Palestine/Israel: Time for donors to remove roadblocks

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Although the world's attention is fixed on the Arab Spring, human rights abuses continue in the Palestinian territories and the EU should consciously use its aid policy to push for an end to the blockade of Gaza and a moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank, argues Chris Bain of CIDSE.

This op-ed was authored by Chris Bain, president of CIDSE, an international alliance of Catholic development organisations, and the Director of the Catholic Overseas Development Agency of England and Wales.

"While all eyes are on the Arab Spring, violations of international humanitarian law and human rights continue in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). The ongoing conflict not only means that civilians – both Israeli and Palestinian – continue to suffer, but also that millions of euros in EU aid are obstructed.

Next Wednesday (13 April 2011), key donors will meet the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to review the delivery of aid to the oPt. The meeting is, quite exceptionally, hosted in Brussels by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

This may well be a sign that the EU finally intends to give this issue a more political dimension. The EU should use its full weight to push for an end to the blockade on Gaza, demolitions and settlement expansion in the West Bank, and human rights violations by Palestinian security forces. It is time to remove the roadblocks to the development of the oPt.

The illegal blockade on Gaza was catapulted into the spotlight by the violent flotilla interception last year. Despite the Israeli government's commitments to relax closure measures, essential elements of the blockade are still in place on the ground, including a general ban on freedom of movement in and out of Gaza, as well as on the entry of urgently needed construction materials.

The expansion of exports announced in December 2010, which would be crucial to the revival of Gaza's legitimate economy and the livelihoods of thousands of unemployed, has not materialised. The blockade has been exacerbated this past month by the permanent closure of Karni crossing (Gaza's main commercial crossing with a capacity of 1,000 trucks per day), in contrast to Israel's earlier commitment to open further crossings.

This leaves Kerem Shalom crossing, with a current capacity of only 250 truckloads a day, as the only permanent access point for goods. Transport of aid shipments to Kerem Shalom, which is further from the nearest port, will entail a significant added cost for donors. The EU plans to improve the capacity situation by supporting the upgrade of Kerem Shalom.

However, if this is not accompanied by a lifting of the blockade, there is a risk that this may help to root the current control regime over Gaza's borders by making the illegal closure seem more acceptable than it is. That's why the blockade must be lifted before the EU puts this plan into practice.

The EU also needs to insist once more on an end to demolitions and settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In Area C of the West Bank, 165 structures have been demolished this year so far, displacing 329 people. Demolitions are ordered in enforcement of Israeli planning and zoning regulations which place severe restrictions on Palestinians and make it extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain building permits in Area C or East Jerusalem.

These regulations have also curtailed building by international donors in Area C, affecting their capacity to assist people in one of the oPt's most poverty-stricken areas and restricting the possibility of developing infrastructure to support social and economic development in the oPt in general.

Finally, the EU's considerable support towards the building of Palestinian state institutions (including, notably, the security apparatus) is undermined where these institutions do not respect the rights of the population they are intended to serve.

This is perhaps the lesson to be drawn from Palestinian security forces' recent use of violence and arbitrary detention to disperse peaceful rallies in solidarity with Egyptian protesters. Violations of human rights by Palestinian security forces, particularly torture, arbitrary detention and suppression of freedom of assembly, remain a grave concern. In 2011 so far, there have been 39 complaints of torture and 269 of arbitrary detention against West Bank security forces.

The EU needs to intensify its efforts to press the Palestinian Authority to curb human rights violations by security forces, while continuing dialogue with, and human rights training for, forces on the ground. The EU would also do well to tackle this problem from another front by strengthening civilian institutions overseeing security agencies and addressing violations.

In the end, it is in the interests of all that the future Palestinian state is built on a firm human rights foundation."

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