Palestinian Authority deletes statement slamming EU leader for 'racist trope'

Palestinian Authority deletes statement slamming EU leader for 'racist trope'
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen claimed Israel has 'literally made the desert bloom' in a controversial video message celebrating Israel's 'independence day'.
5 min read
28 April, 2023
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sparked controversy with a video celebrating Israel's 'independence day' [Kevin Frayer/Getty-archive]

The Palestinian foreign ministry slammed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for using an "anti-Palestinian racist trope" in a Wednesday message celebrating Israel's 'independence day' – but soon deleted its statement.

The foreign ministry called for an apology from the senior European Union official, who claimed Israel "literally made the desert bloom" in a video posted to Twitter by the bloc's delegation to Israel.

The ministry slammed von der Leyen for her "inappropriate, false and discriminatory remarks" in an unexpectedly forceful statement. The European Commission described the Palestinian Authority's response as "inappropriate" and "unacceptable".

In her speech to mark the so-called independence day, which she addressed to Israeli President Isaac Herzog, von der Leyen said a "dream" was realised 75 years ago with Israel's 1948 creation.

Palestinians remember the state's formation on their land as the Nakba, meaning "catastrophe" in Arabic. Zionist forces perpetuated massacres, seized land and ethnically cleansed over 750,000 Palestinians during this period.

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"After the greatest tragedy in human history, the Jewish people could finally build a home in the Promised Land," von der Leyen said in her speech, referring to the Holocaust.

"Today, we celebrate 75 years of vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East; 75 years of dynamism, ingenuity and ground-breaking innovations.

"You have literally made the desert bloom, as I could see during my visit to the Negev [Naqab] last year."

The video sparked controversy online and was criticised by Amnesty International UK's crisis response manager Kristyan Benedict.

He said von der Leyen's comments "exemplify the double standards and incoherence" of current EU foreign policy regarding Russia and Israel.

"They need to decide if they're against occupation and annexation or not. These servile messages signal to the likes of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that the EU will eventually accept and normalise aggression," Benedict told The New Arab.

"That is a recipe for more impunity and instability in the world."

Benedict said the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, must face the "grim reality" and recognise the Israeli authorities are committing the crime of apartheid if it truly wants to advance peace and justice.

"It must then use all its political and diplomatic tools to pressure Israel to stop," he added.

In its forceful and now-deleted statement, the Palestinian foreign ministry took particular issue with von der Leyen's "made the desert bloom" comment, calling it an "anti-Palestinian racist trope in relation to Israel's 75-year colonial project of ongoing dispossession and displacement of the Palestinian people and their land".

Supporters of Israel often use this phrase to claim historic Palestine was bleak, barren and empty of people until settlers arrived.

The now-deleted Palestinian foreign ministry statement responding to von der Leyen's video message
The now-deleted Palestinian foreign ministry statement responding to von der Leyen's video message [Palestinian foreign ministry Twitter account]

The foreign ministry statement said: "The State of Palestine affirms that such propagandist discourse dehumanises and erases the Palestinian people and falsifies their rich history and civilisation.

"Likewise, such [a] narrative perpetuates the continued and racist denial of the Nakba and whitewashes Israel's illegal occupation and apartheid regime."

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The use of such rhetoric "undermines the European Union's standing" and "casts serious doubts on its declared commitment to international law and human rights", the statement said.

It also betrays European citizens who don't support such "racist erasure" of the Palestinians, the ministry added, saying von der Leyen "owes them and the Palestinian people an apology".

The statement, published in image format on the Palestinian foreign ministry's official Twitter account, had been deleted by its author when The New Arab looked late on Thursday afternoon.

However, an edited version posted as two text-only tweets was included in the same Twitter thread and has not been removed. The New Arab has contacted the ministry to ask why the full statement was deleted.

In the text still available, von der Leyen remains accused of "perpetuating the continued and racist denial of the Nakba" and using "anti-Palestinian rhetoric". The call for an apology is also still there.

The remaining posts in the Palestinian foreign ministry's Twitter thread responding to von der Leyen
What remains of the Palestinian foreign ministry's statement criticising von der Leyen [Palestinian foreign ministry Twitter account]

A European Commission spokesperson told The New Arab that the EU was "unpleasantly surprised" by the "inappropriate" Palestinian statement, noting the accusation of racism against von der Leyen.

"We reached out to the Palestinian authorities asking for clarifications regarding this unacceptable reaction to her video," the spokesperson said, adding the EU "enjoys good relations" with the PA and that von der Leyen met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh last June.

"The EU is the main donor to the Palestinian Authority. We will host in Brussels next week a meeting of the ad-hoc liaison committee (which includes representatives of the Palestinian Authority), which coordinates the delivery of international aid to Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority."

The spokesperson said the EU has been consistent in supporting the Palestinian people's aspirations to statehood and has "always pleaded" for a negotiated two-state solution according to the 1967 borders.

Eve Geddie, director at Amnesty's European Institutions Office, questioned von der Leyen's praise of Israeli democracy.

"The democracy that President von der Leyen is celebrating excludes millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in the diaspora from voting, despite it controlling every aspect of their lives, as it commits the crime of apartheid against them," she said.

"The EU must recognise that Israel is committing this crime against humanity, put human rights at the core of its engagements with Israeli authorities and ensure that neither the EU nor its member states are contributing to the system of apartheid over Palestinians through trade, investment or political support."

Geddie said Palestinians will mark "75 years of apartheid" on 15 May on Nakba Day, when they remember the ethnic cleansing of 1948.

"On that day, the EU and its member states must address the reality on the ground and speak out against the suffering of millions of Palestinians," she added.

Note: This story was updated at 1435 GMT on 28 April 2023 after the European Commission responded to a request for comment.