Al-Jazeera / June 8, 2021
The latest round of fighting should serve as a wake-up call for the EU.
The recent escalation in Israel-Palestine has once again turned the world’s attention to Israel’s 53-year-long occupation and its systemic violations of the most basic human rights of the Palestinian people. It also demonstrated clearly that the strategies the European Union has long been pursuing to try and end the conflict and further its interests in the Middle East are not working and may even be making matters worse.
On May 21, a fragile ceasefire brought 11 days of Israeli bombing raids on the besieged Gaza Strip and Hamas rocket fire on Israeli cities to an end, but there is little room for celebration – none of the underlying causes that led to this escalation has yet been addressed. To help prevent another devastating confrontation, European governments must radically change course. They should adopt a new approach grounded in international law and multilateralism and move to demand accountability from both sides.
Repeating old mantras of support for two states while demanding two fundamentally asymmetric sides to enter into direct negotiations will not lead to a breakthrough. Attempting to isolate Hamas, or embarking on yet another reconstruction effort in Gaza would also not provide a sustainable solution. Any effort that does not take into consideration the bigger picture of Israeli occupation and structural violence against millions of Palestinians are doomed to fail. Approaches that try to ease symptoms without curing the disease would provide neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians with more security and stability.
Therefore, any European effort towards Israel and Palestine should first address the occupation and the resultant state-sponsored discrimination that fuel conflict.
Responsibility for the recent crisis rests largely on the shoulders of Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During his 12 years in power, Netanyahu consistently pursued divisive policies that achieved little more than stoking nationalist sentiments and flaming ethnic and religious tensions in Israel. And last month, struggling in the polls after four inconclusive elections and under investigation for corruption, he decided to exploit the long-simmering tensions in Occupied East Jerusalem to reshuffle the political deck in a desperate attempt to stay in power. Instead of restraining violent settlers, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister deployed security forces to disperse unarmed Palestinians protesting against settlement expansion and other rights abuses in Sheikh Jarrah and the Al Aqsa Mosque – a move that was all but certain to pave the way for more conflict and violence.
And it did, with Hamas quickly entering the fray. Exploiting the meek reaction to this latest episode of Israeli aggression by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Ramallah based Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas used the crisis to present itself as the vanguard of Palestinian resistance. It started firing rockets on Israeli cities, drawing condemnation from the international community.
But Hamas rocket fire cannot be addressed in isolation. The group’s actions can only be understood and effectively addressed if they are contextualized against the backdrop of the dire humanitarian crisis affecting more than two million Palestinians living in Gaza today. Israel and Egypt’s years-old blockade on the Palestinian enclave and the international community’s indifference to it have undoubtedly brought us to this recent escalation.
While clearly controversial and ultimately self-defeating for the Palestinian cause, one cannot ignore why support for armed resistance is growing across occupied Palestine. To this day, efforts by the PA to resolve the conflict diplomatically provided meagre results, changing very little in the lives of Palestinians. Thus, more and more Palestinians are now viewing resistance – both armed and not – as their only way out.
Primary responsibility for this again falls on Netanyahu, who time and again thwarted diplomatic efforts, including the Oslo Accords, which he personally worked to dismantle since the mid-1990s.
Yet, one cannot ignore the responsibility of the United States and Europe either.
Decades of unquestioning US support and military aid – now standing at more than $3.8bn a year – has effectively inflated Israel’s sense of impunity rather than increasing its propensity to take risks for peace. Examples include the brazenness with which Israeli settler organizations attack unarmed Palestinian protesters and occupy Palestinian homes on live television and under military escort. Such actions stand as a testament to Israel’s apartheid-like system of ethnic discrimination recently highlighted by Human Rights Watch and a number of other Israeli and international organizations.
As tensions continue since the ceasefire announcement, there is an urgent need to confront this grim reality.
Netanyahu is now on his way out of office, but those who are geared up to replace him, like much of the Israeli establishment, cannot be credibly described as “partners for peace”. The international community, led by the EU, should acknowledge this fact and stop providing diplomatic cover for Israel’s divisive, destructive and illegal policies and actions against the Palestinians.
Decades of employing carrots to assuage Israeli concerns in the hope that a more secure and self-confident Israel would make concessions for peace has dismally failed. Today, there is a growing need to employ sticks with regards to Israeli violations of international law, similar to the pressure that has been used on the Palestinians to engender moderation and force a turn towards diplomacy.
The latest round of fighting should serve as a wake-up call for the EU. As daily violence continues in occupied Palestine, despite decades-long diplomatic efforts, the EU’s professed support for human rights and fundamental freedoms as indivisible components of its identity is being tested.
The continuing occupation is indeed a rude reminder of the failure of a 30-year peace process actively backed by the US and Europe. Billions in EU aid have been invested to support the development of state institutions in Palestine. This assistance has not advanced prospects for peace. Neither has it provided Europe with a recognizable diplomatic role in the US-dominated peace process. Similarly, while the EU collectively represents Israel’s first trading partner, Europe has been reluctant to translate this into political leverage, even when Israeli actions are routinely condemned by the EU. Meanwhile, individual member states have actively courted Israel, increasing bilateral trade, arms sales and high-tech cooperation, further undermining EU leverage and consensus on the conflict.
Against this backdrop, it is increasingly common to frame both EU aid to the Palestinians and growing trade with Israel as complicit in bankrolling the occupation. While this support helps to save lives, pay salaries and run basic services in occupied Palestine, it clearly cannot represent a substitute for political action towards ending the occupation. If serious about strategic autonomy, the EU needs to muster the courage to rediscover a political role on Israel-Palestine even if this implies breaking old taboos – i.e. reviewing the no-contact policy with Hamas or considering conditionality and even targeted sanctions vis-à-vis Israel and the settlements.
After decades of following the US lead in the Middle East, the time has come for Europe to carve out a degree of independence from Washington, particularly when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Continuing with a business-as-usual approach will not bring sustainable peace. It will instead merely delay the next inevitable conflagration, while further eroding EU and US credibility as well as that of the broader international rules-based system that both actors profess to support.
Only by reasserting the role of the United Nations and by ensuring that violations of international law are accounted for, will the next conflagration be avoided. Only by adopting true equidistance between Israel and the Palestinians and directly tackling the final status issues – settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and natural resources – will diplomacy finally produce results, as opposed to supporting a fanciful status quo that only serves as cover for Israel’s impunity and continued annexation of Palestinian lands.
Andrea Dessì is head of the Italian Foreign Policy program and Senior Fellow within the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa program at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)