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Time for the European Union to demonstrate some vision in Gaza

A Hamas gunman watches as Fatah supporters take part in a rally marking the death anniversary of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in Gaza City. - Credit: SIPA USA/PA Images

The time has come for the EU to use its influence to drive reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and restore hope in the Palestinian territory

Visiting Israel earlier this year, the German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel was confronted with an unpalatable choice.

Gabriel – in contrast to British minister Priti Patel on her now-notorious trip – had sought out a cross-section of Israeli opinion. He arranged to see Breaking the Silence, the organisation of ex-Israeli army combat veterans who seek ‘to expose the Israeli public to the reality of day-to-day life in the occupied territories’.

The group, whose funders include the European Union’s diplomatic mission to Israel, has faced increasingly virulent denunciations from the Israeli far right – including in the governing coalition – for publishing testimonies from young soldiers of the injury and indignity they are obliged to inflict to maintain control over the Palestinian population.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Gabriel that if the visiting foreign minister met the group, a scheduled meeting between the two politicians would be off. Gabriel chose to see Breaking the Silence; his meeting with the PM was duly cancelled.

The affair was widely reported in Israel’s vigorous press. In Haaretz, the eminent Israeli historian and anti-occupation intellectual Zeev Sternhell commended Gabriel’s decision.

And he went further, arguing that ritual protests in European capitals against the occupation and the relentless growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank were ineffective while exports flowed to Europe from the settlements which every EU member state officially views as illegal in international law. ‘The only way to influence Israeli politics is through external pressure,’ Sternhell wrote.

Sternhell’s article was a salutary corrective to the conventional wisdom that only the US can influence Israel, as the stronger of the two parties, to modify its conduct of the conflict with the Palestinians, let alone to resolve it. All the more salutary now that Donald Trump’s recklessly one sided decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and transfer the US embassy to the city, has suddenly undermined Washington’s long standing claim to be the Middle East’s peace broker. Trump’s brutal defiance of the delicate international consensus on Jerusalem has created the space—and more importantly the duty – for Europe to take on some of that role.

It’s true that American power, including through the $3bn Washington provides in defence aid to Israel each year, is formidable, even if it has been seldom effectively deployed in the last 25 years.

The EU will not replace the US as the power which has the greatest potential to exercise influence over Israel, but as the biggest donor to the Palestinians and Israel’s biggest trading partner, accounting for about a third of the latter’s foreign trade, it has too often been a sleeping giant in relation to the conflict.

The conduct of policy in Gaza in recent years is illustrative. It isn’t hard these days to find European diplomats and politicians who doubt in hindsight the wisdom of the approach adopted by the Middle East Quartet – the US, EU, UN and Russia – to Hamas after the Islamic faction won free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006. The US railroaded through the Quartet a decision to mount an immediate boycott of Hamas – and deny aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) it now controlled – unless it immediately agreed to recognise Israel, permanently renounce armed insurrection, and abide by all agreements made by its Fatah predecessors.

The decision was taken even though alternatives were available, including to demand an immediate and durable ceasefire while the international community held a dialogue with Hamas and the two main Palestinian factions formed a coalition. Yet the decision is still broadly in force 11 years – including three devastating wars, a corrosive split between Hamas and Fatah, and a decade-long crippling economic blockade by Israel – later.

This can’t be undone. But the EU should now use its influence – including its role as the paymasters of the Ramallah-based PA – to strengthen the most hopeful initiative in years for Palestinians in Gaza: the Egypt-brokered reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah, especially now that Hamas has voluntarily surrendered control of the Gaza’s crossing to forces loyal to the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

In welcoming that step, the EU should, as the European Council of Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) Hugh Lovatt has recently argued, give Abbas ‘cover and impetus’ to rescind the punitive sanctions he imposed on Gaza this year, press Israel to ease its draconian restrictions on movement of goods and people from the Strip, and agree to fund a joint ‘consensus’ Palestinian Authority provided that it – rather than Hamas as a movement – broadly sticks to Quartet conditions. Finally, the EU should open contacts with more moderate figures in Hamas, recognising that for all its past record of suicide bombings, and sometimes brutal suppression of dissidents, it is a very different and much more rational organisation than, say Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS – whose Gaza adherents it has suppressed, ironically in Israel’s interests as well as its own. Co-operation with Hamas would make it far easier to deliver the effective aid now desperately needed by Gaza’s two million inhabitants.

