In these times of austerity, the idea that politicians should go on a long holiday is not something I am inclined to advocate. Yet I will make an exception for Catherine Ashton. The EU’s foreign policy chief urgently needs to take time off from dashing around the world and to study the background to some of the conflicts she is reportedly trying to resolve.
Even though Ashton has made numerous trips to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, she continues to display a spectacular level of ignorance about the political situation there. Like her mentor Tony Blair, she has swallowed the canard that resistance to the occupation amounts to terrorism. Take how she uses almost every available opportunity to call for the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006. “I want to see the people of Gaza with a future and I also want to see Gilad Shalit, captive for years in Gaza, given the chance to go home to his mother and father,” she said last month.
Here are a few facts for Ashton to consider. Shalit is a staff sergeant in an army representing a rogue state that violates international law with impunity. Of course, he should be treated humanely and releasing him would be the decent thing to do, especially given that he has been away from his parents for so long. But the fact remains that he is a military officer trained to kill, maim and oppress, not – as Ashton implies – an innocent victim.
Shalit is the first Israeli soldier to be captured by a Palestinian armed group since 1994. By contrast, 700,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders in the occupied territories since 1967. That amounts to one-fifth of the total Palestinian population in those territories. By placing so much emphasis on one Israeli, Ashton is turning a blind eye to the infinitely worse suffering that Palestinians have to endure. She does not even acknowledge – as far as I can tell – that Israel’s response to Shalit’s capture was disproportionate, to use a word that rolls regularly from the tongues of EU representatives. At the moment, there are some 900 prisoners from Gaza in Israeli custody. Following Shalit’s capture, Israel has denied those prisoners visits from their families, thereby breaching its international obligations (the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 says: “Every internee shall be allowed to receive visitors, especially near relatives, at regular intervals and as frequently as possible.”)
If Ashton reads only one book this summer, then I would recommend “Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel”, a new collection of essays edited by Abeer Baker and Anat Matar. She should take her time digesting all the valuable information in it, then ask herself why Shalit is more worthy of her concern than this Palestinian portrayed by the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard: “Hamed hasn’t seen his mother for four years. He hasn’t seen his brothers and sisters ever since his arrest, 24 years ago. He has brothers who were born after his arrest, whom he has never met. But most troubling for Hamed, so he told me when last I met him, is his concern that he will never again see his 75-year-old mother, who is ill.”
Or maybe Ashton could ask her aides to investigate the case of Noura Mohamed Shokry El Hashlamon. In 2007, Hashlamon undertook a hunger strike to protest at her detention without trial. Throughout her 27-day strike, she was held in solitary confinement “in a 2 metre square cell, with sewage leaking from the plumbing, glass fragments on the floor and a 1 metre by 0.5 metre barred window without any glass to protect the cell from the cold weather,” according to Addameer, a prisoner support organisation.
Or maybe Ashton could phone Javier Solana, her predecessor as EU foreign policy chief, and ask him why he wasn’t more critical of Ariel Sharon. Among the litany of cruelties attributed to Sharon in his intertwined military and political career was that he approved the introduction of a more harsh prison regime. Sharon was prime minister in 2003, when Yaakov Ganot was appointed head of the Israel Prison Service. Labelled a “blatant racist” by Palestinian prisoner Walid Daka, Ganot order the use of tear gas and batons on detainees. He also had dogs set on Muslim prisoners, knowing full well that doing so would be considered a grave insult to their religion.
Most importantly, Ashton should be incensed by Daka’s well-researched conclusion that the EU is subsidising Israel’s detention practices. Each Palestinian prisoner receives a payment of 500 shekels (100 euros) per month, as well as a pension varying from 1,500 to 6,000 shekels (depending on such factors as number of years served). Although these prisoners are held within Israel, the bill for their expenses is paid by the Palestinian Authority (PA). To meet these bills, the PA receives special grants from the EU to be spent on prisoners. Part of this money goes to Israeli companies that provide food and cleaning supplies to the jails.
This means that the European taxpayer is unwittingly bankrolling the mass incarceration of Palestinians. As these subsidies are providing prisoners with a modicum of dignity, I’m not arguing they should be stopped. Rather, Ashton should be pressing for sanctions to be imposed on Israel for defying international law. If she does that, then she can take as long a holiday as she wants.
·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 12-18 June 2011.