In a bid to force Palestinians to leave their homes, Israel is creating miserable humanitarian conditions in the parts of the West Bank that are under its full control, a UN official warned in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Natalie Grove, a representative of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said Israeli policy in Area C, where Palestinians live under full IDF martial law, creates a “highly coercive environment that forces [Palestinians] to leave.”
This policy, she charged, is “systematic and comprehensive.”
Grove was speaking at a conference in the Knesset organized by lawmakers on the Israeli left meant to draw attention to tough conditions for Palestinians in Area C.
The Israeli government “categorically” denied any mistreatment of Palestinians.
Grove outlined a bleak environment in which many Palestinians lack access to food, shelter and clean water — 180 communities are not connected to the water system, she said — and have only partial access to healthcare and education. Many children in the area, she said, must walk long distances to schools, sometimes through military checkpoints.
The most grave claim made by Grove, as well as by lawmakers at the conference, was that Israel was making it “virtually impossible” for Palestinians to build homes legally in Area C, forcing them to build illegally and risk having their homes demolished.
Under such conditions, she argued, any Palestinians leaving Area C do not do so voluntarily, but rather due to “coercion,” which “amounts to forcible transfer” and “is a great breach of the Geneva conventions.”
The Israeli opposition lawmakers who organized the event — Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Odeh and fellow party member MK Dov Hanin, Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, and Meretz MK Michal Rozin — all agreed Israeli policy in Area C was a deliberate attempt to expel Palestinians ahead of a future annexation.
“Israel is paying lip service to the international community without any intention of actually doing a thing,” said Odeh.
A few powerful ministers in the current right-wing government are pushing for the annexation of Area C, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains formally committed to a diplomatic process that would eventually see the Palestinians take control of most of the territory.
During the conference, EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen accused Jerusalem of skirting its obligations toward the Palestinians under its military’s administration, but stopped short of claiming there was a systematic policy to forcibly remove them.
A total of 70 percent of Area C has been designated Israeli state land, with 30% being left to the Palestinians, the EU ambassador said, adding, however, that the Palestinians were not allowed to do much with their land.
According to Faaborg-Andersen, in 2014 only one building permit was granted to Palestinians; in 2015, none were granted. And of 2,000 applications between 2009 to 2013, only 34 building permits were granted.
In contrast, Fauborg-Andersen said, Israeli construction in Area C has continued at a rate of approximately 1,500 new homes per year in recent years.
He said that since 2009, approximately 170 EU-funded structures of a value of €300,000 have been demolished or confiscated and approximately 600 structures, worth over € 2.3 million, have been served with demolition, stop-work or eviction orders and are therefore under threat of demolition.
During the first six months of 2016, Israel razed 91 houses built with “support of the European Union,” up from 70 in all of 2015.
Faaborg-Andersen made it clear that the EU would continue to provide aid to the Palestinians in Area C, despite the tension it generates with Jerusalem. Area C, he said, would constitute an important part of any future Palestinian state, which is why the EU has invested €21 million in the last two years for development and humanitarian aid there.
‘Palestinians treated fairly, instrumentalized by PA’
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel on Thursday that his government “forcefully and categorically rejects the allegations of discrimination or mistreatment against the Palestinian population in Area C.”
Regarding the issue of housing, Nahshon said, “Israel is a country of law and it is only reasonable to request that housing and building projects be conducted according to general regulations and building permits. Just as an American or British citizens would not be allowed to build without a permit, so do we expect of Palestinians living in Area C, and of foreign countries and donors assisting those Palestinians.”
Asked how it was possible that only one housing permit was granted to Palestinians in Area C in 2014 and 2015, Nahshon answered: “One has to take into account the particular condition. We see a lot of activity that is not really meant for the welfare of the population but rather as a political statement, and we have the clear impression that the Palestinians are being instrumentalized by the Palestinian Authority in order to create situations of conflict and friction.”
Speaking after Wednesday’s conference, Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the right-ring Jewish Home party that wants to annex Area C, argued that Palestinians choose to build illegally in the area because they believe asking permission from Israel to build would be a de facto recognition of the Jewish state’s legitimacy.
Smotrich, who before launching his political career co-founded a watchdog group for illegal Arab building in Israel and the West Bank, said there are plans for Palestinians to build legally in Area C in proportion to their population growth rate through the year 2030.
The military-controlled Civil Administration, which is responsible for housing and water for Palestinians in Area C, blamed the Palestinians for the 180 communities without water. It said in an email that the Palestinian Authority has been preventing the convening of the Joint Water Committee formed in 1995 as part of the Oslo peace accords. It also accused the PA of “refusing to promote water infrastructures designed to increase the water supply for the Palestinians.
“In addition,” the Civil Administration wrote, “the water theft culture of the Palestinians themselves harms the rest of the residents in the region.
“Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for directing water to its residents; that is in addition to the quantity that Israel provides and increases every year,” it said.