The European Union should turn words into actions and press Israel to halt the expansion of settlements in the West Bank because they threaten the future viability of a Palestinian state, Oxfam has said.
A report published today urges the EU to make the issue a priority during European Commission President José Manuel Barroso's first official visit to the region this weekend, and later this month at the annual EU-Israel Association Council in Brussels, the highest level meeting between the two sides.
Oxfam's report, On The Brink
, calls on Israel to stop the construction of new settlements in the 120km long Jordan Valley. It says: "Requisitions and expropriations of Palestinian land by the Israeli authorities continue to destroy the livelihoods of Palestinians living in the area and, unless action is taken, there are strong indications that the situation will only get worse." But Israel criticised the report as having a "clearly political agenda".
The Jordan Valley makes up 30 per cent of the West Bank and could bring up to $1bn into the Palestinian economy of restrictions on the use of land, water and building were lifted, Oxfam said. The region has a Palestinian population of 66,000 and 9,500 Israeli settlers. But Palestinians have the use of just 6 per cent of the land compared to the Israelis' 86 per cent.
Israeli settlers have established farms with the support of subsidies from their government while poverty among Palestinians in the Jordan Valley is almost double that of the rest of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley "has the potential to be the Palestinian bread basket, yet restrictions on Palestinians' use of land, water, and on building in the valley are keeping them poor while helping nearby Israeli settlements thrive", the report says.
"European leaders have long been saying the right things, but strong words alone are not helping the Palestinian farmers and herders who live in the Jordan Valley develop their own economy and build the infrastructure necessary for positive community growth," said Natalia Alonso from Oxfam's EU office. "Europe no has an obvious opportunity to move beyond statements."
The EU is Israel's largest trading partner and the biggest donor to the Palestinians. In a strongly worded statement on May 14, EU foreign ministers expressed "deep concern" about the "marked acceleration of settlement construction" in the West Bank and condemned violence by settlers, as well as the "worsening living conditions of the Palestinian population in Area C".
Some 90 per cent of the Jordan Valley is classified as Area C, with full Israeli civil and military control. Oxfam said that less than 1 per cent of the area has been planned for Palestinian development, while 94 per cent of permits for Palestinian construction have been rejected in recent years.
According to the report, since May Israel has demolished at least 59 Palestinian structures and displaced 34 families to make way for a military training area. There was been a 20 per cent increase in new Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank in 2011 compared with 2010, while the number of Palestinians displaced doubled.
Oxfam called on the EU to take "urgent action" to press Israel to comply with international law, and push to create conditions allowing the implementation of an EU-Palestinian Liberation Organisation association agreement giving Palestinian products access to European markets – including by ending Israel's restrictions on the movement of goods. It also urged the Palestinian Authority to publish a comprehensive national development plan.
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in London, quoted by the BBC
said: "Oxfam's latest report on the situation in the Palestinian territories puts a clearly political agenda above any humanitarian concern. Its call to the international community and to non-governmental organisations to initiate projects which clearly violate existing agreements is irresponsible and inflammatory."
Elsewhere today the European Parliament adopted a resolution criticising Israel's construction and expansion of settlements, describing it as a major obstacle to peace efforts. Parliament called on the commission to verify the destruction of and damage to EU-funded structures in the occupied territories.
Cypriot MEP Kyriacos Triantaphyllides, from the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, said Israel's "policies with regards to settlements, evictions and house demolitions, residency status of Palestinians and Palestinian prisoners must change".
And Véronique De Keyser, vice president of the Socialists and Democrats, added: "Israel, as the occupying power in the area, must respect its obligations towards this population under international human rights and humanitarian law. There must also be an immediate, complete and permanent freeze of all construction or expansion of settlements, which are illegal under international law."