Saturday, November 26, 2005

The European impetus

PV Vivekanand
THE ELEMENTS that a British Foreign Office docucment highlighted in the systematic Israeli move to deny the Palestinian people their rights in Arab East Jerusalem were always known. The only new element, highly significant indeed it is, is that they found their way into
a document compiled by the British government in its capacity as president of the European Union and placed for consideration before the bloc.
While the unusual British move is welcomed, the Arab World would have also liked to see an honest British assessment of the realistic possibilities of Israeli-Palestinian peace encompassing the future of the West Bank and the fate of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora.
As it is, the "confidential" Foreign Office report presents the European Union (EU) with an opportunity to guage the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace
The document, according to the Guardian newspaper, says Israel is seeking to annexe Arab East Jerusalem through a series of systematic moves, including using illegal Jewish settlement construction and the West Bank "separation" barrier.
What we would like to add to the document is the other measures that Israel had been following and is continuing to follow in Arab East Jersualem, which it occupied in the 1967 war. These include a blanket denial of permission for Palestinians to construct new building or even carry out repair or expansion work at existing structures, demolition of Palestinian-owned buildings at the slightest pretext and refusal to allow the return of Arab East Jerusalem residents if they had stayed outside for a certain period time — earlier it used to be seven years and this has been cut down to two years now. Add to that direct and indirect encouragement for Jewish purchase of Palestinian-owned land in Arab East Jerusalem. *
Jerusalem Palestinians who acquired foreign passports and entering Palestine, either through the crossings from Jordan or Israeli ports, face particular trouble gaining entry. Refusal of entry is always a possibility.
Palestinians living elsewhere in the occupied West Bank are not allowed to enter Arab East Jerusalem, except, in principle, without a prior permission which is hard to obtain (Taxi-drivers who carry anyone without such permission from the West Bank to Jersalem face fines of up to several hundred dollars per each passenger).
In 2001, Israel closed down Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in Arab East Jerusalem, claiming that papers found there showed that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which was headquartered in the building, was suppporting "terrorist" actions.
The overall thrust of the Israeli measures is creating facts on the ground that would pre-empt a peace agreement by trying to put the future of Arab East Jerusalem beyond negotiation so that it would never become a Palestinian capital. Significantly, the approach risks driving Palestinians living in the city into hardlinel groups, as the Guardian puts it.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw presented the Foreign Office document to an EU council of ministers meeting last week with recommendations to counter the Israeli policy, but the council put off debate on it under pressure from Italy, the Guardian reported.
One of the recommendations is recognition of Palestinian political activities in Arab East Jerusalem. This would mean EU officials holding meetings with Palestinian National Authority (PNA) officials in Arab East Jerusalem.
Indeed, this was the case until a few years ago when most visiting foreign dignitaries used to meet PNA officials at Orient House despite fierce Israeli protests. No such meeting has taken place since 2001 when Israeli took over the building.
The details in the British Foreign Office report do not matter as much as whether the EU clearly understands Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's sinister plans to grab as much as possible of West Bank territory and leave the Palestinians with truncated chunks of land that would render unviable a Palestinian state with geographical continuity in an agreement he would like to call a peace accord.
The "separation," "security" or "apartheid" wall that Israel is building along the West Bank is clearly the Jewish state's version of border between Israeli-populated areas (settlements and plus some) of the territory and Palestinian majority parts.
The Foreign Office takes note that the vast concrete barrier, is being used to expropriate Arab land in and around Arab East Jerusalem. "This de facto annexation of Palestinian land will be irreversible without very large-scale forced evacuations of settlers and the re-routing of the barrier," it says.
"When the barrier is completed, Israel will control all access to East Jerusalem, cutting off its Palestinian satellite cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, and the West Bank beyond. This will have serious ... consequences for the Palestinians," it says.
"Israel's main motivation is almost certainly demographic ... the Jerusalem master plan has an explicit goal to keep the proportion of Palestinian Jerusalemites at no more than 30 per cent of the total."
This would make a two-state solution impossible because a core demand of the Palestinians is for sovereignty over Arab East Jersusalem.
The report should be the catalyst for the European Union to step out of the shadows and assert itself as an influential player in the effort for peace in the Middle East.
It is not that the Europeans have not tried. Indeed, the bloc is one of the four powers behind the "roadmap" for peace in the Middle East along with the US, Russia and the United Nations. However, all past EU efforts to assert its rightful role were thwarted by the US, which always confined the Europeans to the role of bankrollers of Middle Eastern peace agreements and denied them any political role.
The British paper, which clearly documents Israel's concerted campaign to usurp one of the central pillars of any peace accord — Arab East Jerusalem — should open European eyes to the reality on the ground that the Jewish state is bent upon imposing its conditions on the Palestinians and therefore there is little sense in pursuing peace in the present direction.
The Europeans have the clout — after all they are Israel's largest export market — to pressure the Jewish state, and it is a factor often mentioned by member of European Parliament sympathetic to the Palestinian case if only because they know from close quarters the realities of the conflict. The question is: How far the European would shake themselves out of their lethargic attitude towards the Middle Eastern conflict and whether they would stand up and resist American pressure to keep out of the equation.