EU launches new initiative as deportation of Palestinians is extended

Press conference by Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende (right) and the President of the Commission, Romano Prodi on July 1, 2004 (The Dutch EU Presidency)

The European Union is on the verge of introducing a major new policy designed to bring member states closer to their neighbors. According to Israeli media reports, a confidential report from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has predicted relations with the EU could deteriorate in future, affecting Israel economically and diplomatically. According to these Israeli reports, Israel and the EU could find themselves on a dangerous and damaging collision course.

Although the EU and Israel recently concluded negotiations on a new bilateral agreement enhancing relations between the two sides, diplomats described some aspects of negotiations as tense. Israel was the last of eight countries involved under a recently-adopted EU policy process, known as the European Neighborhood Policy. The EU has discussed action plans to strengthen ties with Israel as the enlarged bloc’s new neighbor. The plans are due to be adopted at a meeting of the European Council this week.

In a bid to step-up Europe’s engagement in the eastern Mediterranean, talks have centered on a European plan to ensure the viability of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos expressed hopes that the plan would be adopted at the November 5 meeting. These developments come in the wake of deep unease in Europe over the lack of progress in implementing the EU, US, UN and Russian backed “Road Map” for peace between Israel and Palestine. The plan can also be construed as an EU response to Sharon’s disengagement plan.

Friendly neighbors

The European Neighborhood Policy is a substitute for membership for countries surrounding the bloc. The the EU would share “everything but institutions” with these neighbors, who would be required to introduce economic and political reforms to bring themeselves in line with EU standards of governance.

In return they would eventually receive free trade, the freedom to move and work throughout the bloc and all benefits of membership except voting rights and representation in bodies like the European Parliament and the European Commission. EU officials are prepared to make such an offer to Israel, even as the Israeli army presses ahead with its largest military assault in two years, killing 116 Palestinians, including 29 children, so far, sparking outcries from organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Israeli human rights monitoring organizations alarmed at grave violations of international humanitarian law throughout October in northern Gaza in particular.

While approximately 45 Palestinians have been killed each month in Gaza and poverty rates are predicted to rise to 72 per cent, the EU is ready to offer its magic plan to move Israel and the EU closer to each other — a plan which only benefits Israel. Only Sweden, Ireland and Spain have argued that it is impossible to move forward with Israel at present. A Dutch presidency note concerning this week’s EU foreign ministers’ meeting said negotiations on the action plans have already been concluded with six “new neighborhood” partners, but are still continuing with Israel. So far, it appears that the EU is moving closer to Israel.

Diplomacy: A New European Initiative

The EU is also moving closer to Israel on the diplomatic front. Although diplomats still contend that the “Road Map” is the “only game in town”, despite the complete lack of any progress stemming from it, the EU is set to introduce an interesting paper drafted by Javier Solana. This week, in preparation for a EU summit on 4 and 5 November, European foreign ministers discussed Solana’s plan, which presents a number of ideas aiming at short-term practical measures — to be taken in the framework of the Quartet’s Roadmap and keeping in mind the longer-term political horizon — in four areas concerning the Palestinian territories: security structures, the reform agenda, elections, and economic recovery and development.

In the security area, the EU will consider sending a police mission to provide a presence on the ground and to help train Palestinian security services in the event of the implementation of Sharon’s plan, which would have to be done in co-ordination with the Egyptian government.

The European Union Tuesday unveiled new ideas to keep the Middle East “Road Map” on track despite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s ill-health and the US presidential election results.

EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana said the US government was on the “same wavelength” as the 25-nation bloc in wanting to accelerate the Road Map. Solana referred to Gaza as part of a “process of disengagement […] but from all the territories.” Basically, Solana’s center upon a more “rapid manner” of attaining the goal of two states. The EU plan to be agreed upon this week focuses on four key issues:

(1) Security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority to guarantee law and order when Israeli forces pull out of Gaza;

(2) Encouragement for institutional reforms at the PA;

(3) More economic aid to the Palestinians; and

(4) Support for local elections planned for next month, which Solana said would enable Israel to “find interlocutors at all the levels to advance the roadmap.”

Deportation: EU’s complicity

Despite the EU’s support for respect of human rights and international law, the EU adopted a Common Position this week on an “extension of the validity of national permits for a further period of twelve months for Palestinians evacuated [sic] from Bethlehem in May 2002 following the siege of the Church of the Nativity.”

In May 2002, the EU brokered a deal allowing Israel to deport 13 Palestinians from the occupied territories to several European countries. This arrangement, rather than constituting an instance of noble humanitarian intervention, actually implicated the EU in Israel’s violations of international humanitarian law. When Israel’s five-week siege ended, 13 Palestinians were allowed to leave the Church of the Nativity in order to be spirited away to Cyprus, while 26 others were transferred by Israel to the Gaza Strip. Far from being a problem-free, “win-win” solution to the standoff, the deportations and transfers pose numerous and troubling legal and ethical issues. The most obvious of these stems from the fact that Israel does not have jurisdiction over the occupied territories, and only controls the areas by virtue of its illegal occupation. Consequently, its lack of jurisdiction renders illegal any deportations and transfers. Because the agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the EU was used, in effect, to coerce deportees and transferees to leave the Church of the Nativity, it is problematic from a human rights perspective. The agreement also falls on the wrong side of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Under the provisions of articles 49 and 147 of the Convention, unlawful deportations and transfers of protected persons are specifically prohibited.

Indeed, the forcible transfers and deportations should be seen in the wider context of Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing. In this regard, Israel has uprooted the Palestinian civilian population by military attacks that destroyed homes, property and agricultural land; it has confiscated land and water resources to be given to Jewish settlers; it has instituted punitive controls over the economy, and destroyed key parts of civilian infrastructure in a manner not required by military necessity.

Such actions are far from being mere side effects of Israel’s campaign against “terrorism.” Although the EU earlier condemned Israel’s violations of human rights and said, “Israel must fully comply with international humanitarian principles,” including the conventions on the protection of civilians in times of war and refraining from excessive use of force, the EU has failed to back up its statements with practical measures.

Such measures might have included a suspension of trade with Israel — an action that would, in fact, be in keeping with the EU’s trade agreement with Israel, which includes a human rights clause. Ironically, the EU’s intervention also comes at a time when damage wrought by Israel to infrastructure projects in the territories funded by European taxpayers is assessed at millions of euros. Meanwhile, EU countries continue to send arms to Israel even though it does not comply with the criteria of the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports.

The EU has at its disposal many options to demonsrate with action — and not merely to tell — Israel of its displeasure. At the very least, the EU should seek to uphold international humanitarian law rather than aiding and abetting Israel’s abrogation of it.

The most striking of the previous EU General Affairs Council’s conclusions is that the EU not only urged all sides in the region to immediately implement policies conducive to dialogue and negotiations but that the “EU relationship with those who take steps to the contrary will be inevitably affected by such behaviour.” It is unclear what the EU means with “inevitably.” No one knows when or if this will ever happen. In the past, many instances have occured without the recognition that similar steps were contrary to “policies conducive to dialogue and negotiations.”

Despite its failure to live up to international or EU conventions and agreements, Israel clearly will benefit from the new EU neighborhood policy. It already receives preferential treatment in Europe, not the least for its settlements’ agricultural produce. Whether the EU succeeds in creating a better neighborhood for itself and others, one in which laws and rights are respected fully, does not depend on Israeli or Palestinian willingness to act, but rather on EU consistency and US backing. Considering the results of this week’s US elections, such steps are very unlikely.

* Arjan El Fassed is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada

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