But the Europeans have wider leverage. The EU could be far more robust in restricting – or even banning – the import of goods from, trade with, investment in, and tax-exempt charitable donations to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. When the ECFR merely suggested in 2015 that EU member states reviewed their relationships with financial institutions doing business in settlements, and it was thought (wrongly) the idea had been taken up by the European Council, the Tel Aviv banking index dropped by 2.46 points. Netanyahu has been skilful in lumping all forms of boycott together in his regular denunciations of such a tactic. In fact there is a huge difference in boycotting illegal settlements and Israel proper. Indeed the settlements are already supposed to be excluded from the tariff exemptions stipulated in the EU’s trade agreements with Israel.

The problem lies with enforcement, since – for example – many of the Israeli companies operating in settlements can be based on the Israeli side of the ‘green line’ marking Israel and occupied territory. The EU did at least prescribe that supermarkets clearly label goods from settlements. But even that has been only patchily enforced. In contrast, sanctions against the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea enforce a bar on the import of all goods that do not carry a specific export certificate from the Ukrainian government.

But in that case the EU was united; over Israel it is not. Most west European countries – including, at least until Theresa May took office, Britain – have tended to look more favourably than the eastern Europeans on such ‘differentiation’ between the settlements from Israel itself. Netanyahu has been adept in cultivating relations with Poland and Hungary, some of whose leading politicians show traces of nationalism, authoritarianism, and even – ironically – anti-semitism. And both countries, along with Greece, now anxious to benefit from Israeli natural gas, have tended to block tougher action against trade with the settlements. Finally the latest indication that Trump is to launch a new peace process – however doubtful its outcome – may restrain the EU further.

The European approach could be further weakened by Brexit. If Britain has to negotiate a new trade agreement of its own with the current Israel government, the most right-wing in its 70-year history, it will face an uphill struggle to include even the mild exclusions of settlements from the tariff free trade stipulated in the EU agreements.

But why should any of this matter? Since the Iraq invasion, the conflict is no longer seen as the danger to global security it once was. No one sane thinks the current threats posed by ISIS are generated by sympathy for the Palestinians. With so much instability and war elsewhere in the Middle East, why should the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be a priority for Europe?

The first answer lies squarely in the middle of the 20th century. The conflict was, in Eugene Rogan’s telling phrase, ‘made in Europe’. It was the monstrous crime – the worst in human history — of the Holocaust which created the unanswerable case for the state of Israel; indeed, it is wholly justified guilt and shame for the genocide of six million Jews which still tends to muffle criticisms of Israel’s 21st Century government.

But there is another, European responsibility: the unfinished business from the last century. It was not the Europeans but the Palestinians, displaced in 1948 and since 1967 stateless and living under an oppressive military occupation, who suffered the indirect aftermath of that unspeakably dark history. Not just Britain – which in 1948 abandoned the Holy Land to a still unresolved conflict – but the rest of Europe has a duty to help the Palestinians escape the secondary consequences of a European trauma in which the vast majority played no part. Meanwhile the absence of the state on 22% of historic Palestine which Arafat accepted in 1988, the lack of the civil rights which the Arab majority were promised by the Balfour declaration of 1917, and the relentless policy of Israeli settlement in occupied territory which its government was legally advised from the outset violated international law, are an affront to Europe’s proclaimed values.

Four years ago, James Mattis, now Trump’s Defence Secretary but then the general in charge of US Central Command, remarked that he ‘paid a military price every day’ because the Americans were seen as ‘biased in support of Israel’. The Europeans may not pay a ‘military price’, but unless they — including Britain – fully engage in efforts to resolve the conflict, they call into question in the Arab world and beyond the respect for international law which is supposed to be such a European hallmark.

• Donald Macintyre is the author of Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, published by Oneworld

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