A day after the four European Union members of the UN Security Council strongly criticized Israel's decision to speed up construction of settlements, tension between the parties appears to be rising.
EU Ambassador to Israel Andrew Standley on Thursday submitted a formal protest to the Foreign Ministry over evacuating Bedouins and tearing down Palestinians' houses in the E1 area near the West Bank settlement Ma'aleh Adumim.
Standley told Raphael Schutz, who heads the Foreign Ministry's European desk, that the EU was concerned that the evacuation and demolition was part of preparations to expand the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim in the E1 area and asked for clarifications.
He also expressed profound concern over the deterioration in the Palestinian residents' situation in the West Bank's C areas, which are under Israel's security control. He cited the rise in the number of houses demolished by the Civil Administration.
The E1 area is located between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem. For the past several years Israel has been planning to build a neighborhood there called "Mevasseret Adumim," with the intention of creating Jewish urban contiguity and strengthen its hold in East Jerusalem. The United States strongly objects to building the neighborhood, for fear it cuts the West Bank in two and severs off East Jerusalem, thwarting the chances of reaching a final status arrangement and establishing a Palestinian state.
A senior European diplomat said the EU's 27 foreign ministers had decided on the protest Standley submitted on Thursday at their last meeting some two weeks ago. The European foreign ministers received a report compiled by the European consuls in Ramallah and East Jerusalem on the situation of the Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control. The report cited a rise in the number of Palestinian houses torn down by the Israeli authorities and the growing economic distress of the Palestinians living in Area C.
They have also received information from human rights organizations saying Israel is planning to evacuate some 2,500 Bedouins of the Jahalin tribe from their residence in the E1 area near Ma'aleh Adumim to the garbage removal site near the village of Abu Dis. This information raised the suspicion that Israel was preparing the ground to expand Ma'aleh Adumim.
About two weeks ago, European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva sent Defense Minister Ehud Barak a letter expressing deep concern over Israel's acts in Area C, especially regarding the evacuation of the Bedouins from the E1 area. The European commissioner wrote she feared the Bedouins' evacuation was intended to enable Ma'aleh Adumim's expansion and the construction of a new neighborhood on the site.
Georgieva visited Israel more than six months ago and met Barak and the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Brigadier-General Eitan Dangot. A defense source said Dangot has been approached by several foreign officials in recent weeks about the Bedouins' evacuation from the E1 area. However Dangot made it clear to everyone he spoke to that the activity was merely a preliminary examination in a bid to regulate the Bedouins' living areas in the West Bank, and there was no intention to evacuate them in the near future.
"There is a huge gap between what the Europeans think is happening here and reality," the defense source said. "We're dealing with preliminary work. No one is being evacuated at this stage and there is no Israeli conspiracy or plot. Israel is a state of proper conduct, and when we have plans we will not conceal them from anyone and update the international bodies," he said.
The source added there was no connection between the possible evacuation of the Bedouins living in the E1 area and the beginning of construction there. "There are no construction permits there at all and the issue isn't on the defense minister's table," he said.
Meanwhile, the conflict that erupted between Israel and Britain, France, Germany and Portugal following the Foreign Ministry's harsh statement on Wednesday has become an internal conflict in the cabinet as well.
On Thursday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized the Foreign Ministry for saying the "bickering" of EU members of the UN Security Council over Israeli settlement was making them "irrelevant."
"I don't think our statement will make these countries irrelevant," Barak told Israel Radio. "European countries are very relevant ... and they stand with us at important times."
He added that the countries should be told they are mistaken, but Israel should continue cooperating with them and refrain from conflicts.
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