The carnage of Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza spurred great numbers of dismayed Europeans to participate in demonstrations against the war. In major cities such as Madrid, Brussels, Rome, Berlin and London, tens of thousands took part in demonstrations to make clear to their governments that what was happening was unacceptable. Yet, their objections to Israel’s massive use of deadly force were not reflected in the declarations and actions of their countries, as represented by Europe’s most significant political body, the European Union, which did not alter its policy of status quo relations with Israel.
It is true that the EU did condemn Israel’s conduct (always mentioned in conjunction with Palestinian rocket fire) and called for an immediate ceasefire, something which the United States unsurprisingly fell short of. In addition, various members of the European Parliament expressed their outrage over the destruction of Gaza. British liberal-democrat Chris Davies, for example, said during a 14 January parliamentary debate that the war was “evil” and that Israel had “turned Gaza into hell” with its “21st-century killing machines.”
Despite these and other remarks, however, the EU undertook no action that could have been perceived as even vaguely critical of Israel and much effort was put into not “singling out” the country. This apparent ambiguity is typical of the EU’s approach. In early December last year, the European Parliament suspended voting on whether or not to upgrade relations with Israel. Yet, only a few days later this decision was bypassed by the EU’s Council of Ministers, where all 27 European foreign ministers voted in favor of the upgrade, allowing Israeli ministers to meet with their European counterparts on a regular basis so as to enable dialogue on various strategic issues. Even though plans to make Israel a “privileged partner” have been put on hold, it has been emphasized that this is not a sanction and constitutes merely a “pause” (see Ian Traynor Europe stalls on closer Israel links in Gaza protest Guardian, 14 January 2009). It is therefore likely that talks will be resumed at a later time, which in effect means that Israel is still on its way to become part of the single European market as a sort of semi-member of the EU.
Access to European markets and the ability to influence European decision-making are extremely important to Israel. While the EU lacks the moral authority of the UN and the political visibility of the US, it is, indeed, an important player in the region. Currently the EU constitutes Israel’s biggest market for exports as well as its second-largest source of imports (after the US). Furthermore, the EU is a member of the so-called Middle East “Quartet” — with the hardly credible Tony Blair as its envoy — which supports a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Practically speaking, the EU’s dedication to this solution has primarily been expressed through the medium of euros. In 2008, 486 million euros ($666 million) were donated to the Palestinians, most of it (258 million euros) directly to the Palestinian Authority (see European Commission External Relations, EC Assistance to the Palestinians 19 January 2009). Other beneficiaries include the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and various Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations.
The EU has always strived to appear impartial and even-handed in its dealings with Israel and the Palestinians. Certainly, it does not openly favor one party over the other and it has proved more willing than the US to grant the Palestinians a degree of sympathy. However, a closer inspection of where the donated euros really go reveals that European policy has only contributed to the ongoing politicide of the Palestinians. By solely supporting politically impotent organizations such as the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, the EU has failed to truly stand up for the political rights of the Palestinians. The PA’s purview is, after all, severely limited, and the inherently flawed Oslo accords of the mid-1990s have led to a situation where the Palestinians are mostly policing their own occupation. In addition, UNRWA’s main task is keeping alive and making somewhat bearable the lives of the millions of Palestinian refugees registered with it, but its explicitly apolitical mandate and the existing “protection gap” (the fact that Palestinian refugees within UNRWA’s sphere of operations are not eligible for protection and assistance from the more powerful UN High Commissioner for Refugees) has left the majority of Palestinian refugees with no political or legal protections.
Now that Gaza’s infrastructure has been leveled by Israel’s advanced weaponry, the EU has focused its attention on reconstruction. It is of the utmost importance that enough money is made available to allow Palestinians in Gaza to survive their hardship and rebuild their homes. At the same time it is grimly ironic that international donors such as the EU, a “friend” of Israel, should pay for the recovery of an area that has been destroyed by Israel with weapons sold to it by some of the EU’s own member-states. Again, the situation is illustrative of the EU’s approach: Israel suffers no consequences for its actions and the Palestinians are generously granted the right to barely survive.
