Mahmoud Kaabeneh has two talismans that he hopes will help protect his home from Israel’s bulldozers.
Hanging inside the one-room house the 37-year-old Bedouin Palestinian shares with his wife and four children is a framed verse by a Tunisian poet. “I will live here despite disease and enemies, like a hawk on top of the mountain,” it reads in Arabic.
On the wall of the shed-like dwelling is the blue and gold flag of the European Union, which built this structure and hundreds of others for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. “I will keep any flag on my house if it will protect my home,” said Mr Kaabneh.
Simple homes like this are at the heart of a bitter argument raging between Israel and the EU. So far this year, Israel has bulldozed more than 65 of these houses in the West Bank, arguing that they were constructed illegally and the EU has no right to build in the area without permission. Some Israelis even accuse Europe of building its own version of “settlements” .
“They’re building without authorisation, against the accepted rules, and there’s a clear attempt to create political realities there,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, earlier this year.
The EU counters that it has a “humanitarian imperative” to support Palestinian families whose way of life is being crushed by Israeli occupation and settlement-building. It has spent around €50 million (£39 million) on homes, schools and other projects of this kind since 2013.
The dispute has led to the spectacle of Israeli bulldozers demolishing EU structures, built partly with British taxpayers’ money. Today, the landscape of parts of the West Bank is littered with the twisted remains of buildings still adorned by the EU flag.
At the heart of the argument is the question of who has responsibility and authority for the land.
Israel captured the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967 and has, in the eyes of the international community, occupied it ever since. Around 300,000 Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank, in defiance of what Britain and the EU consider to be the correct interpretation of international law.
Under the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the West Bank was divided into three areas. Areas A and B would be under the civil control of the newly established Palestinian Authority, while Area C would stay under the control of the Israeli military occupation, pending a final peace agreement.
The Olso accord means that no construction can take place in Area C without the approval of Israel. In reality, this has meant Palestinian residents find it almost impossible to get building permits to construct homes legally – and many of those built without permission are demolished.
Among those living in Area C are Bedouin shepherds, some of the poorest members of Palestinian society. Their homes are often not connected to electricity or running water and children face long journeys to the nearest school.
Since 2013, the EU has been building homes for these Area C communities without Israeli approval.
The decision has provoked fury in Israel, which argues that the EU is breaking the Oslo accords, to which it was a party.
“Imagine if Israel were to come and build in Hyde Park,” said Ari Briggs, a spokesman for Regavim, a Right-wing organisation that has been fighting the EU construction. “For a foreign government to come and build without permission it should be clear that it’s a blatant violation of an agreement that they witnessed.”
EU officials respond by saying that the West Bank, unlike Hyde Park, is under occupation. They argue that Israel is failing to meet the needs of the people in the territory it is occupying, leaving the EU with a “humanitarian imperative” to step in and help.
“Area C is part of the occupied Palestinian territory and part of any viable future Palestinian state. All EU activity in the West Bank is fully in line with international humanitarian law,” said an EU statement. “The EU provides humanitarian assistance to communities in need in Area C in accordance with the humanitarian imperative.”
British officials said they were confident the EU policy is legal, but experts have questioned the argument that Israel’s failings give a green light to build in Area C.
Eliav Lieblich, a lecturer at Radzyner Law School in Israel, said the details of each case would need to be examined but that in general the legal aspect was unclear. “The main point for the EU is that even assuming Israel is not abiding by its obligations, do the Europeans have the right to do something unilaterally?” he asked. “It’s an unsettled legal question, although there may be plausible arguments for both sides.”
While both the EU and Israel talk publicly in legalistic terms, their dispute is, in reality, intensely political.
Right-wing Israeli groups want to evict Palestinians from their homes in Area C in order to make room for expanded Jewish settlements, especially around Jerusalem. The EU wants to block settlement construction and maintain a foothold for the Palestinian Authority, keeping alive the goal of an independent Palestinian state.
“It’s all political on both sides – legality is not the question here,” said Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli lawyer who has represented Bedouin communities for decades as they fight evictions. “Israel wants as many Bedouins out of the area as possible – and the EU is trying to strengthen them.”
Caught in between are the Bedouins themselves. Some residents said they would never leave their land and would practice the Palestinian principle of “sumud”, or steadfastness, in the face of Israeli aggression. Others gestured to ramshackle homes without electricity and said they would move if Israel gave fair compensation. Several suggested relocation sites have so far been rejected by Bedouin communities.
Mr Kaabneh’s EU-built house and dozens of others are scheduled for demolition by Israel, although in some cases the bulldozers are on hold as legal proceedings continue. The political arguments between Israel and the EU interest the Bedouin shepherd less than knowing whether his family will be able to stay in their home. “I don’t sleep at night I’m so worried,” he said.
Source The Telegraph