The European Union in Palestine: Faraway yet so close

Article published on May 5, 2003
community published
Article published on May 5, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

After the Oslo peace accords, the EU hurried to give its support to the Palestinian Authority. 10 years, 1 intifada and 1000s of casualties later, how is the EU perceived? A report from a drained and re-occupied Palestine.

“We only think of that, we only discuss that, our lives are centred around that!” says an exasperated Fella, one of 5000 students today enrolled at Birzeit university. “That” is “Surda”, the check-point in place near the village of the same name. It has blocked the road leading to Birzeit campus, which is some 2km north of Ramallah, since March 2001. At the crossroads of this road and an Israeli bypass road leading to the Beit El colony, the Israeli army has raised a wall of concrete blocks and barbed wire to prevent anyone from passing. Anyone who does want to pass must walk for nearly a kilometre. At each end of the wall, dozens of yellow taxis await their next customer. Before 2001 it took around 15 minutes to get to Birzeit. Today it takes 30 to 45 minutes of journeying, or more than an hour when the Israeli soldiers get it into their heads to check the papers of all the thousands of people that pass through Surda every day. Sometimes things get out of hand. Students, even teachers, are arrested and the demonstrations start up again, the stones fly once more…

“In these conditions, we don’t really have time to think about the EU.” says Fella. However, the EU is very much present in Surda. A loan from the European Investment Bank financed the renovation and enlargement of this road in 2000. “You know”, continues the translation student, “materially speaking, it’s a good thing that the Europeans help us, but what we want today is our freedom. The Palestinian people is happy to have roads, but if they can’t use them, they don’t help much!” Just simple good sense.

More acerbic is Imad Ghayathah, a young assistant history teacher at Birzeit. “The EU does nothing in Palestine, it contents itself with dirty work, it is weak.. The EU gives money to stabilise the situation in favour of the United States and of Israel.” And the EU gives a lot: nearly 5 billion euros between 1993 and 1999. And when the intifada was at its worst in 2001 and 2002, the EU released emergency funds in an attempt to support the Palestinian people and the financing of the Palestinian Authority. But apart from that, say Imad “when the US asks the EU to put pressure on Yasser Arafat to put an end to violence, they do just that. Never has the EU asked the US to put pressure on Ariel Sharon to end the occupation.” In the current situation, that last remark is despairingly true. Now that calm has returned to the Palestinian territories under continual raids by the Israeli army, now that a government under the leadership of Abou Mazei, Arafat’s eternal number two, is taking up its responsibilities, now that the US are presenting their ‘road map’ to peace in the region, the EU is destined to play bit-parts. Israel has publicly declared that is does not want European mediators, even if they are part of the ‘quartet’ that proposed the latest peace initiative.

No respect for the ‘dwarfs’

Roger Heacock is a history professor at Birzeit and a convinced multilateralist. For this Franco-Briton, the EU is a great institution but if “the Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat most of all, love Europe, they do not respect it. It is a diplomatic dwarf!” “Exactly.”, adds Yoke van der Meulen, the head of ‘Palestine Arabic Studies’, created to raise awareness among foreign students of the Palestinian question. “Europe is full of good intentions towards Palestine and is more favourable looked on than the US by Palestinians. But, until the opposite is proved, it doesn’t have any real diplomatic weight.” “If Israel is clearly supported by the US”, adds Roger Heacock, “the Europeans are too afraid to commit themselves to Palestine, stretched as they are between different tendencies, different alliances at their heart. Palestinians don’t realise that there are all these differences.” “So”, adds the history teacher, seen from Ramallah or Gaza, “Europe is inconsistent and vague, its policy is not coherent, its voice goes unheard”, and its special envoy is sent from Ramallah without a word.

The EU does inspire hope however. According to Abir, a history tutor at the university of Al Quds, the university of the Arabic part of Jerusalem, “the Europeans need to build their army quickly, to impose themselves on the international stage, but I think there are still a few problems with leadership.” Such ingenuity is all the more touching for the fact that this young graduate affirms his interest in and admiration for a European Union whose members have been able to get along and develop together. “For the Arabs, it’s an example to study. Europeans have managed to reconcile different cultures and different languages, whereas, for us in the Arab League, getting on seems impossible despite a common language and history.” For Imad Ghayathah, “it’s clearly in our interests that Europe becomes the second world power.” However, the assistant teacher warns that “above all else, before Palestine can fully accept Europe, I want it to recognise my historic rights, the right to live on my land and it should admit her guilt. It’s Great Britain’s fault if today I am a prisoner in my own country. It’s Europe’s fault that Israel was born.”

Prodi? Who’s that?

Not greatly estimed, unknown and responsible for it Member States’ heavy colonial past, the EU is trying to stand up for itself in Palestine. The delegation of the European Commission in East Jerusalem is trying to co-ordinate the diplomatic efforts of its 15 members. It is also trying to make a European voice heard in the debate, but this seems to be a waste of time. A simple survey of Palestinians on the different European leaders suffices to distinguish the widespread anonymity of our European Commissioners. Not one person seems to have heard of the President, Romano Prodi. “Who’s that?” is the most frequent response. Only the European ambassador to the Middle-East, Miguel Angel Moratinos stirs a vague memory for the Palestinians. For many the EU is Blair and Chirac or more accurately Blair vs. Chirac. The former is duly loathed for his stance on Iraq whilst the latter is adored in Jerusalem where his break away from Israeli soldiers during his visit to the old city in 1996 has lasted in all memories. And at Ramallah, where his speech denouncing corruption in the Palestinian Authority incited the crowd to boo Yasser Arafat, who was, paradoxically, ‘with the angels’. But suspicion of the EU runs deep. In Birzeit, rare are the classes where this unidentified political object is discussed. The complexity of the institutional architecture and the absence of a clear and identifiable foreign policy are painfully obvious in the Palestinian territories. But meanwhile, in Surda the Palestinians are walking, and as Fella says “Thanks to the Israelis, we don’t need to join a gym – everyday we have to walk at least 2km!”