Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gaza: time for Europe to end its crime of silence

Before I visited Gaza 10 months ago, I continuously heard it being described as the world’s largest open-air prison. Yet it was only when I passed through Erez, the high-tech border crossing run by a private Israeli firm, that I grasped what the phrase meant. The debris of destruction wrought by “smart weapons”, the constant surveillance from warplanes overhead, the heavy air pollution, the grinding poverty, the absence of basic materials needed for reconstruction: all these factors combined to make me feel something akin to suffocation. If there was anything positive to be gleaned from this grim experience, it was the generosity and camaraderie I encountered when local people told me stories about what they had endured as Israel bombed all around them in late 2008 and early 2009. The stories varied but there was one thing they all had in common: with the borders sealed by both Israel and Egypt, nobody could escape.

Catherine Ashton has stated that she wishes to visit Gaza on her first trip to the Middle East as the EU’s foreign policy chief next week. Her aides tell me that she views it as important to see Gaza first hand because the Union is a major donor of humanitarian aid there and it would be useful to see how that money is used. That is a good reason for going to Gaza but I can think of a better one: to investigate how Europe has abetted Israel’s war crimes.

As she bones up on the region’s politics, Ashton would be well-advised to read a new report from the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Inspired by a “people’s court” on the Vietnam war set up by the British intellectual Bertrand Russell, this tribunal has detailed how the EU has assisted Israeli violations of international law by failing to take action against the damage inflicted on aid projects funded by the European taxpayer and by forging closer political and commercial links with Israel at a time when its grip on the occupied Palestinian territories was being tightened.

If Ashton plans to prosecute Israel for how Operation Cast Lead, as its bombardment of Gaza is officially known, caused at least €11 million worth of damage to EU-financed infrastructure, then she would be proving she has not entirely abandoned the principles she espoused when she was a peace activist in her youth. More than likely, however, she will not even entertain the idea of legal proceedings. The bill for the damage is almost certainly far less than the profits accruing to those European companies, who supplied essential components for Israeli weapons. Amnesty International, for example, found electrical components labelled ‘made in France’ when its investigators examined the remnants of the bombs that killed 1,400 Gazans, most of them civilians.

At this stage, it is not clear that Ashton will be allowed enter Gaza. Other senior European politicians – including the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner – have been prevented from travelling there by Israel. Should Israel refuse to allow her through Israel, she should follow the example set by Ireland’s Micháel Martin, who recently went to Gaza via Egypt.

It is understandable why an Israel that claims to boast the world’s most moral army would want to prevent the outside world from witnessing the conditions in which it forces Gazans to live. But we in Europe cannot allow our governments roll over and accept that Gaza is out of bounds because Israel has declared it a “hostile entity” (a designation that doesn’t exist under international law). Nor should we tolerate the EU’s refusal to have any engagement with Hamas, which won a 2006 election that Europe’s own observers deemed to be free and fair. Freezing out Hamas serves to drive a greater wedge between the political representatives of Palestine and fits in with the age-old colonial tactic of “divide and rule”. Moreover, it runs counter to the EU’s stated objective of helping to bring peace.

Visiting Bethlehem last month, Silvio Berlusconi claimed not to have seen the massive concrete wall that penetrates deep into the heart of this historic town. The Italian prime minister’s refusal to see something that is as plain as the nose on his face (his penchant for cosmetic surgery notwithstanding) might be just another example of the buffoonery for which he is notorious. But it is in keeping with how Europe is turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering that is all too abundant in the West Bank and Gaza. In so doing, it is committing what Bertrand Russell called the “crime of silence”.

Originally published in The Samosa www.thesamosa.org.uk

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