Oslo has failed, the EU must help craft a new Mideast peace template

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

It is time for the EU to take a  lead in the Middle East by conditioning any strengthening of its ties with Israel on tangible improvements in the occupied Palestinian territories, write Bernd Nilles and Marc Schade Poulsen.

Bernd Nilles is the secretary-general of CIDSE, the international alliance of Catholic development organizations. Marc Schade Poulsen is the executive director of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

Two decades of fruitless negotiation since the adoption of the interim Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords have cost thousands of Palestinian and Israeli civilians their lives. The Israeli settler population in the occupied Palestinian territory has doubled, from around a quarter to over half a million, while hundreds of square kilometres of Palestinian land have been confiscated and Gaza has been tightly sealed off from the West Bank. Meanwhile, as though it were still 1993, the peace process has continued to repeat the same unsuccessful formula of unequal negotiation, devoid of reference to international law, in the hope of different results.

The focus of the international community, including the EU, on keeping this process alive has allowed violations of international law to continue on the ground. In practice, negotiations have acted as a smokescreen, as third state or multilateral action to ensure respect for international law has been blocked in the interest of talks. Meanwhile, since the world watched the handshake on the White House lawn, around 14,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed by the Israeli military, the building of Israel’s separation wall (ruled illegal where built on occupied land by the International Court of Justice) has impacted the lives of almost half a million Palestinians, and around 5,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli prisons, many for non-violent activities. Although the Accords recognized the occupied Palestinian territory as a single territorial unit, this did not stop Israel’s policy of isolating Gaza from the West Bank and subjecting it to closure, which has persisted in various forms since 1991 and was termed collective punishment by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2010. The overcrowded coastal territory – with its population exposed to hostilities, its water aquifers and infrastructure degraded and its access to resources and trade denied – is in danger of being unable to support its population by 2020.

Since 1993, the EU has given over EUR 6 billion in aid to the Palestinians – only somewhat more than the Palestinian economy loses in one year because of the occupation, according to official Palestinian figures. This aid was given in support of the Oslo process, to build the institutions of a future Palestinian State and develop its economy. However, this meant little in the longer term without parallel progress on ending the occupation and ensuring that international humanitarian and human rights laws (IHL and IHRL) were respected. The EU, often criticized for giving donations in lieu of political pressure, did not use its leverage sufficiently to this end.

On the contrary, post-Oslo, Israel has become one of the most privileged partners of the EU in terms of integration into EU markets, programmes and other cooperation. The EU is one of Israel’s main trading partners, accounting for €33 billion in trade in 2012, while a parallel EU-PLO trade agreement has remained largely symbolic owing to occupation restrictions. Except for a freeze in formal upgrading following the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the strengthening of EU-Israel relations has taken place almost unconditionally, despite an explicit human rights clause in the Association Agreement. Member state relations have largely followed a similar pattern.

In the midst of this fast-growing relationship, measures have been introduced in recent years to attempt to ensure that European involvement in the region is in line with the EU and member states’ duty to refrain from aiding, assisting or recognizing violations of international law. The latest of these has been a new set of guidelines restricting EU grants and funding to settlement-based entities and activities. Such safeguards are the necessary legal minimum – going forward, the EU and member states must stand firm under pressure, as there is still much to be done simply to make sure that their own hands are clean.

However, given the EU’s investment in peace efforts so far, its member states’ duty to ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions, and its own commitments to “place human rights at the centre of its relations with all third countries” and “promote human rights in all areas of its external action without exception”, more must be expected from the EU in the push to end the occupation and achieve a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis.

If the EU and its member states are to avoid another 20 years of deepening conflict and futile negotiations, serious action on respect for international law cannot wait – not even for another eight months of talks. A first step would be to condition any strengthening of EU-Israel ties on tangible improvements on the ground, in response to the European Parliament’s call to take Israel’s respect for IHL and IHRL into full consideration in bilateral relations. In line with commitments to fight impunity and promote observance of international law, the EU and its member states also have an important role to play in promoting accountability for violations of international norms – including by cooperating with multilateral bodies and promoting treaty ratification. Finally, if there is to be a true move forward from the Oslo era, the EU and it member states can and should take the step to supporting future negotiations that are multilateral, inclusive, and grounded in the relevant international law and UN resolutions.

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