Is the European Union flouting international law by stepping up its police cooperation with Israel?
Officers from Israel are known to have taken part in a number of activities coordinated by Europol, the EU's police agency, over the past few years.
This frequent contact comes despite how Israel's police headquarters are located in occupied East Jerusalem. The EU has consistently stated that it regards Israel's occupation and subsequent annexation of East Jerusalem as illegal. And a 2004 ruling from the International Court of Justice stipulated that governments and institutions throughout the world have an obligation not to abet Israel's illegal conduct in any way.
As recently as week, Israel took part in a conference on "economic crimes" in Europol's ultra-modern HQ in The Hague. The previous month, a high-ranking officer from Israel was among those who attended Europol's annual "police chiefs convention." Israel was similarly represented at the same event in 2012.
Meanwhile, Europol has commended Israel for providing it with "valuable assistance" during an operation against cocaine smuggling, which led to a court case that opened in Sweden last year. Israel has been granted "observer status" in an "informal network" managed by Europol focused on recovering the proceeds of organized crime. And when a separate network on money laundering -- it, too, managed by Europol -- was launched last year, Israel also sent a delegation.
The EU liaison with Israel doesn't appear to have been stymied by the fact that the two sides don't yet have a formal intelligence sharing agreement. Europol was given the go-ahead by the EU's governments to negotiate such an agreement with Israel in 2005. Four years later, the Union named Israel as a priority state for cooperation with Europol. Yet a deal to allow sensitive information be shared has still not been approved by the EU's governments.
For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to get a simple answer from Europol about the scope of its work with Israel. Eventually, I got a response over the weekend -- it was not very enlightening. "Europol does not cooperate with Israel directly and we don't exchange data with Israel," a spokesperson told me.
I asked the spokesperson if Europol had studied the documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, which show that the US has been handing over "raw intelligence" to Israel, without taking steps to protect personal data. The spokesperson said that Europol would only be able to cooperate with Israel once a formal agreement between the two sides comes into effect.
Europol was "not in a position to comment" on whether these revelations would have "any potential impact on a currently not existing agreement."
Responding to a query from a member of the European Parliament in July, the EU's home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that "information obtained in obvious violation of human rights shall not be processed" once the policing agreement with Israel enters into force.
My curious little mind is wondering why she used the word "obvious." The Israeli "security" forces are known to regularly torture Palestinian prisoners. Yet because such abuse takes place away from scrutiny it may not be "obvious" to Malmström that it has occurred.
It should be pointed out, too, that Europol hasn't balked at cooperating with other "partners" with a less than pristine record on human rights. In 2010, Europol signed a formal accord with Colombia. Rob Wainwright, Europol's director, said at the time it would allow information to be exchanged on "known and suspected criminals."
The Bogota authorities have a broad interpretation of the phrase "suspected criminals." The 2010 agreement was signed not long after Alvaro Uribe stepped down as Colombia's president. He had branded human rights workers as "rent-a-mobs at terrorism's service."
Human rights abuses have continued since Uribe's departure. Protests by Colombian workers against ruinous free trade agreements with the EU and the US over have been violently attacked by the state forces recently, often resulting in the loss of life.
Has Europol severed its ties with Colombian police as a result? Not, as far as I can see. Rather, Colombian officers have -- like their Israeli counterparts -- been helping Europol's work on drugs.
Colombia and Israel are, of course, both regarded as important commercial partners for the EU. So it's hardly surprising that human rights abuses -- "obvious" or otherwise -- don't stand in the way of business. Or, it would seem, police cooperation.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 22 October 2013.