EU countries declared this week that all future economic relations with Israel must exclude illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Twenty-eight members of the European Union dealt a major blow to illegal Israeli settlements this week, declaring that all future economic relations must exclude all 121 illegal settlements located on the West Bank.
The decision, called an “earthquake” by one unnamed Israeli official, changes decades of unconditioned EU aid. The EU is now applying pressure on Israel to end settlement construction, considered a major hindrance to a two-state solution and a resolution to the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reports that the directive,which covers all financial relations between the EU and Israel from 2014-2020, stipulates that it will only allow the issuing of grants, funding, prizes or scholarships if a settlement exclusion clause is included. Israeli institutions and bodies situated across what is known as the pre-1967 “Green Line” – including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem — will be automatically ineligible.
The Guardian newspaper reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded with hostility to the announcement in a broadcast statement Tuesday.
“As prime minister of Israel, I will not allow the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live in the West Bank, Golan Heights and our united capital Jerusalem to be harmed. We will not accept any external diktats about our borders. This matter will only be settled in direct negotiations between the parties,” he said, according to The Guardian.
Netanyahu and members of the conservative Likud coalition have previously pointed to Hamas rocket fire and ongoing security concerns as reasons to oppose external pressures for negotiations.
It remains to be seen whether the new EU policy will actually change Netanyahu’s policies on settlement construction. Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director for Jewish Voice for Peace, tells Mint Press News that the combative words “may be for domestic political consumption.”
Netanyahu has overseen a 300 percent growth in Jewish settlements since 2010, according to one report by Peace Now.
Conversely, Palestinian officials have welcomed the decision, claiming that economic pressure from 28 EU member states could help restart negotiations more than 20 years after the collapse of the 1993 Oslo peace process hailed by some as the solution to the long-standing Israel-Palestine conflict.
“The Israeli occupation must be held to account, and Israel must comply with international and humanitarian law and the requirements for justice and peace,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, according to The Guardian.
BDS builds momentum
Pro-peace organizations and supporters of the burgeoning Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement believe that years of work have helped to make the recent EU decision a reality.
“We see it as a positive development. It is great to see the EU take concrete actions. I think overall it is a big step for the BDS movement, showing worldwide pressure. It is more than just shifting awareness, it’s about taking action,” said Vilkomerson.
Maintaining offices in New York and California, Jewish Voice for Peace represents 100,000 online activists who believe that Middle East peace can be achieved through “justice and full equality for both Palestinians and Israelis.” The group isn’t active in Europe, but applauds the work of other groups working to adopt BDS measures.
Formed in 2005, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement began with a call from Palestinian civil society, encouraging organizations and governments to divest ownership in companies that profit from the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The BDS pledges have come steadily since then, with dozens of student groups, churches and city governments removing investments. One recent BDS action occurred this week when the TIAA-CREF retirement fund withdrew a $9 million investment in SodaStream, an Israeli company that has come under scrutiny for producing its products in factories located in the occupied West Bank.
Although there are no concrete dollar figures for how the EU decision could affect West Bank settlements, it is expected to be one of the most influential actions in the history of the BDS movement.
“There has been a very strong BDS movement in Europe and all throughout the EU. It offers the tool of education for the media and public officials by making sure there are consequences for Israeli policies,” Vilkomerson said.
Many activists have likened BDS actions to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in which foreign governments, students and faith-based groups applied non-violent economic pressure to end decades of White minority rule in 1994.
In the Middle East, the goal is to demand that Israel abandon its 46-year occupation of Palestinian land captured from Jordan during the 1967 war. The occupation and the proliferation of hundreds of illegal Jewish settlements, outposts, checkpoints and roadblocks are all considered illegal and major obstacles to a two-state solution in accordance with international law.
It could be a situation of too little, too late, as the realities on the ground are such that external economic pressure may be ineffective.
According to B’Tselem, a human rights group based in Jerusalem, there are currently 515,000 Jewish settlers living among 2.1 million Palestinians throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The expropriation of Palestinian land continues at a record pace, with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition reporting that Israeli authorities have demolished 18,000 homes belonging to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since the occupation began in 1967. Many of these homes were cleared to make way for illegal settlements.
“It seems like so far Israel is responding belligerently and confrontationally. I really do think that it backs Israel into a corner — it has to agree that settlements are illegal or it could jeopardize important European ties and prestigious awards. Hopefully it will trigger some significant reviews of the policies,” Vilkomerson said.
EU stipulations and boycotts aside, the Netanyahu government can continue to act with impunity as long as the U.S. continues its unwavering aid and diplomatic support.
Why the U.S. still matters most
“I think we all understand that the U.S. will be the last to change its policies. The U.S. was last to change policies for South Africa, but when it pulled support, that’s when apartheid fell,” Vilkomerson said.
The U.S. remains one of Israel’s strongest allies, one of just nine countries opposing the Palestinian bid for non-member observer status at the United Nations last year.
Additionally, there is almost unanimous support in the U.S. Congress for maintaining or increasing the $3.1 billion in annual aid to Israel, the largest sum given to any country.
One exception is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who believes that the U.S. should move to end foreign aid to all countries, including Israel.
“It will be harder to be a friend of Israel if we are out of money. It will be harder to defend Israel if we destroy our country in the process,” Paul said in an interview with the Washington Times.
Paul noted that the U.S. has run annual deficits in excess of $1 trillion in recent years.
Since the creation of Israel in 1948, the Congressional Research Service estimates that the U.S. has given $118 billion to the nation for military and economic development purposes.
This occurs as Secretary of State John Kerry seeks, yet again, to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without preconditions. He recently received approval from the Arab League to jump-start moribund negotiations during a Middle East visit this week.