Israel is ratcheting up its demolitions policy in the West Bank at an "alarming" rate, according to the United Nations' humanitarian envoy for the region, who described the trend as a "nail in the coffin" for the two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Robert Piper was visiting Brussels to draw attention to the issue, at a time of renewed focus on the stalled Middle East peace process. The region has experienced a recent surge in violence, with Palestinian youth targeting Israelis in a spate of knife attacks.
Israel has long drawn international criticism for the demolition of homes and other Palestinian buildings in the West Bank, while at the same time supporting the expansion of Jewish settlements in the region.
This year, there has been a "dramatic" increase in the demolitions, Piper told dpa in a recent interview.
"Since the beginning of 2016 ... the trend has shot off the graph," he said. "The total number of demolitions of last year have already now been exceeded."
He described Israel's behaviour as a "sophisticated strategy" of pressuring people to move by destroying homes, removing people's livelihoods or refusing to issue permits. "It's not guns and people being moved on trucks, it's a much more subtle pressure to clear certain areas in the West Bank," he said.
This "pattern of change" is undermining the long-term political objective of creating two separate Israeli and Palestinian states, he added. "What we are seeing ... is another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution."
Piper highlighted the important role of the European Union in maintaining pressure on the Israeli authorities.
"Europe has got a lot of leverage on Israel, both politically, financially and culturally," he said, noting that a decision taken last year to label settlement products distinctively from Israeli goods in the EU had sent a "very powerful signal."
He stressed the need to keep applying all levers available, to ensure that Israel's actions have a cost.
This could include seeking compensation for EU-funded aid materials that have been destroyed or confiscated by the Israeli authorities in the West Bank. By a conservative estimate, at least $228,000 dollars worth of EU funding were targeted in January and February alone, he said.
He acknowledged that the EU has a delicate line to tread, in order to retain the backing of all 28 member states.
"It's no secret that EU policy on the Palestinian question is ... one of the issues that places tremendous stresses on the EU cooperation fabric. But maybe these sort of acts of provocation by Israel are in fact a kind of unifying force," Piper said.
At the same time, he stressed the need to turn the tide on recent developments. The recent series of knife attacks - which has led to the deaths of some 200 Palestinians and more than two dozen Israelis - are "sad acts of desperation," Piper said.
"I think everyone recognizes that behind all of this is a complete lack of a sense of horizon for young people in Palestine," he added.
The generation of Palestinians born since the 1993 interim Oslo peace accords "haven't seen any political breakthroughs in their lifetime, they have just seen a deterioration," Piper said.
By Helen Maguire
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