Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

EUROPE: Cosy With Israel, Despite the Headlines

BRUSSELS, Dec 18 2009 (IPS) - Israel’s relations with the European Union were tense for most of 2009 – if newspaper headlines are to be believed. In the past week, a British court drew fierce criticism from Israeli politicians after it issued an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, following a complaint that she had authorised war crimes in Gaza.

A few months earlier, Ikea, Volvo and other firms from Sweden, the current holder of the EU’s presidency, found themselves the target of a consumer boycott campaign in Israel because of an article in a Stockholm tabloid on the alleged theft of organs from Palestinians killed by Israeli troops. And several of the Union’s foreign ministers, such as France’s Bernard Kouchner and Ireland’s Micheál Martin, have been denied permission to enter Gaza by the Israeli authorities.

In reality, however, the tension has been superficial. While there may have been the occasional angry word exchanged on the diplomatic front, the EU’s political and economic ties with Israel have been strengthened over the past few years to such an extent that Javier Solana, who stepped down as the Union’s foreign policy chief in late November, has remarked that Israel is an EU member state in all but name.

Perhaps the most tangible illustration of this enhanced relationship was the sealing of an accord on agriculture last month, under which 80 percent of Israel’s fresh produce and 95 percent of its processed foods can be exported to the EU without incurring any trade taxes. A cooperation accord between Europol, the EU’s police office, and Israel has also been finalised (though still awaits a formal rubber-stamp from the Union’s governments). This is despite numerous reports from human rights organisations that detainees in Israel are routinely tortured and despite rules in force since 1998 that oblige Europol not to process evidence obtained by cruel methods.

Israel’s effective integration into the EU has coincided with a marked reluctance on the part of the Union to denounce acts of aggression against the Palestinians. Although some individual EU representatives have described the blockade of Gaza as an act of “collective punishment” against 1.5 million civilians, no statement criticising the blockade as contrary to international humanitarian law has been issued by the 27-member bloc in its entirety.

Furthermore, all of the EU’s most populous countries – Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Poland – either opposed the Goldstone report or abstained when it was considered by the UN’s General Assembly in November. (In that report, the retired South African judge Richard Goldstone and his fellow investigators found there was no justifiable military objective behind almost every attack on Gaza’s civilians undertaken by Israel in late 2008 and the beginning of this year).

Leila Shahid, the Palestinian Authority’s envoy to Brussels, says that the EU’s largest countries are “accomplices by their silence” in Israel’s misdeeds. “The raison d’être of the bigger states – including France and Spain and Great Britain – is to be guarantors of international law,” she told IPS. “To be silent is to be part of the crime.”

Dries Van Agt, prime minister of the Netherlands from 1977 to 1982, said this week that he was “ashamed” of what he called Europe’s “shocking disservice to international law.” Under an “association agreement” which came into effect in 2000, all trade preferences granted to Israel by the EU are nominally conditional on respect for human rights. Yet Van Agt expressed frustration that the Union, Israel’s main trading partner, is unwilling to revoke those preferences to insist on an improvement in the treatment of the Palestinians.

“Europe is failing miserably in its Israel-Palestine policy,” he said. “It is so vitally important to the economy of Israel that it has access to this big open market. Why does the EU not even consider bringing this power to bear on Israel?” Van Agt was speaking at a meeting of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine Thursday. Inspired by a probe into the Vietnam war launched by the British intellectual Bertrand Russell in the 1960s, this tribunal is exploring the conduct of Israel’s most recent offensive against Gaza.

Maysa Zorob from the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq said that the EU’s “business as usual approach amounts to disregarding Israel’s policies in the Gaza Strip.” She noted that the Union has not even brought Israel to book for the damage inflicted on Palestinian infrastructure built or maintained with EU aid. Damage to EU-financed projects during Israeli bombing of Gaza about a year ago has been calculated at more than 12 million euros (17 million dollars).

One explanation put forward by EU diplomats for their refusal to hold Israel to account is that doing so could put efforts to initiate new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in jeopardy. Nathalie Stanus from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network said that this attitude is shortsighted as basic tenets of justice must be respected if a durable peace can be achieved. “Without accountability, we don’t believe there will be a viable peace process,” she said.

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