BRUSSELS - Trade between the European Union and Israel should be halted in protest at human rights violations in the Palestinian territories, a United Nations conference has heard.
Under a so-called association agreement, Israel currently enjoys free trade in industrial goods, and preferential treatment of farm produce entering the European Union. Luisa Morgantini, a vice-president of the European Parliament, said that her institution has called for this agreement to be suspended. So far, however, these calls have been rejected by EU governments and by the Union's executive, the European Commission.
This is despite how article 2 of the agreement, which entered into force in 2000, commits both sides to respect human rights.
Morgantini was speaking at a UN conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Brussels (Aug. 30-31).
She argued that the EU has made "a lot of mistakes" in its handling of relations with the Middle East, particularly over the last year.
It was wrong, she said, for the Union to suspend direct aid to the Palestinian Authority in 2006, when the Islamist party Hamas swept to victory in parliamentary elections that the Union officially considered as fair and democratic.
She denounced, too, the EU's decision to focus its support on the West Bank rather than Gaza. "As Europeans, we have to push not to divide but to unite the Palestinian people," she said. "Our policy is sometimes exactly the opposite of this."
She also voiced unease about how the EU has since 2005 been operating a border assistance mission in Rafah, the sole connection point between Gaza and the outside world.
The crossing has been largely closed by Israeli forces since Hamas seized control of Gaza in June, with the EU staff involved in the assistance mission taking no action to lift restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.
Eoin Murray from the Irish anti-poverty organisation TrÃƒÂ³caire said that the EU has become "a subcontractor for the occupation" of Palestine and that the Union's Rafah mission should be abandoned.
Each morning, he told IPS, the members of the EU mission travel to a point beside the crossing known to Palestinians as Karim Abu Salam, and to Israelis as Kerin Shalom. "The Israelis then say that they can't come in for security reasons," he said. "And the EU just accepts that."
"Opening Rafah is essential to open people's minds and end the suffocation of Gaza. At the moment, if you have cancer in Gaza you will just die because the Israelis will not allow you to cross to Egypt for radiological treatment."
Murray called on the Union to rethink the willingness it has shown to repair civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, destroyed by Israel.
The European Commission has estimated that 44 million euros (60 million dollars) worth of damage has been done by Israel to EU-funded projects in the Palestinian territories.
"The EU has picked up the tab for Israel," he said. "The EU has paid for reconstruction and never asked for a penny back. It has allowed Israel to ignore its responsibilities under international law."
Richard Kuper, London-based spokesman for European Jews for a Just Peace, alleged that Israel has carried out "grave breaches" of the Fourth Geneva Convention; agreed in 1949, it sets out the rights of people under foreign occupation.
He contended that Israel has been singled out for 'special treatment' by both the EU and the U.S. Unlike other countries in the surrounding region, Israel has been allowed to develop nuclear weapons and has not been held to account for ignoring UN Security Council resolutions.
Kuper criticised the European Union's Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna (now renamed the Fundamental Rights Agency) for equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
In 2005, the Monitoring Centre produced a list of six examples of what could be considered as anti-Semitism. Five of these related to comments about Israel.
He called on the agency to rethink that definition and make it clear that criticism of Israel's human rights violations is not tantamount to a blanket hatred of Jews. "Importing the Middle East conflict into Europe is the worst thing for Jews in Europe and for Muslims in Europe," he told IPS.
"It goes without saying that we are totally opposed to anti-Semitism, as we are to all forms of racism. We are deeply concerned by any evidence of its revival, such as attacks on cemeteries, synagogues or individuals, attacked because they are identified as Jewish.
"Nonetheless, we are not impressed by attempts to define a 'new anti-Semitism' in which Israel as the 'collective Jew' occupies centre-stage. It seems to us that a concerted attempt is underway to make any criticism of Israel suspect."
The Palestinian Authority's envoy to Malaysia Abdelaziz Aboughosh said that "the long-standing failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" has caused "deep-seated anger and frustration" among Muslims throughout the world.
He cited U.S. use of its veto at the UN Security Council as a factor in the conflict's endurance.
"When the UN attempts to protect the Palestinian people from blatant, recurring violations of human rights and the daily atrocities perpetrated against them, it hopelessly finds itself faced against the veto power. Meanwhile, there are human rights documents being used against certain Third World states for much less serious violations."
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.