‘This week I received another gift, obviously in anticipation of my 90th birthday, which is due in less than two months. No less an institution than the European Union has declared what practically amounts to a total boycott of the settlements, 15 years after Gush Shalom, the peace organization to which I belong, had issued a call for such a boycott.’
Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom
The quote above, from the Gush Shalom website refers to the publication on Friday 19 July 2013 of new guidelines by the European Union ‘on the eligibility of Israeli entities and their activities in the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967 for grants, prizes and financial instruments funded by the EU from 2014 onwards.’
Uri Avnery’s response is a strong response to what, on the face of it, for those who have little knowledge of the situation, may seem rather a minor act. But it is worth looking in more detail at the background to this decision taken by the EU.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people revolves around a number of issues. Five of them could be considered ‘the key issues’; QCEA published a briefing paper setting out the key issues and the position of both the parties and the international community in 2011. The five issues are: borders, settlements, Jerusalem, security, and refugees. It could be argued that the new EU guidelines in some way relate to all of these issues, but essentially they are about borders and settlements.
The borders of Israel are considered to be the borders existing prior to the 1967 annexation of the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank and Gaza and of the Golan Heights. The international community, in the form of the UN, the EU, and many governments, has been reiterating its understanding of these borders over and over again.
Israel has rejected the international understanding of its borders. It has allowed Israelis (Jewish settlers) to move into the Palestinian Territories (in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and forced the settlers to abandon the settlements there). These settlements are considered illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace.
EU Action and EU Words
Since her appointment to the post of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs in 2009, Catherine Ashton has made countless statements to reiterate the position of the EU. In January 2012, QCEA published an analysis of these statements up to the end of 2011 in a blog post under the title ‘Action needed to follow words’; no doubt, since then, Catherine Ashton has made more such statements. The QCEA position then was (and still is) that, simply saying that the EU believes the settlements to be contrary to international law and an obstacle to peace, does not in itself achieve anything. There has to be some action that makes this position tangible.
A number of Members of the European Parliament, among them Chris Davies from the North West Constituency of the United Kingdom, have repeatedly asked questions about EU funding going to companies who work in the Occupied Territories and have established that the EU – through a variety of programmes including – importantly – the Research Framework Programme – has funded such companies.
There have been many attempts to ensure that the EU stops funding organisations and activities, which, by its own admission, it considers illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. Many NGOs have worked on this. QCEA focused its actions in this context on the Research Framework Programme and on its successor programme post 2014, called Horizon 2020.
The guidelines published last week are a first step to answering the calls for action from all those who have been working on this form so many years. It is a first, brave, commendable step in the right direction.
So what do the guidelines say (and do)?
First of all, we have to recognise that these guidelines will only come into force in January 2014 when the new financial framework (the medium-term budget of the EU which spans the period 2014 to 2020) comes into force.
Second, it is important to realise that the guidelines affect EU-funded programmes but not trade with Israel and the settlements. This is not a criticism of the guidelines but it is a caveat to over-enthusiasm.
Third, the guidelines state that they apply to legal entities but not to natural persons. So where an individual is awarded a grant or (more likely) a prize, the guidelines do not apply.
Fourth, the guidelines do not apply to subcontractors of entities that are funded. So if an Israeli entity, legally registered and located in Israel within its pre-1967 borders and carrying on its activities there, chooses to employ a subcontractor to undertake some of the work for which the EU money is given, and the subcontractor is based in an illegal settlement or undertakes the work there, these guidelines cannot prevent this.
Fifth, the guidelines bind the EU and EU agencies, but they do not bind Member States. So Member States are free to award grants and prizes from their national budgets on a bilateral basis even if this would be outside the guidelines.
Should we celebrate?
Yes, we should. This is the first time that the EU has put into a legally binding document its intention to act in accordance with its stated conviction on this matter. You only have to look at Article 1 of the guidelines to know that this is a sea change:
‘These guidelines set out the conditions under which the Commission will implement key requirements for the award of EU support to Israeli entities or to their activities in the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967. Their aim is to ensure the respect of EU positions and commitments in conformity with international law on the non-recognition by the EU of Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967. These guidelines are without prejudice to other requirements established by EU legislation.’
The fact that there were serious attempts on the part of the Israeli government to stop the publication of the guidelines also suggests that these guidelines have teeth where words did not in the past.
A call to action!
There is more to do.
- There is the work of monitoring the implementation of the guidelines come 2014 and beyond. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the exclusion of subcontractors, for example, undermines the intention behind the guidelines.
- There is the work of monitoring that the memoranda of understanding entered into between the European Commission and Israel clearly and effectively include the guidelines.
- There is the question of what Member States are going to do. They have all agreed to these guidelines. According to leaked information, some – including the UK – wanted to go further and include individuals (i.e. natural persons) in the guidelines. So it makes sense for NGOs and activists in Member States to find out what programmes fund Israeli entities in the settlements (which are illegal under international law) and whether they are willing to establish similar guidelines for their bilateral funding. This is a big piece of work across 28 Member States, though the larger and better-off Member States are more likely to have significant bilateral funding; so there should be immediate work in the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and Finland. I am not singling out these countries because of their assumed position on this matter but because they are more likely than some of the others to have significant bilateral funding.
- And finally, the guidelines say nothing and do nothing about the import of settlement products into the EU. If the EU is serious about not funding the occupation, then withdrawing support from the trade of the settlements surely is the next issue waiting to be addressed. Among the key exports from the settlements are agricultural products. They use land that rightly belongs to Palestinians; they use water that exhausts the aquifers which should rightly support both populations; the Wall which has been built – in large part on Palestinian land and not along the pre-1967 border – is denying Palestinian farmers access to their land and thereby undermining their ability to grow produce for consumption or export.
Today’s celebration – with Uri Avnery (to whom congratulations are in order for his upcoming 90th birthday) – represents barely a hiatus before the next tranche of work begins. These new guidelines need to be built on and consolidated – fast.