Why can’t the EU say the word apartheid?

Men and women in uniform restrain a young man

The European Union refuses to recognize the reality of Israel’s regime of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians.

Ammar Awad Reuters

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch issued a landmark report concluding that Israel commits the crimes of apartheid and persecution against the Palestinian people.

Israel has “pursued an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians throughout the territory it controls,” the group states.

The crime of apartheid is one of the crimes against humanity enumerated in the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court – putting it in the same category as enslavement and extermination.

With its report, Human Rights Watch joins growing calls for an approach based on rights and accountability, rather than the long dead “peace process” that has for decades provided an alibi for international inaction as Israel entrenches its colonial grip on the Palestinian people and their land.

But if anyone thinks this paradigm shift – even from such a mainstream organization as Human Rights Watch – will dent the European Union’s bedrock commitment to maintaining the brutally unjust status quo in Palestine, they will be sorely disappointed.

I wrote to the EU’s foreign policy spokesperson Peter Stano to ask for the bloc’s reaction to the Human Rights Watch report.

I noted that it comes months after B’Tselem – an Israeli human rights group funded by the European Union – at long last reached its own conclusion that Israel is guilty of apartheid.

The answer from Stano came to 160 words, and not a single one of them is “apartheid.”

“We are giving the report by Human Rights Watch due attention,” Stano asserted.

There then followed a lengthy recitation of the EU’s supposed commitment to human rights, international law and to “a negotiated two-state solution.”

In pursuit of this ever-receding mirage, Stano concluded that “the EU will engage with both Israel and the Palestinians, and with our international and regional partners to this end.”

That sounds suspiciously like the “constructive engagement” that US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher advocated in the 1980s in an effort to stave off international pressure and sanctions on South Africa’s white supremacist apartheid regime.

As an exercise in using a torrent of words to say absolutely nothing of substance, Stano’s statement would make Sir Humphrey Appleby – the obfuscating senior civil servant from the classic British comedy series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister – proud.

Unfortunately, however, this is not comedy, and the European Union’s stubborn refusal to hold Israel accountable costs Palestinian lives.

I put Stano’s response to Omar Shakir, the lead author of the Human Rights Watch report and the group’s director for Israel and Palestine.

“We are looking forward to engaging with the EU and its member states on our findings and recommendations,” Shakir wrote rather diplomatically, noting that the EU has “repeatedly pledged its commitment to international human rights law and mechanisms.”

“We therefore strongly believe that the EU should as a starting point recognize the reality of apartheid and persecution on the ground, and engage the recommendations outlined in our report from that point of departure,” Shakir added.

Yet despite the growing recognition that Israel is an apartheid regime, the EU is doing the diplomatic equivalent of putting its fingers in its ears, closing its eyes and humming as loudly as it can in order to avoid seeing and hearing what is going on around it.

On Thursday, the EU announced the appointment of a new “special representative for the Middle East peace process” mandated “to provide an active contribution to the final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution.”

Sven Koopmans, a Dutch diplomat, will be replacing compatriot Susanna Terstal who in the same role has been holding secret meetings with Israel lobby groups and publicly echoing anti-Palestinian talking points – while achieving nothing for “peace.”

Despite its relentless propaganda about how much it loves human rights, the EU stands – along with the United States – as the greatest enabler of Israeli apartheid, and thus an enemy of freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians.

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Europeans must understand that imperialism is still strong in some EU member states. We must stand for Palestine. Palestinian suffering needs to end. The Palestinian sovereign state needs to be reestablished with EU support. Israel should be banned from EU, Israel is not in Europe and it is not European.

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As Ali knows only too well, the EU can't say the word "apartheid" for the simple reason that doing so would oblige the entire 28 nation union to unceremoniously dump Israel from its cosseted, cradling embrace onto the cold hard floor of international law. Recognizing apartheid as the overriding reality in Israel/Palestine will require a cessation of all military, economic, political, diplomatic and cultural exchanges with a state suddenly redefined as a pariah. And let us not forget- Israel represents a source of revenue for many European concerns and individuals, including public officials. In short, there are far more numerous and compelling reasons for the EU to refuse to acknowledge Israeli apartheid than can be raised on behalf of the simple truth documented in HRW's report.

I was nevertheless encouraged by aspects of Stano's non-response on the subject. References to Israel's democratic virtues and historical victimhood no longer play much of a role in current formulations of this type. In fact, the exercise has gravitated toward protecting the Union rather more than Israel, with citations of the EU's own farcical commitments to the "peace process" and associated deceptions. When your friends become more concerned for their own reputations than standing up for yours, the skids are being greased. Israel's power in Europe is not unlimited, and the HRW report will contribute to its further diminution. Time is not on Israel's side, which is why the Zionists are increasingly desperate to seize control of the legal and political landscape in key nations.

All of which means that the movement spearheaded by the BDS campaign is making steady progress in exposing Israel and depriving the Zionist state of popular support throughout the world. At a certain point, Israel will then begin to lose the loyalty of foreign elites- who have separate interests of their own. And there'll be no need of an inspired Daniel to read the writing on the wall.

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Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.