BRUSSELS (IPS) — The European Union’s foreign policy supremo Javier Solana this week declared himself “fully behind” the call for an international conference on the Middle East made recently by U.S. President George W. Bush. But is it time for the E.U. to cease being guided on the Israeli-Palestinian question by the United States, which as the main supplier of weapons to the Israeli military is partisan by definition?
Nathalie Tocci from the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels contends that the E.U. is “working on the margins of U.S.-dictated policies” in the Middle East and that this has proven counterproductive.
The influence of Washington in shaping Europe’s stance has been especially marked in the Union’s refusal to deal directly with Hamas. Even though that party won a democratic election in 2006, the E.U. has refused to have direct contacts with its representatives, as Hamas has been placed on the official lists of proscribed organizations in both Brussels and Washington.
Some E.U. governments — such as France and Ireland — are known to have queried if it is wise to shun Hamas completely. Yet the Union’s ban on direct contacts has so far remained intact.
The E.U. has stated that Hamas must fulfil three conditions if dialogue is to take place: that it recognizes Israel; accepts previously signed peace accords; and that it renounces violence.
According to Tocci, these criteria — with the exception of renouncing violence — are “legally dubious.”
“The conditionality on Israel’s recognition has no legal grounding insofar as only states and not political parties can recognize other states,” she said.
Other commentators have noted how Hamas’ participation in Palestinian Authority elections is tantamount to an acceptance of the 1993 Oslo accords, that led to the authority’s foundation.
In June, the E.U.’s foreign ministers agreed to resume direct aid to the Palestinian government, ending the suspension that had been put in place in protest at Hamas’ election victory.
Oxfam, which had argued that the embargo on financial assistance was increasing levels of indebtedness faced by Palestinian civilians, is urging the E.U. to go beyond that decision and to now engage in dialogue with Hamas.
“There has to be a political pragmatism,” Oxfam’s Michael Bailey told IPS. “The E.U. has to try and get a normalization of the situation in the Occupied Territories and we believe the Europeans should be encouraging everyone to get around the table. You don’t have to like someone to talk to them; indeed, one of the aphorisms about diplomacy is that you don’t talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies.
“But our main point is less political. The policy of the freeze on contacts with Hamas has had huge consequences for the civilian population.”
Whereas the E.U. had been keen earlier on aid to promote the kind of economic development needed to create a viable Palestinian state, the bulk of its more recent assistance has been of an emergency nature. In 2005, humanitarian assistance comprised just 16 percent of all the Union’s aid to Palestine, yet this climbed to 56 percent by the end of last year.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza has necessitated an increase in emergency supplies. Some 80 percent of Gaza’s industries have closed, with the result that 350,000 people have lost their principal source of income.
Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London, said that the efforts made by Hamas to ensure the release of the BBC’s Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston have prompted a rethink of policy on contacts with Hamas in some E.U. countries, most notably Britain.
While he says it is “understandable” that the Union should balk at engaging with a party that has a history of rocket attacks and suicide bombs on Israel, he feels that the preferential treatment given by the E.U. to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah is exacerbating tensions in the territories.
“The E.U. should recognize that the policy of boycotting Hamas by showering favors on Fatah in the West Bank has contributed to radicalizing Hamas and thus provoking Fatah’s overthrow in Gaza,” Grant said.
“The economic isolation of Gaza is worsening an already dire humanitarian situation, accentuated by Israel shutting most of the border crossings most of the time. And so long as the E.U. is seen to reject the outcome of legitimately-conducted elections, it exposes itself to accusations of double standards and reduces its credibility in the eyes of many Arabs.”
He suggests that the Union should learn from an example set within its own borders — the dialogue that has put a halt to most forms of political violence in Northern Ireland.
“The very process of dealing with Hamas could have a transformational effect on the organization, as was the case with the talks between the British government and the Irish Republican Army, though that process did not deliver results for more than 10 years. Evidently, E.U.-Hamas talks may not produce a positive outcome. But neither the U.S. nor Israel can claim that the status quo is doing much to enhance the security of Israelis.”
Betty Hunter from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Britain says that the E.U. has misrepresented the clashes between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and that it has not been sufficiently robust in denouncing human rights abuses by the Israeli army.
“The E.U. could have played a constructive role,” she told IPS. “There are representatives of the European Commission in East Jerusalem, so they know what’s going on. But to characterize the Hamas takeover of Gaza as a military coup is not to understand the situation there. Of course, people don’t want Hamas to be in control of Gaza but they are creating security internally. Meanwhile, Israel continues to kill people and bomb Gaza indiscriminately. “Abbas appears to receive massive support from the E.U., the U.S. and Israel, while internally it is questionable whether he can sustain an ongoing authority. We really think that the E.U. should take this on board.”