|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
15 - 21 March 2001
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Time for pressureA visit this week to Israel and the occupied territories put the spotlight on the role of the Palestinian's "absent friend" -- the European Union, reports Graham Usher from Jerusalem
A team of European Union ministers led by Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh and EU Commissioner Chris Patten visited Israel and the occupied territories this week. As is the European way, it was at pains to draw some sort of equivalence between a people under occupation and those who are their occupiers. "We understand Israel has security problems," Patten told Israel's Haaretz newspaper on Wednesday.
Following a meeting with Yasser Arafat in Gaza on Monday, he also said any funds the EU raised to stave off the Palestinian Authority's impending collapse would be subject to "tough realistic budgets, real transparency" and a gamut of measures to prevent "corruption". But Patten made no pretence that the reason EU member states had to fork out $50 million to pay PA salaries in January and will have to do the same for March had anything to do with Arafat's loose accounting methods.
In fact, the EU "is financing the siege Israel" has imposed on the occupied territories, "and is paying the PA's expenses in lieu of the frozen taxes Israel collected but hasn't passed to the PA," Patten told Haaretz. And it was to get some movement on both the blockade and the $54 million in tax revenue Israel owes the PA that the delegation met for their first encounter with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday. It was brusque.
According to his media adviser, Sharon told the Europeans that for Israel to lift the siege and "assist the [Palestinian] civilian population, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat must personally call for a halt to both terrorism and incitement, begin counter-terrorism actions [against Palestinians] and return to security coordination" with Israel. As for the monies Israel owes the PA, "it is immoral to demand that Israel pay the salaries of Palestinian forces that are involved in terrorist actions".
A stoic Patten emerged from the meeting with Arafat with the hope that there was "a better chance now" for security cooperation to be resumed between the two sides. He emerged from the meeting with Sharon telling Haaretz he failed to see what "wrecking the Palestinian economy and increasing poverty had to do with security" and admitting "there are frustrations abroad".
There certainly are, as one after another EU member sees the enormous political and economic investments it has ploughed into the Oslo peace process go up in smoke. Belgium, who paid the PA's January salaries, has called for sanctions to be applied against Israel for its policies of siege and withholding tax transfers. Denmark too has warned that the conditions Palestinians are presently forced to live under in the occupied territories are threatening an "explosion".
And last month French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine submitted a paper to EU member governments arguing that the time had come for Europe to move from the "politics of the lowest common denominator" vis-à-vis the Oslo peace process to a more political and independent "approach to peace".
It is a role the Palestinians have long been demanding. But they are aware that it is unlikely to get anywhere unless backed up with the threat of real European "pressure" on Israel. For example, says one EU consultant -- in response to the policies of siege and excessive force in occupied territories -- the EU could suspend all or part of its association agreement with Israel, and scrap the various cooperation ventures in the fields of technology, agriculture and research that accrue from it.
The EU could also invoke its all "rule of origin" clause, she says, ending various preferential trade agreements in response to Israel's ongoing practice of stamping "made in Israel" on goods actually produced in settlements in East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank and Golan Heights.
The point of such measures would be to convey to Israeli society that there is a price for Sharon's rejectionism, says Palestinian political analyst George Giacaman. It is a costing that is long overdue, he says. "In my opinion, the single most important factor behind the strength of the right in Israeli society has been the absence of any genuine international pressure applied upon it. It allowed Israelis to think they could do what they like with impunity."
Some EU officials now quietly agree with that analysis. It has taken the death of 395 Palestinians and the destruction of the Oslo process to get them to see the light. And the question is how much more death and destruction has to come before the "need for pressure" is put finally into practice?
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