For the past eight months, we have sought classified correspondence from the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to find out what is preventing the Palestinians from developing recently discovered oil and gas fields in the West Bank and Gaza. The documents, released under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, show that Israel is deliberately preventing the development of Gaza’s natural gas fields and may also be exploiting oil fields in the West Bank. The revelations, if true, further expose the folly of aid from the international community, in particular from the United States and European Union, ostensibly aimed at helping the development of a Palestinian state, but whose main achievement has been underwriting Israel’s occupation policies and ensuring Palestinian dependence.
Of course the acquisition of territory and resources has been a hallmark of Israel’s 45-year occupation of the Palestinian territories and is contrary to international law. These new revelations come at a time when the United Nations and World Bank have declared that the Palestinian economy is close to self-sufficiency, with the major stumbling block being Israel’s occupation policies. With oil and natural gas added to its other economic resources – and free from Israel’s occupation – a free and sovereign Palestine would truly be independent and viable, as these frank internal communications underscore.
The internal communications not only reinforce reports there may be oil in the occupied Palestinian territories but also suggest that Israel may actually be exploiting it, much as it has Palestinian water resources. They describe how Norwegian consultants were engaged in determining the feasibility of a Palestinian petroleum sector. The consultants’ survey covered a drill site on or near the “Green Line” – the 1949 armistice line between Israel and the occupied West Bank – that could indicate the Israelis were tapping Palestinian oil reserves.
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The consultants also said there may have been a second oil discovery near the West Bank city of Hebron. Indeed, the Ma’an News Agency reported in April 2012 that “international and local experts started research months ago in Ramallah and southern Hebron and found an oil field in the village of Rantis, west of Ramallah”. It added that there may be a second field in as-Samu, south of Hebron, and possibly a third oil and gas field in the northern West Bank near Qalqiliya.
These oil field discoveries prompted one staffer in the British Consulate General in Jerusalem to observe “Oil. Religion. Occupation. And possibly Hebron. A combustible mix. Boom boom”.
He added, “More seriously, if it is shown that Israel is illegally extracting oil reserves from under the West Bank (in contravention of International Humanitarian Law and the Israeli high court) then we will have another issue to add to the lobbying database. This is both an Area C/sovereignty issue and a UK taxpayer issue. It’s hard enough already to justify spending £100m a year on an economy that would be self-sufficient if able to exploit its own natural resources. Harder still if those resources included oil.”
This is not just an issue for British taxpayers but for Americans and many other countries around the world. US taxpayers in particular should stand up and take notice: The US government not only sends over $3bn a year to Israel, enabling it to maintain its occupation of the Palestinian territories, it also sends some $600 million a year to Palestinians under occupation to help them survive that occupation – and to pacify resistance to Israel. The FCO documents affirm that the natural resources in an independent Palestine would be sufficient to make it economically viable and self-sustaining and that taxpayers are supporting nonsense – and a crime.
Those resources also include natural gas off the Gaza Strip, as we reported in April. The gas fields were discovered nearly 13 years ago but have yet to be developed because Israel is unwilling to “allow” the fields to be commercialised unless it can get Palestinian gas for a pittance, as the newly released documents confirm. As with water and land, the presence of oil and natural gas are considerable inducements for Israel’s continued seizure – or, to put it in more straightforward terms, robbery – of Palestinian natural resources in clear violation of international law. Once again, the international community is presented with evidence that they are paying for Israel’s occupation.
The unknown British official who said, “This is both an Area C/sovereignty issue and a UK taxpayer issue”, not only put a finger right on the nub of the problem but pointed the way to a solution. European and American taxpayers should redouble their lobbying efforts with their governments to demand freedom, equality and other human rights for the Palestinian people. It is not just the right thing to do: For taxpayers, peace would be cheaper.
Victor Kattan and Nadia Hijab are, respectively, the Programme Director and Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.