EU-Israel: One hand whitewashes the other

The European Union is being duplicitous by condemning Israel’s human rights abuses while increasing trade links.

Flags in front of the Reichstag building
Although the European Union regularly chastises Israel, they undermine it by increasing trade with them [EPA]

Cambridge, UK – How Israel can breach international law, commit systematic human rights abuses and colonise Palestine with impunity is typically blamed on the role of the US, for which there is plenty of supporting evidence: from the UN Security Council veto to significant financial and military support.

But the strength and high-profile of the US-Israel relationship has meant that the role of other parties in shielding Israel’s apartheid regime has not been subjected to the critical scrutiny it deserves, particularly the case with the European Union.

While those on the hard right portray the EU as representing a continent of anti-Semitic Israel-bashers on the path to “Eurabia”, the reality is that the EU is one of Israel’s most important allies – whose policies are playing a crucial role in frustrating the Palestinian struggle for justice.

The problem in a nutshell – a gaping disparity between rhetoric and deeds – was exemplified recently by the contrast between a European Parliament resolution on the one hand, and plans to enhance economic ties on the other.

European Parliament resolution of 5 July 2012

[The European Parliament] Calls for full and effective implementation of existing EU legislation and EU-Israel bilateral agreements to ensure that the EU control mechanism – the “technical arrangements”- does not allow Israeli settlement products to be imported to the European market under the preferential terms of the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

Last month, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted 291 to 274 (with 39 abstentions) in favour of a resolution covering a wide number of issues related to the peace process, and events on the ground in Palestine/Israel.

The resolution noted a range of human rights abuses experienced by Palestinians under occupation, including “planning restrictions and the consequent acute house shortage, house demolitions, evictions and displacements, [and] confiscation of land”. It emphasised that Israel’s illegal settlements “are subsidised by the Israeli Government with considerable incentives”.

The Parliament went as far as saying that the very “Palestinian presence” in the West Bank “has been undermined by Israeli Government policies”, and made an unprecedented linkage between the “forced transfer” of “Arab Bedouin communities” in both “the occupied Palestinian Territory and in the Negev”.

The resolution also stressed “that Israel’s commitment to respect its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law towards the Palestinian population must be taken into full consideration in the EU’s bilateral relations with the country”.

Yet less than three weeks later, the EU decided to upgrade relations with Israel in a host of areas, drawing widespread condemnation from those who, like Caabu Director Chris Doyle, felt that such a decision “rewards criminal activity and will only encourage more”, thus “undermin[ing] the EU’s reputation in the Middle East and any claims to support human rights”.

Youth activist group Palestinians for Dignity condemned the move, saying they would protest the EU’s “complicity” in Israel’s occupation until the upgrade is halted. Three Israeli NGOs (Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel) released a joint statement emphasising that “concrete improvements in Israel’s human rights conduct on the ground must steer any enhancement of its trade relations with Israel”.

The EU’s approach makes a mockery of the way in which “the observance of human rights and democracy” are said to “form the very basis” of the EU-Israel Association Agreement. This inability to sanction Israel for routine breaches of international law is a microcosm of the approach of the self-appointed guardians of negotiations, the Quartet.

The EU remains deeply wedded to the discredited, flawed peace process, repeating ad nauseam the need for a return to talks, even as its officials and MEPs sign off on report after report, documenting Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing, segregation and discrimination.

Part of that means EU support for the Palestinian Authority (PA), the financially unviable, donor-reliant, security “partner” for the Israeli military. European Commission President Jose Barroso opened a college for “police sciences” in Jericho in July, days after Palestinian security forces had beaten protesters angry at Mahmoud Abbas’ invite to Shaul Mofaz. During this trip to the region, Barroso told an audience in Haifa that “Europe and Israel” are both “staunchly committed to a vibrant civil society, respect for human rights and rights of people belonging to minorities”.

While the recent European Parliament resolution correctly recorded many of Israel’s crimes, votes in Strasbourg and Brussels are meaningless – or even counter-productive – when not backed up by action. The EU represents 35 per cent of Israel’s total imports and is the second largest market for exports behind the USA. There is room for significant leverage here (and the EU is also the largest donor to the PA).

For now, the EU’s foreign policy is an obstacle to a just peace and the realisation of the Palestinian people’s basic rights, a sad reality that is unlikely to change without significant pressure from the citizens of member states.

Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.