Proinsias De Rossa has just returned from leading a European Parliament delegation whose permission to enter Gaza was revoked by Israel
Proinsias De Rossa
the settlements have been established deep inside the West Bank, with the clear intention of making it impossible for a viable Palestinian state to exist. I have visited the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem on many occasions in the past ten years and each time it is more obvious than ever that Israel will never willingly negotiate a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.
Between the 6th and the 10th December, I led an official visit to the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza by a cross-party group of Members of the European Parliament (EP) from Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and the UK, representing the EP’s Delegation for Relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).
One of the first briefings we received during the visit was from the Palestinian Negotiations Support Team. The young man from the team explained that negotiating with Israel about a future Palestinian state was like negotiating with them about sharing a pizza. Israel, despite prior agreement, continues to eat the pizza while going through the motions of negotiating.
The evidence is there for all to see. The occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues and is now into its 42nd year. Palestinians have had sixteen fruitless years of the Oslo peace process, which was to bring about an end to the occupation and to establish a viable Palestinian state within 10 years. Having agreed to stop all settler colonies in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, settlement has in fact accelerated. In round figures there are now 500,000 illegal colonists in the occupied Palestinian territory – over 300,000 in the West Bank and almost 200,000 in East Jerusalem. In most cases the settler colonies are large towns with populations running into tens of thousands. Most of these colonies were begun by fundamentalist Jews who believe the entire land of Palestine should be the sovereign territory of a Jewish state from which Palestinians have been cleared. The Israeli government, however, provides financial incentives to non-religious as well as religious Israelis to settle in Palestinian territory in a relentless process of displacing and dispossessing the local Palestinian population. They also provide services such as electricity and water, and security via the Israeli Defence Forces. Israel has also built a network of roads between the colony towns leading into Israeli territory proper. Palestinians are not allowed to travel on these roads.
It is instructive to look at a map of the settlements. They are not, as many imagine, along the border between Israel and the West bank. The settlements have been established deep inside the West Bank, with the clear intention of making it impossible for a viable Palestinian state to exist. I have described it on a previous occasion as looking like a Swiss cheese, with the Palestinians confined to the holes.
Another briefing we received was on behalf of the Quartet Team, led by Tony Blair, the former UK Prime Minister. All of us were gobsmacked when in response to our criticism that Blair did not seem to be making any effort on the political front we were informed that he does not in fact have a political mandate. His role is to assist in negotiating an easing of the Israeli clampdown on the occupied areas so that Palestinians may live normal lives, develop their social and economic infrastructure, travel to work and school more freely etc. In this he has made some progress. The number of roadblocks in the West Bank has been reduced by 100, down from 700 to 600.
However, a senior member of the Palestine Legislative Council told me that in some cases they have been replaced with mobile roadblocks negating some of that progress.
We also met with Dr Aziz Dweik, the Speaker of the PLC, who is a member of Hamas, and has only been recently released from four years detention for membership of Hamas. Forty other members of the PLC are still in jail. Due to the tensions between Hamas and Fateh we could not meet him in Ramallah, but did meet him in his hometown of Hebron. We pressed him hard on the need for reconciliation so that Palestinians could have a united negotiating position in this critical period. He made it clear that as far as he was concerned they wanted it but needed changes to the Egyptian proposal for unity between the political factions. The objections he outlined were not to my mind insuperable and my conclusion is that Hamas is holding back from agreement for reasons to do with seeking political advantage.
Hebron itself is a powder keg. With a population of 400.000, there are 400 Israeli colonists ensconced in the centre of the old town, ‘protected’ by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. They have taken over half of the ancient Mosque as a synagogue and turned the area into a ghost town by banning Palestinians from walking on the street on which they live. The colonists here are said to be the most violent in any part of the West Bank. I was told of an incident from the previous week, where a settler knocked down a Palestinian crossing the road and repeatedly drove his vehicle back and forward over the body, while the Israeli army stood by and watched.
The dispossession of Palestinians is also underway in East Jerusalem which has also been occupied by Israel since 1967 and is now claimed by them as part of Israel. We met three families who the previous week had been evicted from their homes and are living in tents outside their homes, which are now occupied by Jewish Israelis.
The Delegation was also to visit Gaza. Our mission there was threefold. Firstly, to check on the humanitarian conditions under which the people of Gaza are living in view of the continued restrictions being implemented by Israel. During the visit we were due to have a meeting with John Ging of UNWRA. Secondly, to urge the PLC members we were due to meet that reconciliation with their colleague elected members in the West Bank was essential to make progress on the establishment of a viable Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. And thirdly, to check on the effectiveness of EU expenditure in the area. This mission was clearly as much in Israel’s interests as it was in the interests of the Palestinian people.
Regrettably, the permission we had received from the Israeli authorities to enter Gaza was rescinded, for ‘security reasons’ they said, just a few hours after it had finally been confirmed. Yet the Representative of the Dutch government was permitted to travel into Gaza on the day that we were banned. Being denied access to Gaza certainly does not improve the relationship between this Israeli government and the European Parliament. Israel’s denying elected members of the European Parliament the opportunity to meet our democratically-elected counterparts on the PLC is an unacceptable interference in the democratic process, and is contrary to international law.
Coincidentally, the cancellation of our permission came within hours of the EU Council of Ministers’ decision to re-affirm the policy of the EU in favour of a Palestinian State based on the 1967 Borders, with Jerusalem as the capital. The EU statement also called for a stop to all settlements and indicated Europe’s readiness, when appropriate, to recognise a Palestinian state. This was sigificant. Israel had fought hard but failed to have this commitment deleted from the statement, as they believe it implies recognising a unilaterally-declared Palestinian state. The other important element in the statement was a commitment by Europe to support the implementation of the Palestinian Authority’s document ‘Palestine, Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State’, which aims to have the institutions for a Palestinian State in place by the end of 2011.
The EU statement now puts it up to Israel to engage in negotiations, or see a Palestinian state established and recognised by Europe, and perhaps by the UN. If Israel then failed to withdraw its armed forces and settlers, they would be in direct conflict with the international community. This would create a whole new dynamic and remove the initiative from Israel.
The EU statement, which was emphatically welcomed by Salem Fayyed, the Palestinian Prime Minister, during an hour-long meeting we had with him, has created a glimmer of hope in a desperate situation. The question for the EU, its Member States, and for all those that want to see a two-state solution, is what practical steps can now be taken to further this agenda?
There are a number of pressure points that the incoming Spanish Presidency of the European Council should exploit: Firstly, use the review of the European Neighbourhood Policy and of its Action Plans to address Israel’s non-compliance with human rights norms. Secondly, seek the strict labelling of imports from Israel to ensure that products from the settlement colonies are clearly identified as such so that decisions can be made by Member States and consumers about whether they wish to accept such products. Finally, it is essential we insist that the EU’s new High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Ashdon, draw up an action plan, with a two year timetable, to coincide with the Palestinian Authority’s timetable for state building, for the implementation of the Council’s statement of principles. We have to ensure that Europe, and not just the Quartet of the EU, US,, Russia, and the UN, pursues a reinvigorated engagement in seeking justice for the Palestinian people.
Proinsias De Rossa MEP is President of the EP’s Delegation for relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council, and leader of the Labour Party group of MEPs in the European Parliament