are clearly set on applying the “unbearable noise” law to the call for prayer.

The mayor and prime minister know the importance of the call to prayer to the Muslim community; their plan to eradicate it from the air of Jerusalem to appease illegal settlers shows that neither has the wisdom of Caliph Umar. Their plan has not only enraged Palestinians, but also damaged yet further attempts to create a climate that will lead to peace; it is most definitely part of Israel’s attempts to Judaise Jerusalem and empty the Holy City of its Islamic and Christian heritage. The ban is, in fact, just the tip of the Judaisation iceberg.

As for the settlers objecting to the Muslim call to prayer are concerned, there is an easy solution. They could leave the houses that they have built — illegally — on land stolen from its Palestinian owners and either go back to where they came from in North America or Europe or live within the internationally recognised borders of the state whose citizenship they carry. That would be the most moral of solutions, although it is doubtful if they know what morality is.