September 21 marked International Peace Day. While I look forward to one day celebrate the peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, in the meantime we shouldn’t lose sight of the need to keep moving in that direction. While the EU believes peace is possible, current trends are pushing it further away than ever. We see the two-state solution being dismantled piece by piece, day by day.
To give some background, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C under the Oslo Accords. Any unilateral modification undermines the entire agreement. The purpose of the Oslo Accords was to cement the steps necessary leading to a negotiated final status agreement to end the decades-old conflict. The accords do not change the status of the West Bank under international law. While, in 1997, the Oslo Accords determined that Israel would retain on an interim basis the military and administrative control over Area C, Israel cannot ‘apply sovereignty’ as has been suggested by some. All areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War are occupied according to international law and the local (Palestinian) population is protected persons under the 4th Geneva Convention.
We are well aware of the suffering and injustices inflicted upon both sides as a result of this conflict. For this reason, a negotiated agreement – which may include agreed land swaps - is of great importance to ensure a process of reconciliation and healing that accompanies sustainable peace. Oslo has brought the notion that the land where Israelis and Palestinians live can be shared. Dismantling Oslo would take everyone back to a much more radical and dangerous debate about who is more entitled to the entirety of the land. Peace would be much further away.
Let me elaborate further on Area C, where I feel there is a need to clarify the EU position. Area C comprises more than 60% of the West Bank, and is the heartland of any viable Palestinian State. Currently, only 1% of Area C is slated for Palestinian development. Of the 102 master plans for Palestinian development that have been submitted to the Israeli authorities for approval, only 5 officially approved, covering 6 localities.
The viability of the two-state solution is being eroded through demolitions, confiscations and displacement while at the same time illegal settlements are being built and regularized. Despite the announcement last month by the Israeli government of 715 permits for Palestinians structures, almost all submitted master plans and building permits for Palestinian development remain unapproved. We have called on Israel to enable accelerated Palestinian construction, as well as social and economic development in Area C, to meet the needs of the population.
All EU activity in Area C is known to the Israeli authorities and fully in line with international humanitarian law. Israel has a duty to agree to international relief schemes and grant unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance provided by the EU, together with many other donors. We insist on supporting Palestinian development according to the master plans which have been submitted, and we have shown willingness to coordinate with the Israeli authorities to move this forward. International law concerning occupation and conflict continues to apply until a negotiated resolution ends the conflict.
We are aware that Israel also occasionally removes illegal settlement outposts. However, this does not balance the systematic demolitions and lack of provision for Palestinian humanitarian and development needs in the same areas. Just in 2019, over 300 Palestinian structures were demolished or seized, and hundreds of people (including children) were displaced. Settlements are illegal under international law regardless of their status under Israeli law. Suggestions that Israel can unilaterally annex any part of this area without also threatening its international standing and abandoning hope for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are mistaken.
There is no viable alternative to the two-state solution that guarantees Israel remains a secure and democratic state with a Jewish majority. There is no two-state solution without a Palestinian State, based on the 1967 lines, and living side by side in peace, security and mutual recognition with Israel. Those three elements – peace, security and mutual recognition – are not just words. The EU is fully committed to the security of Israel, and will always support its right to exist. Mutual recognition is an important factor in building trust, hope and sustainable peace. Years of hatred and intolerance can be reversed through education and an understanding and appreciation of the other’s perspective and legitimacy. The EU does not ‘take sides’ in the conflict, and we remain ready to support both sides to return to a genuine process towards a negotiated two-state solution. This is important for Israel’s future, as well as for the Palestinians. We cannot impose a solution on the parties, as this would not be democratic or sustainable. But make no mistake: only a negotiated solution can bring lasting peace. Perpetual occupation or unilateral steps will only push stability and peace further away.
It is worth remembering that our reference point of international law is not limited to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that international law is not a menu from which one picks and chooses according to one’s tastes. International law is important for the stability of the world. This is not just a principled position but also a real politik one to ensure that new conflicts are not created, that stronger powers do not overtake weaker ones, and that history does not repeat itself. We all know how this can turn out and we should all aspire to a world where “might” does not equal “right”. International law protects us all.
We do not underestimate the challenges towards peace, and the fundamental shift in mentalities that needs to take place lest groups whose aim is to see peace fail should prevail. International law is our guide to peace as it inhibits the forces that seek to destabilize the Middle East, and provides a road map to good relations and mutual recognition. The EU is a partner for Israelis and Palestinians on this path. (by Susanna Terstal, EU Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process)