Why are the settlements that were announced recently so problematic?
First of all, the settlements are problematic because they are based on stealing land which belongs to the Palestinians. Secondly, because it fragments the territory that which is intended, under the Oslo agreement and the Arab peace initiative, to be the territory of the state of Palestine.
Why have the settlements begun again at this time?
The colonisation process has been underway for the last forty years, since the occupation in 1967. There has been a process of taking over Palestinian land and putting settlers on it. Despite the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu had announced a temporary halt to the expansion of the settlements, it still continues. One can only assume that he is testing how far he can push the US and, indeed, push the Palestinians before they react.
What can the European Union do about this? Would sanctions be appropriate in this situation?
Sanctions are a very broad term because they can range from simply refusing to have relationships with Israel at all at European level or indeed cutting off trade links to relatively milder steps, such as calling into question the trade agreement we have which gives Israel duty free access to the European markets. This would be a huge blow to them, although it wouldn’t prevent them from exporting to the Europe market. They would not have the financial advantages of selling their goods on the EU market free of duty.
Until now the EU has been reluctant to even hint that such a thing would be possible. I think, given the situation at the moment, it is necessary for the European Union to go beyond statements saying the siege of Gaza is unacceptable and that the settlements are illegal. They need to make it clear to Israel that if they continue beyond a certain point that Europe will have to take some action to indicate its dissatisfaction. That obviously could come under the heading of sanctions.
Do you think there support for this type of action within the EU?
There is certainly a willingness to be stronger in terms of the language being used. I’m struck by the strong language that High Representative Catherine Ashton used in her speech at the Arab league meeting on 15 March.
The 8th December conclusions voted unanimously by the Council clearly outline what the EU position. She said this document should be the reference document for the negotiations. It clearly states that the annexation of East Jerusalem is illegal and that Jerusalem should be the capital of both a Palestinian and an Israeli state. Catherine Ashton said that this document should be the reference point for negotiations.
The Israelis have, either deliberately or ham-fistedly, created a situation where the United States and the European Union will take a tougher line with them for the foreseeable future.
What will be achieved by High Representative Catherine Ashton’s visit this week?
I think it is important that she has chosen to go to the Middle East at this early stage. She has only been in this new position a couple of weeks. The visit to Gaza is important because it will demonstrate to the people of Gaza that they are not forgotten by Europe. It is significant that the Israelis have dropped their objections to her visit to Gaza. They blocked the entry into Gaza of the French Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs. Indeed the delegation from the European Parliament that I led last December was also blocked. It is clear that they feel that they can no longer maintain that position. I think that the other interesting element is that in her speech in Cairo this week there are hints that the European Union could, under certain circumstances, do business with Hamas.
What is the role of the European Parliament delegation?
I think the delegation has primarily a responsibility to remain in contact with the representatives of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza and to convey to the Palestinians and to the other countries in the region, Egypt, Syria and Jordan what the European Parliament’s position is. For instance, we don’t represent the Council and the Commission.
We favour a two state solution based on the Quartet’s road map and the Arab peace initiative. It is important that also we operate within the European Parliament itself to create a greater awareness amongst the members who cannot be up to date on every aspect of international politics. We have a role to try to ensure that Parliament is well informed. In the recent debate on the Goldstone report and quite successfully ensured that there was a majority in the Parliament for it.
What did you do during your delegation’s trip to the Middle East last December?
We had a fairly intensive four days planned which included a visit to Hebron. We met the Chair of the Palestinian Legislative Council who is elected for the Hamas list in the elections when last held. We met the PLC members in Ramallah. We met the European Union representatives in East Jerusalem. We looked at the old city and the way that Israeli settlers are taking over property and visited the Cheikh Jara district where Palestinians are being evicted to make way for Israeli settlers.
We also met the Mayor of Hebron, the Minister for Palestinian Prisoners’ affairs. We met the Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who outlined the plan for a two year development of Palestinian institutions and his plans for the establishment of a Palestinian State. We agreed on the importance of the 8th December statement which calls for the urgent resumption of negotiations that will lead to the State of Israel and an independent, democratic and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.
The Spanish Presidency has said it wants to see the creation of a Palestinian state by 2010. Do you think this is an achievable goal this year?
The European Parliament would be keen that a Palestinian State established as soon as possible. I’m not sure that 2010 is a realistic time scale. The end of 2011 would be a more reasonable timeframe in terms either of successful negotiations or the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State which is also a possibility. By the end of 2011, the two year period which Salam Fayyad has set aside to create institutions will have concluded. The Israeli authorities are well aware of the possibility of a unilateral declaration at that stage. However, it would be far better if there were a negotiated solution, not just between the Israelis and the Palestinians which resolves conflict, but a solution which includes the other states in the region Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. What we need is an agreement which resolves the conflicts between all of the countries in the region.
Find out more :
Speech by HR Catherine Ashton at the League of Arab States - “A Commitment to Peace - the European Union and the Middle East”, Cairo, 15 March 2010