Evidently, large numbers of Palestinians presently rely on European aid for their survival, which is why the EU has a responsibility to deliver the needed support. But when the EU decided in 2006 to suspend its payments to the PA after the electoral victory of Hamas, it became apparent that the EU does not appreciate the full extent of its responsibilities. Most of all, its decision revealed clearly how the EU prefers to finance politically harmless actors, enabling only the most basic form of survival, rather than provide true support for full Palestinian rights.
Being the largest donor of aid to the Palestinians and Israel’s main trading partner, the EU has the potential to play a much more significant role in supporting and protecting Palestinian rights. This would give substance and credibility to its discourse on defending human rights and acting as a “force for good.” Yet, by taking a seemingly neutral approach and abiding by the positions of the Quartet, which typically represent the lowest common denominator imaginable, EU member-states reveal a disinterest in protecting Palestinians from anything other than starvation. Ultimately an “even-handed” approach such as the EU’s is fairly meaningless when one party is a well-developed industrial state with a very large and highly mechanized military, while the other is a systematically oppressed, occupied and impoverished people. Thus, “objectivity” logically prejudices the oppressor over the oppressed. Obviously the latter would require a range of protective measures in order to guarantee its rights. Since these are nonexistent, the Palestinians’ politicide continues unabated, with the silent consent of the EU.
For those Europeans who believe that their countries and the EU should take a firmer stand against Israel, the quintessential question is: what can they do? It is important to realize that the tragedy of Palestine lies not exclusively in singular outbreaks of violence, but also consists of the ongoing incremental injustice that is being inflicted upon the Palestinians, such as through the expansion of settlements in the West Bank — a fact very well-known to the EU. Accordingly it should be understood that demonstrating (through protests or by other means) only against the gravest instances of Israeli aggression does not suffice. Israel’s upgrade in relations with the EU and the fact that it may become a “privileged partner” are not widely known amongst European citizens. These are very significant issues, though, and effort should be put into bringing them to attention and communicating to European leaders that rewarding Israel for its misbehavior is not the way forward. Surely it will be difficult to counter the vast economic interests that are at stake, but there is no excuse to idly stand by while the EU becomes a passive accomplice in the perpetuation of the Palestinians’ ordeal. Ongoing boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns may serve as a vehicle to convey these points.
Furthermore, what is needed is a more active policy to protect and strengthen Palestinian political rights. The most important step for the EU is to take seriously the will of the Palestinians by accepting the results of their elections, whichever party may come out victorious. This would prove that “democracy” and “human rights” are more than meaningless platitudes which are valid only when it is politically safe. Although this seems quite obvious, the EU has so far failed to prove that it is serious about promoting the rights it so often speaks of. Ultimately, the Palestinians themselves must attain their political goals, and no one expects the EU to just deliver this to them. But in the current situation, Europe could and should play a role in enabling Palestinians to exercise their right to have a say in their own destiny.
Altogether, Javier Solana, the representative of EU Foreign Affairs, was quite right when he said that “the parameters for a solution are known,” but what is needed is “the political will” (see European Parliament Press Release, Highlights of Brussels plenary session, 18 February 2009). This certainly applies to the EU itself, and Europeans who are concerned about their role in the oppression and occupation of Palestine would do well to consider this.
Pepijn van Houwelingen is a Dutch PhD candidate at the department of Politics and International Relations of Royal Holloway, University of London. He is affiliated with the department’s Centre for European Politics (http://cep.rhul.ac.uk). His PhD research is concerned with the impacts of European Foreign Policy towards the Middle East. Previously he has worked in Bethlehem for BADIL research and resource centre (www.badil.org) and can be reached at P.M.J.Van-Houwelingen A T rhul D O T ac D O T uk