In the aftermath of the latest bout of killing and destruction in Gaza, European foreign ministers issued a statement recognizing the ceasefire had to be followed by political change to lift the “Gaza closure regime” and that return to the status quo ante “was not an option”. The challenge for the European Union’s new foreign policy team of President Donald Tusk and High-Representative Federica Mogherini is to convert the foreign ministers’ rhetoric into reality, and to do so urgently.
This requires a step-change in Europe’s analysis and dealing with the underlying political problem, which is Israel’s deepening occupation, not just the horrendous humanitarian crisis left by the conflict. It means treating Gaza as an integral part of Palestine not – as Israel would like – as a separate issue. It means challenging Israel’s framing of the conflict as a response to “terror” and imposing real costs on Israel for its expanding expropriation of Palestinian land and resources.
Israel has legitimate security interests but security cannot be used as an excuse for the blockade or the scale of “Operation Protective Edge”. Israel demonstrated the weakness of its “security” justification when it rejected the Dutch provision of a scanner to screen Gaza’s exports for smuggled arms or the offer of a European Border Force to police Gaza’s borders.
The recent conflict was inevitable. After the ceasefire in 2012 the Palestinian factions delivered a year of “quiet” in terms of rocket attacks but there was no easing of the blockade nor any slowing of Israel’s settlement program in the rest of the West Bank. Not unreasonably, Palestinians concluded Israel had no intention of ever conceding Palestinian control beyond the disconnected blocks of Area A. The latest Israeli announcement of the largest West Bank land seizure in 30 years confirms that view. Unless Europe responds with more than the usual condemnations and fruitless pleas to Israel for delay, the cycles of violence will continue, with their appalling toll of injury and death, and the Palestinian population will be further impoverished.
Europe and Israel
Europe is Israel’s biggest trading partner, but also a major provider of aid to Palestine – €2.5bn ($3.2bn) over the last few years. A recent evaluation by EuropeAid concluded the aid program far from developing the Palestinian economy had “reached its limits in the absence of a parallel political track that addresses the binding constraints”. Even before the conflict 80 per cent of the population of Gaza was dependent on aid. Now, with the scale of destruction of homes, hospitals, schools, water and power infrastructure and factories, the EU is faced with the cost of contributing to Gaza’s reconstruction again, and increasing humanitarian aid to meet people’s basic needs. The recent revelation that Israel’s blockade not only makes this aid necessary but forces much of the aid to be spent in the Israeli economy, will enrage European citizens even further.
What then should the EU and its member states do? Europe needs to use its economic levers to hold Israel to account. Firstly it must suspend all arms sales to Israel today – not when the next conflict begins. Secondly the EU should propose a strict timetable for easing the blockade (coupled with an offer to meet Israel’s genuine security concerns) and for wider negotiations to end the entire occupation.
The EU should commit in principle to supporting Palestinian full membership of the UN and an International Criminal Court investigation of all sides in the Gaza Conflict. It could give a deadline for activating this commitment if no progress is made on easing the blockade or the occupation. It should also speed up the implementation of the FAC decision of 2012 to stop settlements being included in any of the benefits the EU currently applies to Israel.
Israel is currently the most favored participant of the “European-Mediterranean Neighbourhood Programme” (ENP). The ENP has a well-established practice of “more for more”, conditioning new benefits on delivery against ENP aims. For Israel it would be more meaningful to implement “less for less” and remove benefits in response to non-delivery.
Finally, ahead of the pledging conference in October in Cairo the EU must recover from Israel the cost to the EU and its member states of the aid provided for the reconstruction of Gaza, thus meeting its responsibilities as occupier for the occupied population.
Dr Phyllis Starkey is a trustee of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and a former British Parliamentarian