I am writing this having just returned from Gaza where shells and heavy artillery fire were showering down on the besieged territory, along with leaflets from the Israeli military warning that the attacks will escalate. Homes, schools, police stations are all gutted and many hundreds of civilians have been killed.
European leaders have condemned these attacks, but it has been the failure of the EU, along with the rest of the international community, seriously to condemn Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine and work towards a sustainable peace that has allowed such a devastating war to be waged. A brief look at the EU’s past policies reads as a list of missed opportunities, a cowardly failure to act.
The Israeli state has repeatedly breached international law and flouted UN resolutions. European leaders have been unwilling to make Israel accountable for their actions. The ‘separation wall’ constructed by Israel is an illegal and unjust ploy to annex Palestinian land and was declared contrary to international law in 2004 by the International Court of Justice. Yet what has Europe done? Empty words have been uttered calling for an end to its construction, but still it continues. And Palestinians are subjected to ever more humiliating military checkpoints while the EU looks the other way.
Israeli leaders make hollow promises to placate us. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to halt settlement construction, one of the most visible barriers to peace. Yet according to a recent report, some 15,000 Israelis have moved into settlements in the West Bank since the beginning of 2008. Some half a million settlers now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, flouting international law. Without an end to such building and a dismantling of existing settlements there can be no serious discussion of the possible borders of a Palestinian state.
How has the EU reacted to this? From March 2007 to June 2008 the EU was engaged in secret negotiations with Israel to grant it ‘special status’ under the European Neighbour Policy, a request which if granted would result in Israel becoming the EU’s closest partner.
But many of us in the European Parliament are angry at this choice of bedfellow and we are fighting back. On 4 December 2008 we voted to suspend the vote on granting Israel special status. This was a message of solidarity with the Palestinians, telling them that the European Parliament is not deaf to their suffering. And it was a rebuke to Israel, a message that their neocolonialist policies will not be tolerated. But we must go further than just a suspension of a vote. We must fight for a free and independent Palestinian state.
The EU tries to salve its conscience with aid to Palestinians and humanitarian projects on the ground. But what is the point when Israeli tanks blockade the territory preventing aid from getting in and carpet bombs the region so projects have to halt and aid workers withdraw? The Israel-Palestine conflict requires a political solution to a political question. This requires strong and brave political leadership on the part of the EU rather than allowing Israel to wriggle out of its legal, economic and humanitarian responsibilities towards the Palestinians.
So what is to be done? It was a mistake not to recognise the elected Hamas government, and above all not to recognise the unity government. The isolation made Hamas more radical and the takeover in Gaza a disaster for the Palestinian unity and cause. We have to work for the political unity of the Palestinian leadership and of the territories, and help ensure that their full energies are channelled into constructing a viable Palestinian state that is at peace with its Israeli neighbour, and not misspent with wasteful and destructive infighting.
Ongoing negotiations should have immediate outcomes that change the situation on the ground: to freeze settlements, to free prisoners, to open checkpoints. Only through these steps can Palestinians trust the negotiations. The EU should use all its power to maintain pressure on Israel to perform its duties. This should include an arms embargo and freezing the EU-Israel association agreement. This may help to send a strong message to the Israeli government that there is no country or government above the law.
Of course, peace for Palestine is contingent on peace for Israel; the fates of both peoples are bound together. This means that as well as a stop to the bombardment and killing of the Palestinian population in Gaza, there must be the cessation of all rocket fire into Israel. And then we must do all within our powers to negotiate a political solution that recognises the right to freedom and independence of all who live in Palestine.