Saturday, January 23, 2016

Funding Illegal settlements, EU-style - by Nadav Shragai

While the European Union blames Israel for taking unilateral steps across Judea and Samaria, it is actively participating in illegal Palestinian constriction between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea • The goal is clear: to undercut Israel's interests in Area C.

Nadav Shragai..
Israel Hayom..
22 January '16..

There is something deceitfully pastoral about the Judea and Samaria hills, a place that has become the bone of contention between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has been waging containment efforts against the Palestinians in the area for years. The Palestinians seek to create territorial continuity between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, saying it is crucial for their future state, while Israel seeks to maintain urban and security continuity for east to west, from Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim, to the Dead Sea.

The Israel Defense Forces define the area in question "a pivotal part of the strategic depth Israel needs" as part of its definition of "defensible borders." This strategic outline aims to allow Israel to defend its capital, as well as "create a security belt in case of any conflict on the eastern front."

Illegal Palestinian construction has been prevalent in this area for years. Over the past 20 years, Palestinian villages and towns have slowly closed the corridor between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, where a major highway runs, crawling up as near as one mile from it.

The European Union funnels millions of dollars into the area, essentially funding hundreds of Palestinian housing units built in defiance of Israeli sovereignty over Area C, which under the 1993 Oslo Accords was left under full Israeli civil and security control.

It seems consumer boycotts no longer suffice the EU, which has now become an active player on the ground. Brussels and Washington's fingerprints are all over the boisterous international opposition to Israel's plan to turn the eastern slopes of Mount Scopus into a national park -- a plan meant to prevent Palestinian construction near the eastern gateway to Jerusalem -- as well as over the moratorium placed on Israeli construction in the E1 area, which stretches across 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim.

But while Israel has heeded the U.S. and EU demands to freeze construction across Judea and Samaria, thus refraining from creating continuity between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, it is the Palestinians, with the active assistance of the EU, that are reshaping the area via illegal construction, which is slowly creating territorial continuity between Ramallah and Hebron.

Palestinian construction along the Jerusalem-Maaleh Adumim-Jericho section of Highway 1 has tripled over the past few years. Civil Administration data, recently presented to the Knesset's Subcommittee on Judea and Samaria, suggests that 6,500 Palestinians currently live in some 1,220 illegally-built homes in the area, and that this number grows weekly.

The Palestinian Authority, assisted by EU funding, is racing to populate the area and set facts on the ground in a way that would thwart Israel's plan to join Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim.

Avivit Bar-Ilan, head of the Foreign Ministry's European Organizations Department, met recently with representatives of the EU and demanded they cease funding illegal Palestinian construction in the area. In her briefing before the Subcommittee on Judea and Samaria, Bar-Ilan said she was informed that not only do the Europeans plan to continue funding Palestinian construction, the EU is currently preparing to take legal action against Israel, seeking restitution for losses incurred over Israel's decision to razed illegal structures built with European funds.

The X-files

Much like Brussels' boycott policy, the EU's "declaration of war" on Israeli sovereignty in Area C is nothing new, but it now carries a new dimension, which entails preventing Israel from taking significant action against illegal Palestinian construction in the E1 area.

The Regavim group, a nongovernmental organization that describes its mission as seeking to "ensure responsible, legal, accountable and environmentally friendly use of Israel's national lands," believes the Palestinian have developed a system: First, they pursue illegal construction; once the Civil Administration issues a demolition order, the Palestinians file a High Court petition against it; the court then issues a temporary injunction and sets a hearing date; the State Attorney's Office files multiple continuance motions to delay the state's rebuttal; the case gathers dust on the High Court's shelves and, after due notice, it is closed due to its inactivity.

The result is always the same: The petition is dismissed, the injunction remains in effect, and the illegal structure is "insured" against demolition.

For several years now the Civil Administration has been warning that High Court appeals have become "part of the statutory process." Regavim filed its own High Court petition against the detected system, claiming it allows the offenders to "buy legal immunity" for the price of a petition filing fee. The petition was denied.

Regavim, however, refused to let the issue go: A random review of 153 High Court petitions filed between 2008 and 2011, in which Palestinians were granted injunctions against demolition orders, found that in 139 cases (90%) the state had filed over 10 continuance motions. Some cases saw the court issue up to seven "notice of inactivity" warnings to the State Attorney's Office, and in fact, with the exception of nine cases, the petitions were never actually heard, over the fact the state never presented the court with its response.

