Ending Impunity in the Holy Land
Simmering tensions in occupied East Jerusalem have thrust the over half-a-century old Israeli occupation back into the international limelight. After years of neglect and in the wake of a highly destabilising Trump administration, this latest explosion of violence was tragically predictable and largely preventable if only the international community would end double-standards and embrace international law when it comes to Israeli–Palestine.
The latest escalation will have important implications on internal Palestinian and Israeli politics as well as on broader efforts to de-escalate regional tensions. They have also damaged the credibility of the Biden administration, whose pledge to support multilateralism and human rights is difficult to reconcile with Washington’s blocking of successive calls for an immediate ceasefire by the UN Security Council. European member states, meanwhile, also share responsibility for present circumstance and should not be let off the hook.
The failures of a thirty-year “peace process” run by the US but effectively bankrolled by the EU have been put on clear display by the fourth major Israeli military offensive on the besieged Gaza Strip since late 2008. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region to consolidate a fragile ceasefire, the European Union and its member states were conspicuously absent from the scene. While this is not surprising, given the EU’s traditional subservience a US-dominated “peace process”, sticking to a business as usual approach is fundamentally harmful to EU interests and will not advance peace in the Holy Land.
In a similar vein, utilising internal EU divisions as cover for not having a political role is no longer credible. This is particularly true considering Brussels’s lofty ambitions for strategic autonomy and ongoing trends of US retrenchment from the Middle East, which inevitably will imply greater responsibilities for the EU in its direct neighbourhood.
Present conditions require a significant change of pace. Confronting the reality of occupation and Israel’s matrix of legal mechanisms that promote state-sponsored discrimination of the Palestinians should be placed at the centre of any engagement. It is these policies that fuel the conflict and it is precisely these mechanisms that led Human Rights Watch to join other Israeli and international organisations in condemning Israeli practices as an apartheid-like system of domination over the Palestinians.
Just as Israel unilaterally extended the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to exclude densely populated Arab-Palestinian neighbourhoods in 1967, the ongoing forcible expulsion of Palestinian residents from Sheikh Jarrah, the Old City of Jerusalem, Silwan and many other neighbourhoods are grounded in the same political objective – illegal under international law – of diluting the Palestinian presence in the city to consolidate Jewish control.
The same rational explains the continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, an effort to establish facts on the ground, colonise natural resources and separate “built-up Palestinian areas”, thereby preventing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Discriminatory tactics are also being deployed against Palestinian minority within Israel. Accounting for 20 per cent of the population, the Palestinian minority effectively live as second-class citizens compared to Jewish Israelis. As carefully documented by the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), and clearly laid bare by the Netanyahu-backed “Nation-State Law”, which formalises discrimination in Israel’s quasi-constitution, such practices are again geared towards preserving a regime of Jewish-Israeli domination in a not too subtle effort to encouraged Palestinian emigration.
While differences do exist between the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and within Israel proper, it is growing increasingly hard to ignore the effective “one-state reality” of “Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean” highlighted by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. It is this reality of discrimination, structural colonial violence and asymmetry that needs to be addressed.
Restoring international law
Flimsy justifications for the “eviction” of Palestinian residents from occupied East Jerusalem, what Israeli officials seek to depict as a “property ownership dispute”, can no longer hide the reality of Israel’s policy of demographic engineering through state-sanctioned discrimination of the Palestinians. Thirty years of EU engagement on Israel–Palestine can similarly no longer hide Europe’s de facto complicity in Israel’s occupation.
For over five decades, stateless Palestinians have been asked to trust the international community, abandon armed resistance in favour of diplomacy, cooperate with Israel and accept considerable concessions for a promise that their rights would someday be fulfilled via the establishment of an independent state. After three decades of “peace process” and rampant colonisation of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, now home to about 700,000 Jewish settlers, such promises are understandably hard to reconcile with reality.
Under such conditions, instances of locally-led resistance will continue. No amount of repression will deflate Palestinian struggles for collective and individual rights. Focussing on Hamas rocket fire from Gaza, rightfully condemned as a breach of international law, cannot excuse the abject silence that envelops the daily abuses suffered by Palestinians, the punitive bombing of Gaza or continuing provocations in occupied East Jerusalem.
European member states should understand that continued diplomatic cover for Israeli policies only serves encourage impunity, particularly given that much of the Israeli establishment, and definitely Benjamin Netanyahu, is not interested in a negotiated end to the occupation.
Against this backdrop, the European Union or a key grouping of member states should proactively change course. Efforts should promote democratic accountability in Palestine via support for elections and real intra-Palestinian reconciliation between the West Bank and Gaza. Such movement also implies revisiting the EU’s no-contact policy with Hamas and enhancing pressure on the Palestinian Authority (and Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) who have all opposed such reconciliation.
The EU should further move towards demanding accountability for violations of UN Security Council resolutions, as well as internal EU laws and regulations. Rather than opposing the International Criminal Court’s war crimes investigation targeting both Israel and Hamas, Europe should utilise such means to strengthen accountability and the rules based order that is fundamental to European interests and security.
Ultimately, there is a need to confront the reality of an Israeli establishment that has grown accustomed to impunity given that no costs are extracted for its expanding occupation. Sanctioning Israel’s settlement-industrial complex and its network of international supporters therefore emerges as an indispensable component of any engagement, particularly if the EU is serious in its avowed support for Palestinian rights and self-determination.
Regrettably, leaders in Europe are well behind the curve when to reviewing policies on the conflict. The last weeks have made it abundantly clear however that a business as usual approach – precisely that which has guided the Biden administration and Europe during the recent escalation – will not make headway.
A fundamentally new approach is needed. One that is grounded in multilateralism and support for the United Nations and does not shy away from demanding accountability for flagrant violations of international law. Only in this way will Europe break free from its complicity in the occupation and add a degree of much needed coherence and credibility to its ambitions for strategic autonomy and peace and stability in the Middle East.
Andrea Dessì is Head of the Italian Foreign Policy Programme and Senior Fellow within the Mediterranean and Middle East at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and Director of the IAI Commentaries series.
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 International Criminal Court, Statement of ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, Respecting an Investigation of the Situation in Palestine, 3 March 2021, https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/item.aspx?name=210303-prosecutor-statement-investigation-palestine.
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 Andrea Dessì, “Double Standards on Palestine Will Come Back to Haunt the EU”, in Social Europe, 31 May 2021, https://socialeurope.eu/double-standards-on-palestine-will-come-back-to-haunt-the-eu.
DetailsRome, IAI, June 2021, 4 p.