Why won't the EU condemn Israel's escalating violence?

7 min read
13 March, 2023
Analysis: In the face of rampant attacks from Israeli settlers, politicians, and the military, the European Union has displayed a deliberate idleness to address the urgent situation in occupied Palestine.

Recent months have witnessed a dangerous escalation of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as Israel’s new far-right regime incites violence and conducts frequent deadly raids in the West Bank and Palestinians strike back.

In response, the European Union (EU) has been thus far unwilling to acknowledge these developments, with experts saying that this is likely to avoid having to address the situation.

After the pogrom in Hawara last month, the EU issued a statement of condemnation that immediately drew heavy backlash from Palestinians. The statement unambiguously called the killing of two settlers “terrorism,” while cautiously referring to the Israeli settlers’ lynching of an aid worker and burning of over 100 vehicles and 75 homes as mere unspecified “settler violence.”

A week later, several central EU member states doubled down on this language of Palestinian “terrorism” versus Israeli “settler violence.” Their statement added that “terrorism can under no circumstances be justified,” while adding no similar description to the settlers’ attacks. This was even after a top Israeli general, Yehuda Fuchs, deemed the Hawara attack a “pogrom” and said settlers were “sowing terror.”

"After the pogrom in Hawara last month, the EU issued a statement of condemnation that immediately drew heavy backlash from Palestinians"

Over the last decade, the EU has systematically refrained from describing any settler attacks on Palestinians as “terrorism,” including the murder and burning of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the burning to death of an 18-month-old baby, Ali Dawabsha, and his parents. The Israeli government itself deemed these terror attacks.

At the same time, the EU calls Palestinian violent actions “terrorism” with a noteworthy ease, including in incidents where no national motive was clear. For instance, last month, the EU condemned a car ramming that killed 2 Israelis as a “terror attack.”

This was despite the fact that the driver had a verified mental illness, was under the heavy influence of drugs and had just been discharged from an Israeli psychiatric hospital a day before the incident. The Israeli regime didn’t conduct any investigation pointing to national or political motives.

“It shows Europe’s double speak that it instinctively describes Palestinian attacks as terrorist attacks but refuses to use the same description over Israeli attacks,” Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The New Arab.

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False equivalency and ignoring the occupation

The EU statements also always entail a call on both sides to exercise “restraint” and restore “calm,” even in incidents where Israeli settlers or soldiers were unilaterally attacking Palestinians.

Absent, however, in these statements has been any meaningful acknowledgement of the occupation’s inherent role in destabilising the situation and causing violence.

“My main issue with those statements by the EU is that they do not address the occupation as the ultimate cause and driver of all this violence,” Martin Konecny, director of the European Middle East Project, said.

“It shows that the EU is not actually serious about ending the violence because the only way to end the violence is to end the occupation and they don’t even mention that.”

The EU’s idleness over Israel’s occupation was showcased at the UN in recent months. While every single EU member state voted in favour of a UN resolution last month that called for an immediate end to Russia’s occupation of Ukraine citing international law, the vast majority of those same states (18 out of 25) either abstained or voted against a UN resolution in December to seek an advisory opinion over the legality of Israel’s occupation.

An aerial view of a scrapyard where cars were torched after Israeli settlers attacked Palestinian property in the town of Hawara near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on 27 February 2023. [Getty]
An aerial view of a scrapyard where cars were torched after Israeli settlers attacked Palestinian property in the town of Hawara near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on 27 February 2023. [Getty]

Deliberate silence on land annexation

Furthermore, experts have been seriously troubled by the fact that the EU has not made any statement at all on the transfer of the civil administration in the West Bank from the military and defence ministry to finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, which is akin to de jure annexation.

This new authority would, for instance, subject Israeli settlers to civil authorities while Palestinians continue to be subject to military rule. It would allow Smotrich to escalate the rampant expansion of settlements and prevent the eviction of outposts that Israel itself considers illegal.

