Monday, March 1, 2010

An unholy alliance

One of the pitfalls of specialising in European politics, as I have for the past 15 years, is that certain assumptions become hardwired in your brain. For a long time, my critical faculties shut down when I heard senior EU representatives speak of the Middle East. I happily accepted the official narrative that they were striving for a just resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and that it would be foolish to park the so-called peace process in a “blood-soaked lay-by”, in the words of former EU commissioner Chris Patten.

Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and on Gaza just over a year ago illustrated how naive and gullible I had been. In the first instance, Tony Blair blocked the EU from formally calling for a ceasefire because he wanted Israel to be given whatever space it perceived necessary to fight Hezbollah (Israel’s slaughter of Lebanese civilians in that 33-day war elicited no more than statements of “regret” from London).

It is true that the Union did urge a halt to the violence that Israel inflicted on Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants in late 2008 and early 2009. Yet by describing that attack as “disproportionate”, key EU representatives implicitly approved the Israeli version of events – that everything had been provoked by the missiles Hamas was firing on the southern Israeli towns of Ashkelon and Sderot. “Gaza was a crisis waiting to happen,” Marc Otte, the Union’s Middle East envoy, told me. “Do you think the Palestinians could continue to launch rockets on Israel without Israel reacting?”

Otte has resorted to a wilfully selective reading of recent history. Far from merely reacting to what Hamas had done, Israel had created the conditions that prompted Hamas to dust down its crude DIY weapons (no match, it must be said, for the cutting-edge killing machines in the Israeli arsenal). Until a few months earlier, Hamas had observed the cessation of hostilities between it and Israel that Egypt had brokered in June 2008. All that changed on 4 November that year, however. Because most of the world was preoccupied with how America was electing its first black president, Israel’s decision to break off the ceasefire with a raid on Gaza that killed six members of Hamas went largely unnoticed internationally. As a result, most mainstream press ignored how the rockets sent by Hamas into southern Israel were in retaliation for the November raid.

Even worse than its complicity in spreading Israeli falsehoods, the EU has failed to hold Israel to account for its war crimes. The investigation carried out by a UN-appointed team led by Richard Goldstone, a retired South African judge, into the conduct of Israel’s war on Gaza was as thorough as was possible under the circumstances (with Israeli officialdom refusing to cooperate). But when the 575-page it produced was discussed by the UN’s General Assembly in November 2009, 22 of the EU’s 27 countries refused to endorse it. A key finding that there was no “justifiable military objective” behind 10 of the 11 incidents it examined, in which civilians had been targeted by Israel, proved too unpalatable for most EU governments.

While some headlines in 2009 conveyed the impression that there was friction between Israeli and European diplomats over everything from the status of Jerusalem to a Swedish tabloid story alleging that Israeli soldiers systematically ripped out the internal organs of Palestinian corpses, the reality is that Israel enjoys extremely cordial and profitable links with the EU. That reality was underscored by Javier Solana, making a farewell trip to Israel in the autumn, shortly before he stepped down as the EU’s foreign policy chief. “There is no country outside the European continent that has this type of relationship that Israel has with the European Union,” he said. “Israel, allow me to say, is a member of the European Union without being a member of the institutions. It's a member of all the [EU’s] programmes, it participates in all the programmes.”

The most troubling aspect of this cooperation, in my view, is how Israeli arms companies have become eligible for EU funding. With Israel the main external participant in the Union’s “framework programme” for scientific research, the EU has become the second largest source of research grants for the country. Tel Aviv-based officials to whom I have spoken predict that Israel’s participation in the multi-annual programme, which went into operation in 2007, will be worth €500 million by the time it concludes in 2013.

The beneficiaries of these grants include Motorola Israel. Motorola is taking part in an EU-financed surveillance project known as iDetect4All, which uses sensors to detect intruders of buildings or resources of high economic value. The concept behind iDetect4All is similar to that behind a radar system that Motorola has installed in 47 Israeli settlements in the West Bank over the past five years. The Jerusalem Post has described that system as a “virtual fence” that uses thermal cameras to pinpoint people who are not authorised to enter the settlements.

Another recipient of EU grants is Israel Aerospace Industries, the manufacturer of warplanes used to terrorise Palestinian civilians. It is playing a lead role in the EU’s “Clean Sky” project, which aims to reduce aviation’s contribution to climate change by developing less polluting aircraft engines. Because IAI has been given carte blanche by the European Commission to apply for patents on any innovations realised during this project, it is entirely conceivable that planes used in the future bombardment of Palestine will have been developed with the unwitting help of the European taxpayer.

It is highly probable that Israel will be integrated even further into the Union in the near future. During 2008, the EU’s foreign ministers approved a plan to “upgrade” their relations with Israel through a “privileged partnership” that would enable Israel to become part of the Union’s single market for goods and services. Work on giving concrete effect to this upgrade has stalled since then because of the war on Gaza and unease in some European capitals at the hard-line rhetoric of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. Nonetheless, some significant steps have been taken in the past few months. In November last, for example, an agreement on agricultural trade was finalised; under it, 80% of Israel’s fresh produce and 95% of its processed foods can be exported to the EU free of customs duties. A cooperation agreement between Europol, the EU’s police office, and Israel has also been reached (though still awaits a formal rubber-stamp from the Union’s governments). This is despite numerous reports from human rights organisations that detainees in Israel are routinely tortured and despite rules in force since 1998 that oblige Europol not to process data obtained by cruel methods.

One factor that has helped pave the way for all this cooperation is that a cottage industry of lobby groups dedicated to promoting Israel has started to flourish in Brussels. The American Jewish Committee, the European Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith have all set up EU affairs offices over the past few years, while a cross-party alliance of MEPs (known as European Friends of Israel) was founded in 2006. These groups have responded to the widespread public revulsion at Israeli aggression by branding Israel’s critics, including left-wing Jews, as anti-Semites (an absurd claim, considering that most Palestinian solidarity activists abhor anti-Semitism). They have also contended that it is in Europe’s interest to bond with Israel because it is a prosperous economy, that has proven resilient in the face of global recession.

This well-oiled propaganda machine has helped convince policy-makers that Israel should be viewed as something akin to a Mediterranean Canada, a “normal” industrialised country with many similarities to Europe. But Israel is not a normal country; it is one that illegally occupies the land of another people.

The EU’s ever-deepening relationship with Israel cannot be divorced from the brutality meted out on daily basis to the Palestinians. The deeper that relationship gets, the more that Europe will be accommodating the oppression of Palestine. The EU cannot help solve the problems of the Middle East if it is making those problems worse.

Originally published by ESharp! (

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