The European Parliament this week passed a motion expressing support for a Palestinian state and further negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians towards a two-state solution – a move that bears few practical implications, but has been championed as a symbolic victory.
A large majority, 498 parliamentarians, voted in favour, while 88 voted against the motion and 111 abstained. According to the motion’s text, the Luxembourg-based European Parliament “supports in principle the recognition of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution, and believes these should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced”.
The vote – which came as the Palestinian Authority this week submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council outlining a two-year plan to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories – followed a string of similar moves by various parliaments across Europe, among them Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, France and the United Kingdom. While the centre-left Swedish government has formally announced its intention to recognise the state of Palestine, most other governments have passed non-binding resolutions that urge their governments to support Palestinian statehood through negotiations between the PA and Israel. The French and Irish parliaments voted in favour of recognising Palestine earlier this month.
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“It is an important act of solidarity with the Palestinian people,” Gerry Adams, an Irish republican politician and president of the Sinn Fein party, told Al Jazeera. “It also means that Irish people are standing with progressive Israeli opinion, which wants a lasting peace arrangement and supports the recognition of a Palestinian state.”
Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based journalist and analyst of politics in the Arab world, said the decision to recognise Palestine as a state follows a trend of shifting public opinion in Europe.
“The opinion polls consistently show that Europeans have increasingly sympathised with Palestinians over Israelis, often by margins of two-to-one,” Nashashibi told Al Jazeera. This trend only increased after Israel’s recent 51-day military offensive in the beleaguered Gaza Strip. By the time a lasting ceasefire was reached in late August, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 2,257 Palestinians were left dead, including at least 1,563 civilians.
The EU governments should heed the recommendations of their own elected parliaments and sanction Israel if it doesn't halt the violations of human rights against Palestinians.
“These political moves are more about Israeli policy becoming so extremist and so belligerent that it’s harder and harder for MPs and leaders to turn a blind eye to what Israel is doing,” Nashashibi said.
Meanwhile, Israel’s expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank, including annexed East Jerusalem, has continued at a breakneck pace. In late November, the Israeli government approved the construction of 78 new settlement homes in two East Jerusalem settlements.
Often cited as one of the largest obstacles standing between a resolution between Israel and the Palestinians, more than 125 Jewish-only settlement colonies dot the map of the West Bank and provide residence to an estimated 531,000 Jewish Israelis, according to the human rights group B’Tselem. But Nashashibi pointed out that, aside from Sweden, the parliamentary votes supporting Palestine have “been mere recommendations and their respective governments have not acted upon them so far”.
“The EU governments should heed the recommendations of their own elected parliaments and sanction Israel if it doesn’t halt the violations of human rights against Palestinians,” Nashashibi argued. “If it does not do that, we will see an increasing gap between public opinion and governments, which is unsustainable.”
Israeli politicians have responded to the European Parliament’s decision – which came on the same day a European Union court annulled the terrorist designation of Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip – with harsh words. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the decision “does not contribute to the improvement of the situation in the Middle East or the improvement of relations between Israel and the Palestinians”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Hamas to be returned to the terrorist list immediately, blasting the court’s decision as evidence of “a spirit of appeasement in Europe of the very forces that threaten Europe itself”.
“These declarations merely reinforce Palestinian intransigence, pushing peace further away,” Netanyahu said.
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Along with many other Palestinian political groups, Hamas is cautiously supportive of the strategy to seek statehood in the United Nations.
“We support any political move in the international arena that highlights Israel’s crimes and advances the rights of our Palestinian people,” Fawzy Barhoum, a Hamas spokesperson, told Al Jazeera by phone from Gaza, adding nonetheless: “We don’t have faith in the international community.”
Others remain sharply critical of Europe’s ostensible about-face. Ali Abunimah, a political commentator and cofounder of the Electronic Intifada website, said European politicians were “taking refuge in a fantasy that they can ‘recognise the State of Palestine’ [as a way of avoiding] coming to reality that there is no such thing as a two-state solution and that Israel has imposed a particularly brutal form of apartheid over all the territories it controls”.
Europe’s recognition of a Palestinian state will not change the harsh conditions that Palestinians live under daily, Abunimah said, noting the same European lawmakers “refuse to call for practical measures, such as an arms embargo and supporting the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions”.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_