It would also give him the power to initiate a land survey in the OPT, where the burden of proof on Palestinian to document private ownership of land would be near impossible to live up to, opening the way for pushing more Palestinians out of their historic homes.

Leading Israeli legal experts deemed this move, “tantamount to the practice of apartheid.” The US had earlier warned that this move would be “a step towards annexation,” but after the decision was implemented, the Biden administration said nothing.

"The EU’s silence over Smotrich’s new sweeping powers seems to be a calculated and deliberate move"

“It’s a European blind spot in terms of not addressing this issue because from a structural point of view it’s far more significant,” Lovatt explained, warning that it risks signalling “a more dangerous outcome: that if Netanyahu, instead of formal annexation, works in an incremental fashion, then Israel is likely to avoid any European response.”

“It’s really extraordinary that there is no statement on this at all, even though this is an act of annexation or a move towards annexation which undermines the most fundamental principles of the international order which we are, especially these days, as Europeans invoking constantly in Ukraine,” Konecny told The New Arab.

“And we don’t even utter a word. It’s really extraordinary, even by the low standards of the EU and the West.”

Even when directly asked about Smotrich’s takeover of the West Bank’s administration, the EU External Action Service’s lead spokesperson, Peter Stano, avoided commenting on this specific development.

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Instead, he provided an abstract and general statement that, “the EU’s position on the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory is clear and hasn’t changed: they are illegal under international law, constitute a major obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.”

Mr. Stano added that “The EU has previously expressed concern and considers that any law adopted by Israel that unilaterally legalises the seizure of Palestinian property rights and effectively authorises the confiscation of privately owned Palestinian land in occupied territory is not only beyond Israel’s jurisdiction, but also it risks entrenching a one-state reality of unequal rights, perpetual occupation, and conflict.”

The EU’s silence over Smotrich’s new sweeping powers seems to be a calculated and deliberate move. “It’s politically easier to try to ignore the problem rather than acknowledge, because if you acknowledge it you’d have to do something about it,” Lovatt speculated.

“Part of the reason could be that if they addressed it, they would need to act on it, or would be challenged [and asked] ‘what do you do about this?’” Konecny added. “So, they choose to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that didn’t happen.”

Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the EU representative for the Palestinian Territories speaks to the press as he surveys the damage of houses torched by Israeli settlers in Hawara, on 3 March 2023. [Getty]
Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the EU representative for the Palestinian Territories speaks to the press as he surveys the damage of houses torched by Israeli settlers in Hawara, on 3 March 2023. [Getty]

Following an increase in Israeli settlement expansion during the Trump administration, the EU made formal annexation a redline and contemplated possible sanctions and restrictive measures against Israel if it had gone ahead with it.

“The EU doesn’t want to rock the boat; it sees a lot of interest in bilateral relations with Israel and very little interest in relations with the Palestinian,” Lovatt explained.

A recent joint report by a number of prominent European organisations found that the EU trades 15 times more with Israeli settlements alone than with all Palestinians.

Smotrich, whose new sweeping powers render him the West Bank’s de facto prime minister, said right after the pogrom on Hawara that the Palestinian village should be “wiped out” by the Israeli government. The EU was officially silent on this statement and did not condemn it.

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When asked about this, Mr. Stano, the EEAS spokesperson, told The New Arab that Smotrich’s comments were “unacceptable” and “incite to indiscriminate violence in a situation which is already extremely tense and led to loss of lives and widespread destruction.”

Without condemning Smotrich, Stano urged “the Israeli government to disavow those comments and to work together with all the parties involved to defuse tensions.”

For Palestinians, the fear is that the EU’s idleness and double-standards on Israel’s repeated violations of international law are akin to a greenlight to the current unprecedented escalation of settler terrorism, army raids, and home demolitions in the occupied territories.

Muhammad Shehada is a Palestinian writer and analyst from Gaza and the EU Affairs Manager at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2