BRUSSELS (IPS) - Senior European Union figures have signaled that they could push ahead with plans to strengthen formal ties with Israel, even though more than 1,000 have now been killed by the bombardment of Gaza.
Two conflicting statements about EU-Israeli relations were delivered 14 January, as the number of Palestinians, about one-third of them children, killed in Gaza continued to climb.
Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, the European Commission’s envoy in Jerusalem, claimed that a proposed “upgrading” in relations with Israel cannot “proceed business as usual.” Yet his statement was soon contradicted by Karel Schwarzenberg, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
Schwarzenberg noted that EU governments agreed in June last year to intensify efforts to build a stronger alliance with Israel. This decision could only be revised by those governments, he said, adding: “It can’t be changed at the word of a very respected representative of the European Union in Jerusalem.”
The June decision paves the way for Israel to be offered a “privileged partnership” with the Union, allowing it to become integrated into the single market on which the EU has been based, and to take part in a wide variety of other programs.
Schwarzenberg, who described himself as a “lifelong friend of Israel,” though “not too happy with what it’s doing at the moment,” was speaking to members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Many MEPs demanded a robust response from the EU to the carnage in Gaza.
Chris Davies, a British Liberal who visited the war zone last weekend, said that the Israeli army “has turned Gaza into hell” with its relentless attacks using US-made F-16 jets, or “21st century killing machines” as he described them.
“We have made allowances for Israel we have not made for any other country,” he said. “On no occasion has the European Union ever backed up its criticism of the treatment of the Palestinians with any kind of action.”
Such inaction has “given the green light to Israel” for attacks. “We don’t plan to condemn Israel,” he added. “We plan to reward it.”
Israel’s relations, both economic and diplomatic, with the EU are based on an association agreement that entered into force in 2000. Article 2 of that agreement commits both sides to respecting fundamental human rights.
Before the offensive against Gaza began in late December voluminous evidence had been compiled by many organizations of human rights abuses by Israeli forces in the occupied territories and in the conduct of its 2006 war in Lebanon. Still, the EU has never invoked Article 2 to impose trade or other sanctions on Israel.
Helene Flautre, a French Green MEP, said that the EU’s weak stance against Israel is undermining the basic values of respect for fundamental rights on which all of the Union’s activities nominally pivot. “If we proceed with business as usual, we’re burying the European project,” she said. “We’re burying human rights.”
Some parliamentarians have spoken out in favor of Israel’s actions. Although nearly all of the victims of the war so far have been Palestinian, a minority of MEPs maintained that Israel was merely defending itself against Hamas’s firing of Qassam rockets on Israeli towns. Jim Allister, a representative of Northern Ireland, argued that Israel was resorting to “necessary retaliatory action” and suggested that reports of Palestinian suffering could be regarded as propaganda.
“When after Israel hits back — after much forbearance — they [Hamas] cry victim, I say: ‘The answer lies in your own hands; stop shelling Israel,’” he said.
Many other MEPs insisted, however, that the massive scale of Israeli onslaught could not be compared to the crude nature of Hamas’s attacks.
Kathy Sinnott, an Irish member, noted that trade between EU and Israel was worth 25.7 billion euros (33.9 billion dollars) in 2007. Urging that economic sanctions be imposed on Israel, she said: “If we do anything less, we become accessories to slaughter.”
Luisa Morgantini, a left-wing Italian MEP and a long-standing advocate of Palestinian rights, said: “It is not just people who are dying. Human rights are dying. Europe’s dream that these will be universally respected is dying.”
Spanish Conservative Jose Ignacio Salafranca said that the war is “strengthening radicals against the moderates,” and argued that no military solution to the Middle East conflict is possible. “You can win all the battles in a war but lose the most important battle, which is the battle for peace,” he added.
Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian Socialist, said that the EU had been wrong to refuse to deal with Hamas after its unexpected victory in Palestinian legislative elections held in 2006. This had contributed to the failure of the coalition that Hamas formed with its rival Fatah, according to Swoboda.
“We helped the unity government to be destroyed,” he said. “We played a part in that and that was a mistake. I don’t like Hamas; it is a terrorist organization. But why did people vote for Hamas? Because they saw it as the last opportunity for their survival.”
All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden. Jim Lobe in Washington contributed to this article.