The European Union and its member states have failed to exert the political pressure needed to bring to an end Israel’s colonisation, which is premised in an ongoing Nakba (“catastrophe”). The dispossession, persecution, and what the United Nations has recognised as ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is compounded by a prolonged military occupation and administered through a system of apartheid. Instead of taking concrete measures to uphold obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, the EU and its member states have largely enabled the cycle of oppression. They issue hollow statements of concern, provide Palestinians with humanitarian aid that has entrenched their economic dependency, and invest in a Palestinian state that the EU refuses to recognise, but which has become increasingly authoritarian.
While there have been instances of the EU and member states taking action to avert imminent violations against Palestinians, these interventions remain insufficient to dismantle the systemic oppression. To achieve a just political solution that addresses the key drivers of human rights violations in Palestine, Europeans and others must tackle the root causes and ensure the rule of international law without exceptions. Central to this must be the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and other basic rights.
The EU is stuck in a dogmatic pursuit of a two-state solution. But this approach is no longer valid or practical given Israel’s imposed facts on the ground, which include: the continuing fragmentation of Palestinian territory; the prolonged closure of the Gaza Strip (an unlawful act of collective punishment); and Israel’s de jure annexation of Jerusalem and de facto annexation of large parts of the West Bank via settlements.
As Israel’s leading economic partner, the EU could revive its lost political credibility by demonstrating that there are consequences for violations. Israel has, for decades, annexed Palestinian territory and unlawfully exercised sovereignty without the international community taking any substantive action, aside from issuing UN resolutions that then go unimplemented. Since 2014, the EU has imposed sanctions against Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea. The EU must abandon selectivity in answering the legal consequences of such unlawful acts and be consistent in the steps it takes.
Despite constantly reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements, the EU and its member states continue to provide an open market to products from the settlements, thereby contributing to their maintenance and expansion. Effective differentiation measures and a ban on the sale of such products and services is imperative and part of states’ existing legal obligations. Restrictive measures are also necessary, such as travel bans and freezing the assets of individuals involved in the unlawful appropriation and exploitation of land and resources, including businesspeople and settler leaders. The EU should publicly warn companies and financial institutions about the legal consequences of activities with illegal settlements. In this respect, the UN database of businesses involved in Israeli settlements has gained significant support, including from European parliamentarians, and has had a positive impact. In July 2021, the largest Norwegian pension fund, KLP, announced its decision to exclude 16 listed companies from its investment portfolio.
As emphasised in the “shared values” of the EU-Israel Action Plan and the renewed Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood, EU-Israel relations must be conditional on respect for and compliance with human rights and international law. Considering Israel’s record of widespread violations against Palestinians, the EU should suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement and Israel’s participation in other programmes such as Horizon Europe.
Despite its commitment to the fight against impunity for international crimes, the EU has adopted double standards on Palestine, as illustrated in the lack of support it has expressed for the opening of an investigation by the International Criminal Court into the situation in the State of Palestine. Indeed, some member states have actively lobbied against the move, including Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. The international community more broadly, including the EU and member states, has also failed to ensure an end to the Gaza blockade and to implement relevant UN resolutions and recommendations, including those concerning accountability, criminal investigations, and universal jurisdiction.
This contradictory approach was also evident when the EU and member states chose not to support the UN Human Rights Council’s unprecedented resolution in May 2021 establishing an ongoing Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations on both sides of the Green Line and underlying root causes, including systemic discrimination and repression. The investigation is likely to substantiate Israel’s persecution and apartheid. As Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organisations and groups, as well as states, amplify and increasingly recognise Israel’s apartheid, the EU and member states can no longer remain idle.
Israel has escalated its persecution of, and attacks on, Palestinian civil society, which carries out internationally renowned human rights and humanitarian work. Most recently, and alarmingly, the Israeli government has designated six civil society groups as “terror groups” and as unlawful organisations. It is essential that the EU and member states firmly reject this and refrain from also potentially eroding the reputation and viability of what is a vibrant and enduring civil society. The methods and tools employed to this end, namely the use of “secret evidence” and the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, should be condemned and blacklisted by the EU. Israel is entrenching its domination with impunity, meaning that the international community must take long overdue, necessary measures to protect Palestinian civil society and the human rights movement against attempts to curtail and stop their independent and important work.
Meanwhile, the EU needs to make greater efforts to ensure its long-standing relationship with the increasingly authoritarian Palestinian Authority is firmly premised in human rights. This is particularly important given that the EU is its most important donor. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and its security apparatuses have intensified their crackdown on freedoms, notably against peaceful protests and assemblies, such as in summer 2021 following the killing of activist Nizar Banat by PA security forces. Alongside all this is the encroachment by the PA’s executive branch, which provides President Mahmoud Abbas with an increasingly tight grip on power – in contravention of the Palestinian Basic Law and international norms. This is in addition to the PA’s continuing fall in popular legitimacy 16 years since the last presidential and legislative elections. The PA’s failure to re-centre Palestinian liberation in its discourse, as well as continued Palestinian political divides, naturally calls for further scrutiny of its legitimacy.
At a time when EU divisions are growing, including over the question of Palestine, it is incumbent upon member states to respect, and ensure respect for, international law. They should work to realign the bloc to meet these obligations. The EU should unequivocally and impartially uphold human rights in Palestine, using the many tools at its disposal – economic; trade; arms, security and intelligence; and political.
Maha Abdallah is a Palestinian legal researcher and human rights advocate, who is currently an international advocacy officer at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies in Brussels. She is formerly a senior legal researcher and advocacy officer at Al-Haq, Palestine. Abdallah holds an LL.M. in International Human Rights Law from the Irish Centre for Human Rights.