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The truth about West Bank demolitions

British newspaper the Daily Mail last week published an “exclusive” on claims that the EU is “funding illegal West Bank building projects”, a reference to Palestinian structures built without a permit from Israeli occupation authorities.

The Oslo Accords, which Israel has systematically and repeatedly violated, were intended to manage a “transitional period” ending in 1999. Under the terms of the Accords, about 60 percent of the West Bank, so-called “Area C”, remains under Israeli authority today.

The article contends that in helping Palestinians build structures “unauthorised” by Israel, the EU is “acting illegally”. This argument, however, is ignorant of international law, obfuscates the reality on the ground today, and serves to advance a disturbing agenda.

Oslo Accords

First, the Oslo Accords changed nothing about the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention (GCIV) to the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). As the Harvard International Law Journal put it in 2003: “To the extent that the Oslo Accords conflict with the requirements of the GCIV, the latter shall prevail as a matter of international law.”

Through its land seizures, settlement enterprise, discriminatory legal regime, and apartheid wall, Israel has been guilty of grave violations of international law in the OPT for decades.

The illegality of the settlements, for example, is the position of the International Court of Justice, the UN Security Council and General Assembly, and High Contracting Parties to the GCIV.

When it comes to the demolition of homes in Area C, Israel is violating Article 49 (prohibiting forcible transfer) and Article 53, which prohibits the destruction of property except when “rendered absolutely necessary by military operations”.

Since, as Human Rights Watch put it: “It appears that the only purpose” of these demolitions “is to drive families off their land”, then it is “a war crime”.

Stop demolitions

The main legal opinion cited by the Mail comes from Alan Baker who, journalist Jake Wallis Simons omits to mention, is himself an Israeli settler. His resume includes working for the legalisation of unauthorised outposts, and sitting on the occupation-denying Levy Committee. Baker attacks the EU on the basis they are a “signatory” to the Oslo Accords, yet only last month argued Israel should declare the Oslo Accords “no longer valid”.

Second, what is the reality on the ground today? In January, UN official James W Rawley urged Israel to stop demolishing Palestinianstructures, including those “provided by the international community to support vulnerable families”.

The statement noted how in 2014, Israeli authorities destroyed 590 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C and East Jerusalem, displacing 1,177 people.

Under Israeli control, “less than one percent of Area C has been assigned for Palestinian construction – much of which is already built-up”. This “intentionally discriminatory manipulation of building and zoning regulations”, in the words of Rabbis for Human Rights, is “designed to make it virtually impossible for Palestinians in Area C [or East Jerusalem] to build legally”.

Denying building permits

The statistics bear this out. A UN report in 2008 revealed that over the previous seven years, Israel denied 94 percent of Palestinian building permit requests in Area C.

Official Israeli data shows that out of 1,426 planning applications submitted by Palestinians living in Area C between 2007 and 2010, just 106 were approved with only 64 permits eventually granted – not even five percent of the total.

Finally, what agenda is being advanced here? Described in the Mail as a “right-of-centre Israeli NGO”, on its English website Regavim is “an independent professional research institute and policy planning think-tank”, aiming to “ensure responsible, legal and accountable use of Israel’s national lands”.

On the Hebrew site, however, Regavim boasts of fighting a “takeover” by “hostile elements” – a reference to Palestinians whom they seek to expel from their homes and lands.

Regavim wants to help “preserve the physical grip” of a Jewish majority “over the country’s land”, and “develop and prioritise Jewish agriculture and settlement of the land”. Ari Briggs, report author and international director of Regavim, was candid with an interviewer in 2013; the group is “keeping Jewish lands in Jewish hands”.

Significant political players

There is also a bigger picture here, which links the likes of Regavim to significant political players in Israel. One of Israel’s “objectives” in its discriminatory planning system, in the words of Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, “is to drive Palestinians out of Area C, at least in part to facilitate its future annexation to Israel”.

Advocates of “the outright, unilateral annexation” of Area C can be found within Likud and Jewish Home – including current Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Annexation of various types is increasingly being discussed – some models require the removal of Palestinians, and all of them ignore or rewrite the basic principles of international law.

The irony of these efforts to undermine the EU’s support for vulnerable Palestinian communities is that Europe is funding serious violations of international law – those carried out by Israel.

The EU’s complicity in Israel’s war crimes through trade deals and other agreements is the source of growing protest from Palestinians, civil society groups, and MEPs themselves.

Thankfully, these are much more likely to gain traction than the cooked up legal interpretation of settlers and their allies.

First published on Al Jazeera.

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