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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 42, October 11, 2014

Europe, US Criticise Israel

Saturday 11 October 2014, by Harish Chandola

Gaza is a 41-kilometre (25 miles) long and six-to-10-kilometre wide prison containing 1.8 million Palestinians held for years by Israel to the east and by Egypt to the west. They are not allowed to get out even to save their lives, as was seen during the 51-day July-August Israeli bombardment and attack, in which 2100 of them were killed, one-fifth children. I had visited Gaza half-a-century ago when Indian soldiers were posted there as part of a United Nations force (UNIFIL).

Though the ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas organisation of Gaza was negotiated and finalised in Egypt on August 26, Cairo has been suspicious of the Palestinian organisation which it believes is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, the elected government of which was overthrown by the Egyptian armed forces in July 2013 before assuming power. The Hamas-Israeli ceasefire conditions are indirectly being negotiated in Cairo. Hamas is demanding unrestricted access for its people by land, air and sea, border crossings to the West Bank, the larger Palestinian enclave, and the Israeli siege to be lifted. Israel wants Gaza to be demilitarised in return for normalisation. The Israelis have withdrawn their troops from Gaza for fear of kidnapping. Israel claims to have destroyed most of the Hamas tunnels under Gaza opening into its territory and seeks the destruction of Hamas rockets and missiles and its capacity to make new ones.

The blockade of Gaza remains in place.

Both sides have claimed victory in their 51-day war. Hamas says it halted one of the world’s most powerful armies, kept its own leadership intact along with its command and communication networks. It says while it killed Israeli soldiers, the Israelis killed Palestinian civilians, including a large number of women and children. (According to the UN, more than 1800 Palestinians were killed, three-quarters civilians, against 70 Israeli soldiers and two civilians.)

The support for Israel is undergoing a change in Europe and to a very minor extent in the United States also. In Europe it lost a great deal of sympathy because of its killing of Gaza civilians and children. The position of India on this fighting is not clear. A global poll conducted by the BBC, before the fighting, showed nearly 40 per cent Indians supported Israel and 38 per cent opposed its policies. The latest fighting, one presumes, may have changed these figures.

The fighting turned much of Gaza into rubble, with over 4000 homes, some with families inside, destroyed, and a quarter of its population rendered homeless. Tens of thousands are living in schools, 70 to a classroom. Israelis have also destroyed Gaza’s sole electricity station, its desalination plants and industries.

Demonstrations against the Israeli action have been held from Antwerp to Warsaw, with placards saying “1,2,3,4, Occupation No More”, “5,6,7,8, Israel is a Terror State” and “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas”. In France, which has Europe’s largest Jewish population, synagogues and Jewish shops were attacked. In Oslo, the Jewish museum was closed. These were not mere protests. Such sentiments are likely to grow in the US as well. The BBC poll, mentioned earlier, showed negative views of Israel were twice the positive ones. Americans however saw Israel favourably. Delegitimisation, according to Einat Wilf, a former Israeli parliamentarian and of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), is becoming “a strategic threat”. The JPPI recalls the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001, attended by 1500 government and non-government dele-gations, under the UN auspices, had drafted a resolution, subsequently amended, condemning Zionism as racism. Since then, Michael Herzog, a former Israeli Defence Ministry official, says networks of Islamist and Left activists have propagated that idea widely.

Israeli supporters complain of rampant anti-Semitism in Europe, in hostility to Israel. A survey, released this year by the Anti-Defamation League, said 34 per cent of eastern Europeans and 24 per cent of western harboured anti-Semitic views, implying that the European continent housed 165 million Jew-haters. Roger Cukierman, head of the Board of French Jewry, says public attitudes are driven “by the images of (dead) Palestinian babies on television, which makes people very angry”.

Belgium and France banned protests and arrested many defying the ban. Some European leaders did visit Israel, upholding the country’s right to self-defence, but that did not change that criticism of Israel. Governments and businesses in Europe have resisted demands for a boycott of Israel. Some retailers however stopped importing products made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, held by Israel since 1967. Texco, a British supermarket, stopped importing fruit from Israel. Others have disinvested from Israeli firms or institutions in Israeli settlements. A Dutch pension-fund manager, PGGM, and Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, have sold their stakes in Israeli banks that finance settlement construction. The Netherlands’ largest public water supplier, Vitens, cut ties to Israel’s water company, Mekorot, which takes water from the West Bank and then sells it back to Palestinians.

After the collapse of talks between Israel and Palestinians on April 17, European Union (EU) states cautioned their firms against conducting business with Israeli settlements, which “are illegal under international law”.

Should Israel and Palestine accept a two-state solution, the EU Council of Ministers has promised to reward them both with special trading status. Israel, however, continues to enjoy plenty of privileges in its relationship with Europe. It is the only non-European country participating in Horizon 2020, the EU’s largest research project, although institutions with links to Israeli settlement programme are barred. Last February Germany gave all visiting Israelis the right to obtain six-month work permits. The French Jewish leader, Cukierman, says jihadist groups are wooing a growing number of North Africa’s alienated youth to join their cause.

Israel, however, remains much surer of its friendship with the US. But even there tempers have frayed. Anonymous Israeli officials accused the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, of imposing a Gaza ceasefire tilted towards Hamas. Some younger Americans have started to question the Israeli version of events. Though Americans overwhelmingly sympathise with the Israelis more than with the Palestinians, younger Americans have started saying that Israel is more responsible than Hamas for the fighting in Gaza. A recent Gallop poll found many Americans under 30 considering Israel’s actions in Gaza unjustified. Younger Americans have started looking differently at Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its bombing of Gaza. More than half of nearly seven million American Jews now support the idea of two nations, Israeli and Palestinian. The Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has annoyed the American Democratic Party members by spurning President Obama’s demands for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The United States by and large remains solidly with Israel, as shown in the unanimous voting in both the Senate and the House of Representatives on resolutions last month supporting Israel’s actions in Gaza. In March a new Congressman, Thomas Massie, of Kentucky, voted against a bill naming Israel as American strategic partner. But the bill was passed by 410 to 1. Some fringe American elements have appeared showing sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Many liberal American Jews are opposed to Israeli settlements and Israel’s rising religious nationalism. They support Israel while opposing its government’s policies. One such organisation is J Street, founded in 2008, whose members include former officials of the Bill Clinton and Obama Administrations. American Left-wing Jews have set up a Jewish Voice for Peace organisation, that has declared support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, a Palestinian-led initiative which seeks economic, diplomatic and military isolation of Israel, until it ends its occupation. BDS has had successes on university campuses and in some Christian churches. There has been more reporting in the United States that has been critical of Israel.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West Asian developments.