EU needs to understand the realities in the West Bank

Eve Geddie

POLITICO  /  March 13, 2023

The bloc’s response to Amnesty’s report includes a ‘false implication’ of antisemitism.

Earlier this month, a delegation of European diplomats visited Huwara and Za’tara, two Palestinian towns in the Nablus Governorate, where Jewish settlers launched brutal attacks.

The violence around Huwara has been notable for its scale and intensity, with hundreds of Jewish settlers participating. But for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, these state-backed assaults have long been a routine part of life. The near-total lack of accountability for the perpetrators, the well-documented participation of Israeli soldiers in some of the violence, and the very fact that settlements continue to expand in defiance of international law are all manifestations of a system of apartheid, which Israeli authorities impose on Palestinians.

Following their visit, the European diplomats condemned the attacks on Palestinians in Huwara, as well as the killing of two Jewish settlers by a Palestinian gunman on the same day, and they stressed the need to “protect all civilians and ensure accountability.”

These are commendable aims, certainly, but they will not be accomplished until apartheid is dismantled. And the European Union needs to recognize the reality of the system Israel has imposed on Palestinians — until it does so, these statements amount to little more than lip service.  

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as a crime against humanity, characterized by the commission of “inhumane acts,” such as unlawful killing, torture and forcible transfer, which are committed to maintain an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another.

In a report released in February 2022, Amnesty concluded that Israeli authorities’ treatment of Palestinians amounts to apartheid based on this very definition.

Wherever Palestinians live under Israel’s effective control — whether in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) or in other countries as refugees — Israeli authorities subject them to systematic oppression and domination. And Amnesty’s report provided detailed evidence of this, showing how Israel’s laws and policies are specifically designed to deprive Palestinians of rights, land and resources.

Amnesty International is not alone in drawing such a conclusion — Palestinian, Israeli and international organizations, two U.N. Special Rapporteurs, the South African government, and several former Israeli officials have said the same. But for all its condemnation of the tools of apartheid — unlawful killingssettlement expansionhome demolitions and the suppression of Palestinian freedom of expression — the EU still declines to acknowledge this apartheid system. 

In January of this year, the European Commission explicitly stated it considers it “not appropriate” to use the term apartheid in connection with the State of Israel. The comment was made in a written response to a question submitted by MEPs, and delivered by High Representative Joseph Borrell on behalf of the Commission.

The result of prolonged negotiations among Commissioners, the response first stated that the Commission is giving “due attention to” Amnesty’s report — then went on to reject the finding of apartheid and imply that such criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

Yet, it remains unclear exactly which aspects of Amnesty’s evidence or analysis the Commission contests, as the response fails to engage with the substantive issues outlined in the report, opting for a non-sequitur instead, by citing the International Holocaust Memorial Association’s (IHRA) non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism as grounds for its position.

The Commission has repeatedly emphasized the importance of international law, and it has done so by promoting the Rome Statute as well. And yet, it neglected to even mention the treaty’s definition of apartheid in its response. 

Twelve Israeli human rights organizations have since expressed “grave concern” about attempts to associate Amnesty’s report with anti-Semitism, and they have rejected the Commission’s failure to recognize Israel’s apartheid. These organizations argue that weaponizing anti-Semitism to silence legitimate criticism actually undermines attempts to address rising anti-Semitism.

Those closely following this issue know that the views and positions among the EU’s 27 Commissioners and member countries are diverse. Borrell, for one, is well-aware of Palestinians suffering. In a recent address regarding crimes against humanity, he specifically referred to the killings of Palestinians by Israeli security forces, stressing that “we have to remember what is happening in Palestine.”

By contrast, Margaritis Schinas, the Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life, and Olivér Várheliy, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, have both equated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. And Schinas, who is charged with leading the EU’s fight against anti-Semitism, has gone even further, backing and urging the application of the disputed IHRA definition. However, the EU’s strategy for addressing anti-Semitism, which was developed under his watch, has been criticized by 54 scholars on anti-Semitism as it “ignores growing concerns about the shortcomings and instrumentalization of the IHRA definition.”

Anti-Semitism is a serious concern — both within Europe and around the world — and the EU must take the fight against it seriously. However, criticism of Israel that is based on agreed international human rights standards that hold all countries to account cannot be dismissed with the broad use of the term — nor by the invocation of a non-legally binding definition.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government’s own actions are making it increasingly difficult to dismiss this reality, recently pledging to expand settlements and restrict displays of the Palestinian flag. The government has made discriminatory amendments to laws on citizenship and residency. And, alarmingly, it recently handed sweeping powers over the occupied West Bank to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who came under intense criticism when he said, in response to the settler violence, that Huwara should be “wiped out” by the Israeli state. These actions even prompted a statement of concern by Borrell — not seen in years — on behalf of all 27 member countries on March 8.

The EU’s failure to commit to its principles and its lack of engagement with legal scholarship and research don’t just embolden Israel to commit further crimes against Palestinians — they also harm the fight against anti-Semitism.

If the Commission is genuinely interested in advancing peace and justice, it must recognize that the Israeli authorities are committing the crime of apartheid, and it must use all the political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to pressure them to dismantle this system.

Eve Geddie is the director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, which leads Amnesty’s work toward the EU and Council of Europe