Human Rights Watch – EU Observer / February 14, 2023
The recent spike in deadly attacks and repression in the occupied West Bank should surprise no one. Last year, Israeli forces killed more Palestinians in the West Bank than in any other year since 2005, when the UN began systematically recording fatalities: 151, including 35 children. A little over a month into the new year and another Netanyahu-led government, the situation is only getting worse.
The government, which identified as a guiding principle that all the territory between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea belongs “exclusive[ly]” to the Jewish people, is already implementing measures to further that agenda.
Those measures include expediting demolitions of Palestinians’ homes as well as expanding settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law. The government has also responded to Palestinian attacks on Israelis with collective punishment, a war crime in the occupied territory, including razing attackers’ family homes.
These abusive and discriminatory practices by Israeli authorities are not new; they further a policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians and take place in the context of systematic oppression of Palestinians, which collectively amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.
This conclusion, reached by Human Rights Watch, other international, Israeli, and Palestinian human rights groups, and legal and UN experts – among many others – should make it impossible for the EU to continue to pretend that the repression of Palestinians is a temporary phenomenon best addressed in the context of the “peace process.” And yet, that’s exactly what the EU continues to do, recycling age-old empty slogans about the “two-state solution” and the need to restore calm, restraint, and the status quo. While every European diplomat knows that a return to the “status quo” means maintaining the daily oppression, humiliation, and anguish that comes with living under apartheid, the EU continues to acquiesce to a situation that gets worse by the day.
In May 2021, following another round of hostilities in Gaza, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution establishing a Commission of Inquiry to look at the root causes of the conflict. But no EU member state then in the HRC voted in favor of the resolution, in stark contrast with their principled support – if not leadership – on setting up monitoring or accountability mechanisms on most other country situations on the Human Rights Council.
Fast forward to last December, when all EU states, except Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, and Slovenia, refused to support a UN General Assembly resolution requesting an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice on, amongst other issues, the legal consequences of Israel’s prolonged occupation and adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures.
As EU governments continued to display patent/evident/other double-standards at the UN, the EU Commission responded to a series of parliamentary questions on the apartheid determination. The replies, nominally signed by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on behalf of the Commission, all say: “the Commission considers that it is not appropriate to associate the term apartheid with the State of Israel.”
The ambiguous wording, of course, creates a straw man. There is no such thing as an apartheid state, as far as international law is concerned, any more than there is a “torture state or war crimes state. Apartheid and persecution are well-defined international crimes against humanity – crimes that Israeli authorities are committing.
Furthermore, the EU Commission spoke on its own behalf: it did not, and cannot, express the EU’s foreign policy position on the issue, which would require a unanimous determination by the 27 EU member states’ governments. Yet, the sleight of hand might suffice for some to inaccurately claim an “EU denial” of the apartheid determination – something that would put the bloc at odds with growing consensus in the human rights movement and increasingly beyond it. Ultimately, all the sibylline replies do is slyly provide thin cover for the new Israeli government as it doubles down on apartheid and intensifies its brutal repression of Palestinians.
It is all the more galling that the EU is taking these steps at the same time that it rightfully rallies the world around defense of the rules-based international order and human rights when it comes to Russia and Ukraine. The very same EU and member states have put in place unprecedented efforts to secure global support ahead of UN votes condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They have adopted an enormous array of sanctions, systematically denounced war crimes and other abuses, and supported serious efforts to document them, with a view to securing accountability.
The contrast with their shameful silence, inaction, and denialism vis-à-vis the victims of the Israeli authorities’ crimes of apartheid and persecution is stark and impossible to deny. This position not only fuels the spiralling violence and repression in Israel and Palestine, but also undermines the EU’s and its member states’ credibility as principled foreign policy actors.
The EU needs to get its head out of the sand, recognize the reality of apartheid and take the sort of human rights measures that a situation of this gravity warrants, including supporting efforts to ensure accountability for and ending all forms of complicity in serious abuses.
Claudio Francavilla is Human Rights Watch’s Senior EU Advocate; based in Brussels, he conducts advocacy vis-à-vis the European Union, with a strong focus on EU foreign policy