Another review of the issue, this time in 2013, found that "90% of the cases saw the petitions filed by construction offenders stricken from the record with the consent of both parties, and pending the state's guarantee that it will not pursue the illegal structure's demolition. ... No hearing was held on the matter."

Regavim's conclusion, which the Subcommittee on Judea and Samaria subscribes to, is that the Palestinians are making an overt play for a takeover of Area C, and now they have European funds, to the tune of 100 million euros, at their disposal.

Facts on the ground

Israel has very limited leeway when it comes to countering the EU's conduct. On the one hand, Israel would like nothing more than to raze some 500 structures built in the greater Maaleh Adumim area with European money, but on the other hand, its hands are tied by a reality rife with both the threats of boycotts and de-facto ones.

Israel also admits there is another consideration tying its hands, namely the fact that in many cases, international groups' daily operations within Palestinian society saves Israel considerable resources.

The EU's contribution to the illegal Palestinian construction across Judea and Samaria is particularly evident in the area stretching along Highway 1 between Maaleh Adumim and the Dead Sea, which is now riddled with illegal Bedouin and Palestinian settlements, that are illegally tapped into Israel's water and power grids.

The state, through the National Roads Company of Israel, has invested considerable resources in paving an advanced, safe highway connecting Jerusalem with the Dead Sea, but traffic is now hindered by Palestinian trucks and bulldozers traveling at zero speed, and herds of goats and sheep that cross it at their leisure.

The Palestinians are currently pursuing a new project, partially funded by the Swiss: The illegal expansion of a road connecting the Tekoa area, northeast of Hebron, with the Dead Sea. This expansion intrudes on a narrow Israeli corridor in Area C that separates two sizeable blocs of Palestinian communities. Should it be completed, it would allow the Palestinians to connect their blocs, while preventing Israel from connecting the Tekoa area with the Dead Sea.

There is ample evidence that the EU's support of the Palestinians has graduated from passive diplomatic and financial assistance to active participation in the Palestinian Authority's illegal construction ventures. MK Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi), who heads the Subcommittee on Judea and Samaria, says one of the objectives is to develop ventures in Area C with the explicit intent of eroding Israeli control in the area and promoting Palestinian territorial continuity.

If achieved, such continuity would prevent the state from fostering Israeli communities in the area, or staking a claim to it as part of its demand to maintain defensible borders. Yogev says that state officials have made it clear to his committee that the government seeks to uphold the law and safeguard state lands in Area C, especially near Highway 1 and the greater Maaleh Adumim area.

This plan, however, is not evident on the ground. The Palestinian Authority is making no effort to hide its tower and stockade-style endeavor: EU-donated prefabricated homes are set up overnight, complete with water and power supply courtesy of EU tankers and generators, allowing the Palestinians to establish facts on the ground.

The EU sees its assistance to the Palestinians as a "mitzvah" of sorts, as it believes Israel's actions in Area C are illegal.

Civil Administration officials are frustrated by the bottleneck of legal proceedings, which stifles demolition orders. A State Attorney's Office spokesman said his office was "unable to comment on the validity of Regavim's data, as it is based on a random review whose parameters are unclear.

"The State Attorney's Office, in its response to the High Court of Justice, does not represent its own position on the matter, but rather that of the state authorities tasked with enforcing construction [laws] in Judea and Samaria. They [the authorities] must follow the priorities set by the government, according to the limited resources at their disposal."

According to the State Attorney's Office, "Similar past claims by Regavim have been denied by the High Court, which ruled that its petition was based on outdated data and assumptions lacking factual merit."

One way or another, there is little dispute over the fact that only a fraction of the illegal Palestinian buildings in the area are razed. Informally, there is also no dispute over why so few demolition orders are enforced, as there are political constraints to consider. Regavim may call it political cowardice, but the Defense Ministry says the complex political reality demands certain allowances be made.

Israel is trying to deal with these constraints by forming three sites to where the illegal Bedouin and Palestinian settlers will be evicted in the future: one near Kedar, in Gush Etzion, the other near Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem, and the third near Jericho, in Area C.

As for the EU, it voted Monday on a resolution limiting EU-Israel agreements to inside the 1967 borders, saying all its deals with Israel must "unequivocally and explicitly" show that they "cannot apply to occupied territories," which effectively excludes deals with Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Meanwhile, it is the EU that is pursuing settlement activity -- the Palestinian settlements outside these very borders.


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