In Palestine, European diplomats and officials all have the blues

The Jericho free zone, in the Jordan Valley, was meant to help Palestine’s economic development and is financed by the European Union. But it’s a long way from theory to practise, for Israel creates ever new obstacles to destroy or block any initiative aimed at improving Palestinian lives.

Jericho Agro Industrial Park, a free zone in the Jordan Valley, is an ambitious project : “to facilitate, through tax incentives and modern infrastructure, local and international investments in Palestine as well as Palestinian exports,” which are still very meagre, a local official told me. The Palestinian Industrial Estates and Free Zone Authority has three such embryonic free zones in the West Bank (a fourth, in Gaza, is dormant). And three more are planned for the West Bank, near Nablus, Hebron and Rawabi, a veritable “new town” being built by a Palestinian-American millionaire in Area A (see box). The Jericho free zone was started with Japanese financing and now benefits from the support of the European Union (EU). For the moment, activities seem slow. Only four SME’s are registered there. Authorities are expecting six more by the end of the year, with the creation of 500 jobs. The ultimate goal is 3 400 jobs with 17 000 indirectly generated.

We were nine journalists from eight EU countries invited by the EU delegation in Palestine to observe various aspects of Europe’s aid to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). But months before the first deadline it is hard to believe that the goals will be achieved on schedule. All the more so as both the Palestinians in charge and our European chaperones have strong doubts about the sincerity of Israel’s willingness to allow this zone to develop at all. “The biggest problem, Khaled Amleh, one of the Palestinian managers complains, “is border control: who is going to be in charge?” The only way out is over the Allenby Bridge across the Jordan, allowing goods to be exported through Jordan. It is open only eight hours a day, two hours on Fridays and is closed on Saturdays. “The Lod airport is open around the clock for Israeli exports,” says the Palestinian. “When we complain, the Israeli military claim they want to help, but actually they’re giving us the runaround.” For two years now the people in charge of the free zone have been negotiating with the Israeli Civil Administration1 to extend the opening hours, but nothing has changed. “We are entirely at the mercy of the Israeli’s good will. Our produce lies rotting in their Ashdod harbour because Israel won’t deliver the export permits.”

Administrative Obstacles

Another Palestinian official in the free zone complained about the countless administrative obstacles the Israelis come up with. “If the Japanese and the Europeans don’t put more pressure on Israel, they will lose a big share of their investments here,” he observed. “The truth is that so long as we have no control over our borders, Israel can keep us in this economic stranglehold.” Our chaperones, the EU delegation, took this all in without a word. Once we were in the open air, one of them took us aside and told us this: “The Israelis do not want to negotiate a political solution for the Palestinian question. But Netanyahu has often spoken of an ‘economic peace.’ Yet even that is something they do everything they can to prevent, with countless bureaucratic hold-ups. So what do they really want?”

We were to hear this recrimination repeated all through our visit among the members of the delegation, a sort of permanent credo. In Tubas, north of Nablus, the EU is financing at a cost of 18 million euros a plant for the treatment of waste water to be re-used in agriculture. It should be operational by January 2018. This the first project of its kind in Palestine, all the more vital considering the blatant water shortage, what with the Israelis having taken over all the water tables. This purification tank project is a perfect illustration of the consequences of the “bantoustanisation” imposed by the Israeli occupation. The tanks are being built in Area A, in hopes of avoiding a few administrative stumbling blocks. However, as Tael Ali Ahmed, a local Palestinian official, pointed out to us, the truck parking area is located 30 metres away . . . in area C, where permits are required. This is a source of constant administrative hassles. “Any soldier who feels like it can keep the trucks from moving and hold up the whole project.”

The EU personnel confirmed this. The Israeli authorities “demand ten times the presentation of the same document” or “immobilise the trucks with no explanation.” “One day, soldiers destroyed three kilometres of piping, an engineer told us. “Later they explained that it was simply a ‘misguided initiative,’ not an order.” Tael Ali Ahmed chimed in. “When it comes to water, the Israeli consider the whole West Bank to be in Area C. For the last two years there has been a ban against importing water pumps. No well can be dug without the approval of an Israeli-Palestinian ‘joint commission’, where Israel has a right of veto. And anyway it hasn’t been in session since 2012. They came with plans for piping water to the settlement and asked us to endorse them. . . We stopped seeing each other.” The Israeli army, Tael opined, is trying to make people’s lives so painful here that they decide to leave. But, he assured us, “we’ll carry this project through to the end, no matter how much harassment we have to cope with.”

A Billion Euros Aid per Year

The EU spends 310 million euros per year to support the PNA: 45% of that goes to pay the wages of the Authority’s leaders and civil servants, 45% to public services (water supply, schools, hospitals, etc.) and 10% to private initiatives (largely cultural and humanitarian). In addition, the EU contributes 110 million dollars per year to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). All told, including individual donations by various European countries (France is the most generous in the field of energy, the Netherlands for judiciary aid, Belgium for education, etc.) the EU’s contribution is nearly a billion euros per annum. By way of comparison, US aid to Palestine is a little over 600 million dollars yearly, more than half of which goes to “security” (training and financing police and intelligence services).

