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Israel is an apartheid state, so why did an EU diplomat refuse to say so?

August 3, 2023 at 1:12 pm

Israeli settlers march from Damascus Gate to the Western Wall, which is the southwest wall of Masjid al-Aqsa, on the day of mourning, which they called “Tisha BeAv”, in Jerusalem on July 26, 2023 [Mustafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

Outgoing EU Envoy to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Sven Kuhn Von Burgsdorff attracted the wrong sort of attention when he paraglided off Gaza’s coast last month, purportedly promoting a promise of freedom even as the EU persists in the moribund two-state narrative. Israel described the stunt as provocative, while for Palestinians, the distinction between diplomats’ freedom and the annihilation of their own freedom of movement was made all too apparent. Palestinians can do the same, said the EU envoy, when they are free. He knows full well that the Palestinian people’s freedom is not on the international political agenda. His stunt simply served to demonstrate the EU’s diplomatic conceit.

In an interview with the Times of Israel, Von Burgsdorff was painted as a diplomat with political concerns for Palestinians. Yet, the cosmetic approach employed throughout the interview, as well as his comments, show the dissociation from the colonial reality which Palestinians face daily. Leading delegations, condemning Israeli state and settler violence and receiving awards from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas all fall within what one expects of diplomacy these days in the absence of anti-colonial politics.

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The same can be said of the simplistic view that Von Burgsdorff expressed regarding the obstacles to Palestinian unity. “Both Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah [party] seem to believe that they can still ride this out, putting their narrow partisan interest before the public good.” But does Von Burgsdorff not remember that Hamas won the 2006 democratic election but was not recognised as the legitimate government because the international community’s plan for a puppet authority in Ramallah went awry? It is not merely an impasse between two parties, but a political divergence in which the international community invested heavily in Abbas and the PA to prevent Palestinians from exercising their own political will. Abbas’s own mandate, by the way, was supposed to end in 2009.

Von Burgsdorff gives Abbas the benefit of the doubt regarding the refusal to hold elections when he asks rhetorically, “How come you are giving Israel veto power over whether you can hold your right to political self-determination wherever and whenever you want?” It is clear that Abbas has no intention of holding elections, and that the excuse about Israel not allowing Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem to vote actually favours the PA leader. Hypocritically, Abbas is exploiting the restrictions Israel places on Palestinians by refusing to allow Palestinians to have a democratically chosen change in leadership.

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Von Burgsdorff was equally non-committal about Israeli apartheid, refusing to describe Israel as an apartheid state and citing his role as a diplomat as the reason why. “However,” he stated, “I would certainly be on the right side of history if I were to say that one should not suppress the discussion of whether actually what we’re seeing on the ground constitutes or doesn’t constitute the crime of apartheid.” This takes diplomacy even further back than the recent confirmations by non-governmental and human rights organisations — B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for example — that Israel has passed the threshold for qualification as an apartheid state, despite most omitting the colonial framework that led to the current situation.

If Von Burgsdorff really wanted to be on the right side of history, he would have gone further than merely encouraging discussions about what is now blindingly obvious: Israel is an apartheid state.

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