In a show of marked European frustration over the continued deterioration of the Palestinian peoples' living conditions under Israeli occupation and over the latter's failure to genuinely engage in conclusive peace talks, former leaders and senior officials from European Union member states called upon the European Union Foreign Policy Representative Catherine Ashton to firmly observe a set of new guidelines designed to limit interaction with Israeli entities operating in Arab territories occupied by Israel in 1967.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is attempting to revive serious Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, had earlier this month called for a delay in the implementation of the directive, which would see an end to EU financial assistance to Israeli organisations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as in the Golan Heights.
According to Sultan Begum, policy advisor to Oxfam, a leading humanitarian organisation operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there is no doubt that life has become harder and harsher for Palestinians under occupation – whether in the West Bank or Gaza Strip – than it was at the onset of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process marked by the signing of the Oslo Accords 20 years ago.
“Basically, 20 years ago, when the Oslo Accords were signed, there was hope [for a better life at least for the Palestinians under occupation]; but now there is disillusionment,” Begum told Ahram Online in a telephone interview from the West Bank.
In a nutshell, Begum stated, an all-encompassing deterioration of the Palestinians' lives in the Occupied Territories is evident, especially in terms of control over land – being confiscated – and resources – being drained – along with considerable restrictions on movement.
It is bad enough, Begum said, that hope of a Palestinian state is now receding, but what is worse is that even the hope of stable living conditions has become a tough challenge – despite the billions of dollars spent on international aid, and despite the numerous efforts invested into Palestinian state-building.
Begum provides endless examples to illustrate why the “peace talks that were seen 20 years ago to offer a real opportunity” now appear to be practically incapable of yielding a peaceful resolution, at least in the foreseeable future.
For instance, Begum elaborated that the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements across the West Bank, “of which it now controls 42 percent” including East Jerusalem, resulted in “the number of Israeli settlers [having] more than doubled over the past 20 years.”
The expansion of settlements had caused a long halt in peace talks, until they were reinitiated last month by Kerry amidst much diplomatic scepticism. Nevertheless, she added, only this week, the Israeli government approved the construction of 3600 settlements “despite the renewed peace talks.”
Humanitarian organisations repeatedly emphasise that the expansion of settlements is not merely about the loss of land on which the Palestinian state should be built, but also about the loss of resources, especially that settlements are constructed on the plots where natural resources, especially water, are more abundant.
Oxfam, Begum said, assesses that Israel already controls 80 percent of the Occupied Palestinian Territories' water resources and that the settlers, estimated at little over half a million people, use approximately six times the amount of water consumed by more than 2.5 million Palestinians.
Along with the settlements, Begum reminded, Israel also erected the separation wall in the very heart of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Not only has the wall cut off families, what's more it has denied Palestinian farmers in the West Bank basic agricultural facilities, at a time when fishermen in Gaza are themselves being denied access to deep water fishing. As a result, she added, poverty and unemployment have gradually increased over the past 20 years, despite the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Begum noted that the work of humanitarian organisations operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories “has become more difficult because more and more Palestinians are trapped into poverty and unemployment” especially in Gaza which is becoming “more closed off from the world.”
And while humanitarian organisations were hoping – and in many ways planning – to engage in more development than assistance work following the beginning of the peace process, it has become evident that – 20 years away from the initial euphoria that wafted from the White House, where the Oslo Accords were being signed, to parts of the Middle East, especially the Palestinian Occupied Territories – the opposite is true.
“The policy of occupation has affected every aspect of life for Palestinians and has hit men, women and children, without a stop, during the last 20 years,” Begum noted. And it is not only that life for Palestinians people today is harsher than it was 20 years ago, they are also facing new threats, including those resulting from the violence of settlers, as Begum noted. “Palestinians are unprotected from settlers' violence – in fact, this violence [itself] has been on the increase.”
“The past 20 years have been about a lost opportunity, basically. Today, there are fresh efforts. If there is a serious hope for a peaceful resolution, these acts must be stopped,” Begum concluded.