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MIDEAST: Claiming Impartiality, Europe Leans Towards Israel

BRUSSELS, Jan 7 2009 (IPS) - In carefully crafted official statements, diplomats have portrayed the European Union as something of an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet even though almost all of the people killed over the past fortnight have been Palestinians, some top-ranking leaders in the 27-country bloc have tacitly offered their support for Israel’s bombing and invasion of Gaza.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, the Union’s largest country, has stated that Hamas “clearly and exclusively” bore responsibility for the fighting because it had fired Qassam rockets on Israel.

The Czech Republic, which took over the EU’s rotating presidency Jan. 1, described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “more defensive than offensive.” Prague subsequently retracted that remark after it emerged that France, the previous holder of the presidency, had a more nuanced position.

But while Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has spent much of this week seeking to secure a truce between Hamas and Israel, he too has been eager to develop closer political and economic ties with the Israeli government.

In December, the EU’s foreign ministers decided to plough ahead with plans to develop a ‘privileged partnership’ with Israel, allowing that country to take part in a wide range of the Union’s programmes and holding out the possibility that Israel could be integrated into its single market. France held the Union’s presidency at that time.

This decision was taken despite pleas by Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, that the Union should avoid upgrading relations with Israel until the latter stopped building new settlements in the occupied territories.

Max Wieselmann, campaigner with European Jews for a Just Peace, an organisation critical of Israeli policy, urged the EU to make the partnership conditional on respect for human rights.

He contrasted how the Union’s governments have been willing to turn a blind eye to Israel’s denial of elementary rights to the Palestinians with the meticulous attention the bloc has shown to questions of free expression in Turkey, a candidate for EU membership.

There is “always a big fuss,” he said, if Turkish authorities are found wanting in applying European standards on human rights and democracy. Yet the Union has not taken any robust action against Israel for its economic blockade of Gaza – in contravention of the 1949 Geneva Convention, which forbids “collective punishment” of a civilian population.

Ran Curiel, Israel’s ambassador to Brussels, is hoping that the deepening of relations will not be affected by the events in Gaza. Israel has launched its offensive “reluctantly and without a choice,” he said, because “our citizens are daily exposed to a sort of game of Russian roulette from the Hamas rockets.”

The European Parliament could hold off on approving the partnership plan for some time, possibly until after elections to the institution in June.

The assembly has been heavily lobbied by supporters of Israel in recent years. A cross-party grouping allied to the European Friends of Israel has been set up within the parliament.

Nonetheless, the assembly decided in December to postpone a vote endorsing the partnership, and many of its members have condemned the often indiscriminate nature of Israel’s attacks. Francis Wurtz, leader of an alliance of left-wing members of Parliament, argued Jan. 7 that the EU has “made itself an accessory” to Israel’s attacks by seeking closer ties with it.

Human rights and anti-poverty campaigners have also called on the EU to apply the brakes to the partnership.

Daleep Mukarji, director of Christian Aid in Britain and Ireland, noted that Israel had refused to accept calls for an immediate ceasefire made by an EU delegation to the Middle East earlier this week. “The EU’s credibility is now at stake,” Mukarji added. “It is inconceivable that we should extend further benefits of European partnership to a government that violates international humanitarian law and refuses negotiation in favour of continued violence.”

Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) concurred. “This is not the time to be awarding benefits to a party to the conflict,” he said. “The civilian casualties and destruction of homes, schools and basic infrastructure in Gaza are shocking, and increasing every day. The EU cannot proceed with upgrading our relations with Israel while such violations are talking place.”

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erika nesvold