Sharon’s violent policy, a point of no return for the European Union

President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during a press conference in the Cross Hall of the White House on April 14, 2004. (White House)

Two weeks ago, Sharon met George Bush to discuss his plan for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip. On the face of it, this could have been welcomed as a major first step towards peace, that is, if it was not linked with a further intention to retain most of the major settlements in the occupied territories on the West Bank.

End of the two state solution?

This policy has in fact always been the Israeli government’s policy, as Ali Abunimah helpfully reminded us in a 14 April article in The Electronic Intifada. However, our view is that the way in which this policy is now so explicitly articulated, and publicly endorsed, effectively marks the end of the option of a two state solution, shutting the Palestinian dream of an independent state into a cage. According to this plan, they are to live in Bantustans, controlled by Israel. According to this plan, Sharon seeks to thwart the right of return for four million refugees and their families to Israel.

Illusory options

Such illusory “options” that neither fulfilled the aspirations of the black population in South Africa, nor tens of thousands of South African exiles will surely not kill the aspirations of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere in the Palestinian Diaspora.

To what may well be his ultimate undoing, US President George Bush publicly assured Sharon of his support, breaking several decades of US diplomacy on the Middle East. One of his reasons might be the support Bush expects, for his administration’s policy of “reshaping” the Middle East Bush, from large parts of the Jewish and Christian communities, in the run-up to the U.S. Presidential elections in November. It is clear is that Sharon sees the publicly expressed approval by the US Government as open endorsement for his plans to “shape” greater Israel.

With help from their friends

To make matters worse, one day later, Tony Blair and George Bush assured the world that they were on the “same track” in their approach to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. With the support of both Bush and Blair to Sharon’s policy, the “peace process” (such as it has been) seems to have come to an end.

As if to confirm this fact, on Saturday, 17 April, medical doctor Abdelaziz Al-Rantissi, successor to Hamas leader Sheik Yassin, was murdered in a helicopter gunship attack by the Israeli army. The White House continued its stubborn policy of not condemning the Israeli government’s acts of targeted assassinations and blocking efforts on the part of the UN Security Council to condemn this policy.

Yet oddly, Jack Straw, British minister of Foreign Affairs, departing from Blair’s expressions of solidarity with the Bush and Sharon, publicly labelled the killing as “illegal” and “counter-productive”.

Javier Solana of the European Union also stated that Israel had committed an “illegal” act, yet as usual, offered no suggestion that the EU would actually do anything about it.

In the meantime, Israel once again repeated that it would continue its systematic elimination of those it deems “terrorists”, such as Al-Rantissi, in order to avoid the very real possibility they may take over the Gaza strip once Israel withdraws.

Sharon recklessly continues to hold his country’s people hostage to a violent and blind policy with the no longer subtly stated aim to kill the aspirations of the Palestinian people, destroying any hope of genuine security for the Israeli people.

Blurred vision and dehumanising the enemy

In their reliance on military strategies, all leaders are making a terrible mistake. The visions of Sharon and Bush are blurred by the fact that they are both involved in a war: Sharon, in his stated “war” against the Palestinians and Bush in both the ongoing conflict in Iraq and his broader “war” on terrorism.

This is of course not the first time political leaders have lacked the ability to see through a conflict. Robert MacNamara, former US Secretary of Defence during the U.S. War in Vietnam, acknowledged in the documentary Fog of War that it is “difficult to see what is really happening” while fighting a war.

We hasten to add that in any war, the parties’ principal aim is to dehumanise the enemy. In the case of the Palestinian people this will have the consequence that deep-rooted yearnings for a Palestinian state will be underestimated by Sharon and his supporters. Yet such powerful yearnings cannot be destroyed through force; it is part of the Palestinians’ national identity.

Options available to the Palestinian Leadership

Dr. Karma Nabulsi of the University of Oxford and former representative of the PLO at the United Nations, succinctly made this point during a workshop in Maastricht in March 2004: “We are at a crossroads. The Palestinian National Authority will soon be required either to act as a security agency for the Israelis or to revert to being a liberation movement.”

Sharon’s display of power can only have the impact of accelerating this decision. It is not difficult to predict that, given a continuation of this policy of repression, the PLO will inevitably draw on the roots of its creation, to the liberation of the Palestinian people.

Options available to the EU

The European Union must become an effective force genuinely striving for peace in the Middle East. The EU should actively promote respect for human rights, the enforcement of international humanitarian law and the establishment of international law as a determining framework to any future solution of the conflict. As such, the condemnation of the killing of Palestinian leaders and the expression of “concern” about the US policy is not in itself sufficient. It must be backed up by concrete measures, which the EU does have at its disposal.

In conducting its relations with Israel in conformity with international law, especially by respecting and ensuring respect for the 4th Geneva Convention, the EU has at least three options available to it. It could, firstly, correctly apply the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which currently allows for preferential treatment in European markets. It further allows for suspension of the agreement if, for example, Israel violates international law. Secondly, the inclusion of the extensive Palestinian refugee community in the peace process, based on their rights under international law, could be actively promoted by the European Union by ensuring a place for them in any discussions. Lastly, the EU could actively protect the development and well being of civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories by not only continuing to support development in the region, but issuing immediate and uncompromising condemnations when the Israeli government destroys a development project or harms the Palestinian people.

However, there must come a time when statements are not enough. If they are to be taken seriously, they must ultimately be backed up by concrete measures, such as economic or political sanctions (similar to those currently being imposed against Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe). Even if the Israeli government were to ignore such measures, it would send an important signal to the rest of the world that the EU no longer tolerates such violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

The Netherlands and the EU

In July, The Netherlands will hold the Presidency of the European Union. It enters this role with a tremendous responsibility on its shoulders. A continuation of the docile way in which the Dutch Government has followed Bush and Blair into the war against Iraq would be an untold tragedy for the Palestinians, the Israelis and the European Union.

Up until now, the European Union has failed to use the means it has at its disposal to enforce respect for international law and human rights. The European Union must no longer take the middle ground, merely limiting its role to expressing political support for the peace process.

It is absolutely essential that Europe play a more proactive role in this conflict. They cannot claim that the peace process needs time. In fact, there is no peace process and no time left: we are at the point of no return.

The writers are both human rights advocates and development consultants, based in The Netherlands.

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