The object of our trip was not confined to economic questions, the EU also arranged meetings with beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. To the north-west of Jenin, the Union provides aid for Khirbet Abdallah Al-Yunis, a village caught between the Green Line (the 1967 frontier which its 200 inhabitants are not allowed to cross) and the Israeli “wall of protection” which puts the villagers’ farmland and the West Bank in general out of their reach. Here it is simply impossible to obtain a building permit. Hence the countless ‘unauthorised constructions’ undertaken by Palestinians . . . and destroyed by the Israelis. In Abdallah Al-Yunis, 88 destruction orders for such ‘illegal’ structures are currently pending. A community housing project, including a school where a teacher would officiate every day and a doctor consult once a week, was presented to the Israeli authorities in 2014. Rather than wait for a permit they knew would never be forthcoming, the villagers told the army that for lack of a response within eighteen months, the work would begin. They benefit from the support of the EU as well as a United Nations project, called UN Habitat. The Israelis have refrained from interfering, knowing they can always destroy the ‘illegal’ buildings if they feel the need. Ahmad Al-Atrash, project planner for UN Habitat, hopes that won’t happen: “Actually, they’re happy about this, he told us, because we help to keep the peace.” A statistic: over the past 23 years, out of 112 development plans submitted in Area C, the Israeli army has approved 6! “And even then, there were always restrictions!” Naïm Nibani, a local spokesperson, added.

“Fighting a Bulldozer”

In Khirbet Tana, near Nablus, the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), in conjunction with NGO Première Urgence Internationale, provides support for a community of Palestinian shepherds which has settled there and has been the target of thirteen demolition orders since 2005—the last of them on 7 January 2017. The plywood cabins which house these 45 shepherd families are regularly destroyed by the occupation troops. Israel has decreed this stretch of land a “military training zone.” “We’ve never noticed the least sign of training here,” the ECHO personnel assured us. “But there are four Israeli settlements in the area. The idea is to get rid of the Arab population in their midst.” The European personnel described the process:

- a) the shepherds and their land are expropriated. They are denied building permits;
- b) their access to public utilities (water, sewers, etc.) is cut off;
- c) the settlers are allowed to make “punitive” raids (“in the summer they come and bathe in our only waterhole,” says one shepherd).

And finally, people can’t take any more. Over 300 family homes and service structures have been demolished since 2005. In the opinion of one member of the EU team, “If it weren’t for the EU, the shepherds would have left long ago.” The EU is thought to have sustained losses amounting to 216 000 euros in Khirbet Tana. The day we arrived there, 17 children were gathered in the school-house, a two-room temporary structure of corrugated iron.”It has already been demolished three times, a member of the ECHO team told us and he added, it’s like fighting a bulldozer that never stops coming.” ECHO has issued an explanatory booklet which refers to “an acknowledged policy of forcible transfer” of the Palestinian population which is being applied by Israeli authorities to at least 46 residential areas in Area C.

Throughout our stay, we heard these conclusions and other similar ones repeated time and again by the Europeans stationed here. In East-Jerusalem and its surroundings we observed the forced “judaisation” of the city, in Bethlehem we visited the Ayda camp which houses 6 000 refugees. In Area H2 in Hebron, 750 settlers, known to be ultra-violent, have succeeded in driving 20 000 Palestinians out of their homes in the so-called “Jewish quarter” under the protection of the army. And there were more such examples in other places we visited. And each time the same doubts as to the purpose of their mission were voiced by European co-operators, but also by many diplomats, in asides strictly off the record. Doubts aggravated by the feeling that the reports sent back to their countries or to the European Commission are all filed away and forgotten. One diplomat told us in private that “Ms Mogherini’s attitude on the Israel-Palestine question is one of deliberate ignorance.”2

A “Potemkin village”

“I sometimes wonder whether we are nothing more than a cog in the machinery designed to enforce Israeli presence in the occupied territories. It’s true that here and there we prevent certain injustices, we achieve a few results, but on the whole are we not simply helping to maintain the fiction of a Palestinian Authority which has no real power whatsoever? . . . and giving Israel a free hand?” An employee of the EU delegation in Palestine raised the question quite openly. A diplomat from a country with a consulate in the West Bank concurred :”We Europeans are still fighting to preserve the Oslo agreement. But today the Israelis claim that in Area C, Oslo gives them the right to do as they please. And they refuse to discuss the matter. Consequently, I wonder whether I am helping to build a future Palestinian state which they are making more impossible every day, or simply to perpetuate the occupation?¨ This question tortures him all the more, he added, as it will only be answered in the future. “If a Palestinian State comes into being, we will have helped. If the opposite is true, we will have contributed to preserving a fiction and financed the occupation.” Because, this diplomat reminded us, European financial support enables Israel to dispense with many of its obligations as an occupying power prescribed by international law. Without the PA and its European and American donors, Israel would have to pay for most of the services provided by the PA and its personnel.

A few of these European diplomats and civil servants, speaking as individuals, were even more disillusioned. They called Israeli policies a kind of “Potemkin village” (a deceptive facade for propaganda purposes) designed to preserve the illusion of a fictional normalcy. “In actual fact, said one of the Europeans we spoke to, the Israelis are making no efforts to solve anything beyond their own security. On the contrary, they are hoping that the deterioration of the situation will make more and more Palestinians give up and leave so they can gradually extend their grip on the West Bank. Until now, this policy is a success.” Like all the others, he wished to remain anonymous. What would happen if he said what he thought in public? “I would be fired immediately.”

1“Civil administration” is the name the Israelis have given the military occupation authorities that administer civilian activities.

2Federica Mogherini is current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.