Barely a month after the fifth anniversary of the Gaza closure, the EU has agreed this week to the active and urgent implementation of 60 new cooperation activities with Israel, and stands ready to explore further partnership areas. This contrasts starkly with strong EU statements on the deteriorating situation in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), which have denounced Israel’s unabated expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the closure of Gaza, and expressed concern over the possibility of a two-state solution. Since the 1980s, the EU has recognized the Palestinian right to self-determination and has been striving for a Palestinian State alongside Israel. This has involved a huge financial commitment to Palestinian state-building and development. However, this European policy has no chance of success as long as Israel continues its occupation. The EU’s relationship with Israel provides important leverage to promote respect for international law. It is crucial for the EU to move beyond statements and use this influence effectively.
The European Union has invested heavily in bilateral relations with Israel for historical, political and economic reasons. At the onset of the Middle East peace process, on Israel’s initiative, the EU separated bilateral relations with Israel from progress in reaching a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Particularly over the past decade, a deep EU-Israel partnership has grown on the basis of the Association Agreement, which fosters free trade and bilateral cooperation. Israel has become one of the most privileged partners of the EU. It participates in almost all European agencies and programmes, in areas such as agriculture, police cooperation, research, and transportation.
At the same time, European policymakers maintain that they have not lost sight of the conflict: the Association Agreement provides that EU-Israel relations shall be based on human rights and democratic principles. After the Gaza war of 2008-2009, the EU froze the expansion of relations as a response to public outrage over Israel's actions. However, since then, economic and technical cooperation has expanded de facto. The EU hides behind the Action Plan – the current broad framework for cooperation – as a cover for assertions that relations are not being ‘upgraded’ as foreseen in 2008. Whatever Brussels may choose to name this move, the fact remains that the EU is opening up new and advantageous opportunities for Israel without conditioning this on any improvement in its respect for international humanitarian or human rights law.
The EU had hoped that
closer relations would exert a corrective influence on Israel, so that Israel
would come to respect international law and gradually withdraw from the occupied
territories. This has proved to be an illusion. The occupation
and its attendant illegal policies and practices are more entrenched than ever,
as is discrimination against the Palestinian minority in Israel. The Israeli
closure continues to shut Gaza off from the rest of the occupied Palestinian
territory and prevent post-war recovery; in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the
expansion of illegal settlements appears unstoppable. In service of this de
facto annexation, and in violation of the Geneva Conventions, Palestinian homes
and facilities are demolished, civilians are forcibly displaced, and
Palestinian building and movement are severely curtailed. A future Palestinian state
is being reduced to a series of isolated enclaves, without resources and
without any prospect of development.
These facts are all too well known. They are extensively described in numerous reports of human rights and development organizations, the United Nations, and the European Union itself. European policymakers have been criticizing Israeli policies in increasingly strong terms: in a leaked report, European Heads of Mission in the occupied Palestinian territory wrote that Israel's settlement policy is rapidly closing the window for a two-state solution. In May 2012, European Ministers of Foreign Affairs took their strongest joint position yet, unequivocally stating that the prospect of a viable Palestinian state is being undermined by Israeli occupation policies. Unfortunately, the EU and its member states have not followed through by demanding a stronger link between Israel’s respect for international law and any increased cooperation. When push comes to shove, the EU refrains from putting any real pressure on Israel beyond statements, instead taking a realpolitik approach of keeping international law out of its political relationships.
This incoherence has undermined the EU's own messages on the occupation and international law. More than this, it is problematic because Israel applies the benefits of its bilateral agreements with the EU to its illegal settlements. The EU formally limited the territorial application of these agreements to the internationally recognized territory of Israel proper, but in practice, Israel considers settlements as an integral part of the state. European policymakers acquiesce to this 'deviating interpretation' and have not, for example, obliged Israel to distinguish between products from its recognized territory and those from the settlements. As the EU and its member states have not yet taken effective action in this regard, some settlement products are entering the EU market duty-free to this day, and are being misrepresented to consumers as products of Israel. European research funding has also been granted to settlement-based companies which exploit the resources of the occupied territory in violation of international humanitarian law. In this way, the EU has allowed itself to become complicit in supporting the settlements.
There are no signs that Israel will apply the agreements correctly or that the settlements will be reversed. On the contrary, a committee of Israeli judges recently concluded – in disregard of the position of the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and all States - that Israel is not an occupying power, and consequently not bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population into the occupied territory. So, if there is no occupation, what is wrong with the settlements? It is telling that the judges made this decision on the grounds that, “it is impossible to foresee a time when Israel will relinquish these territories, if ever”.
Actions speak louder than words, and the disconnect between the EU’s statements on Israel's policies and the strengthening of EU-Israel relations is becoming particularly troubling. Europe has created dangerous expectations by reinforcing Israel’s belief that it can continue to expand settlements and effectively annex occupied territory without any real consequences. As long as European leaders do not send a strong signal - beyond statements - that violations of international humanitarian law and human rights are unacceptable, they are contributing to the degradation of the international legal order. They will also be ignoring public opinion, which is in favour of a just peace in the Middle East.
There will be no deus ex machina to save the two state solution – so what is Europe waiting for? Now is the time for a consistent and bold policy which conditions further relations with Israel on respect for international law.