As the situation in Gaza worsens, it's time for the EU to step in – Trump has proven the US can't help any more

Opinion piece (The Independent)
13 November 2018

The EU has leverage over both the Palestinian territories and Israel, and could use it to great effect.

Gaza is once again in the grip of violence. Rockets and mortar shells are being exchanged at the highest rate since the 2014 war after a raid by Israeli special forces inside Gaza went seriously awry on Sunday night, leaving seven Palestinians and one Israeli colonel dead. Hamas has retaliated, firing 400 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel since Monday. Israel has hit back with over 100 bombing strikes.

There are reports of a ceasefire, but Israel’s miscalculation has already come at a heavy price. Five Palestinians have been killed in Gaza including two militants, 20 Israelis have been wounded, and a Palestinian civilian in Israel killed since the initial Israeli operation. The outbreak of violence has disrupted recent ceasefire talks mediated by the United Nations and Egypt.

These cycles of violence are unsustainable. The United Nations warned in September that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020 if current conditions continue, citing the damage caused by Israel’s eleven-year economic blockade and fighting between Israel and Gaza. Ninety-five per cent of Gazan tap water is undrinkable, and its beaches are choked with untreated sewage. Electricity is available for just four hours a day. Unemployment is at 44 per cent. The depth of human suffering and despair has been apparent since the Great March of Return began in March, where Gazans risk death on a daily basis to protest at the fence with Israel.

The European Union is quick to issue statements calling for de-escalation whenever violence flares in Gaza, but there’s more it can do to alleviate the suffering of Gazans. The bloc has an unprecedented opportunity to define its own strategy in the region, and step out of the US’s shadow. The US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cuts in aid have undermined America’s role as a mediator. Prospects for the US peace plan look bleak. The EU should look beyond efforts to tackle Gaza’s immediate humanitarian crisis with aid and focus on reconciliation between the two major Palestinian political parties and deploy its economic leverage to foster peace.

The EU must continue to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza. But aid alone will not tackle the underlying causes. The Gaza Strip has been under a blockade by Israel and Egypt, and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the West Bank, since Hamas took control in 2007. But the strategy has failed. The EU should push Israel, Egypt and the PA to end their blockade and sanctions which have decimated the Strip, and empowered radical elements whilst weakening moderates.

Hamas is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the EU, US and Canada, so the Israeli government refuses to take action that could help the group, even indirectly.

But EU assistance at the Gaza border might help. In 2005, a mission of unarmed EU border police and customs officers supported the PA in monitoring the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, providing relief from the desperate conditions in Gaza until it was closed in 2007 when Hamas took over.

The EU could offer observers for the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings between Gaza and Israel, as well as at Rafah. A specific EU remit to tackle weapons smuggling could help persuade Egypt, Israel and the PA to re-open the crossings.

Reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the secular nationalist party which controls the PA, is crucial for a viable Palestinian state. The two parties have always clashed over tactics: Hamas advocates armed resistance and Fatah renounced violence in 1993. Egypt is the only potential broker, but the EU should help prepare the groundwork.

Talks collapsed last February after Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the PA, demanded he “control everything [in Gaza], including money and weapons”. A new reconciliation plan has been reached in Cairo, which includes the reopening of crossings, but the two sides cannot agree on its interpretation. The EU should push Abbas to compromise, and criticise his sanctions on Gaza. As the largest donor to the PA, the EU possesses economic leverage, as well as diplomatic leverage as a mediator in the PA’s difficult relationships with its Arab neighbours and the US.

The EU should also end its “no-contact” policy with Hamas, as part of an effort to bring about national elections for the whole of Palestine, and in order to conduct more effective diplomacy.

The EU also has leverage over Israel – the bloc is Israel’s largest trading partner, buying 34 per cent of its exports, and providing almost 40 per cent of its imports. Notably, their association agreement, which provides tariff-free trade in most goods, is conditional upon respect for human rights and democratic principles.

The EU has criticised Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and called for restraint by the Israeli armed forces, but it has so far shied away from attaching conditions to the bilateral relationship. Cancelling current modes of co-operation would antagonise Israel and require consensus among the member-states that would be hard to achieve. But the EU could introduce demands in exchange for any future upgrade to the relationship with Israel, for example on its 2021-2027 research and innovation programme. This approach has worked in the past. In 2013, the EU excluded Israeli projects undertaken in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from its Horizon 2020 research programme. The outcry from the research community and the public drove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sign up to the programme on the EU’s terms.

Even if the latest reports of ceasefire hold, the sheer desperation in Gaza created by the blockade makes further violence inevitable. It is true that neither side wants a war. Israel needs Hamas to keep relative stability in Gaza, and Hamas cannot hold onto power if the socioeconomic situation deteriorates much further. But political pressure is high on both sides. For Hamas, Palestinian casualties cannot go unmet. On the Israeli side, elections could take place in early 2019, and Netanyahu faces accusations from senior cabinet figures and rival parties of being too soft on Hamas. Indeed, limited Israeli retaliation to attacks from Gaza over recent weeks may have emboldened Hamas to ratchet up rocket fire to this unprecedented tempo. The EU has the power to use a combination of relief, reconciliation and economic leverage to help foster a lasting peace. Now the EU must use it.

Beth Oppenheim is a researcher at the Centre for European Reform.