Friday, April 3, 2015

Europe keeps on paying Israel's bills

One sordid example of Israel's impunity is that the EU keeps on picking up the tabs for the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Since Operation Cast Lead - Israel's assault on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 - the EU has contributed around €540 million to the reconstruction effort. That sum comprised more than one-third of the total €1.3 billion that the Union has spent in Gaza during the past decade.

Israel attacked Gaza once again in the summer of 2014, killing more than 2,200 Palestinians. The schools and hospitals bombed by Israel had been funded by the EU. Yet despite how there is a moral imperative to hold Israel accountable for the destruction, the Union is instead contributing to the repair bill.

In one of her final engagements as the bloc's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton pledged in October 2014 that the EU would donate €450 million to rebuild Gaza - once again.

Foreign aid is big business. Consultants and policy wonks get paid handsomely by major donors to advise on how money ostensibly earmarked for alleviating poverty should be used.

A consortium of aid "experts" - led by the Rome-based firm Development Researchers Network - has been hired by the European Commission to evaluate its aid to Palestine. The consortium's report, published in July 2014, concluded that the EU "has not been willing or able" to address the "constraints" placed on its aid activities by the Israel.

It's not difficult to work out how the EU could start addressing those "constraints". Legal proceedings could be undertaken against Israel for bombing infrastructure financed by the European taxpayer. And economic sanctions could be introduced against Israel as a signal that its denial of Palestinian rights will no longer be tolerated. The consortium, however, did not recommend any bold action - just a few timid "reforms".

Under international law, an occupying power is obliged to meet the basic needs of the people under occupation. The EU's status as the largest donor to the West Bank and Gaza means that it is relieving Israel of its obligations.

Some of this aid is of direct help to the occupation. In 2012, the EU announced a €13 million "gift" of X-ray and computer equipment to Kerem Abu Shalem, the crossing for goods between Gaza and present-day Israel. That crossing is controlled by Israel, which has placed severe restrictions on imports to and exports from Gaza. By bestowing that gift, the EU became a junior partner for a medieval siege.

Such cooperation is inherently problematic. And it looks set to be expanded. The aid promised to Gaza in October 2014 will go through a UN "reconstruction mechanism". Israel has been given a veto on who can and cannot receive cement and other building material.

Meanwhile, the EU runs a €9 million-per-year "support mission" for the Palestinian Authority's police in the West Bank. A core objective of that "mission" is to boost cooperation between the Israeli and PA "security forces". Enforcement of the occupation is thereby being outsourced to the Palestinians themselves.

Bolstering the private sector in Palestine has been identified as a key priority for the EU's aid activities in 2015. Is it a coincidence that this priority chimes with that of Tony Blair? The European Union is, after all, one of the top donors to Blair's office in Jerusalem and part of the Middle East "quartet" that Blair represents.

In March 2014, Blair's office in Jerusalem published a blueprint for the corporate capture of Palestine. Titled The Initiative for a Palestinian Economy, it advocated that major firms be lured to the West Bank and Gaza by developing "special economic zones" and offering "financial incentives". "Special economic zones" are a fancy term for sweat-shops. "Financial incentives" mean exempting major companies from most, if not all, taxes.
Blair's blueprint was drawn up in consultation with about 100 Israeli and Palestinian business "leaders". Munib Masri, a billionaire from Nablus, is among those entrepreneurs enjoying cordial relations with Blair.

While ordinary Palestinians and their supporters worldwide are boycotting Israel, Masri has formed alliances with Israelis who benefit directly from the occupation. They include Rami Levy, who runs supermarkets in Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, and Yossi Vardi, a technology guru who has relied largely on software engineers trained by the Israeli military.

There is something quite sinister going on here. Blair and the European Union are being guided by a wealthy Palestinian elite happy to cuddle up to the oppressor.

The EU has long been eager to promote cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians. EU-sponsored discussions about joint energy projects overlook Israel's record of exploiting the Palestinians' natural resources in a manner that violates international law.

I'm not arguing that the EU should stop all aid to the Palestinians. Funding cuts for healthcare and education would cause a marked increase in suffering among a people who have already suffered too much.

Rather, I'm calling for a modicum of honesty. The EU's representatives should quit portraying their aid efforts as noble and generous. They should admit that European taxpayers are paying bills that Israel is legally obliged to pay. And they should sue Israel for destroying EU-funded infrastructure.

Much of the EU's aid is clearly indefensible, however. Far from bringing the Palestinians closer to freedom, the Union is requiring the oppressor and the oppressed to pretend they are the best of buddies. Even worse, such aid is turning Palestine into a laboratory for a perverse experiment that marries capitalism and militarism.

By pandering to an elite that is already doing nicely from the status quo, the experiment serves to entrench injustice.

•First published by Palestine News, Winter 2015 issue.

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