Palestinian civil society groups slam EU leader over 'racist' Israel independence day video

Palestinian civil society groups slam EU leader over 'racist' Israel independence day video
Over 100 Palestinian civil society organisations have accused European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of using 'racist anti-Palestinian tropes' in a video made for Israel's independence day.
5 min read
02 May, 2023
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Israel has 'literally made the desert bloom' [Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency/Getty-archive]

Over 100 Palestinian civil society organisations have slammed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over what they called a "shameful" and "racist" speech shared on Wednesday for Israel's 75th 'independence day'.

In an effusive message, the European Union leader claimed Israel has "literally made the desert bloom", which the Palestinian groups branded a "colonial remark" in their statement.

The condemnation comes after the Palestinian foreign ministry deleted its own fierce denunciation accusing von der Leyen of using an "anti-Palestinian racist trope". The European Commission called the ministry's response to her video message "inappropriate" and "unacceptable".

The civil society statement, first published on Saturday, reiterates the accusation that von der Leyen used "racist anti-Palestinian tropes" and adds that she was "denying Palestinian history and the atrocities of the Nakba".

The Nakba was the violent ethnic cleansing of more than 750,000 Palestinians by Zionist militias during the creation of Israel in 1948.

The phrase "making the desert bloom" was historically used in pro-Israel circles to suggest that Palestine was a hopeless backwater or empty of people until Jewish settlers came to redeem it.

The statement said that von der Leyen "utilised a colonial remark that greenwashes Israel's settler-colonial project and its displacement of the indigenous Palestinian people".

Abdelfattah Abusrour, founder and director of the cultural group Alrowwad, said that Palestinians had a thriving society in place before Israel was created in 1948.

"Oranges of Jaffa were packaged in fine tissue and exported internationally – before the invention of Israel," he said.

"Israel came to a land which was furnished for them. There were buildings; there was infrastructure; there were cinemas; there were bus lines; there were railways. There was [a] vibrant cultural life and cuisine and embroidery."

Von der Leyen's video was published on social media by the EU Delegation to Israel.

The civil society statement's signatories include legal rights group Al-Haq, prisoner advocacy organisation Addameer, the Zeina Women's Society, the Palestinian NGOs Network, and judicial independence watchdog Musawa.

Musawa director Ahlam Tarayra said: "The European Commission president's statement celebrating the birth of a colonial state and ignoring the atrocities against the indigenous people of Palestine not only debunks [her] impartiality but also takes part in Israel's propaganda that is whitewashing the Israeli occupation's crimes since the Nakba and until this very moment."

She told The New Arab that Palestinian civil society groups were dismayed by von der Leyen's statement given the power dynamics that exist between donors and recipients, with the EU a key funder of the Palestinian NGO sector.

"Silence in the face of such [a] statement would mean that the Palestinian civil society is not performing its role in promoting justice and protecting human rights," added Tarayra, whose organisation has previously been awarded EU funding.

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So too has the pro-democracy NGO Miftah, which helped spearhead the civil society statement.

"We have to show them the problems in [von der Leyen's] statement because… part of any partnership is a two-way track," said Miftah public discourse and communication programme director Zaid Amali.

"We cannot be receiving funding from any party… at the expense of our rights, for example, or at the expense of… ignoring such a statement."

The Palestinian foreign ministry's deleted Twitter statement had said von der Leyen made "inappropriate, false and discriminatory remarks" and called for an apology.

The statement, published as an image, was removed by its author, said an automated message from the Twitter platform seen late on Thursday afternoon.

The now-deleted Palestinian foreign ministry statement responding to von der Leyen's video message
The Palestinian foreign ministry's staunchly critical – and now deleted – full statement on von der Leyen's comments [Palestinian foreign ministry Twitter account]

Parts of it remained in edited form in subsequent tweets in the same thread but when checked on Sunday morning, these posts were no longer available either.

The New Arab has contacted the Palestinian foreign ministry for comment.

The EU was "unpleasantly surprised" by the Palestinian Authority's "inappropriate" statement, a European Commission spokesperson told The New Arab on Friday for a previous article, highlighting the racism allegation made against von der Leyen.

"We reached out to the Palestinian authorities asking for clarifications regarding this unacceptable reaction to her video," the spokesperson added, saying the EU is the PA's main donor and relations between them are good.

He said the EU has consistently supported the Palestinians' desire for a state and has always urged a negotiated two-state solution.

Amali, the Miftah programme director, said it was "disappointing" the European Commission "doubled down" on von der Leyen's video instead of "rectifying the error".

Sahar Francis, head of the Palestinian prisoners' rights group Addameer, said she believed the PA foreign ministry deleted its statement due to political pressure.

"It's sad that they reacted in this way while their people [are] expecting that they should be more keen in requesting the… EU especially to take more actions," she added.

The New Arab could not get a response to her claim.

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Palestinians will observe Nakba Day on 15 May, mourning the ethnic cleansing visited upon them in 1948.

Francis said she wants the EU to use this occasion to recognise that her people were subjected to the Nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic) 75 years ago and deserve self-determination.

The European bloc should respect their right to "resist in any way" to realise this, she added, calling for the EU to "end the Israeli immunity [on] the international level".

"[This] means… finding Israel accountable for all these 75 years of oppression and violations of the Palestinians' rights," she said.

The same European Commission spokesperson said he had nothing to add for this story beyond the comment he sent for The New Arab's earlier article.

Note: This story was updated at 1422 GMT on 2 May 2023 after the European Commission said it had no additional comment.