Czech EU presidency misses the mark on Gaza

In early December the European Parliament postponed a vote on the proposal by the EU Commission and Council for a draft recommendation to conclude a Protocol to the EU-Israel Association Agreement, including general principles governing the State of Israel’s participation in Community programs. This vote would have been an important step in the process of upgrading EU-Israel relations, requested by Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, during her hearing in the EP Committee on Foreign Affairs. The majority of parliamentarians called for a postponement of the vote. However, a few days later the EU’s ministerial council decided, against the will of the European Parliament, in favor of upgrading Israel’s diplomatic ties with the European Union.

On 1 January, in the midst of the Israeli assault on Gaza, the Czech Republic took over the EU presidency. Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg gave European citizens protesting Israeli violence in Gaza hope on Tuesday 30 December when he told the BBC Radio 4’s PM program, broadcast around 5pm London time, that in light of Israel’s continued bombing of Gaza he had “grave doubts” about the EU proceeding with the “upgraded Action Plan.” Rightly so, the EU Parliament and EU citizens don’t want an upgraded Action Plan with Israel as long as the country is involved in serious breaches of international law and war crimes.

In response to the start of Israel’s ground offensive Karel Schwarzenberg, now President of the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council, stated, “Launching land operations by the Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip is not surprising, there were indications that Israel had been considering this step. But even indisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians. We call for the facilitation of humanitarian aid to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, and in accordance with the position agreed by EU Foreign Ministers in Paris on the 30 December 2008, we call for the establishment of a ceasefire.”

Almost at the same time the Czech Prime Minister’s spokesman, Jiri Potuznik, reportedly said about Israel’s land operations, “At the moment, from the perspective of the last days, we understand this step as a defensive, not offensive, action.” This statement was widely reported in the press in Israel and Europe as the official stance of the EU presidency. Potuznik was immediately informed by activists about the evidence provided by highly respected human rights organizations, that the Israeli military operations so far have involved serious international crimes, and that lawyers in several countries will try to bring the perpetrators of these suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice. Within a couple of hours Potuznik apologized, and confirmed that “Immediate and permanent ceasefire is clearly a goal for all EU countries.” Potuznik promised to do his best to “correct media outputs of my comment.” As a consequence Potuznik offered his resignation as spokesman. The Czech EU presidency spokesman was not fired, although the statement outraged the Arab world.

While Bush is showing his blind faith in Israel by blaming Hamas for the Israeli assault on Gaza, we want to send a clear signal to the EU: EU citizens don’t want this nonsense from the EU.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate. Daniel Machover is attorney and co-founder of Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights.

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