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Israel and the EU Clash Over Settlements

Israel's actions are strangling the Palestinian economy and making Palestinians more reliant on foreign aid, the EU said.

RAMALLAH, Jul 13 (IPS) - The Israeli Foreign Ministry's concern over an "unusually harsh statement" by the European Commission over Israel's settlement policy indicates a growing unease between Israel and the EU.

The European Commission (EC), the executive arm of the EU, said that Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank was strangling the Palestinian economy and forcing Palestinians there to become more dependent on foreign aid.

"It is the European taxpayers who pay most of the price of this dependence," read the Jul. 6 EC statement.

According to the EC, expropriation of fertile Palestinian land for the settlements, the settler-only bypass roads which serve them, and the hundreds of West Bank checkpoints manned by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have stunted Palestinian economic growth.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that 509 million dollars is spent annually on maintaining Israeli settler roads and checkpoints. The bypass roads are meant to make it easier and quicker for Israeli settlers to reach Israel proper, while the checkpoints ostensibly serve their security.

OCHA released a report in June saying that nearly 30 percent of the West Bank, which under international law belongs to the Palestinians, has been expropriated by the Israelis as closed military zones and for nature reserves.

Together with Israel's more than 100 illegal settlements - home to approximately 500,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank - approximately 40 percent of the territory has been taken by Israel.

The West Bank is divided into area A, which falls under Palestinian control, area B, which falls under both Israeli military and Palestinian civil control, and area C, which falls under full Israeli control.

Palestinians pay a high price by losing land while facing difficulties with travel and accessing their agricultural fields. Many are regularly denied building permits by the Israeli authorities to build in areas B and C.

They therefore build without the requisite permits and then face the possibility of being evicted and having their homes demolished by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). They also struggle to get permits to connect to electricity and water infrastructure.

OCHA says that during the last few months it has seen a tightening of restrictions in areas in and around the West Bank's Jordan Valley, as well as the Bethlehem and Hebron areas.

The herding and farming communities which reside in Israel's self-declared military zones in these regions face particular hardships, with their homes and livelihoods now under threat. Many had lost grazing land to make way for settlement enlargement and security. Now they face eviction.

About 300 Palestinians, including 170 children, received evacuation and demolition orders from the IDF in May alone.

Osama Jarrer, deputy director of the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Agriculture in the Hebron governorate in the southern West Bank, said many farmers there had been forced to reduce their flocks.

"Because hundreds of farmers are in the same position there is a glut of livestock, so they sell at a reduced price. But even when they sell to get out of the business more than half of them will not be able to pay their fodder and concentrated feed debts," Jarrer told IPS.

The situation of Hebron's 3,000 farmers, and their 30,000 dependents, has been aggravated by rising international fodder prices and a water shortage.

The water shortage is due to inequitable water distribution between Palestinians and Israeli setters, and a drought which has gripped this part of the Middle East for several years.

Meanwhile, as Palestinians experience the practical consequences of Israel's West Bank settlement policy on the ground, Israel and the U.S. continue to haggle over the theoretical intricacies in capitals abroad.

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