Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will lead a European Union delegation that is scheduled to visit the Gaza Strip in early September. The EU delegation, which will also include representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Norway, was invited by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during a June 24 meeting with his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini. Lieberman said the idea is for the EU representatives to be able to see Gaza "with their own eyes."
The invitation is part of Lieberman's recent proposal for a complete Israeli disengagement from Gaza. But promoting greater EU involvement in Gaza could backfire on Israel. Zapatero, who leads one of the most anti-Israel governments in Europe, will almost certainly use the visit to call for exerting more international pressure on Israel to completely lift the four-year blockade on Gaza. A high-profile EU visit is also likely to grant international legitimacy to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip. Moreover, European officials will use the trip to call on Israel to make more concessions to the Palestinians in other areas as well.
Israel recently said it was easing the Gaza blockade somewhat by allowing a wider range of goods into the territory, with the exception of weapons and dual-use items. Israel has also agreed to let construction materials into Gaza, provided they are destined for projects under international supervision. But exports are still banned and people cannot move freely over the border. Israel says the blockade on Gaza's ports will stay in place to prevent Hamas from shipping in military-grade weapons and long-range rockets.
The September trip will follow recent visits to Gaza by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton ( the EU's top foreign policy official and the most senior foreign emissary to visit Gaza since Israel's decision to ease its blockade) and former EU Commissioner Chris Patten.
Ashton's trip to Gaza, only four months after her first visit there, was aimed to "show EU support" for the Palestinians. She called on the international community to pressure Israel to go beyond easing the embargo to fully lift the "unacceptable, unsustainable and counterproductive" blockade.
"There are small signs of change in policy to allow goods into Gaza, but we continue to call for the opening of the crossings to enable people and goods to move around," Ashton said. "What needs to happen now," Ashton said, "is continued international pressure to move forward." She also proposed that an EU naval mission help with the transfer of goods. Ashton did not, however, meet Hamas officials during her time in Gaza (the European Union, like Israel and the United States, views the anti-Israel militant group as a terrorist group).
Patten, who was on his own separate trip to the region, called for ending the Gaza blockade and for reassessing the "ridiculous" policy of isolating Hamas. He also said that as the biggest financial supporter of the Palestinians, the EU should play a greater role in the Middle East.
Ashton's trip to Gaza, he stated, "showed a preparedness [by the EU] to be more independent-minded [from the United States]." Patten said: "The default European position should not be to wait to find out what the Americans are going to do, and if the Americans don't do anything to wring our hands. We should be prepared to be more explicit in setting out Europe's objectives and doing more to try to implement them."
The EU has become increasingly vocal about Gaza since the Israeli raid on the Turkish-led "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" in May. In mid-June, for example, the European Parliament called for a stronger EU role in lifting the Gaza blockade and proposed international monitoring of the crossings, including reactivating the European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) at the Gaza-Egyptian border.
The Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on July 24 said Israel's raid "violated Europe's common values" and called on Israel to "lift the blockade of Gaza, ensuring access by land and by sea." The PACE also called on Israel to halt the construction of new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and "remove what are referred to as 'illegal outposts.'"
In a further sign that Israel is inviting trouble by encouraging EU involvement in Gaza, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on July 24 said France is ready to hold direct talks with Hamas if it receives an official request from the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has called on European Union to start a direct dialogue with it.
Separately, France and Spain appear to be laying the political groundwork for the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state — possibly as early as October 2011 — even if negotiations for a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are not concluded. The initiative is being spearheaded by Kouchner and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos.
Palestinian Authority leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad have repeatedly said they intend to unilaterally declare Palestinian independence before the end of 2011, with or without a peace deal. Abbas and Fayyad have been visiting European capitals in recent months to drum up political and financial support for Palestinian statehood.
Kouchner and Moratinos laid out their vision for Europe's role in creating a Palestinian state in a recent opinion article titled "A Palestinian State: When?" The article reminds readers that the European Union is the biggest single provider of financial aid to the Palestinians. Often described as a "payer but not a player" in the Middle East, the authors argue that the European Union must work more aggressively in bringing about Palestinian statehood.
The authors argue that time is of the essence and that the European Union "must not confine itself to the … outlines of the final settlement" and "should collectively recognize the Palestinian State.… There is no more time to lose. Europe must pave the way." The authors say the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the Madrid peace conference, which was convened in October 1991, would be a good moment to recognize Palestinian independence.
In a separate interview with the Paris-based Journal du Dimanche, Kouchner said: "The issue currently before us is the building of a reality. France is training Palestinian police and businesses are being created in the West Bank.... It follows that one can envision the proclamation soon of a Palestinian state, and its immediate recognition by the international community, even before negotiating its borders."
Kouchner added: "If by mid-2011, the political process has not ended the [Israeli] occupation, I would bet that the developed state of Palestinian infrastructure and institutions will be such that the pressure will force Israel to give up its occupation."
The European Union on December 8 adopted a resolution that for the first time explicitly calls for Jerusalem to become the future capital of both a Palestinian state and Israel. The EU declared: "If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states." Israel has always maintained that Jerusalem will remain its undivided capital, regardless of any future peace settlement with the Palestinians. This has been the declared policy of all Israeli governments, both left and right.
Israel may yet come to rue the day it invited the EU into Gaza.