In Europe, local politics is becoming the driver for change on Palestine

5 min read
04 May, 2023

In April, the city of Liège in Belgium voted to boycott Israel, becoming the third European city to act in solidarity with Palestine in recent months.

Largely seen as a symbolic gesture given Liège has no official ties with Israel, this latest local decision suggests public pressure on the continent is shifting Europe-Israel relations.

Introduced by the Belgian Workers’ Party, the motion calls for "a temporary suspension of all relations with the state of Israel and the institutions that are complicit until the Israeli authorities put an end to the systematic violation of the Palestinian people”.

"Israel's international impunity is at the heart of why we're here today and why the extreme, systemic violence against Palestinians continues and is worsening"

Liège doesn’t have formal relations with Israel, but the city council’s ban prevents future collaboration.

Following the BDS win in Liège, the Belgian-Palestinian Association (ABP) is now pushing for the Brussels municipality of Ixelles, which has a twinning agreement with the Israeli kibbutz (or commune), Megiddo, to end ties with Israel.

Megiddo was built atop the ruins of the Palestinian village of al-Lajjun, whose inhabitants were expelled during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

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“We are not anymore in the paradigm of dialogue,” Gregory Mauzé, in charge of advocacy for ABP, told The New Arab. “We need to enter the paradigm of international pressure on Israel to freeze aid and break with these colonialist policies.”

This isn’t the first time Liège has expressed solidarity with Palestine. In 2021, the municipal council passed a motion affirming support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The city also has a twinning agreement with Ramallah.

Along with Liège’s decision, the Balkan Traffik Festival, a music event held in Belgium, rejected funding from the Israeli embassy in support of BDS.

Hundreds of Palestine supporters gather to protest Israeli attacks on Gaza in London in 2012. [Getty]
BDS spreading across Europe
Liège’s move follows in the footsteps of similar actions by other European cities. In April, the Norwegian capital of Oslo announced it will ban importing goods and services of companies that contribute directly or indirectly to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories. 
And in February, Barcelona announced it was ending its twining agreement with Tel Aviv in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

These actions demonstrate growing momentum for the Palestinian cause and BDS in Europe, especially as Israel’s human rights violations keep coming under international scrutiny.

“There is a lot of awareness about Palestine in Norway, but with the Amnesty International report on apartheid, our arguments are given a lot more weight,” Line Khateeb, leader of the Palestine Committee in Norway, said, referring to the human rights organisation declaring Israel an apartheid state last year.

"There is growing momentum for the Palestinian cause and BDS in Europe, especially as Israel's human rights violations keep coming under international scrutiny"

Khateeb emphasised that as more European residents become aware of the reality on the ground, they are less willing to remain complicit.

For Inès Abdel Razek, advocacy director for the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, complicity is the crux of the issue.

“Israel's international impunity is at the heart of why we're here today and why the extreme, systemic violence against Palestinians continues and is worsening,” Razek said.

“In different parts of Europe, there are progressive forces that recognise that and are committed to making sure that their taxpayer money and policies respect their responsibility in front of international law.”

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Keeping it local
While international recognition is certainly playing a role in affecting change in Europe, the local agenda is also having an important impact. Both Liège and the Catalan capital, Barcelona, are governed by left-wing mayors.
In Liège, one of the ruling coalition factions is the Socialist Party, Belgium’s most prominent left-wing party.
While considered centre-left on the political spectrum, Mauzé explained that pressure from constituents and civil society has pushed it to be more progressive on Palestine, thereby helping to shape local policy.
Public perception and support for Palestine are also stronger in the Belgian region of Wallonia, where Liège is located, and in Catalonia. Activists suggest that because Belgium, Spain, and Norway are NATO members, they are less inclined to act against the status quo.
Political and social murals on the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem, occupied West Bank. [Getty]

In this way, grassroots activism and local decision-making are becoming a larger driver of social change in Europe than those at the top. 

“As far as foreign policy is concerned, there's not much difference,” Laurent Cohen, member of Prou Complicitat AMB Israel, which advocated for the suspension of Barcelona and Tel Aviv’s twinning agreement said.  “[Federal governments] won't go against NATO or the US mainstream politics.” 
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Cohen explained that, on the other hand, cities with diverse populations can help push for reform.
The European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, but as more cities reject Israeli apartheid, cooperation may become a fixture of the past.
“We often think only about central governments when it comes to international diplomacy, but municipalities do have international relations,” Razek said. “They do have international trade and they do have competencies and they can use it to be part of that change that we need.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum