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Has the EU begun to speak its mind about Israel's occupation?

January 29, 2014 at 3:49 pm

On the question of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel’s settlement project, the stated policy of the European Union, and its member states including the UK, is clear: the settlements are “illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible”. This rhetorical position has been restated endlessly, to no very obvious effect, in repeated statements condemning the Israeli government’s continued settlement expansion. At the same time the EU has tried to mitigate the effects of the occupation on the Palestinian population through generous funding (€525m in 2011) for the Palestinian Authority and for a range of development projects across the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

This year, there have been signs that the EU may at last be converting that rhetoric into action. Every year EU diplomats based in the OPT have compiled reports detailing Israel’s creeping annexation of Palestinian territory; they include details of settlement expansion and the accompanying expropriation of Palestinian land, house demolitions, settler violence and forced transfer. Every year, EU Foreign Ministers receive the reports, express concerns that the two-state solution is being foreclosed, call on Israel to change its policy, and then move on.

However, in May 2012 something changed; perhaps the urgency of the reports finally got through; certainly the total intransigence of the Israeli government and its blurring of the 1967 borders helped; and perhaps the sustained pressure from NGOs and activists across Europe also contributed. The EU Foreign Ministers agreed unanimously to consider action to back up its rhetoric in two areas; settlement trade and challenging Israeli controls on development in the OPT, which have resulted in the demolition of 62 EU-funded projects in the first half of 2012 alone.

It is vitally important now that public and parliamentary opinion across the EU exploits this change and holds the Commission and Member State governments to their commitments. A hard-hitting report “Trading Away Peace” recently published by a coalition of 22 human rights and development NGOs across eleven European countries provides the ammunition.

The EU is Israel’s biggest trading partner; it has concluded an Association Agreement with Israel giving privileged access to European markets, and Israel participates in a range of European Co-operation agreements. In all of these, Israel has unilaterally included settlements on the same basis as Israel proper. The result, as described in “Trading Away Peace”, is that Europe is sustaining Israeli settlements through trade and other links such that the EU imports 15 times more from illegal Israeli settlements than it does from Palestinians. The report argues that unless the EU re-asserts its legal position and limits the scope of all agreements with Israel to trade from within the 1967 borders, it risks undermining the billions of aid it has pumped into Palestinian state building and, with it, any chance of a political solution.

Trading Away Peace recommends that the EU and its Member States should:

1. Ensure correct consumer labelling of all settlement products: to guarantee EU consumers can choose to avoid settlement produce, European governments must insist that all settlement products are correctly labelled as “West Bank (Israeli settlements), as has already been done by the UK (2009) and Denmark (2012).

2. Discourage companies from trading with and investing in settlements: national governments should issue formal advice to importers and other businesses to refrain from purchasing settlement goods and to avoid all other commercial and investment links with settlements.

3. Ban imports of settlement products: more radically, governments could legally exclude settlement products from entry to the EU market. Trade in products of illegal settlements is inconsistent with EU foreign policy and, at least in cases of products involving the use of non-renewable resources such as water or minerals, may directly aid or assist on-going breaches of international law.

4. Ensure settlement products do not benefit from import duty relief:  insist Israeli exporters start correctly designating the origin of settlement products, and cease designating them as ‘Israel’ and incorrectly claiming preference.

5. Exclude settlements from bilateral agreements and cooperation instruments: clear territorial provisions explicitly restricting application to Israel proper, regardless of Israeli domestic law, must be included in all EU and member state arrangements with Israel e.g. Horizon 2020 and ACAA.

6. Exclude settlement products and companies from public procurement: this must be done before Israel is allowed increased access to public procurement markets in the EU, as currently envisaged under the EU-Israel Action Plan

7. Remove organisations which fund settlements from tax deduction systems: the recent Norwegian decision to exclude an organisation collecting donations for Israeli settlements, from eligibility for tax deductible gifts, can serve as a model.

8. Prevent financial transactions supporting settlements and related activities: as recommended by the EU’s Heads of Missions in the OPT, governments should apply restrictive measures to all financial transactions from their citizens, organisations and businesses in support of settlement activities breaching international law.

9. Discourage citizens from buying property in settlements.

10. Issue guidelines for European tour operators: advise operators to end support for settlement businesses, including hotels, bus operators, archaeological sites, etc.

11. Insist Israel disaggregates settlement data for the OECD: European governments and other OECD members must require that statistical data provided by Israel always distinguishes between Israel proper and the settlements, in order to avoid validating an internationally unlawful situation.

All these measures target only illegal settlements, not Israel. They re-emphasise the pre-1967 Green Line that is of critical importance for the viability of the EU-promoted two-state solution, and uphold international law. There is momentum now in the Commission and amongst several member states for a more active European policy to push for an end to the Israeli occupation and a just settlement for Palestinians and for Israelis. But in the aftermath of President Obama’s re-election there will be counter-pressure for Europe to revert to its previous role of playing second fiddle to American initiatives and to reinvigorate the defunct “Peace Process”. We need to insist that robust EU action is maintained in parallel, otherwise negotiation will again just be a cover for further Israeli “facts on the ground” and a political solution will slip out of our grasp.

Dr Phyllis Starkey (Member of Parliament 1997-2010, Trustee of Medical Aid for Palestinians)

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.