Is the European Union finally getting tough with Israel?
New guidelines stating that companies or institutions active in illegal Jewish-only settlements are ineligible for EU grants and loans indicate that it may be.
The guidelines have drawn a furious response from Israeli politicians. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, predicted they could lead his compatriots to "lose confidence in the impartiality of Europe". Israel has reportedly decided to place restrictions on EU aid projects for Palestinians in retaliation.
Reacting to that fury, the Union's representatives swiftly tried to downplay the guidelines' significance. The EU's embassy in Tel Aviv noted that they essentially reconfirm the Union's view that the settlements violate international law. The embassy also published advice on how Israelis can continue receiving EU subsidies regardless of where they operate.
A "frequently asked questions" paper on the embassy's website says that firms headquartered within Israel's pre-1967 borders may apply for EU grants, even if they have offices in the occupied West Bank. The paper stresses that Israeli researchers living in the settlements can benefit from EU science funding, provided they work in a university within Israel itself. And it states that Israeli banks with branches in the settlements may apply for EU loans if the loans are destined for firms inside Israel.
Both the tone and content of this advice suggests that the Union is unlikely to depart radically from its existing practices.
Easy to circumvent?
Back in 2004, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network issued a report proving that some recipients of EU science grants were based in the West Bank. Despite this evidence, the European Commission had no difficulty with involving the cosmetics-maker Ahava in its current programme for scientific research. Ahava's main factory is located in the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem.
While the EU may baulk at such overt support for the occupation in the future, the useful pointers it is giving to Israeli firms suggest that the guidelines will not be difficult to circumvent.
Furthermore, the guidelines fail to tackle the discrimination faced by Palestinians inside present-day Israel.
Haifa University is now taking part in over 25 EU science projects. The EU took no action against this university when it banned Palestinian students from protesting against Israel's attacks on Gaza in November last year.
Worse again, the guidelines do not preclude Israeli arms companies from soaking up EU grants. Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries - manufacturers of drones used to kill and main civilians in Gaza - participate in many EU-financed schemes. Their ability to do so fits into the wider militarisation of the EU's research activities. This trend is likely to continue under the Union's next research programme, which has been allocated around 70 billion euros between 2014 and 2020.
None of this is to argue that the new guidelines are worthless. The very fact that they have been drafted is a sign that the EU is feeling the heat from the Palestine solidarity movement. Campaigners can now cite these guidelines whenever they come across cases of projects linked to Israeli settlements availing of the EU's largesse.
But the haste with which the EU has tried to placate Israel shows that this isn't the end of the story. The challenge for all of us is to ensure that the guidelines lead to something concrete. So far the EU's representatives have been allergic to the idea of boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Their allergy will only be overcome if people of conscience put them under enough pressure.
•First published by Palestine News, Summer 2013.