Judging by the comments flying around the Israeli media, government officials are seriously displeased by the European Union’s decision to get tough on colonies — which are, of course, illegal under international law. Israeli officials have described the new requirement, according to which Israel must promise that EU funding won’t flow into colonies, as an “earthquake”, a “brutality”, “a miserable directive” and “undermining the peace process”. Israel’s media have referred to the situation as a “crisis”.
All the EU has done is put into practice what it has been saying for decades: That the colonies are bad news and agreements between Israel and the EU over funding for education, research and other projects must state specifically that they do not apply to colonies in the West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem. But, from the startled Israeli response, it’s as though it had assumed that the EU was just bluffing all those years.
And for a long time, it really has looked that way: The EU has, throughout the Oslo years, been diligently bankrolling the Palestinian National Authority, saving the Israeli taxpayer the trouble of having to do so — effectively keeping Israel’s occupation afloat. Europe has also watched Israel continuously flout international law while expanding colonies and their infrastructure — there are now some 520,000 colonists in the West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem.
Sure, there have been predictably disapproving words from European officials, but action, penalties, consequences? Not so much. This has been a constant source of frustration to Palestinians: They want political solutions, not aid.
Now it looks as if the EU has finally lost patience with Israel. Just a cursory look at the past few years would show the sources of the growing frustration. Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, in November 2012, continued the Israeli practice of razing to the ground projects, buildings and infrastructure that Europe has funded. In a similar vein, Israel has just issued an order to stop work while it considers demolishing an EU-financed sustainability project — hothouses and solar panels — in the South Hebron hills.
Some will say that none of this matters. Many Israelis relegate the EU to the back seat — while the apparently more reliable US steers the go-nowhere, zombie peace talks with the Palestinians. One Israeli suggested to me that this latest EU stance was simply an attempt to deflect attention from real, critical problems in the Middle East — notably in Syria.
Another analyst pointed out that the EU doesn’t worry about the small print relating to the Occupied Territories when the treaties being signed are beneficial to EU countries. Certainly it is deemed an irritant that, while both the US and the EU make their position on colonies clear, only the EU is politically loaded enough to dare to try to bind its agreements to those principles.
That’s the trouble, of course: Israel sees international policy on colonies as simply a guideline or position statement, as opposed to actual law. This escalating hubris over colony expansion — and getting away with it — is what makes the EU move such a shock for Israel: Gush Shalom, Israel’s peace bloc, likened the decision to “a bucket of cold water poured on the head of a drunk”.
The Israeli government may prefer to forget about the Green Line, but this EU directive is a clear reminder that the international community will not. And though it doesn’t affect Israel’s trade agreements with Europe, it has a financial impact: People attending an emergency Israeli government meeting spoke of adverse effects on the economy, academia, culture and sports.
Most significantly, the move sends a clear message to Israel that refusing to comply with international law does have tangible consequences.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Rachel Shabi is the author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.